Sunday, 22 August 2010

What I talk about when I talk about books

One Fyfe family story goes that when I was little, I went with my mum to pick up my brother from school and we were invited in by his teacher after the class had finished. While the grown-ups nattered and my older bro (probably) tore around the room making aeroplane noises, three-and-a-half year old me picked up the nearest Biff and Chip and proceeded to read the story in its entirety, loudly, just to show everyone that I could do it. My mum and brother knew just to roll their eyes and let me get on with it, but Mrs Harris was at once intrigued and horrified and said with a hint of apprehension, 'I look forward to Lottie joining my class next year!'

I come from a very small village and recently we caught up with my old primary school headmaster in the local drinking establishment, where he, too, jested that I was never to be seen without a book in hand, in school or out. At first I thought he was having a jibe at the village bookworm in the same vein as the cool kids who spat out bits of paper through straws on the bus, but he assured me that being such an inky swot was actually an admirable trait.

Thing is, though, I'm not really that well-read at all. Maybe that's the curse of the book-lover talking - the plaguing knowledge of not having read enough by far and there being just too much out there and not enough time to read it all... This is why I adopted the self-imposed rule some time ago never to force my way to the end of a book if I just wasn't getting into it - there's too much good stuff to bother with the ones that don't work. You're never going to like everything. Even the classics - I tried to read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller about four times and never managed it. The 'to read' pile grows ten times as fast as the 'read' pile, and this is something I've realised I'm going to have to live with until the day I die - if we're still reading at all by then, that is, and not employing some digital sensory programme that just injects narrative directly into our brains.

But I digress: I wanted to write about what I've been reading lately. I've been out of the country (only Germany, but I like saying that, it makes me sound travelled) and had to send UPS packages to myself in Scotland, full of the books I couldn't stop myself buying over there, or smuggling home from Bloomsbury's shelves as 'payment' for my services as a top-class intern. Ingo Schulze's 'Orangen und Engel' was one of them (this is going to be boring and irrelevant for those who don't know, or care, about the German literature market, I'm afraid), a collection of snippets of Italian life seen from the German protagonist's perspective, accounts of bizarre but everyday occurrences which give it a charming Italian flavour, even if the writing felt rather dull for me.

What else? I'm rooting for an English translation of Sevilla by Nina Jäckle. Sharp, raw and haunting with sparse language and an amazing sense of setting, it's about a woman on the run who finds herself in a strange new place with absolutely nothing to tie her to her old life except her memory. She slowly assimilates herself into a new culture, city and language, bit by bit, and you see and feel this happening with every word Jäckle writes. It's fascinating.

In Berlin I also tried to tackle some contemporary classics that I'd neglected - Haruki Murakami for one - Kafka on the Shore - which is weird and gripping and sad and cool, and very satisfying fiction... it's quite long, and it took me a long time to finish it because I could usually only manage to snatch a quick ten minutes on the tram on my way into work (I actually had a social life in Berlin, so on the evenings which I would usually spend in a book, I was drinking beer and dancing). Anyway, after I'd finished the book, the next day on the way into Prenzlauer Berg when I heard the electric whirr of the trams as I changed at Alexanderplatz I had a double-take, because I'd come to associate that noise with the talking cats, ghosts, transsexual librarians, runaways and other creatures of this novel, and now I fear the twain shall never be parted - every time I take the tram in Berlin I will think of Kafka.

Then there's Atomised by Michel Houellebecq - the story of two brothers and their disfunctional lives, also a social history of Europe from the 60s to the present, focusing on the sexual liberation movement and its repercussions. Really great, but I was actually almost sick on the train at one scene involving some satanists and a foetus. An Education by Lynn Barber: you might have seen the film. The book's better (usually the case), but that's a statement because the film is bloody good too. And on a lighter note, with its pleasingly alliterative title, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, told from the perspective of an old dog on his final day, recalling his life alongside his beloved master. Sounds horrendous, wasn't though - it's written more cleverly than it sounds and interspersed with some cool motor racing scenes for light relief from the emotional stuff. Provided a great literary insight into why nobody likes Michael Schumacher, even though he's the best: because he's infallible. Nobody wants a winner who's never known what it's like to lose - you're not a hero unless you've overcome the odds. Amen to that.

No comments:

Post a Comment