EUROPE, BY THE BOOK
A guide to the continent’s best new books this Christmas
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.