A book from…the bookshelf.

At home I have a beautiful, Aspinal of London, leather-bound notebook with my initials on it in gold.  I was given it for Christmas years ago.  I had asked for a new set of mixing bowls, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway this book, which is way more beautiful than any mixing bowls could ever have been, sat, unopened, for years.  It was too beautiful for just any old scribbles.  It needed, probably, poetry. Or failing that, profound thoughts, or a first draft of a prize winning novel.  And though, not so secretly, I love to write, I could never convince myself that anything I wrote would ever be worthy of the book. 

Eventually I gave up, accepted my limitations and started jotting down in it my thoughts on other people’s writing.  Each time I finish a book, or, more realistically, when the tower of previously read books next to the bed becomes so tall and unstable it seems a mortal threat to any passing toddlers, I scrawl a sentence or two about it. It is entirely for myself, and at least in part as I tend to forget books almost as soon as I have read them. This way I can’t.

Of course the book is in Kelso, but in its absence, and in the absence of any travel-based reading, here’s what I’ve read over the last month.   They have nothing in common except that they are in paper form and here.

Warning. May contain spoilers.  Although not big ones, I promise.

This is very confusing. This may mean it is very clever but I’m not sure.  It is like one of those 3D puzzles that you have to solve without touching: you need to hold multiple seemingly contradictory possibilities in your mind and look at them from all angles in order to fit them together. I’d read it before and been more confused than impressed.  This time I think the balance shifted the other way.

Lucy just thought it was confusing.

I also have a pet hate of the Russian letter Я (‘ya’, which means ‘I’; should you ever have wondered) being used as a backwards R. But that’s just me.

I have been, literally, a beggar when it comes to books (this has worked – Magnus has acquired the entire Narnia series which we are enjoying reading together – addition aside: what order do you recommend? We have gone 2,3,4, 5 and I think will then do 6,1,7 but other views and arguments to support them are welcome). 

Anyway, as I am a beggar, I cannot, in consequence, be a chooser.  I have therefore been reading Lucy’s teen fiction.

This one was pretty good.  Although I did find myself wondering if I really wanted my just 13-year-old reading about child abuse, rohypnol and date rape.  Too late now.  Of course if I ban books as being inappropriate maybe Aurora will start reading them….

Another of those annoying books where the person who wrote the blurb clearly hadn’t actually read the book.  Why do publishers do this? I therefore spent the first five or so chapters annoyed because it wasn’t what I expected.

It was good though, once I’d got over that.  How do we treat newcomers in our midst. What if we couldn’t stop them coming? And what are they fleeing from? 

It’s not science fiction though, and they can go back.  Blurb-writer take note.

What were the chances of many of Kathy Reichs’ readers having spent several formative teenage weekends in the West Wycombe caves?  Probably small, but I am that reader and so the denouement of this was rather anti-climactic. Shame really.  Too many acronyms (IMO) but it was probably better than I found it to be.

Reading this felt like a dream.  Looking back on it feels like a dream that you can’t quite remember.  It was a good dream, but one that even as you are in it feels ethereal and other. Misty and hazy.  Where anything can, and does, happen.

For the avoidance of doubt, that’s a complimentary review.

This book made me feel clever. That’s always a bonus. It also made me read faster and faster to find out what happened. It did also make me wonder at times if he’d just copied and pasted his research notes, which is less of a compliment.

But I have recommended it to my brother, so it must be good (or he’ll get cross with me). And I will read it again (so I can enjoy the writing, and the cleverness) now that I know how it ends.

This is a classic of modern teenage fiction. And I’m sorry but I thought it was rubbish. The protagonist was possibly the most selfish and self-absorbed character I’ve ever read, and I don’t think that was deliberate. One of the more stupid and reckless too. Admittedly my sympathies generally may now lie more with the parents than the teens, but this teen didn’t deserve any sympathy at all. There are other, much better teen novels out there. Read them instead.

This one, for instance. Again, maybe 40 years of reading (and life) experience makes me harder to surprise with a twist than the intended audience, but even though I’d worked out what was coming it was still satisfying.

