Friday, February 21, 2014

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

Audrey Magee has worked as a journalist for twelve years, writing for The Irish Times and The Guardian, among other newspapers and, consequently, I was not surprised at the amount of paper coverage she got when her debut novel, The Undertaking, was published.   The glowing reviews gave me pause.

Magee has picked a difficult topic, the Second World War, and even though she looks at it from a German perspective, she tells us nothing really new.   The appalling invasion of Russia and the subsequent suffering of the German troops inadequately prepared for the Russian winter, the battle of Stalingrad, are all very familiar territory for readers as indeed are the effects of the bombings in Berlin and its capture by the Russian army.   Nevertheless, she does manage to give it a fresh spin chiefly by narrowing her field to the experiences of two people - Peter Faber and Katherina Spinell.

'The undertaking' arises when Peter - in order to escape the Russian front for even a brief period - agrees to marry a total stranger, Katherina, who lives in Berlin in return for her undertaking to wait for him or to receive a pension in the event of his death.   Neither expects much from a relationship that starts with marriage but to their mutual surprise, they fall in love.   And it is this love and longing for Katherina that sustains Peter as he fights on to Stalingrad, capture, and incarceration in a series of Stalin's notorious camps.   The story has verisimilitude as apparently Magee met the German owner of a restaurant in West Cork who had an identical experience and undertaking. [Go to link ]

Katherina meanwhile prospers in Berlin where she lives with her parents who are patronised and supported by a senior member of the Nazi party who provides them with all the perks and advantages denied to the general population.   The novel, then, continues on to the Fall of Berlin and subsequent years with Katherina living in the Russian zone.  

Magee writes well though in her narrative she largely eschews the bigger issues of WW2, such as the Holocaust or the brutality of the German army in Eastern Europe and Russia, apart from some throwaway remarks such as one made by Peter to his friend, Fuchs, '...we're here to clear the communists and Jews from Russia so that my wife and child have a better future'.   And later he optimistically remarks of the Russians, 'we'll get on well with them in the end when all this is forgotten.   When they can practise their religion and own their farms again'.   And back in Berlin, Katherina and her parents move happily into a big apartment taken from Jews and still beautifully furnished and equipped, their only gripe being that there is a bust of Mendelssohn in the hall.

Apart from concentrating on the particular rather than the general, Magee uses third person realism in her narrative and the story is told largely in dialogue rather than long descriptive passages.   This works well in enabling her to limit her canvas and circumscribe the experiences of her two main characters.   On the other hand, at times it can appear that Peter together with four or five others encompass the entire invading German army as there is no reference to long columns of infantry or tanks and only occasional reports of guns which is a little disconcerting.   However, that is a quibble about what is an elegant and at times quite beautiful story of relationships in war.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Folio Book Prize

Eimear McBride has done it again!   She is one of eight on the Folio Book Prize short list, the winner to be announced on 10 March.

The Folio Book Prize was set up - according to today's Guardian* - to 'reward literature and artistic achievement as opposed to "readable" books ... and to allow all English-language fiction to compete regardless of nationality or gender'.   Thus, the short list is made up of five American authors, one Canadian, one English and our Eimear!   Like the Goldsmiths Prize, which McBride won, the Folio Prize is really a challenge to Man Booker which tends to be awarded to narrative driven novels which 'zip along' [according to the 2011 judges!].

The competition is stiff for McBride and her novel is not helped by comments in the Guardian describing it variously as 'daunting', 'hard to read' and 'experimental'.   Experimental it certainly is but so was Beckett but hard to read it is not. It is a work of genius.

The other seven novels are:   Red Doc (Anne Carson), Tenth of December (George Saunders), Benediction (Kent Haruf), The Flame Throwers (Rachel Kushner), Schroder (Amity Gaige), Last Friends (Jane Gardam) and A Naked Singularity (Sergio de la Pava).


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Costa Book of the Year Award

In case you missed it this week, Nathan Filer, a first-time author, has run away with the Costa Book of the Year Award with his novel The Shock of the Fall.   In some ways, this book brings to mind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time which was related by a boy suffering apparently from either autism or aspergers.   Here the story is told by a schizophrenic boy coming of age but haunted by the memory of his dead older brother.   According to Rose Tremain, one of the judges, she and her fellow judges 'were particularly struck by the perfect alignment between the story and the voice in which it is told'.   It certainly must be a powerful novel as it overcame strong competition from Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike, a biography of the Italian poet and progenitor of fascism, Gabriele D'Annunzio which has already won the Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction -  both of which were tipped as likely winners.