The Tobacconist

by Robert Seethaler

A short book, easy to read.  Not sure why or where I bought it, whether it was full price or not (it looks new) but I started reading this somewhat angry at myself for not getting hold of a copy in the original German.  I became even more annoyed as I read, since the translation is in places quite sloppy.  Though I don’t have the original in front of me, I feel I could have done a better job!

That said, the book grabbed my attention while I was reading it.  Like A Gentleman in Moscow, the basic story is of a decent person trying to lead a good life in troubled times.  In this case, the setting is Vienna in 1937-8 and the person is a young man freshly arrived in the city from his mother’s home in the Salzkammergut.  He is naïve and lonely, but the tobacconist for whom he works is an upright person, and Franz learns the job and begins to explore the city. He strikes up an unusual friendship with a customer, one Professor Sigmund Freud.

The book is about becoming an adult, learning about the world – in this case, sex and human nature, but also the natural world and the minutiae of the city environment – and doing the right thing.  Franz sees the behaviour of Nazis and sympathisers around him, but he doesn’t just look on.  In his own little ways, he acts.  And in his conversations with Freud, he shares his own insights with ‘the professor’ which seem to be entirely home-grown and natural.

I’m afraid that this story is a fantasy.  Franz is the innocent, pure person we would all wish to be, who behaves the right way even though he doesn’t particularly think about what the right thing is.  Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read and a book that lingers, and makes  you think.

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Earthly Remains

by Donna Leon

I have only read one of Leon’s novels prior to this one, but she is a firm favourite with my aunt Wendy, who left this book at our home after her Christmas visit.  It seemed like a good, undemanding read for our holiday; and indeed, having finished it halfway through our five days away, I think it was an excellent choice.

Commissario Brunetti fakes a heart attack while interviewing a suspect, in order to save the career of his junior colleague who, he is sure, is about to assault the man.  He is urged to take some time off, and arranges to spend two weeks at the villa of a distant relation of his wife Paola, on the island of Sant’Erasmo.  So begins a friendship between Brunetti and the caretaker of the villa, a retired factory worker by the name of Davide Casati.  Casati is a skilled boatman who, it transpires, knew Brunetti’s father, who was also a good rower.  Brunetti finds his relaxation in accompanying Casati each day as he rows around the lagoon checking up on his beehives.

When Casati goes missing on the night of a thunderstorm, Brunetti joins the search, and his connection with the family makes him want to follow up on Casati’s story and try to find out what really happened to him.  What did happen is only revealed, darkly, at the very end of the book – though there are more than enough hints along the way.

As a thriller, this was not as fact-paced or breath-holding as many.  But it is a well-told story with a satisfactory, if not satisfying, conclusion.

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

It is unusual for me to give up on a book, but I really didn’t want to waste my time finishing this one.  Life is short, and there are plenty more things I want to read.

The book was a recommendation from someone in my book group (though, thankfully, not one that we are reading together).  The idea is original: a ‘gentleman’, used to a comfortable life, finds himself under house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the Bolshevik revolution.  The action takes place in 1922, when Count Rostov is sentenced to his new lifestyle.  His daily life in the hotel is described in minute detail, and the reader learns that to be a gentleman is an attitude to life, and not dictated by means or circumstances.  This, I think, is the point that the author wishes to make.  Rostov befriends a little girl, Nina, who is staying (or also living?) in the hotel, and together they explore the building.

THat’s as far as I got.  I daresay that there is more to the story, but 100 pages in it seemed to be no more than a minute description of the Count’s daily life.  And I have to admit that the description is well executed, and the reader can picture the hotel, the dining room, and the Count’s room quite clearly.

I think I was set against this book from the first by some clumsy phrases and inaccuracies.  Already on the first page, we learn that blackberries are growing – in June??  Plums and plum tart also feature.  I am sure that in Moscow, plums are no more available in June than they are in other parts of northern Europe. Table lamps are fashioned from “ebony elephants”. And in the same short paragraph, “fashioned” is used twice.  I gave up recording these pretty quickly.  Sorry, perhaps I am a little anal, but these things just grate with me and spoil my enjoyment of the story.  I really feel that an editor’s job is to iron these things out.  Maybe this is an unrealistic expectation, or maybe the author insisted on keeping his text word for word as he had written it.

In any case, it was the escapist nature of this book and not its language that most jarred with me.  On another occasion, I might have enjoyed it; but right now it is not the book for me.