author of Whisper Hollow

Other Press: The differences in the relationships that Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia have with the men in their lives is striking, but what remains central in Whisper Hollow is how these three women relate to each other, and how their lives intersect and comment on one another. What was it that drew you to these characters and made you want to write about them?

Chris Cander: Each of these women is burdened and informed by her secrets: Myrthen, because of something she did; Alta, because of something she desired; and Lidia, because of something that happened. Those secrets dictate the courses of their lives, which intertwine at various points, affording them the opportunity to help or hurt one another, which each of them does, according to her own needs. What drew me to these characters was their varying tolerance for truth, and the lengths they would go to hide their private shames. By writing about them, I was able to examine those unexposed parts of myself.

 

OP: In your novel, Myrthen Bergmann, who so craves salvation, is unable to find it in the solitary religious life she devotes herself to. Rather, it’s Alta who is able to find a kind of salvation in Lidia and Gabriel. Why did you choose to explore the limits of what religion can offer through an illustration of the fecundity of human interaction?

CC: Religion has played an important role in the shaping of American minds, especially in small communities. It brings people together, but by its nature, is also restrictive. I wanted to explore the ways that these characters would respond to their social and moral confines as they tried to keep their secrets hidden and still satisfy their deepest longings. In the case of Myrthen, she cleaves to the Church in order to hide from her own truth and tries to impute her actions to God in order to justify them. As a consequence of her mortal sins and her abuse of free will, she eventually succumbs to the wretchedness inside her. Alta and Lidia, on the other hand, are somewhat alienated from the Church, but find sanctity and grace in the love they have for each other and for Gabriel.

 

OP: Whisper Hollow is almost as much the story of Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia as it is the story of Verra, the town in which the three women live. It’s fascinating to witness how the town shapes its residents and how the residents shape their town. Did you do a lot of research to so accurately depict Verra, or is it based on a place you already know? Was it important for you to locate the story in such a specific setting?

CC: The setting is a fiction inspired by the towns in the southern counties of West Virginia. My mother’s side of the family is in the northern part of the state, and I visited there often when I was growing up. It is haunting with its natural beauty that almost balances the proletarian poverty suffered by too many of its citizens. The stories my mother used to tell me about her home state had a wholesome quality, an honesty exemplified by a hard-working middle class trying to do right by their families. So I made up a town and called it “Verra,” which shares roots with the Latin verus, meaning “true.”

Adjacent to the town, literally across the tracks, is Whisper Hollow. Readers familiar with Appalachian dialect will know that Hollow is pronounced “holler,” and so the name speaks to that dichotomous place within us where we keep the things we are willing to speak aloud, as well as the things that we are not. In the novel, the Hollow side is where the coal is mined, where Alta and John shared a cabin as secret lovers, and where Myrthen spends her dark days inside St. Michael’s. I think of the place not just as the novel’s setting, but as a metaphor for the map of the human soul.

 

OP: There’s been a lot of discussion about “likable characters,” especially likable women characters, in fiction lately. Do you see Myrthen as an “unlikable” character? Was it difficult to write about such a woman without making her a villain?

CC: It seems a dangerous and silly endeavor to polarize characters, whether male or female, toward the extremes of likability and unlikability in fiction. Doing so can limit their full expression and restrict them to mere caricatures. Truly interesting characters intersect the page in the more complicated and nuanced center of the likability spectrum. I agree with Claire Messud’s assertion that when evaluating characters, “the relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’” Myrthen is probably not someone readers would like to have as a regular dinner guest, but I hope they will be compelled by her complexity, and from the safe distance that fiction provides, can voyeuristically experience the darker forces within her—and possibly, within all of us.

 

OP: The novel covers more than six decades. Did you have any writing tricks or quirks to help you wrangle all that time?

From a storytelling perspective, I had to consider which moments comprising those sixty years were essential to the story. So in each chapter, I tried to re-enter the characters’ lives at those points when they encountered some interesting trouble that would inexorably dictate the course of events: when they either braced against or yielded to forces beyond their control, when they made choices with cataclysmic consequences, when they buried their shame and secrets, or when they followed their desires. Also, there’s a kind of stillness to the setting that I wanted to offset by chunking the passage of time into intervals of several years and chapters with alternating points of view. For example, the story opens with the triggering situation of Myrthen and her twin engaged in a fatal quarrel a few days before their sixth birthday; then introduces Alta eight years later, when she is twelve years old, on the cusp of longing, and about to meet the aunt who would symbolize the glamorous life she would never lead; and next John, two years after, as he embraces and then jettisons the dream of doing something other than mining coal; and so on.

From a mechanical perspective, I kept track of everything with meticulous timelines and lists. If I changed a date, for example, I would go back and make sure that everything affected by it was also changed: the characters’ ages, the phase of the moon, the temperature, the day of the week.

 

OP: Alta and John are both artists, and their work serves as a way for them to exist beyond the confines of their lives in Verra. What role does art play in your own life?

My devotion to writing is modeled on my parents’ creative expression. My father was an airline pilot whose photography hobby became his second career, and my mother taught high school English and business administration, and also sewed and played piano. They had careers and family and social lives, but they also encouraged often-solitary artistic pursuits. For me, it was creative writing, in which I found solace and refuge even before I hit double digits. I consider myself exceedingly fortunate that I am able to write as much as I do, but my main job right now is taking care of my young children. That, too, is a privilege, but it comes with its own set of constraints. Like Alta, I’m able to travel beyond my own boundaries through my art, and when I return (mentally) to hearth and home, I feel satisfied and enriched in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.

 

 

 

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An Excerpt from Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers

Eight Blood Brothers — tiny individual links of an exhausted human chain stretching across the factory yard and winding up two flights of stairs — stand and wait among hundreds of others to be admitted from the awful damp cold into the warm waiting rooms. Just three or four minutes to go now. Then, on the dot of eight, the heavy iron door on the second floor will be unlocked. The local welfare bureaucracy for Berlin-Mitte on Chausseestrasse jerks into life; the coiled line jerks into life. Limbs advance, feet shuffle, hands clutch the innumerable necessary papers. (In the furtherance of good order, the office has put out printed instructions that list them in endless sequence, and which twenty-four offices are responsible for issuing them.)

