Summer holiday fun: ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ by Stuart Turton

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To be honest, ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ would also serve as autumn fun, winter fun or spring fun, it just so happens that I read Turton’s debut novel during the summer and I enjoyed it more than I can say.  As the attractive cover suggests, this murder mystery consciously draws on the great tradition of Agatha Christie style period crime novels.  As the baffling title implies, it adds its own touch of originality, with a delightful level of time-travelling confusion doing to classic crime what ‘Groundhog Day’ did to the formulaic rom-com.

Like any good whodunit, the set-up is fiendishly confusing, but I’ll do my best.  We begin with a frightened man in a forest.  Utterly lost, he tries to make sense of the mysterious and often violent strangers he meets as he finds his way to a nearby stately home.  First is the mystery of who this amnesiac protagonist actually is, but compounding and then overshadowing this is the reveal of his mission – our narrator will inhabit a series of guests as they re-live one tragic day at the isolated Blackheath House.  He has seven days and seven hosts to solve the mystery of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death, due to occur under the same tragic circumstances at the height of the evening’s grand ball.

If this sounds overly complex, believe me, I’ve only scraped the surface.  There are cryptic friends and surprise enemies, often embodied by our very own narrator as he encounters, leaves clues and sets up puzzles for future and past hosts.   Turton handles the multiple timelines and self-conscious world-building with an aplomb reminiscent of Diana Wynne-Jones (anyone who has read her incredible Chrestomanci books or ‘Archer’s Goon’ will understand what high praise this is).  Adding to the joy is the humour and pathos of our hero’s plight; with each passing day he becomes more accustomed to his environment, but complacency has its own dangers as his inner self becomes increasingly vulnerable to the infectious malevolence of Blackheath House and his various hosts.  Wonderfully, these hosts in turn have an emotional and practical impact on his investigation.  Conventional fictional detectives do sometimes have to struggle in their quests for truth, but I’ve never read of one afflicted with an unexpectedly short attention span during a stake-out or a characteristic compulsion towards sadism hindering his attempts to help a damsel in distress.

‘The Seven Deaths’ even charmed me into accepting its use of the present tense throughout.  I’ve previously set my limit on toleration for this affectation at 150 pages.  Turton smashes this.  His writing is not only fluid, fluent and compelling, but is also completely appropriate to the task – how could an amnesiac hosted spirit wandering through a complex timeline and around a closed-house mystery express himself if not in the first person present tense?  I don’t expect to come across this perfect set of conditions very often in my reading, but I hope I am generous enough to applaud the author when I see them.

I hope that, when balanced by my babbling enthusiasm, the confusion of this blog post will not put anyone off the book.  Yes it is complex and almost overwhelmingly ambitious, but it succeeds in achieving its own incredible aims. I don’t expect to read many odder books this summer, but I’d be delighted to encounter even a handful that can bring me such pleasure.

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Before Marlene Dietrich and ‘The Blue Angel’ there was: ‘Professor Unrat’ by Heinrich Mann

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Marlene Dietrich became an international star following her role as the seductive cabaret singer Lola Lola in ‘The Blue Angel.’  It’s not hard to see why, she is utterly captivating as the fame fatale responsible for the downfall of Emil Janning’s Professor Rath.  In fact, ‘The Blue Angel’ with its familiar tale of respectability brought low, makes for an interesting contrast with the source story; Mann’s novel has a far more active tragic hero if a less iconic heroine (Rosa Fröhlich doesn’t have quite the same ring as Lola Lola).

Names are all-important in this book, so we should start by getting some straight.  The author was Heinrich Mann, brother of the more famous Thomas, and the full German-language title literally translates as ‘Professor Filth or The End of a Tyrant.’  The tyrant in question has been cursed with the name ‘Raat,’ changed by generations of students to ‘Unrat,’ a cruel nickname, the validity of which will be explored throughout the novel.

Professor Unrat’s life is fuelled by antagonism towards everyone who has ever insulted him, essentially, the entire population of the small town as each student passes through his class and is found to be insubordinate and unworthy.  His pathological hatred of current and ex-students is almost Roald Dahlish, you feel he might have got on well with Miss Trunchbull from ‘Matilda’, though his anger is matched by his impotence rather than any physical sadism.  Just as he never actually catches students calling him by the detested nickname, so he is unable to enact any but the most petty of punishments on his tormentors.

