Monthly Archives: May 2014

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Earlier this year, I read (and loved) My Brilliant Friend, the first in a series of Neapolitan novels by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante. She’s one of Italy’s leading contemporary writers, but her true identity remains something of a mystery.

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My Brilliant Friend begins in the present day as Elena, a woman in her mid-sixties, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her lifelong friend Lila (known to others as Lina). Lila has vanished, taking all her personal belongings with her. Elena, who narrates the story, recalls ‘it’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I’m the only one who knows what she means’. To Elena, it appears as though her friend wants to ‘eliminate the entire life that she has left behind’, so much so that Elena beings to document the story of their lives – ‘We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself.’ (Europa Editions)

From this compelling opening, we travel back in time to Naples in the 1950s where Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo meet in the first grade of elementary school. Elena is immediately intrigued by Lila’s confidence, determination and wildness, and is drawn to her from an early stage in their relationship. It’s almost as though Lila possesses a powerful (and possibly dangerous) aura, one that Elena finds hard to resist:

Already then there was something that kept me from abandoning her. I didn’t know her well; we had never spoken to each other, although we were constantly competing in class and outside it. But in a confused way I felt that if I ran away with the others I would leave her with something of mine that she would never give back. (Europa Editions)

Elena is clever, diligent, accommodating and eager to excel in school. But Lila quickly reveals herself to be fiercely intelligent; despite her impoverished background, she taught herself to read at the age of three and is now ahead of her classmates, Elena included. Elena devotes herself to studying, just so that she ‘could keep pace with that terrible, dazzling girl’. Lila triumphs in school competitions, her quickness of mind is ‘like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite’, and Elena feels destined to remain in the shadow of her friend:

Lila, too, at a certain point had seemed very beautiful to me. In general I was the pretty one, while she was skinny, liked a salted anchovy, she gave off an odour of wildness, she had a long face, narrow at the temples, framed by two bands of smooth black hair. But when she decided to vanquish both Alfonso and Enzo, she had lighted up like a holy warrior. Her cheeks flushed, the sign of a flame released by every corner of her body, and for the first time I thought: Lila is prettier than I am. So I was second in everything. I hoped that no one would ever realise it. 

Regardless of the fact that Elena feels somewhat outshone by Lila, the two girls develop a close bond over a shared love of books. Born into a tough, working-class environment, they see education as a potential means of escape from their neighbourhood in later life. There’s a key moment in their final year of elementary school when the girls are encouraged to take the exam for entry to middle school. Elena’s parents agree to pay for extra schooling to prepare her for the exam, but Lila’s do not. Elena enters middle school while Lila leaves to work in her father’s shoe shop and workshop. While helping in the family trade, Lila imagines another route away from the poverty of her childhood. She produces designs for new shoes, beautiful and unique models (these are Lila’s ideas, after all), and she dreams of establishing a Cerullo shoe factory with her father and brother. For a time, the girls drift apart but are soon reconciled. Lila’s thirst for knowledge returns and she encourages Elena to bring her Latin books and to study with her; Lila continues to read, even teaching herself other languages ahead of Elena, despite having missed out on the opportunity to attend middle school herself.

This first book in the Neapolitan novels follows Elena and Lila’s relationship from childhood through adolescence and ends when the two girls are sixteen. Ferrante brings tremendous vibrancy, passion and depth to Elena and Lila’s characters; we see how each conversation, each encounter leads to a subtle change in the dynamics of their relationship. Elena is constantly reflecting, analysing and questioning herself, comparing her intellectual, emotional and physical development to that of her closest friend.

There are many times when Elena feels Lila is already ahead or about to overtake her:

Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels to pass me by?

Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time. I was afraid, coming home from school, of meeting her and learning from her melodious voice that now she was making love with Peluso. Or if it wasn’t him, it was Enzo. Or if it wasn’t Enzo, it was Antonio. Or, what do I know, Stefano Carracci, the grocer, or even Marcello Solara: Lila was unpredictable. The males who buzzed around her almost men, full of demands. 