The queue has already reached the cash-office waiting room. There, with military precision, it splits into two smaller queues. One waits patiently to surrender its stamped cards to the hoarse-voiced office boy Paule, prior to receipt of payment. The second queue winds in front of the information counter in order to answer questions of who and where and where from, and then, with luck, to be issued with cardboard numbers. Thereafter, the individual parts will go into two other rooms to stand outside the doors of officialdom and wait with the patience of saints for their number to be called. The saints will have to be patient for five or six hours or more. The eight gang members join neither of the two queues but make straight for United Artists. Maybe they’ll be in time for a bench.

The “United Artists’” waiting room, where applications for urgent assistance are filled in. The initials “UA” have been repurposed by cynical Berlin humor as “United Artists.” Half an hour after opening time, the large hall is already jampacked. The few benches are fully occupied. Individuals who couldn’t find a seat fill the aisles or lean against the two long walls, which have acquired a nasty black stain at shoulder height from so many thousands of slumped human backs. The indescribably dreary light of the day outside mingles with the glow of the weak electric bulbs to form a chiaroscuro, in which these poor souls look even more wretched, even more starved. On the other side of the walls are bright clean offices. Though these offices are fitted with doors, in the conventional manner, beside each door there is also a four-sided hole large enough for the head of an official on a lower pay scale. To spare their vocal cords and to avoid excessive contact with the needy public, the officials don’t themselves call out the numbers through the doors. No, a flap is thrust open, a human head appears nicely framed and yells out the number. And with that the flap clacks shut. The number — in the office, it is translated back into “Meyer, Gustav” or “Abrameit, Frieda” — trots into the office through the door beside the hole. Each time a number is called, all the waiting heads jerk up. It can happen that two numbers are called from opposite walls simultaneously. Then all the heads jerk up and back in time.

The eight boys were able to capture a whole bench and, serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They’ve spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather.
Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals. Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment
they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies — not even potato bellies — were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.

Ludwig from Dortmund has jerked awake at the sound of a number being called. Now he’s sitting there, feet out, fists in his pockets, empty cigarette holder in the corner of his mouth. The lantern-jawed face with the alert brown eyes looks with interest in the direction of the entrance. His friends are all asleep, slumped forward, collapsed, or leaning inertly against their neighbors. Jonny, their leader, their boss, has summoned them for nine o’clock. As so often before, he has promised to get hold of money from somewhere. He hasn’t said how. At ten last night he said goodbye — at this point, Ludwig sees Jonny walking into the room, and he waves animatedly. “Here, Jonny, over here!” Jonny is a young man of twenty-one. His physiognomy, with square chin and prominent cheekbones, looks a little brutal, and testifies to his willpower. He speaks with fluency and decisiveness, almost without dialect, and this proves that he stands above the rest of the gang in terms of education and intellect. Superior strength is taken for granted; he wouldn’t be their boss otherwise. “Hey, Ludwig!” He hands him a big box of cigarettes. Ludwig helps himself and chews on the smoke with delight. The others are still sleeping. Ludwig takes a long drag and blows smoke in their faces. They gulp, splutter, wake up.
Nothing could have woken them so effectively. Cigarettes? Jonny? Here! Quickly all help themselves. And now they know too that Jonny’s in the money, and that they’re going to get something to eat. So what are they waiting for? As ever, they move in three troops. Nine boys in a gaggle attract too much unfavorable attention. They turn off Chaussee- into Invalidenstrasse. That’s where they buy breakfast. Forty-five rolls in three mighty bags, and two entire liver sausages with onion. That has to do for the nine of them.

Rosenthaler Platz, Mulackstrasse, then down Rückerstrasse. Into the bar used by all the gangs around the Alexanderplatz, the Rückerklause. You can stand outside and watch the cooks frying batches of potato pancakes. The greasy scraps of smoke drift into the furthest recesses of the unlit, sinister, and unsavory bar. In spite of the early hour, it’s already full. The Klause is more than just a bar. It’s a kind of home from home for those who don’t have a home. Noisy loudspeaker music, noisy customers. The unappetizing buffet, the beer-sodden tables, the smoke-blackened graffitied walls — all this doesn’t bother anyone. The gang occupy the space to the right of the door. The waiter brings them some broth — well, at least it’s hot. Then they set about scoffing their rolls and liver sausage. There’s not much conversation. Only dark, barbarous sounds: the grunts with which the stomach expresses its satisfaction. The boys are transformed. They sink their teeth into the sausage ends, they work their jaws. They look at each other, their expressions seeming to say: Don’t it feel good to be eating, and knowing there’s more to come . . . And other expressions, of gratitude and pride, are for Jonny, who once more has saved their bacon.

In one of the booths at the back, a young gang member is sitting on the lap of a passed-out customer. Two of his mates are walking up and down in front of the niche, gesturing to their chum: “Go on, mate!” Pull the wallet out of his pocket, and give it to us . . .

Standing at the bar between two gang bosses is a girl, a child of fifteen or sixteen. Cheekily she’s put on the leather jacket of one of the young men, who doesn’t need it, and his peaked cap, and is now tossing back one schnapps after another with the two of them. The sickly pale face with its blue veins at the temples convulses with disgust, but then the dirty little paw reaches for the glass to drink to one of the leather jackets. The girl’s mouth opens: almost no teeth, just isolated blackened stumps. She’s not even sixteen . . . Behind the bar stands the watchful landlord. In a good blue suit and spic-and-span collar, the only one in the whole bar. Music blares out without a break. Incessant comings and goings. Everyone here is either young or underage. Many turn up with rucksacks and parcels. They go directly to the bathroom, the hideously dirty toilets. Brief exchange, unpacking, packing, money changes hands. A schnapps at the bar. Gone. Police raids are not infrequent. The girl, legless by now, goes reeling from table to table, offering herself. Oh, Friedel, showing off again, they say, otherwise unmoved by the sorry spectacle of a drunken child offering her scrawny charms. Rückerklause, a kind of home from home for those who don’t have a home. The forever-hungry boys have demolished the rolls and the liver sausage, and two potato pancakes each. They lean back contentedly, draw on their ciggies, sip their beer, and hum along to the tunes on the loudspeaker. “. . . Auf die Dauer, lieber Schatz, ist mein Herz kein Ankerplatz . . .” They’re full, the bar feels warm. They’re starting to feel drowsy. Their heads sink. Only Jonny is sitting up, smoking, watchful. He pays the tab for them all. Then he counts up what he’s got left. All of eight marks. Where will they go tonight? The very cheapest hostel takes fifty pfennigs for the use of a bug-ridden mattress. That comes to four-fifty, which would mean almost nothing left for tomorrow. Jonny racks his brains for a cheaper option. Lets them sleep. He leaves word with the waiter to tell them to meet him at Schmidt’s at eight.

