I was going to say that all of the books I read in June were old fashioned paper books. But I was mistaken. At the start of the month I threw myself into three different versions of the story Babylon Berlin.
First up I watched the Netflix series which was fantastic. Intense and over the top but capturing the frenetic atmosphere in Weimar Germany between the World Wars. Incredible storyline, incredible acting, incredible cinematography. I could only watch two episodes at a time it was so emotionally involving. People everywhere scrabbling to survive in a hostile world, prostitution, pornography, blackmail, drugs. Dance parties until dawn in bombed out factories one way to escape the grinding poverty – both material and spiritual – of everyday life. Shades of the movie Cabaret but much darker.
Signs of the previous war everywhere; beggars, disabled men, daily gatherings of people seeking casual work, building sites disrupting traffic and pedestrians. Extreme political forces at work from the right and from the left. All intent on destabilising the centrist government. Factions everywhere; in the government, in the military, amongst the gangsters, amongst the groups protesting on the streets. Factions in the police force.
Our hero is Gereon Rath a detective starting at the bottom in police headquarters in Berlin. He’s fleeing things – both professional and personal – from his life in Cologne. He’s got lots of secrets. His avuncular colleague Bruno Wolter takes him under his wing but is he looking out for Gereon for the right reasons? Gereon teams up with Charlotte Ritter, a sometime stenographer for the police who’s trying to get a permanent police job, but having to sell her soul on the side to feed her family. Can Gereon trust her? Can she trust Gereon?
Something’s being smuggled into Berlin on a train. One thing or two? For whose benefit: Trotsky, Russian nobles, the Russian Government or the German Fatherland? There’s a violinist on the run; a cross dressing cabaret singer, ruthless gangsters and a strange, disfigured doctor dispensing morphine to shell shocked ex-soldiers. It’s all completely gripping. And the final episode, after two seasons, the sixteenth, sets everything up to continue. If one has the emotional stamina.
Here is a trailer for the series. This is dubbed, but it’s obviously best watched with English subtitles.
I was so taken with the series I read the book of the same name on which it is based. A detective story by Volker Kutscher; one of a series starring the same detective, Gereon Rath, but this is the only one translated into English from the original German. Gereon is pretty much the standard detective in the book with a slightly murky past but nowhere near as complex as he is in the television series. And his relationships with both his family and his colleagues are much more straight forward.
I did discover that Gereon is the name of a German Catholic saint, and an unusual name in Germany so it probably makes Gereon a bit of an outsider. The story itself is as convoluted as the television series but without the add-ons. So it is a relatively conventional detective story although recognised as depicting the Weimar Republic well.
I found it fascinating comparing the two and seeing how the screen writers built on the original story; making it so much more compelling. Taking the same characters but giving them complex back stories and much more nuanced relationships. In the book Gereon and Charlotte just go to bed almost on their first night. Doesn’t happen in the television series. We are kept guessing – will they? won’t they? And there’s another woman introduced into the mix; Gereon’s dead brother’s widow!
Most of the minor figures in the book are fleshed out in the series; given interesting back stories and lots more to do. And there are many more characters like Gereon’s sister-in-law and Charlotte’s friend. The novel’s basic story line is kept – Gereon’s move from Cologne to Berlin, the smuggling operation, the communist factions and the mobsters. But around all of this they build into each episode a whole lot of interlocking, sometimes overlapping, stories and characters that raise the stakes considerably. All of which was followed by a completely over the top denouement. In keeping with the book but much more dramatic.
I’d also managed (a mistake whilst clicking to buy on Amazon) to purchase a graphic version of the novel. The first time I’ve ever read one. It was interesting too but for the opposite reason. In this version the writer/illustrator, Arne Lysch, had pared back the original novel to it’s basic ingredients. So minor characters, and small side stories in the novel were excluded. But Gereon and his side-kick / love interest CHarlotte Ritter and his police colleague Bruno Wolter are all there. In fact the graphic novel by sticking to the skeleton of the story, unadorned, makes a quite complicated narrative simple and easy to follow. So all three versions were instructive. Of the three it’s the Netflix series you should plunge into.