But at other times, Elena convinces herself that Lila is the one being left behind:

Sometimes I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighbourhood, I went to the high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers. 

This wonderful novel, admirably translated by Ann Goldstein, has the feel of a classic. It is broad, almost cinematic in scope with a vast cast of characters, many of whom I haven’t even mentioned yet. Alongside the Grecos and the Cerullos, we meet the members of seven other families and their characters add richness and more layers to the narrative.

Ferrante describes Naples in the 1950s and early 1960s with vivid detail. The city is undergoing political and economic development, still struggling to establish itself following the wars. The neighbourhood in this story is a violent place, one governed by unwritten rules and family rivalries fuelled by tensions over love, money and reputation in the community. Men typically occupy the most powerful roles in the family. Fights and incidents of domestic abuse are commonplace:

At the Bar Solera, in the heat, between gambling losses and troublesome drunkenness, people often reached the point of disperazione – a word that in dialect meant having lost all hope but also being broke – and hence of fights…Blows were given and received. Men returned home embittered by their losses, by alcohol, by debts, by deadlines, by beatings, and at the first inopportune word they beat their families, a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs. 

I’d like to avoid giving too many details about the plot, but the novel ends with a key event in the girls’ lives. Elena, now sixteen, is left wondering if she will ever be able to escape the confines of the neighbourhood, And Elena’s brilliant friend? Well, I don’t want to reveal how things stand for Lila, but the final pages left me eager to move on to the next instalment in their story.

I’ve also read the equally captivating second volume in the series, The Story of a New Name, so I’ll return soon with some thoughts on that one. In the meantime, I can’t recommend My Brilliant Friend highly enough. It’s an excellent novel – utterly engrossing and absorbing.

 My Brilliant Friend (tr. Ann Goldstein) is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: personal copy.

Back to Back by Julia Franck, tr. by Anthea Bell

Scrolling through the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist at the beginning of March, one of the books I was particularly looking forward to reading was Back to Back. Julia Franck is a new author to me, but her critically-acclaimed earlier novel The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize and I was intrigued by the prospect of Franck’s latest one.

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Back to Back opens in East Berlin in the late 1950s as Ella (aged eleven) and Thomas (aged ten) anticipate the imminent return of Käthe, their mother and only surviving parent. Having been left to fend for themselves for two weeks, the children spend hours feverishly cleaning the house from top to bottom. Thomas prepares a meal of lentil soup and Ella decorates the table with flowers freshly picked from their garden. Surely Käthe will be surprised and impressed by their efforts? But on her arrival Käthe notices virtually nothing of these preparations, choosing instead to snap at the children for failing to heat the soup properly and the lack of a salad to accompany their meal. She is a woman utterly wrapped up in her own world, one who seems to care little for her children:

But Käthe avoided hugging, it was as if she froze in physical proximity to anyone, she would press her arms close to her sides, stiffen her back, shake herself. There must be something she disliked about a hug; Thomas thought that was possible. She often used to tell the children: Don’t cling like that – when they were only close to her. There were never any hugs. (pg. 10, Harvill Secker)

At the end of this scene, in an attempt to gain their mother’s attention, the children decide to head off in a boat. Ella is confident they will be missed by supper time, but Käthe seems oblivious to the children’s absence, only realising they are missing once they return home days later dripping wet and shivering. Here’s Ella, a few years down the line, as she challenges her mother about this incident from their childhood:

Why didn’t you come looking for us when we were out in the boat? Ella called after her. You didn’t even notice we were missing! Not for three days, not for three nights, and all the time we were out on the stupid Müggelsee until our boat capsized. The water was icy. We were lucky it happened so close to the bank; who knows how long we could have swum in the lake? (pg.51)

This powerful opening gives the reader a taste of the children’s life with Käthe, a Jewish sculptor and avid supporter of the socialist ideology. Käthe, a self-centred and callous woman who cultivates relations with the State to further her career, is a formidable presence in the book. But it is Ella and Thomas who form the heart of the narrative; Back to Back carves the story of their adolescence.

