A bit of relaxation reading this week, but this time, a very gripping novel set in Stalin’s Russia involving a personal audience with Stalin, a hunt for a great art treasure and a terrifying journey across the Russian/German front-line.
I’ve only recently come across Sam Eastland although he has been writing for a very long time, mainly under his real name of Paul Watkins. Although an American by parentage, he was born in England and educated at The Dragon School and Eton College, before going on to graduate from Yale University. He wrote his first book at the age of 16 and since then has published many novels.
His last four books, written under the name Sam Eastland, have been set in post-revolutionary Russia and feature Finnish detective Inspector Pekkala. Pekkala was a favourite of the Tsar and after the revolution ended up in the Gulags. The first book in the series, Eye of the Red Tsar (a bargain on Kindle) , sees Stalin calling Pekkala out of the Gulags in order to investigate who really killed the Romanov family and what happened to their treasure.
The Red Moth was published this month and is the fourth book in the “Inspector Pekkala” series. It can be read without knowledge of the previous three books because enough background information is given to fill in the gaps in Pekkala’s biography. When the book opens, Pekkala has advanced to a senior position in the Soviet Union’s secret police, the NKVD, and is the possessor of a “shadow pass”, a Classified Operations Permit, which enables a man to “appear and disappear at will within the wilderness of regulations that controlled the State” and also to requisition any person or equipment required for their special operations.
Anyone who has visited Germany will come away impressed by the similarities between our two countries. We Britons find much to admire in Germany but the Germans tend to admire British culture and our way of life also. When Philip Oltermann was 16, his parents told him that his father had accepted a posting to London and now, 17 years later, Philip has written this book, Keeping Up With The Germans – A History of Anglo-German Encounters, a collection of reflections, analyses and random facts about the friendly but often uneasy relationship between our two countries.
Philip did rather well in Britain. While at school he was selected to join an elite group of boys studying A-level in Philosophy. He eventually went up to Oxford University and is now a deputy editor on The Guardian. His book is a very wide-ranging mixture containing chapters which discuss some complex philosophical and linguistic ideas, and other chapters about football, humour and motoring. If you’re prepared for this then it makes a thoughtful and entertaining read which I for one found very interesting.
It would be easy to write this review entirely by quoting some of the more memorable passages from the book. To see British culture through German eyes is not always an experience which makes you feel proud of your country, especially when for example, you read of Philip’s induction into the tradition of the British Sunday lunch.
“One of my father’s new colleagues had invited us for a welcoming meal which she announced as ‘a Sunday roast’ when we stepped into her house. We had barely taken off our jackets when our host – all wavy coiffured hair and buck teeth – hugged us emphatically and tried to kiss me on my cheeks. She had accompanied the words ‘Sunday roast’ with a showy movement of the hands, like a butler lifting a silver dish cover, conveying an impression of ceremony and theatre. A Sunday roast, this hand movement tried to say, was not like any other meal”.
If you want a bit of light relief from more serious books, then there are three out-of-copyright satirical novels available for free download which are about as funny as anything published today.
In this post, I’m featuring Augustus Carp, Esq. which is a free download from various sites but I’ve linked to the Manybooks site which let’s you download in just about any format you could need. The other two books I’d like to mention are Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith and Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures by Douglas Jerrold. All three books are similar in style, taking a rise out of Victorian manners and pretensions and showing that among all the intense respectability of the era there was quite an undercurrent of subversiveness flowing in the other direction.
Augustus Carp, Esq. was actually written in 1924 but harks back to the previous century when a respectable Anglicanism was the cover for all manner of hypocritical power-plays and generally rotten behaviour. Augustus is pompous and self-important; a paragon of virtue (or so he believes), but in reality a sanctimonious hypocrite who the author delights in humiliating at every turn. The book is written as Augustus’ autobiography and the opening paragraphs set out the great man’s reasons for setting it before the public,
“On every ground I am an unflinching opponent of sin. I have continually rebuked it in others. I have strictly refrained from it in myself. And for that reason alone I have deemed it incumbent upon me to issue this volume. I propose in the first instance to deal with my earliest surroundings and the influence exerted upon me by my father . . . at the time of my birth, then, and until his death, my father was a civic official in a responsible position, being a collector of outstanding accounts for the Consolidated Water Board“.
Saturn by Polish author Jacek Dehnel is a historical novel based on the life of Spanish artist Francisco Goya. The shocking cover illustration shows one of Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings” depicting Saturn devouring one of his sons. When Goya was in his seventies, he painted the Black Paintings directly onto the walls of his house and they reflect the pessimistic and bitter outlook which he developed towards the end of his life.
In 2003, art professor Juan José Junquera published a book suggesting that the Black Paintings were not in fact painted by Goya but rather by his son Javier. The book was received with scepticism if not anger by other Goya experts, but Junquera’s theories are not implausible (a summary of them can be found on Wikipedia here).
