A guide to the con­ti­nent’s best new books this Christ­mas

The New European - - Agenda - BY CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY

There will be a faint vale­dic­tory feel to this Christ­mas for those of us aware that leav­ing the Euro­pean Union is a re­ally, as­tound­ingly, treach­er­ously bad idea. We’ll no­tice a dis­cernible hint of melan­choly in the crin­kle of the Qual­ity Street wrap­per and a mourn­ful rhythm to the slow chew of the brus­sels sprout as our de­meanours be­tray the look of some­one ex­pect­ing at any mo­ment the yule log to slip from the hearth, ig­nite the brandy left out for Fa­ther Christ­mas and set the car­pet ablaze.

This could be the last Christ­mas as we know it. From next year, Santa’s sleigh will spend much of Christ­mas Eve in a lay-by on the M20 be­hind a truck driven by a flat­u­lent Dutch­man called Jan, wait­ing his turn for the bor­der checks. He won’t be able to re­vise his ‘naughty or nice’ lists as this year’s divi­sion clearly ex­pressed the will of the elves and we have to re­spect that, while the best-known sea­sonal nurs­ery rhyme will be re­vised to, “Christ­mas is com­ing, the geese are get­ting washed in chlo­rine”.

What so­lace can there be in this bleak mid­win­ter? Well, if it’s any con­so­la­tion there is a bumper crop of new and re­cently pub­lished books from or about Europe to ei­ther make ideal presents or even fuel a con­so­la­tory es­cape from the real­i­ties of Brexit or even the real­i­ties of the in-laws.

Let’s start with an ap­pro­pri­ately sea­sonal of­fer­ing. Pen­guin have been con­tin­u­ing their ex­cel­lent reis­sues of Ge­orges Si­menon’s Mai­gret nov­els that com­menced at the end of 2013 and as a bonus this year comes a hand­some pa­per­back edi­tion of A Mai­gret Christ­mas (Pen­guin Mod­ern Clas­sics, £7.99). There are three sea­sonal sto­ries here al­though only one fea­tures the de­tec­tive him­self.

The ti­tle story sees Mai­gret at­tempt­ing to solve the mys­tery of a miss­ing child as he re­ceives two un­ex­pected vis­i­tors on Christ­mas Day. Seven Small Crosses in a Note­book con­cerns a tele­phone op­er­a­tor in the con­trol room of the Paris po­lice, a con­sci­en­tious man work­ing dili­gently on Christ­mas Eve when calami­tous events force him out of his dili­gent rou­tine, while The Lit­tle Restau­rant in Les Ternes be­gins with a man shoot­ing him­self in the head in the es­tab­lish­ment of the ti­tle but turns into a heart­warm­ing story of yule­tide redemp­tion in the Paris un­der­belly, the sort of thing A Fairy­tale of New York might have been if Shane Mac­gowan had been an iras­ci­ble, randy, pipesmok­ing Bel­gian.

One of my favourite Euro­pean reads this year has been Left Bank: Art,

Pas­sion and the Re­birth of Paris 1940-1950 by Agnès Poirier (Blooms­bury, £25). For a book telling the story of one decade in the life of a spe­cific part of the French cap­i­tal Left Bank is a rip-roar­ing riot of a read, prac­ti­cally a por­trait of 20th cen­tury Euro­pean cul­ture in one im­pres­sively de­tailed minia­ture. Its cast of char­ac­ters ranges from Jean-paul Sartre and Si­mone de Beau­voir to Nor­man Mailer and Miles Davis, who in­habit a breath­lessly ex­hil­a­rat­ing ac­count in which at times it feels as if Poirier is hus­tling you phys­i­cally from café to restau­rant to apart­ment, show­ing you these ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters with the feel of the wet street cob­bles al­most tan­gi­ble be­neath your feet and the thick cig­a­rette smoke tear­ing at your nos­trils.