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In The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” series, Happy Are the Happy author Yasmina Reza spoke to Joe Fassler about finding a title for her latest novel, the intricacies of narrative voice in Wuthering Heights, and the distance between an artist and the art she creates.

Reza found the title for Happy Are the Happy in a Borges poem, “Fragments of an Apocryphal Gospel.” Of the title and Borges she says:

I only knew I didn’t want something that had to do with love or couples—two obvious themes of the book. I didn’t want something that alluded to the content so directly…I love the way Borges ends the poem with this self-reflexive “happy are the happy.” The condition of being happy, in other words, can only be obtained by those who are happy. This is so paradoxical, so enigmatic, so Borges. You can turn that idea over and over in your mind.

Happy Are the Happy has twenty-one chapters, eighteen of which are narrated by different characters in the first person. The novel’s structure is inspired by Schnitzler’s La Ronde and Reza’s appreciation for The Wire. Writing so many different voices was a challenge for her:

You must see your characters as other people see them, and then also explore how they feel inside. Yet this came naturally, too, in a way; this mingling of so many different voices…I tend to write with “Je,” with “I,” with the first person. It’s the voice that comes to me immediately. I love how inner it is, how intimate. The third person seems much less natural. For me, there is something strange about it.

Though she speaks of her writing process with such elegance and insights, Reza remains skeptical of the ownership an artist holds over her work:

The meta-discourse that every writer is obliged to provide—to the press, or to whoever asks—is bullshit. It’s artificial. It’s something imposed upon the process later…An artist can’t speak about the art. A work exists in a temporary state—the minute it is produced, it falls away from us and becomes distant.

Yasmina Reza in The AtlanticPhoto by Doug McLean

Read more of Reza’s illuminating interview here

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Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers has been praised as being “a remarkable portrait, a lively, heartbreaking close-up, of the scrappy desperate lives of Berlin’s homeless teenage boys in 1932” (The Boston Herald Hollywood & Mine Blog) and “an important and unflinching classic in the making” (Susan Jaffe, Creative Director of Thurber House). Enter our Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win one of 10 available copies!

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

Blood Brothers

by Ernst Haffner

Giveaway ends March 07, 2015.

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blood brothers nyt

The original cover of Haffner’s novel, left; new interest in it has led to a reissue and an English translation, right.
SONNY FIGUEROA / THE NEW YORK TIMES


In the Saturday, February 14 edition of The New York Times, culture reporter William Grimes explores the fascinating history behind Blood Brothers: the novel’s ban from the Nazis, its years of disappearance, its rediscovery, and its road to publication. He writes:

For many German readers, it seemed as though a time capsule had been unearthed, transmitting a live report from the final days of the Weimar Republic…All the more intriguing, then, that the novel… had lain hidden for so many years…Haffner, who has the eye of a documentarian and a keen interest in particulars, describes the grim workings of welfare offices, cheap lodging houses, jails and youth detention centers as well as the public warming stations where, in desperation, freezing Berliners could escape the damp and the cold for a few hours.

Grimes speaks to Eric Weitz, Dean of Humanities and Arts and Distinguished Professor of History at the City College of New York, who speculates as to why the Nazis banned the book:

The fact that it depicted an underworld milieu that was not nationalistic, not upright in the Nazi view of things, would have been enough reason to burn it

He also speaks to Rolf Lindner, who provides insights into Haffner’s possible influences:

As a journalist, he knew the literature and the contemporary discourse on the youth question very well…In the book, you will find elements of Lampel’s reports as well as traces of Döblin’s Alexanderplatz and, at least in my opinion, of Fritz Lang’s movie M.

Read more in The New York Times

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As a writer of literary nonfiction, I’m always searching for the most compelling characters to carry the story. In the years that I covered war as an American journalist on the front lines in Pakistan, there was never a shortage of options. There were always plenty of violent, bloodthirsty villains to choose from, and then there were those larger-than-life heroes, capable of compassion and goodness that can only be drawn from the madness of war.

But most of the characters I found myself drawn to lived seemingly ordinary lives while navigating the landscape of war: the real estate agent who finds that war attracts speculative buyers, which allows him to make a profit of his nation’s misery, or the curator whose collection of ancient artifacts bleeds out of his museum and he witnesses his culture sapped of meaning. War, I found through the lives of such characters, isn’t always about choosing between life and death. For most people war is about being transformed, finding ways to adapt and survive.

In writing The Faithful Scribe, I set out to make Pakistan, the world’s longest-running political experiment in Islam and democracy, more comprehensible for my reader. I knew that the only way I could tell the story of this war-torn country and its complex relationship with America was through characters that were, like many of my readers, living ordinary lives in extraordinary times. And it didn’t take long to recognize that my own family had exactly the kinds of characters that I was always drawn to in my writing.

My parents had shuttled between the US and Pakistan for decades. I was born in Ohio and I have split my life equally between the two countries—I’m “100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani,” as I write in the prologue of my book. Within the extensive network of my relatives spread over many Pakistani cities and towns, I found civil engineers and university professors and small-claims court judges. None of them real power players, but neither were they destitute. These were mostly ordinary folk, placed perfectly on the peripheries of power, where their lives and beliefs could be molded in the most profound ways by the violence and war of their time.