Jacek Dehnel has written a fictionalised account of the last years of the lives of Goya, Javier and Javier’s son Mariano, working on the basis that Javier did indeed paint the Black Paintings, and it makes for a fascinating read. The book interweaves first person diary-style accounts from each of the three men; the embittered Francisco, the other-worldly and confused Javier and the scheming Mariano. As the book progresses a very credible story builds up which includes Javier beginning to paint the first few of these 14 paintings.
Before I go any further, let me mention that this is another book translated from the Polish by award-winning translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones who was responsible for the translation of the four books by Pawel Huelle which have been reviewed on this website. I admire the way she has achieved a very different style for this book when compared with the more Polish-sounding voices in Pawel Huelle’s work. Antonia tells me that the Jacek Dehnel’s text was peppered with 18th-century Spanish words disguised as Polish which gave her quite a challenge. Fortunately she had access to Jacek’s research books which provided the background she needed to create her translation.
To get back to the book, Jackek Dehnel shows that the relationship between the three men, father, son and grandson, is deeply flawed. Francisco seems to have taken a dislike to his son from the start. Javier did not want to paint with his father and he reacted badly to Francisco’s outbursts of anger and his erratic lifestyle. Francisco writes of his son,
He drew like a woman. For he grew more and more like a woman altogther . . . he just crept about the house with his nose eternally in a book, pale and unhealthy . . . he always sat on a mule or a horse like a sack, nor would he go to the bullfight – he avoided me, hid in corners.
It is 70 years since Stefan Zweig committed suicide with his wife in Rio de Janeiro and while he died despairing of the future of Europe and it’s culture, the ongoing popularity of Zweig’s books suggests that perhaps the future was not as bleak as he supposed. This month, Pushkin Press are publishing four Zweig books with elegant new covers designed by David Pearson and I am pleased to see that they have included Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, in a translation by Anthea Bell.
I have been re-reading Beware of Pity remembering how I originally came to it with some trepidation, not being overly keen on books which focus on unrequited romance. However, I was soon swept up into it’s unfolding drama and was surprised to find it difficult to put down, with a captivating but simple message: if you live entirely to please others you will bring disaster, not only on yourself, but also on those to whom you imagine you are so vitally important.
The novel, set in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early part of the 20th century, tells the story of a young second lieutenant, Toni, who finds himself embroiled in a relationship with Edith, a partly paralysed 17 year old girl. Edith’s family encourage the relationship and it is only when it is too late that Toni discovers that the girl is deeply in love for him and that she has embarked on a new course of medical treatment so that she can get better “just for him”. The young soldier is faced with the impossibility of breaking Edith’s heart, knowing that such a course would jeopardise her recovery from her disabling condition.
The subdued art-work on the cover matches the plain title of this book, but first impressions in a book-shop can be safely ignored – Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar is a very inventive and unusual book, which I would place in my top two books read this year.
The book opens in Trieste in September 1943 when a sailor wakes from a coma in a German hospital-ship moored in the port of Trieste. He is heavily wounded and does not know who he is or what happened to him. Red Cross nurses attend to him and a doctor appears from time to time to shine a light into his eyes and to try to obtain some information about what happened to him.
The doctor’s new patient has no documents or anything else that can identify him and when he regains consciousness we learn that he has lost his memory and cannot even remember what language he speaks.
One morning Doctor Friari arrives with a bundle under his arm. He unwraps his parcel to reveal a Finnish sailor’s jacket with the name Sampo Karjalainen on a cotton label inside the collar. In one of the pockets is a handkerchief with the initials S.K. embroidered on it. The doctor speaks the name and shows the unknown soldier the handkerchief in the hope that it will reawaken memories. The doctor himself is Finnish and begins to speak his native language but the patient shows no response other than mild bewilderment.
Late last year I was entranced by Lynn Shepherd’s literary novel Tom All Alone’s in which private detective Charles Maddox took on a case involving among others, characters from Dickens’ Bleak House. I was delighted to discover that her new book A Treacherous Likeness is published this month and I made sure that I got my hands on a copy as early as possible.
A Treacherous Likeness is a remarkable book having at it’s heart what Lynn Shepherd rightly describes as, “one of the most celebrated episodes in English literary history”; the time when Percy and Mary Shelley stayed in Geneva with Mary’s step-sister Claire, who was having an affair with Lord Byron.
In some ways, A Treacherous Likeness is far more than a novel and in a video accompanying this book (see below), Lynn Shepherd explains that her purpose in writing A Treacherous Likeness is to explore the gaps and silences in the lives of the Shelleys which history has passed over. She does this by setting her investigator from Tom All Alone’s, Charles Maddox onto the case at the request of Shelley’s family, allowing her to explore in fiction her theories about the scandals and intrigues surrounding Byron and Shelley.
When the book opens we find that Charles Maddox has now moved in with his dying great-uncle and mentor (referred to in the book as “Maddox”). The old man seems to be sunk into the depths of a final sleep, tended by his assistant Abel and house-keeper Molly. Charles reveres the old man and learned the skills of investigation at his side but now he has to root through his great-uncle’s case notes to discover the truth about his new assignment.