Aharon Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim (1999) Literature and War Readalong August 2012

In his memoir The Story of a Life acclaimed author Aharon Applefeld tells the story of his childhood and how he came to be a writer. He starts by describing his earliest memories, the beauty he experienced, the love he received from his parents and grandparents. Most prominent in his memories is his last summer holiday as a child of five when he and his parents visited the grand parents in the Carpathians. Little Aharon’s parents are quiet people. They don’t talk a lot and Aharon learns early just to observe, be in the moment and absorb everything around him, the light, the scents, nature. These sensory memories will haunt him all his life. But this idyllic summer is the last peaceful moment of his childhood. Hitler comes to power, war breaks out. At first the family lives in a ghetto, later on they are transported to the camps. Both his parents are killed, his mother right at the beginning of the war. After having lost his father as well, Aharon escapes into the forest where he lives for years until he joins others. Together they first walk from the Ukraine to Italy and from there to Palestine, their new home.

The memoir is a book of a rare beauty. It taps into the deepest recesses of the soul where vague and sensory memories are stored. Because he was a child and a taciturn child at that, he is lacking words for what has happened to him. This makes this memoir so amazing, it’s like watching someone feel around, probe and slowly approach the right words to convey what it was like. Fleeting memories and strong impressions are mixed. Some people, some stories stand out but a lot is just like shadows on the wall.

The loss of his mother tongue leads to further fragmentation. In his family they spoke three different languages, on his long escape to Italy and from there to Palestine, there are more languages spoken and when he finally arrives in Palestine he has to let go of all of them and learn a new one, Hebrew. This is all painful.

I’ve read all sorts of WWII accounts and novels but they never focussed on orphaned children. It’s hard to imagine what it means to lose your parents, your home, your mother tongue. And Palestine wasn’t as welcoming as one would think. Especially not when you felt you wanted to talk about what happened and later to write about it.

Applefeld had to overcome an incredible amount of obstacles before becoming the writer he is today. He had to dig out his memories from where they were buried, find the right words, find the right language. He had to fight hostility too. Every single one of his books is an attempt to capture what happened to him and how it felt.

The Story of a Life is in part exactly that, the story of one man’s life, but more than that it’s a meditation on language and how to put into words, make palpable what is just a fleeting sensory impression. No wonder the cold, the wind, the rain are things which catapult him back to the war years. The war, he writes, is stored in his body, his bones. Because he was so little at the time, lacking the ability to fully comprehend and put into words what happened, the memoir and most of his novels, it seems, are more like a search, a quest almost for what once was, an attempt at conjuring up what was lost.

This is a book I can highly recommend even to those who are tired of reading about WWII and the Holocaust. It is a rich, inspiring and very meditative book about life and how to tell one’s story.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)



The Story of A Life was the eighth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Richard Bausch: Peace. Discussion starts on Friday 28 September, 2012.


Thanks to Grace (Books Without Any Pictures) I discovered that Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings has finally announced R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII.

There are different levels of participation. You can read as many books as you like or just one, stick to short stories or watch a movie.

And here are the genres you can choose from:

Dark Fantasy
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above

I’m in the mood for ghost stories right now and will certainly read the one or the other. I also just bought The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror.

There are also two extremely tempting readalongs.

Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

Details and sign up can be found here R.eaders I.mbibing. P.eril VII

The reviews can be posted here R.I.P. VII Review Site

Will you join? What are you going to read?

How Gruesome Does A Realisic Account Have To Be? – On Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2012)

A visit to a book shop on Friday evening led me to Jeannette Winterson’s latest book The Daylight Gate. It was in the fantasy section and from the description I gathered it was a book on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, the most famous of the English witch trials. Why this book was in the fantasy section wasn’t entirely clear to me as witch trials are a historical fact and hardly fantastic. Maybe it was because of the way it was written?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of the trials of witches. Interested and horrified. And I often pick up novels on the subject. In the past I’ve read Eveline Hasler’s amazing but untranslated Anna Göldin. Letzte Hexe (Anna Göldin. Last Witch) on the last witch trial in Switzerland, in 1782. The way the book was told is amazing because it reads like an old trial report. It’s sober and very impersonal which created an eerie feeling of realism. Maryse Condé chose an entirely different approach for her I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem – Moi Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem. That’s a novel I didn’t only find fascinating but really loved. It’s tragic but beautiful as well. A third novel which many people like but I found dry and unappealing was Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity.

