Black Car Burning by Helen Mort – Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Blogtour

My second book for the Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Tour was written by acclaimed poet Helen Mort. Black Car Buring is her first novel.

What a harsh beauty this book is. As harsh and as beautiful as the location it’s set in – Sheffield and the surrounding area, notably the rocky Peak District, a climber’s paradise and hell.

Sheffield sounds like a place with its own very special challenges, notably in some of the less affluent quarters, where people try to cohabitate with people from different cultures. The lack of trust, an important theme of the book, makes their life together very difficult.

Sheffield is the city where the notorious Hillsborough disaster took place. During an association football match at Hillsborough Stadium, on 15 April 1989, the stadium collapsed, crushing 96 people. At the time, when this novel is set, 2014, the inquiry into the disaster is taken up again. The disaster is central in the book as some of its characters have been deeply traumatized by it.

The story centers on four main characters, Alexa, a young police community support officer, and her climber girlfriend Caron, Leigh, another climber, who is drawn to Caron, and finally Pete, who works with Leigh. Pete is a former policeman who left the force because of the Hillsborough disaster during which he was present. Watching helplessly how people were crushed and slowly suffocated scarred him for life.

Alexa and Caron are in an open relationship which did work before but Caron is withdrawing more and more. She’s not only a passionate but a compulsive climber, tempted to take great risks. Her biggest goal is to climb Black Car Burning, one of the most difficult rocks to climb.

The characters are all climbers but very different ones. While Caron looks for risky challenges, the others, while still adventurous, are far me careful. They all react differently to the landscape around them. Not only the rocks and mountains but Sheffield and it’s districts.

This is an intriguing book, it’s fascinating to see these people navigate the landscape and their relationships and how these mirror each other.

The most intriguing passages of this novel, the ones that show us Mort is a poet, are the page-long chapters written in first person, which we find between most of the other chapters. The writing is luminous and shines like Mica. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking but then soon discovered – it was the landscape itself that was given a voice – parks, streets, rivers, rocks, the city and its surrounding landscape, ever present, are observing and talking. Those passages are stunning and beautiful.

Here’s an excerpt from an example titled The Trees:

At night the trees call to each other across the roofs of the houses. There are so many, but there are never enough for an army. Some of them are splayed and ancient with voices like church doors. The saplings sound like bicycle brakes on a wet day.

Black Car Buring is masterfully written, poignant, and topical. It treats themes like social injustice, trauma, relationships and the way people deal with landscapes and cities, with sensitivity. It paints a portrait of contemporary Britain that manages to convey both challenges and beauty.

Thanks go to Midas PR for a free copy of the book.

The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so there are poetry collections nominated as well as novels and short stories. The other 11 books on this year’s longlist are:

  • Surge, Jay Bernard
  • Flèche, Mary Jean Chan
  • Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy
  • Black Car Burning, Helen Mort
  • Virtuoso, Yelena Moskovich
  • Inland, Téa Obreht
  • Stubborn Archivist, Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton
  • The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
  • Lot, Bryan Washington

André de Richaud – The Author Who Inspired Camus to Become a Writer

Albert Camus said that André de Richaud’s novel La douleur  – The pain – inspired him to become a writer. When it came out in 1930, it created a scandal. The author was just twenty-three years old and had sent his manuscript to the Jury of the Prix du premier roman of the Revue Hebdomadaire. The jury was so shocked but impressed by the writing, that nobody won the price that year. While they considered La douleur too shocking for publication, it was clearly the best book. Despite the risk of a potential scandal, Bernard Grasset published the novel anyway that year, as he liked it so much.

Even though he entered the literary scene making such an impression and even though people like Camus and Cocteau praised him, de Richaud never got the fame or recognition he deserved. He went on to write more novels, short stories, plays, and poems but without any success. At the age of fifty-one, prematurely aged, he moved into a nursing home where he died of tuberculosis in 1968. He wrote his final work, the autobiographical novella Je ne suis pas mort – I am not dead, in 1965, after having found his own obituary that someone posted erroneously in a newspaper.

