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Archive for the ‘Swiss Literature’ Category

I decided to read the second and third parts of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, ‘The Proof‘ and ‘The Third Lie‘, and write about them together. Just finished reading the third and final part. I read this for #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. The English translations of these two books are published by Grove Press, an indie publisher based out of New York.

The second part ‘The Proof‘, continues the story from the first part. But Ágota Kristóf dispenses with Rule #2 : ‘No Names’, and gives names to all the characters. The places are still not named though. We see the events unfold from the point of view of one of the twins. New characters make an appearance in the story, as we follow the events of what happens in this small town after Hungary’s occupation by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The story takes us to the 1956 rebellion in Hungary against Soviet occupation and goes beyond that too. Many of the new characters are interesting, and many of them show kindness, the pure kind of kindness towards unrelated people that human beings are capable of, during times of great difficulty. The weird stuff continues but it does not reach the heights of the first part, though some of them fill in the gaps which are there in the first part. The story ends in an unexpected surprise.

In the third part, ‘The Third Lie‘, Ágota Kristóf decides that she has had enough, and turns everything upside down. This part is filled with stunning revelations which makes us see the whole story in a new light, makes us question everything, makes us contemplate the nature of truth, and ask ourselves whether such a thing called truth exists. It is like reading a murder mystery which is narrated by the detective and looking at all the suspects and following false leads and reaching dead ends and discovering in the last page that the narrator is the murderer. Or it is like reading a book in which the main character has many amazing adventures and undergoes a lot of hardship and overcomes them in the end, and suddenly we discover that the whole story was a dream. This is the kind of stuff which happens in the third part. I’m still not sure about one or two details and I need to go back and review all the three parts together and see whether my understanding is correct.

I enjoyed reading Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy. My favourite was the first part, because of the narrative voice, the sometimes dark humour. I think the second part was a great sequel. The third part was a literary experiment, in my opinion. I don’t know whether Ágota Kristóf planned all the three novels together before she started writing them, or whether she wrote the first one initially and when it became successful beyond all expectations, she decided to write the sequels and wing it on the way and improvised the story. I somehow feel that she did the second thing, because there is a huge difference between the first novel and the next two. We can even read the first novel as a standalone book. But interestingly, the three books also read well together, and look like three parts of one book, though there is a big dividing line between the first part and the next two.

I’m sharing a couple of my favourite excerpts from the book.

Excerpt 1

Young Man : “I know what you’re talking about. I saw things like that with my own eyes, right here in this town.”

Old Man : “You must have been very young.”

Young Man : “I was no more than a child. But I forgot nothing.”

Old Man : “You will forget. Life is like that. Everything goes in time. Memories blur, pain diminishes. I remember my wife as one remembers a bird or a flower. She was the miracle of life in a world where everything seemed light, easy, and beautiful. At first I came here for her, now I come for Judith, the survivor. This night seem ridiculous to you, Lucas, but I’m in love with Judith. With her strength, her goodness, her kindness toward these children who aren’t hers.”

Young Man : “I don’t think it’s ridiculous.”

Old Man : “At my age?”

Young Man : “Age is irrelevant. The essential things matter. You love her and she loves you as well.”

Old Man : “She’s waiting for her husband to return.”

Young Man : “Many women are waiting for or mourning their husbands who are disappeared or dead. But you just said, “Pain diminishes memories blur.”

Old Man : “Diminish, blur, I said, not disappear.”

Excerpt 2

What we print in the newspaper completely contradicts reality. A hundred times a day we print the phrase “We are free,” but everywhere in the streets we see the soldiers of a foreign army, everyone knows that there are many political prisoners, trips abroad are forbidden, and even within the country we can’t go wherever we want. I know because I once tried to rejoin Sarah in the small town of K. I made it to the neighboring village, where I was arrested and sent back to the capital after a night of interrogation.

A hundred times a day we print “We live amidst abundance and happiness,” and at first I think this is true for other people, that Mother and I are miserable and unhappy only because of the “thing,” but Gaspar tells me we’re hardly an exception, that he himself as well as his wife and three children are living more miserably than ever before.

And when I go home from work early in the morning, when I cross paths with people who themselves are on their way to work, I see happiness nowhere, and even less abundance. When I ask why we print so many lies, Gaspar answers, “Whatever you do, don’t ask questions. Do your job and don’t think about anything else.”

Have you read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy? What do you think about it?