It’s not all par­ties and high-fa­lutin’ philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sions in pave­ment cafés, how­ever. Nearly half of the decade in ques­tion was taken up by Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion and the rest with an aus­ter­ity and post-war trauma that would last beyond the re­mit of Poirer’s book.

“Paris is the seat of a highly de­vel­oped hu­man­ity, and one thus wit­nesses highly de­vel­oped forms of suf­fer­ing there,” she quotes Saul Bel­low as writ­ing. “Sad­ness is a daily levy that civ­i­liza­tion im­poses in Paris. Gay Paris? Gay, my foot!”

As Amer­i­cans pour into the city after the lib­er­a­tion de Beau­voir writes,

“Young ex­is­ten­tial­ist boys now grow a beard; Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual tourists grow beards too. All these beards are aw­fully ugly! But the ex­is­ten­tial­ist caves are a won­der­ful suc­cess. It is funny, just two blocks – that is all Saint-ger­main­des-prés – but within those two blocks you can­not find a place to sit down, nei­ther in the bars, cafes, night­clubs nor even on the pave­ment. Then all around it is just dark­ness and death.”

It’s a book brim­ming with tremen­dous anec­dote. In Au­gust 1943, Sartre’s com­plex Be­ing and Noth­ing­ness was fly­ing off the shelves of book­shops all over the city, much to the happy be­muse­ment of pub­lish­ers Gal­li­mard who could barely keep re­tail­ers sup­plied with what even they had to ad­mit was a sur­prise best­seller. It turned out that the book weighed ex­actly one kilo­gram and, with the city’s cop­per weights long melted down for the war ef­fort, peo­ple were us­ing Sartre’s egg-headed mus­ings as a weight mea­sure. A few months later Ernest Hem­ing­way, ar­riv­ing with the lib­er­at­ing forces, parked his jeep out­side Pi­casso’s stu­dio and, find­ing no­body home, left a bucket of grenades with a note on top read­ing “To Pi­casso, from Hem­ing­way”.

The ac­tress Ar­letty, star of the film Les En­fants du Par­adis, re­ceived an

18-month prison sen­tence after the war, charged with trea­son for her re­la­tion­ship with an of­fi­cer of the Luft­waffe. Her ra­tio­nale was that “My heart is French but my arse is in­ter­na­tional”. A tremen­dously Euro­pean Christ­mas read.

Stay­ing in Paris we also have Richard Tom­lin­son’s foren­sic and thrilling Lan­dru’s Se­cret: The Deadly Se­duc­tions of France’s Lonely Hearts

Se­rial Killer (Pen and Sword, £25). Dur­ing the First World War 50-year-old Henri Désiré Lan­dru placed and an­swered a string of lonely hearts ads in Parisian news­pa­pers, many of which led to meet­ings with vul­ner­a­ble war wi­d­ows or women for whom the ab­sence of al­most an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of men from the city made it nigh on im­pos­si­ble to find love.

Al­ready an ac­com­plished swindler, Lan­dru preyed on these women many of whom dis­ap­peared never to be seen again. No bod­ies were ever found but Lan­dru’s sub­se­quent trial was a sen­sa­tion, at­tended by the likes of Mau­rice Che­va­lier and Rud­yard Ki­pling. Part de­tec­tive story, part re­venger’s tragedy, Lan­dru’s Se­cret is a cap­ti­vat­ing and rivet­ing ac­count that fi­nally sheds a truth­ful light on mys­te­ri­ous events from a cen­tury ago that were drenched in misog­yny and du­bi­ous jus­tice.

In Novem­ber 1838 Fred­eric Chopin and his lover Ge­orge Sand ar­rived in Mal­lorca look­ing to avoid a harsh Parisian win­ter. Mal­lorca in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury wasn’t ex­actly brim­ming with op­tions for ac­com­mo­da­tion and the cou­ple even­tu­ally set­tled into a draughty aban­doned monastery. There Chopin would com­plete his ex­tra­or­di­nary 24 Pre­ludes on a small pi­anino made by a lo­cal crafts­man from nearby trees, pig iron, felt and cop­per. “It gives him more vex­a­tion than con­so­la­tion,” wrote Sand, “all the same, he is work­ing”.

