Time After Time by Molly Keane

Published in 1983, Time After Time, is Anglo-Irish writer Molly Keane’s second novel under her own name. Before that she published ten novels under her pseudonym M. J. Farrell. There was a break of almost thirty years between her first ten and her last three novels. The early death of her husband was the reason for that long silence. Molly Keane also wrote plays.

Time After Time is my second Molly Keane. Back in 2011, I read and reviewed Two Days in Aragon which I liked very much. At the time, I wanted to know which one to read next and several people recommended Time After Time. Now, finally, nine years later, I picked it up.

What a wild ride. Not what I expected and not how I remember Two Days in Aragon, which was far more about the end of an erabut that doesn’t mean I didn’t like Time After Time. Molly Keane is a brilliant writer. She’s sharp, witty, and has a very distinct sense of humour.

The Swifts, four siblings in their sixties and seventies, live in a ramshackle mansion, Durraghglass, that has seen better days. Their fortune is long gone and so is their youth. The only thing they seem to have in common is a love for their late mother. Because of their mother’s will, they are bound to live together under the same roof. Jasper, May and June have never been married. The oldest sister, April is a widow. If it wasn’t for her and the money she inherited from her late husband, they would have had to sell most of their land. Still, it’s obvious they have no money as the house is constantly cold and decaying.

It becomes obvious very soon that this isn’t an entirely realistic novel. Each of the four characters has a disability. Jasper is one-eyed, April is deaf, May has a hand with only two fingers, and June, the youngest, never went to school because she’s dyslexic. They each have a pet, the sisters have dogs, Jasper has a cat. Just like the siblings, the pets are at each other’s throat constantly. This isn’t a harmonious household. On the contrary. These are four, selfish eccentrics who hate each other.

The character’s eccentricities and aversions, their feelings of self-importance, made reading this so much fun. The dialogue is sharp and witty. The characters behave a lot like characters in one of those hotel novels, we all like so much. Thrown together by fate but kept together by some sort of lethargy. They could avoid each other, but no, they always eat together. And since Jasper reigns over the kitchen, together with his formidable cat, he holds a lot of power. When he wants to punish his sisters, he lets them wait for their dinner or serves something he knows they hate. The meals are, invariably, accompanied by bickering and snide remarks. Here’s a short snippet

 (. . . ) there was silence until Jasper broke it with a curious cry: “What are you doing May? Picking the cucumber out of your salad?”

“You rather forgot my ulcer – I can’t eat cucumber.”

“Can’t eat this, can’t eat that. Why must you have such a lower middle-class stomach?”

“Perhaps it has something to do with your idea of Cordon Bleu cooking?”

“It takes imagination and a reasonable digestion to appreciate good cooking.”

“You don’t usually cook cucumber, do you?” The argument drifted into silence.

Pudding time came. Baby rhubarb and rice cream with a vaporous suggestion of nutmeg.

“I hope the rhubarb isn’t too acid for your ulcer.” Jasper eyed May’s lavish helping.

“My ulcer must take its chances (. . . )”

While the book is often farcical, the characters aren’t devoid of tragedy. They are all elderly and suffer from different ailments. Even though they try to hide it as best as they can, they are very lonely. This and many other uncomfortable truths are brought out into the open when a long-lost childhood friend appears on their doorstep —cousin Leda from Vienna, who they believed had died in a concentration camp. Leda, who once was a great beauty, is now very fond of alcohol and food. But since she’s blind, she still believes she’s charming and imagines her friends to be still as young and charming as herself.

These were the submerged days that Leda’s coming rescued from a deep oblivion. Since she could not see Durraghglass in its cold decay, or her cousins in their proper ages, timeless grace was given to them in her assumption that they looked as though all the years between were empty myths. Because they knew themselves so imagined, their youth was present to them, a mirage trembling in her flattery as air trembles close to the surface of summer roads.

The safety and monotony of their days is soon gone because Leda isn’t as cute or nice as they remember her. Oh no. She’s rather diabolical and a master schemer. If they weren’t so desperate for company and flattery, they might have been able to see through her. Being gullible, they fall into her traps. By the end of the novel, the siblings must face unflattering truths about themselves and nothing is as it was before.