My grandfather, for example, was pulled up the professional ranks after the Second World War, when the partition of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India led to the largest migration in human history, and created fortuitous vacuums in the bureaucracy of his new country. My father was forced to leave his teaching job at a university in Lahore and flee to America thirty years later, after literally dodging a bullet shot by a member of an Islamic political student group in the 1970s. My cousin, a soldier in the Pakistan Army, died in 1988 alongside the Pakistani military president and the US ambassador, when their aircraft mysteriously exploded in the sky.

And I found that it had been this way for centuries. Deep into my family records I discovered that the paternal and maternal sides of my family—the Muftis and Qazis—had both served as bureaucrats in the Islamic sharia courts of Muslim empires centuries ago. When the British colonized the Indus region in a bloody conquest in the nineteenth century and decreed that courts would no longer employ Islamic jurists, an ancestor of mine, a professional scribe, lost his job and was set adrift in the world. Another ancestor, a soldier, battled for the British Empire in the First World War. He survived the great war of his era, but with deep scars.

In the end, naked violence, the absurdity of human suffering, the superhuman strength of a few will always make the headlines of war. But decades and centuries of political and religious conflict also seep into the tiniest crevices of human society and culture. This cancer of war can alter the very DNA of nations, and there is often no going back. Since this book’s release, I have traveled with it and met with people all over the country who share similar stories of how a decade and more of American war has molded their lives in the most subtle and profound ways. And such conversations only strengthen my essential thought behind this book: that people who live through war on any side can recognize themselves in each others’ experiences.

Shahan Mufti is the author of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War, now out in paperback.

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An excerpt from Goran Rosenberg’s memoir, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz

For a long time I imagined him coming over the Bridge, since the Bridge is the gateway to the Place, and the key to it as well, but of course he can’t have come over the Bridge because he must have arrived from the south. You come over the Bridge only when you arrive with the train from the north. Only then does the vertiginous precipice over the Canal open up, and only then do you cross the perilous boundary between home and away. Perhaps the peril is not so much the Canal as the Bridge. The Canal’s only water, after all, whereas the Bridge is a truly ominous passage, a cold skeleton of riveted steel girders, welded and screwed together in angular arcs that form a pair of bony shoulders rising from four massive stone columns on either side of the drawbridge across the waterway.

Anyone coming by train sees none of this, of course, and may not even be aware that the entire construction is vibrating and shaking beneath the engine and the coaches, or hear the screech of the rails and the echo of the steel girders answering the wheels’ metallic hammering and scraping, or catch the burnt smell of sparking contacts and cables. Nor can anyone crossing the Bridge by train ever share the horror of crossing it on foot. To cross the Bridge on foot, you first have to make your way through a little copse between the Place and the Canal, then negotiate a narrow, winding set of steps up to a height of twenty-six meters, and after that step out onto a narrow catwalk for pedestrians that runs on one side of the double railroad track, all the way across the water. You can stare straight down into the abyss through the gaps in the catwalk’s wooden planks, and you can all too easily swing yourself over its all too low metal railing. In the Place, horror stories are constantly circulating about people who did just that, about how their broken and bloated bodies were fished out afterwards, and about what God has to say on the subject. I always keep a tight hold on the inner railing, the one nearest the tracks, to counteract the black, vertiginous pull. Except when a train comes thundering along the track nearest the catwalk; then the metallic wind tugs at your clothes and the shuddering wooden planks jolt your feet and you’re left balancing between one hell and another. In my nightmares, I’m incessantly falling from the Bridge. In my nightmares, I also reach the other side. For on the other side of the Bridge, down an equally narrow and winding set of steps, beyond an equally dark copse, death is waiting, or at least the nameless local gangs against which the gangs on my side of the Bridge fight an endless and lawless war. Making it over the bridge is no guarantee of survival. The nightmare of getting ambushed and beaten up in enemy territory isn’t wholly divorced from reality. The Bridge marks the Place’s natural boundary, and there’s rarely any reason to cross it on your own.

If you come by train from the south, you traverse no such border, just a nondescript panorama of forests and fields that makes it harder to know where the Place begins. Also harder to understand why it is where it is, and why the station where the express trains make their brief stops on their way to and from the world was built just here and not in the town of the same name. All this is best explained by the Bridge, since the station is located here because of the Bridge, and the Place sprang up because of the station, and maybe that’s why I like to imagine him coming over the Bridge before he gets off the train at seven in the evening on August 2, 1947, seeking to start his life over again in this particular place, below this particular station.

Is it chance that makes him get off precisely here? No, not more of a chance than anything else on his journey. And presumably less, since the most chanceful aspect of his life is the fact that he’s alive. Naturally it’s only by chance that any of us are alive, but along his road death has been more of a strictly scheduled and predictable stop than it is for most of us, making the fact that he’s still alive a bit more unexpected. Besides, he knows very well why he’s getting off precisely here and not somewhere else. He’s got the name of the station carefully written down on the piece of paper he’s shown the conductor, who has promised to alert him when they’re getting close. And besides all that, A. and S. are waiting for him on the platform as agreed, and in fact a third person, too, whom he at first mistakes for a fellow student from the grammar school in Łódź. It’s not him, of course, and it’s highly improbable that it could be, but since so much along his road has been improbable, it’s not that far-fetched to imagine another improbability or two. At any event, there they are, standing on the platform waiting for him, and they embrace him and help him down the steps with his suitcases and come along to show him the way to the room where he’ll be lodging, and on that still, light August evening they tell him everything they know about the place, where they’ve all just arrived and which none of them knows very much about, and they in turn want to know everything about people and events in the place where the man boarded the train, which is where they last met. They’re all still on a journey, and every place is just a brief halt on the road to somewhere else, and those who are here for the time being do their best to keep themselves posted about those who are somewhere else, because this restless, mobile community is the only community they have. Little by little, each of them will try to make one of these many places his own, and one place after another will gradually separate them, usually for good, and this particular place will eventually do the same. Only one of the men will try to make this particular place his own, and that’s the man who’s just stepped down from the train.