And then, in a beauty and the beast moment, Unrat meets Rosa.  Although his original aim is to catch, humiliate and expose the students who illicitly form her entourage, this drive is shaken by the encounter with an outsider.  In a different novel, such an experience of love could temper what Mann describes as ‘the accustomed malice of his world.  For the professor however, it makes things more complex, but no less vindictive.

‘Professor Unrat’, is available in English as ‘Small Town Tyrant’ (though I can’t find the name of the translator), and the title is appropriate.  Although, in one sense, Unrat is brought low by Rosa, he never loses his desire to dominate his enemies and his vengeance becomes inextricably linked to her demi-monde life-style with all the opportunities this affords for disgrace.  Mann subverted everything I expected from this story, from the seduced Rath to the good-time-girl Rosa, nobody conforms to their traditional roles.  If you haven’t seen ‘The Blue Angel,’ I recommend it for Dietrich’s captivating performance and Jannings’ tragic starring role.  Even if you’re familiar with the film, I really recommend you seek out the book, for a very different and genuinely enthralling take on a story you think you already know.

Posted in Books vs films, Heinrich Mann | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Another Ironic Title: ‘Wonderful Wonderful Times’ by Elfriede Jelinek

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The English-language title of Jelinek’s 1980 novel comes from the reminiscences of one of its characters, Herr Witkowski, a former SS officer in post-War Vienna.  Unlike his ex-colleagues, who are thriving in late 1950s Austria, he is a powerless cripple, humiliatingly reduced to only abusing his wife and children (though, to his credit, he does this with invention and rigour).  He isn’t a protagonist of the book however, because the future belongs to the young, in this case, four teenagers introduced and condemned in the novel’s first paragraph.   We first encounter them in the middle of a violent assault on a stranger in the municipal park, an attack designed to outrage conventional, law-abiding society:

‘He is a victim … The victim is always better because he is innocent.  At this time, of course, there are still a good many innocent perpetrators.  With their wartime memories, their souvenirs, they stand gazing into the audience from windows bright with flowers, all friendliness, waving, or else they are in high office.  With geraniums.  Forgive and forget the whole lot, is what they say, so a completely new start can be made.’

The teenage gang have no respect for such innocence.  Rainer and Anna Witkowski, consumed with superiority and self-loathing, rely on the money and violent release afforded by muggings to escape from their hideous poverty-stricken home.  Providing the muscle is Hans, child of dedicated socialists, whose father died in Mauthausen concentration camp.  Uninterested in his parents’ blood-soaked cause, Hans has aspirations to join the middle-classes and marry a millionaire.  Completing the quartet is the beautiful Sophie, who has the opportunities, confidence, money and poise her comrades desperately seek.  You would say she had no reason to join in the senseless attack, but then this would be an attempt to categorise and understand the world, aims which have no place in Jelinek’s Austria.

Like The Piano Teacher, ‘Wonderful Wonderful Times’ is a visceral, exhilaratingly accomplished novel.  If the violent youth culture is reminiscent of Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ the book is, if anything, more horrifying through its historical specificity, with the pretentious protagonists seeing themselves as part of the European intellectual tradition.  Rainer’s obsession with Camus and Sartre become starker in the novel’s original language title, Die Ausgesperrten, which (so Google informs me) translates as ‘The Barred’, a reference to the nihilism and absurdism of Camus’ L’etranger but updated for its precise post-Holocaust Viennese setting.  Last week I raved about ‘The Radetzky March,’ a book that grappled superbly with national and personal tragedy.  Half a century later, ‘Wonderful Wonderful Times’ also explores what it means to be Austrian  – an enduringly daunting topic and tackled by Jelinek with at least equal aplomb.

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Marking the end of an era: ‘The Radetzky March’ by Joseph Roth

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‘The Radetzky March’ has been on my reading list for simply ages.  Last summer I wrote about my expectations of Roth’s classic as ‘an Austro-Hungarian ‘War and Peace.’  I can now confirm that this is a terrible description of the novel, but then again unfulfilled expectation and disillusionment are what Joseph Roth are all about.  Fortunately, nobody writes them better than him.