In her foreword Emma Donoghue compares Molly Keane to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The book combines, as she says, social comedy, grotesque descriptions and plot twists. I’m not so fond of comparisons like that, but I agree, Time After Time, has all these elements, combined with a terrific writing style, that’s very much her own. For some people these characters might be a bit over the top, but I liked them very much. They are eccentric and mean, but tragic in their own way. And, most importantly, never dull.

Announcing German Literature Month X

10 years, who would have thought it?  But here we are, and in a year when there has been plenty to be glum about, Lizzy and I thought we should buck the trend, and celebrate ten years with a bang! Hence the badge.

Thanks to all who have travelled with us thus far.  We hope you’ll accompany us again. For those who may be new to this, German Literature Month is the month for reading all things originally written in German – in whatever language you wish to read it – and then telling the world about it. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Goodreads. All good. Just use the hashtag #germanlitmonth when you share your thoughts.

Don’t have a clue what to read?  There’s a veritable database of reviews over at www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.com to help you find something appealing.

This year’s programme is a little different. Or, to be more precise, there are two programmes.

Programme 1

Unable to visit Germany this year for pandemic related reasons, Lizzy has an acute case of Fernweh, and has therefore decided on a virtual tour of Germany. One which will include all 16 Bundesländer, one way or another. Primarily through literature interwoven with memory.

Programme 2

I have decided to focus on four authors of interest, and chosen authors mean that there are weeks in which the spotlight will also  shine on Austria and Switzerland. My itinerary looks like this:

November 1-7  Sophie von La Roche

November 8-14 Max Frisch

November 15-21 Ingeborg Bachmann

November 22-28 Siegfried Lenz

The fourth week will include a Literature and War readalong of a recently discovered Lenz novel, The Turncoat. The discussion will take place on Friday 27.11.

As always, you can read as you please throughout the entire month.

We look forward to your company and discovering some scintillating German-language literature together.

Austrian Crime – Some Reasons Why You Might Like Alex Beer’s Crime Series

Alex Beer is an Austrian crime writer whose books have won many prestigious prizes. The Leo Perutz Preis and the Austrian Krimipreis, among others. Alex Beer was born in Bregenz. She lives in Vienna. The August Emmerich series is her first series. She’s now writing another one with a protagonist called Isaak Rubinstein.

I discovered her August Emmerich crime series at the book shop a while ago. Usually I don’t read historical crime, or very rarely, but the setting – Vienna after WWI – immediately caught my attention. It’s such a fascinating period. Unfortunately, they didn’t have book one at the book shop, so I picked the third in the series instead. That was a mistake, as I liked it very much, and will now have to go back and start with book one. That’s the reason, why this isn’t a proper review, as, so far, only the first in the series, The Second Rider, was translated. I’m sure it’s every bit as good as the third one though. I wish I had waited and ordered the first as some of what happens in Emmerich’s life in book three, spoils the first two books.

The main protagonists of the series are August Emmerich and his side-kick Ferdinand Winter, of the Austrian police force. Emmerich is a war veteran. Because of a war injury he’s in a lot of pain and has a tough time running or walking. Winter comes from a formerly rich family who has lost everything during the war. As he’s so good looking, women warm to him quite a bit. They are both likable, complex characters and I enjoyed their relationship very much.

While they are police detectives, they don’t shy away from bending the rules, if necessary. In book three, they also hunt a crime boss for personal reasons, which makes the series a bit of blend between a police procedural and a PI novel. The descriptions, mood, and atmosphere, all contribute to that as well.

The crime they must solve in book three, is suspenseful and so is the subplot, involving the crime boss, but that’s not what won me over. What I absolutely loved, besides the atmosphere, was the way Vienna was described. People are so poor. The city’s rife with criminals. There are hardly any goods available outside of the black market, where they cost a fortune. People are hungry, kids are starving. Antisemitism is on the rise. People already shout they want the annexation of Austria into Germany. The books, set in 1919 and 1920 respectively, show a country under shock. The massive multilingual Empire has been dissolved. All that remains is the comparatively small Austria, mourning its former glory.

While reading Joseph Roth, I got a feel for how huge the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. When you see what’s left after WWI, you can understand why so many think it’s all a very bad dream. Add to that the poverty and criminality, which make Vienna a very unsafe place, and you can imagine how desperate the people were.

