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!

William Maxwell: They Came Like Swallows (1937)

They Came Like Swallows is American author William Maxwell’s second novel. Maxwell was famous as an author and editor. He helped shape the careers of writers like Eudora Welty, John Cheever, John Updike, John O’Hara and many others. I read and reviewed one of his later novels, So Long, See You Tomorrow in the early days of this blog. I was very impressed with it and keen on reading more of his work. Two of his books were suggested in the comments – One was They Came Like Swallows, the other one was The Château. Although I was so keen, it took me eight years to return to him. While I liked So Long, See You Tomorrow more, I found a lot to admire in They came Like Swallows. Once again, it is obvious why he’s called a “writer’s writer”. He’s so skillful.

They Came Like Swallows is a tragic book, even more so because we know it’s based on Maxwell’s childhood story. It’s set at the end of WWI, during the flu pandemic that killed twenty to forty million people. The story is told in three parts, each part told by another narrator. They don’t tell the same story from different angles, but each of them begins, where the other one stops.

Part one is told by eight-year-old Bunny, the younger child of the Morison family. His world turns around his mother and his mother only. He’s a very sensitive child, needs constant encouragement. He also has a keen imagination. Through his eyes we see the world transform into small villages, battles take place, fantastical things happen. His relationship with his older brother Robert is a source of terror. Robert is eight years older than Bunny and has little patience for the kid. At the end of part one, Bunny has been told, his mother’s expecting another child and he has come down with the flu.

Part two is told from Robert’s point of view. The tone is completely different. Robert has sorrows of his own. He’s lost a leg in an accident and tries hard to live a life like any other boy his age. He’s in this in-between state, not a kid anymore, but not yet a grownup. Because his mother had difficult pregnancies in the past, she and the boys’ father leave the kids with an aunt. Robert too, gets the flu and soon they hear that their parents have come down with it as well.

Part three is told from James Morison’s point of view and it’s the most devastating part. It’s obvious from the beginning, the mother will die, it’s only not clear, if anyone else will die, so I’m not going to mention that. The dad’s account is devastating on many levels. He’s lost his wife and the way grief grabs him and threatens to destroy him, is so well described. Equally well described are the reactions of the people who come to the funeral. I always find people are notoriously bad at expressing their sentiments when they hear of someone’s death. All the awkward phrases, the awkward and often unemphatic reactions are captured so well here.

I’m not so keen on stories told by kids usually but it’s done exceptionally well here because William Maxwell uses the kid’s imaginations. He doesn’t try to sound like a child but to let us experience the world through the eyes of a small child and a teenager and, later, a bereaved husband.

Something that struck me was the way the children were treated. Nowadays we have a tendency to treat even small children like grownups and a boy of sixteen would definitely be treated like that. Not so here. The book is eighty years old and to see how much the way we treat children has changed was really interesting.

While I didn’t love this book as much as the last one I read, I’m full of admiration for the craft and looking forward to reading The Château next. And I think it’s an outstanding portrayal of grief and the awkward ways people treat the bereaved. It also shows very well how devastating the pandemic was.

Should you wonder – the title is taken from Coole Park, a poem by William Butler Yeats.

I meditate upon a swallow’s flight,
Upon a aged woman and her house,
A sycamore and lime-tree lost in night
Although that western cloud is luminous,
Great works constructed there in nature’s spite
For scholars and for poets after us,
Thoughts long knitted into a single thought,
A dance-like glory that those walls begot.

There Hyde before he had beaten into prose
That noble blade the Muses buckled on,
There one that ruffled in a manly pose
For all his timid heart, there that slow man,
That meditative man, John Synge, and those
Impetuous men, Shawe-Taylor and Hugh Lane,
Found pride established in humility,
A scene well Set and excellent company.

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone,
And dedicate – eyes bent upon the ground,
Back turned upon the brightness of the sun
And all the sensuality of the shade –
A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.

Have you read William Maxwell? Which of his books did you like the most?

Best Books I Read 2018

This was such a strange reading year. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to compile a decent best of list, but when I went over my notes, I discovered I was wrong. I’ve read several wonderful books – mostly in the first three and last two months of 2018 though. That might explain why I thought there hadn’t been that many. Another reason might be because I only reviewed about 30% of what I read.

I didn’t try to stick to ten or twelve books for my list, I just picked a few from each category.  If available, I’m adding a link to my review. I’m still hopeful I’ll manage to review the one or the other this year.

Best novels

Anita Brookner – Hotel du Lac

Sadly I can’t remember that much of Hotel du Lac as I read it in January last year. I only know I liked it a great deal. It was my first Anita Brookner novel but it won’t be my last.

Ann Beattie – Chilly Scenes of Winter

Another book I read last January but this one has stayed with me. It has amazing dialogue and characters. Everything they say is always unexpected and interesting. It was such a pleasure to read.

Alfred Hayes – My Face for the World to See

My most recent read on the list and one I reviewed just two weeks ago.