More critically, I do feel that if you are going to try to write in four different voices you do need to make those voices distinct. These weren’t.

Inspector Dalgleish gets SARS. Convenienly on an island which is immediately quarantined. The world doesn’t come to a complete stop.

This is therefore not the book for 2020. To make matters worse it was (I felt) badly edited, with too many sentences that didn’t quite make sense: including one about a spare toothbrush that had Ben and me both puzzling for half an hour. If it was his spare toothbrush, where was his actual toothbrush? And why were they brushing their teeth in different bathrooms?

Annoyingly this wasn’t the clue that unravelled the entire mystery.

I am not a fan of this sort of book. Or at least of the sort of book I was expecting: fey genteel poverty, all-neatly-tied-up, one step up from Mills & Boon (do they still exist?) twee romance for the middle-aged and middle-class. (Both of which I am, of course) But I enjoyed this. (QED). Even if I thought the fact that main character “bit her tongue and said nothing” showed less that she was acting “in the interests of peace” and more that she was a complete doormat who needed to stand up for herself and say what she actually wanted.

Although if she’d done that they’d have got together in about chapter 4 and there wouldn’t have been a book at all…

The last time I read this I cried. Big ugly noisy sobs. Snot was probably involved. I also laughed. Out loud. This is not something I usually do at books. I’m more of the snort in an unattractive fashion type.

This time, although I laughed, I didn’t cry. But the final act still hit me with almost physical force. If you haven’t read this book and if you care about the NHS, now more than ever, read it. I’ll post you my copy. Unless you’re pregnant. If you’re pregnant, maybe leave it until after the baby is born.

As far as trashy airport novels go, Jennifer Weiner is among the best, even if this one was a bit annoying. Good in Bed was better.

If I could write like anyone in the world, it would be Maggie O’Farrell.  Well, it would be lots of people, and I’d take any of them, but Maggie O’Farrell would definitely be high on the list.

She writes phrases like this:

She kept viewing herself as if from the outside. Instead of just acting, just doing, just running or dreaming or playing or collecting, she would feel this sense of externalisation: and so, a voice in her head would comment, you are running. Do you need to run? Where are you going? […] It was as if someone had dimmed the lights, as if she were viewing her existence from behind a glass wall.

And it makes me realise that I have felt this, built my life around this, perhaps for ever, and yet never articulated it. And she has.

I wish I could do that.

This was so good I read it twice. Well, I did read it twice but that may have had more to do with the fact it was the only book I took with me when we went away last week.

It is good though, pleasingly both neatly tied up and yet life-like in its randomness. Too many coincidences, perhaps, but then, as she says, a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.

I like Jackson Brodie too. I will re-read the others when I get home.

Middle England next, which is making me feel even more bleak about the doomed state of British politics.

Harriet

A book from each country – Norway, Sweden, and more

As with Slovenia, I realised fairly shortly after we arrived in France that our Scandinavian plans were doomed. So rather than carry my Norwegian book all the way home with me unread, I thought I’d read it here.

Norway

After my French book, which I read in both English and French, and felt, in English, slightly patronised by the translator (more of him later) giving me all sorts of information that wasn’t in the French original, here I had to eat my words (in whatever language they were).

Will and Testament, by Vigdis Hjorth and translated by Charlotte Barslund, is about, in the sense that is about anything, an inheritance dispute between an estranged daughter and the rest of her family. The problem is, and this may be just because I’m a private client lawyer, so if there is one topic I know anything about it is inheritance disputes, it didn’t make sense to me. I wanted a brief primer on Norwegian inheritance and gift tax law because without it the actual reason for the argument was meaningless. There were tax implications that everyone got very het up by, but if you don’t understand the tax rules in question it is perhaps difficult to empathise or indeed understand.

But that is perhaps both not the point, and also not true for the majority of readers who aren’t private client lawyers. I could see why it won awards – Berglot (I wish someone had told me how to pronounce her name too) is a very believable character, perhaps because at times her narration is so unreliable, contradictory and, indeed, unbelievable. Something awful has happened to her, years ago (and I did believe that, although not everyone in the book does), and she is still trying to process it. She goes over and over both it and the actions she has taken as a consequence, taking decisions that she then doesn’t follow through on, and repeating herself, but changing the facts as she does. We all know people like that. We are all like that, although hopefully without the trauma. I felt very sorry for her, while finding her hugely irritating. I am ashamed to say that I suspect in that situation I would have been one of her sisters. If you read it you will see what an admission that is.

