A punch in the stomach is the best way to describe International Booker Prize 2021 winning At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. We’re dropped right onto a WW1 battlefield where the narrator watches his adopted ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba as he dies a violent, agonising death. The ‘I’ is Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting on behalf of France in a war that makes even less sense to him that the ‘blue-eyed’ French soldiers. When war gets the better of him, the racist stereotype of the black man as a savage rears its ugly head.
...something short (but good!)
Stefan Zweig – Diaries by Stefan Zweig, covering the period from 1931 to 1940, has just been published in English for the first time. Die-hard fans, like me, will want to read this but if you’re new to Zweig’s writing, I’d start with his books or short-stories instead (The World of Yesterday, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman or short-story collections). As a companion to his other works, I found this an interesting peek into the author’s mind; as much for the things he doesn’t say as for what he says.
Mr Ethan Frome still cuts an imposing figure in Starkfield, despite being left ‘but the ruin of a man,’ by a terrible accident some years previously. As mute and melancholy as the wintry New England landscape he inhabits, Ethan stoically shoulders the burden of a cruel past. In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, we uncover the story of his joyless existence and his one shot at blazing, beautiful love. An intense and compelling addition to our Classics archive, this certainly isn’t a tale for lightweights.
The Hare With the Amber Eyes transported us to the rarefied world of the unimaginably wealthy Ephrussi family. Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal follows another Jewish family, the Camondos, neighbours of the Ephrussis and, eventually, family by marriage. In 1936, following the death of Count de Camondo’s only son, their grand residence was donated to Paris as museum and remains untouched to this day. This is their story.
Dysfunctional doesn’t even begin to describe the family in My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley. There’s no violence or abuse going on, just a devastating inability to communicate, a staggering lack of empathy, and some more or less genuine attempts at reaching out which, like two repelling magnets, always fail. If Bridget, our narrator, is to be believed, it’s all her mum Helen’s fault. But is she to be believed? If you’re interested in complex family relationships My Phantoms has lots to offer, some of it very funny; just don’t expect lovable heroes because there aren’t any.
This may seem a perverse time to be reading The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare; however, I have my reasons. I first met the author and broadcaster in Munich. The Literaturhaus is a glorious place to meet like-minded artistic folk. Yet, it was a few days later in the beating heat of the German countryside that we talked openly and with that rare candour which seems only ever to emerge – fleetingly – in moments of stillness. Nantesbuch is a small stretch of wilderness, some few miles north of Penzberg. Clare puffed on a cigarette and described his journal as a process of reflection upon his seasonal depression. I countered that summer was in fact the most sobering time of the year for me. He smiled – lit a further cigarette – and that was the end of that.
Although a short read, Indelicacy by Amina Cain is a delightful, thought provoking novella about socioeconomic amelioration, the complexities of marriage, and female agency. Following main character Vitória who, longing for the economic and temporal freedom to write, climbs (and falls down) the hierarchical ladder from gallery cleaner to kept wife to independent singleton. Indelicacy celebrates the arts and female friendship above the apparent ‘need’ for a woman to produce, commit to and maintain a marriage.
Feline Philosophy – Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray might sound like a whimsical self-help book but is actually a subtle, engrossing and revealing read about what it is to be human. People suggest that that there is no instruction manual to life, and you would be better served discovering Meaning (with a capital M) in the great works of literature. John Gray thinks there is no such thing as Meaning. An eminent author, he has spent his career trying to rubbish the idea that there is any “meaning” to life.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima in the FT last week piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ by Sven Lindqvist has been in my to-be-read pile for quite a while (perhaps explained by its depressing title). Those who’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might recognise the title as the last sentence of that book and this is Lindqvist’s starting point. This history-cum-travel book investigates the dark history of European colonialism and brutal extermination of indigenous peoples. It’s a distressing but highly recommended read and one which explains some of the systemic racism which still haunts the Western world.