Tag Archives: Harvill Secker

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (review)

Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s leading contemporary novelists, and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (originally published in 2011) is the first of her books to be translated into English. It’s a strange novella. I wasn’t sure whether to review it at first, but in the end, something about it got under my skin.

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The story is narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte, a student at Copenhagen University. At least that’s what she tells her family and acquaintances – she doesn’t seem to have many friends. Instead she spends her days drifting around Glumsø, the small town where she lives by the railway, or travelling to Copenhagen to wander the streets and shopping malls. Dorte lives by herself, and her existence is desperately quiet and isolated save for a few random off-beat encounters with the neighbours and passers-by:

I bought a roll and a cup of coffee at the bakery in the arcade. The place was expensive, but you could sit there as long as you liked and they didn’t charge for water. I sat right at the back against the wall. I got my book out and tried to read. After almost an hour I went to Scala. I went round the different floors, looking at jewellery and jeans, I took the escalator up to the cinema, but there was nothing on that I wanted to see. Before I went home I bought a melon in the Irma supermarket. I sat on a train with it in my canvas bag, looking out at the back garden and sheds and little houses. I thought about my own bungalow with the apple tree and no curtains. It was a very sad melon. I put it in the window in the kitchen, it stayed there until well into November. (pg. 44, Harvill Secker)

As the story unravels, we learn more about events in the past two or three years in this young girl’s life. At eighteen, while working as an au pair, Dorte drifts into a relationship with a boy called Per, ‘he didn’t know what to do with himself either.’ She ends up moving in with Per, the young couple sharing a new bedsit on the first floor of the family’s home. This isn’t the first time Dorte has left home though (and possibly not the last either) as Helle slips the following statement into the story:

It was the third time I’d left home. My mum and dad gave us a pewter mug as a moving-in present, but they never got the chance to see the place. (pg. 36)

This short passage is indicative of the author’s approach. This is a book where certain aspects of Dorte’s life are clear from the narrative, but so much of what’s actually happening here is implied or suggested that the reader must endeavour to fill in the gaps. A more distinct picture only comes into focus as we try to look beyond the words on the page, making connections between what Dorte is telling us and what we suspect is happening. For instance, by the time we reach the end of the following passage we have a pretty good sense of what has happened to Dorte. Elsewhere in the narrative, however, the text seems more oblique:

Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’s got me a present, a hair slide from a silversmith, made out of a spoon with a proper hallmark. I was so relieved and felt so much better despite the anaesthetic, we couldn’t stop laughing until the driver told us to be quiet. But then in the evening I had to go and lie down before dinner. Per told his parents I was feeling a bit off colour. (pg. 47)

Dorte’s relationship with Per doesn’t last. There’s a sense that she’s simply ‘waiting for it all to fall apart,’ and so she packs her suitcase and leaves – it seems like ‘the only thing to do.’ She slips in and out of relationships with a few other men. None of these attachments seem to be going anywhere. The only constant in Dorte’s life comes from the relationship with her aunt (who also happens to be called Dorte). Aunt Dorte has her own troubles, and when her backstory is revealed it feels like a punch to the guts.

Helle Helle’s prose strips everything back, and her matter-of-fact style matches the sparse nature of Dorte’s life – even her bungalow has little in the way of furniture, the windows lack curtains. There is a focus on the mundane, the directionless feel to Dorte’s life, and this approach may not appeal to every reader. It would be quite easy to give up on this book; I nearly abandoned it after 40 pages, but something about the sadness and isolation in Dorte’s life drew me in. She cries and has difficulty sleeping at night. I wondered if she was suffering from depression.

I read this novella several weeks ago, back in November in fact, and I’m still thinking about it. Gradually we discover that this girl is at a complete loss as to what to do with herself or how to move forward with life. There are moments when Dorte realises that she needs to take positive action, but she seems numbed by the reality of it all. I’ll finish with a quote that captures this feeling:

I painted my nails and decided I needed a new look and a new way of thinking and walking. I even thought I might put a piece together for a newspaper, I just didn’t know what about. There was nothing in particular I was good at, except perhaps writing lyrics for party songs, but I didn’t even do that any more. Instead I wrote a list of things I ought to see and do in Copenhagen. I was full of good ideas. For once, I fell asleep straight away, but then woke up again far too early. The front room looked like an explosion in a second-hand shop, and I’d got nail varnish on the lamp. I tidied up and got dressed. I was ready before six. I caught the five-past-nine. (pgs. 79-80)

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (tr. by Martin Aitken) is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: library copy.