I’m still unaware of all this, for I don’t yet know the man who just got off the train and who is not yet my father and who doesn’t yet know that this will be his final stop. I don’t think he can even imagine a final stop, because I don’t believe he can imagine any place as his own. Nevertheless, I visualize him continually and curiously looking around, inspecting it all to see if this could be such a place, because the need for at least a slightly more extended stop is starting to become pressing. And I think that’s why he notes with interest and commits to memory the brand-new rows of attractive, three-story apartment blocks along the newly built road, lined with rowan trees, that runs through the new housing area just below the train station. I think that’s also why he immediately wants to know what kind of town this is and what sort of people live here and what the working conditions are like in the big factory where he hopes to get a job and what opportunities there may be for a woman not quite twenty-two years old with no vocational training and only the briefest exposure to the language they speak here, briefer than his own. I actually think he’s already inquired about such a job and just needs to look into it a bit more closely, and above all to see if he can exchange his rented room for an apartment before he asks her to take the train from the place he’s just left to the place where he’s barely arrived.

But what he thinks about his future on that August evening in 1947 is mere speculation on my part, and I’d rather not speculate, and most of all I don’t want to run ahead of his life. He’s lived for only twenty-four years, yet he’s already lived through so much, and he has the right to carry on with his life without my prematurely burdening him with what’s going to happen to the rest of it. I shall take his days as they come, and where I can’t see how they come to him, I’ll let them come to me.

So on this day, in the lingering brightness of early evening, he finds himself lugging two battered and rather heavy suitcases in the company of three not very close friends. After all, he means to take up residence here for an unspecified length of time, and even the possessions of a newly begun life soon start to weigh a good deal. Naturally he’s wearing one of the suits, perhaps the elegant, pale-grey check, and a white shirt and matching tie, and a hat on his head even though it’s still summer. It’s been the hottest summer for a hundred years and the evening is warm, and it would have been nicer to walk bare-headed, but there hadn’t been any room in his luggage for the hat anyway, and taking the train to an unfamiliar place in a new country is something he wouldn’t dream of doing in his shirtsleeves. The four men have set off from the station on foot, taking turns carrying the cases, and A., who has been here the longest, says they’ll have to take the bus from the next stop because there’s still quite a way to go and otherwise they won’t have enough time to find a place to eat, and besides it’s Saturday evening and there’s a good movie showing in town and they might just catch it if they hurry. So they hurry for all they’re worth, and the man who just got off the train scarcely has time to take possession of his lodgings in the recently built detached house or to introduce himself to his landlady, whose husband has recently died, and so instead of turning the place into a home for herself she’s obliged to rent out rooms to single men working at the factory, but she’s nonetheless friendly and welcoming. Then they briskly move on to celebrate the fact that they’re all, at least for now, in the same place and in one another’s company. The movie, for which they arrive just in time, is being shown at the Castor cinema by the idyllic harbor in the middle of the town, where the little lift-net boats are moored for their Saturday rest and the townsfolk are taking their evening stroll along the quaysides. The film is set on a slave ship whose captain intends to get married and become respectable and wants to give up slave trading. He orders his first mate to change both the cargo and the crew, but when he goes on board with his young bride for what’s meant to be their honeymoon, he discovers that both the cargo and the crew are still the same. It’s a thrilling story with a script by William Faulkner, starring Mickey Rooney and Wallace Beery, and although it’s set in the nineteenth century, I imagine they’re able to identify with it a little, having all just experienced the way apparently ordinary ships, or in their case apparently ordinary trains, can prove to be something else entirely. And none of them is yet quite sure what kind of ship or train it is that they’ve just boarded, or rather, what kind of place it is where they’ve just disembarked. Perhaps they all go back to one of the rented rooms afterwards, have a glass or two of lukewarm vodka, envelop the place in a haze of cigarette smoke, tell each other stories, and play cards, forgetting for a moment that they’re in a place they don’t know, a place that doesn’t know them; they’re still young, and it’s Saturday evening and the night is as silver as the full moon and they want to make as much as they possibly can of this brief stop on the long journey that has accidentally and probably only for a short time brought them all together precisely here.

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Göran Rosenberg’s A Brief Stop on the Road From Auschwitz has been hailed as “a meditation on how civilized people struggle to continue after such an event as the Holocaust” (Arts Fuse), and “a towering and wondrous work about memory and experience” (Financial Times). Head over to Goodreads for a chance to win one of ten copies available.

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Brief Stop On the Road From Auschwitz by Göran Rosenberg

A Brief Stop On the Road From Auschwitz

by Göran Rosenberg

Giveaway ends February 28, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

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In the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome, there’s a skull in a box and it is said to belong to St. Valentine. And if the proliferation of #antivalentine hashtags on Twitter is any indication, there are a great many people around the world who want nothing more than to see St. Valentine beheaded again.

Other Press knows that scalloped hearts and lace doilies don’t say what you feel, and we’re here to make your Valentine’s Day a little brighter.

Head over to Twitter or Facebook and caption the #antivalentine image we have up for a chance to win a copy of Yasmina Reza’s brilliant Happy Are the Happy.

 

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Yasmina Reza recently sat down with Vogue‘s Megan O’Grady for an illuminating yet playful interview about her new novel, Happy Are the Happy. In it she explains her artistic process, shares her thoughts on happiness and love, reflects on the course of her career.

“It’s true that the older I get, the more women seem fantastic to me,” Reza says. “In my early plays and writing, my main characters were often men, not because I was more interested in men but rather because I felt protected writing from behind the mask of a male identity. From this point of view you might say I have evolved.”

You can read more of her interview here.

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Yasmina Reza’s new novel Happy Are the Happy consists of twenty interlinked portraits of characters struggling with the vicissitudes and paradoxes of love. Start reading below, and I bet you won’t be able to stop–you may see something of yourself in Odile or Robert.

