Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Yes, I know, this is a film not a book but for lovers of Stefan Zweig everywhere, I have to bring it to your attention.   Having been told about it and urged to see it by a good friend I was completely taken with it.  

It is directed by Wes Anderson with an extraordinary cast - Saoirse Ronan, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton - and headlining the credits at the end of the film is the legend, 'based on the writings of Stefan Zweig'.   And indeed it takes its cue from one of Zweig's favourite formats in his novellas, that of the narrator striking up an acquaintance with a stranger while staying in an hotel and being told his or her life story.   In this instance, it is an elderly man, Zero, who tells the story of his life as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel, under the patronage of the legendary concierge, Gustave H. during the thirties.   

We not only have the story and his experiences as a lowly page boy in this middle Europe hotel but also an entertaining escapade involving a stolen painting and a vast fortune with a lot of humour reminiscent of the silent movies and so peculiarly appropriate to the period.   All of the action takes place against the backdrop of the unsettling rise of fascism and the approaching war.

This was an issue that particularly occupied Zweig who was born in 1881 in Vienna and was living in Salzburg in the thirties.   Being Jewish, the rise of fascism disturbed him greatly and he left Austria in 1934 going first to London, then New York and finally Brazil where sadly in 1942, he and his wife committed a double suicide.

Zweig is perhaps best known for his novellas and we have Pushkin Press to thank for not only expert translations but publishing them in very beautiful editions.   He wrote two novels, Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl.  But to really capture the man and the time and place he grew up in, one should read his autobiography The World of Yesterday.   He lived in the golden age of literary Vienna, numbering among his friends Joyce, Rilke, Yeats and Gorky and the book is described as 'both a recollection of the past and a warning for future generations'.   Given its title, it is not inappropriate that Zero says at the end of his story in the film, 'I think M. Gustave lived in a world that was already past'.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


The short list for the Impac award has been published and includes Donal Ryan for The Spinning Heart.  I reviewed it 18 November last year.   The winner will be announced on 12 June.   Here are the runners!

  • The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (Dutch), translated by David Colmer
  • Questions of Travel by Michelle De Kretser (Sri Lankan / Australian)
  • Absolution by Patrick Flanery (American)
  • A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian), translated by Don Bartlett
  • Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (French), translated by John Fletcher
  • Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman (Argentinian), translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
  • The Light of Amsterdam by David Park (Northern Irish)
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Irish)
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysian)
  • The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombian), 
 I reviewed The Detour on 17 May 2012.  A compelling and intense novel.

Stoner by John Williams

The first question is:  how come a book originally published in 1965 to no great acclaim has become the must read of 2014?  And all due to word-of-mouth - with a little help from Waterstones who made it their book of the year for 2013.   It is the story of an ordinary man living an ordinary life in an ordinary university in mid-west America in the 1930's and 40's.   And yet it is a page turner and unforgettable.   Perhaps part of the answer is that it is more European than American.   Nothing too much out of the ordinary happens and Stoner is no American hero and not living the American dream.   It is the story of a life, not a drama.

William Stoner, we are told in the first paragraph, entered the University of Missouri in 1910 at the age of nineteen, received his Ph.D. in 1918 and taught in the same University until his death in 1956.   Few remembered him after his death.   He came from humble origins, the only son of a small farmer, old before his time from working the arid land but who had the vision to send William [or Stoner, as he is known throughout the novel] to college to do an agricultural degree.   Stoner spent two hard years working methodically at his basic science subjects while, at the same time, supporting himself by working on a local farm.   However, being required to take an English literature course, he came under the influence of Arthur Sloane and had a veritable epiphany.   Totally enraptured by the beauty of poetry,  he promptly ditches his agricultural degree and devotes the rest of his life to literature.

Not wanting to be a spoiler, I can only tell you that the succeeding years follow the path of an ordinary life - love, internecine staff quarrels and enmities, friends and accompanying issues - until, as the end of his life is very near, his daughter remarks that things haven't been always easy for him and he replies, 'no, but I suppose I didn't want them to be'.

Williams writes a beautiful limpid, fluid and quiet prose that draws you in and on page after page.   He brings to mind the Dutch author, Bakker, who similarly can make the ordinary exciting.   Julian Barnes commented that Stoner is a '"reader's novel", in the sense that its narrative reinforces the very value of reading and study'.  And it is more than that - this book is elegant music.

 Stoner, John Williams, published by Vintage, pb, £8.99  [€7.64]

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah has just been nominated as one of six titles on the Baileys Prize for women's fiction.  The author, Adichie, is no stranger to the prize lists having already won [in 2007] the Orange Prize with Half of a Yellow Sun and has already garnered the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize with Americanah.   The bookies have her as second favourite for the Baileys.   Adichie is a Nigerian author who moved to the States when she was 19 to study and now divides her time between Nigeria and the United States.

Should she win it?   Let me say first of all, it is too long.   I have no problem reading a very long book if it is worth it but increasingly, the American market seems to favour the blockbuster while editors in Europe go for the less is more school of thought.   I feel a book should give you room and pause for thought and not handhold you through every little nuance of the narrator's mind. 

That having been said, there is much of interest in Americanah.   The story concerns childhood sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up in Nigeria and then Ifemelu, like Adichie, goes to the United States to study while Obinze travels to Britain.   More interesting than their love affair are their experiences as immigrants in two very different countries.   Adichie has the leeway that no African American probably has to comment on and criticise the nuances of race relations in the States.   Because of her failure to find work to support herself while studying, she takes up blogging and becomes immensely successful at recounting her experiences on line.   Obinze meanwhile, unable to get legally or illegally a social security number, living as an illegal but adopted by a liberal pc minded coterie in the UK, is having a totally different experience in a completely different culture.   This is the most interesting thread in the book I felt.  

A lot of Ifemelu's story is told as a flashback as she sits in a hairdressers having her hair expertly done before returning to Nigeria.   Initially, her account of how African curls are being dealt with using extensions, chemicals and weaves to try and achieve western white standards is fascinating but eventually I began to wonder if she would ever get out of the hairdressers.  

We are introduced to a third element then when Ifemelu does finally get back to Nigeria and that is her position as returned emigrant.   Her search for Obinze who returned much earlier and her problems in adjusting again to the Nigerian worldview are well portrayed.

Overall, Adichie paints an absorbing picture of the three cultures as seen from an African viewpoint with a lot of detail that would escape the native westerner and for this alone I would recommend the book.   She is easy to read but long-winded so the novel can frustrate at times and lacks the magic of a more tightly woven narrative.  

Baileys Prize

The shortlist for the Baileys women's prize for fiction [formerly the Orange Prize] has just been announced and, astonishingly, it includes two Irish writers but no British!  

The two Irish writers are Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, a book I have been championing for some time, and Audrey Magee for The Undertaking which I reviewed on 21 February.   The other four on the shortlist are the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her third novel, Americanah, who won the Orange Prize before with Half of a Yellow Sun; and then, three American authors, Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland and, first time author, Hannah Kent for Burial Rites.

Hard one to call!   My money as usual is on McBride but the bookies favour Adichie and Tartt. The critics are well divided on Tartt's novel calling it variously a 'heavyweight masterpiece' and 'a turkey'!

The winner will be announced on 4 June.