Posts Tagged ‘Try Books’

Nine years in the life of a book club

October 16, 2017


We present some thoughts on ten years in the life of a book club, as we also presented to students of English in Perm.  The poster above sensibly avoids using the term ‘book club’, which might at one stage have been a way of buying books cheaply by post.


The rules above may seem more elaborate than many book groups, but they are actually quite sensible. Having someone responsible for the book tends to result in better choices than when it just emerges out of vague discussion–I’ve known a number of book groups to be killed of by a couple of poor choices that way, while giving marks out of ten leads to slightly more focussed discussion than merely saying ‘that was nice’.


The generally female, middle-class and younger-middle-age composition of the group will come as little surprise, though the ‘younger’ here may be more of a London thing.


What was chosen tended to be novels by male English-language authors set in the UK or the US more or less in the present.


The top 3 choices (in terms of average mark) were as given above…


…while some other things were less successful.  What you need is books that will engage readers’ interest just because they are people.


And the overall points were as given above. J. G. Ballard once said that when he was young what got published depended on male taste, since they were the ones with the money, whereas now it was women in book groups who generated sales. English-language countries do seem to be resistant to translated literature but they constitute a very large market which means one can be a professional writer and do nothing else in a way which is very difficult elsewhere.

Of course, one also has to respond to the demands of the market, which can lead to caution, conservatism and conformism whereas if one has some other source of income one is freer to write what one likes. Russian naming conventions as in Anna Ivanovna, Anya, Anyushka and so on all being the same person in different registers caused problems, as did the background especially in Bulgakov, which was of course not the Soviet Moscow of Bulgakov’s time but rather something that might hopefully be allowed for publication…

Try Books! read in 2014

February 20, 2015
Stoner 9 8 0
The Road 8.5 3 0
We Need New Names 8 0 0
This Boy 8 2 1
Under The Skin 8 1 1
Gone Girl 7 1 1
Old Filth 7 1 0
A Winter in the Hills 7 0 2
The Children Act 7 0 0
Telling Liddy 6.5 0 0
Almost English 6 0 3
Seizure 5 0 5

The table shows the books read by Try Books! in 2014 and their median scores, along with the number of times someone gave it their highest or lowest rating for the year (remember ties!)


John Williams and Stoner are the clear winners here, while Erica Wagner and Seizure were rather less successful.  But it was A Winter in the Hills  that caused the real excitement, of course.

Seizure Other
Stoner Howard, Jo Aruni, Christine, Dick, Heather, Judy, Linda
Other Jocelyn, Stephanie, Suzannah Vicky

The table above classifies people according to whether Stoner and Seizure were indeed their best and worst books respectively. As ever, this was complicated by not everyone having read (scored) every book, but Howard and Jo seem to be representing the mainstream with Vicky as the rebel.

A Winter In The Hills (John Wain)

July 16, 2014



When Try Books! discussed this, we had a marked difference of opinion between those who came to the meeting and those who emailed their views in.  But first of all let’s see what it’s all about…


The storyline concerns Roger Furnivall, a washed-up 40-year-old academic who has been caring for his brother Geoffrey, mentally incapacitated after being caught in a flying bomb attack in World War II.  After Geoffrey dies, Roger decides to go to North Wales so as to learn Welsh and hence get a job in Uppsala, where there will be many tall, compliant blonde girls.  Roger is (quite naturally as he sees it) desperate for sex, and in the course of the book we learn about his attempts with Beverley (a young American tourist), Rhiannon (the beautiful and well-dressed hotel receptionist who must be a kept woman) and Jenny (married with two young children, but love will find a way).  We also learn about his past with Margot, a red-haired green-eyed insatiable lover.

As well as the above, Roger also becomes involved with Gareth Jones, proprietor of a one-man bus concern who is the last survivor holding out against Dic Sharp, the local Mr Big, and Madog an epic Welsh-language poet (working in an estate agency) together with a number of other colourful local characters.

The narration is carried on in the third person, but it might as well be the first since we never see any scene where Roger is not present.  The book was published in 1970; since Jenny drives a Mini (which was popular from the mid-1960s) and there is some reference to the possible nationalisation of the buses (which presumably refers to the Labour government of 1964-70) we can take the action to be set at the same time.