I was keen to find out how Jeanette Winterson would treat this subject. It seems that content-wise The Daylight Gate is very close to Robert Neill’s Mist Over Pendle. Pendle Hill in Lancashire was said to be the home of witches. While there may be a similarity content-wise, there certainly is none in the execution.

Maybe the fact that it was in the fantasy section misled me. While I didn’t expect a fantasy novel as such, I most certainly wasn’t prepared for something this gruesome. This was by far the most gruesome book I’ve ever read. It’s really not for the faint of heart and it literally made me sick. For someone who is used to read accounts on war this is an intense reaction and it really made me wonder if the book had to be this gruesome to be realistic? Witches are frequent figures in fantasy novels and fairy tales. They can be black or white but some romantic ideas may often be tied to them. Maybe Jeanette Winterson wanted to prevent any idealization or romantic notions. While there are a few instances of magic in the novel – mostly linked to the figures of John Dee and Edward Kelley – the focus is on fanaticism. There is nothing romantic in women and men being persecuted by zealots. Women and Catholics alike were hunted by King James’ henchmen. King James, a fervent  and fanatic protestant, who believed he was attacked by witches, hunted and executed numerous men and women. And had them tortured. And this is the gruesome part, as the torture scenes are described in great detail.

Not only are we served detailed descriptions of torture but of incest and rape as well. Children are sold to their own father. Many a poor woman’s only chance at survival is to sell her body. Often they received not only food but many negative things in exchange. They got pregnant or contracted a disease. The scenes in the dungeons are hard to take as well. The dirt, the festering and oozing wounds, the stink…

To call the world of The Daylight Gate bleak would be an understatement. This is a dark, very dark and disturbing book. Finishing it felt like coming up for air after having been under water and deprived of oxygen.

Was there anything to like in this book?  Yes, I liked the story of Alice Nutter, a rich woman who acquired her fortune through the invention of a magenta dye. An independent and strong woman. Beautiful and free. She was convicted together with 12 other women and men. She seems to serve as proof that it wasn’t about witchcraft but that at the core of those trials was hatred. Hatred against poor people and women.

While I see why Jeannette Winterson chose this approach, I’m not sure it had to be this gruesome. A little less show but tell would have been my preference here. If we had read “He was emasculated” would we not have gotten the picture? Did we need to read how it was done in a page long, detailed description? We get a full blow. No room for romantic notions here, fanaticism and ugliness are laid bare.

To be honest, I could have done without reading this. As well written as it was, as much as I was fascinated by the story of Alice Nutter, I cannot understand how a writer can let loose such utter ugliness. If you know and like Jeanette Winterson, just bear in mind, this might be her most disturbing work.

What do you think? How gruesome should a realistic account of torture and pain be?

There is More to Véronique Olmi Than “Beside the Sea” or Un si bel avenir (Such a beautiful future)

Un si bel avenir

Lucky Pereine Press decided to publish Véronique Olmi’s prize-winning novel Bord the Mer – Beside the Sea or she may still be waiting for an English translation. I’ve read the book when it came out in France in 2001. It’s an excellent but bleak account of a highly depressed mother.

Olmi has written several novels and theater plays. The one that interested me the most was Un si bel avenir which you could translate by Such a beautiful future. Set in the theater world, it tells the story of two women who meet at a time when their lives start to unravel. Elizabeth is an actress, married with two little girls. Her husband is a failed stage director. Clara is a radio journalist who is in a relationship with Boris, an actor as well. The women first meet at the premiere of one of Pascal’s plays which is a total failure. They meet again by coincidence, just after having found out that their marriages and relationships are about to end.

The friendship she describes is very rare in it’s intensity and loyalty. Two people meet when they need someone the most and open up in a way unknown to both of them. Family secrets, disappointments, dreams and fears are shared with great trust and openness.

Some of the scenes in this novel are incredibly  beautiful, some even in their absurdity like when Elizabeth and Pascal are stuck at midnight on the péripherique or when Elizabeth sits up in the middle of the night, the family is sleeping and she enjoys the peacefulness and security it means. Little does she know this is one of the last moments like this.  Another scene in which she starts to see her husband for what he really is, a failed aging guy, with a sagging ass and a secret mistress, is tragic and hilarious. She swears like a sailor using the most expressive language.

The book is an exploration of what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife, of the different possibilities, the choices, the difficulties and pitfalls modern life has in stall.

