Ostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft- Volker Weidermann

This book has been recently published in English as ‘Summer before the Dark’. It’s an account of the friendship between the Austrian writers Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth and the summer they spent together in 1936 in Ostend, in exile from Nazi Germany and its ever more tightening restrictions on Jews and writers. I read the book in German and so can’t comment on the the English translation by Carol Brown Janeaway. However I’m delighted we have a translation so soon as both these writers are known far beyond the world of the German literature cognoscenti, for such greats as The Royal Game and Beware of Pity (Zweig) and The Radetsky March ( Roth). Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth are just two of a whole community of writers in exile and we hear the stories of other writers like Irmgard Keun and Egon Erwin Kisch as well. Wider world events- the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, preparations to host the Olympic Games in Berlin-provide a backdrop, lending weight to the atmosphere of tense desperation which hangs over the group. And the awareness of the inexorable rise of populism during the 30s together with the denigration of liberal values and reason resonates chillingly with developments we are seeing today.

One of the challenges of writing about a phase late in the lives of two such writers must be the selection and organisation of material and presumably Weidermann sifted through many volumes of letters and diaries before deciding what to include. The result is a concise and yet far from superficial portrayal of both men. We’re given some prequel material for both. Zweig was a wealthy, highly educated, widely published Austrian writer with a house on the Kapuzinerberg in Salzburg and humanist values. Though his books were burned on Bebelplatz in 1933 because he was Jewish, they continued to be available in Germany for some time after that and he didn’t show his rejection of the Nazi regime by going into self imposed exile immediately as did some other Jewish and resistant writers. By 1936 however his marriage to Friderike was breaking down and he longed to spend some time in the cafes and beaches of Belgium, a place where writers and intellectuals could meet and talk, a place he’d loved for many years.

Joseph Roth came from a very different milieu. An ‘Ostjude’, he was born in Brody on the Eastern edges of the Austro-Hungarian empire into much more modest family circumstances and studied in Lemburg before going to Vienna, where he first met Stefan Zweig and began a career as a writer and journalist. He was an eternal itinerant, living in hotels, a spendthrift and an alcoholic. By 1936 he was having marriage problems too and was  open to Zweig’s invitation to join him in Ostend.

Their friendship worked on many levels. From an early stage they had exchanged ideas and criticism of one another’s writing and, movingly, at the end of their stay in Ostend, Roth gave Zweig the idea for completing his story Der begrabene Leuchter. Zweig was desperately worried about Roth’s destructive lifestyle and concerned about the negative influence of Roth’s lover, Irmgard Keun, herself an excessive drinker, on his health. But another aspect of their intimacy, brought out by the book, was that they were both mourning the passing of a way of life, slipping away during the 30s and never to return. Now for Roth, this process of disappearance had begun with the breakup of the Austro- Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the monarchy which had given him opportunities and security in his youth and which he revered. Zweig’s world of humanist values, explored in his book Die Welt von Gestern-The World of Yesterday was disappearing with the rise of fascism and his most recent work Castellio gegen Calvin was criticised for being out of touch with present realities.

The liminal quality of this summer conveyed in the book is intensified by the stories of other writers and characters staying in Ostend-Egon Erwin Kirsch and Gisela Kirsch, Hermann Kesten- as well as the stories of Klaus and Erika Mann, mulled over and laughed about-determined as they were to put on a brave face and not admit to increasing anxiety about the future.  Irmgard Keun as Roth’s lover plays a greater role. Her books were banned not because she was Jewish but because her female characters were far too modern and independent- as indeed she was, having the temerity to sue the Propaganda Ministry for loss of income and for the return of the confiscated copies! She comes to Ostend for a bit of sea and sunshine, meets Roth and, finding him the most sexually attractive man she’s ever met, falls for him. The two of them move in to the same hotel room and spend their days writing and drinking.

The summer of 36 is the last time Zweig and Roth are to see one another. Stefan Zweig goes on a trip to Argentina as a guest of PEN and also visits Brazil, which he is considering as a future home. Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun continue drinking through the hotels of Austria and Zweig refuses to see them in Salzburg. On 12th March 1938 Hitler is welcomed with jubilation in Vienna’s Heldenplatz: the worlds of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig are indeed over and Joseph Roth dies just one year later.

I really enjoyed this book. Weidermann manages to convey the complexity of the characters and their relationship with skill and economy, rooting them absolutely in the tumultuous times in which they lived. At the same time he evokes an atmosphere of a community on the edge of a precipice which will signify a break for ever with the past. While seeing liberal values in Europe eroding, a turning away from internationalism in the UK with Brexit and a rise in nationalism I felt at times when reading this a chilling feeling of familiarity. And yet it is Weidermann’s skill as a writer which places Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in a world now gone, a world on which he quietly closes the door.