You’re certainly curious to find out now why La douleur was such a scandalous book. What was particularly scandalous was the combination of several themes that were taboo at the time. The love between French women and German prisoners of war, incest, and female sexuality.

La douleur is set during WWI, in the village of Althen-des-Paluds, in the Comtat region in the South of France, very far from the trenches. In the village, like in so many other French villages, there are only women, old men, and children, until the day when three German prisoners of war arrive.

Thérèse Delombre has lost her husband six months ago. Since then she’s been living alone with her small son. Thérèse Delombre suffers intensely. Not so much because she misses her husband, but because the loss leaves her sexually frustrated. She can’t think of anything else, can’t sleep. While it isn’t explicit, it’s obvious that her relationship with her son has an incestuous undertone. He sleeps in her bed, they touch constantly. She’s jealous whenever he makes a friend, especially a female friend. And when she catches the kids playing doctor’s games in the attic, she freaks out. This changes when she meets the German prisoner Otto and begins an affair with him. She neglects her son and throws herself into this love affair, unaware that people have noticed and disapprove.

Even for a contemporary reader some of the passages are very outspoken but not explicit. There isn’t any description of any of the sexual encounters, but the longing is described in an explicit way.

The book is courageous and interesting because of these themes but what made me really love it is the writing. De Richaud is a stunning writer. His descriptions are so lyrical I read many passages several times just because they were so beautiful. He also manages to give us a feeling of what it was like to be in one of those villages far from the trenches, but still so deeply affected by the war.

It’s tragic to know that the book is based on de Richaud’s own childhood. He was traumatised by his mother’s affair with an enemy.

What I find even more tragic is that de Richaud has hardly been translated. La douleur has been translated into German for the first time in 2019. I don’t think that an English translation of this exists. It’s a shame. People would love it and those interested in Camus would appreciate reading it even more.

This was such a haunting book. I will certainly read more of de Richaud’s work.

 

Elizabeth Taylor: The Soul of Kindness (1964)

Published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s later novels. It’s the seventh novel by her that I’ve read and since I want to read everything she has written, it won’t be my last. I have to be honest though – if this had been my first, I might not have been so keen to carry on. While most other novels have one, or two central characters, this is more of an ensemble piece. It says in the foreword that it is one of three novels that don’t centre on a main character. The other two being In A Summer Season and The Wedding Group, both of which I haven’t read yet. This may sound as if I didn’t like it – that’s’ not the case but I think it works better when you know her writing already and read it as part of her oeuvre. If not, you might feel a bit let down by the lack of plot and its feeling a bit disjointed at times, especially since the blurb tells us this is Flora’s story. I suppose that was a marketing decision, as it isn’t her story, not in a traditional way that is. She’s more like the central figure among a group of people. But she’s definitely “the Soul of Kindness” the ironic title alludes to.

When the book opens, we see her as a shining bride, all eyes on her. She’s the belle of the ball. While people do admire her and many think highly of her, nobody does so as much as she does herself. Right away she is presented as attractive and nice, but also too fond of herself and a little ridiculous.

“Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.

Most of the central characters of this novel, are present at the wedding. Especially those whose lives Flora wants to improve. Among those unlucky ones are Meg, her best friend, Kit, Meg’s brother, and Percy and Ba, her father in law and his mistress. They are unlucky because Flora might be well meaning but she’s so self-centred, her attempts to help leads to smaller and bigger catastrophes. To help another person one has to be able to see them for what they are and that’s something Flora is incapable of.

While there isn’t really a plot, and after these initial scenes, not even a main character, the book still offers a lot. There are so many astutely observed character portraits, small vignettes, and scenes, some of which quite funny, that it’s a joy to read. I was particularly fond of Elizabeth Taylor’s use of atmospheric descriptions to convey a mood.

Here’s a very melancholic passage. We see Mrs Secretan, Flora’s mother, who was wishing so much for Flora to marry well, but never thought what it would mean for her, as a widow, that her daughter would move out.

