Articles, Fiction, Non-Fiction

On Being Stuck

I am in a sort reading quandry, and it’s why I haven’t posted in a while. If you’ve looked at my GoodReads recently (though honestly why would you) you’ll see that I am ‘currently reading’ two books – something I never do. I started Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter back at the start of October, and I am still wading through it, even though it isn’t very long. I bought it with several other gems from ladies of the 20th century, including Jean Rhys and Joan Didion, and dived right into it for fear that if I left it for a while I would just never read it. It’s one of those books – not essential or urgent, but one that I do want to read.

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image: amazon.co.uk

It’s not a long book but it’s very dense – small type, hardly any page breaks, and no chapters. It’s divided into a couple of massive sections, and it’s easy to get lost in them. It also doesn’t really help that the ever industrious Simone, as I have discovered her to be, does not leave out a single detail of her formative years – which in theory could be a good thing, but it means that she gets too bogged down in these details and the reader feels dragged down with her. A lot of time is spent on her brooding teenage years, with their tempestuous relationships and her musings on what she should do with her life, and what sort of person she should become. Perhaps it is not surprising, given that de Beauvoir is such a celebrated and successful philosopher, that so much of her memoir of her youth could be described as ‘navel gazing’. It is entirely self-centred to the point that it is hard to picture her every day life and how she interacts with the people around her. Instead it is like reliving those tortuous teenage years, except this time in Paris in the early 20th century. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Memoirs and I am very close to giving up altogether – though I hope I will soon feel empowered to go back to it.

I started reading Loving by Henry Green in an attempt to give myself a break from Simone, hopefully to return to her more refreshed. I first read Loving at university, for a course on the concept of time in the 20th century, and I loved it straight away (no pun intended). It was first published in 1945 but is considered a modernist work, in that it is almost entirely character-driven and is a bit experimental with language and storytelling. Most of the plot moves forward through the characters’ dialogue and there’s very little exposition, which I quite like. In that sense it feels very natural, and more like real life, where all our information comes from the communication of other people, whether verbal on non-verbal. I shall probably write a proper review of it when I have finished reading it – which hopefully won’t be in several months’ time…

That’s it for now. I will endeavour to devote more time to reading, and to blogging, both of which have been a bit neglected recently. I adore this time of year, with Christmas and a lot of birthdays, but it’s also just really fucking stressful and tiring, so at the moment I feel a bit like the picture of Simone de Beauvoir on the cover of the Penguin edition I have of her memoirs (pictured above). Hopefully I will find enough time to relax and get some serious reading done!

What do you like to do when you are stuck in a reading rut?

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Fiction, Reviews

Re-reading: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947)

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2009 Penguin paperback (image: goodreads.com)

I first read Alone in Berlin in 2011 just after I’d left university. I’d read a lot of books about the Second World War for a course at university, and my further reading (and time on Twitter) led me to this novel. It was only translated into English in 2009, so in 2011 it was still making quite an impact as a ‘new’ book in the UK, and everyone was talking about it. I read it without knowing much at all about the life of ordinary Germans during the war, or life in Berlin at the time. I had read mostly non-fiction about the war, survivor accounts like If This is a Man, and studies like Ordinary Men and Eichmann in Jerusalem, so this was a new side of the war for me.

I was impressed and somewhat overwhelmed by Alone in Berlin the first time I read it, though I’m not sure I fully appreciated it for what it was. Reading it in 2017 was a different experience. Since 2011 I have read a lot more about the war and have read about life in Berlin for ordinary people in non-fiction. I have also read a biography of Hans Fallada that was very illuminating about both him and the context in which Alone in Berlin was written; if you are interested in his fiction I would really recommend it. Fallada was deeply patriotic and refused to leave Germany during the war, even though his British publisher had made arrangements for him and his family to leave – he just couldn’t do it. He never joined the Nazi party and was therefore suspicious to his neighbours and Party officials – so much so that Goebbels himself tried to dictate his output (he was already a successful author and therefore well-known). He did the bare minimum to appease the tenacious Minister, and remained a private critic of the Party.