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

In Never Any End to Paris— first published in Spanish in 2003 and newly translated into English — Vila-Matas presents us with a fictionalised account of the two years he spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer. But before transporting us to Paris in the mid-seventies, the novel takes a brief trip to Key West, Florida, where, in the present day, Vila-Matas enters the annual Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest. Our author is desperate to prove to his wife and friends that he looks more like the idol of his youth with every passing day, but his efforts end in humiliation. And right from the opening page, Vila-Matas sets the tone for this hugely enjoyable book:

I don’t know how many years I spent drinking and fattening myself up believing – contrary to the opinions of my wife and friends – that I was getting to look more and more like Hemingway, the idol of my youth. Since no one ever agreed with me about this and since I am rather stubborn, I wanted to teach them all a lesson, and, having procured a false beard – which I thought would increase my resemblance to Hemingway – I entered the contest this summer.

I should say that I made a ridiculous fool of myself. I went to Key West, entered the contest and came last, or rather, I was disqualified; worst of all, they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’. (pg 3, Harvill Secker)

After this loss of face, Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he spent in this city trying to live the life of a writer like the one Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable Feast. Vila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’, and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. Now, the idea of a novel in the form of a lecture might sound rather dry, but allow me to reassure you – it is anything but! Vila-Matas is a wonderful writer, and this is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

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Cutting to 1974, Vila-Matas arrives in Paris, and ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of Marguerite Duras’ house (a very cultural garret previously inhabited by a number of illustrious bohemian tenants). Our aspiring writer is trying to emulate his idol, but unlike Hemingway, who was ‘very poor and very happy’ in Paris, Vila-Matas finds himself ‘very poor and very unhappy’ in the city. Nevertheless, Vila-Matas believes in the elegance of despair as he tries to persuade himself that there’s something cool, almost worthy and intellectual about his desperate and impoverished life as a budding writer:

I was a walking nightmare. I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour of black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Satre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn’t afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco. Sometimes, sitting on the terrace of some café, as I pretended to read some maudit French poet, I played the intellectual, leaving my pipe in the ashtray (sometimes the pipe wasn’t even lit) and taking out what were apparently my reading glasses and taking off the other pair, identical to the first and with which I couldn’t read a thing either. But this didn’t cause me too much grief, since I wasn’t trying to read the wretched French poets in public, but rather to feign being a profound café-terrace intellectual. I was, ladies and gentlemen, a walking nightmare. (pg. 22)

Holed up in Duras’ garret, Vila-Matas sets about trying to write his first book, The Lettered Assassin, in which the narrative centres on a novel that will kill the reader seconds after he or she finishes reading it. There is a wonderful passage in Never Any End to Paris in which Vila-Matas runs into Duras and attempts to impress her with his idea for The Lettered Assassin:

One day, I bumped into Marguerite Duras on the stairs – I was on my way up to my chambre and she was on her way down to the street – and she suddenly showed great interest in what I was up to. And I, trying to sound important, explained that I intended to write a book that would cause the death of all who read it. Marguerite looked stunned, sublimely astonished. When she was able to react, she said to me – or at least I understood her to say, because she was speaking her superior French again – that killing the reader, apart from absurd, was quite impossible, unless, for example, a swift and sharp poisoned arrow were to fly out of the book directly into the heart of the unsuspecting reader. I was very annoyed and even began to worry I’d be out of the garret, fearing her discovery that I was a dreary novice would lead her to evict me. But no, Marguerite simply detected in me a colossal mental confusion and wanted to help. She lit a cigarette slowly, looked at me almost with compassion, and eventually said, if I wanted to murder whoever read the book, I would have to do it using a textual effect. She said this and carried on down the stairs leaving me more worried than before. Had I understood correctly or had I misunderstood her superior French? What was this about a textual effect? Perhaps she had been referring to a literary effect that I would have to construct within the text to give readers the impression that the book’s very letters had killed them. Perhaps that was it. But then, how could I achieve a literary effect that would pulverise the reader in a purely textual way? (pgs. 19-20)

After a week of despair, Vila-Matas bumps into Duras again, and this time he receives some advice from his landlady in the form of a thirteen-point list of considerations for writing a novel: a handwritten note that looks ‘like a doctor’s prescription’. A bullet-point list that fills our author with a dreadful sense of fear and panic. How will he ever manage to get to grips with everything on Marguerite’s checklist, especially as the meaning of one or two of her points is unclear – linguistic register, for example? Cue much agonising and procrastination on the part of Vila-Matas as he struggles to write The Lettered Assassin.

Vila-Matas’ lecture also reflects on the nature of irony, and he deftly weaves these musings into his elegant treatise. As Vila-Matas looks back on his bohemian days with compassionate irony, we hear of his encounters with other writers and famous types: Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges and Georges Perec all feature, as does Paloma Picasso. There are several nods to other literary works and authors, too. Our author, on the other hand, doubts as to whether he will ever see his writing in print.

