Feed on

At the end of each year, I check to see which books have received the most attention on SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH BOOKS.  Over the past few years, several books from the long-ago past have received significant numbers of page views and outrank many newer books.  Here is the list of some favorite reviews, in order.  Classic novels, available in more than one edition, show no publisher here.  Newer books are noted with the name of the specific publisher.

1)  Jo Nesbo--THE REDEEMER, Book 6 in the Harry Hole series, originally published 2009 (Knopf, reissued by Vintage Crime, Black Lizard).  This book has been by far the most popular review, with three times more page views than any other novel on this list, though it is not my favorite Nesbo novel.  (THE REDBREAST (2006), #3 in the Harry Hole series, is my personal favorite.)

2) Edith Wharton–SUMMER (1917)

3)  D. H. Lawrence–SONS AND LOVERS (1913)

4)  Alan Paton–THE HERO OF CURRIE ROAD (2008), “the complete short pieces,” posthumously released by Random House, South Africa.  Most of these page views come from overseas, as the book is not published in the US.

5)  Edmund De Waal–THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES (2010), non-fiction (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).  This book was WINNER of the Costa Award for Biography in 2011.  It was also WINNER of the Ondaatje Prize.

6)  D. H. Lawrence–WOMEN IN LOVE (1920).

7) Zachary Mason–THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY (2010) (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

8)  Carlos Fuentes–THE OLD GRINGO (1985) (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).  This novel tells the story of American author Ambrose Bierce during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 – 1920.  It is the first novel by a Mexican author to become a best seller in the US.

9)  Maurizio de Giovanni–I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE (2012), the first of four books (so far) in the Commissario Ricciardi series of Neapolitan mysteries, which often contain dark humor. (Europa Editions)

10)  David Bret–PIAF: A PASSIONATE LIFE (1999), non-fiction (Robson Books)

11)  Louise Erdrich–THE PAINTED DRUM (2005), (Harper Collins), Native American focus.

12)  Kamila Shamsie–KARTOGRAPHY (2002),  (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin), set in Pakistan.

13)  John Steinbeck–TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY (1962).  Author John Steinbeck travels the United States in 1960 with his standard poodle and observes the country and its attitudes.

14)  Alan Duff–ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1994) (Vintage).  An indictment of the conditions under which the Maori live in New Zealand’s cities.

15)  Mario Vargas Llosa–THE DREAM OF THE CELT (2012). Peruvian author and winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, Vargas Llosa writes a fictionalized biography of Roger Casement, (1864 – 1916) and his experiences in Congo, Peru, and Ireland, where he became a believer and martyr in the cause of the Irish Revolution. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

16)  Louise Erdrich–THE ROUND HOUSE . Winner of the National Book Award in 2012.  Native American focus. (Harper Collins)

17)   Jane Gardam–A LONG WAY FROM VERONA (originally published 1971, republished by Europa Editions, 2013).  This was the first novel written by perennial favorite Gardam, WINNER of the Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to the enjoyment of literature and the only author to have been a two-time WINNER of the Whitbread (now Costa) Award. My own favorite Gardam novel is GOD ON THE ROCKS, a good place for a newcomer to start with this outstanding English author.

“One huge lie that we have inherited from the rhetoric of liberty is that when it comes to the important decisions in life there’s always time to go back and make a change.  But it isn’t true.  Because time passes, and it’s not willing to cooperate with anyone or anything.  Time has no patience for ignorance.  Just like the law.”

In his second novel of what appears to be the beginning of a series, Neapolitan author Diego De Silva reintroduces hapless attorney Vincenzo Malinconico, a man lacking in ambition, commitment, and self-awareness.  In his previous outing, Vincenzo found himself defending a low-level criminal belonging to the Neapolitan camorra, and, much to his own surprise, being successful – the last thing he really wanted in a city in which the powerful camorra often terrorizes people who “disagree” with their way of life – and death.  In the ensuing two years or so, Vincenzo has managed to stay out of the public eye, leading a conveniently quiet, though not necessarily satisfying, life.  His wife, a psychologist, left him for another man more than two years ago, and he has had his own relationships, the most recent of which, with a gorgeous fellow-attorney, is currently on the rocks.  Not surprisingly, given his lack of ambition, his caseload is almost non-existent:  “I’m not a tough guy,” he admits.   “If you want to know the truth, I doubt I’ve ever made a real decision in my whole life…I’m not a multiple-options kind of guy, really.”