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A Woman’s Work- Harriet Harman

You don’t have to be a fan of political memoirs to enjoy this very readable account of img_0952Harriet Harman’s life in politics. The book takes us from her early engagement as a radical lawyer working for the National Council for Civil Liberties, to her arrival in Westminster as Labour member for Peckham in 1982 and her subsequent career in parliament during a period of over 30 years. She comes across as a dogged and hardworking politician, very focused on improving the lives of working women, while at the same time bringing up her own family of 3 children.  We are left in no doubt as to the struggle involved in her achievements: Harriet Harman is refreshingly open and straightforward about her own steep learning curve, but also points out that in 1982 with only 17 women MPs parliament was very much a male preserve. In tracing her career path the book charts the progress made in terms of greater equality for women in the last 40 years- as well as, inevitably, the changing fortunes of the Labour Party.

The chapters on the years before 1982 are a great reminder for the reader of the heady radical days of the 70s. Qualifying as a solicitor, Harriet Harman worked at Brent Law Centre and then as legal officer for the NCCL. The Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act came into force in 1976 and there were several key industrial disputes arising from this legislation- Trico, Grunwick, the Kynoch munitions factory- where she represented women workers now determined to claim their rights. At the same time Harman became involved in the Women’s Movement and she outlines the different strands of this movement, conveying as she does so the excitement and energy engendered by new thinking about relationships between women and between women and men.

As a Labour party activist, Harman was aware of the lack of women in parliament and with the support of her husband Jack Dromey and women friends like Patricia Hewitt put herself forward as the Labour party’s candidate for Peckham. She was selected  to take over from Harry Lamborn when he retired, but due to his sudden death became the candidate sooner than expected, and then, winning the by election, was elected to parliament in 1982. She had several immediate challenges: the small number of women in parliament and the struggle to be taken seriously by parliament and the press, the urgent need to redress the effects of swingeing Tory cuts in her constituency, particularly in relation to women, and the damaging effects of the far left within the Labour Party generally but specifically within her own constituency Labour Party. The first challenge she addressed immediately by forming the Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Committee to provide a forum where women MPs could work collectively on women’s issues.  In the face of criticism and belittling from the press in response to the issues she was campaigning on -the  ‘women’s issues’ of childcare, maternity rights,domestic violence- she turned to the local press and radio, never missing an opportunity for an interview, and began to get her message across and win support from the electorate. And having her own 3 children during the 80s she challenged the old boys’ club ethos at Westminster by providing a very visible image of a new kind of woman, that of the working mother.

Harman was given her first job in the Shadow Cabinet by John Smith in 1992 when she became Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and deputy to the new Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Her account of these years in the Shadow Cabinet leading up to Labour’s election win in 1997 give us a fascinating insight into the development of New Labour away from the destructive internal party strife of the 80s into the new dawn of a modernising party embracing economic growth. Harman worked on the development of Labour’s policy on low pay during these years, negotiating between the needs of small businesses on the one hand and the resistance of the unions on the other, eventually leading to the Low Pay Commission. And of course, as women were amongst the lowest paid workers in most sectors, her own agenda, improving the lives of working women, was also being tackled in this role. This section is also interesting for her account of the personalities of the time: she acknowledges the importance of Blair’s support for her on equal pay by saying ‘there was no  one better to have on your side than Tony, and not just because he was Leader, but because he was clear in his arguments and not afraid to stand up to people when necessary.’  She also recounts the incredibly close, productive and creative relationship between Blair and Brown at the time: they were on the phone to one another several times a day, even interrupting family Sunday lunch to take a phone call from the other.

At the same time as campaigning to improve the lives of working women in her constituency and in the country, Harman fought to get more women into parliament throughout her political career. She persuaded Neil Kinnock to agree to having 3 women in his Shadow Cabinet and  campaigned tirelessly, against fierce opposition, for the introduction of All Women Shortlists in the selection of parliamentary candidates. This meant that when Labour came to power in 1997,  101 women Labour MPs took their seats in the House of Commons, some considerable advance on the 11 Labour MPs in 1982. For Harman, the aftermath of Labour’s victory was something of a poisoned chalice. She was given the role of Secretary of State for Social Security in Blair’s first government and is refreshingly honest about how different and difficult it was to be in government rather than opposition- to be in charge of a huge department and to be competing for resources with your fellow MPs with whom you’d previously felt solidarity. On top of this, she was forced to continue with cuts to lone parent benefits decided by the Tories, had difficulties working with MP Frank Field and was eventually sacked by Tony Blair after just 15 months.