This novel begins with an uncharacteristic moment of triumph.  A humble infantry lieutenant sees the Kaiser’s complete ignorance of self-preservation during the battle of Solferino (you don’t look through field glasses with the sun shining on you, providing a clear target during a lull in fighting).  He acts instinctively, pulling the monarch off his horse and taking the bullet in his own shoulder.  It is a life changing moment and the solider is promoted straight into the aristocracy.  This is a Roth novel however, so splendour will always be undercut by irony.  While the war ended well for the new Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje, it was a crushing defeat for his beloved emperor.  The rest of the novel will trace Austro-Hungary’s painful demise, the Kaiser growing older but not wiser as his empire fragments around him.  The tragic heroes will be Trotta’s son and grandson, brought up to perpetuate their patriarch’s fanatical loyalty to the regime but destined to witness its downfall.

The petty humiliations that pave the way to the novel’s end, mid-way through World War I, are too numerous and wonderfully drawn to do credit to here.  A special joy for me was seeing young Trotta manage to make a pig’s-ear of every adventure befitting a dashing Austo-Hungarian aristocrat.  From his affair with a married older woman when still a school-boy to a dramatic duel at his first military post to his experiences as a dissipated man-about-town in pre-World War I Vienna, Trotta suffers through them all.  Like the empire he tries to adore, he simply cannot live up to the macho expectations of his position.

It may not be an Austro-Hungarian ‘War and Peace,’ it’s at least 500 pages too short for that accolade, but ‘The Radetsky March’ is a wonderful book of both personal and national tragedy.  I’m planning on reading a lot more translated German-language literature in the coming months, but I can’t imagine I will encounter much to match its tragedy, depth or resonance.

Note: I’m a couple of weeks late with this post – Joseph Roth died just over 70 years ago and if I had been more organised I would have marked the anniversary.  Still given how out-of-date and past-it’s-moment everything in this book was, a slight delay and feeling of missing the opportunity is probably appropriate.  It’s never too late to enjoy Joseph Roth’s writing, even if the world he was describing was to end within his own life-time.

Posted in Joesph Roth, Reading in translation | 6 Comments

And the 2019 Woman’s Prize for Fiction goes to – ‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones

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‘An American’ Marriage’ begins with a quote from the wonderful Claudia Rankine ‘What happens to you doesn’t belong to you, only half concerns you.  It’s not yours. Not yours only.‘  It’s a lesson to challenge the characters of the award-winning novel.

Take Roy, whose narration opens the book.  When he claims ‘if you’re going to be black and struggling, the United States is probably the best place to do it‘ you’re willing him to avoid learning how misplaced his confidence is.  Later on, when his wife Celestial swears he is innocent of the rape with which he has been charged, you share her disbelief that her own experiences can be so disregarded.  And throughout, the question of who a person’s story, integrity and love belong to is challenged on a personal and a national level.

Roy and Celestial each get to at least give their own story as the book swaps between their first person narration of events, most memorably, in a middle section comprising letters written to each other.  It is always a pleasure to see the epistolary form make a come-back in  modern novels (like the diary form, used to such great effect by Helen Fielding with ‘Bridget Jones’).  Although I admire Jones’ restraint in keeping this section short, it was my favourite part of the novel, often revealing more about characters than they might wish and given additional power by the knowledge of their intended audience, a sense of purpose that is occasionally missing from the rest of the novel which uses conventional, undirected self-person narration.

‘An American Marriage’ is a moving story about an important topic.  The plot twists may not be unexpected, but they are often dramatically satisfying, forcing the characters to learn and grow though without diminishing the social relevance of the subject matter by suggesting that all struggles can be overcome and the injustices be simply resolved.  I suppose my main criticism is that quoting Rankine is always going to set up an unfair comparison.  ‘An American Marriage’ is not Citizen although it is set in the same world.  Instead it is an accomplished novel that I hope many will read and enjoy, and I’d be interested to hear if others feel it was the right book to win this year’s Woman’s Prize for Fiction.

Posted in Baileys Prize, Tayari Jones | 3 Comments

For your consideration: ‘Kudos’ by Rachel Cusk

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Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’ is one of the most quietly experimental novels of recent years.  Through muted, almost alienated prose, it presents the most powerful evocation of depression and isolation I think I have ever read.  Of course, once the character, tone and style had been established, the next challenge was for the novel’s sequels to show progression.  ‘Outline’ was followed by ‘Transit’ a book which was less pure in both ambition and execution – depression may be hard to convey, but it is at least consistent.  Gradual recovery means abandoning precariously sustained passivity and so ‘Transit’ is a more uneven read, if not less accomplished then certainly striving for an aim which is never going to be wholly satisfying.

