César Aira – El Tilo – The Lime Tree

Argentinian writer César Aira has been on my radar for a while. I don’t think I have come across any negative reviews of his work so far. On the contrary, most of his readers were more than enthusiastic. Aira is known to be one of the most prolific writers. To this day, he’s written over one hundred books. Obviously, his books are mostly on the short side, nonetheless, it’s an impressive number. It’s also a number that makes it difficult for first time readers to choose a book. Since I’d read a few rave reviews of The Lime Tree, I decided to start with that.

The Lime Tree tells a fictional childhood memoir, set right after the fall of Peronism. The narrator is an older man, looking back on his childhood, exploring the role of History on his personal history. The distinction between History with a capital H and history is a major theme of this novel. The way families, in this case, poor Argentinian families are influenced by the History of the country, its politics, is central. For someone who knows little about Latin American – or Argentinian history – it was very interesting. The book explained very well how someone like Perón could be so popular with the working classes who were hoping for social mobility.

Perón and the fall of Perón, were important for the narrator’s family and therefore also for the narrator himself. But there were other things that would play a role. His father, a very good-looking man, was ‘black’, probably of Indian descent, while his mother is described as dwarf-like and very ugly. His father, an ardent Peronist, suffered from his nerves, after the end of Peronism, and hardly spoke while his mother was a loud, chatty woman.

This duality might help to explain his marriage. My mother was white; she came from a respectable, middle-class family, and if she had acquiesced to an alliance with the ‘black’ populace, it was because her physical deformity made it impossible for her to marry at her own level. The alternative would have been to remain unmarried, and as far back as I can remember, she was always expressing her horror at the condition of ‘spinster’.

For the reader, many of the episodes in the novel are amusing, but when you look at them closely, you notice how much pain and tragedy these parents experienced.

Some readers have complained that Aria doesn’t write chronological tales and that it can be quite challenging to read him. I didn’t mind this at all. Reading The Lime Tree was like listening to the monologue of an older relative who is reminiscing, telling stories of his life, jumping from one topic to the next but always picking up the lost thread again. As with many elements of this book, there’s an echo of this reading experience in the text.

Back then, people had so much time, they would tolerate the craziest monologues. I can’t have been the only one who listened to them with pleasure.

It was fascinating to learn more about a place, Colonel Pringles, in Argentina, during a specific period, the 50s. I found Aria’s approach to telling a story interesting because it mirrored his topic – History and personal history and the way they influence each other. And there are many wonderful, colourful scenes and story elements that I liked a lot, like the description of the way they lived – in one room of an abandoned inn. I would actually love to see this made into a movie.

Will I read more of Aira? It’s possible, but I don’t think I would read him in English again. I just felt very far from the original text. That doesn’t mean the translation isn’t good. I’m sure it is. I just wanted to hear the original cadence. I noticed that there’s a new collection in Spanish due to come out in May – here. It contains ten of his short books. Maybe I’ll pick it up.

 

Karen Thompson Walker: The Dreamers (2019)

Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, The Age of Miracles, was my favourite book of 2013. I adored that book so much. It’s mood, tone, and intriguing premise stayed with me. Needless to say that when I saw that she finally had a second novel out, I had to read it.

The premise of the The Dreamers is maybe not as intriguing as the apocalyptic premise of The Age of Miracles, but it’s still interesting. In a small college town in Southern California, a girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up anymore. Soon there’s another one and then another one until there’s an epidemic. The city gets cordoned off. Nobody can enter, nobody can get out. More and more people fall asleep and don’t wake up. They all have one thing in common—they seem to be dreaming constantly. When the first girl dies, people get even more alarmed. The hospital is flooded and many of the staff fall asleep as well. Soon there are almost more sleepers than people awake and many of the sleepers die.