Here’s some of what I wrote about My Face for the World to See

I think one reason I loved this so much is because it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes fantastic novel In a Lonely Place, which made my best of list in 2016. I’m sure Hayes knew the book and certainly knew the movie with Humphrey Bogart. Even though My Face for the World to See isn’t a crime novel, it has all the trademarks of a noir like In A Lonely Place. There’s the melancholy mood, the jaded, lonely people who try to connect but fail, love affairs that turn bitter within weeks.

Anne Brontë – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I will write about this book some day. It isn’t on the list because I liked it but because I found it very interesting. I also found it annoying in parts and overall not what I expected. But it’s memorable and important and therefore deserves a place on this list.

Terri Windling – The Wood Wife

This was a mix of magical realism, mythology, fantasy and a very realistic story in an amazing setting. I can still visualize the book. Its imagery was so strong and has stayed with me although it’s another one I read at the beginning of 2018.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote about The Wood Wife

I enjoyed this book very much and read it very slowly. Terri Windling created a magical world that is beautiful but not cute. Life in the desert is harsh. For months it’s dry and then when it rains, everything is flooded and the people living on the mountain are trapped there. Coyotes and rabbits roam freely but they are also hunted by poachers and tourists who think it’s a fun sport. In many ways, this is a very realistic depiction of a landscape and a way of life but then the book goes deeper and uses mythology and folklore to show what a magical, powerful place the Sonora is.

Nonfiction

Katie Roiphe – The Violet Hour

I hope to still review this book because it’s so great and I know many readers of this blog would love it. Essentially it’s a series of biographies of famous writers/thinkers, starting with their final hours. It may sound morbid but it’s not. It’s just fascinating to see how each of these great minds reacts when they realize there might not be a lot of time left. I was familiar with some of the stories, like Susan Sontag’s or Freud’s, because I read their biographies, but some were new to me. The other writers/artists are Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, James Salter, John Updike. Roiphe also shares her own experiences with death and illness, why she chose to write this book and how she wrote it. Fascinating.

Cathy Rentzenbrink – A Manual for Heartache

I wish I had reviewed this beautiful memoir because it blew me away. It gives a lot of hope and solace in dark times. I’m not a rereader, especially not of nonfiction, but I think I will reread this. I loved it so much. The right book at the right time.

YA Fantasy

Annette Curtis Klause – Blood and Chocolate

I bought this book ages ago because so many people who participated in Carl’s R.I.P. and Once Upon a Time events raved about it. That always makes me a bit wary because I’m afraid that my expectations might be too high. In this case, although they were high, the book was so much better than I expected. It’s just a marvelous YA fantasy novel with a great twist and unexpected ending. While it is about a teenage werewolf girl, it’s also a wonderful exploration of what it means to stay true to who you really are. It’s never trashy, never clichéd. If you like the genre, don’t miss this.

Sci-Fi

Jeff Vandermeer – Annihilation

What a peculiar book and not at all what I expected. I expected straightforward Sci-Fi but this is actually a horror story. I was thinking the whole time – if Edgar Allan Poe wrote today, this could very well be the way he would write. Once I finished it, I started watching the movie and that spoilt the experience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that took so many liberties with the source material. It was odd.

Crime

Andrea Camilleri – Montalbano series book 1 and 2

This year I discovered two new crimes series that I like so much that I want to read the whole series eventually. The first is Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series. I’ve reviewed book one here. I liked absolutely everything about these books. The characters, the setting, the style and the stories.

Here’s what I said bout The Shape of Water

I’m so glad I finally read Camilleri because I enjoyed it so much that I have already started book two. This is such a perfect series for so many reasons. It paints an accurate, if somewhat embellished and exaggerated, picture of Sicily, its people, and customs. And its food. Montalbano enjoys good food, and for many readers, discovering all the dishes he eats in the books, is part of the appeal. While the descriptions of the place and its mores is part of the success of the series, the biggest reasons for loving it, is the character of Montalbano. He’s unorthodox, funny, dry, doesn’t suffer fools but has a big heart when it comes to “little people”. Montalbano’s name is an homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. It’s no surprise then, that the inspector reads one of Montalban’s detective novels in this book.

Susan Hill Simon Serrailler Series book 5 and 1

The second series is Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series. While I loved the two books I’ve read, I still find something to criticise. I think she’s too much in love with her own writing and that’s why the books are a bit too long. There’s an almost Dickensian feel to these novels. That aside, it’s a great series that has a lot to offer.

Here’s what I wrote about The Shadows in the Streets

As far as crime novels go, this isn’t the tightest but I didn’t mind because I enjoyed reading it. There’s suspense and the ending is not obvious, but at the same time it has a leisurely pace and takes a lot of time to show the characters and explore its main theme – prostitution. Susan Hill is famous for her ghost stories. Ghost stories need strong atmosphere and since she excels in the genre, it’s not surprising that this book is atmospheric too.