One of the many admirable qualities about our protagonist is the way she’s able to pick herself up after setbacks and carry on, aware that the fight for women’s equality needs to be fought regardless of any damage to her own ego. So after this demotion Harman embarked on a project I found one of the most interesting: to investigate the struggles of women trying to combine work and motherhood  in some of the lowest paying industries. Keen to extend her own profile beyond the Metropolitan South East, she travelled around the country interviewing women about their situation and found the inadequacy of affordable childcare a major hindrance to women returning to work. In many cases, grandparents were willing to care for grandchildren but could not afford to go part time and lose wages to do so. In her report ‘Mothers in Manufacturing’ Harman recommended that maternity leave should be extended to one year, maternity pay increased, that women should have the right to go back to work part time after maternity leave and that tax credits should be available to help pay relatives looking after children.Some of these demands were realised- in 2001 maternity leave was extended to 26 weeks and maternity pay increased to £100 per week.

After the Labour win in 2001, Harman was asked by Tony Blair to take on the job of Solicitor General and in this role she focused on improving the law to protect victims of domestic abuse as well as making the experience of the judicial process less daunting for women. She introduced training for judges and increased sentencing powers in criminal cases as well as changing the law to allow women to give evidence by video link. She challenged the existing law which allowed provocation as a defence to domestic homicide with the result that the victim’s infidelity can no longer be considered provocation sufficient for a perpetrator to avoid a murder charge.

After Blair stood down in 2007 and Gordon Brown took over as Leader of the Labour Party, it was suggested to Harman that she should run for Deputy Leader. At first reluctant to do so, still smarting from being sacked from Blair’s cabinet, she eventually agreed and was duly elected. However Gordon Brown did not appoint her Deputy Prime Minister, later creating a new post for Peter Mandelson instead as First Secretary of State. Was he giving Harman a mixed message about his assessment of her capabilities or was it a more general reluctance to have a woman in the role of Deputy Prime Minister? In her reflections she regrets not having challenged him on it, not least for the sake of setting a precedent for future generations. Harman comes over nevertheless as fair in her account of Gordon Brown, describing him as a brilliant and hardworking politician with a great mind and fantastic overview of the economy, not just on a national but on a global level. However he was not easy to work with on a day to day practical level, cancelling meetings and being unavailable. Like many commentators she regretted his decision not to call a general election in 2007 which would have given him a proper mandate.

After Labour’s defeat in the 2010 election, Harriet Harman became Leader of the Opposition. She takes great pains to acknowledge the huge support of her advisers Anna Healy and Ayesha Hazarika and all the team which Anna Healy assembled for her to work in this role. Again, Harman is frank about the ‘vertical learning curve’ she felt she was on but also the general state of demoralisation throughout the party at their defeat. She is interesting on the election of the new party leader in September 2010, not hiding her shock at Ed Miliband entering the leadership contest and challenging his brother, David: I was amused to read she had the same reaction as I did at the time: ‘which one was their mother going to support?’. She also acknowledges with gratitude that many people afterwards regretted that she had not stood herself, but reflects that the ‘decades of denigration at the hands of the press had taken their toll’- she thought she’d done a good job as acting Leader but was not up to being party Leader.

Back in her role as Deputy Leader, Harman carried on her work for women, setting up Labour’s Commission for Older Women and more recently taking part in a British Council exchange between MPs internationally. In her exchange with Tanzanian MP Monica Mbega she learned that however tough her work was as a constituency MP in Peckham, this was as nothing compared with the demands made on Monica Mbega in representing her constituents.

Written in an open and personal style, Harriet Harman comes over at times in this book as an ordinary woman just like you and me. She hits the right note in how much she refers to her family life, talking about the stress of constantly juggling responsibilities, the sheer exhaustion and the real longing to be able to spend more time with your children, familiar to every working mother. She is open about her feelings on defeat and generous in her gratitude to women friends and family for their support in getting her back on her feet. I was interested in her discomfort with the term ‘role model’ at the end of the book, for its connotations of individualism and conservatism. Personally I have no issue with the idea of role models, especially in these present worrying times when we could all do with some inspiration. Whether we call her a role model or not, Harriet Harman has certainly changed women’s lives for the better and this book is a great testimony to her achievements.


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Cinco esquinas by Mario Vargas Llosa.

This latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa is a compelling and provocative storyp1010553 about the press, sex and power. Set in Lima, the story takes place in the 90s and early 2000s against a backdrop of kidnappings and murders carried out by the Sendero Luminoso ( Shining Path) terrorists. The country is gripped with fear and anxiety-though how this plays out in different sections of society is very much the focus of the novel. And woven into the political thriller is an exploration of the moral choices available to individuals in such a climate, in the face of a political regime which feeds on violence and corruption.