His life changes on a simple trip to the supermarket, where the engineer friend of a former client approaches him and speaks to him, though the engneer is constantly distracted by the market’s video monitor, which shows a man “dressed like a character from The Matrix walking around the market.  After asking Vincenzo if he represents criminal cases, Engineer Romulo Sesti Orfeo suddenly warns him that something is about to happen.  While Vincenzo is characteristically dithering about whether to call the police, Sesti Orfeo attacks “Matrix” with a gun, handcuffs him, then begins fiddling with the store’s video monitors, controlling the image of “the hostage” which he then broadcasts throughout the store.  A fight between Matrix and the engineer leaves Matrix bloodied, his nose broken – in living color – and a crowd of shoppers gathering about, watching the action.

The two carabinieri who arrive at the supermarket remind Vincenzo of Mulder and Scully, from X-Files.

Constantly interrupting this action is a series of tiny essays on a variety of contemporary social issues, along with Vincenzo’s personal feelings about various aspects of his own life.  Vincenzo is not a thinker, as the reader has already discovered, and his ironically comical observations about life are presented as if Vincenzo believes we will all rejoice in the “insights” he is presenting.  Often illustrating these ideas for the reader in terms of contemporary television, films, and social media, Vincenzo speaks in simple language that reflects his decidedly unsophisticated thinking.  He is especially disturbed by the fact that these thoughts keep returning with such “determination,” and he blames them for his inability to make decisions.

Roberto Saviano, 29, is an italian writer living under protection for having written his acclaimed book "Gomorrah" and he is now on the death list of the Camorra, the mafia group from Naples, a situation which gives Vincenzo pause. Photo by Joao Pina

“My thoughts are a bunch of sluts, if you want to know the truth.  I wish they’d stop treating me like a hotel, coming to me for consolation and help after they’ve been out doing who the hell knows what around town.”  He tries to wrest control over these thoughts by writing them down, “so that I have a chance of coming up with something snappy (and more important, on topic),” but he finds, that “overtime rules forbid it.  In real life I can’t delete, start over, rethink what I said, correct it.  So I write.”

Amidst all the ironic moralizing, Vincenzo also reflects on his family, the most intriguing of whom is his mother-in-law Assunta, known as “Ass,” who has been recently diagnosed with cancer.  She will not talk to her daughter, Vincenzo’s ex-wife, so he is the one who needs to talk to her about starting chemo.  On his visit to see her and her caregiver, he brings her a bottle of Jack Daniels – hence, the title of the novel.

Vincenzo says he feels like Harrison Ford in Witness when he successfully tears down Mary Stracqualurso, an absurd TV commentator, during the standoff.

When the story returns to the hostage situation in the supermarket, the author has great fun building a satire of the media, with the Engineer talking to the camera (“he kind of looked like The Scream by Munch”), telling the employees to call the carabinieri but have them keep their distance, and waiting for the TV crew to arrive so that he can have a live trial of the Matrix character in front of the entire city.  The arrival of ubiquitous TV personality Mary Stracqualurso presents Vincenzo (and the reader) with opportunities to “delight in her goatish ignorance, the way she’s chronically misinformed on any and all subjects…the disarming obviousness of her opinions, the mediocre moralism, the baseless conceit with which she will pontificate on any topic without knowing anything about it…the fact that she thinks herself irrestrainably amusing and wise” – in many ways similar to Vincenzo himself, just more extreme.  When Mary suggests publicly that this might be a terrorist operation, Vincenzo contemplates publicly destroying her.  Riffs on reality TV (including television aesthetics and contrived emotions), on TV lawyer/commentators, on newspaper quotations from prominent people regarding the situation, and ultimately on “the [inevitable] privilege of becoming a public personality,” combine with encomiums for Vincenzo on his behavior and add humor to the scenes, several of which parody TV sitcoms.

