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.
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.
‘This is how it happens. There is nothing and then, suddenly, something. A family is making dinner, talking, laughing, and then the outside world muscles in.’
“Dr. Allen, your son killed the next president of the United States.” – Ten words that no parent would ever wish to hear; words that no parent would ever even dream of hearing. Yet Dr Paul Allen, the narrator of this tale, ‘a man who had found contentment in life, happiness. A lucky man, who had come to expect good things’, is confronted with this reality in the middle of pizza-making with his second wife and their twin sons. Along with the rest of America, they watch the shocking news of the assassination of a charismatic Presidential candidate as it unfolds on their TVs. Minutes later, the Secret Service are at their front door revealing that the man arrested for the murder is Danny, the child of Paul’s first marriage.
Paul is instantly in denial, vehemently rejecting the possibility of his son’s guilt. A universe in which his son is able to commit murder is incomprehensible to him, and asking if Daniel is culpable is like asking ‘What if rain fell up instead of down?’ At one point, Daniel’s mother says ‘Danny shot Jesus’, as senator Seagram, though not black, was the fictional equivalent of Obama, a man who represented hope, a man loved by all.
Daniel’s actions spiral the lives of his family members into uncertainty and constant questioning, his father asking himself what he had done to make Daniel who he is, what could he have done differently?: ‘Was this what the rest of my life would be made of? Endless nights spent building alternate histories, running simulations, looking for a way out of the maze?’
Hawley explores the impact that divorce and absent parents have on children, questioning whether this core instability can extend into other parts of a person’s life. It is always too easy to point a finger at the parent, and they are always the ones that the public ultimately land up blaming and hating, ostracising them from society, allowing their shame to build a protective wall of ‘us’ and ‘them’, as if bad parenting were contagious.
Paul is not without his flaws, but his unrelenting devotion to his son (though perhaps now too late) is truly heart-breaking. Swearing that ‘his vindication would be my grail’ he does everything in his power to ‘save’ Danny. This soon develops into an obsession, him tirelessly collecting and collating all information related to the crime, him reading books on famous assassinations (McVeigh, Sirhan Sirhan, Hinckley) and sharing these details with the reader, him searching for similarities between these men and his son:
‘I had spent the last three months trying to compile the evidence, to add up all the moments from Danny’s childhood that could provide a diagnosis, a definitive answer as to who he was and why he did the things he did, and yet in life everything is open to interpretation. We see the past through the prism of our perception. When a man is indicted of a crime you review his life looking for patterns. Incidents that may have been meaningless before suddenly loom large. Look. He killed spiders. That must have been an early warning sign.’
We are asked many questions through the course of this book. Who do we apportion the blame to? Is there even a need to do so? Can blame spread beyond the culprit himself?
The desire to know what leads a human being to commit a heinous crime like this, is what propels this narrative, is the reason why I found myself hooked onto every word of every page. Is it that part of us that feels alone and disconnected from the world that comes forth and does what was previously thought to be impossible? ‘A person, alone in the dark, disappears little by little, piece by piece’ until they reformulate into a different person. But then this: ‘Understanding the reason makes killing reasonable.’ Murder cannot be cleanly boxed up and categorised.
Ultimately disillusioned (and perhaps also delusional) does Danny do what he feels needs to be done, searching for his place in history? The lack of logic in his thinking and in the thinking of other seemingly intelligent men always has the ability to infuriate me, but evidently ‘the world is full of twenty-year-olds with too much in the way of balls and not enough sense. This is what young men are good for. Revolution and murder.’ That Danny doesn’t fit into the stereotypical psychological profile of a killer is important. Hawley plays with notions of nature, nurture, destiny and chance, never quite pinning down the reason why things have turned out as they have. Ambiguity is the tool of great writers; it is what gives novels lasting impact.
I. LOVE. THIS. BOOK. But then again, I knew I would. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my favourite books, and as this also works with themes of parenthood and innate vs. learned characteristics, that I would enjoy it was inevitable. I’m surprised this book hasn’t had more media attention; I honestly believe it to be an astonishing achievement. There are so many profound passages in it, sentences that provide great insight into the human mind and human motivations, that my list of pages to quote from grew too long to attempt both cohesion and concision. A book that I could not wait to finish yet was sad when I finally did. It did not disappoint on any level, I cannot recommend this enough. Read it.
So I’ll leave you with these two thoughts to ponder on:
- ‘We’re not all put on this earth to do what’s right.’
- ‘You can’t make a good person do bad things. You can’t change who they are fundamentally in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. That’s science fiction. The only thing that can change who we are is life.’