The story begins when Enrique Cardenas, a wealthy mining engineer, receives a visit from Rolando Garro, a journalist and editor of the gossip newspaper ‘Destapes’. We have no doubts about Enrique’s disdain for Rolando with his loud clothes, vulgar platform shoes dwarf like stature and trashy paper. However Enrique finds himself on the back foot when Rolando produces a stash of photos, which show him, Enrique, in a compromising situation. In a second meeting Rolando outlines the terms of his blackmail: that Enrique should become a major financial backer for ‘Destapes’. Enrique refuses. The photographs are published in ‘Destapes’, creating a huge scandal.

Julieta Leguizamón, otherwise known as La Retiquita, a tough young journalist on ‘Destapes’, fears that Rolando has gone too far. The paper’s victims are usually members of ‘la farandula’- the world of entertainment and music hall- like Juan Peineta, a reciter of verses, ridiculed in ‘Destapes’ for his performance as part of the ‘Los Tres Chistosos’ comedy act. Enrique Cardenas, a powerful business man, is in a different league. La Retiquita’s fears are realised as some days later Rolando’s body is found in the working class district of Cinco esquinas in the Barrio Altos. He has suffered a brutal death, his face mashed to a pulp.

So who was behind the killing? Enrique Cardenas, motivated by revenge,  is an obvious suspect. Juan Peineta, too, hoves into view- he attributes losing his job and his descent into poverty to being mercilessly lampooned in ‘Destapes’ by Rolando Garro and writes letters to that effect to all and sundry. But La Retiquita soon finds out that the answer lies elsewhere, and in this discovery finds herself drawn into a complex web of power and deceit.

Vargas Llosa is a master of characterisation and his almost Dickensian skill at depicting characters from a broad range of social class is shown to good effect here. We have Enrique’s circle, comprising the lawyer Luciano and their two cardboard cutout wives, Marisa and Chabela, with their handbags, shining hair, trips to Miami and vacuous views. Their apartments are filled with artworks, the artists’ names disingenuously dropped into the text, and with their chauffeurs, swimming pools and private cinema, their lives are lived away from the streets, its poor and its dangers. Rolando and La Retiquita on the other hand come from impoverished backgrounds and are surviving in the tough world of journalism through grit,determination and dogged hard work, barely scraping a living from their work with ‘Destapes’. The photographer Ceferino Argüello, with wife and children to support, takes the job of photographing the compromising evening out of financial necessity and offers the photos to Rolando Garro for the same reason. Through Juan Peineta’s story we visit the ‘comedor popular’ in the Barrio Alto where down and outs can get a daily meal provided by the nuns and served up by the vast Crecilda with her wobbling backside and dubious past. And then we meet Willy, an old friend of Juan’s from the bars and gambling dens of working class Callao and a silent observer of police behaviour in the barrio.

Now, this broad range of character provides of course entertaining local colour and context – I loved the account of La Retiquita’s father toiling up and down the streets of Central Lima with his handcart laden with ’emoliente’, serving it up outside the factory gates at the end of a shift.  The broad range also shows that every section of Lima society is affected by terrorism, corruption and their consequences, albeit to differing degrees. But there’s something else going on with character here and that is the shift in our view of the characters as the plot develops and the nature of the power relationships are slowly revealed. We first see Rolando Garro through Enrique’s eyes and may share his contempt for this journalist from the gutter press. However later our view of him shifts as we see what he is caught up in and are invited to speculate on his reasons for publishing. La Retiquita at first seems to share the same amoral world view as her boss, but later comes to skilfully pursue her hunt for his killers while keeping the paper afloat- and in this way shapes the unexpected denouément in an act of great courage.

And what of the sex? Now it is not quite true to say that the story starts with the meeting of Roland Garro with Enrique. In fact it starts with an erotic scene in which the two friends, Marisa and Chabela, find themselves having sex when sharing a bed one night. This is quite a start to the novel- and hopefully will not put too many readers off. I vacillated between objecting as a feminist to this male gaze on women’s sexual activity- and finding it vaguely titillating. Now, I think it is quite a clever move placing this scene right at the beginning of the novel. Firstly, it sets the scene for the different views on and experiences of sex throughout the novel: you can be blackmailed for doing it, you can do it for pleasure with a partner or friend, you can do it for a living and you can do it for protection. You can do it in all sorts of positions, from the missionary to position 69 and Vargas Llosa at times goes into a Houellebecquian overdrive in detailing who put what where. It also provides humour- Juan Peineta, envious of the 69ers in the photos displayed in every kiosk in Lima, suffers from dementia and just can’t quite remember whether he ever actually did it with his beloved Anatasia! But over and above this, placing this scene first puts us in the position of all those newspaper readers the world over. The scene runs through our heads, we keep going back to it as we read the novel,wondering how it fits in, and, yes, titillated. We readers of Mario Vargas Llosa are no better than any other readers of the gutter press which uses sex to sell newspapers.

