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?

A Long Blue Monday by Erhard von Büren – Swiss Week Readalong

Published in 2013, A Long Blue Monday, is Erhard von Büren’s third novel. His earlier novels Wasp Days and Epitaph for a Working Man were published in 1989 and 2000 respectively. He lives in Solothurn, Switzerland.

A Long Blue Monday tells the story of Paul Ganter, a retired school teacher who has temporarily left his wife and taken an apartment in the city to write a book about Sherwood Anderson. Very possibly he could have done that at home, but we soon learn that this time out is about much more than just writing a book. He uses the time alone to delve into his feelings and memories and relives vividly an unhappy love story that happened over forty years ago, in the summer of 1959. That year he fell in love with Claudia, a girl from a very rich family and, in a desperate attempt to impress her, takes weeks off from school to write a trilogy of plays in the vein of the great American playwrights of the time. Every day he slaves over his work that seems to be a series of soliloquies put on paper. Once it is finished, he gives the play to his crush, hoping it will impress her. Sadly, just like all his other attempts at wooing her, this barely gets a reaction. Clearly, she’s not into him. Looking back, Ganter can’t help but admire the stamina of his younger self. And he realizes that while the result of his writing wasn’t successful, locking himself away, writing daily, going for long walks and experience the changes in the weather and nature surrounding him, was one of the most intense experiences of his life.

The story is told going back and forth in time. In the present, Paul spends a lot of time writing and reminiscing, but he also has long conversations with his daughter who discovers sides of her father she never knew existed. While the love story is central, it isn’t the most important aspect of Paul’s delving into his past. He also remembers vividly what it was like to come from a poor family, in which the men were battling alcoholism. He remembers how difficult it was to know what he wanted to do with his life and to achieve it. Trying to overcome the shortcomings of his upbringing, he became a master student. Unfortunately, for the longest time, he thought that he could master life and love just like he mastered school. This set him up to failure. Being shy didn’t help him either. Love and life choices are explored, but there’s one other important thing—the narrator’s intense love of American culture that finally leads him to become an English teacher and is now one of the reasons for his time out.

I hope my review will have told you several things—this is a very complex, rich book, but it’s neither straightforward, nor plot-driven. Funnily, for a novel that talks so much about American culture, it’s very unlike most American literature I know. It’s introspective and very quiet. Far more analysis of thoughts and feelings, than scenes and action. One could say, more telling than showing. The story meanders, goes back and forth in time, returns to certain events, adds additional information. Just like it happens to all of us in real life. We rarely remember events in a straightforward way.

I liked A Long Blue Monday very much. It’s a quiet book about a quiet, shy man, who feels strongly, struggles and fails, struggles some more, and then succeeds and finds meaning in all sorts of things. My favourite parts were the nature descriptions and if I had read this in English, you’d find dozens of quotes. The descriptions are lyrical and beautifully crafted. They are the most eloquent sign of the narrator’s rich interior life.

While reading A Long Blue Monday, I couldn’t help but think of another Swiss author, who writes similar descriptions— Robert Walser. If you know me, you know this is high praise.

I hope some of you have read this as well. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Some thoughts on Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb – Die Kapuzinergruft

Published in 1938, Die KapuzinergruftThe Emperor’s Tomb, was one of Joseph Roth’s last novels and the last that was published during his lifetime. Roth died in 1939, in exile, of the complications of a double pneumonia, that was possibly aggravated due to the sudden withdrawal of alcohol.

The Emperor’s Tomb tells the story of Franz Ferdinand Trotta and begins shortly before the first world war and ends with Austria’s Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. In many ways the book can be seen as a sequel to The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s most famous novel. Usually I would write a brief summary but since this review is part of a readalong and since Emma has already posted an excellent summary of the book, I’ll skip this part and add a link to her post instead – here.

For this post, I’d like to focus on some topics I found of interest.