The poignancy and immediacy with which this is written, the dialogue and interior monologue, so close to everyday language, bears the sign of a novelist who is also a successful playwright.  This dialogue and interior monologue is so authentic. At the same time there is an airiness in this writing that can describe the dark night of the soul and still let a light shine in. What I missed most in Bord de mer, the chance for transformation and hope, is present here.

I always felt that French women writers have a capacity to touch on every single detail of everyday life, from the most mundane to the most sublime and render it in a meaningful way, show us how we live now with a all the complexity there is.

As I wrote before, Un si bel avenir is about all the facets of the life of a woman, as a daughter, a wife, a lover, a mother and a friend. It is this last part that is the most accentuated. The book’s characters’ hope lies in the friendship with another woman. Romantic relationships are scrutinized, taken apart and discarded together with family ties.

I do not have such a pessimistic view of the couple, not at all. I think a lot of what is called love has not much to do with real love and that is the core problem. It seems, as if these two women show that it can be easier to live this type of love with another woman or the children, in relationships that are free of physical attraction.

I hope this books will be translated too. It isn’t flawless, there are a few breaks in the narrative towards the end which are abrupt but it has a lot of qualities, a lot to offer.

There is much more to Véronique Olmi than Beside the Sea. Although better constructed, Beside the Sea is awfully bleak. If you ever read anything else you will notice how nunaced her writing really is.

Un si bel avenir has been translated into German Eine so schöne Zukunft.

Coincidentally Emma has just reviewed Bord de merBeside the Sea. You can find her review here.

John Sutherland: The Dickens Dictionary (2012)

Although I’m one of those who has been tiptoeing around Dickens’ work for a while now without reading anything else but A Christmas Carol and part I of David Copperfield, I’m still interested in the author and the work. I also have a feeling I’m familiar with his novels without having read them because I saw the one or the other movie based on his books and because creations of great artists seem to acquire a life of their own and seem to go on living outside of the confined space of the book covers. People mention them, talk about them as if they were real people.

When I discovered The Dickens Dictionary on Mel U’s blog (here is the post) I knew I had to get it right away and since it arrived yesterday afternoon I spent many moments with it.

The author John Sutherland is a recently retired professor who has taught and published on Victorian novels. Browsing his book and reading the one and the other of the 100 collected entries, you discover not only a world of information but a book written by someone who is passionate about the subject and knows how to write about it in a way that will make you feel the urge to grab the next Dickens novel at hand. Sutherland’s aim was

When I think of Dickens I do not see a literary monument but an Old Curiosity Shop, stuffed with surprising things: what the Germans call a Wunderkammer – a chamber of wonders.

This book, taking as it’s starting point 100 words with a particular Dickensian flavour and relevance, is a tour round the curiosities, from the persistent smudged fingerprint picked up in the blacking factory in which Dickens suffered as a little boy to the nightmares he suffered from his unwise visit at feeding time to the snake-room of London Zoo.

The 100 entries cover such different subjects as Bastards, Blue Death, Candles, Cats, Child Abuse, Dead Babies, Dogs, Fog, Hands, Incest, Merrikins, Onions, Pies, Pubs, Smells, Thames…. They are all entirely fascinating.

What certainly adds to the appeal of this book are the many illustrations.  There is one on almost every other page.

I also liked the many quotes Sutherland included which give a good feeling for the work. Since I have still not decided which will finally be my first Dickens, this book will help me make up my mind.

To give you an idea of the entries I chose the one called Blue Death.The title refers to the Cholera epidemic of 1848-49 during which 52,000 Londoners died. The entry explains where it came from – India 1817 – and how Dickens and most people thought it was miasmic. He referred to it in Bleak House in his description of Tom-All-Alones’s. His rival Thackeray contracted the Cholera and might have died if Dickens hadn’t sent his own physician.

The Dickens Dictionary is a great introduction to Dickens, it contains quotes and references of the various novels, anecdotes from Dickens life, historical facts of Victorian London and a whole range of other “curiosities”.

As I said, I still don’t know which should be my first Dickens. Which one would you recommend?

Mary Lawson: The Other Side of the Bridge (2006)

At the end of my introductory post to the Canadian Book Challenge I asked for recommendations and pburt mentioned how much she liked Mary Lawson’s books. That’s how I decided to read The Other Side of the Bridge.

