Hauptbahnhof by Joanna Walsh

20 September, 2013

Haupbahnhof

But it is possible to sleep on the station.

If you don’t look like a tramp, if you change your clothes with reasonable regularity, above all if you look like you are waiting for someone.

Hauptbahnhof by Joanna Walsh is not easy to define. A musing, an instance, a short story. A woman waits at Berlin’s central station, Hauptbahnhof; waiting, yearning, excusing the behaviour of the person she waits for, in denial that he or she has abandoned her. Her conversational style, in reality a fantasy conversation with her erstwhile, absent lover is chatty and observant if not underlined with sadness as we, the reader, realise that he or she won’t be appearing. Ever. And yet she still waits, like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; turning up day after day, arguing, procastinating, although in Hauptbahnhof she is alone. But it’s a busy station, there is coffee to be drunk, hair to be cut and phone to be charged. And she’s become a dab hand at remaining unobserved as she has ‘perfected the waiting look.’

I quite like the narrator. She is someone who is proper, who doesn’t want to cause a ‘situation’, who can hang around and wait in this busy station like a civilised person. Ever patient, ever hopeful. Like a sophisticated stalker who doesn’t want to cause trouble.

Walsh, otherwise known as Badaude, is a skilled writer. Her narrator is totally serious and undertakes her endeavour with gravity. And Walsh is restrained in her dry, sly, witty take of this frankly bonkers woman. It’s a slice of crazy in a busy, non-stop world. But done with charm.

Published by 3:AM Press as a chapbook, I love the concept of these smartly finished single pieces of fiction.

I posed a set of questions to Walsh about her work which she kindly answered. Enjoy!

1) What was your inspiration for your story? What made you choose the narrator’s viewpoint?

The first time I visited Berlin by train, I spent over an hour walking around the Hauptbahnhof, wondering how to get from there to the place I needed to be. Like the narrator, I didn’t realise the station wasn’t connected up to the main underground network, and that you have to catch another train to link to it. It seemed perfectly possible to live in the station: it had so many conveniences. Reading through the proofs that have just arrived, of my short story collection that 3:AM Press will publish in the Autumn, I realise I’m always writing about people who are trying to make homes in impossible places.

2) I know you travel a lot. What are your thoughts on stations/traveling/waiting?

For years I didn’t want to travel. I didn’t want to believe it was possible to know more, or more deeply, or have more significant experiences by going somewhere else. It was part of a resistance to the ideas around travel and travel literature, which strike me as so male and privileged. Eventually I did travel, but only because I realised I was much more interested in the travelling than the arriving. … And waiting? I’m writing a book about love and travel, and the travelling-without-moving of the Internet (something of what it will be about is here). I’m interested in what Barthes says in A Lover’s Dialogue: “Am I in love? Yes, since I am waiting.” Love and travel put you in a passive, controlled position, subject to other people’s decisions. In a world that values autonomy and power, anything that requires giving up control is always interesting.

3) Can you please tell me a little bit about how you work? You are an illustrator. How do you find writing as opposed to drawing – do you work differently?

As an illustrator most of my drawings are responses to texts, but writing and drawing occupy different parts of my mind. If I’m planning a drawing – thinking out where to put what, or what is going to be there – I can’t listen to anything with words in it, but when I’m drawing it’s absolutely necessary for me to occupy the part of my brain that deals with words by listening to a spoken-word podcast or whatever, otherwise I get very bored and frustrated.

4) And lastly, I was expecting the cover to be one of your illustrations? How did you feel about someone else illustrating your story?

Happy – I didn’t want to illustrate it myself. A few months ago I had to illustrate a story I wrote, which is coming out with Union Books later this year, and that was odd because using words to describe things is unlike using pictures: the gaps are always in different places…

Thank you very much Joanna. I can’t wait to read your next work! And you can read more about her here.

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Revenge

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is a collection of interconnected short stories that are about modern Japan but heavily dosed with the twisted and macabre. I have only read one of her previous books, the wonderful The Housekeeper and the Professor which was a rather lovely and warm depiction of family in a slowly fracturing world, but I was aware that her other books were of a much darker and disturbing quality and was reluctant to read them. But I was drawn by the wonderful reception of her new book and the beautiful cover.