The view by email

On this basis one could say (and people did, by email):

I love a bit of romance and a happy ending so this ticked my boxes.

I enjoyed it as a ‘life-affirming’ anti-corporate yarn.

Loved the sense of place and climate, though the descriptions were a bit overdone sometimes. Really immersive. Nice trajectory from sex-obsessed rotter to sex-obsessed local hero and family man.

However, those who were present at the meeting took a rather more critical view, under a number of headings.

Roger the philologist

Roger is presented as a specialist in ‘philology’, but this is a nineteenth-century term, and in this century it would be called historical linguistics.  He actually gives Jenny a pretty good explanation of what historical linguistics is, but that still leaves some serious problems.  If you want to be a historical linguist you need to know the earliest attested languages from various families–for Celtic languages, you need to know Old Irish as a starting point.  Modern Welsh is of comparatively little use, being both modern and contaminated by English.

As well as Roger learning Welsh with implausible ease (but that was necessary for the plot), he also fails to notice any of the many features of Welsh that would force themselves upon the attention of a real philologist.

Roger and the women

In the past Roger has had a relationship with red-haired Margot, which foundered due to her rejecting the proper woman’s role of caring for his disabled brother Geoffrey.  During the course of the book, he persuades Beverley, an young blonde American, to take him up into the mountains on her scooter and attempts to have sex with her.  She rebuffs him and abandons him on the cold hill’s side.  (Castration may have been more to the point.)  Afterwards Roger thinks of her unkindly as that slab of processed cheese from California.

He also tries to get it on with Rhiannon the kept woman, who is beautiful and mysterious and knows everything that is going on, as well as helping Roger find a new home in a converted chapel.  And always seems to be wearing a green suede coat, together with a short black leather skirt and a coral-red blouse, all of which seems to be rather too tasteless even for 1970.  We are also expected to believe that while she lives with her family and half of her village works like her in the nearby town, nobody has told her mother or her father the deacon about her international career as a rich man’s plaything.  A girl like Rhiannon must affect the lives of many men in a few short years, before her beauty faded.

Then we have Jenny, the typical Movement heroine under the heading Girls are nicer than us who is modest and dark-haired and from Lancashire (later changed to Cheshire but these places are all the same) and has already produced offspring for Roger to dote on–they are of course quite unconcerned by a change of Daddies–and sexually insatiable when she meets the right man in Roger.  We note that she also manages to be both innocent (Gerald caught me so young, before I’d had a go at managing life by myself) and experienced (Don’t forget a woman gets very good at detecting line-shooting.  We have to listen to so much of it between sixteen and twenty-five) at the same time–that’s the Eternal Feminine for you, in decorous provincial form and wearing a damson-coloured woollen dress.

We should also put in a word for another kept woman, Fräulein Inge, whose residence Roger occupies in her absence.   Roger catches sight of her as a young woman with pouting, almost bee-stung lips.  She might have been the girl-friend of one of the foreign poets.  Clearly, being a female she couldn’t be a poet herself–she can only manage the childish art-play of Fräulein Inge–and neither could Jenny, who finds her subaltern feminine fulfilment as administrative assistant to the Celtic Poets’ Colloquium (as well as in Roger’s bed).

Under these circumstances, it seems best to pass rapidly over the sub-Lawrentian Bad Sex:

It used to make me feel I’d give anything, anything at all, to get right inside her, into her innermost fibres, right in where she lived, to find the central core that was Margot and nothing else but Margot, find it and shoot hot sperm into it.

and also over

Roger was just about to formulate the thought that there was, after all, something to be said for sexual assault as a pastime for a man in early middle age when Gareth’s voice recalled him to actuality.

Roger in Wales

In his preface to the reissue, the author’s son states that the novel’s ‘Caerfenai’ is to be identified with Caernarvon, and the original of the village ‘Llancrwys’ was home to the Welsh language writer Kate Roberts, which would make it Rosgadfan.

There are indeed some effective scenes from Welsh life, as of being caught on the mountain when the weather changes or going to visit Gareth’s blind Mam in her cottage and indeed An Englishman’s Christmas In Wales with the roast hare that Gareth has snared himself and the shop-bought pudding with Roger’s whisky burning on it and Gareth’s Mam smelling the snow as violets in the wind.