All of the other books I’ve read this month have been paper ones – which is unusual for me.
Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck
I was really taken with Go Went Gone by this author (see here) and so I was delighted to pick this slim volume up in our local second-hand bookstore. It’s only 150 pages long but seems to encompass the whole of German history. It does so by relating the stories of those associated with a house on the side of a lake in rural Germany.
The Prologue takes us right back to the geological foundation of the land on which the house is built. Each short chapter that follows describes some aspect of the lives and circumstances of those who possess or visit the house over the ages. These chapters are interspersed with ones simply entitled The Gardener which focus on the planting of trees and shrubs, pruning and felling of trees, replanting and redesigning different aspects of the garden. People come and go but the natural environment adapts and survives. Chapter headings tell you whose story is being told: The Wealthy Farmer And His Four Daughters, The Architect, The Architect’s Wife, The Cloth Manufacturer (he’s Jewish), The Girl, The Red Army Officer, The Writer, The Visitor, The Subtenants, The Illegitimate Owner.
And so we have a history: bucolic village life, city dwellers seeking a refuge after World War One, the aesthetics of the Weimar years, the increasingly hostile environment for German Jews, emigration and safety for some, death to others, Russian occupation, division of Germany and eventual unification. Fantastic achievement. The Epilogue outlines the legal requirements for demolishing a house. All of the writing is beautiful; succinct and simple but slowly building to a very powerful emotional effect. The Red Army Officer chapter is a tour de force. Strongly recommended.
The Mandelbaum Gate, Muriel Spark
Another author I always look out for in my second-hand bookstore browsing. What a macabre cover; even if it’s a scene from the story! I loved it. Set in the early days of the new state of Israel and largely seen through the eyes of a fairly dim witted fellow from the British consulate, Freddy Hamilton. You don’t expect to at the outset but by books end you are quite sympathetic to Freddy. Or at least I was.
The woman on the cover is Barbara Vaughan, an English woman with a relatively complicated back story. Not the typical English spinster type that she appears to Freddy to be. In fact she is meeting up with her archeologist fiancee but waiting for permission from the Vatican for them to marry. She’s also upset the principal of her girls school back home who didn’t expect her to marry. So it’s all quite complicated.
You get a great sense of Jerusalem and the murky politics raging at the time. The Mandelbaum Gate sits on the border between the then Jordan side of Jerusalem and the Israeli side and Freddy passes through it often on weekends to see his friends in Jordan. All of the tensions between Jews and Arabs and the casual racism of the English are beautifully realised. I really liked how she portrays differences between the Arab characters; not everyone is trying to exploit the British or to capitalise on their political situation. All quite nuanced.
There’s a bit of religious mumbo jumbo that shouldn’t put you off as well as a deserved swipe at the chicanery around much religious tourism. Muriel’s a convert to Catholicism and often includes a bit of theology in her books. Barbara is a committed Catholic, although with a Jewish background. This gives rise to some complications as she travels around the holy sites of Jerusalem – on both sides of the Mandelbaum Gate. I’m not familiar with the biblical sites that she’s keen on but that didn’t matter.
I love how Muriel tells you in advance what happens. She seems to do it in most of her books. I read novels quickly because I’m keen to find out, so I like it when you’re told because then you can concentrate on the how and why rather than the what. The plot is convoluted but clever and the ending very satisfactory. A good old-fashioned read.
While I’m talking about Muriel I’ll mention the other one I read, The Abbess of Crewe. I thought it was ridiculous. Apparently a parody about Richard Nixon, but that doesn’t save it. Nuns inside an Abbey during a contest to become Abbess; no electioneering allowed. But those in charge, including the candidate, have unbeknownst to the general body of nuns (who are represented as being extremely stupid) started taping all the conversations in the place. The opposition candidate is having sex with a Jesuit, trawling for votes from her sewing group and gets in a tizz when her thimble is stolen. All mumbo jumbo. To my amazement it’s been filmed in 1977 as Nasty Habits starring Glenda Jackson! Not recommended.
The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald
I looked for this in my usual second-hand bookstores to no avail so ended up buying it at a store for new books (in Ballarat as it happens). Its been released to coincide with a new movie based on the tragic tale it tells. It depressed me utterly. I’m sure the writing is good but I remain unconvinced about Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve read some in the past and got a few more to read that I’ve found second-hand so my final judgement is on hold. I didn’t like any of the characters much and I certainly didn’t like the outcome. Contrary to the film trailer I don’t think there is anyone like the sort of person Bill Nighy likes to play (bumbling but full of good intentions that are finally realised) to be seen in this awful village. I’ve been trying to find out if the film has the same ending. I’d be amazed if it did. But the only person who’s seen it couldn’t remember! I’m certainly not going to see the film and I don’t recommend the book.
Less, Andrew Sean Greer This is one of those books that come along occasionally that you don’t quite enjoy reading but afterwards it grows on you. Or at least this is what happened to me. It tells a tale of two men who fall in love, one much older than the other. They brought to mind the two characters played by Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet in the movie Call Me By Your Name.
Arthur Less is the former golden haired boy now turned middle aged writer reflecting on a less than glorious literary reputation. He’s the former lover of a famous Pulitzer Prize winning poet (who brought to mind Robert Lowell) now bedridden and being cared for by his former wife. Arthur is the Armie Hammer figure. Every time he’s described be reminded me of Armie, blond, beautifully proportioned, welcomed wherever he goes. A successful first novel. He’s now struggling to write his second. After Robert, the poet, Arthur has been in a reasonably long, non-monogamous relationship with a younger man, Freddy Pelu, son of one of his contemporaries, think Timothee Chalamet. Freddy is now getting married to his male lover because Arthur could not bring himself to say that he (Arthur) wanted to stay with him (Freddy) forever. More shades of Call Me By Your Name.
The bulk of the novel is Arthur running away from everything to do with Freddy, which really means running away from himself. Flashbacks to his life before Freddy are interspersed with the embarrassment he is suffering in the here and now. Following Arthur as he travels around the globe attending literary events there are lots of sly digs about contemporary literary life. Prize giving ceremonies, retrospectives for literary worthies, boring academic seminars, lectures and workshops, aggressive newspaper interviews.
Amongst the flashbacks, memories of beach holidays, never-ending parties, the terror of AIDS, and one that I really liked, describing what it was like to live with a genius. Somewhere along the way – about midway through the novel I think – we get a narrator giving us a third person account of what’s happened, what is happening. I, who never get it when puzzles are presented in novels like this – who is this mysterious I – actually did get who this narrator was before it’s revealed towards the end of the book.
In fact the revelation sent me back through the story, almost a second reading, in search of a particular line that really resonated when you new who was telling the tale. It all reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. Especially in its dissection of contemporary American life. (This suggestion made a friend of mine mad!!) After the fact, I really enjoyed this novel. Recommended.
The Unexpected Education Of Emily Dean, Mira Robertson What a cheerful cover for this book! As foreshadowed in the title it’s a coming of age story set in rural Australia in the 1940s as the war rages on. I really enjoyed it.
The characters are all well drawn and the dialogue in particular is spot on. Nearly all of what was said by this family could indeed have been heard in my family home in times gone by.
As could the family members that Emily encounters. There is the strong minded Grandmother demanding that standards be kept, the Uncle who actually does the work but who is emotionally absent, the much younger dissatisfied and restless Aunt and the mostly absent, until he arrives home, wounded soldier Uncle William. It’s to these folk, her father’s family that young Emily is reluctantly sent while her mother recuperates from what appears to the reader to be, but unknown to Emily, a nervous breakdown of some sort. It’s all very nicely realised.
Life on the property continues while information about the war trickles through. There is an Italian prisoner of war helping out and Emily befriends him as she teaches him English. Claudio contributes to Emily’s education in ways not known to him. It’s a delicate balance and pulled off nicely. Emily remembers things her mother has said to her, different things she has learned at school as well as her sense of exclusion from the in group of girls at school.
I really liked the emphasis throughout on different literary works. Emily is reading Middlemarch although finding it hard going and we get reminders from time to time of where she is up to. She also stumbles upon her Uncle William’s library where she reads various classics, including Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure which also contributes to her education. This interest in literature gives her a connection to the damaged William when he arrives home. And so William too contributes to Emily’s education. As does Lydia in the final section of the book. The title is well chosen.
Throughout we see everything from Emily’s point of view. Given she’s fourteen, what she perceives is going on around her, between the adults, is sometimes not accurate. And sometimes she does not act very sensibly – which is exactly how a fourteen year old behaves. The authorial voice of the child does not waver. Nicely done. It’s all very satisfying. Recommended.
Whistle In The Dark, Emma Healey I really loved this author’s acclaimed first novel, Elizabeth Is Missing; a perfect gem of a book. I’m sorry to say this one is not as good as the first. The family at the heart of this story is rendered convincingly – educated mother and father, met while university students, bought there nice house long ago when it was affordable. All so familiar. The youngest girl has serious mental health issues; self harm, suicidal thoughts. A serious issue and common these days. So the parents, Jen and Hugh, and the child, Lana, have been having some sort of counselling.
We encounter them at a later stage after Lana has been found after going missing while on a painting trip with her mother; aimed at bringing her out of herself and connecting with Jen and the world. Jen’s anxiety at the hospital and the public reporting of her daughter’s story is very well rendered. Lana herself cannot remember anything about the two days she has been missing. Can’t or won’t say. Jen’s anxiety about what may have happened and her sense of guilt about not being a good enough mother overwhelms any sympathy I had for her. It may be that this is an accurate account of the level of anxiety a mother would feel facing these circumstances but it pervades every interaction Jen has with Lana and makes her come across as needy herself.
It certainly doesn’t make for an enjoyable or interesting read. Especially when she’s not given a more grounded back story. Everything about her exudes anxiety. The decision to have a child in the first place. The non-decision that results in the second child, much younger than her sister. Forgetting contraception? Really. Meeting hallucinatory (or not) figures on trains at night. An unsatisfactory working life surrounded by younger and more glamorous colleagues. There is no joy or success in any of it and it didn’t resonate.
The older sister, Meg, doesn’t play much of a part in any of it. Perhaps she is there to be a successful counterpoint to the chaos enveloping her mother and sister. The fact she is a lesbian without a partner about to become a mother doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant to anything. Hugh, husband and father is the most sympathetic character. He cooks and comforts when necessary and is not driven up the wall by Jen’s antics. Which is a bit unbelievable. A pity. I can’t really recommend.
Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, Henry Hemming Bloody Ben McIntyre who wrote the absolutely splendid A Spy Among Friends says on the cover that this book is superb. I didn’t think so. In fact I think it shows that not everyone can make spying interesting; even when they have good material to work with.
There are some good stories embedded in this very repetitious and very badly written biography that might be worth telling. Mr Knight himself is interesting. Starts out infiltrating fascist outfits in Britain. Was he a sympathiser? The question is raised but not answered here. He had three marriages of which we are told the bare outlines except for the interesting fact that none was consummated. We’re told he wasn’t homosexual although an earlier book said he was. But there is nothing in this book to really to let us decide one way or the other.
He was a public figure on British television as an expert on animals. We are told are the bare facts over and over again: he loved animals and had lots of strange pets over his life. How on earth does this relate to his role in MI5? Indeed is it relevant at all? Then why go on about it. Annoyingly we don’t get the answers here.
He was also a bit of an outsider within the spy system we are told and he had separate premises, but again we are given no insights into how this came about, any discussion, debate about it and whether it affected anything. Presumable it was a big decision and some people might have objected with good reason. You get the sense he was a bit of an outlaw in the formal structures of MI5 and MI6 but it’s not really elaborated.
There are a couple of spies in the early MI5 who did good work but this book doesn’t really tell you how their success was achieved. There’s no colour and movement, no special insights into anything to be had here. All in all a disappointment. Better to read Le Carre (who gets a walk on role to say he was there and a picture to boot – but nothing else).