So we see in the end the world of the gutter press as messy and scandal driven, able and willing to destroy reputations. The novel slowly reveals the powers behind the press in Peru at that time and I would refer readers to Dan Collyns Guardian article for the political background to events in the book. As for the reputations, our four bourgeois survive Enrique’s scandal materially intact, and for three of them, their sexual antics have become their main preoccupation. As always it is the poor who suffer most- Rolando Garro, Juan Peineta. Yet it is La Retiquita who uses her wits, cunning, imagination and courage to turn things around, achieving a political and narrative coup which is all the more uplifting for being unexpected. What a fantastic ending to the story- and how clever of the writer to unsettle us in spite of this ending by placing a further twist to the bourgeois’ sexual carry on right at the conclusion of the book.

Now I am a huge fan of Mario Vargas Llosa- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, A Discreet Hero, Death in the Afternoon, A Fish in the Water- are all reviewed here at peakreads. But it is the combination of suspenseful narrative, fabulous characterisation, depiction of Lima within the chilling political grip of that time, which make Cinco esquinas for me one of his best. It must be published in English soon. Don’t miss it.

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The Old King in his Exile- by Arno Geiger, translated by Stefan Tobler

This moving and insightful book p1010550relates the slow decline of the author’s father over several years as he suffers from dementia. The beauty of the narrative lies in the way the author roots his father so firmly in the Austrian village of Wolfurt that we feel his deep connection to this place and then his sense of exile when he no longer recognises his home. At the same time Arno Geiger ranges over his father’s upbringing and family life in this rural setting, as well as his own childhood and early life, giving us a sense both of continuity and of change over generations.

The book begins when his father, August, is in the intermediate stage of dementia: the illness has been diagnosed and August is needing regular care and support. He needs help with practical tasks like getting up, getting dressed and his language is random, at times engaging in dialogue with his carers which makes sense, but then sliding off into his own reality. By night, he wanders like a king in exile, and is frightened by things swaying, by their instability. His son, Arno looks back to the onset of the disease, regretting bitterly that the family didn’t recognise sooner what was happening to their father. Recently retired and his marriage of 30 years having ended, August took to watching TV and playing patience. Previously a physically active man, constantly engaged in house improvement projects, this seemed a change of character. The family put it down to him ‘letting himself go’, rather than August withdrawing from the world, aware that he was losing competency.

Arno describes the diagnosis as something of a relief: the family know now what they are dealing with and set up systems of care with family, neighbours and, eventually professional carers. Arno’s own relationship with his father changes. He spends chunks of time in the family home, sharing care of his father with others, but writing too- Arno Geiger became an established writer during the years of his father’s decline. The two men live around one another during these periods, chatting, being silent together, walking together a little and there are moments of touching companionship described. Arno talks of the importance of going over the bridge into the world of the demented person, of not contradicting them by insisting on the truth of any objectively verifiable reality. This kind of insistence only makes the sufferer feel even less secure, worries and distresses them and serves no purpose.

These vignettes of their companionship are interleaved with observations about his father’s past. August Geiger was born in 1926 into a poor rural family in Wolfurt, Austria. He was brought up during the Nazi period and was conscripted in 1944. Taken prisoner by the Russians, he contracted dysentery and spent 4 weeks in a military hospital,weighing just 6 stones when he was released. After his father returned to Wolfurt, he never wanted to leave the village again- which provoked terrible rows with Arno’s mother, an outgoing woman who craved a bit of excitement and adventure. This was just one point of contention in their marriage which was tolerable enough while busy with small children, but then after some years an ‘ugly atmosphere‘ developed and Arno describes an unhappy home where all family members went their own separate ways. And this was against a background of post war buttoned-upness: August’s brother Paul says the ‘social landscape after the war was as bleak as the moon’s surface: piety, conservatism, a sense of decency and nothing but work’. Given these circumstances, August Geiger had difficulties relating to his children from adolescence-as did many fathers of that era- and Arno very much went his own way. Which makes the account of the warmth of their relationship when August’s mind, memories and personality are ravaged by Alzheimer’s, all the more poignant.

The degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s means that carers are regularly presented with new challenges. As the disease progresses, August no longer recognises his own home and is restlessly, constantly searching for it, while his spatial orientation is deteriorating. Objects go missing and others are blamed. His take on reality becomes disturbing for the family when they realise he thinks the TV presenter is in the room and goes up to the TV screen to offer him a biscuit. The situation is becoming increasingly frightening for August too: he has hallucinations and reacts aggressively to a new carer who doesn’t know how to handle him. The demands are such that the family decide he will have to go into a home: the up side is that a place becomes available in the residential home in the village which he knows and where they know him and his transfer there goes smoothly.

