Do yourself a favour. Take a moment out from whatever you have to do (now is the perfect time, as we approach the Christmas rush at work, school and home) and read this little book. It’s written by Erling Kagge, a publisher, writer and the first person to reach the North Pole, South Pole and climb Mount Everest. Kagge knows a thing or two about silence, having spent 50 days alone on his trek to the South Pole.
Our narrator, François Seurel, is the bookish son of a schoolmaster, residing in a provincial French village in the 1890s. Passive and impressionable, he yearns for adventure, but will never be the architect of his own life. When the charismatic adventurer, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to board at his home, Seurel’s life is changed irrevocably. A French classic, often described as the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature, The Lost Estate deserves to be more widely read on this side of the Channel.
Wow! What a punch of a book. Eddy Belleguele grows up in a dirt-poor working class family in the north of France. Realising early on he’s gay, Eddy spends the rest of his youth trying to hide his sexual orientation from the macho, homophobic, misogynist and racist environment he’s born into. The End of Eddy is an extraordinary autobiographical novel of survival and courageousness and a truly magnificent book.
I have to confess to not being a big consumer (or fan) of crime fiction (perhaps I just haven’t read enough good ones), but this intense and eerie little book got the better of me. Written in the 1950s by Swiss dramatist and novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge is a crime novel with a twist designed to challenge the formulaic (according to Dürrenmatt) nature of the genre.
Ready to escape the grey, cold winter for a few hours? Try this sensual and sensuous Italian classic set in the 1860s amongst the arid hills, frescoed palazzos and turquoise seas of Sicily. It’s the story of the aristocratic Salina family’s decline, of ageing and mortality, of politics and passionate love all mixed up into a fabulous Italian literary feast.
A heavenly combination of one of my favourite authors writing about one of my favourite cities: Javier Marías’ little essay on Venice. For reasons unknown (a failed love affair?), Marías spent a great deal of time in Venice in the 1980s. His reflections on how history and geography have shaped Venice and Venetians are captivating. ‘Venetians see life from “the view point of eternity” ‘, not surprising perhaps when you grow up in place that’s hardly changed for 500 years? The decay, the dark back alleys, the smells, the sense of doom, the colours of the water (‘blood red, yellow, white’ by day, ‘like ink’ by night) combined with dazzling beauty, Marías perfectly evokes the city’s atmosphere and hands you a delicious sliver of Venice.
Venice, An Interior is translated by Margaret Juul Costa and published by Hamish Hamilton, 64 pages.
A Fool, Free can best be described as a A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time for schizophrenia. It is the extraordinary story (allegedly fiction, but suspiciously similar to the authors own life) of Swedish/Norwegian Eli, a filmmaker and author, as she battles the many personas inhabiting her mind, medication (too much or too little) and nurses and doctors with a varying degree of understanding of how best to treat her. Four male voices, Espen, Emil, Prince Eugen and the rebellious Erik, the instigator of Eli’s most violent outbursts, controls Eli’s life. She wants to go through a sex change but doesn’t know which sex to choose. She oscillates from being forcibly hospitalised and heavily medicated to being a productive and successful filmmaker and author. A hugely enlightening look at a mental illness shrouded in myths and fear and probably as close as you’ll ever get in appreciating what goes on in the mind of a schizophrenic.
A Fool, Free by Beate Grimsrud is published by Head of Zeus, 496 pages.