Unlike her first book, this one is told from multiple perspectives. The main characters are – two small girls whose father’s a survivalist, two college kids, a psychiatrist from out-of-town, and a husband and wife with a tiny baby. It was interesting to see the story told from many angles but unfortunately, it also meant it didn’t have the impact of The Age of Miracles. There was no specific tone or mood, just good-story telling. I definitely wanted to know why they fell asleep and what would become of them.

Once I finished it, I had to admit I felt underwhelmed. I thought at first that it was because my expectations were too high but then I realized that it reminded me too much of Camus’ La peste. It’s possible that this is just an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s equally possible she meant this as some sort of retelling. I didn’t read any other reviews or author interviews, so I have no idea. Unfortunately, for her, it’s hard to compete with Camus. That said, I’m sure many people will love this as it explores a topic we’re all, to some extent, afraid of – the outbreak of an epidemic. Her approach isn’t personal but social. She explores how fear affects people. She looks at the moral choices people make to either save themselves or help others.

There’s a quote from Catherine, the psychologist that I like a lot:

Worry, she reminds her patients, is a kind of creativity. Fear is an act of the imagination.

Seeing how people react to this unknown, contagious, and potentially life-threatening affliction illustrates the quote. People’s behaviour depends so much on what they imagine will happen.

The book also does ask some universal questions about illness and morality. There are so many who fall asleep and need help that, after a while, those still in good shape have to make choices who they will help. Someone they know? A younger child instead of an older person? Randomly? And what about pets – once food gets scarce inside of the city, should they still be fed?

Given the title, which isn’t The Sleepers but The Dreamers, it’s not surprising  that the nature of reality is another important theme. How do we really know we’re awake when sometimes dreams are so vivid we can’t tell we’re sleeping?

While I was a bit disappointed, expecting something with a similar tone and mood to her first novel, and because it reminded me of Camus, I still found this a compelling book. Her writing flows so well and the pace and structure are very balanced. And there are so many topical themes that make it ideal for a discussion group.

Joseph Roth – Radetzky March Readalong

You may remember talk of a spring Radetzky March readalong (or re-readalong for those who are already acquainted) during 2018 German Literature Month.  All who were interested in participating were asked to comment on their favoured month, and it turned out that April was favoured by most.

Now April is beginning to look rather full. Stu is hosting Penguin Classics week at the beginning of the month (8th-15th) and Karen and Simon are hosting the 1965 club at the end of the month (22nd-28th).  So where can Lizzy and I slot this readalong?

As the novel is divided into 3 parts of nearly equal length, we’ve decided on the first 3 weeks of the month. (There is a Penguin Classics edition, so, if you’re reading that, you can kill two birds with one stone!) And to tie in with #translationthurs, we’ll discuss Part One on Thursday  April 4, Part Two on Thursday April 11 and Part 3 on Thursday April 18.

We both loved the detailed discussion of the Effi Briest readalong, way back when during the first German Literature Month. So we’re intending to send out discussion questions for each part of the discussion.  You can answer these or post your own thoughts, entirely as you please.  If you’re intending to participate, please leave a comment and your email below.

More details nearer the time, but we wanted you to pencil in the dates now – before the month of April just gets too full for most of us!

Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling – Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

This is something for the writers among my readers – but also for the fans of Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood.

I’ve taken a few of the Masterclass (writing) classes because I’ve got the all-access pass since last year and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Some of the newer instructors are Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. While I mostly enjoy Margaret Atwood’s class, I absolutely love Nail Gaiman’s storytelling course. The material is inspiring and he’s just such a wonderful person.

Since these are new classes, I thought it might be worth mentioning them.