The question remains as to whether these Welsh characters have any life of their own as opposed to merely furnishing Roger’s solipsistic fantasies.  Gareth as the hunchbacked indomitable son of mountain and slate-mine seems to be meant as some embodiment of Wales, crippled in body as Geoffrey was crippled in mind.  Then we have the colourful inhabitants of Llamcrwys, all surnamed Jones, the colourful hauliers Ivo and Gito, the colourful fat young poet Madog not at all like fat young Dylan Thomas who brings about Jenny’s escape from durance vile through his Colloquium of Celtic Poets.

All of these seem to be merely there as aids in Roger’s path to self-realisation:

he knew at last that Madog’s poem was Gareth’s yellow bus and that he, Roger Furnivall, had ridden up into the mountains now in one, now in the other, and that they had taken him to where he had found himself.

Without Roger, the Welsh characters seem to be unable to do anything for themselves and in particular to stand up to Dic Sharp.  Dic Sharp is allowed to make some good points in his confrontations with Roger–that Roger has not the slightest idea of how to run a business, that having had his fun he’ll be on his way leaving the locals to sort out the mess, even the Brechtian idea that morals are only for rich folk–and he might indeed have become something independent of Roger if he had been further developed.

Among the many plot holes, the main ones concern Dic Sharp’s attempts to force Gareth out of business.  The thing about loosening the nuts on the wheel of Roger’s hire car is complete nonsense, since it could easily have killed him and brought the police swarming all over the place.  Similarly for the device of the evil twin bus taking away Gareth’s passengers, when all they needed to do was to put Gareth’s bus out of action for a few weeks and he would have gone bust.

There seems to be some attempt at symbolic realism in the bus doppelganger, together with Roger’s progress from the Palace Hotel to Mrs Pylon Jones’s holiday flatlet to the converted chapel and then back to the Palace Hotel, and the parallelism between Geoffrey and Gareth, but none of it worked or if it did I didn’t notice.


As it stands this is all Roger’s solipsistic half-drunken fantasy lying alone in his hotel room.  But in that case it’s like the weak wish-fulfilment story that Roger spins Gareth and his Mam about having recently been at the marriage between Geoffrey and Margot, and maybe here the author is indicating that he understands what kind (and quality) of thing his book is, even if we don’t.

The critic who commented wales and middle aged men don’t feature high on my interests was certainly being very sensible.

Symbolic postscript

I think the symbolic dualism is meant to look something like the table below, but unfortunately it’s just not done well enough.

I also very much fear that since it’s Wales we’re in the realms of Arthurian romance:  Geoffrey/Roger have been symbolically castrated by the flying bomb and it is only by journeying to Chapel Perilous [where the sorceress Hellawes unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Sir Lancelot]  that Roger can be restored to potency and the land can be freed from Dic Sharp’s evil [succu]bus.  (So Rhiannon is a sorceress, which explains why she knows everything and wears striking clothes.)   So we identify Roger with Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, who has to travel in a cart driven by a dwarf in order to rescue Queen Guinevere.

‘Jenny Grayfair’  is a transparent pseudonym for Guinevere–‘Jennifer’ is the same name as ‘Guinevere’ in origin, while ‘Grayfair’ sounds like ‘Guinevere’.   And Margot sounds like Morgan le Fay, while Beverley has adopted the standard operating procedure of female spirits in enticing the hero to a remote spot and abandoning him there.  Apart from Jenny the English characters seem to bear the first names of Arthurian authors:  Geoffrey (of Monmouth); Gerald (of Wales); Roger (Lancelyn Green).






North Wales

 Among other points, Geoffrey is (mentally) crippled in London and Gareth is (economically, socially) liberated in North Wales.