Historical novels excel when they give you a feel for a period but also when they pique your curiosity and entice you to read more about a certain time and place. Alex Beer’s novels do exactly that. This was way more than an entertaining book. It’s rich in atmosphere and full of fascinating details. An excellent choice for those who like to read women/crime in translation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I’ve long been a fan of Elly Griffith’s Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, slowly reading one book after the other. There are twelve books by now, four of which I’ve read. She’s also been writing a new series, The Stephens and Mephisto mysteries. I was quite pleased to see that she’s now also writing standalone novels and since The Stranger Diaries, published last year, has gotten so much praise and was called a “modern Gothic”, I decided to read it.

The story is told from three different points of view. Clare Cassidy, a fortysomething English teacher, Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, and Georgia or Georgie, Clare’s daughter.

Clare teaches English at a school, parts of which are located in the house of a Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was famous for his chilling short story The Stranger. In her spare time, Clare is writing a book on the author. She used to be best friends with another English teacher, Ella, but for some reason, they aren’t really close anymore. When Ella is found murdered, Clare is unsettled for many reasons, one of which is a note found next to the body. It’s a line taken from The Stranger, a short story that hardly anyone knows.

Detective Kaur instantly dislikes the tall, beautiful Clare and suspects her to either know more than she admits or to be involved in the murder. When another body is found, under even more sinister circumstances, Clare begins to fear that she and her daughter might be next.

I absolutely loved the beginning of the story, told from Clare’s point of view. I loved the setting, the mystery, the characters, but then the book switched to Detective Kaur’s point of view and while her POV is convincing, I found the book immediately lost some of its drive and most of the atmosphere. When the third narrator was introduced, Georgie, it fizzled out even more. I did not care for her parts and would have wished they’d been left out.

That said, there were still elements that made this a gripping read, I just wished, she’d told it differently. What did not work for me at all was the ending. Was it a twist? Yes. Was it believable? Absolutely not.

I’m really in two minds about this book. There’s a lot to like here but, ultimately, because of the ending, it was a disappointment. I’ll still read more of Elly Griffiths but stick to the Ruth Galloway mysteries.

Some Thoughts on Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I don’t read a lot of bestselling mainstream novels. Very often, I don’t even hear about them. But from time to time there’s a book that sells so many copies that I’m interested to find out what the fuss is all about. Especially when the premise sounds intriguing like in the case of Where the Crawdads Sing. The premise of a girl growing up on her own in the swampy marsh of Northern Carolina and becoming one with the nature that surrounds her. Delia Owens is well known as a wildlife scientist and published three nonfiction books before writing her first novel. That, too, sounded intriguing. That was also pretty much all I knew about the book when I started to read. You can imagine how surprised I was, when I discovered that there’s a dead body in the swamp at the beginning of the book. It’s only then that I became aware that the book was called a blend between love story/crime/court room drama. And that brings us right to my biggest reservation – sometimes a blend works but in this case it doesn’t. It’s neither a proper crime story, nor is it purely a love story and the courtroom part, I’m sorry to say, is ludicrous.

I did like the beginning which was mostly set in the past, in the 50s, and told the very tragic story of a small child, Kya, who was first abandoned by her mother, then by her siblings and finally also by her father, an abusive drunk. She’s only ten and decides to survive on her own, knowing very well if the authorities found out she’s been abandoned, she’d land in the foster care system. These parts not only introduce us to an amazing ecosystem but also to a way of life. It seems like the marsh is a world of its own, with its own rules, outside of society. Because Kya is intelligent and observes the world around her, she’s able to survive. She also gets some outside help from a black family, pretty much outsiders too, in this small town. She also meets a boy who teaches her to read and write, which will have very surprising consequences.

While the beginning was strong, the descriptions of the landscape so detailed that I felt like I was visiting the marsh, the book quickly went downhill after that. I had a feeling that Delia Owens had an idea for a story, a very intriguing idea, and a love for a landscape but no plot. And, so, she decided to add a crime story that then turned into a courtroom drama à la To Kill a Mockingbird.