Paul Kildea is a former mu­si­cal di­rec­tor of the Wig­more Hall and in

Chopin’s Pi­ano: A Jour­ney Through Ro­man­ti­cism (Allen Lane, £20) he uses that monas­tic win­ter in the hills above Palma to launch a wide-rang­ing and ir­re­sistibly fas­ci­nat­ing book.

Chopin’s Pre­ludes are among the most im­por­tant mu­si­cal works of the Ro­man­tic pe­riod, and here we have the story of their com­po­si­tion, per­for­mance, the pi­ano on which they were com­posed and even some of the pianos on which they were per­formed.

The lat­ter part of the book fo­cuses on pi­anist Wanda Landowska in par­tic­u­lar, who in 1908 tracks down and pur­chases the orig­i­nal pi­ano from the monastery where it had re­mained since Chopin left.

She takes it to Paris where it’s sub­se­quently con­fis­cated by the Nazis and Landowska spends the rest of her life try­ing to find it again. Kildea picks up the search in a book that’s part bi­og­ra­phy, part mu­si­co­log­i­cal odyssey, part de­tec­tive story and part jour­ney through the his­tory of Europe in the

19th and 20th cen­turies You don’t need to be a clas­si­cal mu­sic buff and you cer­tainly don’t need to be a pi­anist to ap­pre­ci­ate this grip­ping and en­ter­tain­ing yarn of tan­gents and di­gres­sions that range across the cen­turies, Europe and the world.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Fitz­car­raldo Edi­tions, £12.99) doesn’t sound on the face of it like a Christ­massy read, but the new novel from Olga Tokar­czuk is one of the most sig­nif­i­cant and best pieces of fic­tion to come out of Europe this year. Tokar­czuk

won the 2018 Man In­ter­na­tional Booker Prize for her be­guil­ing col­lage of a novel Flights, and Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, pub­lished in the au­tumn in An­to­nia Lloyd-jones’s ex­cel­lent trans­la­tion, prom­ises to reach the same level of crit­i­cal and pub­lic ac­claim.

More con­ven­tional in its struc­ture than Flights, Drive Your Plow… is fo­cused on Jan­ina Dusze­jko, an ec­cen­tric, reclu­sive Wil­liam Blake fan in her six­ties liv­ing in a re­mote Pol­ish vil­lage. When mem­bers of a lo­cal hunt­ing club are found mur­dered, Dusze­jko be­comes in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as a tan­gent from the story of her two miss­ing dogs.

Grip­ping in a noir thriller style, this is a book with much to say about con­tem­po­rary Poland and the world beyond, one whose stri­dent po­lit­i­cal themes caused up­roar when the book was orig­i­nally pub­lished in Pol­ish.

Hav­ing been cooped up with fam­ily for a few days over Christ­mas our thoughts will nat­u­rally turn to es­cape, and there are few bet­ter re­cent travel mem­oirs than Guy Stagg’s The Cross­way (Pi­cador, £16.99) to help us do that, at least from the com­fort of an arm­chair or the dis­com­fort of a spare room camp bed with a Teenage Mu­tant Ninja

Tur­tles du­vet cover. It even has a faint Christ­mas con­nec­tion in that it de­tails the au­thor’s walk across Europe from Can­ter­bury to Jerusalem. Al­though not re­li­gious Stagg makes the jour­ney in the man­ner of a tra­di­tional pil­grim­age, re­ly­ing on the kind­ness of strangers as he sets out in the morn­ing fre­quently with no idea where he’ll lay his head that night. This is a beau­ti­fully writ­ten book, pro­found, evoca­tive and wise in the man­ner of Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor. A few hours in the com­pany of Guy Stagg and the Christ­mas wash­ing up won’t seem nearly as daunt­ing.

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