WWI

As many of the readers of this blog know/may remember, for many years, I hosted a Literature and War readalong. Roth had been a chosen author in the past, even though he doesn’t portray the war as such, as rather the mental state of war, or people during war time. I ususally like this approach but in this novel, it was puzzling for several reasons. As I said before, the book begins before WWI, in 1913, and ends in 1938. While Roth describes the time before and after the war years in great detail, things get blurry from 1914 to 1918, although, allegedly, Trotta spends his years in a Russian POW camp in Siberia. If you’d never read anything about any prisoner of war camps, reading this novel would make you think it was a bit of harsher version of a boy scout camp. There aren’t any details described. No fighting happens. This is puzzling, if not bizarre. My knowledge of war literature made me assume one thing – Roth spent his WWI years sheltered. Although I own a huge Roth biography, I haven’t read it yet, but I picked it up and overflew some passages that confirmed what I suspected. He was enlisted but since he was initially considered unfit for military service, he never saw any action, but spent the war years behind a desk. Apparently, to explain why he hadn’t seen any action during the war, he pretended that he had been in Russian captivity, which isn’t true. I think this shows clearly that he must have felt guilty. While I’m not familiar with his earlier years, I know a bit about his final years, and guilt has been a defining emotion for Roth. Once it’s clear that this is why the book is so unspecific when it comes to the actual war, one can move on and concentrate on other elements. As a portrayal of the end of an era and the end of a class system, this is absolutely brilliant and nuanced. And while Trotta’s war experience lacks realism, the way he feels when he comes home doesn’t, because the strong feeling of alienation and of being a stranger in one’s own country was something many Austrians felt at that time.

Women

Before going to war, Trotta marries a girl, Elisabeth, he’d been in love with for ages. Due to a sad story, involving a servant, the marriage isn’t consummated and his new wife flees, angry. When he returns from the war, she’s not exactly keen on seeing him. Like so many women back then, she’s learned to live a life according to her own choices. She certainly doesn’t want to abandon her freedom. And she is living with another woman with whom she clearly is in a physical relationship. Trotta isn’t happy about this but he’s not prejudiced. If it had been a man, it would have been the same to him. Only he might have felt more threatened as the only reason why his wife, in the end returns to him, is because she wants a child. Once the child is born, however, it doesn’t hold her back and she leaves it with his father. I found this surprisingly modern. I’m sure Roth was freethinking when it came to relationships, but I also think that Elisabeth is a character that was quite common at the time. It’s sad to think that so much of that freedom was lost again later.

Austrian pre-war diversity

I don’t think I’ve ever read an author that made me realize just how diverse the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. It was a multinational state, with people speaking different languages, following different religions. In this book Trotta, who is descendant of the non-aristocratic line of the “von Trottas”, feels a stronger connection with the peasant side of his family. While he’s called “Herr Baron”, he doesn’t identify with the aristocracy. When a cousin from Sipolje comes to claim a part of his inheritance, he also introduces Trotta to a friend. That friend invites Trotta to spend time with him in Galicia. Then the war breaks out. Trotta suddenly feel estranged from his former aristocratic friends and asks to be transferred to the regiment in which his cousin and the friend serve. Back in Vienna, after the war, Trotta mourns not only the past but the missed opportunity. He believes that Austria-Hungary could have been a really great state, especially due to its diversity, but instead, it only chose the German part.

Final thoughts

This is a flawed book. The structure is uneven and the war section is so far from realistic, it’s almost painful. Nonetheless, I loved this book. I love Roth’s writing, the mournful tone, his description, his humanity. And there’s also some gentle humour. Roth is outstanding at showing people’s quirks. The portrait of the mother in this book, is an excellent example. At first, she’s very rooted in her old ways, but once change has come, she embraces it and enjoys it because it means there’s new life, where there was only stuffiness before. Sadly, it’s all an illusion, but she’ll never really find out.

I’m glad, Lizzy chose this novel for her readalong. You can find her thoughts here.

This was my fifth Joseph Roth novel and so far, I’ve liked them all. If you’re interested, here are my reviews of Weights and MeasuresHotel Savoy and of Flight Without End.I’ve read The Radetzky March pre-blogging.

Simone Buchholz – Blue Night – Blaue Nacht – German Literature Month Crime Readalong

Blue NightBlaue Nacht is the sixth book in Simone Buchholz’ Chastity Riley series and the first to be translated into English. I discovered the book last year in a book shop, not realizing it was part of a series, or I would have started with book one. Oddly, the English translation has the subtitle “Chastity Riley book 1”. Be it as it may, I’m so glad I finally read it. I love noir and this is noir at its best.

State attorney Chastity Riley has done a few stupid things and so she’s not working in the state attorney’s department anymore but for the witness protection. This bores her no end. Feeling she needs some change, she takes her car and drives to the country. The car breaks down and Chastity is stranded somewhere on the road. Where other people would look for the beauty around them, all she sees is a lack of streets and people. And too much countryside. Yikes. Barely gone for a few minutes, she misses Hamburg, the Reeperbahn, the seedy haunts, her ex-gangster lover Klatsche, and the bars where she drinks until the early hours. This beginning sets the tone and introduces a character who is witty, sarcastic, laconic, lyrical, and always different.

Back in Hamburg, she’s assigned to look after a man who has almost been killed. He’s been beaten up severely and has lost one finger. It looks a lot like retribution. With cunning, kindness, and a lot of beer, Chastity manages to get his trust. While he doesn’t reveal his identity, he gives her enough information to begin investigating a crime ring.

The story is definitely interesting and offers a look into the drug problems big cities with large ports like Hamburg face these days. Cheap, dangerous drugs, produced in the East, are distributed in the West with maximum profit. The people in charge are able to wash their money and while everyone knows it, the law can’t touch them.

As interesting as the story is, it pales in comparison to the cast of characters and the style. Chastity Riley is a loner at heart but one with a crowd of friends. Some were formerly criminals, some are policemen, bar tenders, restaurant owners. A charming element of the book is that they all get a voice. In between the regular chapters are chapters in which each of the protagonists, including the nameless man, the criminals, Chastity and her friends get their say. In some books this type of approach doesn’t work, but here it lifts the book to another level.

I read a lot of crime novels this year, but this is the one I liked the most. The voice is so unique, the style so brilliant that it can keep up with a lot of literary fiction that is published these days. And the mood and tone are reminiscent of some of the best noir I’ve read in recent years.

I read this in German, that’s why there are no quotes. Please visit Pat’s blog (added below) to get an idea of the style

Other reviews:

Pat – South of Paris Books

 

Mechthild Gläser’s The Book Jumper – Die Buchspringer – German Literature Month Readalong

The Book Jumper is a children’s book by German author Mechthild Gläser.

Amy and her mother flee Bochum to take refuge on a forgotten Shetland island. Years ago, when she was pregnant with Amy, her mother left the island just as helter-skelter as they left Bochum now. Amy never knew why. She also never knew her dad. The island, the castle, and Amy’s grandmother are all very mysterious, but not as mysterious as learning that Amy is a book jumper, like everyone in her family. Book jumping is an important ability that gets lost once people get older. Together with two other young people Amy is taught in the art of book jumping. In the beginning book jumping novices have to stick to a favourite book. In Amy’s case that’s The Jungle Book. She is told that it’s important not to stray from the path of the story or to interfere with it. The book jumpers are vital for literature because they have to make sure that the stories remain exactly as they were originally written down.

Among other things, Amy is taught that she can only jump into a book from a specific spot and when she puts the open book on her face. She realizes soon, that this isn’t a necessity for her. She can jump into any book pretty much from wherever she wants. Already on her first jump into the jungle book, she strays from her path and meets Goethe’s Werther. Together with him, she travels in the no-man’s-land between different stories or enters other novels, like Alice in Wonderland. It doesn’t take long until she realizes that there’s something wrong in the land of literature. It seems that a thief is stealing ideas and important story lines get either jumbled or lost. Together with Werther and Will, another book jumper, Amy tries to catch the thief. Unfortunately, the thief is quite dangerous. He kills a beloved literary character and, in the end, even attempts to kill Amy and her grandmother. I can’t really tell much more without spoiling the story.

When Lizzy proposed to read this, I really liked the premise of the book. The idea to jump into your favourite novels, meet favourite characters was so appealing. Sadly, this didn’t work for me. I read it pretty quickly, it had some amusing moments and characters, especially Werther, but it felt quite lifeless. Even the love story between Will and Amy, did only work at first. The solution to the story felt forced. The only thing I liked, was Amy’s back story.

The book is initially amusing, but not exactly a must-read. Something was missing. It may sound weird, but it isn’t fantastical enough. I also didn’t like that Mechthild Gläser spoils a few classic stories by giving away the ending. On top of that, the German blurb is misleading. We’re led to believe Amy will become friends with Elizabeth Bennett, but she only sees her once and very briefly. I hope others enjoyed this more than I did.

Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions For a Heatwave (2013)

I’m so behind with book reviews that it’s highly unlikely, I’ll ever catch up. This would have been one of many I was going to put aside “for later”, but the title’s too fitting to postpone reviewing it. And it was enjoyable.

The heatwave of the title refers to the heatwave of 1976, one of the worst the UK has ever seen. I don’t know anyone who was alive back then, no matter how small, who wouldn’t remember it. While it’s possibly as hot now as it was then, the heat started earlier, I think, in June and there were massive water shortages. Let’s hope that it won’t come to that. Although it looks dire already. “Over here”, where I live, Continental Europe, it’s even hotter. And, just like in the UK, we have no air conditioning. In Switzerland it’s even forbidden to have them in your own home. Small ones, yes, but they don’t help much. Before diving into the review, let me moan some more – yesterday, the thermometer in our flat showed 35°! Only two degrees less than outside. Sleeping, you wonder? Not so much. My poor cats crawl into dark corners, hoping dark means cool and stay there until the evening. Normally, they run around all day. Unfortunately, he’s afraid of the fan, while she enjoys it

Now on to Maggie O’Farrell. As I mentioned already, Instructions For a Heatwave is set in 1976 during the heatwave and tells the story of the Riordan family. One morning, the dad, Robert Riordan, leaves the house and doesn’t come back. His wife Gretta is shocked and flustered. She calls her children hoping they will come and help her. Already the first phone calls show the family dynamics. There are misunderstandings, half-truths, accusations, exaggerations, tensions. And the three children are facing troubles of their own, that are now, through this family emergency, magnified. At the same time, the emergency shows how frail their family bonds are, how dysfunctional. Gretta is a hypochondriac. She changes subjects when she feels she doesn’t want to talk about something and that is often. She pops pills, makes stuff up and has her kids constantly on alert. Some of the reasons for her behaviour will be revealed later.

Michael Francis is the oldest sibling and in the middle of his own family crisis. It may very well be that his wife, who is reinventing herself, will leave him. He’s not entirely without fault though. Monica, the first daughter, married for the second time, is also doubtful about the future of her marriage. And Aoife, the youngest, is in New York, trying desperately to hold on to a life she loves but that is threatened because it’s built on a lie – nobody knows that she’s a functional illiterate.

When they hear of their dad’s disappearance they all return home. At first, the reunion is frosty and awkward. There are too many things that have been left unsaid in the past and too many family secrets. The biggest is the reason for their dads’ disappearance.

It will take them a few days to sort some things out and then they take a family trip to Ireland, where the parents originally come from.

Instructions for a Heatwave is in many ways an astonishing book. It’s so intricately told, the stories are so tightly interwoven that I was constantly wondering – how did she do that? She moves in out of characters’ minds, switches from the present to the past and back again, but it’s never confusing because it’s so well done.

