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‘Tampa is a wild ride—sexy, fast, funny, and frightening, the counterpoint to Lolita. Humbert Humbert is tame by comparison. You won’t want anyone to know how much you enjoyed reading this book.’ David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide
‘Brave and beautifully written; a provocative look at a taboo subject.’ Irvine Welsh
‘Holy shit, what an amazing book. Relentless, uncompromising, unhinged and brilliant.’ Doug Johnstone, author of Gone Again
‘An astonishing novel. We had to wait half a century for a female Humbert. It was worth it.’ John Niven, author of Kill Your Friends
‘A book to make you laugh out loud and leave you feeling guilty for having done so. A brilliant, shocking work of fiction. It will leave you shaken and disorientated.’ Robert Williams, author of Luke and John
‘Tampa charms and seduces you into the mind of its remorseless female protagonist then twists the knife by skating uncomfortably close to your own inner darkness. Lock up your sons.’ Viv Albertine
After reading and enjoying Other Lives But Mine a month or so ago, I thought I’d give literature in translation another go. This time I thought I’d venture to Germany and picked up a book called Alice by a widely read writer called Judith Hermann. I’d be lying if I said the breathtaking cover didn’t play a large part in my decision. I honestly cannot get over this cover, so damned beautiful!
So maybe all European writers have a particular interest in mortality, because funnily enough, this book is ALSO a contemplation on death. It tells of waiting for death to come, of when it occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, of the silence that comes from the questions left unanswered for decades when a person takes their own life, and primarily of what is left behind after death.
The novella is made up of five different interconnected narratives, five separate stories brought together by Alice, the central character whose life is punctuated with instances of death. Each section is named after the person who is either dead or dying in the story. It’s very postmodern in style, with very sparse almost bare prose, and with this direct style of writing, there is no explanation of how Alice may know the people we encounter in these stories. Some small inferences may be made, but much is left to the reader to fill in for themselves. This can be a little disorientating, which is how I feel you’re meant to feel when reading postmodern literature.
This book is about death, yet in a way it skirts around the actual occurrence itself, instead detailing the mundane, the specifics of everyday life, never attempting to describe emotion or anything much beyond facts. In its listing of banalities it somehow normalises death, makes death a part of everyday life, something that happens between swimming in a lake and buying ice cream from a petrol station (which I suppose it is).
An example of this is in the story, ‘Malte’. Alice arranges to meet up with someone from her late uncle Malte’s past; her uncle who killed himself before Alice was even born. The account of this meeting is meticulously detailed in its awkwardness, yet we learn nothing more about the reasons for her uncle’s suicide. However, there are minute snippets of information that can lead you to your own conclusions as to what may have happened all those years ago. And so this is how Judith Hermann speaks - without words.
There was a part of the final story that really did resonate with me, however. Alice is sorting through the things of someone who was central to her life when in a jacket pocket she comes across a crumpled bakery bag with a half-eaten almond horn in it. Such a small, trivial thing all of a sudden becomes significant. Little pockets of someone’s life left behind in their literal pockets, evidence that this person was once a living breathing human being. They once went to bakeries and ate almond horns. They are now reduced to things and memories and anecdotes. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, this will make a lot of sense.
After reading the book, despite the entire thing being from her point of view, you don’t feel like you know Alice at all. You only have a vague outline of the person she may be, but even that is a stretch. I appreciate that this is indeed intentional and the point of the whole postmodern thing, but I found it be unsettling. It was perhaps a little too reserved and devoid of feeling for me, though I appreciate that this is in fact what many will love about it.
I’m sure many critics would say that her complete detachment and almost matter of fact way of describing events is what makes this novel such a great accomplishment, for the power of the narrative lies in what is left unsaid. An essay I could have written for a class in university would have probably said something along those lines too, but now, reading without a motive makes me question whether we can rate a writer for what they do not write, for the gaps they leave in their narrative for their readers to fill in? Can we?