You can find Neil’s class here:

https://www.masterclass.com/classes/neil-gaiman-teaches-the-art-of-storytelling?gclid=CjwKCAiA4t_iBRApEiwAn-vt-xFxTBu8AFsiAJx0S6PvHvW1OFWadM2_d-9FbiXnaj_Uy5eOBF5CChoC63cQAvD_BwE&utm_campaign=NG&utm_content=Brand-%2Bmasterclass+%2Bgaiman-US_BM&utm_medium=AdWords&utm_source=Paid&utm_term=Aq-Prospecting

Here is Margaret Atwood’s class:

https://www.masterclass.com/classes/margaret-atwood-teaches-creative-writing?utm_source=Paid&utm_medium=AdWords&utm_campaign=MA&utm_content=Nonbrand-margaret%20atwood%20masterclass-G2_EM&utm_term=Aq-Prospecting&gclid=CjwKCAiA4t_iBRApEiwAn-vt-30kBUszJe-4UgYeirz0ai-X29cD4UXvUu3I800P67AaLdhFeWfiZRoCOvAQAvD_BwE

 

 

If you have any questions about Masterclass or certain classes, just ask me. Since I’ve taken a few – not only on writing -, I can certainly give you my opinion and some advice.

Angelika Overath – All the Colors of Snow – Sent Diary – Alle Farben des Schnees

Have you ever dreamt of moving to the place where you spend your holidays? That’s exactly what German journalist and writer Angelika Overath did in 2007. She, her husband, and their youngest child moved to Sent, a small village in the Engadine region of Switzerland. Before that, they lived in Tübingen, Germany, where her husband was a professor at the university. Her two older children stayed in Tübingen.

Shortly after they moved, Overath was asked whether she wanted to write something for a local newspaper about moving to her holiday home. That article was the starting point to this book— a diary of a little more than a year in her new home Sent.

I read a few of the diary entries in an anthology and liked them so much that I wanted to read her whole book. As a child, we used to spend many holidays in the Engadine region. My mother had a Swiss friend whose family owned a holiday home there. The scenery is spectacular and I was always fascinated to see how differently the seasons changed in the mountains. I never spent a Christmas there, only New Year, but it must be lovely as the parts I read in the anthology, and now reread, take place during Christmas and Overath describes so many wonderful things and interesting customs.

The descriptions of the changing seasons are some of the best parts in Overath’s “diary”. That and her joy to be somewhere she loves as much as she loves the Engadine. She describes what it takes to change status, to move away from being a tourist and become a local. In her case, it’s not that easy because, as you may know, the Engadine region is the Swiss region, where the fourth Swiss language – Romansh (Rätoromanisch) is spoken. People speak some German and Swiss but they distinctly prefer to speak their own language and in order to get fully accepted it’s better to learn to speak the local language.

While her son, who is only seven when they move, picks up Romansh easily at school, and her husband has a greater facility to learn Romansh, it’s not that easy for Angelika Overath to learn the language. But since she’s so enthusiastic, she uses a special way for herself, which I found quite ingenious and well-worth copying. In order to familiarize herself with the language, especially the nuances of the vocabulary – many words sound similar but have  a completely different meaning – she began to write poetry in Romansh. The result is quirky and playful. It’s a brilliant way to learn a new language.

I enjoyed this book a lot because of the beautiful descriptions of the landscape, and the many interesting people that populate these pages. The Overaths have a rich social life and meet many fascinating people. Sent seems to be a place that attracts a lot of foreigners, artist, writers. It’s also a place people seem to return to after having stayed abroad for a while.

My only small reservation concerns the term “diary”. In my opinion, this is rather a notebook than a diary. Angelika Overath herself, her interior life is almost completely absent from these pages. One can sense it was meant for an audience and not as personal as diaries normally are. But that’s a tiny reservation. It’s such a rich and diverse book that has a lot to say about moving to another country, learning a new language, new ways of living. It also describes beautifully the charm of living in a small community. And her love for the mountains, the short but intense summers, and the long, cold, snowy winters, can be felt on every page.

Sadly, so far, none of the books by Angelika Overath have been translated into English. This book would be interesting for American readers as there are several entries set in the US, during the summer, when both she and her husband teach at a college in Vermont. Since I liked the way she wrote, I might try one of her novels next.

Did you ever want to move to a place where you spent your holidays? I know I did. I often dream of moving to the South of France. It wouldn’t be a challenge language-wise, so, maybe, that doesn’t count.