Though Arno’s brother and sister can’t bear the home, Arno himself has no problems with it and continues to visit his father there. In recognition that August is now in the final stages of his life the family clear the house out and come across objects which evoke memories of a bygone era : ‘an old coffee mill, a wooden schnitzel mallet, lampshades, the drum from my parents’ first washing machine‘. More telling are the notes Arno finds which his father wrote as a 24 year old about his war experiences. Arno knew as a child that the period spent in the Russian military hospital with dysentery had marked him : in his wallet he always carried a photo of himself, 6 stone, emaciated, on his release from hospital.  However it is only when reading the notes found in the cellar that Arno finds out the terrible things his 18 year old father saw in that hospital and realises the extent of his trauma.

In the last section of the book, the paragraphs are shorter and less connected, snatches of dialogue between the two men, observations of life in the home, statements and aphorisms, as if reflecting the intermittent and unconnected nature of expression and communication in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. As if the mind, like a flame, flickers into life for a moment and then dies down. I read this book in German when it was first published- it helped me understand my own mother’s gradual decline into dementia. I clung onto the portrayal of August Geiger as I had clung on to moments when my own mother’s personality shone out and she was still herself. Reading it again now in Stefan Tobler’s excellent translation I am reminded of the importance of this kind of memoir for all of us when Alzheimer’s touches our lives more and more. To help us recognise the beginnings of the disease and find ways of living with it, whether carer or sufferer, while keeping the person still there, still alive.

Arno Geiger has recently been in the UK discussing his book. You can hear him talking about the book on BBC 4 Midweek and in this short Youtube video .



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Something Old, Something New : Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’.

Some of the themes in Zadie Smith’s new novel p1010549will be familiar to readers from her previous work:  growing up in the diverse London suburb of Willesden, female friendship, exploring racial identity and the nuances of class difference in contemporary Britain. Yet these are explored here in a new way through the lens of music and dance. In addition, the plot takes us to Africa, to Senegal, raising ethical questions about foreign aid, cultural appropriation and globalisation, hinting at the challenges these will bring in the years to come.

The novel starts with the girlhood friendship between the narrator and Tracey who meet at Miss Isabel’s dance class in Willesden. They become  friends through a shared identity- both are mixed race-and through a passion for old musicals, song and dance. Socially, they come from rather different backgrounds. Tracey’s mother is white working class and practically a single parent, whereas the narrator’s mother is an intelligent, politically aware, aspiring black woman, refreshingly absent domestically,  as her main focus is catching up on her own education. The narrator’s father is kindly and loving but unambitious and ineffectual and eventually the parents separate as the mother educates herself beyond him.

The novel traces the girls’ lives through primary and secondary school in North London with its mix of cultures, music and adolescent experiences. As their music and dance tastes expand beyond Fred Astaire, their paths diverge. Tracey turns out to have real talent for dance and she goes to stage school, whereas the narrator-whose name we never know- completes her education at the local comp and goes to university on the south coast to study media. Their actual contact is now minimal, though the narrator occasionally hears how her friend’s career is progressing through chance or family contacts.

Post university, our narrator works in the media and her life, and the narrative, is from then on in dominated by digital communication and social media-she is forever on her laptop or glued to her phone. She lands a job with singer celebrity Aimée, a white pop star, world famous and based in New York and the focus of the novel switches to her relationship with Aimée in a setting which is now global. Global because Aimée  decides to use her considerable wealth in setting up a school for girls in a rural area in Africa-which we learn later may be Senegal-and the narrator is part of the team getting the project off the ground. And this process is recounted in short chapters alternating with chapters in London and New York as our narrator flies around the world at the behest of her boss.

The chapters on Africa contain some sensitive writing on our English urban narrator’s first impressions. I enjoyed her descriptions of the river, the village, daily life and ceremonies and her own reactions to this new culture. A new cast of characters is introduced: Lamin, the local teacher, lovely Hawa, cheerful and vital despite the limitations of village life for her, Fern, the serious Brasilian NGO worker. Over her many visits, our narrator befriends them and through their stories Zadie Smith explores several big questions. I felt some issues were dealt with in far too summary a fashion- just a page for the problems of credit or attitudes to homosexuality- their mention felt rather tokenistic and could have been omitted. On the other hand, the question of women’s freedom explored through Hawa’s story – her marriage options and the community’s expectations of her- was well described, refracted through the lens of our Western narrator, for whom freedom is all.

The overarching theme though in this section of the book- the impact of Western aid and celebrity funding on rural villages-was dealt with well. We see Aimée throwing money at the school without thinking of the consequences for the community, particularly the boys. It is Fern who thoughtfully uses school space and time for prayer and growing vegetables to encourage the children to stay there for a whole day’s learning. There are excruciating scenes of Aimée incorporating dance moves from the village into her show, as well as a love interest which is clearly exploitative. The trouble for me was that I found Aimée so loathsome that I really didn’t want to spend as much time with her as we did in the novel and it also seemed implausible that our sensitive narrator with her developing awareness of the problematic nature of the project should stay in her employment so long.