Alone in Berlin is based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who performed their own kind of civil disobedience to resist the Party. Their story was brought to Fallada by his friend Johannes Becher, who urged him to write about them – and Alone in Berlin was the result, written in only 24 days. Apparently Fallada was reluctant to take on the material, but once you read the book it’s clear he had a lot to pour into it – it is a rich and vivid novel filled with his resentments, anger, and sadness about the war years. The cast of characters features archetypes of Berlin at the time, covering Gestapo staff, petty criminals, terrified Jews, party members, beleaguered women, and those that just want to stay under that radar and get on with their lives – like Otto and Anna Quangel, the fictional versions of the Hampels.

Otto Quangel is a hard-working man, a foreman at a factory, hardened by years of work and with no belief in art or literature. He is described as having a birdlike face and a hard expression, and prefers silence to mindless chatter, even with his wife. He is uneducated, cautious, and set in his ways – and yet, he is the one to instigate his and Anna’s resistance. He decides to write anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and deposit them around the city for others to find. At first Anna is terrified of being caught, but her fear for Otto and her desire for a better life lead her to help him with the cards. Like the real life Hampels, the Quangels are depicted as simple working people with little education. They do not have the power or resources to form any kind of large-scale resistance, but their passion compels them to do what little they can. Their defiance is driven by the death of their only son on the Eastern Front. They realise that they must do something, however small.

The book features several supporting characters, mostly the Quangels’ neighbours in their apartment building. These include the Persicke family, increasingly led by their teenage son who becomes a zealous member of the Hitler Youth; the Jewish Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been ‘taken away’; an old judge who seems well-intentioned; Eva Kluge, the postwoman, and her layabout husband Enno; and Emil Borkhausen, the petty criminal who tries to play everyone at their own game. There is also Inspector Escherich, assigned to track down the writer of the cards once they become known to the Gestapo. He is a multi-layered character with his own arc within the novel, and is a brilliant example of those who were instruments of the Reich but grew to have their doubts.

As with other books about this time and place, there is a strong sense of desperation running throughout the book, and we go through extreme highs and lows with almost all of the characters. Safety, reputation, and life itself are often on a knife edge, millimetres away from either saviour or destruction. More than once Fallada perfectly demonstrates apparent randomness of whether one is caught or one escapes, whether life will continue as always, or whether everything will change. Nothing in Alone in Berlin is certain, and the effect is terrifying. It is an intense and vivid novel, and though the writing is sometimes a little clunky, perhaps due to the speed at which it was written, you are still completely sucked in and engaged with the story and the characters.

The fact that it’s based on a real story, and even the embellished parts are probably close to things that really happened, means that the saddest and most devastating parts of the novel are even more so, and the effect can be overwhelming. You are shown real suffering, real determination and defiance, real chance and luck, and how easy it can be to win or lose. As per the title, and as is said by Otto more than once, we are all alone in the end; but in a strange way, this can bring us together. Knowing that we are each alone means that we should show compassion for one another, we should know that no one’s life is easy, no matter their position.

I think this time around I had a greater understanding of what Fallada was trying to do with this novel – to show how easy it was to collude, or do nothing, or give in to authority and power. This can be seen in several characters, and particularly Inspector Escherich. Fallada also demonstrates that, like Otto the misanthrope, you don’t even have to like other people to see that everyone deserves to live and be free, and that everyone is equal. The afterword mentions the ‘banality of goodness’ on display in the novel, in contrast to the ‘banality of evil’ later explored by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (as well as others). Society in Berlin is so destroyed that basic goodness and decency have become rare. Knowing this also made me appreciate Fallada’s writing a bit more, though it is flawed. His tone is often very deadpan, nonchalant, understated, or even sarcastic when serious or sad things are being discussed; violence, death, cruelty, grief have all become so commonplace for the characters and the city that they do not require any special language.