These loving children find themselves on the receiving end of an unrelenting series of abuses, each sibling experiencing his or her own personal atrocities. Ella is subjected to rape and sexual molestation, first by Eduard (Käthe’s lover), then repeatedly by the family’s lodger (a member of the Stasi who has a hold over the family). Unwilling to tell her mother, Ella confides in Thomas but he is powerless to prevent these violations. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching debasement of all is metered out by Käthe herself on Ella’s sixteenth birthday. Suspecting her daughter of pilfering chocolate, nuts and raisins from the pantry, Käthe presents Ella with a mountain of sugar and triumphantly declares ‘you eat your sugar…only when you’ve finished it all up do you get something proper to eat again.’ (pg. 48)

Thomas, the more sensitive of the two siblings, also suffers at the hands of his mother as she forces him to pose for her sculptures naked and shivering in the cold. The teenage Thomas finds a release through poetry; he’s talented and dreams of becoming a writer, a journalist, but Käthe has other plans for his future. Dismayed at his lack of interest in the Party and the birth of a new society, she arranges for Thomas to undertake a ‘manual apprenticeship.’ On finishing school, the young and fragile Thomas is dispatched to a stone quarry to work for the ‘class struggle’. The role turn out to be little more than slave labour; he experiences further abuse — both physical and emotional – and comes perilously close to being destroyed altogether.

In the final third of the novel, Thomas finds love in a tender and compassionate relationship with Marie, a ward sister at the local hospital. To reveal any more of the narrative at this stage would be unfair, save to say that this closing section is deeply affecting and worthy of the reader’s investment in this book.

Back to Back is an acutely penetrating and haunting book. Not an easy read, but one that will gnaw away at me for weeks to come. In one sense, this novel paints a picture of a heartless and indifferent mother. It gives us a window into the fractured lives of adolescents raised in such an environment, abandoned by their mother and subjected to systematic abuse at almost every turn. In another sense, it can be read on a more allegorical level with Käthe representing the harsh realities of the political system in place in the German Democratic Republic in the late 1950s and early 1960. It’s a regime that smothers the hopes and dreams of those who look to their guardian for support and encouragement in life; Thomas especially feels penned in by the Berlin Wall, trapped by its oppressive presence. The metaphor isn’t quite as straightforward as I’ve described there — Käthe is a complex character and past events have left their mark on her character — but it’s a plausible one nonetheless.

Franck’s prose, especially in the early sections of the narrative, is very much in tune with the tone of these themes. She writes in a style that is quite concentrated, a little close-knit in places and it took me a while to adjust to its pattern and rhythm. However, Franck is a very accomplished writer indeed and Anthea Bell’s translation is excellent. There are segments where the prose opens up and shines, particularly in the final third of the book….and once I fell into step with the cadence of its language, I found myself totally engrossed in Back to Back’s narrative, emotionally invested in Ella and Thomas’s characters. Their story becomes all the more poignant when we learn that Thomas’s poems, which appear throughout the novel, were written by Franck’s uncle (Gottlieb Friedrich Franck) as a young man; Julia Franck appears to be drawing on the roots of her own family history here.

Back to Back is a very good novel, one of the most affecting I’ve read so far this year. I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed Back to Back: Tony Malone, Bellezza and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Naomi’s The Writes of Women blog (2nd April 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish my review here.

Back to Back is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: library copy.

Weekend Wine Notes – Viña Zorzal Graciano, Navarra

Graciano, a black grape variety grown Spain, is sometimes used in small quantities to add an extra dimension to red wines from Rioja – Tempranillo is the main grape variety here. Varietal wines made solely from Graciano are harder to find, often expensive, and opportunities to buy affordable examples in the UK are rather few and far between. Therefore, when I saw Viña Zorzal Graciano retailing at £6.95 per bottle, I couldn’t resist buying one to sample this grape for myself.