Subtitled Eleven Dark Tales, the collection starts with a grieving mother who waits at a bakery to buy a strawberry short cake for her son’s birthday every year even though she lost him six years ago. As she waits for the shop assistant, she is drawn to what looks like the distraught pâtisserie chef speaking on the phone in the kitchen beyond. Not much happens but Ogawa sets the tone of her collection, one that combines an unsettling chill together with a sense of incompleteness. You wonder where she is taking you.

Although not as disturbing as I expected, I did find a number of stories got under my skin and left me feeling uneasy, especially Old Mrs. J (strange), Sewing for the Heart (grotesque) and Tomatoes and the Full Moon (spooky). My favourites were Welcome to the Museum of Torture and the two stories that followed closely which were more poignant and with a hint of fairytale and involves a Museum of Torture, a Bengal Tiger and a man with an interesting past which includes a dose of hoarding (the modern scourge). An intriguing combination.

Initially, I was a little disappointed at the brevity of the stories: the characterisation seemed brash and stifled, the emotions were dealt with in an offhand way. I was unsure about this collection and how it was going to proceed. But slowly, Ogawa begins to tie little sections together, mentioning a character here or an event from a previous story there until it comes full circle. She does this so seamlessly that it takes you a while to realise where you had encountered this snippet of information without taking you away from the story you are currently reading. And when the connections start making sense, you find yourself immersing into this dark, macabre ordinariness in which she so excels. Pretty impressive stuff.

I do recommend that you follow the order of the stories set in the contents as they follow a very loose but definite order and will ultimately make more sense towards the end. You’ll finish with a sense of wonder and a need to re-read the collection.

I would like to thank Harvill Secker for kindly sending me a copy of Revenge to review.

I’ve been in love with Daphne du Maurier’s writing ever since I read Rebecca. I can’t remember whether that was at school or early in college, but I remember being spellbound by the almost stream of consciousness style writing that seemed to mirror my own thought processes. It was so unlike any other novel I’d read before and before I knew what was happening, I’d finished the book. I don’t think any of her other novels match the reaction I had with Rebecca, nevertheless, there’s something about du Maurier’s style I find easy to absorb.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories is a collection of du Maurier’s short stories published in 1971. I knew the titular story was made into an award winning film but have only seen snippets of it (and it was many years before I even knew it was based on du Maurier’s short story). I haven’t sampled any of her short stories before, and as I am partial to short stories, I thought I’d give this a try as Polly and Simon are celebrating all things Daphne with Discovering Daphne this month.

There is an undercurrent of unease that runs through all five stories in the collection. I wouldn’t necessarily call them spooky, yet I was left with a sense of discomfort. These tales are murky and disturbing. Starting with the heavily atmospheric Don’t Look Now which follows a couple on their first holiday after the loss of their 5 year old daughter. They’re in Venice, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, trying to recapture their joie de vivre and return to what their lives should be. But du Maurier introduces the dark side of Venice tinged with history and filled with shadow. Slowly things turn askew as they encounter two older women who claim to see the future and urge them to leave the city by first light. Du Maurier is masterful at cranking up the tension, willing you to read on yet making you feel uncomfortable knowing something nightmarish lies just on the horizon as you turn the page. It’s one of those stories that make you afraid of getting lost in the maze-like narrow streets of Venice.

Both Not After Midnight and A Border-Line Case are completely different tales and probably the weakest of the five stories. In Not After Midnight, a school teacher goes on an extended holiday to a Greek island after some sort of trouble or breakdown where he is no longer able to continue teaching. He plans to complete a series of paintings and requires a good view of the sea. When he causes a fuss and chooses chalet 62 overlooking the sea, he ignores the strange looks that cross the staff’s faces. The previous occupant had recently drowned after a midnight swim but this doesnt’ bother him. What does is a loud and drunken American neighbour with his strangely silent wife. As he is thrown together with them, he becomes wary of this strange couple and their shady business. And when they invite him to their chalet with the stipulation ‘not after midnight’ he begins to worry as this invitation is exactly like the one his predecessor received. I confess I was a little confused by the ending which didn’t make much sense to me but there you go.