Vincenzo imagines how his life might be six months later, strolling past a cafe in Paris and seeing a girl resembling Emmanuelle Beart in Claude Chabrol's L'Enfer

Genre-bending, like his previous novel, I Hadn’t Understood, this novel is looser in construction with many more interruptions in the flow of the narrative, if the jumping-around thoughts of Vincenzo can be considered a real narrative.  His constant lecturing, while often funny, leads to obvious conclusions and few insights, other than some possible growth of Vincenzo’s personal understanding.  And when the hostage standoff ends suddenly with one-third of the novel to go, it leaves the novel without the organizing framework it needs to move the novel forward, leaving it dependent on Vincenzo and his thoughts to bring it to conclusion.  Vincenzo himself is neither very sympathetic nor intriguing, however, and the emphasis on the hostage situation as a metaphor for real life is something often seen on all-day news programs with all their extrapolations and second-guessing.  De Silva stretches his material in many different directions, and raises many issues, conveyed through the point of view of Vincenzo, and the novel has some lively scenes with some sparkling dialogue, but I wish it had meshed more effectively – and more succinctly.


Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www2.tv2000.it/

The picture of Mulder and Scully from X-Files may be found on http://www.mtv.com/

The story of Roberto Saviano is presented here:  http://www.elpuercoespin.com.ar His writing against the Camorra led to his virtual abandonment, except for his ever-present bodyguards.

Harrison Ford’s punch to a bully against the Amish in Witness may have produced the same kind of satisfaction for him as what Vincenzo felt when he verbally demolished an arrogant newswoman who invented “facts.”  https://aznbadger.wordpress.com/

Emmanuelle Beart in a Parisian cafe scene in Claude Chabrol’s L’Enfer is a dream that Vincenzo contemplates for his own life near the end of the book.  https://www.tumblr.com/

ARC: Europa

Note: Author Anthony Doerr has been WINNER of four O.Henry Prizes, three Pushcart Prizes, the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.  This novel was SHORTLISTED for the National Book Award, 2014.

“The bony figure of Death rides the streets below, stopping his mount now and then to peer into windows.  Horns of fire on his head and smoke leaking from his nostrils and, in his skeletal hand, a list newly charged with addresses.  Gazing first at the crew of officers…Then at the glowing rooms of the perfumer Claude Levitte. Then at the dark tall house of Etienne LeBlanc.  Pass us by, Horseman.  Pass this house by.”—thoughts from Saint-Malo, France, 1942.

It’s hard to remember when a story as absorbing as this has come along in recent years – and I choose the world “story” deliberately, because it is more personal and involving than words like “novel” or “narrative.” Here, author Anthony Doerr has recreated a whole world, a world of war and love and honor and betrayal, and has told about it in detail, the writing of which took the author himself ten years to complete.  It is a lush and glorious story on every level, one that sidles up to you in the first few pages, puts its arm around you a hundred or so pages later, and then ends up holding your heart in its hand.  (And if this description seems a bit over-the-top, it’s undoubtedly because I am still totally enraptured by this grand, old-fashioned saga.)  Filled with emotion, intense description, life-changing events, and characters one really cares about, the novel straddles that fine line between the romantic and the sentimental in its approach, incorporating the magic of secret locked rooms, a magnificent jewel, and a blind child who loves The Three Musketeers and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, then contrasts them with the horrors of Hitler, his use of children for his own ends, and the institutionalized bullying which marked the rise of the Hitler Youth.

The introduction opens in August, 1944, when the two main characters are both about sixteen, before flashing back to earlier times.  Doerr first presents Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in the old house belonging to her great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo, France, “the last citadel on the edge of the continent.”  It is two months after D-Day, and leaflets are falling, urging the citizens to leave for open country before the Allied bombing takes place in earnest.  Marie-Laure hears the bombers in the mounting static on the radio, “The hum inside a seashell.” Three streets away, German private Werner Pfennig, an orphan who was drafted into the Hitler Youth seven years before, is hiding in a destroyed hotel.  He and his mates, about the same age as Marie-Laure, have erected and barricaded an antiaircraft gun there, “the royal acht-acht, a deathly monarch meant to protect them all.”

This 9.75 carat blue diamond, once belonging to Bunny Mellon, was sold on Nov. 21, 2014, at Sothebys for $32.6 million. The Sea of Flame, in this novel, is fourteen times larger!