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This wine has a lovely spicy aroma, full of mulberry and loganberry fruit with a dash of balsamic to boot. In terms of taste, it’s deliciously warming – spicy stewed plums, more mulberries and plenty of acidity to balance the fruit. There’s a very attractive, slightly rustic quality to this wine, which I like very much.

The Viña Zorzal Graciano easily makes it onto my re-buy list. At £6.95 a bottle it’s a steal, and a terrific opportunity to experience this grape variety on its own terms.

Wine stockist: I bought the Viña Zorzal Graciano (2011 vintage) from The Wine Society. Price: £6.95.

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, tr. by Brian FitzGibbon

Butterflies in November is a quirky and darkly humorous novel narrated by a unnamed woman in her early thirties.  She has a talent for languages and earns a living as translator and proof-reader. The story opens in Reykjavik where our narrator is having quite an eventful day. Having being dumped by her lover she arrives home where her husband reveals he’s leaving her for another woman (a work colleague who happens to be pregnant with his baby).

Auður, a close friend of our narrator, persuades her to visit a medium/fortune-teller who predicts a journey ahead and a future involving money and love. After being told to buy lottery tickets, our narrator soon discovers that she has a double win on her hands, netting her a prefabricated summer bungalow coupled with a life-changing amount of money totalling several million kroner.

As a result of these events, she decides to restart her life by embarking on a road trip around Iceland with the intention of visiting the area she loved as a child, a location where her grandmother once lived. To complicate matters, though,Auður requires a huge favour of our protagonist. Just before the trip is due to commence, Auður, a single mother heavily pregnant with twins, twists her ankle. Complications with her pregnancy come to light and an extended stay in hospital is prescribed. She asks our narrator to look after Tumi, her four-year-old son who happens to be hearing-impaired, and seems keen for him to experience the trip. So, before she realises it, our narrator has agreed to look after Tumi and to take him with her on vacation…all this despite her apparent lack of both maternal instincts and previous experience of caring for a child.

These events form the first third of the book. The road trip itself plays out over the remainder of the novel as the couple encounter a variety of animals, birds and an Estonian choir who seem to crop up repeatedly. These sections of the novel remind me a little of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared with its cast of idiosyncratic characters and slightly surreal journey and I wonder if Butterflies might appeal to fans of this one.

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As the story unfolds, we also learn more about our narrator through occasional glimpses into her own childhood and teenager years and these snapshots provide hints and clues as to the nature of her somewhat detached demeanour. If anything, I would have liked further exploration of these elements as they point towards significant darkness and sadness in her past…and I couldn’t quite piece all of these fragments together to form a coherent picture. Some of these recollections are quite distinct, others more opaque:

It’s as if everything were filtered through a veil of white silk or film, giving it a soft and blurred appearance, like the fading pages of an old psalm book or an over-exposed photograph. I think I’m in a white knitted woollen sweater. My cousins are also dressed in white, strange as it may sound, white tuxedos, so removed from reality, so close to the memory. (Pushkin Press)

Butterflies in November is a slightly difficult novel to describe. Everything feels just a little off kilter. Peoples’ limbs and bodies can seem oddly out of proportion and characters (especially the protagonist’s husband) pop up and disappear again in the most unexpected places:

He has stood up and I realise how tall he is, he is literally towering over the table. He hands me a parcel wrapped in gilded paper, after fishing it out of the inside pocket of his jacket. I finish the remains of two glasses before opening it, exhausting my annual ration of alcohol in a single day.