This is the story of a dysfunctional family but one with hope. They do not give up on each other nor on themselves. Gretta was possibly my favourite character although she reminded me of my late mother (minus my mother’s meanness that is). It’s fascinating to see a character description that resonates so much. Just like Gretta, my mother would always change the subject if she didn’t want to talk about something, pretending she hadn’t heard what had been said and then pretending she had an attack of something (cough, sickness, stomach cramps, “nerves”) and urgently needed her pills. Also, like Gretta, she would start chatting with anyone, finding out family stories and other people’s secrets without ever revealing any of her own. Since the Riordan’s are Irish and Catholics, that was something I could relate to as well. Looking back, it was no fun being brought up by a Catholic mother – my dad was anti-clerical, so that balanced things out a bit.

While this book resonated a lot with me because of my own history, I still think anyone who loves complex family stories would like this very much. In the past, I had mixed experiences with Maggie O’Farrell. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but didn’t care for another one of her books (I think it was After You’d Gone). This rich and lovely novel has put me in the mood to read more by her. Her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is already on my piles.

Susan Hill: The Shadows in the Street (2010) Simon Serrailler 5

I read and reviewed several of Susan Hills books; her WWI novel Strange Meeting, the ghost stories The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, the memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing and recently – not reviewed – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I enjoyed them all. What I hadn’t tried yet, was her Simon Serrailler crime series. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy the first in the series but the fifth, I only know I bought it when it was published in 2010 – one of many pointless hardback purchases. Luckily, although it took me seven years to get to it, the novel was a very pleasant surprise.

The Shadows in the Street is set in Lafferton, a fiction cathedral town in Southern England. It opens from the point of view of one of the POV characters, Leslie Blade, a single librarian who lives with his elderly mother. In the evenings, Leslie often visists the young prostitutes of Lafferton and brings them tea and sandwiches. From his point of view the book switches to Abi, one of the young prostitutes the book focuses on. When one of Abi’s colleagues is brutally murdered, Leslie’s quickly one of the main suspects. We’re then introduced to Cat, Simon’s sister, who lost her husband. She’s the council doctor and active in the church and the church choir. The next characters we are introduced to are two young police officers, one who is new on the force and only came to Lafferton because of Simon Serrailler. Simon too makes an appearance but not “on the scene”, but in Scotland, where’s he’s on a holiday. After the first young woman is murdered, another one follows and a third, not a prostitute this time, disappears. And finally, Serrailler, returns to Lafferton.

In many ways The Shadows in the Streets is a peculiar crime novel. It’s part of the series featuring DC Simon Serrailler. Naturally, one would expect a police procedural but that’s not really what this is. It’s a mix between that and a psychological thriller. And one would expect that the main protagonist would be present from the beginning, but he’s absent for almost half of the book. There’s good reason for that – he’s on a holiday, recovering from his last case. While that may be different in other novels, I’m pretty sure many of the other elements are not. As crime novels go, this was one of the more diverse ones I’ve read. It’s written from many different POVs, including that of the perpetrator, but never giving away his identity. I like that. It’s become a staple of recent psychological thrillers to switch POV mid-way through the book and thus reveal the identity of the killer, which I hate. So many of my recent reads have been ruined because of that – last case in point Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone. The Shadow in the Street takes time to introduce us to most of the characters, which gives the book a larger scope and transcends the genre. One can read this like a crime novel or a social commentary. It works well both ways. Clearly, Susan Hill felt strongly about the topic of prostitution and what society could or should do to help the women get out of this occupation. Introducing us to different characters, she paints different portraits, shows the despair, the struggle. Sometimes on both sides. There are well-meaning people who want to help – social workers, doctors, clergy – but they mostly fail.

While Simon Serrailler isn’t present in the beginning of the book, we still get to know him  very well. He’s definitely the kind of investigator I like. A bit of a loner, unpredictable, doing things his way, not following strict orders or procedures. In his spare time he paints. He’s so talented that he could become a full-time painter but he loves to do two very different things. I can definitely relate to that.

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.

This isn’t going to be my last Simon Serrailler. I’m very tempted to go back to the beginning and read the first very soon. Susan Hill’s a skilful story-teller and this series is a great addition to the genre.