When I reached the end of Alone in Berlin a second time, I wondered whether it can be considered a hopeful book. The answer is yes and no – even if evil wins sometimes, there are many more victories for goodness and compassion.

*

Originally published in Germany in 1947 as Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone); translated into English in 2009 and published by Melville House in the US, and Penguin in the UK. I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition (pictured above).

A new film adaptation of Alone in Berlin, starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson, was made in 2016.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

Re-Reading: How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

This article contains spoilers about key plot points that you will not want to find out if you have not read this book. Or you might want to, but I thought I’d let you know.

Recently I wrote about re-reading – why we do or do not choose to re-read certain books, and what we can get out of revisiting the people and stories that first made us keep on reading. I’ve barely re-read anything in my life, so I decided to make a ‘To Re-Read List’ and reacquaint myself with past loves.

First up is How to Be a Good Wife. It was published in January 2013, and I read it in October 2012, so a little while ago now. Long enough that although I remember the plot and why I liked it, I’ve forgotten the intricacies and the story and the depth of the writing. Because this does happen, I find – no matter how much we love a book and might remember certain scenes that ‘got’ us, we inevitably forget a lot of it too. I don’t think this is a bad thing, as it is the absolutely perfect reason for choosing to re-read a book, aside from having loved it. I look forward to revisiting things I’ve forgotten, but that I know I loved.

Picador 2013 hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

Picador 2013 hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

How to Be a Good Wife is narrated by Marta, a forty-something housewife living with her husband Hector in a small and isolated, but unnamed, Scandinavian town. She is bored and lonely now that her beloved son Kylan has flown the nest, and she lives each day under the tyranny of her watch. Marta is obsessed with what time it is and when she should do things, and this jumped out at me even more the second time around. Given that I know the ‘twist’ in the story and the ‘truth’ that is later unveiled, this obsession and all her other tics were even more foreboding and unsettling than they were the first time I read the book.

When you read something like this for the first time, part of the joy comes from discovering the twist, and I imagine this could ruin a second visit. But luckily there is still enough in this story for that not to be the case. I remember sitting there, after reading it for the first time, going over and over the ins and outs of what Hector did and the story as a whole. It is a little complicated, a little mysterious, and a whole lot unsettling. It is the kind of thing that sticks in your mind, and even though I’ve read the book before it did not fail to unnerve me once again.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The simple fact of reading How to Be a Good Wife was just as enjoyable and engaging as it was the first time. I noticed things that had perhaps become a little lost the first time. Not plot details, but the subtlety of Chapman’s writing and the very intense atmosphere of the book. I had forgotten just how claustrophobic the story is and how unnerving Marta’s life seems to be. Hector is very serious, controlling, and Marta is terrified of doing something wrong.

Marta constantly quotes maxims from a book given to her as a wedding present by Hector’s mother (who is also a very controlling, overbearing presence) – a twentieth century guide called ‘How to Be a Good Wife’ that instructs wives to be seen and not heard, to give their husband authority on every matter and even that his topics of conversation are ‘more important’. I’m not actually sure whether this was a real book, but a quick google produces some very similar material (aside from the joke-y gift ones) such as this and this. The ideas are pure Stepford and the woman is reduced to nothing more than a ‘wife’, a sort of service person for her husband. She is expected to be perfect, subservient, and to value her husband above herself – in fact these guides and this way of thinking designates that the wife’e value only exists in relation to how well she fulfills her ‘role’. Depressing, right? But re-reading also made me think about Chapman’s implications in including this book of Marta’s – it is one of the ways that Hector controls her, but I think it also dictates how he genuinely thinks a wife should be. He definitely doesn’t have a ‘normal’ modern view of a marriage as an equal partnership.