Sweden

I didn’t bring this with me. It was here already. In fact I had read it before, although had forgotten. But it is Swedish and it was in English and it was nice and tightly plotted with a neat resolution at the end. I’m not a fan of gruesome murder (give me a tidy Agatha Christie where they all gather over a cup of tea in the drawing room at the end) but this passed the time. I thought the title was anoying though. Wallander kept saying that he had been Sidetracked but it seemed to me that what he was actually doing was reasonably following clues. This strikes me (from a position of absoutely no knowledge) as being more Sensible Policing but I guess that’s not such a snappy title.

All, and none, of the above

David Bellos

Top title. And what wouldn’t I give for a bit of Douglas Adams…?

In one of my many parallel universes (there’s one where I’m a doctor, one where I own a cake shop, one where I don’t have any children. There’s coronavirus in none of them) I am a literary translator from French. (There’s another one where I’m a literary translator from French and Russian but that’s so far-fetched as to be almost beyond even the parallel worlds theory).

Anyway, the point is that I am in a very small minority of people who think that literary translation is a cool thing to do. I actually remember fondly (no really) my finals paper which required us to translate a page of Tintin. If I’d had more confidence maybe I’d have expressed that interest to my lecturers…. I didn’t though, and here we are…

Anyway, after my mini-rant about translation, my brother sent me this book. It is all about that dark art of and is, not entirely conicidentally, by David Bellos, the translator of the French book I took slight issue with.

I found it fascinating. There are times when he was, to my taste, too philosophical on the question of the difference between what translation is and what it does, and he was occasionally a little disingenuous, bolstering his argument by reference to books he himself had translated. I also found the (it seemed to me) entirely random use of italics in the chapter headings extremely irritating. Maybe I was just missing something.

But hot on the heels of my frustration at not having the knowledge of Norwegian tax law necessary fully to appreciate Vigdis Hjorth’s book, and living in a country where I sort of speak the language, but not quite well enough, I found most of it riveting. How do I make myself understood and what am I missing when I fail to catch one word in twenty? How much of an “original” is “lost in translation”? What does that even mean? It was interesting too to have the difficulty I have found in obtaining English translations from minority languages put into numbers: in the decade to 2009, 80% of all translations from seven major world languages were from English. 8% were into English. No wonder I couldn’t find a Slovenian book. Wish me luck with Kyrgyz.

The UK and other anglophone places

And now we’re into “I need something to read, what can I find to read? Oh no, that’s a book I brought here and left three years ago and I didn’t much like it then” territory. So I am reading what I can get my hands on, and writing about it here as much for something to do as anything else.

I read this.

I should have known really. I wanted something light and easy and look at the cover. The Daily Mail said it was “wonderful”. It is certainly wondrous that it was a bestseller.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

This, on the other hand, was excellent. A friend sent it to me, with a pile of books for the children too. I’m usually much more a reader of fiction (the cliché of the middle-aged, middle-class woman) but this I thought really was “wonderful”. It’s hard to say that I “enjoyed” it, as it’s a series of horrific stories of lives undervalued, abused and wasted, even before they were brought to an end by brutal murder. It made me think a lot about who we value, and why, and about naming the perpetrators of crimes. It did feel, in places, rather speculative, which is no reflection on the clearly enormous amount of scholarship, and mounds of archives that Hallie Rubenhold has clearly gone through, but more that these lives weren’t valued enough to be recorded. So we can never know what happened to these women for periods of months or years, or how they felt or what they said. It is understandable therefore that there were some sections that felt perhaps too presumptive of what “must have” happened.

This notwithstanding, I came away convinced that whatever they were or did (and three of them were not and had never been prostitutes – and in any event even if they were that should not then, or now, have mattered), or where they went and who with, they deserved to have their stories told.