The air smelt autumnal. In no time there would be thick evening mist coming up from the water, a complete silence from the towing-path, and the river rising; perhaps floods. And Flora would be settled in London and never to come here again, except as a guest.

I made all the plans, Mrs Secretan thought; down to the last detail. But I forgot this, I forgot myself and the future. I particularly overlooked this evening. She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes.

This passage shows us, quite clearly that even her mother doesn’t think of Flora as kind and good, but merely as well-meaning with fatal consequences.

And here’s a funny passage in which Mrs Secretan, encouraged by her son-in-law, thinks about travelling. It captures both characters, of Flora and her mother so well.

To Flora’s astonishment she (her mother) was quite seriously weighing the pros and cons – of Hellenic tours (‘might be too scholarly’), India (‘but I dare say it is spoiled, now that it doesn’t belong to us’), the Holy Land for Christmas.

‘Yes, I might plump for the Holy Land for Christmas,’ she had told Flora, who had been deeply shocked. At Christmas! she had thought in dismay. So what shall we do? Christmas had always been a sacred time, with cherished customs, not one for taking oneself off to the Holy Land.

Flora is so oblivious of other people and their needs that she’s pretty much the only happy character in this novel. All the others strive for something or someone they can’t attain. Or, because of Flora, they start to strive for something that’s not attainable, risking their contentment for a mirage.

In The Soul of Kindness, like in all of her novels, Elizabeth Taylor excels at creating well-rounded, believable characters. Their relationships are complex and at times complicated. Nothing is as simple as Flora perceives it. Not even her own husband Richard. He’s very much in love with his wife, because of her beauty, but knows that she’s too self-centred to be clever. No wonder he’s attracted to his unhappy neighbour. This relationship triggers Flora’s jealousy and we see, she can be perceptive when she feels threatened.

In the foreword, Flora is called demonic, which I find a total exaggeration. I don’t think she’s as bad as we’re initially led to believe. Yes, she’s self-centred, oblivious, and puts in motion some things that go terribly wrong, but she’s the glue that holds all these people together. Without her, this particular group of people and their relationships wouldn’t exist. And that’s not a little thing. It’s a gift to attract interesting people and to bring them together. I would, if I had to judge her, call her very imperfect, but neither demonic nor mean. That’s why, ultimately, she’s liked and forgiven.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel but I don’t think it’s as good as others. I believe it doesn’t succeed at being the portrait of one central character like Angel for example, but that’s how the beginning reads. All the initial chapters place Flora at the centre but this cohesion eventually fizzles out. As if Elizabeth Taylor had realized too late that Flora wasn’t a big enough character to carry a whole story. I could be totally wrong, of course, as critics have called this one of her, if not her best book.

Since this is one of three “group stories” I hope I will like the other two In A Summer Season and The Marriage Group more.

Here’s another take on this novel by Jacqui. 

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 4

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 8/9

 

  1. Reinhold is possibly the biggest villain in the story. Would you agree? Do you find his punishment satisfying?

 

I found him the biggest villain because he seems so harmless at first. Almost helpless. He really tricked Franz, making him help him, trusting him. But even without that, the Mieze story shows his cruelty and viciousness and then, on top of everything else, trying to frame his “friend” shows the extent of his depravity. In light of this, no, I don’t think his punishment was satisfying.

 

  1. The quote that returns most frequently in the last chapters – at least as far I could see – is taken from Ecclesiastes (There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven . . . ) How did you feel about this use? Did you find it effective?

 

I found it downright creepy. Especially how it was used in the Mieze section, but also later on. Like an echo of evilness. It’s obviously not used in context. It’s one of those instances that made me want to read up on the book.

 

  1. Were you surprised by the ending?

 

I was surprised and somewhat disappointed. I’m not entirely sure what I expected but not this. First the episode in which Franz is catatonic, and at a mental institution and then picking up work, like everything that happened before didn’t take place. Possibly, Döblin wanted to tell us he redeemed himself. His love for Mieze, is certainly a redeeming factor.