The crime idea might not have been a bad one. There are many novels about a crime that are very successful without being really crime novels. But for me, this one didn’t work. She should have written either proper crime or searched for a plot somewhere else. The result is full of inconsistencies and lacks realism. The character development is also rather dubious, and the use of vernacular is just terrible.

You’ll be surprised to hear that despite all these reservations, I didn’t mind reading the book. I loved the way this landscape was brought to life. I found the way Delia Owens conveyed how Kya fought against her loneliness by becoming one with the flora and fauna that surrounded her believable and well done.

It’s less a bad book than a missed opportunity. This could have been very good. The question that remains is – why did this become such a major bestseller? She sold over 4million copies of the book even though the publisher only printed 23,000 copies at first. The reason might be the choice of setting. I wasn’t surprised to find out that many people who loved this novel are very interested in ecological themes. I don’t know many books where nature plays such a significant role and where the intricacies of ecosystems are shown so well. I have no doubts that Delia Owens is a very good nonfiction writer.

I hope I was able to give you an idea, especially, if, like me, you were curious about this book. Maybe, now that you’re forewarned about the flaws, you might enjoy it more. Nature lovers, people who are interested in the marshes of North Carolina, those with in an interest in ecology and specific ecosystems, will still find a lot to like here.

Meetings with Remarkable Trees

The indifference towards old trees makes a mockery of our supposed new respect for the environment. (Thomas Pakenham)

There isn’t much that is as beautiful and majestic as a big old tree. Their huge crowns house birds and insects, the foliage gives shade in summer. In autumn they delight us with their changing colours. In winter the large naked branches look so eerie against the grey sky. Some are fragrant like the acacia or the lime trees that are in bloom right now. And nothing compares to the sound of a large tree. The rustling of the leaves in the wind; the drops on the foliage when it rains. And all those other sounds coming from trees— the buzz of the insects and bees; bird song and the chirping of the young ones in their nests.

Trees are some of the most remarkable living beings on this planet. Every time when we have a storm, I fear for them. It’s such a heart-breaking sight to see such an old living being destroyed. But what’s even more heart-breaking is when they are chopped down for commercial reasons, for their wood or to make room for a building. Some of you who follow me on Twitter saw me tweet about the loss of the Oak that was growing near my childhood home. It was such a massive tree, far over 200 years old. It was struck by lightning once but survived. It only lost a branch. To me, as child, looking up into the vastness of its branches and dense foliage it looked indestructible. There was a bench under that tree and my mother used to sit on that bench, smoking a cigarette, playing with her dogs and talking to passers-by. I stood under that tree, the last time I went out with my dog before she had to be put to sleep that afternoon. I have so many memories tied to that tree and, foolishly, I thought it would survive me. But it didn’t. It was felled at the beginning of the year to make room for a huge underground parking. The trunk was chopped up and placed in a nearby deer park.

I often go for walks in the deer park and had noticed the trunks. They appeared right after a storm so I assumed, naively, a tree had been knocked down by the storm. I had a bad feeling looking at it, as I’d never seen any tree as big as this one nearby. So I went to my old childhood home, not too far away from the deer park and saw the massive hole. At that time I still believed, it might have been knocked down by the storm. The Oaks here in Switzerland are slowly dying because of the hot summers. The climate change doesn’t agree with them. The heat weakens them and many have to be felled for safety reasons. I can’t really describe the mix of feelings when I finally found out that this one hadn’t been in danger at all, but that some real estate agency decided to have it chopped down.

Thomas Pakenham had similar experiences. One when some giant beech trees were uprooted by a storm in his native Ireland. The other when he noticed the lack of big trees in Tibet. All but one very big tree had been felled for its timber. These experineces made him look at big trees in a new way and appreciate their beauty and majesty even more. The result is Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a book about 60 giant trees that you can find in Britain.

The sixty trees Pakenham chose for his book are remarkable for their size, age, shape or history.

He looks at trees that have been imported. Trees that have become sacred. Trees that have been turned into dwellings.

The tree below is a massive Yew tree. It looks like the oldest trees in England are Yews.

The trees are mostly grouped by themes. The tree below is another Yew that stands at Much Marcle.

Here’s an example of a huge Oak. The tree near my childhood home looked very different. It didn’t have any low branches at all. It had a huge trunk and a massive crown.

The tree below is a massive Ash.