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I was inspired by a friend to get Ágota Kristóf’sThe Notebook‘ and read it. For a long time, I thought that Ágota Kristóf was the European / Hungarian version of Agatha Christie 😊 Ágota Kristóf is a totally different author, of course, and very different from Agatha Christie. I read this for #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. The English translation of ‘The Notebook’ that I read is published by Grove Press, an indie publisher based out of New York.

The story told in ‘The Notebook’ happens during the time of the Second World War. A mother takes her two young twin sons and leaves them at their grandmother’s place. The grandmother is a tough customer but the twins manage to handle the situation. The story is narrated by the twins together as they describe their life at their grandmother’s place, the people they meet, the new things they learn, the friends they make, how the war years pass, and the challenges they and their grandmother face together. In such a short book, Ágota Kristóf manages to squeeze in Hungarian small-town life during the war, Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, the relationship between the German soldiers and the Hungarian citizens, how the life of a gay person was at that time, the meaninglessness of war, the Russian liberation of Hungary and its not-so-nice aftermath. It is fascinating.

All this assumes a powerful significance, because Ágota Kristóf does a fascinating thing – she follows Rule #2 religiously and meticulously till the end. Rule #2 is ‘No Names’. There are no names in the book! None of the characters have names, none of the places or countries have names, none of the events have names! Nothing! Nada! It is amazing! I don’t know how Ágota Kristóf manages to pull this off, but she does! I still can’t stop marvelling at her ingenuity! It just shows how little a talented writer needs to tell a powerful story.

The other interesting thing about the book is the twin narrators’ voice. I have never read a book before in which two narrators speak in one unified voice. It is fascinating. The voice of the two twins is beautiful and charming. It had a simplicity, innocence and directness to it, that it made me smile throughout the book. The narrative voice was one of my favourite things about the book. The way the twins navigate every tricky situation in simple, direct ways is wonderful to read.

I’ve shared a couple of chapters from the book below, to give you a feel for the beautiful narrative voice. Hope you like them.

I loved the depiction of the relationship between the grandmother and the twins – how it starts and how it grows, and how the grandmother and the twins love each other, and how the grandmother’s love is old-fashioned, tough and gruff. It was my most favourite part of the book.

My review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention this. There are some weird things which happen in the middle of the book. But like a nice, well-behaved kid, I’m going to sweep that below the carpet and not talk about it  But if you are planning to read the book, I thought I should warn you – there is some weird stuff out there.

The story ends in a kind of cliff-hanger. I can’t wait to read the second part, ‘The Proof‘, and find out what happened next. The second part was originally published two years after the first part. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for the original readers to wait for so long, to find out what happened next.

Have you read Ágota Kristóf’sThe Notebook‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read a Robert Walser book for a while now. I decided to read this one, ‘The Assistant‘, for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Joseph lands up one day morning at the office of the inventor Tobler. Joseph is hired to work as Tobler’s assistant and handle correspondence and enquires and other things that assistants do. Tobler’s wife and children are also there in that big villa. Joseph is from a poor background and he enjoys this new lifestyle. His employer and his family are pleasant to him and his workdays are comfortable. What happens during the course of the next year, when Tobler’s business starts with a lot of promise and bright future dreams and ends in near ruin and what experiences Joseph has when he is a part of it, is told in the rest of the story.

I liked ‘The Assistant‘, but I didn’t love it. The story is interesting and it shows how being an inventor is a perilous life and how things can sink or swim in a short span of time. Robert Walser’s descriptions and observations on nature (and sometimes Joseph’s dreams and fantasies of nature) are a pleasure to read. I highlighted many beautiful passages.

I’m glad I read my first Robert Walser. I am a little disappointed though – I was almost expecting a Thomas Mann style observation on life, but I didn’t get that. What I got was Walser’s observations on life. The book has an interesting afterword by the translator Susan Bernofsky which is very insightful to read.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The depths have no shape, and there is no eye that can see what they are depicting. They are singing as well, but in notes no ear can catch. They reach out their long moist hands, but there is no hand able to grasp them. They rear up on either side of the nocturnal boat, but no knowledge in any way present knows this. No eye is looking into the eye of the depths. The water disappears, the glassy abyss opens up, and the boat now appears to be drifting along, peaceful and melodious and safe, beneath the surface of the water.”

“Such a slender and delicate script already hinted at great wealth. Nearly all capitalists wrote just like this man: with precision and at the same time somewhat offhandedly. This script was the handwritten equivalent of an elegant easy bearing, an imperceptible nod of the head, a tranquil expressive hand motion. It was so long-stemmed, this writing, it exuded a certain coldness, certainly the person who wrote like this was the opposite of a hot-blooded fellow. These few words: concise and courteous in their style. The politeness and succinctness extended even to the intimate format of his blindingly white letter paper.”