Odile Toscano

Everything gets on his nerves. Opinions, things, people. Everything. We can’t go out anymore without the evening ending badly. I find myself persuading him to go out, yet on the whole I almost always regret it. We exchange idiotic jokes with our hosts, we laugh on the landing, and once we’re in the elevator, the cold front moves in. Someday someone should make a study of the silence that falls inside a car when you’re returning home after having flaunted your well-being, partly to edify the company, partly to deceive yourself. It’s a silence that tolerates no sound, not even the radio, for who in that mute war of opposition would dare to turn it on? This evening’s over, we’re home now, and while I undress, Robert, as usual, is dawdling in the children’s room. I know what he’s doing. He’s checking their breathing. He bends over them and takes the time to verify unequivocally that they aren’t dead. Afterward, we’re in the bathroom, both of us. No communication. He brushes his teeth, I remove my makeup. He goes to the toilet room. A little later, I find him sitting on the bed in our bedroom; he checks the e-mails on his BlackBerry and sets his alarm. Then he slips under the covers and immediately switches off the light on his side of the bed. For my part, I go and sit on the other side, I set my alarm, I rub cream into my hands, I swallow a Stilnox, I place my earplugs and my water glass within reach on the night table. I arrange my pillows, put on my glasses, and settle down comfortably to read. I’ve hardly begun when Robert, in a tone that’s supposed to be neutral, says, please turn out the light. These are the first words he’s spoken since we were on Rémi Grobe’s landing. I don’t answer. After a few seconds pass, he raises himself and leans across me, half-lying on me, in an effort to reach my bedside lamp. He manages to switch it off. In the darkness, I hit him on the arm and the back – actually I hit him several times – and then I turn the light on again. Robert says, I haven’t slept for three nights, do you want me dead? Without raising my eyes from my book, I say, take a Stilnox. —I don’t take fucking sleeping pills. —Then don’t complain. —Odile, I’m tired…turn off the light. Turn it off, dammit. He curls up under the covers again. I try to read. I wonder whether the word tired in Robert’s mouth hasn’t contributed more than anything else to our drifting apart. I refuse to give the word any existential significance. If a literary hero withdraws to the region of shadows, you accept it, but the same doesn’t go for a husband with whom you share a domestic life. Robert switches on his lamp again, extricates himself from the bedclothes with uncalled-for abruptness, and sits on the edge of the bed. Without turning around, he says, I’m going to a hotel. I remain silent. He doesn’t move. For the seventh time, I read, “By the light filtering through the dilapidated shutters, Gaylor could see the dog lying under the toilet chair, the chipped enamel washbasin. On the opposite wall, a man looked at him sadly. Gaylor approached the mirror…” Now who exactly is Gaylor?

Buy the book

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Enter our Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win one of 10 copies of Yasmina Reza’s highly anticipated new novel, Happy Are the Happy, a “quick and delicate book that’s as funny as it is humane” (The New York Times Book Review).

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Happy are the Happy by Yasmina Reza

Happy are the Happy

by Yasmina Reza

Giveaway ends January 31, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

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Other Press staff choose which books they’re giving as gifts this holiday season.

Yvonne Cardenas, Managing Editor

What book are you giving?
The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps by Diogo Mainardi

To whom, and why?
This year I’ll be giving my friend Celia a copy of The Fall. Mainardi’s book is not only about the relationship of a parent to a child, but also about being human and being alive. The way that he ties together his love for his son with his love for what is beautiful and worthwhile in the world reminds me of Celia.

Stephanie Derstine, Intern

What book are you giving?
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

To whom, and why? 
To my brother, who revels in reading psychologically twisted tales. The rawness of Stamm’s work and the devastation he subtly captures in merely a sentence is hair-raising.

Marjorie DeWitt, Editor

What book(s) are you giving?
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats and How to Live

To whom, and why?
My nana is a sucker for beautiful love stories in which love knows no bounds nor impediments, so naturally Heartbeats was a good choice (and it’s a book she excitedly points out to me when we’re at Costco). And How to Live is just a good choice for anyone, particularly those in early adulthood who are looking to find themselves and their place in the world. As a bonus, they get to learn more about Montaigne too!

Charlotte Kelly, Associate Publicist

What book are you giving?
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

To whom, and why?
For Christmas, I gave my best friend Minae Mizumura’s novel.  She’s going to be traveling and wanted something she could get completely sucked into, and I thought the beauty of Mizumura’s writing and the physical beauty of the book itself made it a perfect present.

Keenan McCracken, Associate Editor

What book(s) are you giving?
We’re Flying and The Fall

To whom, and why?
Probably going to be gifting Peter Stamm’s We’re Flying, a collection of short stories from the veteran Swiss-German writer who, despite being championed by Zadie Smith and Tim Parks, has somehow slipped under everyone’s radar. The stories are measured, minimalistic portraits of people trying to learn how to move beyond their own alienation and dejection in order to form meaningful connections with others. Merry Christmas!

I’ve also been relentlessly pushing Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall on people since it September, so I’ll probably continue to do that for the Holidays. I’m not usually drawn to books that deal with issues of familial, unconditional love, but this was one of the more moving books I’ve read in recent years. I think it’s for anyone who feels emotions and is technically human.

Christie Michel, Marketing Assistant

What book are you giving?
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

To whom, and why?
I’ve already gifted this to my sister. She’s an architect and I thought she’d like to read some fiction, for once. It’s on her 2015 To Read list!

Lauren Shekari, Rights Director

What book are you giving?
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

To whom, and why?
For my best friend, who loves Wuthering Heights and coached me through all my various romantic dramas, this is the perfect gift. Now that we are both happily married, we try to limit our romantic tragedies to books, and this is a great one!

Iisha Stevens, Production Manager

What book are you giving?
The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps by Diogo Mainardi

To whom, and why?
To my mother-in-law, now a retired NYC school teacher, who worked with Special needs children for over 30 years. I’m sure she will find it’s a beautiful, heart-felt read.

Jeff Waxman, Retail Marketing Manager

What book are you giving?
The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

To whom, and why?
When I was in high school, a friend of my mother’s gave me a copy ofA Confederacy of Dunces with the memorably insulting admission that I reminded her of Ignatius Reilly. Several years later, when I became a bookseller, she started bringing her daughter to see me at my shop for recommendations and I’ve been gifting this girl, now a precocious 17-year-old, some of my favorite books for almost ten years. Samira should get a copy just in time for Christmas and she’s going to love the bleak and bitter story of a young woman’s rise and ignominious fall in prewar Berlin. “Oh, Fortuna, you capricious sprite!”