There’s a sense of time being stretched and then collapsed, distance too. Here are our narrator and Tumi in the Icelandic countryside:

I drag the little man with me onto the moor, moving swiftly in my leather boots, which sink into the soggy earth. After some initial effort to keep up with me he starts to drag his feet and falter, tripping over rocks, as I tow him over clusters of heather that scratch his calves, and stumbling against something every few metres, because the pile of stones that we are heading towards on this forsaken path always seems to remain at the same distance, at least another hundred years away.

It’s a novel that draws on the senses; one in which scents, smells and fabrics play a role as reminder of specific people or events. Perfumes, after-shaves and items of clothing appear as signifiers and there are other recurring motifs, too.

Darkly comic moments also feature, especially in the initial sections of the narrative, and these slightly surreal touches drew me into the opening scenes. The tone and mood shift somewhat as the trip unfolds and our narrator begins to develop a close and heartfelt bond with Tumi. We can see she’s undertaking and emotional journey as well as a physical one…and perhaps the butterfly (which makes a few fleeting appearances in the novel) is a metaphor for change and re-invention, signalling a transformation in her life as she learns to take more risks?

As Naomi (at The Writes of Women) mentions in her review, the novel ends with forty-seven rather unusual cooking recipes and one for knitting, although Ólafsdóttir accepts that some might be more suited to the page than the plate! And this addendum feels very much in tune with the off-beat, slightly surreal nature of the book.

In summary, I found Butterflies in November to be a quirky and enjoyable novel, although I preferred the first third of the book to the subsequent sections involving the road trip where the narrative just lost some of its momentum for me.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed Butterflies: Stu and Tony Malone – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Naomi’s The Writes of Women blog (19th March 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish my review here.

Butterflies in November is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

An Announcement from the IFFP Shadow Group – Our Winner

In 2014, for the third year in a row, Chairman Stu gathered together a group of brave bloggers to tackle the task of shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  It’s not a task for the faint of heart – in addition to having to second-guess the strange decisions of the ‘real’ panel, the foolhardy volunteers undertook a voyage around the literary world, all in a matter of months…

On our journey around the globe, we started off by eavesdropping on some private conversations in Madrid, before narrowly avoiding trouble with the locals in Naples.  A quick flight northwards, and we were in Iceland, traipsing over the snowy mountains and driving around the iconic ring road – with a child in tow.  Then it was time to head south to Sweden and Norway, where we had a few drinks (and a lot of soul searching) with a man who tended to talk about himself a lot.

Next, it was off to Germany, where we almost had mussels for dinner, before spending some time with an unusual family on the other side of the wall.  After another brief bite to eat in Poland, we headed eastwards to reminisce with some old friends in Russia – unfortunately, the weather wasn’t getting any better.

We finally left the snow and ice behind, only to be welcomed in Baghdad by guns and bombs.  Nevertheless, we stayed there long enough to learn a little about the customs involved in washing the dead, and by the time we got to Jerusalem, we were starting to have a bit of an identity crisis…

Still, we pressed on, taking a watery route through China to avoid the keen eye of the family planning officials, finally making it across the sea to Japan.  Having arrived in Tokyo just in time to witness a series of bizarre ‘accidents’, we rounded off the trip by going for a drink (or twelve) at a local bar with a strangely well-matched couple – and then it was time to come home :)

Of course, there was a method to all this madness, as our journey helped us to eliminate all the pretenders and identify this year’s cream of the crop.  And the end result?  This year’s winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

(translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press) 

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This was a very popular (and almost unanimous) winner, a novel which stood out amongst a great collection of books.  We all loved the beautiful, poetic prose, and the developing relationship between the two main characters – the taciturn giant, Jens, and the curious, talkative boy – was excellently written.  Well done to all involved with the book – writer, translator, publisher and everyone else :)

Some final thoughts to leave you with…

– Our six judges read a total of 83 books (an average of almost fourteen per person), and ten of the books were read and reviewed by all six of us.

– This was our third year of shadowing the prize and the third time in a row that we’ve chosen a different winner to the ‘experts’.

– After the 2012 Shadow Winner (Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale), that makes it two wins out of three for Iceland – Til hamingju!

– There is something new about this year’s verdict – it’s the first time we’ve chosen a winner which didn’t even make the ‘real’ shortlist…

Stu, Tony, Jacqui, David, Bellezza and Tony would like to thank everyone out there for all their interest and support over the past few months – rest assured we’re keen to do it all over again next year :)

A Man in Love (My Struggle: Book 2) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, tr. by Don Bartlett

A Man in Love begins by pitching us straight into the action, into a bit of a ‘domestic’ in fact, as we join Karl Ove Knausgaard in the middle of a summer holiday in Tjorn, near Gothenburg. The time is July 2008 and these opening scenes paint a candid picture of the reality of Karl Ove’s family life with Linda, his second wife, and their three children (Vanya, Heidi and John). All the tensions of trying to occupy and manage the needs of their three young children are centre stage:

…so twenty minutes later we found ourselves on a high, narrow and very busy bridge, grappling with two buggies, hungry, and with only an industrial area in sight. Linda was furious, her eyes were black, we were always getting into situations like this, she hissed, no one else did, we were useless, now we should be eating, the whole family, we could have been really enjoying ourselves, instead we were out here in a gale-force wind with cars whizzing by, suffocating from exhaust fumes on this bloody bridge. Had I ever seen any other families with three children outside in situations like this? (p. 5)

It’s a compelling opening and one that immediately captured my interest. The book starts at this point and returns to these scenes towards the end. In between these bookends a number of other strands run through the narrative all of which come together to form the crux of Karl Ove’s story.

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In one sense – perhaps unsurprisingly given the book’s title – this is a story of how Karl Ove falls in love with Linda. At this point, the timeline flips back to the early 2000’s. Having upped and suddenly left Tonje, his wife and partner of eight years, Karl Ove moves from Norway to Stockholm and reconnects with Linda, a writer he first encountered at the Biskops-Arno writers’ workshop. They meet several times for coffee, the occasional drink in a bar, and while it’s clear they are attracted to one another, they seem unable to express their real feelings in order to move beyond mere small talk. Unable to deal with this paralysis any longer, Karl Ove decides to pour out his heart in a letter to Linda:

I wrote down what she meant to me. I wrote what she had been for me when I saw her for the first time and what she was now. I wrote about her lips sliding over her teeth when she got excited. I wrote about her eyes, when they sparkled and when they opened their darkness and seemed to absorb light. I wrote about the way she walked, the little, almost mannequin-like, waggle of her backside. I wrote about her tiny Japanese features. I wrote about her laughter, which could sometimes wash over everything, how I loved her then. I wrote about the words she used most often, how I loved the way she said ‘stars’ and the way she flung around the word ‘fantastic’. I wrote that all this was what I had seen, and that I didn’t know her at all, had no idea what ran through her mind and very little about how she saw the world and the people in it, but that what I could see was enough. I knew I loved her and always would. (p.194)

I won’t reveal exactly how these two get together, but clearly they do. Here’s Karl Ove in the glow-zone of the first flushes of love:

For the first time in my life I was completely happy. For the first time there was nothing in my life that could overshadow the happiness I felt. We were together constantly, suddenly reaching for each other at traffic lights, across a restaurant table, on buses, in parks, there were no demands or desires except for each other. I felt utterly free, but only with her, the moment we were apart I began to have yearnings. (p 201)

As time passes, however, the heightened intensity of the first flushes of love fades away. Children arrive and A Man in Love taps into Karl Ove’s search for meaning in his everyday existence: 

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, not something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. (p. 59-60)

In some sense, I think part of what Knausgaard is trying to do here is to find a way of navigating normality, those flat periods between the peaks of intensity that life throws his (and our) way. We experience periods of extreme emotional sharpness in our lives. Our teenage years where everything is hyper-intense, falling in love, the birth of a child, the adrenaline rush from moments of success, a death in the family. But it’s trying to find meaning and fulfilment in the everyday that presents a challenge for Karl Ove, despite the fact he clearly loves and feels great tenderness towards his family:

At the traffic lights across from us a car was revving, and when I turned my head I saw the sound was coming from one of those enormous jeep-like vehicles that had begun to fill our streets in recent years. The tenderness I felt for Vanja was so great it was almost tearing me to pieces. To counteract it, I broke into a jog. (p. 54)

For Knausgaard, perhaps the key to all this is being able to free up sufficient space and time for his work as a writer…and this topic forms another stand within the narrative. Here, an interview with a journalist causes him to reflect on his frustrations as a writer and difficulties in being able to devote sufficient time to his calling:

I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture in which everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be. (p. 459)

And yet the minutiae and demands of his family life are stopping him, and he lays bare his feelings for the reader to see:

But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family and I owed it to them to be there. I had friends. And I had a weakness in my character which meant that I would say yes, yes, when I wanted to say no. no, which was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening. (p. 459-460)

This is my first experience of Knausgaard and I found it utterly compelling and addictive. I’ve been reading this year’s IFFP longlist (along with a group of bloggers led by Stu) and as I didn’t have time to start with A Death in the Family – My Struggle: Book 1, I pitched straight in with A Man in Love (book 2 in the series).

I’m finding it a little hard to pinpoint exactly why I found this book so gripping, but I think a large part of it has to do with the sense that these are real people Knausgaard is showing us here. Real people with real names and real lives, that’s how it appears to me. And he’s laying himself bare, exposing his emotions with extreme candour. He holds nothing back, flaws and all. Even though he internalises many of his own emotions and avoids conflict in social situations, we, the readers, gain access to his innermost thoughts right down to their essence.

Maybe there’s also an element of my recognising many of the demands and challenges he describes in raising three small children, all very close to one another in age. I’ve seen the exhaustion and mix of emotions this can trigger in friends and family in similar circumstances.

Part of the appeal (for me) also stems from the way the narrative unfolds. It doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc and as a reader there’s the allure of not knowing quite where Karl Ove is going to take us next. Alongside the story of Karl Ove and Linda’s family life, children’s parties and wandering around Stockholm with a buggy, he spins off into topics including existential discussions on the meaning of Holderlin’s poems, cultural differences between Sweden and Norway and many more. We meet various friends and family members, all vividly painted in such a way that conveys their distinct personalities and demeanours.  There are flashes of painful humour, too; the acute embarrassment and humiliation Karl Ove feels when dancing with Vanya at baby Rhythm Time class; his irritation at Swedish middle-class parents for plying children with wholesome vegetable crudités at a toddler’s party; his encounters with the neighbour from hell. It’s all here.

A Man in Love deserves its place on the IFFP shortlist, and I’m sure I’ll track back and read A Death in Family, along with forthcoming instalments as they appear…I suspect I’m in for the long haul now.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed A Man in Love: Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Tony Malone’s blog (18th March 2014) and Tony has kindly granted his permission for me to republish my review here.

A Man in Love is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Page numbers refer to the paperback edition. Source: library copy.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, tr. by Jamie Bulloch

The Mussel Feast is a modern German classic, first published in Germany in 1990. In the opening scenes, a mother and her two teenage children, a girl and a boy, are waiting for the imminent arrival of their father. Mother has spent hours scrubbing four kilos of mussels in ice-cold water and preparations are underway for a feast of mussels as they are her husband’s favourite meal. She doesn’t care for mussels herself, but her husband has been away on a business trip, one which was destined to be the final step on his path to a big promotion.

But something is not quite right; it’s three minutes past six and father hasn’t arrived. And the family always has dinner at 6pm on the dot when father is due home.