Book One then flashes back to 1934. Marie-Laure LeBlanc, six years old, is living in Paris with her father, who works in the Museum of Natural History.  As the Keeper of the Locks, in charge of protecting all the valuables in the museum, her father is particularly invested in protecting the Sea of Flame, an enormous 133-carat blue diamond, the largest such diamond in the world, a “cursed stone” which will protect the life of anyone who keeps it, allowing him/her to live forever, but, at the same time, will bring misfortune to those friends and family whom the keeper loves.  The only way the curse may be lifted is if the keeper throws the jewel into the sea.  Though Marie-Laure had vision when she was born, she became completely blind one month after her father set up a series of locked rooms which would allow the stone to be confined within the museum – thirteen separate doors to thirteen separate spaces, each of which requires thirteen separate steps to unlock the door (described in this book of thirteen chapters.).  Her father, wanting her to be able to navigate both the the museum and the neighborhood, creates a detailed, wooden miniature of Paris, which Marie-Laure studies with her hands so that she can learn to navigate the real environment in which she lives.  Within two years, her father is able to leave her anywhere in the town, and she can  lead him home.

Hitler meets with young recruits, many of whom are not yet in their teens, but who have sworn allegiance to him and are being trained to fight.

Also in 1934, a young German boy, Werner Pfennig, is living in an orphanage in the coal country of Zollverein, Germany, where he is growing up with his younger sister Jutta.  Having nothing in their lives outside the orphanage, the two form a close bond, and when Jutta finds some copper wire, she gives it to the clever Werner who is able to use it to make a radio from discarded parts.  This enables them to hear broadcasts coming from France, especially science stories and lessons, and provides exciting possibilities and insights which enable them to live with the hope that they will someday be able to avoid their seemingly predestined fates of working in the coal mines which killed their father.  A few years after that, Werner is drafted into the Hitler Youth.

Frederick, one of Werner's friends in the Hitler Youth, is fascinated by birds, and this Audubon plate of the Aquatic Wood Wagtail, a favorite bird, plays a role in the later portions of the book.

Doerr does a masterful job of alternating time frames to keep the reader informed about the backgrounds of the characters, even as the action is moving forward.  By toggling back and forth among time periods, he draws out the suspense regarding the separate stories of Marie-Laure and Werner and the events which will eventually conclude the action.  Though the reader sees Marie-Laure and Werner at critical points in their lives and is able to identify with both of them, the author also omits crucial information to prolong the suspense.  A large cast of well-drawn peripheral characters broadens the scope of the novel, providing insights into the tenuous hold that the residents of Saint-Malo have on their lives, at the same time that scenes involving Werner and other members of the German army show how tenuous is their own hold on reality.  As the time frame changes back and forth between 1934 and May, 1944, and all dates in between, the reader becomes totally engaged, rooting for the sympathetic characters and hoping for the best, as the blue diamond, the Sea of Flame, haunts the action and connects the subplots.

Some characters in Saint-Malo are actively involved in the Free French movement, determined to undermine their German occupiers.

Important themes of love vs. war, human connection vs. inhuman dedication to an imposed goal, reality vs. the power of imagination, and time and light and their interrelationships, infuse all aspects of the novel, even though most of the action is revealed through the lives and points of view of two children/young adults.  Those who may be thinking that there is little new that the author could possible say about World War II and the connections between Vichy France and the Germans should think again.  Doerr is a huge talent with a broad vision of this war and the civilian lives which it absorbed and destroyed, and his ability to convey his ideas through his characters is stunning.  High on my list of Favorites for the Year – exciting, involving, and winningly presented.

The walled city of Saint-Malo, surrounded by water on all sides, was established during the Middle Ages, and was one of the last places in France to be liberated from German occupation.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on his website:  http://www.anthonydoerr.com/

A 9.75 ct. blue diamond belonging to Bunny Mellon, was sold at Sothebys on Nov. 21, 2014, for $32.6 million.  The Sea of Flame, the 133.6 carat blue diamond in this novel, is fourteen times larger. http://www.forbes.com/

Hitler chatting with the Hitler Youth who have pledged to support him. http://da.3ctysklandnazismeogholocaust.wikia.com/

Werner’s friend Frederick, “a reedy boy, thin as a blade of grass,” was fascinated by the birds around their camp.  One of his favorite birds was the Aquatic Wood Wagtail, as seen in the Audubon book he enjoyed so much at home. Plate 149. http://www.letour.fr/

The flag of the Free French is shown here.  Originally the symbol of Joan of Arc, it was adopted by Charles de Gaulle from 1940 – 1945.  http://www.oradour.info/appendix/frefranc.htm

The walled city of Saint-Malo, founded during the Middle Ages, is surrounded by water on all four sides.  http://www.letour.fr

Note: Swiss author Peter Stamm was WINNER of the Friederick Holderlin Prize in 2014 and was SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013.