The last section of the book and the ending I found disappointing. There are a few unlikely twists of the plot and the narrator eventually loses her job and returns to London. She finds that her mother is seriously ill and, now an MP, is being harassed by emails from Tracey. Though Tracey did make it to the West End stage- and there is an excellent analysis of Showboat, which is one of my least favourite musicals- her career has ended and she is the mother of three young children. The two young women meet again as the narrator goes round to talk to her about the harassment and the novel ends there.

So what to make of this novel which rambles rather through time and space? The North London milieu in which the girls grow up allows Zadie Smith to do what she excels in: depicting the complexities and nuances of the English class system. I was riveted by the scene in which Tracey causes mischief at the birthday party of nice middle class Lily Beaumont and loved the gentle irony in the depiction of the mother’s rise to the fringes of Hampstead. The relationships between women are compelling. The friendship between the narrator and Tracey is multifaceted, including jealousy, rivalry and spite as well as shared passions, resembling the friendship between Lila and Lenu in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The characterisation of the mother and the changing relationship between mother and daughter threads through the novel and has a moving ending. Still,  I felt that covering all this and the project in Africa was too ambitious, involving too many themes and too many characters which resulted in some superficial treatment and implausible plot connections. And consequently I was only intermittently engaged with the characters and the plot. There is some great writing here but it is not Zadie Smith’s best book.

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The Days of Abandonment- Elena Ferrante

Readers who have gone through a painful breakup may be advised to pass on p1010548this novel: it is a powerful, emotionally charged account of abandonment which draws the reader right into the consciousness of the female narrator, her pain and derangement. Written by the author of My Brilliant Friend and the Neapolitan novels, there are some familiar elements: the powerful first person female narrator who tries to write while keeping home and raising children, the evocation of Naples in her childhood memories, the distinctive uses of dialect and formal Italian, the threat of violence lurking beneath the surface in human relationships. Yet this novel, taking place largely in apartments and the neighbourhood over a few months, has distilled those elements into a more concentrated text where physical distortion and decomposition accompanies the mental deterioration experienced by the narrator.

The novel starts with the announcement by Olga’s husband, Mario, that he is going to leave her. Olga is in complete shock, having thought their 15 year marriage was doing fine. Early on in their relationship he had called it off briefly, but then apologised a few days later, saying there had come upon him ‘ a sudden absence of sense’. As she realises the separation is permanent her life descends into disorder and chaos: she can’t sleep, watches daytime TV, household routines disintegrate, she has a car accident and doesn’t pay the bills so her phone gets cut off. She is often on the point of neglecting the children and the dog and erupts into obscenities at the slightest provocation.

This process of losing her grip on practicalities is accompanied by a mental deterioration. She is haunted by the memory of a pitiful character from her Neapolitan neighbourhood-‘la poverella‘ – who wandered the streets weeping and keening when her husband left her, and eventually drowned. Olga remembers sitting beneath her mother’s sewing table as a child and hearing her mother say la poverella was  ‘as dry now as a salted anchovy’. The association of a woman abandoned with dessication is echoed in Olga’s feeling that ‘the life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation’. And this is all part of a repertoire of imagery rooted in the physical, the visceral, used to describe not just her feelings of sexual rejection, but of revulsion, disgust and violence.

The nadir of her descent occurs one night when she has accidentally locked herself in the flat, her son Gianni has a fever and Otto the dog is very ill, probably poisoned. The phone has been cut off so she can’t get help. Olga begins to hallucinate that her daugher Ilaria, dressed up in her clothes, is an ancient dwarf from the Vomero funicular, she sees her own personality splitting up in her three way mirror and sees la poverella inhabiting her body, sitting on her chair with her veins exposed, ‘red, uncovered, wet, pulsing’. This is a powerful and frightening account indeed of a descent into madness.

Now if at this stage you are thinking you can’t quite face this, stay with it. For something happens that night to trigger a change in Olga, to pull her back to the land of sanity and normality. After putting back the pieces of that night, we see her pick herself up, find a job and reconnect with friends. The children start going regularly to visit their father and the normal ups and downs of separated families are described. Olga is able to meet Mario by chance and remain calm and civilised, in contrast to the eruption of violence that occurred on the street before. She has regained her life and found her independent self. And she realises she no longer loves Mario for this reason : his ‘absence of sense’ was a mere justification to indulge a sexual whim : she experienced a different order of ‘absence of sense’ when she plunged to the edge of insanity and managed to get back to the surface.