“How true it is that each of the four seasons has its own particular scent and sound. When you see spring, you always think you’ve never seen it like this before, never looking so special. In summer, the summery profusion strikes you as new and magical year after year. You never really looked at fall properly before, not until this year, and when winter arrives, the winter too is utterly new, quite quite different from a year or three ago. Indeed, even the years have their own individual personalities and aromas. Having spent the year in such and such a place means having experienced and seen it. Places and years are intimately linked, and what about events and years? Since experiences can color an entire decade, how much more powerfully and swiftly they can color a short year. A short year?”

“And the world, was it changing? No. A wintry image could superimpose itself upon the world of summer, winter could give way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same. It was a great lover of make-up, it painted its face now more brightly, now in paler hues, now it was glowing, now pallid, never quite what it had been before, constantly it was changing a little, and yet remained always vividly and restlessly the same. It sent lighting bolts flashing from its eyes and rumbled the thunder with its powerful lungs, it wept the rain down in streams and let the clean, glittering snow come smiling from its lips, but in the features and lineaments of its face, little change could be discerned. Only on rare occasions might a shuddering earthquake, a pelting of hail, a deluge or volcanic flare disturb its placid surface, or else it quaked or shuddered inwardly with worldly sentiments and earthly convulsions, but still it remained the same. Regions remained the same; skylines, to be sure, were always waxing and expanding, but a city could never fly off and find somewhere else to live from one hour to the next. Streams and rivers followed the same courses as they had for millennia, they might peter out in the sand, but they couldn’t suddenly leap from their beds into the light open air. Water had to work its way through canals and caves. Streaming and burrowing was its age-old law. And the lakes lay where they had lain for a long, long time. They didn’t leap up toward the sun or play ball like children. Sometimes they became indignant and slapped their water in waves together with a great whooshing noise, but they could transform themselves neither into clouds one day nor wild horses one night. Everything in and upon the earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws, just like human beings.”

Have you read ‘The Assistant‘? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read a book by a Swiss author and so decided to read Martin Suter’sThe Last Weynfeldt‘. I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Adrian Weynfeldt is an art expert. He helps in writing art catalogues, valuing works of art, organizing art auctions. He is in his fifties. He is a man of simple, steady habits. One day, very surprisingly, he comes home with a beautiful woman. The next day morning, when he gets up, he discovers that the woman is standing at the balcony, ready to take the plunge. Adrian tries to talk her down. The strange sequence of events which arise from this and which flow rapidly takes us into the art world, the world of painters and paintings and art auctions and art forgeries.

The Last Weynfeldt‘ is kind of a thriller. A sleek one though. The start is spectacular and though the rest of the book can’t keep up with that, it is still interesting. There is a lot of information in the book about Swiss art and artists. There is also a lot of information about furniture designers and architects. One of the things I loved was the description of food. Martin Suter takes a lot of pleasure in writing about food. I made a list of things that I’d like to try. Especially ravioli ricotta with sage butter (have never tried sage butter), buckwheat blini (have tried blini and I love it, but I don’t think I’ve tried buckwheat blini), Birnbrot (pastry filled with dry pears – sounds wonderful!). The characters in the book are interesting – I especially liked Adrian, his housekeeper Frau Hauser who behaves like his mom, being affectionate and tough at the same time, his secretary Veronique, and the beautiful woman who tries jumping out of his balcony, Lorena. The story has a surprising fascinating ending, but I won’t tell you what 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘. I won’t call it my favourite thriller, but it was pleasant reading for a Sunday afternoon.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book.

“He believed that regularity prolonged life. There was also the opposing theory: regularity makes each day indistinguishable, and the more events and habits are repeated, the more the days resemble each other and the years too. Till your whole life feels like one single year. Weynfeldt didn’t believe this. If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the differences become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them. Repetition slows down the passage of time. Weynfeldt was absolutely convinced of this. Change might make life more eventful, but it undoubtedly made it shorter too.”

“Adrian was waiting for Lorena to call, and waiting was not an activity for him; it was a state, not such an unpleasant one. Like flying. As soon as he boarded an airplane, he was placed in a state of absolute passivity. Of course he ate the food served him, and read a newspaper, or a book. But he was passive as far as flying itself was concerned. He knew there was nothing he could do to influence it and delegated it unconditionally to those who could.”

Have you read ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘? What do you think about it?

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