In A Border-Line Case, a young actress searches for her father’s old friend and colleague and must travel to Ireland to find this reclusive man. She is immediately plunged into some sort of make-believe world which proves to be more sinister than she first anticipated. Yet despite this, she is soon drawn to this eccentric man. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the outcome which seemed more melodramatic than shocking.

The final two stories were probably my favourite. The Way of the Cross is about a group of middle England villagers from the parish priest, to the wealthy and snobbish lady of the big house and her family, a nouveau-riche businessman and his wife, honeymooners and a spinster on a trip of a life-time to Jerusalem. There is nothing supernatural about this tale, yet du Maurier manages to infuse it with the minutiae and detail of the characters’ personalities, prejudices, insecurities and pettiness which must directly mirror the claustrophobic village life. As the group goes on their tour, the cracks in their relationships are exposed and overcome as they rally together in an alien land different from their sanitised vision of Christ’s homeland. The stroke of genius here was to substitute an inner city priest with the village priest who was suddenly taken ill thus first drawing the ire of the others which quickly spread out towards their own problems. Superb.

And the final tale, The Breakthrough is set during WWII where an engineer is seconded to an outfit on the east coast of England in the middle of nowhere to assist a slightly off-kilter scientist who had lost his wife after a year of marriage and still mourns her. The work that is being done here is ethically dubious and outside the confines of government rules, yet he is unable to leave because of the scientist’s skill and the beauty of the machines he has built in order to capture the elusive essence which will bridge the living and the dead. This story reminded me of the interwar fiction that I like to read but with a touch of the supernatural and was also rather comforting as it featured scientists.

Although I really enjoyed all the stories, and they were all sufficiently different from each other, there was one thing that kept jarring. I couldn’t figure what it was until I realised that everything that jarred in the stories were things that exposed their modernity, the era of history, the 60s and 70s. I always associate du Maurier with the early 20th century, usually interwar or thereabouts. So seeing things like ‘sweet f.a.’ and rather explicit sex scenes really shocked me. And I’m shocked that I’m shocked about this. I’m not shocked about sex scenes per se, I have no problem with them. It’s just Daphne du Maurier writing sex scenes and swearing! But then I realised that the book was published in the 70s and not the 30s! It shows how much context I put into my reading which isn’t really ideal. I’d much rather read things with an open mind and separate from authors and their lives.

Overall I really enjoyed Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and look forward to reading more of her later fiction and short stories.

Do also check out Simon’s post on the book.

I also read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

Discovering Daphne

4 October, 2011

Polly of Novel Insights and Simon of Savidge Reads are hosting the very exciting Discovering Daphne this October to celebrate all things Daphne du Maurier.

I first read Rebecca as a teenager and was stunned by du Maurier’s writing style, the sense of trepidation and creepiness which never let up, the almost stream-of-consciousness storytelling and the brooding atmosphere. How I longed to visit Manderlay too!

I went on to read Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, My Cousin Rachel and several more novels, each different in style and content, including her memoir Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer. I’m still rather surprised at how many books she’s produced and that some of her short stories, such as The Birds, was filmed by Hitchcock!

She’s one of my favourite writers and I can’t believe I haven’t picked up one of her books in recent years. So this is a great re-introduction to a wonderful and rather mysterious writer. I’ll be reading her collection of short stories, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, this month.

What will you be reading?

Peirene Press burst onto the literary scene last year with the publication of Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea followed by Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal and Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius. Billed as modern European literature which you can read in a two hour sitting, these books pack a punch more powerful than their slight appearance may give. The first three books made up their year of the woman. 2011 is their year of the man. I still have their 4th and 5th publications, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki and Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen, to read but I’m looking foward to them knowing that there will be an ambitious treat in store. But what I became really excited about was their 6th title, Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig, only because it is a book of SHORT STORIES. As some of you may know, I ADORE short stories. There’s something about their discreteness and brevity that adds an extra oomph to the reading experience. You can’t quite settle into the story comfortably because it could end at any time. I like that unsettling feeling which leaves me all jumpy and gives me palpitations.