The atmosphere in Marta and Hector’s house constantly feels as if they have just had an argument – but they never argue. Every move and every word is filled with tension and they never seem to relax. It feels strange to read that the sleeping Hector hugs Marta to him. She in turn doesn’t seem to get any pleasure from this; she cannot sleep and creeps out of the room. Though How to Be a Good Wife is only short, I found it easier to read it in short bursts, as sometimes the atmosphere was just so cloying and tense that I needed a little break – I needed to remember that I was not Marta. For Marta is a victim of emotional cruelty, and this is something that I think we have all encountered but very few of us have to live with day in and day out.

Picador 2014 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com

Picador 2014 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com

I found reading this book for the second time a much more emotional experience than previously. Knowing the facts and knowing how it turns out meant that I did not feel the hopefulness, for Marta, that I did the first time. I thought a lot about her experiences in ‘the room’ and how she must feel as her memory starts to come back. I thought a lot about Hector as a man, as a person. We only see him from Marta’s point of view, but once we know what he did, how he made Marta belong to him, we see him differently. I thought about the cases we hear about on the news of women kept inside houses for years and years (such as the Ariel Castro case, or Natascha Kampusch) and molded to be part of someone else’s identity. It is horrifying, morbid, desperately sad and very destructive. How to Be a Good Wife is fictional, but it rings eerily true, and this makes it even more compelling, but also more disturbing. It is enjoyable in one sense, in that it is beautifully crafted, but it is also not enjoyable given its nature. But it is a ‘good book’, one that deserves reading and examination. I’m glad I re-read it, and was able to re-examine it. I know that Chapman’s next novel is about an entirely different subject, but I look forward to it greatly.

*

Published in January 2013 by Picador (UK). You can read my original review here.

Buy online from The Great British Bookshop.

 

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Articles, Comment

Re-reading Plans

Do you often re-read books? The only book I’ve read more than once (that I wasn’t studying) is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This was partly because I loved it so much but also because I missed lots of details and didn’t quite ‘get’ everything that was going on (I was only 15 at the time).

Since then I have not chosen to re-read any book. But recently I’ve been thinking about books I’ve read in maybe the last year but also a few years ago, that I loved but have forgotten the details of. I look at their covers and think, actually I’d love to revisit that. It’s like re-watching a film or TV show that you love – something I do quite often.

I’ve made a little list of the books I plan on revisiting, and plan to write about the experience of re-reading here on the blog. So far I have:

How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman – I read this a while before it was published and loved it, but I want to revisit the intricacies of the plot and the writing. The paperback publication in April reminded me how much I loved it.

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Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote – I read this in 2008, before university (and this blog!), and though I loved it I don’t think I quite grasped everything that Capote was trying to do with this story. I’ve thought about it a lot since.

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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell – I read this quite quickly and really want to re-examine its language and story, as well as the issues it deals with.

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That all at the moment! But I’m sure this list will grow. I’ll have to peruse my bookshelves for forgotten gems!

*** Amendment (21/5/14)***

I have added The Little Friend by Donna Tartt to my re-reading list. I read this soon after it came out, having loved The Secret History. I remember adoring the writing and the feel of the novel, of the Southern heat and the Gothic undercurrent. It’s quite long, and very dense, and I want to read it again partly in order so that I can remember everything that happened and also to really appreciate the skill of writing and construction, and the nuances of both the plot and the characters. After all, I read this in about 2003 and it’s now 2014, so I think enough time has passed!

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*** Amendment (3/6/14) ***

I’ve decided I really want to revisit the work of Carson McCullers. I got into her writing after having discovered Southern Gothic through Tartt and particularly Capote (there are so many of his books and stories I want to re-read!). I’ve read The Member of the Wedding and Reflections in a Golden Eye, as well as half of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (which I left because I had to start reading set texts for uni), and I own a copy of Clock Without Hands, though I’ve never read it. I would like to read all of these all the way through this year (and next year, let’s face it). Her style is so unique and so utterly Southern. Her characters and her settings are at once surreal and entirely real. I must revisit. These are the editions I own (I adore the PMC covers!):

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Do you re-read books? If you do, why do you chose to, and how does it compare to the first read?

Comment below!

[All cover images are from goodreads.com]

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