It’s a very happy day to have a first edition of BYRON EASY arrive on my shelf. This is one of the debut novels I most loved reading as a manuscript at the end of 2011 and am most excited to see published in 2013. February 7th is the launch date and for all you Londoners come to hear Jude Cook give his first reading from it on February 11th at The Book Stops Here on Denmark Street. So far translation rights were snapped up in a pre-empt from Bompiani/Italy. Fingers crossed many more will get aboard the hilarious, heart-breaking, cathartic train journey with BYRON EASY next month!
Judging a Book by Its Lover. It is one of the coolest book trailers I’ve ever seen online. Going through it is such an experience. Thanks, Golda for sharing. Check it out: Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere.
The final tally shows an even greater electoral beat down than we all thought. DAYUM!!!
follow-you-down-the-red-oak-tree said: hey, first of all i would like to say that i simply adore your blog. I´m a really avid reader and my room is more of a libary than anything. I simply wanted to ask you since you wrote that you work for a literary agency what you studied. Thanks for answering. PS: What do you exactly do at the literary agency, do you like read manuskripts are getting published or what else do you do? (sorry, i´m not a native speaker so i apologize in advance for any grammar or spelling mistakes ;))
Hey, thanks for your comments! In answer to your question, I studied English and American Literature, but I don’t think the subject matters very much, although studying literature can maybe make you a more discerning reader.
That you read often is perhaps most important because working at a literary agency means you read A LOT (mostly new submissions of manuscripts but also manuscripts of authors already represented by the agency) and create reader reports. Aside from reading, you generally manage the writer’s career, so there’s editing, drawing up contracts, scheduling readings/appearances, and obviously trying to sell the book to publishers in different territories around the world.
Hope that kinda answers your question!
Over the past month I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you were to go through my blog posts. I now work for a literary agency, you see. The good news is that I’m legitimately surrounded by books all day, the not so good news is that I have to read a lot for work so my leisure reading has taken a bit of a backseat. In the past month, I’ve read all kinds of books ranging from a tale of survival in war-torn Beirut, to a novel about the eventful private life of Pablo Picasso, and I’m excited to say that I’ve also read something from a first-time struggling American writer that I have really high hopes for.
I’ve come to understand that almost everyone feels they have a novel inside them, and I’ve unfortunately become that person that crushes the dream, the bearer of bad news. I’ve learnt that it gets easier with time and also that there are some delusional people out there who take it very personally and start to become aggressive.
In my mind, whenever I think of writers, I’ve always maintained a lofty image of a spectacled person with unkempt hair, lounging over a typewriter with a black coffee and cigarette in hand. However, I’ve discovered that authors are real people with real lives. And…
- I’ve learnt that some live at very normal looking London addresses.
- I’ve learnt that they are at times insistent that their true identities remain concealed (all for very valid reasons).
- I’ve learnt that they take public transport and that they sweat after walking through the muggy, late summer, London heat.
- I’ve learnt that as established as they are, sometimes their work isn’t that good.
- I’ve learnt that they can lose all their work through the unfortunate drowning of their laptops (Yes. Drowning).
- I’ve learnt that some are very particular about certain things, especially about money.
- I’ve learnt that the cover design of a book is the centre of many arguments and can cause professional relationships to dissolve.
- I’ve learnt that they write on random bits of napkin, stapled together with pages of faded pencil and images drawn crudely with a biro and that it’s your job to make sense of it all and to type it up into a word document (where it should have been in the first place).
- I’ve learnt that they marry acrobats.
- I’ve learnt that they find it difficult to write when their children are teething.
- I’ve learnt that they’re human. As nervous as I was to meet them, so were they to meet me.
So, a million cups of tea and dozens of manuscripts later, I can honestly say that it’s all so very subjective. All I am is an avid reader, my opinion is not necessarily worth more than anyone else’s; I just happen to have a job that means my opinion can be put into effect. All I can say to writers is do your research and send your book to the right agent, an agent on whose list you genuinely fit, because it’s a really nice feeling to be able to tell a person, after years of being rejected, that you loved their submission and would like to read more. The relief and sheer elation in their response is palpable (though they try to play it cool).
And I promise, a review will be up here by the end of the weekend.