Because Margot puts out and Beverley doesn’t



Because Rhiannon is a kept woman and Jerry is a wife



Roger is imprisoned through not having been able to save Geoffrey and can only become free by rescuing Gareth

Dic Sharp


As well as the sexual connotations of the names, these are the only male characters who have children–at the end, Roger has two middle-class English children to Dic Sharp’s Welsh nogoodnik one, thus demonstrating that once magically restored his potency is superior

Dic Sharp


Thin Welsh businessman v fat Welsh poet—they are the only characters who can make things happen, apart from Roger

Dic Sharp’s impostor bus

Gareth’s real bus



They both interrupt the action—Iorwerth saves Roger from Dic Sharp’s thugs while Dilwen’s model plane breaks the mood when Roger is about to seduce Rhiannon



The hauliers are inherently paired rather than being good v bad



Try Books! read in 2013

December 19, 2013
Median Best Worst
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont 9 6
A Month in the Country 8.5 3
The hare with amber eyes 8.25 1 1
Things Fall Apart 8.25 2 1
The Dark Room: A Novel 8
Dubliners 7 1 1
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter 7
The Garden of Evening Mists 6.75 1
Beyond Black 6.25 1 2
These is My Words 6 1
A Long Way Down 6 1
Hunger 4 5

The table shows the books read by Try Books! in 2013 and their median scores, along with the number of times someone gave it their highest or lowest rating for the year (remember ties!)  Previous analysis indicates that the median is a good enough indicator for our purposes.

Elizabeth Taylor, novelist (1912-1975)

Elizabeth Taylor, novelist (1912-1975)

Elizabeth Taylor and Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont are the clear winners here, while Knut Hamsun and Hunger were rather less successful.

Hunger Other
Palfrey Ali, Judy, Suzannah Howard, Stephanie
Other Christine, Linda Aruni, Dick, Jo, Jocelyn

The table above classifies people according to whether  Mrs Palfrey and Hunger were indeed their best and worst books respectively. As ever, this was complicated by not everyone having read (scored) every book, but Ali, Judy and Suzannah seem to be safely established as representatives of mainstream opinion.

It might be that the books which appear in both ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ categories are good for provoking discussion, but in quite a few cases the dissenting opinion was actually submitted by email, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was very fruitful in provoking discussion, which you would hardly glean from the table.

Comparing this with the previous results suggests that the most popular books are those that people will engage with simply because they deal with human experience, even though as in If This Is A Man  they don’t have to be fiction, while genre fiction (These Is My Words) and high-concept productions (A Long Way Down) don’t do very well.

Some problems of continuity in J L Carr’s ‘A Month In The Country’

September 18, 2013


Try Books! was highly impressed by this novella, and quite rightly so.  We briefly recall that the story is set in 1920 and concerns the protagonist Birkin arriving in the North Yorkshire village to uncover a wall-painting in the church.  Not a great deal happens, you might say–he uncovers the painting, but without any great repercussions, recovers somewhat from his experiences in the Great War and does not have an affair with Alice Keach, the vicar’s wife.  At the same time, and following the provisions of the same will, another man (called Moon) has come to search for the grave of Piers Hebron, d 1373.

The narration impresses with its reticence–things like the death of Emily Clough are alluded to so that the reader himself sees and feels them, instead of a description being imposed on him from outside.  The manner of the North Yorkshire locals–direct but without meaning harm is beautifully evoked, as is the changing of the seasons.

That is the important bit.  There are also some reservations.  It may be  good that we confront so many items of specialised vocabulary in so short a space:  fish-base, baluster, ashlar, sinoper haematite, sneck, but some of them raise doubts:

‘a spendid repertory of North Riding dishes was performed amanti bravura to an applauding Londoner’

–I rather doubt that amanti bravura  means anything at all in Italian or in English…

The way in which Moon finds Piers Hebron to have been a convert to Islam at the end of the story so that he must have been the  intriguing sinner depicted in the mural Birkin has uncovered is all rather too neat:  presumably it means This is the end of the story, you can go now.  Which I imagine is why neither Birkin’s masterly mural nor Moon’s two discoveries have any consequences at all.

People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing round each corner fades.

Then there are some strange lapses of consistency.  The month seems to last at least from the end of July to sometime in September.  At the beginning, Birkin learns that his deceased funder herself cleared a patch of the painting; he worries about this, but then it’s never referred to again.  At the beginning, Birkin also tells the Reverend J G Keach that he will need to use the stove in the church since he does not have his own, while later on he cooks on his own Primus.  Alice Keach ends up referring to her husband as ‘Arthur’, which doesn’t sound very JG-ish.

Apparently this all came about because the author didn’t believe in proof-reading, and it’s unfortunate in a novella–especially such a good one–while forgetting what you’ve said in a novel is less likely to distract the reader.