From real murder to fictional. Nicci French is (are? She is really a husband and wife team) hugely popular but I had never read one of her novels before. Parts of this I thought were brilliant. There is a minor character who talked about anxiety and panic in a way that rang terrifyingly true. But I felt let down by the denouement. Perhaps, in this uncertain time, I just wanted a resolution, but it felt as though she didn’t bring the plot to an end because she knew there was another book coming (and another, and another). As I won’t be reading any of them, I felt slightly cheated. Ironically, if she had resolved it, I probably would have picked up more of her books in future. But now I’m cross. So I won’t.

Where next?

Both geographically and literarily: who knows? I do still have my Russian book (Anna Akhmatova), my Uzbek book (The Devil’s Dance) and my Japanese book (The Pure Land – the only one not actually written by someone from the country, but given to me by a friend as a leaving present) but I am still, perhaps foolishly, hoping that I may one day read those in their countries and so haven’t picked them up yet. That may change.

For now though, it’s more of whatever I can find.

Harriet

A book from every country – Slovenia

I realise we are not, and probably now never will be (at least not on this trip), in Slovenia, but I had the book, so I was jolly well going to read it.

It’s the next best thing to being there, right? I’ll get a real sense of Slovenia culture and identity, right?

Erm, wrong.

I didn’t so much choose a Slovenian book as have it chosen for me… I started with this list of Slovenian authors whose works have been translated into English. Guess how many of them Google had available? Yup. None.

So I outsourced the problem to my mother, who was coming to join us in Vienna and just asked her to get me any Slovenian novel she could find. Harder than you might hink, given that Slovenia is a pretty small country and has a publishing industry to match. Approximately 500 novels are published in Slovenia a year and I would suspect that relatively few of them make it into English.

Anyway, I got this one: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Evald Flisar, translated by the author and David Limon (so you’ve got to hope the translation was pretty much as the author wanted!)

It is, according to the blurb, the biggest selling Slovenian book ever. Only about two million people speak Slovenian as a first language and this book has sold over 65,000 copies. That equates to about one in every thirty Slovenian speakers who have bought a copy.

What better introduction to Slovenian culture could there be?

Only it was not at all what I was expecting. It’s set in the Himalayas for a start. I think Slovenia gets mentioned about twice. It’s the journey of a well-educated (bilingual with English) Slovenian young (ish) man on a search for enlightenment and features his musings and experiences along the way as he follows his guru up and down montains and through hill top villages and spends time in a Tantric monastery.

If it is, as I suppose it must be, given how many copies it sold, a good indication of Slovenian thought and culture, I’m expecting them all to do a lot of meditation and have an interest in Buddhism and mysticism.

I don’t think they do. But I may be wrong. Interestingly the epigraph in my current (Norwegian) book, is also by a Slovenian philosopher.

I’m being rude about the book though; which isn’t fair. For all of the mystic mumbo jumbo (and yes that is deliberately rude and there is quite a lot of that), there were many sentences that brought me up short with what felt like their apposite correctness. I rather wanted a pencil so I could underline them and come back to them.

At this historical moment in particular, what I took as the book’s central message – although it’s the sort of book that I suspect different readers would see different things in – seemed one that I need to remember: we can only be who we are now and where we are now. We cannot change the past and we cannot be in the future until we actually are there (by which time it is no longer the future). There is no point in raging against or trying to change now, you can only be in it.

We are supposed to be arriving in Paris in the next half an hour or so. We had first class tickets on the train leaving Grenoble earlier today. The car should have still been here in the village, ready to be driven back to the UK by my in-laws. We should have got rid of all our extraneous stuff and be down only to what we can carry. The adventure really should have started today.

But it hasn’t. And I am here. And now. I cannot change that. I can only live in this moment.

I’d probaby have reached that conclusion without the book, and I will undoubtedly have many, many, moments where I forget it, but I am trying to hold on to it.

Maybe this was the book I needed to read. Slovenian or not.

A book from every country – France

After my failure to try and find a book in English that encapsulated the spirit and culture of each country we have so far visited (funny that), I decided to give up on both my criteria.