We cannot experience everything in our life. Especially not the past, nor a way of life which is very different from our own. Luckily one of the many functions of literature is to help us experience other times and places. Reading this novel makes it possible to travel back in time, to a place and a way of life long gone; rural Ontario between 1930 to 196o, a harsh inhospitable place which drives strangers and young people away.

The novel tells two parallel but linked stories and moves back and forth in time. It starts in the 30s with the story of the brothers Arthur and Jake. Arthur is the reliable one. Stocky and solid. He wants to become a farmer just like his father. Jake who is much younger, is the good-looking one, the favourite of his mother. But Jake is also inherently mean. A manipulative bully with a sadistic streak which he manages to hide behind his good looks and alleged charm. Only Arthur seems to know about his brothers true nature. One day, on a bridge, fate strikes and sets in motion a tragedy which cannot be stopped anymore.

The second story line starts in the 50s and is told from the point of view of young Ian, the son of the local doctor. Because he is secretly in love with Laura, Arthur’s beautiful wife, he offers to help Arthur every Sunday on the farm.

The blurb states that the novel bears a resemblance to 19th century novels of provincial life. That’s not a bad comparison. But more than that it also reminded me of Greek myths in which you can see the doomed heroes move towards their destruction. The worst thing in the myth of Oedipus for example isn’t so much that he sleeps with his mother and kills his father – although that is certainly very bad – but that his father thought he could prevent this tragedy which had been predicted and through this very attempt at preventing it, he finally provokes it. While The Other Side of the Bride is no story of incest, it has a similar dynamic as Oedipus’ story. There will be a tragedy. We know it.  And no matter how much the people try to prevent it, it will happen anyway. But other than in greek myths, and that’s where Mary Lawson meets Ian McEwan, there is atonement too.

Everything that I said so far has more to do with the plot. The story tells a tragedy and how it happens but that is just one layer of the book and not even the one I liked best as I found it a bit too predictable. What I really liked about this book is the writing which is amazingly beautiful and contains many passages like this one:

It was September, the worst time of the year as far as Arthur was concerned – endless months of school ahead, cooped up in one stuffy schoolroom at a too-small desk, while outside the maple flamed red and gold and the air was clear and pure as spring water. Inside was the leaden boredom, outside was the sharp tang of wood smoke and the urgency of shortening days. You could smell the winter coming. You could see it in the transparency of the light and hear it in the harsh warning cries of the geese as they passed overhead. Most of all you could feel it. During the day the sun was still hot but as soon as it dipped down behind the trees the warmth dropped out of the air like a stone.

Somewhat later in the book there is this passage in which Ian and his friend Peter sit together

They sat on in silence, or almost silence; if you listened closely you could just hear a faint thrumming from thousands of wings. Beyond the dragonflies the sun was sinking slowly, casting its rays across the lake, and on the other side, everything, as far as the eye could see, was slowly dissolving into the haze.

Ian thought, If I love to be a hundred years old, I always remember this.

Apart from the central story of a tragedy, The Other Side of the Bridge is an excellent depiction of the Canadian home front during WWII. It shows the way Canada was affected by huge losses, how most of the young men didn’t return and many of those who did were maimed for life. The book would have been a worthy candidate for my readalong.

Through Ian’s story it is also a coming-of age tale and a look at the life of a country doctor in an isolated place like rural Ontario where the winters are so incredibly harsh that most foreigners and many natives flee the place.

I must admit I didn’t connect with the characters and their stories, I didn’t feel I could identify with any of them, but I’m glad I discovered Mary Lawson. Her writing is beautiful and the way the people and the place come to life is astonishing. They emerge from the pages and seem to be walking around before your very eyes. The way she writes about Canada is very nostalgic and at times I was wondering if the writing wasn’t to a large extent fuelled by homesickness as she seems to be living in England by now. I any case I want to read her first novel Crow Lake soon.

This review is my first contribution to the Canadian Book Challenge 6

Antonio Tabucchi Week 17 – 23 September 2012 – The Giveaway Winner

Random org has decided who has won

Pereira Maintains

In the sweltering summer of 1938 in Portugal, a country under the fascist shadow of Spain, a mysterious young man arrives at the doorstep of Dr Pereira. So begins an unlikely alliance that will result in a devastating act of rebellion. This is Pereira’s testimony.

The book goes to Bettina (Liburuak).

I hope you will like it.

Please send me your address via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

For those who want to know more about Tabucchi Week and want to join, here are the details.