‘Dubliners’ and Brockley’s contribution to Irish History

June 23, 2013
112 Tressillian Road

112 Tressillian Road

A discussion of Dubliners at Try Books! led me to point out that Brockley had played an important part in the background to Ivy Day in the Committee Room.  It was at 112 Tressillian Road SE4 that Charles Stuart Parnell used to visit Katharine O’Shea (who was still married to Captain O’Shea since he hoped to get his hands on her money), and the ensuing scandal led to his downfall and to Irish Home Rule disappearing from the agenda.

Probably the house wasn’t divided into flats at that stage, and they weren’t so worried about the fate of Lewisham Hospital.

That would have been in the 1880s.  At the same time, the young Edgar Wallace would have been living with his unmarried actress mother just round the corner, in Tressillian Crescent.  Wallace himself was probably the kind of writer Father Butler had in mind when he reprimanded Leo Dillon in An Encounter:

Let me not find any more of this wretched stuff in this college.  The man who wrote it, I suppose, was some wretched fellow who writes these things for a drink.

parnell (2) parnell (3)

A Long Way Down (Nick Hornby)

March 22, 2013



This book, following the fortunes of four ill-assorted characters who decide to commit suicide by jumping from a tower block on New Year’s Eve and then don’t, provoked a storm of apathy among the members of Try Books!  Not that it was the first book to do so.

An attempt to decide whether the characters had really meant to commit suicide foundered on an inability to engage with them, or to believe in them in the first place.  You might say it was a good thing to show suicidal characters as unattractive and certainly unromantic, and their non-suicide as being just that–continuing to live in the same kind of broken and unsatisfactory way, without any revelation or reward, just living.  But the book really wasn’t well enough done to make these kind of points effectively.

There was a feeling that it resembled a young person’s book–certainly families appeared from the viewpoint of children-as-victims, while the ‘adult’ characters Martin and Maureen were rather as young people might see adulthood.   While the narrative consisted of sections from each of the four in turn, they all sounded rather like Nick Hornby and they all had a clear view of what was happening.  There was none of the disorders of thought or perception you might expect from the suicidal, or even the kind of misperceptions and missing information you might expect from people in general.

Of course the answer to the original question is that they weren’t really going to kill themselves and this was pointed up by encountering a genuine suicide on a rooftop reunion.

The thing quite often had the air of a stand-up comedian doing a set on the subject of suicide, and indeed some of the Nick Hornby jokes were very good Nick Hornby jokes.

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)

December 19, 2012



So this was another Try Books! choice, and it was supposed to be suitable for both adults and children–at least there was a version as above on sale in the (adult) fiction section of Waterstone’s in Charing Cross.

The basic plot is that young Conor O’Malley has a mother who is dying of breast cancer and a number of other issues to contend with as well.  Then he finds himself visited at night by a monster who is also a yew tree.  That at least saves him from the unspeakable nightmare.

Unlike the rest of the group, I had serious problems with the book.  For a start, parts of it seems to be written in American, for no very good reason.

–No, sweetheart, his mother called back, weakly.  I’m kind of used to it by now. (p46)

That sounds like what my mother would have said in the circumstances, in pure Canadian.

The monster seems to be a Disney-speaking monster:

The farmer’s daughter…was beautiful and also smart…(p73)

with a fondness for Yiddish turns of phrase:

Because what she was not, was a murderer (p83)

What you think is not important.  It is only important what you do. (p225)

This could of course just be the giant as Conor expressing his anger in the kind of language he knows from Disney films, but he also gets to use a very American expression himself:

I’ve been thinking it for the longest time (p221)

Apart from those problems with the monster, I thought the whole thing was put the wrong way round.  I think that fairy tales are effective and enduring because they allow children to deal with themes like loss of a parent and their own abandonment at a safe distance, but here this was all in the plane of real life then the giant limped along to deliver some ineffective moral tales.

There were a lot of issues shoehorned in as though the book was making itself available for many children’s book prizes (which I think it did very effectively).  There was the separation of Conor’s parents and the jealous antics of the new wife and Conor being bullied at school and him not getting on with his grandmother but having to go and live with her anyway.  I thought that Conor’s persecutors would have more likely got a fearsome beating from their own parents and from the rest of the school, but never mind…

The book seemed to me to show a parent’s anger at dying and not being told the truth about it transposed to a child, and it wasn’t convincing.  What a child feels is guilt, and guilt about something stupid like stepping on the cracks between paving stones or not eating his greens that caused all of this.  And the unspeakable nightmare was just too straightforward and logical to belong to a child, or any other kind of a human being in fact…

When people asked me whether there was anything I liked about the book, I was able to reply with the scene where Lily Andrews sends Conor a note:

I’m sorry for telling everyone about your mum
I miss being your friend
Are you okay?
I see you.