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By Yannick Grannec, author of The Goddess of Small Victories

Gödel let himself die of hunger fearing he would be poisoned; Turing committed suicide swallowing arsenic.

Both were scientists of the absolute; both were anti-conformist and tormented. Both were obscure geniuses: idols of their colleagues, and unknown to the general public. Both were precocious founders of logic, the mathematical language on which deductive reasoning is based. Their tragic destinies and their pioneering works speak to each other, and yet they never even met. But the cursor on your smart phone is in fact the combined souls of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel that still quivers a century after they were born.

In the thirties, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing posed to themselves the same question: “Can we find a universal procedure to prove that a mathematical theory is true or false?”

They each, in their own way, answered “no”: there exist some mathematical truths that cannot be proven. In order to work around this “incompleteness” statement, Turing connected formal logic to a mechanical model. He created the Turing Machine, which is a theoretical algorithm that suggests that a human brain functions just like a calculator. Therefore, a calculator can “imitate” the logic of human reasoning, but also address its limitations.

For Gödel, the human mind is more than a Turing Machine, more than a complex connection between choices. The uniqueness of mind and matter is, for Gödel, a mere cultural prejudice. Gödel devoted his life to prove, through philosophy and mathematics, that there is “something else.” Turing, meanwhile, applied his discoveries to the resolution of the messages coded by the Enigma machine, built by the Germans to encipher and decipher coded messages.

Gödel ends up a paranoid recluse, and Turing is forced into secrecy and is persecuted—a sordid and pathetic end for two brilliant men.

Paradoxically, because they hit some limits in their scientific approaches, Gödel and Turing opened a new era that appears to us today without limits: that of computer science and artificial intelligence. The language of today’s computers owe their origin to that very logic that our two geniuses had mishandled. The true/false dichotomy has become “1/0,” the binary code.

The irony of their asymptotic destinies is that they both lived in Princeton without ever crossing paths. However, in that incredible intellectual and scientific milieu, they both rubbed shoulders with two other giants of scientific history: Albert Einstein and John Von Neumann. In light of the urgency caused by the war and the hatred of Nazism, the combined discoveries of these two geniuses led to the creation of the type of artificial intelligence necessary for deciphering the secret codes of the enemy and the making of the atomic bomb.

There is no doubt that if they were to meet today, Gödel and Turing would debate the question of the nature of human thought and intelligence and their potential incarnations, for better or worse—somewhere between your smartphone and nuclear arms.

 

————

Yannick Grannec is a graphic designer, freelance art director, professor of fine arts, and enthusiast of mathematics. Her debut novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, a fictionalized account of the lives and marriage of Kurt and Adele Gödel, was published in 2015. She lives in Saint-Paul de Vence, France.

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Overview

Book Summary

When twenty-year-old Hélène Roche moves to Paris to study archeology, her mysterious great-uncle Daniel Ascher loans her a room. Hélène and Daniel are seemingly polar opposites—she is quiet and serious, while he is ever the entertainer. The globetrotting author of The Black Insignia, a wildly successful series of young adult novels, he seems to Hélène to be immature, stuck in a state of arrested development. When she meets Guillaume, a devoted fan of her uncle’s novels, she finally has reason to read her uncle’s work. But Hélène finds more than adventure in his stories; she finds the key to unraveling her uncle’s dark past, a past that contains an explosive secret that could change everything she knows about herself and her family.

In immersing herself in her uncle’s writing, Hélène explores the very nature of fiction: is it a refuge, a lie, or a stand-in for mourning? The answers she finds will lead her to consider what it means to survive in the wake of insurmountable loss, and what it means to be a part of a family.

Teaching the Book

How do fiction and storytelling help us to shape our personal experiences? What effect do they have on us personally and on our relationships? The Travels of Daniel Ascher is a riveting adventure story that allows students to consider the relationship between truth and fiction and the place an individual holds in their family.

 Theme Focus: Storytelling; Individual vs Group Identity

Comprehension Focus: Intertextuality

Language Focus: Revealing Adjectives

Get Ready to Read

Pre-reading Activities

Preview and Predict: Discuss with students the title and cover of the book. Consider these questions:

  1. Whom do you think the book will be about? Whose point of view do you think it will be told from?
  2. Why do people travel? What are the objects you associate with traveling? Do books and fiction have anything in common with traveling?

Brainstorming: Have students write journal entries about adventure: What adventures have they gone on? What adventure stories have they read or watched? What is the appeal of adventure stories? If they could go on an adventure, what would it entail?

Vocabulary

Explain to the students that the author uses adjectives to reveal things about Daniel that he doesn’t directly tell Hélène or any of the other characters in the book. These adjectives help both Hélène and the reader to understand Daniel’s psyche and motives. The following list contains some of these words.

Ask students to look up the definition of these words as they come across them in the book. Then have them explain what the word means within the context in which it is used, and what the word reveals about Daniel.

  1. sedentary (p 18)
  2. foreign (p 29)
  3. transient (p 53)
  4. kitsch (p 79)
  5. perilous (102)
  6. ungrateful (p 128)
  7. childish (137)
  8. intact (p 160)

Using Vocabulary: Ask students to refer to the definitions they wrote for the above words to answer the following questions.

  1. In what ways does Daniel become foreign to his past and remain foreign in his newfound family?
  2. Does the fact that Hélène and Guillaume’s romance is transient make it less substantial?
  3. Is Daniel’s way of writing about foreign places in his books a form of kitsch?
  4. Do you think Hélène’s initial refusal to have anything to do with Daniel is childish?
  5. How does Hélène’s decision to write the final book in The Black Insignia series help to keep Daniel’s memories intact?

As You Read

Reading the Book

Modeled Reading: Read aloud the first two pages of the book, asking students to follow along. Then ask them these questions: From whose point of view is the book being told? How are Guillaume and Jonas similar? In what ways is Hélène different from Guillaume and Jonas? Do you know what Tintin and Blake and Mortimer are? Why do you think the author refers to them? Do you think Hélène is interested in stories or storytelling?

