The Spring of Kasper Meier

by Ben Fergusson

Oh dear.  Yet another book that I really didn’t enjoy.

It was a book group selection and I found it available to download cheaply (which can be suspicious).  I downloaded and read it fairly quickly, with only about a week in hand before the book group meeting – which in the end I missed, though I did provide feedback.

The book is set in Berlin at a specific point in time: the spring of 1946.  The author has evidently gone to some lengths to research the period, and the atmosphere and setting are very evocative and, one must assume, at least to some extent realistic.  Berlin is in ruins; the four occupying powers have numbers of soldiers in the city, and the remaining Germans are in the main women, old people and those injured or incapacitated in some way.  Our ‘hero’, Kasper Meier (the non-German spelling of Kaspar grates already) is a trader on the black market who ran a bar before the Nazi era.  As a gay man, he has something to hide, and as the sole carer of his elderly and inform father, he has something (someone) to protect.  He is a prime candidate for blackmail, and when a young woman approaches him with a request to find a specific English pilot stationed in Berlin, he sets out to do so – but also to find out something more about Eva’s story, which he suspects from the first.

Interspersed with Kasper’s story and his growing relationship with Eva are apparently unconnected incidents involving members of the various occupying forces who appear to be the victims of targeted shootings.  We gradually learn how Kasper’s role fits with these shootings, and in a somewhat surprising ending, we learn that the mysterious Frau Beckmann who has masterminded these shootings is not the person she appears to be, and is running the whole criminal enterprise for quite another reason than the reader (and Kasper) at first suspected.

The dénouement is quite clever, though barely believable.  It does not compensate for the very thin plot that gets us there.  This novel appears to be all about the setting, with the story as an afterthought.  Even the characters are not very interesting or convincing.  Kasper is a gay man with only one eye, who, we learn, had a happy relationship in the past which he hasn’t yet got over.  His partner was arrested and, we may assume, transported and/or executed.  We don’t really find out what makes Kasper tick.  Eva’s character is even less satisfying: she is very young and has had some horrific experiences which have left her ready to take life – or so the reader is led to believe.

Aside from the spelling of Kasper’s name, there were a few other features that seemed to me unrealistic, as well as some basic grammatical mistakes; these never fail to make me wince.  Most of Kasper’s trade is done by means of barter, which seems realistic.  But when he offers money, would he really have used German currency (the non-specific “Mark”)?  The action takes place two years before German currency reform. Surely a foreign soldier would not have accepted anything other than hard currency for his goods.

Sorry – this one got 5/10 from me, and I wonder if I was being a little over-generous.  It’s back to Philip Roth and Marcel Proust for me now.  Plenty more good stuff to read!



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.

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.

The Diary of a Bookseller

It is not often that I give up on a book.

I had ordered this from the library on a whim – possibly recommended by a friend on Facebook, reinforced by a conversation with an actual bookseller in St Davids who was reading it at the time of my visit a month ago.  It sounded worth trying;  I am always fascinated by what makes other readers tick, what books writers read, and in this case, what a bookseller actually thinks about books and the people who read them.

As far as the people are concerned: not much.  The diary recounts episode after episode of rude, arrogant, slovenly, greedy or self-obsessed people coming into the shop. Many of them don’t buy anything (and I am guilty of this, though I generally do try to make a purchase from an independent bookseller, out of principle).  Most of those who do buy expect a discount, and are disappointed or even offensive when they don’t get one.  You might feel that the author has a very low opinion of his fellow mortals; but then, he tolerates the whacky and at times antisocial behaviour of some of his regular customers, not to mention his part-time assistant Nicky, very well.

I read the first half of the book quite quickly, through some bouts of insomnia as well as morning and afternoon reading time.  But still, I just don’t think I need any more.  I get what the life of a bookseller might be like (and in this case, a reasonably successful one in the bookish town of Wigtown, which appears to be a Scottish Hay-on-Wye – please excuse my ignorance).  Do I need to hear more of the same kind of anecdotes?  It is one of those books where you think “anyone could have written this”.  But of course, only one person DID.