As a result my French book was a) a detective novel and b) (deep breath) in French.

I do have a degree in French, it is true, but it is over twenty years since I last read a book in French, and if I’m scrupulously honest I’m not sure I even did then (publishers in university towns are surprisingly good about producing reliable and cheap translations of set texts, I found).

Anyway, a lovely friend had recommended the Commissionaire Adamsberg novels of Fred Vargas so I thought I’d give one of them a go. When we arrived here I did my customary trawl of the books in the house and noted that there was one of hers here already, in English: Have Mercy on Us. If all else fails, I thought, I’ll read that…

But the supermarket did me proud and had several of her novels. No English version required… I picked one, mostly at random, influenced only really by price (it was oddly slightly cheaper than the others) and the fact that it had won a prize. It’s called Pars Vite et Reviens Tard. In English, that’s Leave quickly and come back late.

I don’t know what made me, on my return to the house, get out the two novels, with their very different titles, and compare them. But I did. The original French title of my English book is, you guessed it, Pars Vite et Reviens Tard. They are the same book.

I was slightly annoyed by this, to be honest, although with hindsight I’m not sure why. There was nothing stopping me just reading the French one and ignoring the English. Or vice versa. But in the end, I’ve, sort of, read both.

I started with two or three chapters of the French and then quickly skimmed the English just to check I hadn’t missed anything. It’s been an interesting experience and a glimpse into the skill that is translation. Pleasingly I’d generally understood the plot, but the words used were, often, wildly different. Rather than being, as I would have imagined, almost a word-by-word exercise, in which the translation is as close to the original as possible, this read much more as if the translator, David Bellos, had read the book and then, almost without looking at it again, retold the original French story in his own, English, words.

This is the epigraph on the first page of both books. If you read French you’ll see what I mean. I haven’t yet put either through google translate but I’m quite tempted to.

It made me realise what a skill translating is, and in turn, how we can never know, when we read a book in translation, not just “how close” to the original it is, but also what “how close” really means. If the author has used a word, should the direct translation be used? Or is there another phrase which may express better the feel or mood or style of the author? Or which may simply sound better in English? And if so, how do you choose which to prioritise?

So I take my metaphorical hat off to the translators* of all the books I have read. With the exception of this one I will never read the original works, so I will never know how “close” or “good” or “true” they were, but to differing degrees I enjoyed them all, and I never felt that the English jarred.

And what of the book itself? I enjoyed it, although I was irritated by several of what, to me, felt like plot holes. And I certainly didn’t get why anyone, much less two attractive young women, would leap into bed with Adamsberg. He wears sandals…

I’m also not sure that now is the time to be reading a book about plague and panic.

I would read more of Fred Vargas’ books though, and not just because I am very chuffed with myself for doing so in French.

As for the change of title. It does make sense. But it’s still a bit annoying.

Next: to read the books I’ve been carrying round in the expectation if visiting countries we will not now get to. First: Slovenia.

* I should have credted them in my last book-y post, and I apologise for not doing so. I can’t go back and edit it (there’s a glitch somewhere) so I’m doing it here:

The Tobacconist translated from the German by Charlotte Collins (Austria)

The House with the Stained Glass Window translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones (Poland)

War and Turpentine translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium)

The White King translated from the Hungarian by Paul Olchvary (Hungary)

One Clear Ice Cold Morning… translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (Germany)

A book from every country – Weeks 1-6

As well as cooking a meal from every country, I set myself the challenge of reading a book from every country, while we were actually in each country.

Thus far I have, almost, managed it, and it has been enlightening, although not necessarily in the ways I would have expected.

The problem, of course, is that what with the travelling and the child-wrangling, and the cooking and the reading, there wasn’t much time to blog about them until now, when suddenly we have all the time in the world.

Choosing the books

The first challenge in each case was picking a book. We have historically been notoriously bad in the UK about reading books in translation, (although this is slowly changing) and so my choices were rather limited.

I have been helped by the Ambassadors of various countries to the US, who kindly each recommended a book to Conde Nast Traveller. These generally, have been an easy choice.