‘Kudos’ is the conclusion of the triptych.  The name implies a celebration, but the book is not so simple in how it considers endings, achievements or rewards.  Around half-way through the novel, a precocious college student subjects the protagonist to a disquisition on the complexity of the term:

‘As I was probably aware, the Greek word ‘kudos’ was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: kudo on its own had never actually existed, but in modern usage its collective meaning had been altered by the confusing presence of a plural suffix, so that ‘kudos’ therefore meant, literally, ‘prizes,’ but in its original form it connoted the broader concept of recognition or acclaim, as well as being suggestive of something which might be falsely claimed by someone else.  For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival’s success while she did all the work.’ 

This kind of monologue will be familiar to fans of the earlier novels, but there are some key differences.  Although scarcely more talkative, Cusk’s protagonist is now more active.  She is not humiliated or confounded by the public events demanded by her profession and seems keenly, if quietly, aware of her own deserved status and standing.  Like the women who surround her, she may be talked down to or sidelined, but this does not diminish her agency.  In the previous books, she often reflected impotence or frustration back to those who confided in her, now she reflects determination, strength and a will to succeed on her own terms in a man’s world.

This is not to say that very much happens in the book, or that inner conviction can always prevail against the forces that confront it.  ‘Kudos’ is after all still a book by Rachel Cusk, so the stylistic achievement is one of minimalism and stillness rather than fireworks or dramatic gestures.  The key point is not to underestimate its power.  Like the women whose lives it evokes, ‘Kudos’ is celebration of individuals and a collective, while still dealing with worldly recognition, false glory and usurpation.  It may not have surpassed ‘Outline’ as my personal favourite, but it is richly rewarding book, one that is worthy of its predecessors and a true testament to Cusk’s sensitivity and craft.

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Finding the monster ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi

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Mary’s Shelly’s ‘Frankenstein‘ tells of a monster created by a hubristic scientist out of scavenged, beautiful body parts in a doomed attempt to demonstrate human ingenuity.  The result was an abomination who has nonetheless gone on to capture the hearts of readers for over two centuries, revealing as he does his own tortured humanity in contrast to his apparently admirable and ambitious creator.

From Boris Karloff to Tim Burton, new generations have interpreted the monster for their own times, but it’s hard to find a more accomplished recreation than Saadawi’s utterly up-to-date Iraqi re-telling, in which the figure haunting Baghdad is said to be made up from body parts recovered after bomb blasts, and brought to life by a multicultural city’s collective wish for humanity, national cohesion and revenge.

As with Shelley’s novel, ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ exists in a world that straddles the scientific and the supernatural.  The beginning is laugh out loud funny, taking the form of a ‘final report’ about the work of the ‘Tracking and Pursuit’ department (‘partially affiliated to the civil administration of the international coalition forces in Iraq‘).  It seems the department had been a) employing astrologers and fortune tellers on high salaries to identify security threats b) leaking documents relating to these activities to ‘the author.’  It’s a set up that promises joy to any lover of gothic literature, not least the assured blending of fact and reality that frames so many classics of the genre.

Saadawi’s novel does not confine itself to gothic tradition however, instead it updates it.  The thrill of the book is not horror (though there is a lot of that, the first chapter after the ‘final report’ opens with a bomb going off in the middle of busy civilians trying to go about their weekly routines in the centre of Baghdad).  Instead its power comes from the balancing of the absurd with the tragic, the humour of daily life and the power of politics, religion and love that infuses it all.  There is an action story inside there, and also the heart-braking narrative of a lonely woman coming to terms with her son’s death.  Both are given appropriate and equal weighting in a book which updates the complexity of the best of classical Gothic novels with the modern and all-to-real issues of a specific city in the 21st century.

I learned about ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ when it was shortlisted for the Mann Booker International Prize last year and I feel it is a testament to the importance of such awards.  Translated brilliantly by Jonathan Wright, it made me laugh and came very close to making me cry through its sensitive yet outrageous exploration of life surrounded by death.  If you want to understand Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ read ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’  And if you want to understand what the best of current fiction looks like, follow my example and hope for more books by Saadawi to become available in English soon.

For a far more insightful interpretation of the story – you can read an interview with the author here.

Posted in Ahmed Saadawi, Gothic Literature, Man Booker International Prize 2018, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment