Review: Death in Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec

Death in Pont-AvenAnd what do we have here?  The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec?  Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin.  One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective.   There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough,  a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).

I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime.  Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner.  The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.

The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents.  His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin.  Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.

Pierre-Louis Pennec, a pillar of the community, had continued his forbears love of art and had amassed a huge collection of paintings, many of which were on display in the restaurant.  Commissaire Dupin finds out that fortunately they are mainly copies, for the value of the originals would be astronomic. However, why did the hotelier install a state-of-the-art air-conditioning system to make sure that these prints were preserved for posterity?

Pont-Aven, Brittany

Dupin interviews the hotel staff, beginning with Madame Lajoux, Pennec’s right-hand woman, who has been made distraught by the death of her mentor (and lover?).  She provides Dupin with a potted history of the hotel and the background to the staff.  We learn about Pennec’s family, who are set to inherit a considerable sum of money at his death, and also the local art society who have benefited from substantial donations from Monsieur Pennec.  With Pennec being a man of such advanced years surely his days are numbered anyway?  In any case it soon become clear that there are plenty of vultures hovering around Monsieur Pennec’s estate.

The charm of this book for me was the bucket-loads of Breton atmosphere.  Reading this book was like going on holiday to this exceptionally beautiful part of France.  The book contains plenty of local colour in the various characters Commissaire Dupin interviews.  The author also likes to describe mouth-watering meals in little restaurants by the sea or hidden away up winding lanes.  The whole ambience of the book is so charming that the gruesome facts of the murder seem to be lost among the descriptions of Pont-Aven’s eccentric population living in their authentic Breton interiors.  This is surely an ideal book to be made into a film.

This book would never claim to be great literature but it is skilfully written in the form of a classic detective story.  As head of a publishing house, obviously the author knows what he is doing and no doubt was able to draw on the best editors and advisors to make sure that no detail is incorrect or clue misplaced.  Commissaire Dupin has all the characteristics of a great fictional detective with his own oblique way of working which infuriates his colleagues.  I very much hope that more books follow and I think Hesperus Press are on to a winner here.

I will finish this review by including a painting which comes from Paul Gauguin’s time in Pont-Auven.


Watermill in Pont-Aven

Review: Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

look whos backSo, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.

It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens.  It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker. 

In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk.  He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.

So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective.  And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.

On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany.  It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before.  But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:

 I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.  

The newspaper seller, assuming that his visitor is a Hitler impersonator,  allows Hitler to stay in his cabin while he sorts himself out.  The steady stream of customers are taken aback with the incredibly life-like Hitler, particularly when the realise that he acts in character all the time.  Before long a television produce approaches him to ask him to appear on a chat-show and the fun begins.  The audience evidently believe that the Hitler act is an ironic or satiric take on modern Germany and is hugely successful.  The rest of the novel follows this course through many twists and turns each one more bizarre, proving the Timur Vermes has stumbled upon a rich seam of material which makes for a unique book (perhaps to open up a new genre of comedy for years to come).

It is Hitler’s gradual discovery of the modern world which provides much of the entertainment.  Take for example, when Hitler stays in his first hotel room and discovers television:

The picture was of a chef, finely chopping vegetables. Unbelievable! Having developed such an advanced piece of technology, all they could feature on it was a ridiculous cook! Admittedly, the Olympic Games could not take place every year, nor at every hour of the day, but surely something of greater import must be happening somewhere in Germany, or even in the world! Shortly afterwards a woman joined the man and provided an admiring commentary on his knife skills. My jaw dropped. Providence had presented the German Volk with this wonderful, magnificent opportunity for propaganda, and it was being squandered on the production of leek rings. 

. . . interruptions for advertisements, as frequent as they were abrupt, declared where the cheapest holiday could be obtained, a claim, moreover, which a large number of shops made in exactly the same way. No sane person would be capable of remembering the names of these outlets, but they all belonged to a group called W.W.W. My only hope was that this was nothing more than “Strength through Joy” in a modern guise.

The location of Hitler's Bunker

The location of Hitler’s Bunker

I think the best feature of the book is that the author has allowed no change in Hitler whatsoever.  He is still a totally deluded, misanthropic fascist, utterly convinced of the rightness of his cause.  In today’s Germany, as pluralist a society as any modern European nation, his views seem utterly bizarre being met initially with shock but rapidly interpreted as some sort of art installation, a Gilbert and George of television.  Because they believe him to be acting in character rather than a genuine Hitler, people tolerate his extremist views, perhaps their laughter covering up a secret approval of some of the comments he makes on modern society.

Hitler’s appeal to the media types who surround him seems to be based on the appeal of some of his views and the consistency of his character.  One television associate says, “I love your approach. The vegetarianism and everything — you’re not faking it; somehow, with you, it’s part of the whole concept”.  Describing Angela Merkel as “a chunky woman with all the confidence and charisma of a weeping willow”, the clarity of Hitler’s message evidently resonates once again with those who hunger after a simpler interpretation of the modern world.

The book contains some very funny, if distasteful lines.  When asked why he doesn’t have a passport someone asks him whether he ever travelled abroad.  Hitler replies, 

Well, obviously: Poland, France, Hungary…the Soviet Union.’ ‘You got in there without a passport?’ I thought about it for a moment. ‘I cannot recollect anybody having asked me for one’ 

When discovering the extent of recycling,

If only the Volk had made a greater effort at the right time, there would be no need to collect refuse in this manner, given the wealth of raw materials in the East.

With such scope for black humour, this book makes for a rather scurrilous alternative history.  I was actually reminded of some of Sue Townsend’s books like The Queen and I or True Confessions of Margaret Hilda Roberts Aged 14 ¼ and while the book maybe highly significant in Germany, perhaps in Britain with our irreverent humor about our history and current situation the book does not come across as particularly radical.  I enjoyed reading it, I wonder how well it’s subversiveness translates into another culture where the subject matter would not be met with any particular sense of shock.

Review: Slater’s Sussex, The Colour Woodcuts of Eric Slater – James Trollope

SLATER BOOK COVERI had the privilege last year of going to an exhibition of colour woodcuts by Sussex artist Eric Slater (1898-1963) which launched the publication of a new book, Slater’s Sussex by James Trollope.

As a child Slater led a comfortable life as the son of a noted silversmith.  However, his father was struck down by pneumonia and heart failure when Eric was only eight years old and he moved with his mother, grand-mother and aunt down to Sussex where they lived in Bexhill, Winchelesa and Seaford.  Young Eric was a sickly child and his health prevented him enrolling for the army and serving in the First World War, instead studying craft and design at Hastings School of Art.

While living at Pevensey, Eric Slater was taught how to produce colour woodcuts by a neighbour, Arthur Rigden Read, who was an accomplished artist in this a notoriously difficult and demanding medium, requiring considerable craftsmanship as well as artistic ability.   Images are cut out from a wooden block using knives, chisels and gougers with one block forming the “key” block giving the outline design and subsequent block forming blocks of colour to be overlaid one at a time to build up a printed picture with up to ten layers of colour.  Although this work is laborious, it can all be done in the home studio without the need for a printing press – the image is transferred to the paper by painting the raised surfaces of the block with watercolour paint then laying the paper on the block and rubbing the back of it.  With up to ten blocks (one for each colour) a print run of say 50 sheets would require 500 impressions to be made.

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

These techniques originated in 18th century Japan but were adapted and developed by Europeans and Americans throughout the 19th century and by the 1930s colour woodcuts had become very  popular in Britain and beyond.  Slater had a decade of success in the ’30s with a dealer in Mayfair’s Cork Street and sales in America and Australia.  Unfortunately the popularity of colour woodcuts was not so survive the War when less demanding printing techniques rose to prominence while the market for magazine and advertising illustrations grew.

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Review: Walking the Woods and the Water – Nick Hunt

walkingIn my previous article I wrote about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s as covered in his book A Time of Gifts (and two other volumes). This week sees the publication of Nick Hunt’s book Walking the Woods & the Water which describes his own journey in the steps of Leigh Fermor, 78 years later.  Nick Hunt has journeyed through a very different Europe to the one Leigh Fermor walked through, with the Second World War and the creation of the Soviet Empire (and its later fall) having brought vast changes, particularly along the eastern sections of this walk.

I found it a fascinating exercise to read these two books back to back. They are very different in almost every respect, even though both Patrick Leigh Fermor and Nick Hunt both demonstrate in their books an incredibly adventurous spirit which puts both gap-year explorers and mature tourists to shame.   To start off on a journey like this with so little in the way of planning and resources means that you are going to be faced with crises and near-disasters which will at times be dangerous, even life-threatening, particularly in the more remote regions of Eastern Europe.

While Nick didn’t have the aristocratic contacts which gave Leigh Fermor occasional respite from his trudge across Europe, Nick at least had the website Couch Surfing to help him plan some of his overnight stops.  If ever proof were needed of the generosity of strangers this book is a good starting point, for not only did Nick’s hosts provide him with a bed, they often fed him and generally welcomed him into their lives, often inviting him to stay on and meet friends and relatives, visit bars and clubs, see local tourist attractions and then give him a lift to the best place to commence the next stage of his walk.  There is also a network of Leigh Fermor enthusiasts who met up with Nick from time to time and helped him identify locations covered in the earlier books.  These encounters are some of the most interesting aspect of his book and give a real insight into what it is like to live in the places he visited.

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Review: A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermour

patrick lfI’ve been intending to read A Time of Gifts: On Foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople for quite a few years now but have never got round to it.  Perhaps it’s the beginning of spring which has turned my mind to travel but also reading about new books about Patrick Leigh Fermor also made me think that now was the time to catch up with this renowned travel writer.

In 1933 at the age of 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off on an epic walk across Europe. Adolf Hitler had just come to power in Germany and the continent would soon be ravaged by war.  Leigh Fermor set of at the end of December with only a small amount of money and carrying a rucksack containing a few possessions.

Although he kept extensive notes about his journey, he didn’t start writing this book until the 1970s and it was first published in 1977, over 40 years after the events described.  In the intervening period, Leigh Fermor had become a war hero (kidnapping a German Commander in Crete) and an established travel-writer.  A Time of Gifts has none of the signs of immaturity one might expect of a teen-aged traveller although I suspect that even at 18 he already showed many of the qualities that would be evident in his later work.

Not many people would choose to set off on such an epic journey in the middle of winter, but Leigh Fermor embarked on a Dutch steamer sailing from Tower Bridge to the Hook of Holland in mid-December.  Wearing an ex-army great-coat and hob-nail boots, he disembarked in Rotterdam and began his trudge across Europe in the flat lands of Holland, walking along the polders and canals in a bitterly cold east wind.

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Review: Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

greene heart matterFor the last couple of weeks I’ve been casting around for something to read, making two or three false starts (on books which were so unimpressive I gave up on them), and finally deciding that it’s about time I revisited the works of Graham Greene.  I was partly inspired by the relaunch in Amazon Kindle format of the Vintage Classics editions of Greene’s novels, most of which are priced around £4.00, which to me seems pretty good value for such fine books which have quite a few years to go before they are out of copyright.

I think I read almost all of Greene’s novels and travel writings way back in the 1970s and 80s, which is so long ago that I could probably write a one-sentence synopsis of each book but no more.  While I remember Greene as a very cerebral writer whose novels make profound statements about the purpose of human existence, perhaps his greatest legacy is in the cinema, where so many of his books inspired films such as Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Gun for Sale, The Honorary Consul and others too.   Quite a powerful list of credits for someone who wrote complex novels in which literary quality is a major feature.

And so to The Heart of the Matter, a novel I chose because the name of the central character Henry Scobie stays in my mind but without the detail which would enable me to say anything about him.  I think I chose well because the book reminded me within the first few pages of what it feels like to have your mind absorbed in a great book.

Henry Scobie lives in a British colony in West Africa where he is the deputy commissioner with responsibility for the police.  Greene later identified the colony as Sierra Leone, and there is little in this 1948 novel to commend it as a travel destination with its poverty, corruption and general squalor.  Scobie lives with his wife Louise and together they take part in the social life of the colony with its rigid class structure in which everyone knows everybody else’s business.  Louise is a devoted Catholic but is also deeply disappointed with her life in the colony, where her husband has failed to gain promotion, leaving her languishing as a social also-ran among the colony wives.

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Review: The Asylum – Johan Theorin

The Asylum - Jacob TheorinLast year I enjoyed reading Johan Theorin’s book, The Quarry , the third book in a  quartet of novels based on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea.  While possibly falling into the hugely popular “Scandi-crime” genre, The Quarry had elements which set it apart, not least by its interweaving of a thoroughly modern story of a family in crisis with a deeper story emerging from the island’s folk-lore traditions.

When in March of last year The Asylum appeared I marked it down as one to read but have only got round to it this month. Had I known how good it was I would have read it much earlier and it has made me want to go back to the first two of Theorin’s novels and download them to the Kindle for future consumption.

The Asylum could be categorised as a psychological thriller, but it is much more than that, with it’s exploration of a very troubled psyche indeed.  The main character, Jan, a young man in his twenties, arrives in a Swedish town to work in The Dell, a nursery attached to a secure hospital, St Patricia’s, where the young children of inmates are cared for during the day, returning in the evening to their foster homes.  Two or three of the children who are awaiting foster home placements spend their nights in the Dell, requiring the five staff to work night-shifts on a rota.

Occasionally the children are taken on supervised visits to their incarcerated parent.  The Dells’s staff have to escort the children through an underground passage to a lift which takes them up to the hospital where a security guard takes over and the staff member returns to the nursery, going back to pick up the children up an hour later.

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Four Quartets – T S Eliot

Four Quartets first editionI don’t read much poetry, but thanks for BBC Radio 4 I get small doses of poetry which make me wish I had the time to explore more poets and their work.  Every week Poetry Please with Roger McGough provides it’s listeners with 30 minutes of readers requests and occasional features on individual poets (Shirley Henderson’s reading of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market was a recent delight).

Back in January we were treated to a reading by Jeremy Irons of T S Eliots Four Quartets, a set of poems which contain so many immortal lines it would be hard to know where to stop quoting them.  In an English February for example, Eliot-s words capture the rain-soaked cold which seems never-ending despite the occasional glimpses of sunshine:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat

Eliot had the ability to paint a canvas of imagery in just a few words:

Ash on and old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

(you can almost see the scene, an elderly man in an a shabby, old arm-chair with dead-roses in a vase on a table next to him).

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Review: Tales from the Underworld – Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada - Tales from the UnderworldIn recent years their has been a resurgence of interest in the mid-20th century German writer Hans Fallada. His novel Alone in Berlin was an unexpected success when Penguin published a new translation in 2010.  Around the same time Melville House published the novel Little Man What Now and then Penguin followed with A Small Circus in 2012.  Now we have a new collection of short stories in Tales from the Underworld (discounted to £6.99 in paperback at most online bookshops but still £11.99 on Kindle and other ebook formats!).

Fallada is known for his stories about ordinary people in pre-WW2 Germany.  He deals with “the little people” and their concerns about jobs, money and housing.  In a typical Fallade story we conventional marriages and a way of life long gone where the woman works in the fields or busies herself around the house while the husband goes off to a dull job in a shop or office and returns to become a little tyrant in his own home.

The book opens with The Wedding Ring, a story set in a rural, peasant society where a group of women are digging potatoes in a field, supervised by an indolent male foreman.  A newly-married woman, Martha Utesch gets home at night to find that she has lost her wedding ring during the day’s labours. The foreman of the work gang has of course seen the ring and pocketed it, with no intention returning it to its owner.  Within a few pages we see the foreman’s attempt to make some money for himself resulting in horrific consequences.  This is a classic short story, compact, vividly told, with a powerful yet ironic conclusion.  It could have been written by any of the 19th century masters of the short story and its setting in 1920s Germany only goes to show that outside the cities, rural Europe was much the same wherever you were living.

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Review: Last Friends – Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam - Last FriendsJane Gardam is one of Britain’s more distinguished novelists (Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature, two Whitbread Awards etc).

Last Friends is the final volume in her trilogy based around the story of Sir Edward Feathers (“Old Filth” – Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a successful lawyer and later a judge who spent much of his career as a property and construction lawyer in the Far East.  In 2010 I wrote about the second book in the trilogy, The Man in The Wooden Hat and am now delighted to be writing about the final volume, Last Friends which homes in on the life of Sir Edwards staunchest rival Terry Veneering.

As the book opens we find that Old Filth and Terry Veneering are recently passed away.  Ending their lives in a quiet Dorset village, only Dulcie, the widow of an old Hong Kong judge survives to remember the great men.  Dulcie, herself ancient and frail,  is about to go up to London with her daughter to attend Terry’s memorial service, a difficult challenge for her and one which is going to lead her on one more final adventure of her own.

The story moves back and forth through the years as it tells the story of Terry Venerring, brought up in a down-at-heel industrial town on the cold and windy North-east coast of England.  His mother had a flourishing domestic coal business which she had developed herself, going round the streets of back to back terraced houses with an old wagon hitched to a cart-horse,

Three days a week she clopped round the town on the cart through all the back streets, shouting “COAL” in a resounding voice.  The lungs of a diva.  “Coal today”, she shouted, and from the better houses of the iron-masters in Kirkleatham Street the maids ran out in white cap and apron, twittering like starlings.  “Three bags now, Florrie,” and watched her heave herself down off the dray, turn her back, claw down one sack after another with black gloves stiff as wood.  She adored her work.

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