Afterwards we said that this was when we started to become anxious, when we suspected something was up; of course it was only afterwards that we knew what would happen. So maybe we were simply twitchy because we were waiting; we always felt twitchy when we waited for my father, there was always a certain tension. (pgs 11-12, Peirene Press)

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The novella is narrated by the daughter and it soon becomes clear that all is not well within this family. While they wait, they stare at the rather creepy-looking mussels which have ‘created a morbid atmosphere in the room’. The three of them start to talk, expressing thoughts they’ve never dared to mention before. And as the story unfolds, we discover how the family is forced to conform to a strict schedule when father is around. His business trips, however, give mother and her children the opportunity to experience a taste of freedom from such constraints:

There were cheese rolls and hot chocolate, we ate whenever we wanted to, sometimes standing up in the kitchen and with our hands. I don’t think we ever ate with a knife and fork when my father was away. We let our hair down while you were away, Mum said when my father asked, what did you get up to without me; it’s really nice to let your hair down a bit sometimes, Mum continued slightly wistfully, because she had as much fun as we did and less work, too, when we were alone with her. We seldom argued, and I liked it when we let our hair down, but my father didn’t want to hear any more of it and so she switched to wifey mode. (pgs 18-19)

Over the course of the narrative, we learn a little more of the family’s past and how they escaped from East Germany to the West. Ashamed of his underprivileged background, father is now fixated with status and notions of what constitutes a ‘proper family’. He’s the logical one, the scientist, a man of reason; he despises weaknesses in others and nothing his children can do is ever ‘good enough’. His family remain a constant source of disappointment. By contrast, his wife is the true bedrock of the family, the practical and thrifty one. And yet she’s emotionally sensitive too; she values beauty, nature and music, things for which her husband has little time.

As the daughter’s uninhibited monologue continues, we gradually discover more shocking examples of father’s tyrannical behaviour. He subjects the children to intimidation and physical abuse, so much so that his daughter cannot bear the sight of a wall unit in the living room, her ‘head having been smashed against it on a number of occasions’. Vanderbeke deftly slips these chilling details into the teenager’s revelations as the story unwinds.

There’s a looping rhythm to the daughter’s narration as she returns to the same thoughts and phrases, almost reflecting the way the family has become constrained by a fixed pattern of behaviour. But it’s the small, yet significant, disruption to the family’s usual routine that prompts them to challenge their situation:

Shortly after seven Mum said, I do hope nothing’s happened; and out of pure spite I retorted, what if it has, because all of a sudden my father was a spoilsport in my eyes, or, to be more precise, a mood-wrecker. Suddenly I no longer wanted him to come home, even though an hour earlier, as I said, we all were prepared for him to walk through the door and ask, so, what do you have to say, because he’d been successful. Mum looked at me, not as horrified as I’d expected, but with her head to one side, and then she smiled and said, well, we’ll see, and she didn’t sound as if she’d find it surprising or even terrible if he didn’t come home. (pg 22-23)

In one sense, The Mussel Feast gives us a portrait of an abusive father and how such a figure can stifle the joy and spontaneity of family life. On another level, the narrative can be read as a possible allegory for the uprising against the oppressive political regime in place in East Germany at the time of the novel. A quote from Vanderbeke on the back cover reads: ‘I wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wanted to understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn the story into a German family saga.’

The Mussel Feast is a slim novella, yet it offers much food for thought. I noticed more subtleties in the narrative on a second reading – additional nuances, more darkness and flashes of droll humour. Vanderbeke has skilfully crafted a heartening and moving story, and it’s superbly translated by Jamie Bulloch, too.

I’m delighted to see this book on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. Peirene Press do such a fantastic job in unearthing contemporary European gems such as The Mussel Feast, many of which are written by women writers, so it’s great to see one of their leading novellas in the spotlight.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed The Mussel Feast: Stu, Tony Malone, Bellezza, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on Naomi’s The Writes of Women blog (10th April 2014) and Naomi has kindly granted her permission for me to republish my review here.

The Mussel Feast is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: personal copy.