“She couldn’t remember how the crash had come about….[but] suddenly she understood that time had a direction, that it was irreversible.  Her first memory was that sense of not being able to do anything anymore, of having no force and no mass.  It was as though consciousness had already deserted her body, which accelerated…collided…was thrown back…hit something else in a ridiculous to-and-fro.”

Gillian, a TV commentator and drama school graduate, has just begun to regain consciousness in the hospital following an accident which has killed her husband Matthias, and as her memory of blue water and empty space comes and goes, she alternates between awareness of her surroundings and complete befuddlement.  The impact of the crash has destroyed her face, and it will be many surgeries and many months before it can be rebuilt.  She “had always known she was in danger, that she would sometime have to pay for everything.  Now she had paid.”  She and her husband, both intoxicated, had been quarreling because he had found a long-forgotten roll of film hidden in her desk, had had it developed, and was not pleased by what he saw.  Already jealous about her career, her friendships, and her easy conversations with those she interviews, Matthias was outraged – “no one took him seriously” – later refusing to let her drive, though he was even more intoxicated than she.  Now he is dead, and she will not have a real face for six months, at least.

What follows in this novel of relationships by Swiss author/dramatist Peter Stamm is a vibrant story of love with its many complications, as damaged people, including Gillian,  try to rebuild their lives and find some sort of peace.  Time is fluid here, as memories intrude for Gillian, and as Stamm, dramatist that he is, recreates much of her life in vivid scenes of natural and revealing dialogue.  As in Stamm’s Seven Years, a previous novel reviewed here, marriage among these characters feels more like a merger than an overwhelming sense of commitment to the well-being of another person, and few of these characters express much self-awareness.  The result is that the novel speeds along, compelling the reader to keep reading it for its story and its outcome, rather than for any deep self-analysis by the participants or  complex thematic development. Though it is tightly and thoughtfully organized, and filled with vibrant imagery, the novel’s main interest is in the ways the characters try to make sense of their lives.  What is significantly different from Stamm’s earlier novel Seven Years is that this one is full of dark ironies and is often funny as the author sees and highlights the absurdities in the lives of these shallow people.

While Gillian is in the hospital, an exhibition poster, similar to this one by John Armleder, is on the wall opposite her bed.

The novel divides into three sections:  The first is focused on Gillian, whose “life before the accident had been one long performance – her job, the studio, the designer clothes, the trips to cities, the meals in good restaurants, the visits to her parents and to Matthias’s mother.  It must have been a lie if it was so easy to destroy with a moment’s inattention.”  The person who took the photographs of Gillian is artist Hubert Amrhein, age thirty-nine, who usually photographed ordinary women performing ordinary tasks. Gillian had found him to be a “jerk” and a “chatterbox,” but also found his instinctive connection to what she herself was thinking during an interview to be “striking.”   Still, Hubert’s reaction toward her in the photographs was almost indifferent.  “I get the feeling that there’s nothing coming from you,” he says, as he looks at her images.

The unnamed American artist mentioned by Hubert's gallerist as having secretly painted the same neighbor woman for fifteen years, may have been Andrew Wyeth.

The second section, from Hubert’s point of view, takes place five or six years later, when he is married to Astrid, though they are emotionally separated.  Anxious for even more “space,” Astrid now wants him to remove all his memorabilia and the old work which he has been storing in their attic.  When he is invited to have an exhibition at a cultural center in the mountains one summer, he accepts, though he has not done any new work in years.  Later he learns from his “gallerist” about a famous American painter who painted pictures of a neighbor for fifteen years, keeping the paintings hidden away  for that whole time, and he wonders if he has anything hidden away in his own attic that he can use or adapt for the exhibition.  He does not know that one of his former models, Gillian, now known as Jill, is the person directing this event.

At one point Hubert recalls the landscapes of Georgia O'Keeffe, where the hills looked like the bodies of naked women.