Thomas Pakenham writes about these trees like they were people with their own personalities. Looking at all the pictures in the book you can see how different trees are, even when they are from the same species. That makes it even more heart-breaking when they die or are felled. Something beautiful and irreplaceable is gone forever.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

The novella Daisy Miller was published in 1878, the same year James published his novel The Europeans and two years before the publication of Washington SquarePortrait of a Lady came a little later, in 1881. It’s a pure coincidence that those are exactly the books by Henry James that I’ve read so far. Plus, the novella Madame de Mauves, which is from 1874. Madame de Mauves is the only one I’ve read while blogging. You can find the review here.

Henry James was very fond of novellas and as soon as you look at his extensive bibliography, you can see just how fond of them he was. Maybe I’m wrong, but I got the impression that Daisy Miller might be his most famous novella. That’s not surprising as it’s James at his most readable. People often complain that he’s not accessible, that his sentences are difficult. None of this is the case here. The writing is fluid and elegant, never clunky, never overcomplicated. And the story is engaging too.

Winterbourne is a young American who lives in Geneva most of the time. At the beginning of the story, he’s visiting his aunt in Vevey. While out on a walk, he meets a peculiar boy who is followed by his older sister. Winterbourne can’t take his eyes off the young woman. She’s so beautiful and elegant. But very different from the other young American women he met in Switzerland. She walks around without her mother or another chaperone, openly flirts with Winterbourne, teases him and is very capricious. Flirting is something young American girls, unlike the Europeans, do a lot. But not exactly with as much liberty as Daisy.

Certainly she was very charming, but how deucedly sociable! Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State? Were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen’s society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent. Some people had told him that, after all, American girls were exceedingly innocent; and others had told him that, after all, they were not. He was inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt. He had never, as yet, had any relations with young ladies of this category

His aunt tells Winterbourne right away, that she’s beneath him, even though it’s obvious she’s extremely rich.

But don’t they all do these things–the young girls in America?” Winterbourne inquired.

Mrs. Costello stared a moment. “I should like to see my granddaughters do them!” she declared grimly. This seemed to throw some light upon the matter, for Winterbourne remembered to have heard that his pretty cousins in New York were “tremendous flirts

After a trip to Château de Chillon, Winterbourne returns to Geneva and Daisy and her mother and brother travel to Rome.

The following winter, Winterbourne meets Daisy again in Rome. She’s the talk of the town. People gossip because she’s always seen alone with men, most of the time with one very good looking Italian.

The news that Daisy Miller was surrounded by half a dozen wonderful mustaches checked Winterbourne’s impulse to go straightway to see her. He had, perhaps, not definitely flattered himself that he had made an ineffaceable impression upon her heart, but he was annoyed at hearing of a state of affairs so little in harmony with an image that had lately flitted in and out of his own meditations; the image of a very pretty girl looking out of an old Roman window and asking herself urgently when Mr. Winterbourne would arrive.

While Winterbourne found many excuses for her when he first met her, surprising her, in the middle of the night, in the Colosseum alone with the Italian, disgusts him.

Since Daisy Miller is a novella, writing more would give away the ending. Let’s just say – it’s tragic.

Daisy Miller is such a strong creation. She’s free, she’s witty, she doesn’t care about what people say. But Winterbourne and the reader wonder why. Is it because she is so innocent or is it because she’s without morals? The ending reveals which of the impressions is right.

James is always interested in the different attitudes of Europeans and Americans and how these change through travel and living abroad. It seems that Daisy Miller puzzles them all. She’s entirely her own person. The little brother is very unusual too and so is the mother who doesn’t seem to be able to guide her two children. I would have loved to be introduced to the dad, but we never get to see him as he stayed in the US.

The society James describes in this novella, is very cruel. They have their rules and if you don’t play by them you get shunned or ostracized. No matter how rich you are.

Because the book is called Daisy Miller, one could assume its eponymous heroine is the main character, which in a way she is. But Winterbourne is just as important because we see the story filtered through his eyes. This filtering, and the way he interprets everything, tells us a lot about him and the society he lives in.

As I said, Daisy Miller is highly readable and very accessible. Even though the end is tragic, it’s neither sombre nor depressing as so many of James’ other books.