In addition I wanted to read books that I actually wanted to read. An English A level and a literature degree were quite enough compulsory reading for one lifetime…. And in my head the books I chose needed to be books “about” the country. It is blinkered and stupid of me, but it turns our that there are just as many genres of fiction in Dutch, or Hungarian, as there are in English. The biggest selling book in English from Poland at the moment is The Witcher series, which I understand to be Game of Thrones crossed with Lord of the Rings. Could be right up my street but wasn’t, I thought, what I was looking for at all.

Possibly it should have been – if that’s what Polish people want to read probably that’s what I should read too. I suspect my ideas of a representative Polish book are as wildly inaccurate as my expectations of how this trip was going to go…

I get the impression that UK publishers and translators are nearly as blinkered as I am when it comes to their choices, as the books that were available seemed to be disproportionately concerned with the twentieth century: endless wars and life under communism. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that that was subconsciously both expecting and looking for, but as I write this, in Hungary and about to embark on yet another book (Austrian) set in 1938, I’m slightly wishing I had some swords and dragons to look forward to instead.

In addition, the books have to be available on Google Play Books. Some years ago, for various reasons (including, but not limited to, the fact that they locked me out if my account) I stopped using Amazon. It is, although I know most people won’t believe me, surprisingly easy to survive in the 21st century without the everything store, but e-books seem to be one area where it has a virtual monopoly.

I have an android phone and tablet and Google does provide you with a reading app, but many books aren’t available on it, including my first choice books from Poland and Hungary, and anything at all (that I could identify) from Slovenia.

The Netherlands

I admit it: I failed at the first country.

I did not finish all 500+ pages of Collected Dutch Short Stories. I got through about eight of them (the stories, not the pages) and decided I had had enough all life is pointless and we’re just going to die anyway (and this was before Corona came to Europe). It may be that this is a fair representation of the Dutch psyche (Keane certainly commented that they thought they were popular in The Netherlands because Dutch people are as miserable as the band is) but that’s not the impression I got of then at all.

Plus I was getting bored and miserable. Time to move on. I read The Hate U Give which Lucy had brought with her instead. It was good.

Belgium

The Belgian ambassador recommended War and Turpentine by Steran Hertmans. This is a novel, but it feels very much like a memoir and was, I understand, very much inspired by the author’s own grandfather and his experiences during the First World War. It was beautifully, viscerally written and, I thought, well translated, in that the English (the original was written in Dutch) did not feel stilted or contrived.

If the aim of my reading is to give me a tiny bit of a better understanding of the country we are in, what I took from this is the conflict (which I think still remains) between the two Belgian languages, as well as the geographical misfortune of Belgium, to be the point where the armies of World War One met. To my shame I had never really thought about the Belgian army even taking part in the War, but clearly they did, and suffered as much as any other.

But what I will really remember from this book is a butal passage set in a slaughterhouse. Once read, never forgotten.

Germany

An actual paper book!

Lucy had finished the three books she brought with her by the time we got to Amsterdam, so when we passed Sterling Books in Brussels, we were dragged in to pay twice the cover price for more…

As I idly scanned the shelves, wondering how you identify a German book by its cover, the name Roland Schimmelpfennig jumped out at me. Aha! That’s how you do it…

In One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, shortly after dawn, a wolf crosses from Poland into German and makes its way towards Berlin.

Schimmelpfennig is a poet, and the writing has the feeling of poetry, or a fable told by firelight. I read each chapter several times (admittedly this is partly because a) I have a terrible tendency to read too fast and not take things in properly and b) it’s quite a short book and I wanted to make it last) in order to repeat the pleasure of reading.

In Berlin, this was absolutely the right book. It is completely rooted in the place and the names and locations were all around me. As we drove towards Poland, we followed the wolf’s route in reverse.

For the humans in the book though, the problem, whatever it may have seemed to them, was not the wolf itself. I kept thinking of EM Forster: only connect.

I suspect that as a non-German, there are themes running through this that completely passed me by. If I was looking for insights into modern Germany, what I got was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. I have no idea if that is fair or not.