The third section consists of what happens in the present when Hubert goes to the cultural center and reconnects with Jill.  Much from the past is revealed here, as he tries to reinvigorate his sense of creativity; as his wife tries to get him out of her life; and as he begins to respond to the peacefulness of the mountains.  In what amounts to a coda to all this, Gillian/Jill comes to her own awakening and begins to think about changes in her own life.  Stamm’s sense of direction for the action is unerring, and his ability to focus is total.  His characters, though limited in personal awareness, are consistent, and their inner thoughts are clearly revealed to the reader. Because of this realism, most readers will be hoping for the characters to awaken, eventually, to new possibilities in their personal lives, and it is this hope which keeps the reader engaged, rather than the development of complex themes.

At one point Jill shows Hubert the photos he took of her and he is struck by one which shows her vulnerability. She was sitting with her hands in a pose which Hubert had "cribbed from Edvard Munch" in a portrait he did of a young girl.

The author’s own interest in art infuses this novel, as it did in Seven Years, and he sets up parallels between some of his characters and famous artists whose lives have similarities to the characters’ lives – Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and even Edvard Munch.  The famous artists have managed to live with their creativity and to use it, however, and one is not sure whether Stamm’s characters, especially Hubert, in search of inspiration, will also be able to gain the insights to do so, too.  After the exhibition has come and gone, Hubert makes some decisions, and soon after that, Gillian/Jill remembers the origins of her “blue water” imagery, which opens the novel. It remains to be seen if she will act on what she discovers.

[Michael Hofmann, one of the premier translators of German language novels, has translated this and several of Stamm's other books.]

ALSO by Peter Stamm:  SEVEN YEARS

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.roxy.ulm.de/

The abstract picture by Geneva artist John Armleder, similar to one on the wall of Gillian’s hospital room, is one of a pair done in 2003:  http://www.nonobjectifsud.org/2007/aja1.html

John Wilmerding’s book about Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga Pictures,” was released in 1987 and may be found on Amazon and other book-selling sites.  http://en.wikipedia.org/

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red Hills, Gray Sky,” from the late 1930s, is shown on http://dailycristo.com

Edvard Munch’s depiction of the vulnerability of a young girl (1894) stands in sharp contrast to his most famous painting, ” The Scream.”  Ironies abound when thinking of this sweet painting in relation to Gillian, though she posed for her photo by Hubert in the same position.  http://www.edvard-munch.com

ARC: Other Press

Note: This novel was WINNER of Germany’s 2014 Hans Falada Prize.

“If her grandmother had left for the Vienna Woods just half an hour later; …or if [she] who was so eager to cast her life aside had not…taken a right turn from Babenberger Strasse onto Opernring, where she coincidentally encountered her own death in the form of a shabby young man; or if the fiancée of this shabby young man had not broken off their engagement; …or if the shabby young man’s father hadn’t left his Mauser pistol in the unlocked drawer; …then she would not have been thinking of [being] shot, but [instead] about…a dark painting inside the [nearby] museum.”

The above quotation is not really a spoiler, since this unusual novel features a cast of characters whose lives change constantly in response to the circumstances of their lives.  Even death is not permanent.  If the unnamed main character makes a bad choice and dies, usually through no fault of her own, German author Jenny Erpenbeck simply changes one or more of the conditions which brought about the character’s death and its terrible consequences to the family and retells her story.  In fact, the unnamed main character here has five “deaths” in the novel’s five “books,” and other characters experience similar changes of fortune as the author examines the very nature of time, mortality, fate, coincidence, and the effects of a death or other terrible event on the people connected to that character. There is no heavenly hand, no higher deity, no fate with predictable goals or rewards controlling the outcomes here, only the hand of the author, with her long view and broad themes.

Author photo by Maarten ten Haaff

Erpenbeck aims high, creating an unnamed main character from early twentieth-century Galicia (now incorporated as parts of Poland and Ukraine) who endures two world wars and their aftereffects, the growth of communism, the division of Germany and later the fall of the Berlin Wall, and other major events of European history over the course of a century.   The main character’s death-defying personal traumas match those wrought by political changes, and as she endures, or dies and is given a second chance, she also becomes an “Everywoman” for the century.  The main character’s intimate life story, portrayed within the context of major historical events in various locations in Eastern Europe, makes the small details of a person’s life feel real at the same time that major political and sociological ideas are sweeping the continent.  Her setting becomes the world of Europe in miniature, a microcosm of the continent over the course of a century.

The country which was Galicia in 1914 has now been incorporated into Poland and the Ukraine. Its former territory is now bordered by the present countries of ( E – W) Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldava.