 

Alfred Hayes – My Face for the World to See (1958)

This wasn’t the best reading year for me. While I was very lucky with my nonfiction choices, more than one novel was a dud. Imagine how happy I was to see my faith in literature fully restored before the end of the year. Alfred Hayes’ novel My Face for the World to See is just marvelous. A perfect gem of a novel. I couldn’t fault a thing. I discovered it a few years ago on Guy’s blog here, but forgot all about it until Jacqui reviewed another of Hayes’ novels, The Girl on the Via Flaminia.

Alfred Hayes was born in London but moved to the US as a child. In 1943 he was drafted and spent time in the US army, in Italy. In Italy he contributed to some of the most famous scripts of Italian neo-realist cinema – Rosselini’s Paisà and de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The following ten years, he worked as a screen writer in Hollywood, writing  scripts for people like Fritz Lang, John Huston and many more.

While The Girl on the Via Flaminia, his earlier novel, is set in Italy, My Face for the World to See is set in Hollywood.

Before starting the review, I’d like to share the opening paragraphs, which set the tone and the mood of the novel.

It was a party that had lasted too long; and tired of the voices, a little too animated, and the liquor, a little too available, and thinking it would be nice to be alone, thinking I’d escape for a brief interval, those smiles which pinned you against the piano or those questions which trapped you wriggling in a chair, I went out to look at the ocean.

There it was, exactly as advertised, a dark and heavy swell, and far out the lights of some delayed ship moving slowly south. I stared at the water, across a frontier of a kind, while behind me, from the brightly lit room with its bamboo bar and its bamboo furniture, the voices, detailing a triumph or recounting a joke, of those people who were not entirely strangers and not exactly friends, continued. It seemed silly to stay, tired as I was and the party dying; it seemed silly to go, with nothing home but an empty house.

With hindsight, it’s amazing to see how perfect this beginning is. It captures the tone and the mood of the novel, as well as the narrator’s character. The narrator – he’s never named – is a successful, rich script writer, who spends some months of the year, in Hollywood, far from his wife and kid, who stay in New York. He’s successful but it doesn’t seem to mean much to him. He could be part of a crowd but he stays outside. There’s one person one could call a friend, the host, but other than that, he seems like the ship he watches – passing by, detached. At the same time, he’s the guy who is eternally watching, witnessing. A couple of moments after this short intro, he’s again a witness – this time to the near-suicide of a young, pretty wannabe actress. He saves her and this act is the beginning of a terrible mistake. While he may think he’s just being friendly when he contacts her again, it dawns on the reader that loneliness and boredom – also mentioned in the first paragraphs – might be the true reasons.

From that moment on, the reader gets to witness an awful Maelstrom of an affair. The beginning is somewhat sordid and the end disastrous.

I absolutely loved this novel because of the tone and the mood. And the writing style. It’s pared down and economical, not one superfluous word. It’s also chilling at times, because the narrator never fully engages with anything that happens. It’s almost as if he’s never really there. And the more he is withdrawn, the more the girl seems to sink deeper and deeper into her despair. I felt so sorry for this girl. A typical pretty small town girl who comes to Hollywood with big dreams, which a crushed instantly. She was hoping for “My Face for the World to See”, but what she gets instead is the wrong male attention. Almost all of her lovers seem to have been married and, invariably, it ends badly and she tries to console herself with alcohol. There’s a scene with a cat, who she loves dearly, that’s utterly heartbreaking.

I think one reason why I loved this so much is because it reminded me of Dorothy B. Hughes fantastic novel In a Lonely Place, which made my best of list in 2016. I’m sure Hayes knew the book and certainly knew the movie with Humphrey Bogart. Even though My Face for the World to See isn’t a crime novel, it has all the trademarks of a noir like In A Lonely Place. There’s the melancholy mood, the jaded, lonely people who try to connect but fail, love affairs that turn bitter within weeks.

Of course, Hollywood is the perfect setting for a story like this and one can easily see that Hayes knew what he was writing about.

I’m not entirely sure I will write a best of post this year, but if I do – My Face for the World to See will be on it.

A Tardy German Literature Month Wrap-up and Radetzky March Readalong Announcement

Does anyone else feel November went fast? I only just wrote a welcome post to German Literature Month and now it’s already over. That’s not why I’m late though. I caught a nasty cold.

I’d like to thank everyone who participated. It’s always wonderful to see all of your choices and your enthusiasm. So, thank you very much.

If you haven’t done so already, please add your posts to the German Literature Month Site. I’m still playing catch up and Lizzy’s collecting links for a final wrap-up post.

If you haven’t seen Lizzy’s post, you might not know that we are planning a Readalong of Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March early next year. The date hasn’t been fixed yet, so I’d like to know what would work for you.

We would like to extend this readalong over the course of one month, posting weekly on predefined portions of the novel. There will be questions, for those who’d like to use them, that will facilitate discussion.

I hope you’ll join us.

And thanks again for your participation.