I enjoyed this novel for its compelling account of grief and a mind brushing the edges of insanity. I love the ‘Italianness’ of the novel- the narrator’s concern with her looks and style, with food and homemaking, while fiercely aware of her own intellect and talents. I love the way the children, their lives and demands, are integrated into the consciousness of the female narrator and yet her appraisal of motherhood is far from sentimental. It was details from the intimate, domestic life described which made me both laugh and cry rather than the loss of romantic love. And thanks to Ann Goldstein for translating the powerful imagery into an evocative English which stays in the mind.

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Short stories from modern Greece: Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou

This collection of short stories, beautifully produced by Archipelago booksp1010547, depicts the everyday struggles of the poor in present day Greece. Set in and around Nikaia and the urban sprawl around the port of Piraeus the stories tell of nightwatchman, steelworkers, waiters, bag makers, the unskilled, those in precarious, short time work and the unemployed. These are characters who work two jobs to put food on the table, who queue up for their wages to be told the cash has run out, whose health is compromised and whose children go hungry. A seam of anxiety runs through the narrative, heightened by the ill lit nocturnal urban setting of many of the stories: the streets outside curve up the hill towards an unknown destination symbolising the bleak uncertainty of the future.

Yet there is resistance and protest, expressed in images both striking and unforgettable. In ‘Placard and Broomstick’  Ikonomou describes in meticulous detail how Yiannis constructs a placard out of cardboard and a broomstick. His friend Petros was electrocuted at the building site where he worked and died two days later in hospital. Yiannis plans to stand outside the building site holding the placard in protest at his death. When trying to think of what to write on the cardboard he remembers the T shirt logo of a crazy gunman in the States seen on T.V. : ‘I’m filled with an incredible emptiness’. He writes nothing and stands for hours on Easter Monday holding the empty placard.

Or the story remembered by Takis in ‘Charcoal Moustache’ of the little girl who drew a charcoal moustache on her face during the war in ’42. Her mother, grandmother and all her sisters had died of starvation and she was trying to trick death into thinking she was a boy so it wouldn’t take her too. Or the couple who came to hospital, their hands stuck together with glue. The girl had visited her boyfriend in police custody, about to be deported back to Bulgaria or Romania and had glued their hands together so they couldn’t be separated. The narrator of ‘Something will happen, you’ll see’, awed by this tale of undying love, goes up to their room to peek at the lovers. She sees the young woman tenderly stroking the forehead of her lover to whom she is still attached, then reaching out her other hand, ‘white and thin’ towards our narrator, whispering ‘don’t worry… there’s no glue on this one’.

The characters find resistance to the harsh economic realities they face in warm human relationships -close friendships, the support of spouses and lovers. But when a crowd are gathered together, the mood can tip into one of dangerous irrationality and vengefulness : in ‘Mao’ a group of older people in the community scapegoat the young nightwatchman with a terrible act of cruelty. And their response to their situation, their coping strategies, also take the form of dreams, of fantasies, of storytelling, of flights of escapism buoyed up by tsipouro, everyone’s tipple. And the fantasies inhabiting the consciousness of these characters ricochet from Greece’s heroic classical past to the present day heroes encountered on TV-in ‘Placard and Broomstick’ Yiannis imagines giving his name to the police as ‘Achilles…Or Alexander…Or Thrasyvoulos’ while it is TV that gives him the idea that his great friend Petros also deserves the honour of an asteroid named after him.

Yet at other times the characters and narrators relate their straitened economic circumstances and its consequences with a kind of dispassionate realism. There is frequent mention of Greece’s previous suffering- its occupation during World War Two, the subsequent starvation and political repression- as if these experiences have been burned into the minds of the older generation. And the responsibility of the European Union for their present plight is fleetingly referred to when the couple in ‘Piece by Piece they’re taking my World Away’ toast their health, together with the ‘free movement of people and products’. A more developed dig at the EU appears in ‘Charcoal Moustache’ in a hilarious scene when a puny German finds he can’t take the Greeks’ fiery tsipouro and ends up dancing round the bar as if on fire, ‘barking ai ai ai’ and speechless except for his ‘haften houften’ while the Greeks look on splitting their sides with laughter.

The comedy of this scene works so brilliantly of course in English thanks to the skill, ear and sense of humour of the translator, Karen Emmerich. I found much pleasure in the language of these stories. She has managed to render a range of voices, in both prose and dialogue, and has found ingenious solutions to what must have been some translating challenges: I laughed out loud at those German ‘haften houften’ sounds and at the wonderful narrator in ‘The Blood of the Onion’ teasing the Hispanophile Michalis with ‘Thpaniards, I told him. You’re all crathy, every thingle one’.

If you like short stories do read this collection. With an economy of language and elegance of structure, Christos Ikonomou conveys the hard lives of the poor in present day Greece and the everyday challenges they face.  Find out more about Christos Ikonomou and the writing of this book in this interview from nasslit. Thanks to Karen Emmerich for her superb translation and to Archipelago books for bringing the stories to us in English.





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