The novel opens with the death of an eight-month-old baby shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century and vividly recreates the personal devastation it brings to the child’s mother and the family surrounding her.   The baby’s Jewish grandmother, whose husband had been killed by a neighbor during a bloody pogrom by Poles against Galician Jews, had arranged for the baby’s mother, who survived, to marry a “goy,” enhancing her chances to live, she believed, but this daughter’s half-Jewish baby has just died anyway of unexplained causes.  As the mother must reorder her life following the baby’s death, her “goy” husband learns that if they had put snow on the baby’s chest, under its shirt, that it might have stimulated its breathing impulse and kept the baby alive.  Then “fate would have kept quiet, and this first moment when the child might have died would have passed without further ado,” and without changing the lives of everyone in the family.

Galician refugees from what is now the Ukraine, 1918. Double-click, then scroll to enlarge.

Book II takes place in 1919, after World War I, and what is left of the family has moved to Vienna, where 450,000 refugees like them from Galicia and 150,000 refugees from other places in Europe have congregated, hoping to find food. Instead they find themselves taking turns standing in lines all night in order to get a small piece of cow’s udder for “food.”  The main character, who is the subject of the opening quotation of this review,  “dies” here at the hands of a medical student who sees her and thinks that she is a whore who has rejected him.  The girl, shot, might have been a writer, and she has hidden some writing behind the wardrobe.

The medal of the Great Patriotic Order of Merit, given to Soviets who were especially deserving, was won by one of the characters here.

The first two “books” of the novel, tension-filled and dramatic, keep the focus on the relationships among time and chance and death, while each “Intermezzo” between the chapters offers suggestions regarding an alternative time frame which could have changed the course of lives. The smooth descriptive prose, trenchant dialogue (both real and imagined), and the occasional glimpses of hope as the author changes the outcomes of a death provide ample opportunity for the reader to reflect on the themes and enjoy the author’s creativity in conveying them without bogging down the narrative with an excess of philosophizing.  Book III takes a new direction, and the narrative style changes as description becomes subordinated to the tumult of political events.  Here, it is 1935, and the main character, a committed communist, has gone to Moscow, become involved in political intrigue, and walked the narrow path between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists.  Married, she watches as her husband goes off to war and later gets arrested. She herself is suspect regarding her ideas.  The horrors of Russian life and the threats of the gulag are front and center, with images which feel almost rat-a-tat-tat in the precise staccato of their presentation.  The main character is writing an apology for her life in an effort to save it and that of her husband, something which most readers who have studied this period will find familiar, and even the sections which look like poetry feel abrupt, constrictive.  The emphasis on the political and sociological, while important from the point of view of twentieth century history, supersedes that of the main character here, and some readers may find their attention to the narrative wandering in this section.

Throughout the novel, a collection of the works of Goethe becomes symbolic for the power of writing and its importance. This photo shows Vols. 12 - 18, including both volumes of Faust.

Book IV continues the story through the next generation represented by the son of the main character, who has many questions about his past.  Book V, one which will hit hard for anyone over sixty, depicts the life and thoughts of an elderly woman, Frau Hoffmann, age ninety and in a home for the aged, as she and her heirs separately relive her experiences through the possessions which she has left behind.  Erpenbeck deserves high praise for writing a novel about major ideas in a serious and literary way, never underestimating the reader and always providing new insights which expand our view of the past and increase our understanding of themes.  With the exception of Book III, which seems to lose its way, this is a first-class literary novel which deserves all its attention and praise.

Photos, in order: The authors’s photo, by Maarten ten Haaff, appears on http://nrcboeken.vorige.nrc.nl/

The map of Galicia in 1914, shows a country which has now been incorporated into Poland and the Ukraine.  Its former territory is now bordered by the present countries of ( E – W) Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldava. http://mobile.ztopics.com/

This 1918 photo of Galican refugees to Austria, and a story about them, appears on http://www.austrianphilately.com/

The Great Patriotic Order of Merit, won by one of the characters here, is shown on http://daliscar.deviantart.com

The 40-volume Collected Works of Goethe, a recurring motif here, represents the power of writing and its importance.  This photo shows Vols. 12 – 18, and the includes two volumes of Faust.  http://goaliesanxiety.blogspot.com/

ARC: Other Press

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