Poland

I knew the Polish book I wanted to read. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It won the Man Booker International in 2018 and she is last years Nobel Laureate for Literature. But guess what? Neither that, nor any of her other books, is available on google.

In fact of the non-witchy works on this list of Polish books in translation, only one was available: The House with the Stained Glass Window by Źanna Słoniowska.

(Ironically of course, in As You Like It, the English bookshop in Kraków there were many, many lovely Polish books in translation, but by that time what I needed was a Hungarian book…)

Once again I was forced to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. I feel I’m learning more about myself through this that I am about the countries we pass through, or the literature they produce. But then maybe that’s what good book is for.

This was, indeed, a Polish book, in that it was written in Polish. However it is set in the city of Lviv (formerly Lwów, formerly Lemberg…) which is now in Ukraine.   It thus wasn’t a book “about Poland” or indeed about the experience of being Polish, so much as it was about being from Lviv, and the experience of being torn between the many layers of culture and history in that city.

Indeed the translator’s note makes it clear that the city is itself one of the main characters in the book. The others are four generations of women with differing cultural experiences and loyalties. Like the city itself they suffer the weight of layers of complicated history and confused identity.

I knew nothing about any of this history or cultural background before I read the book and I again felt that I probably missed a great deal of nuance as a result. 

I also feel, and after three books, I am allowing myself to say this, that I read differently (and less pleasurably) on screen from how I do if I have a book. I know this at work – if I need critially to analyse a legal document I have to print it out. My eyes slide over the screen in a way that they don’t on the page. In addition, with a book I can flick back and forth to check that I am remembering things correctly or to remind myself who said what and to whom.

Hungary

Undaunted (or perhaps I didn’t have any choice), my next book was also from Google books. Again it wasn’t my first choice. The helpful lady in the Polish bookshop had recommended Sandor Marai and László Krasznahorkai but no works by either of them were available.

So, and I’m not entirely sure how, I ended up with The White King by György Dragomán. This is, together with the Schimmelpfennig, the only book that I have read on this trip that I would read again and wholeheartedly recommend. Think Lord of the Flies, but under a totalitarian government. And don’t be put off by the blurb, if it’s the same as it was on the e-book, as it’s totally wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if the people who write the blurb actually bother to read the books first.

Again though, this wasn’t a representative Hungarian book, or at least not in the way I had intended. It wasn’t acutally until I read some of the online reviews (after I’d finished it) that I realised that the unnamed totalitarian mid-80s country isn’t, in fact, Hungary but Romania. The author is an ethnic Hungarian who was born in Transylvania and moved to Hungary when he was 15. I had no idea when I was reading it. Perhaps I should have done. I don’t know whether it matters.

Austria

By this time I had given up on trying to find something that my prejudices thought was “Austrian” and just went for something that was a) by an Austrian, and b) available. It was also what the Austrian ambassador had recommended.

The book in question was The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler and as was absolutely not what I wanted to read, as it was set in 1938 and I was still hoping to step away from the troubled experience of 20th Century Europe. My Polish, Belgian and Hungarian books notwithstanding there seems to me to be so much more to write about in all these countries, yet what gets translated comes back to the same few years of misery. (And The Witcher).

Reader, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it confounded my expectations. As in Berlin, reading this in Vienna was the right book in the right place: it was lovely to wander through the Prater and think of Franz, 70 years earlier (although the bar he went to was shut, and there were no seedy dancing clubs that I noticed…).

It was also, despite being firmly set in 1938, and not shying away from the experience of Austria as it voted (with 99.73% in favour) to become part of Greater Germany, somehow not about that at all, being much more concerned with Franz’ coming of age and search for love, and above all self.

Freud is a major character too. I didn’t know he had a prosthetic jaw.

France

As I write, here we are. And here we will remain for some time. I am carrying with me a Slovenian book (lovingly identified and brought out by my mother) a Norwegian book, an Uzbek book, a Russian book and a Japanese book and I have no idea when, or if, we will be in any of those countries.

Here, though, I bought, on Monday, something entirely different and completely unconnected to 20th century history: a murder mystery. It’s in French. I may be some time.