 

  1. Looking back, what did you like the most about the book and what did you like the least?

 

At times I read it like a puzzle. Not the story itself, but the way Döblin used collage technique. Quoted songs, poems, the bible . . . It was fascinating to hunt them. Unfortunately, those were also the elements that I found annoying at times. There’s just too much and while it’s interesting to see what quotes he chose and how he changed parts of them, it made the book frustrating at times. It’s a book that requires close reading and I didn’t have the time to do that.

 

  1. Would you reread it and/ or are you glad you read Berlin Alexanderplatz?

 

My answer is a resounding no. I will definitely not read it again. I’m glad I read it. as I always felt I was missing out because I hadn’t read it yet. I found it intellectually stimulating but not exactly enjoyable. At other times in my life, the stimulating part would have been enough. Not so now. I didn’t realize before starting it that it’s so long. My edition has just 400 pages, but they are densely packed. The copies in translation showed that it was closer to 600.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 3

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Part 3 – “Chapters” 6/7

 

  1. The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this?

 

I feel it’s a problematic omission. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m pretty sure that in writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin referenced Simplicissimus, which is also divided in books, not chapters, uses a similar structure with short summaries at the beginning of each chapter (there are chapters with long titles in the books). One of Döblin’s later works, the over 1000 pages long historical novel Wallenstein (maybe an excellent choice for next year’s readalong? – just kidding) deals with the 30-year war, the same era during which Grimmelshausen’s famous work takes place. By the time he wrote Wallenstein, he most certainly knew Simplicissimus, but looking at BA’s structure he already knew it then.

But even if these intertextual links wouldn’t exist, I’m not sure why a translator has to change “book” to “chapter”. It seems a bit shoddy.

 

  1. Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation?

 

It was a bit of a shocker and reinforced my earlier assumptions that Döblin likes to emphasize what a strong hold he has on his creature. Poor Franzeken is at his mercy.

 

  1. What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?

 

I find his concept of man very pessimistic. Not only does it seem that people can’t better themselves, they are also puppets on strings without any freedom. They are driven and things happen to them. Once the “machine infernale” is set into motion, there’s no stopping it. Fate will get you, no matter what. At the time when he wrote this novel, Döblin was an atheist. He’d been army doctor during WWI, and I assume that might have shaken his faith. When he was writing Berlin Alexanderplatz, he was “Nervendoktor”, – psychiatrist. He must have seen his share of tragedy and depravity. All this seems to come into play in his work.

 

  1. Do you have a favourite character so far?

 

I really like Herbert and Eva. Even crooks have a certain code of honour and while Reinhold is a character that doesn’t know any loyalty or honour, both Herbert and Eva are representative of this roguish code of honour, as I would call it and I like them for that. Yes, Herbert is a criminal and Eva a type of prostitute, or kept woman, but they are loyal to Franz and genuinely care. They help with anything they can.

 

  1. In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?

 

I thought the reactions were extreme. I can only assume they didn’t like him exposing himself like this and drawing too much attention. The meetings he attends are meetings of the communist party. Franz isn’t even a communist, he’s far closer to national Socialist thinking. I read these sections as criticism of communism. I don’t know anything about Döblin’s political convictions, but maybe anti-communism was his own position.

 

  1. Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?

 

I find it always helps to know a bit about the author but often it’s not necessary. Not so in this case. I read up quite a bit. I was particularly interested in Döblin’s religion. For someone like me, who grew up in a Catholic environment, this was peculiar to read. While it’s very pessimistic, I also felt it had so many Catholic elements. It was interesting to me to know, while he was born into a Jewish family, Döblin converted to Catholicism. I could already sense it here and it helped me understand some passages and the use of some quotes.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 2

I don’t think I’ve ever been this inactive during a German Literature Month and I’m sorry about that. I had made plans but now I even struggle to keep up with our readalong. It’s like everything that is annoying and time-consuming came at the same time, robbing me of what precious little time I had to begin with.

  1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel?  The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique? 