The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love

by Per J Andersson

This book was recommended to me, I think, by a fellow Bahá’í.  I can see why it would appeal: the story is one of hope, a journey to self-knowledge and to realising a dream in the face of adversity.

PK is an Indian, born in an Orissa village to a father of the ‘untouchable’ caste and a mother from a jungle tribe.  In his childhood and youth he is constantly ostracised, bullied and pushed aside because of his low birth. Despite these setbacks, PK establishes himself as a successful portrait artist, earning his keep (although living from hand to mouth) and earning also the attention and respect of people in elevated positions.

It is while sketching in Connaught Place in New Delhi, and mixing with the many European hippies who have trekked across Europe and Asia to experience what they perceived to be a less materialistic culture, that PJ meets the Swedish girl Lotta in 1975.  They fall in love; she returns to Sweden; and PK embarks on a journey, mostly by bicycle, to rejoin her in her home country.  They marry, raise a family, and live on in Sweden to this day.

In general, I am not attracted to books with long titles such as this one.  It strikes me that the author can’t be bothered to think of a catchy, short phrase.  But maybe the short phrases have mostly been used already!  In any case, I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did.  PK’s optimism (in general – though he experienced some very low episodes in his life) and his self-belief are heart-warming.

Per J Andersson has embellished PK’s narrative (based, we are led to assume, largely on his diaries) sensitively and with grace.  There a short descriptions of place that help to bring the story to life, as well as insights into PK’s feelings at various points in the story.  Lotta’s character is not developed much. The accounts of PK’s early life are interspersed with short passages telling the reader of Lotta’s fascination with India from an early age and her determination to travel there.  But we learn little if anything about who she is.  That she loves PK and is prepared to wait for him is evident from his story; and there is a touching episode, shortly after his arrival in Sweden, where the two of them meet a Swedish admirer of Lotta’s who almost succeeds in putting PK off, until Lotta reassures him that she wants to be with him and not Bengt.

Other characters, too, are just sketched in.  PK believes in fate and in karma, though he also recognises that you have to make your own way in life and seize opportunities.  He comes across as sensitive to others but also driven to achieve what he has set out to do, when his circumstances permit it.  He meets powerful and influential people, some of whom help him in his personal life (e.g. by allowing him to move from his shabby room and use a comfortable apartment), but he appears to take these encounters as steps along the path of life, and has few expectations of further assistance from any quarter.

This is most definitely a ‘feel-good’ book, but one which does not shy away from depicting the treatment of lower caste Indians and arguing, passionately, their cause.


The Heat of the Day

by Elizabeth Bowen

The story begins in 1942.  Stella is a divorcée and widow living in London, whose lover Robert, she learns, is suspected of being a spy for the enemy.  Her informant is the slightly unnerving Harrison (we never learn his first name) who has also pulled a bystander, the naïve ‘good time girl’ Louie, under his spell.

Stella’s son Roderick has, a year previously, inherited the Irish estate of a cousin of his father.  Since Roderick is not yet 21, Stella also takes an interest in this estate and goes to visit it.  On another occasion, she and Robert visit his mother, sister and the children of another sister, who live in a house that is far too large for them but from which they cannot tear themselves away.  Other than these two episodes, most of the action takes place in London: a London that has been bombed and is about to be so again, and where the war is never far from the consciousness of the actors in this story.

The atmosphere is tense and charged.  Bowen’s prose is not at all easy to read and I found myself re-reading several paragraphs – and discovered, from other reviews, that I am not alone in this!  Yet she gives a vivid and very real atmosphere of place and, in particular, emotion.  Stella is her own person, making her own decisions though surrounded by people who seem to want to run her life or at the very least, advise her.  She does not know whether she can trust either Robert or Harrison.  They cannot both be who they seem to be.

This is a taut and quite unusual story.  I don’t think I will rush to read more of Bowen’s work, but if the opportunity presents itself in a year or two, I may well come back to her.

I chose this book because it was on the Guardian‘s list of 100 Best Novels.  Oh dear, I am a sucker for lists!  But I’m pleased that I read this book.