Some real feeling and expressed in something believable…but only for a moment…

Are Translations Better?

August 16, 2012

It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether translations are ‘better’ than books originally written in English. After all, as well as the writer writing the book and the original publisher publishing it, someone has to decide that translating it is worthwhile, so you would expect the barrier the book has to get over to be higher.

The table below shows books rated by members of our book group in descending order, with the translations marked.

If This Is a Man / The Truce 9.00
The Boy with the Topknot 9.00
Skin Lane 8.75
A Prayer for Owen Meany 8.75
Lady Audley’s Secret 8.50
The Night Watch 8.00
This Thing of Darkness 8.00
The Help 8.00
The Last Hundred Days 8.00
Fear and Trembling 8.00
Eugenie Grandet 8.00
Family Romance: A Love Story 7.75
Visitation 7.75
Star of the Sea 7.75
One Day 7.50
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society 7.50
Death and the Penguin 7.50
American Wife 7.50
Brooklyn 7.25
After You’d Gone 7.00
Bad Science 7.00
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle 7.00
The Reluctant Fundamentalist 7.00
Norwegian Wood 7.00
The Master and Margarita 7.00
Last Man in Tower 6.75
The Shadow Of The Wind 6.50
Moby-Dick or, The Whale 6.50
Complicity 6.50
Stone’s Fall: A Novel 6.50
Youth 6.25
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher 6.25
The Story of Forgetting 6.00
Legend of a Suicide 6.00
Reading Lolita in Tehran 6.00
The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd 6.00
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence 6.00
Anna of the Five Towns 6.00
Skippy dies 6.00
The Monkey Wrench Gang 6.00
The Fall of the Imam 6.00
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 5.50
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories 5.25
Broken April 5.00
In Search of the Missing Eyelash 5.00
Human Traces 5.00
Me Cheeta: The Autobiography 5.00
Day After Night 4.75
The Resurrectionist 2.75

As already stated, the table above shows the Try Books!  books for which members’ marks are available arranged in order of the median of those marks and with the translations marked in turquoise.  There is no obvious sign of the translations being clustered towards the top of the table.

If we want to be naughty and treat these values as statistical variables we can apply a t-test (one-tailed, heteroscedastic) to the means of these medians.  We get a mean of 7.00 for the translations and 6.71 for the English-language works and a t-value of 0.25, which is clearly a very long way from being significant.

So we conclude  that there is no evidence of translations being better than books originally written in English on the basis of this data.

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

June 24, 2012

An obvious quotation from James Fenton

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces in between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

What the book contains

The book contains a Prologue and an Epilogue and in between these 22 short chapters named after the chief character/s of that chapter.  Alternating chapters are devoted to the Gardener, so we get (P)GXGX…GX(E).  The Prologue describes the geological processes by which the lake was formed upon which the house that is the centre of the book stands, while the Epilogue decribes the demolition of the house.

The story of the book

We start off near a lake in Brandenburg, not so far from Berlin.  The old mayor, whose ancestors have been the local mayors since 1650, has four daughters: Grete, Hedwig, Emma and Klara (their mother died in childbirth).  None of them succeeds in getting married.  The old mayor sells off Klara’s Wood (meant to be her inheritance) in three parts:  one to a coffee and tea importer, one to a cloth manufacturer, and one to an architect from Berlin.  This is illustrated in Figure 1 below.


Next the architect buys the Jewish cloth manufacturer’s portion for a full half of the full market value when the latter tries to flee the Nazis.


After the Jews within reach have been murdered and East Germany has come into being, the architect and his wife (they never intended to have any children, though he did have a son by his first marriage) find themselves constrained to leave for the West, and the property passes to a husband and wife pair of writers, who spent the war in the Soviet Union and who put their son in a children’s home because it seems the appropriate thing to do.