Of the nine stories, the one that had the most impact was the first one which sets the tone for the rest of the collection. In The Same Silence, The Same Noise, the narrator (somehow I think of of him as a man) watches his neighbours, a couple who spend their days sunbathing on their deck, and becomes progressively more paranoid as his obsession intensifies while they coolly ignore him. It’s a masterful piece about a mundane pastime that shows how easily one can get sucked into something vicarious even if nothing is actually happening. There is something lush and vibrant about Hotschnig’s descriptions and I could almost feel the lazy sunshine caressing the skin and the dripping water as the narrator jumps into the lake. The slow build up of paranoia and tension is superb.

The second tale, Two Ways of Leaving, is completely different and left me quite confused and puzzled in a pleasant way. I think it’s about a stalker but I’m not sure. Maybe it’s about closure. You’ll have to read it yourself and make up your own mind.

Then A Door Opens and Swings Shut is probably the creepiest of the stories and is reminscent of Roald Dahl’s more macabre tales. There are dolls and a strange old woman and the licking of faces. Creepy, right?

Maybe This Time, Maybe Now is bathed in pathos, the contrast between the noisy family gatherings and the perpetual longing and waiting for a guest who never appears providing a stark reminder of possible loss and denial. In some ways this story seemed the most quotidien, and maybe because of this, is a bit of a slow-burner and remained with me the longest.

And the final story, You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers, reminded me of the film Dark City where every night the people in charge came to re-arrange the sleeping citizen’s lives, but not quite.

There’s something starkly beautiful about Hotschnig’s tales and Tess Lewis’ translation is seamless. There is a clean and clear sense of alienation which imbues the lives of the characters who find themselves in slightly opaque situations. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press describes these stories as oblique and Kafkaesque and I completely agree with her. It’s lovely and ever so slightly creepy. As with all short story collections, there will be a couple of stories that may not make the favourite mark, but Maybe This Time is a pretty strong collection.

Thank you to Peirene Press for kindly sending me a copy of Maybe This Time to review. And I hope there will be more short story collections in future!

It’s been a while since I read anything by Ishiguro, except for A Pale View of Hills earlier this year. My favourite of his novels is The Remains of the Day, and although A Pale View of the Hills left me troubled, I couldn’t deny Ishiguro’s mastery of the English Language. And so it is with Nocturnes, Ishiguro’s latest piece, a collection of short stories. I’ve been a long-time lover of short stories. I like picking them up during a bath or just before bed. I like their compactness, their discreteness. They’re like quanta of story-telling floating about that you can just pick up and absorb any time you want, and in any order. So I was kind of a excited about Nocturnes, subtitled Stories of Music and Nightfall, a very loosely linked set of stories all swirling around the locus of music and musicality. But essentially, Ishiguro is writing about people. It’s the characters in his stories that come alive.

Reading his measure and assured prose, Ishiguro makes it look so easy to write well. I slipped into them so easily, and was totally cocooned in the little worlds he created that I surprised myself. I had forgotten how lovely it was to be immersed in good writing.

There are five stories in Nocturnes and I read them in order, although I don’t think it matters too much. In Crooner, a guitarist from the former Soviet Union who is playing in the Piazza San Marco comes upon his mother’s favourite singer, Tony Gardner, and gets talking to him. Tony is there with his wife Lindy but all is not as it seems. In Come Rain or Come Shine, Raymond, who hasn’t fulfilled his potential, returns to London to stay with his successful university friends, Charlie and Emily who treat him like a pitiful loser despite their own problems. Hilarious. Malvern Hills, the gentlest of the five stories, is about a young man trying to stay true to his music who spends the summer away from London where music seems to have lost its way. In the titular story, Nocturnes, a failed jazz saxophonist tries to revive his career by going under the knife to improve his looks. And in Cellists, a young Hungarian classically trained cellist encounters a mentor who brings out a depth to his music yet hides behinds her words.