I think the structuring works well in this context, as it breaks up the narrative and, in doing so, moves away from traditional storytelling techniques. Since Franz is pretty much a guinea pig for Döblin to demonstrate his world view, identification with the protagonist was never his aim. The short summaries convey an ironic tone but also mirror older books, that had a similar approach. I’m thinking of Candide, or Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. Both have tragic heroes the authors use to illustrate their philosophy and world view. Obviously, the older protagonists are very different from Franz. They aren’t criminals or depraved people, but, just like him, victims of the circumstances.

  1. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss.

This is such an interesting question. So far, we haven’t seen any positive depictions of women. There will be one in the next book but so far, I’m constantly shaking my head and would like to talk some sense into them. Why do they fall for these men? I can only assume it’s mostly about sex. Many of these relationships are between a pimp and his women, and those can be very complicated. Dependency and addiction come into play. Seeing how so many women are attracted to Franz, I was wondering what he looked like. I don’t seem to remember reading a description. The way Döblin depicts women made me wonder what relationships he had with women. But then again, one can’t say that the men are described in a more positive way.

  1. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist.  What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold?

Unfortunately, underestimating Reinhold is quite typical for Franz who is anything but astute. In some ways, one could say, the author wanted to show that Franz is, despite what he does, not a totally bad person and he doesn’t immediately think bad of people or situations. You can’t be entirely bad, if you’re this naïve. One could also say, that Franz triggers something dark in Reinhold.

  1. What was the highlight of this section for you? What the lowlight?

The last scenes were the highlight and the lowlight. I had a hard time believing that Franz didn’t realise was he was signing up for when he joined Pums, Reinhold and the others. I’m not entirely sure what Döblin wanted to tell us. That Franz really meant to become a better man, but was stupid enough not to see what was coming? Franz is decidedly not a very intelligent man, but I think Döblin’s intention was another one.  Once more, Döblin shows us that Franz is a construct. An invention he uses to make us see certain things. He deliberately places him in harm’s way and then pushes him even further down, to illustrate how unfree Franz is. Franz can decide to become better as much as he likes, it won’t work because it’s not up to him. Society and fate are against him. And, most of all, his author who won’t stop before he has destroyed him completely. At least, that’s how it feels at this point.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong – Part 1

Due to some time constraints this and next week, my post is very short.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

When I buy a book in a bookshop, I sometimes keep the receipt. I did so in this case and that’s how I know that the book has been on my shelves for 19 years. I bought it in September 2000. I know that when I bought it, I was extremely keen on reading it. But for some reason I didn’t and because I always felt it was a book that had to be read during autumn – possibly because I visited Berlin in autumn – I postponed it from year to year. When Lizzy mentioned she wanted to read it during this GLM, I decided that the time had finally come.

Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

It’s pretty much how I expected it. Highly readable in some places, and more experimental in others. I struggled more reading the first book than I thought I would. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, but once I made more time for reading it and saw certain patterns in the storytelling emerge, I was captivated.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

I’m reading the German original and am constantly thinking that it’s almost impossible to translate this adequately because of the extensive use of Berlin vernacular. But since Döblin uses a collage/montage technique there are other challenges. He uses bits from songs, slogans, poetry, and many other sources. Occasionally he uses them verbatim, quite often though, he changes words. Of course, you can translate them, but they won’t mean the same to a foreign reader. With the changes, they might even be more unrecognizable. I was also wondering, if the translators really caught all the allusions and quotes. They would have to be extremely knowledgeable about German culture and literature

The more descriptive passages, especially those in which the narrator/author are present are very beautiful. There’s a rhythm and sound to his sentences that’s unique. The choice of words is very careful.

What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Because of the way Döblin chose to tell this story, I think of Franz as a guinea pig or a marionette. I feel like I see the threads, the author is using to make him move. I can’t think of him as a real person at all. Interestingly, I feel very differently about Berlin. The city comes across as more of person than Franz. The city comes to life. One has the feeling of experiencing a particular moment in a very particular place.