The title of this terrifically engaging book, Never Any End to Paris, comes from A Moveable Feast, and Hemingway’s notion that ‘the memory of Paris is a feast that follows us around’, a sense that there is never any end to Paris. And I would have been very happy to remain in Vila-Matas’ company for longer than the 200 pages of this book – highly recommended, my tip for next year’s IFFP longlist.

I read this novel to link in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit month, which is running throughout July. Stu has also reviewed this one, as has Grant at 1streading – just click on the links if you’d like to read their posts.

Never Any End to Paris is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: I won a copy of this book in a giveaway organised by the publisher – my thanks to Harvill Secker.

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.

Ten by Andrej Longo, tr. by Howard Curtis

I’ve been reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu) and this post covers my thoughts on another of the longlisted titles.

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Andrej Longo’s Ten consists of a series of hard-hitting short stories set in Naples. Each story takes one of the Ten Commandments as its theme and we see regular working-class people struggling to get by in the face of temptations and challenges that come their way.

In the first story we meet a teenage boy who wants to keep his head down and stay on the right side of the tracks. But he gets caught up in trouble during a night out with his girlfriend, the consequences of which will set his life on a different trajectory. Another story centres on a talented singer who becomes too ambitious and greedy. We follow his rise and fall into a life of drugs and debt – in the end his only way out is to become a guinea pig, thereby enabling his dealer to test the safety of each batch of coke:

I get off at the terminal. I lean on the wall to stop myself from falling and drag myself to where there’s an open space. I sit down in the sun or the rain, it’s all the same to me, and I wait, leaning against a pillar, like the others. I wait for them to bring the syringe, already filled, look for a vein that still has room, and put the needle in. And they wait to see the effect it has, and whether you live or die. (p. 34-35)

The mafia are never very far away — to the fore in some stories, in the background in others — and we see how people have grown accustomed to living their lives under this shadow:

Maybe Ricardo was right. Maybe like he said, to avoid asking myself too many questions, I’d stopped taking any notice of what was happening around me, the mountains of rubbish in the street, the murders, the bag snatching, the parking attendant who asks for money even when there’s a meter. I’d got used to keeping my eyes down to avoid trouble, paying so that I could drive my lorry in peace, without them slashing the tyres or breaking the windows. Maybe it was it was like he said but I didn’t want to admit it. (p. 113)

All this might sound rather grim, but some of these stories capture moments of love and longing. In one of my favourite stories from the collection, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’, a woman longs to spend a Sunday with her husband but is unable to because her man can only find work in Rome. He returns on a weekly basis, but always Tuesdays, never at the weekend:

We’d been living like this for thirteen years. Seeing each other only on Tuesdays. Just so we could pay the mortgage and provide for the kids as they grew. But now the mortgage was almost entirely paid off. And the kids were grown. They were working now, making a living for themselves. I know there’s never enough money. But I could look for a job. Anything. Just as long as he came home in the evening and slept in our bed. Just as long as we could spend one Sunday together every now and again. Go for a stroll somewhere, without counting the hours, without feeling that time was slipping through our fingers. A Sunday together like everybody else. (p. 50)

Longo is a critically-acclaimed writer of short stories as well as pieces for the theatre, radio and cinema. When he isn’t writing, Longo works as a pizza-maker in the city of Naples and he draws on his understanding of the city to great effect in this collection. He takes us through the backstreets and clubs of the city, into the homes of its inhabitants and in doing so gives us a real sense of the place, its culture and social landscape. Knives and guns seem common place here and it’s an environment where kids and teenagers often have to grow up ahead of their time to survive.

Stu has already talked about how this collection illustrates what great short stories can do; they give us a slice of the world as we glimpse people for the briefest of moments. One of the things I liked about these stories was their directness and raw honesty. Longo’s prose is quite stripped back but he quickly creates a sense of tension and atmosphere as he pulls us into these individuals’ lives.

I also liked the shifts in tone, mood and pace across the stories. We experience flashes of violence, situations with a pulsating sense of urgency, but there are times when the pace shifts down a gear as characters reflect on their regrets, their hopes and fears.

One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in shadowing the IFFP was to discover exciting examples of world-lit with a real sense of place, fiction that vividly captures the voice and the essence of a specific location and/or culture. And that exactly what Ten delivers.

Ten is one of three collections of short stories longlisted for this year’s IFFP. The other collections are Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (and one could also argue that Andrei Makine’s Brief Loves That Live Forever reads as a series of interlinked stories). As for Ten’s chances in the IFFP, I’m at the halfway point in reading the longlist so it’s a little difficult to tell at this stage…but it’s an excellent collection of stories and one which I’m very glad to have discovered.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this collection: Stu, Bellezza, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (20th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Ten is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.

Source: personal copy.