It’s difficult for me to choose which is my favourite. I liked all of them, and although they differed, they weren’t too different. However, one of the things that surprised me was the inherent humour in the stories that burst out at surprising intervals which made me laugh out loud. Maybe I found them so funny because they were interspersed with glimpses of desolation in ordinary life. The stories are not melancholic in the traditional sense, but they are about growing older, the shattering of fragile dreams, of never quite being confident enough to keep hold of what you really want. Ishiguro’s prose is beautiful and funny and delicate. Yet there is a vitality and robustness to the stories that will catch you by surprise.

I’m not such a big fan of music in my literature and tend to shy away from books that are specifically for music-lovers. It’s ok, but I tend to zone out if there is a lot of stuff of which I’m unfamiliar, just because my listening repertoire is very narrow. I love listening to music, but I don’t listen to it every day (I know, I’m weird). But I liked what Ishiguro did with Nocturnes because is showed me that music is a part of everyday life but that it is different to different people.

So I’m really glad this was chosen for my book group, The Riverside Readers. Our discussion was lively and most of us agreed that although Nocturnes isn’t Ishiguro’s best and that the stories didn’t have enough punch in them to be memorable, it’s still a lovely read that’s relatively easy and fast but leaves you with a fleeting sense of nostalgia and what could have been. And the cover art captures the essence of Ishiguro’s stories perfectly!

I don’t think I’ve read much erotica, apart from bodice rippers such a few Mills & Boon, Sidney Sheldon, Lace and Jilly Cooper’s infamous Riders at school (well, I did go to a girls’ boarding school). Probably the only other book of erotic stories I’ve read is Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, Story of the Eye by Georges Battaille and some Marquis de Sade, just because of their notoriety. I don’t think I found them all that titillating, maybe due to the absence of romance. The other thing that always bugs me is whether you are prying into the subconscious desires of the author, whether that’s how they do it, and it embarrasses me a little. I’m probably totally wrong here but I’m not entirely sure.

Blue edited by Ameena Hussein is probably the first collection of erotica published in Sri Lanka so naturally I was a little curious as to what kind of stories it might contain. It came tied up in string which I thought was a clever marketing trick. Like with many short story collections, it’s a mixed bag, more so because in the case of Blue there was a mixture of prose and poetry from professional and amateur writers. But it’s experimental and experiment is good for erotica, no?

Of the sixteen tales here, the two strongest were by Ameena Hussein and Shehan Karunatilaka. They were a little more polished compared to the others but that’s probably because they are both published authors, Hussein has several short story collections and a novel, The Moon in the Water and Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman has been chosen as one of Waterstone’s 11 best first novels of 2011.

Undercover, Hussein’s tale of a housewife who finds her thrills in a dark and half-empty cinema in downtown Colombo is a mixture of adolescent excitement and old man smuttiness. Yet it strangely touched upon emotions, love, loneliness and lust and didn’t leave you feeling all that dirty. In fact it was a tale of awakening of sorts and I liked it.

Veysee, Karunatilaka’s story is driven more from a male perspective with a sting at the end. Although I’m sure it happens everywhere, I still get a shock when I read about sex-obsessed teenagers and adulterous smug-marrieds especially in Sri Lanka. I seem to have a rose-tinted view of the country entrenched in village life which no matter how many stories I hear or witness can never successfully erase. The protagonist jokes around with his colleagues at a bar, sex-texts some teen who is more experienced that him and proceeds to dump him, and after several drinks stumbles into a prostitute on the way home when he normally avoids such sordid encounters. You see him slowly unravel as all his swagger diminishes and finally we see him for what he is. Very cleverly done. And funny.

The other tales were hit and miss, some bittersweet, some kinky, all teething. But it’s nice to see a cross-section of talent and tales.

You can read an article about books and bookshelves by Ameena Hussein here.

I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge 2011.