They do succeed in having a family, with ramifications as shown in Figure 3 below.


We also have another married couple living on the property, a pair of keen sailors where the husband, a factory worker, tried to escape to the West as a young man by swimming.  At the end of the book, the granddaughter is hiding in the concealed closet from estate agents and potential purchasers the same way that the architect’s wife hid there from the Russians decades earlier.

Why I liked this book

I was very impressed by Erpenbeck’s ability to know what to leave out, especially when compared to The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which attempts to do the same kind of things but insists on making everything explicit and underlining it as well–or so it seemed to me, and the result was that I found the book unreadable.  The idea here is that you have to fill the spaces between the episodes with yourself, not have everything told to you.  In fact you could say that the whole problem is that the characters cannot fill the spaces between them with love or any feeling (maybe this doesn’t apply to the Jewish characters), which is why things turn out the way they do.

Some of the individual episodes, such as the Holocaust embodied in Doris shut up in her dark chamber in the cleared Warsaw ghetto or the architect’s wife laughing and telling jokes and boiling crabs for twenty years so that she doesn’t know which year is which, but While she was spending her whole life laughing, her blonde hair imperceptibly turned into white hair,–or the evocation of a Russian village in the backstory of the Red Army officer–are absolutely lovely and exemplary in themselves.  As is the defamiliarisation, so that the Holocaust is Doris in the dark room and the prices her family’s belongings are sold for.

I’m not so sure about the overtly fairy-story type elements, such as the architect’s wife growing fatter throughout the War as though pregnant with disaster.  And I wasn’t too keen on the geological prologue or the demolitionary epilogue either–I’d rather they had been captured within some frame so as to put them on the same level as the rest.  Say if at the beginning a little girl had read the geological passage in an encyclopedia and at the end someone had told her brother about the demolition in schoolboy-pleasing detail.

But what an achievement, to get a whole encyclopedia of German life (and, what is more serious, mentality) in 150 pages (in the translation at least).

About the translation

The translation (by Susan Bernofsky) has been universally hailed by all commentators and they probably all know more about German in general and German translation in particular than I do.  It is certainly the case that the translation normalises the style and makes it more conversational, which is probably a good thing from the point of view of securing a readership.  But this rather blunts the force of some passages, for instance the sheer strangeness of the description of wedding customs at the beginning of the book.

The translation is of course into American English, and as ever I’m not entirely sure about the wholesale replacement of European plant names by American equivalents or pseudo-equivalents.  But my ignorance of gardening is pretty complete…


Translation Original Comments
P1 saber-toothed cats Säbelzahnkatze Sabre-toothed tigers, surely
P18 cottager…cottier Büdner, Kossäthen Search me!
? Basically it’s a matter of framing the view Im Grunde kommt es ja immer darauf an, den Blick zu lenken. ‘Leading the eye’ rather than ‘framing the view’
P36 Zeiss Ikon, a key meeting the highest safety standards Zeiß Ikon, Sicherheitschüssel security standards’, surely?
P26 pine tar Teerfarbe This turns out to be quite right
P28 fieldstone Feldsteine Quite right again!
P31 coneflowers Waldblumen Maybe…looks like ‘woodland flowers’ though
P35 Why is there Lametta hanging on the tree? Why does Lametta hang on the tree? [in English!] ??
P36 potato beetle Kartoffelkäfer But it’s ‘Colorado beetle’ in English!
P36 a dock einen Steg Surely this is a landing-stage,which is what ‘der Steg’ means? The description a bit later certainly sounds like a landing-stage.
P38 Abraham’s sausage pot Abrahams Wurstkessel But this isn’t an idiom in English..’a twinkle in your father’s eye’??
P57 apiary for twelve colonies Bienenhaus für zwölf Völker This is OK
P77 seed was being sowed Better ‘sown’?
P102 clover press Kleereibe ‘clover huller’–‘clover press’ is for making coffee!
P112 paddleboat Paddelboot ‘canoe’ rather than ‘paddleboat’, which is something different
P116 Giant Mountains Riesengebirge Normally just Riesengebirge in English!
P118 statistics Statik ‘statics, structural engineering’ not ‘statistics’
P113 convenient to shopping Convenient for shopping
P143 milk glass panes Milchglasscheiben But ‘Milchglas’ is just ‘frosted glass’