Textual Analysis: Ask students to keep these questions in mind as they read the book, and to point to passages from the book to support their answers: How does Hélène’s reaction to or opinion of the Black Insignia books change? What prompts this change? How does Hélène’s relationship with the books parallel her relationship with Daniel?

Reading Comprehension

Storytelling: Ask students to create a list of events that happened in Daniel Ascher’s life and were depicted in his novels.

After You Read

Questions

Comprehension Focus

Intertextuality: How do the Black Insignia books work within the narrative of The Travels of Daniel Ascher to reveal the secrets of Daniel’s past and comment on his behavior and his relationship with Hélène?

Theme Focus

Storytelling: Daniel Roche is a writer, a storyteller. Who else tells stories in the novel, and what are the stories they tell? Other than the stories in the Black Insignia series, what stories does Daniel tell? Why do you think Daniel writes the Black Insignia series?

Individual vs Group Identity: In what ways is Hélène’s detachment or discomfort within her newfound group of friends (p 15, “Hélène laughed along with them, but she wasn’t sure it was funny”; p 27, “but her voice got lost in the racket and no one heard her”) similar to Daniel’s relationship with his adopted family? Is this alienation present in any other part of the novel?

Language Focus

Have the students choose 3-5 of the revealing adjectives from the above list and use them in a character analysis of either Daniel or Hélène.

Content Area Connections

History: Hélène’s aunt Paule tells her that Daniel made sure the Roche family was awarded the Righteous medal (p 99). Have students research French resistance to the Nazi occupation and what the Righteous medal represents.

Language Arts: Have students write a proposal for an adventure story they would like to write or read.

Arts: Have students look at images of Soutine’s work and draw a self-portrait in his style. Research Soutine or old photography tools (Daniel’s “dagger”) and styles.

Extension Activities

Compare and Contrast: The novel is intertextual in that it directly references adventure novels, both real and fictional (Robinson Crusoe, The Black Insignia). Ask students to consider how The Travels of Daniel Ascher compares to the books mentioned. How does the novel work as an adventure story?

About the Author

Déborah Lévy-Bertherat lives in Paris, where she teaches comparative literature at the École Normale Supérieure. She has translated Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Gogol’s Petersburg Stories into French. The Travels of Daniel Ascher is her first novel.

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Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song and Joachim Fest’s Not I have been named in the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014!

The New York Times Book Review raved that

Ullmann’s voice on the page is a lean, tough-minded thing, scrubbed and scoured of sentimentality straight through to the final, Carveresque pages, in which she pulls off an 11th-hour radiance, a tonal shift from minor to major key. The novel’s charm lies in these idiosyncratic glints, these glimmers of queer wit, uncensored scorn or sudden, unstinting sympathy. Ullmann can’t be depended upon to comply neatly with form…[and] you trust her all the more for it.

and noted that

Joachim Fest’s fascinating memoir about what it was like to come of age during the years of the Third Reich is unusual because its central character is not the author but the author’s remarkable father.

The New York Times praised Not I as being:

[F]ascinating…Quietly compelling, elegantly expressed… Not I shrinks the Wagnerian scale of German history in the 1930s and 1940s to chamber music dimensions. It is intensely personal, clear-eyed and absolutely riveting.

You can read the reviews in full and see the rest of the list here.

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Peter Stamm’s latest novel, All Days Are Night, is out this month. He is the author of the novels Seven Years, On a Day Like This, and Unformed Landscape, and the short-story collections We’re Flying and In Strange Gardens and Other Stories. His prize-winning books have been translated into more than thirty languages. For his entire body of work and his accomplishments in fiction, he was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and in 2014 he won the prestigious Friedrich Hölderlin Prize. He lives in Switzerland.

Q: The plot of All Days Are Night is deceptively simple. How did this story come to you? What made you want to write about a woman’s reconstruction of her life after an event that could have destroyed it?

Peter Stamm: Twenty years ago I wrote a novel with a similar theme: whether we are who we are playing, or who we are when we undress and show ourselves naked. Unfortunately it failed. What interested me in All Days Are Night was the relationship between our interior and our exterior, so I needed a character whose appearance changes from one moment to the next. Or even better: a character who has no exterior, no face for a while. An accident was the easiest way to create such a character. Of course we all change our appearance over time, but it’s normally a slow process and we gradually adapt to our faces growing older, our hair turning gray. The whole book is about images we make from ourselves and from others, true and fake images. That’s where the painter comes in.

Q: Gillian’s disfigurement and the reconstruction of her face are incredibly formative moments in her life, and you describe both events with startling clarity. Was it difficult to inhabit Gillian’s mind after her accident?

PS: It’s the job of writers to imagine other people’s states of mind. But in this case I did have help from a woman who was disfigured as a child and whose face never was completely reconstructed. (Her accident happened when plastic surgery was in its infancy.) She became a psychotherapist and had very good insight into what happened to her in the years of her healing. When I showed her my half-finished novel, she confirmed quite a few of my imagined scenes but also helped me with things I had gotten wrong.

Q: All Days Are Night is told from Gillian’s point of view as well as Hubert’s. Why was it important for Hubert’s experiences to take such a central place in the novel?

PS: I think we expect artists to see below the surface, that their images be truer than the photos in a magazine. Hubert tries to see the essence of Gillian, but he doesn’t succeed. Maybe there is no essence of a person. We are continually changing. A true image would probably have to be blurred. I still think it’s interesting to have Hubert’s point of view, to see how he tries to paint Gillian. In addition he somehow also loses his face by going through an artistic crisis. A painter who doesn’t paint is not a painter anymore. His self-image is also in danger.

Q: When we meet Hubert in the second part of the novel, we find that he’s in the midst of a creative crisis, at an impasse that Gillian seems to have found her way through. Do you think destruction is important for an artist?

PS: Not necessarily destruction but uncertainty. I don’t think you can make art or write literature just with your skills. You have to take risks and you have to fail from time to time. It’s the only way to get on. Even today, after more than ten books, some of my texts fail. And every time I start a new novel I think, “How can I do it, how can I ever write a book?” I’m completely helpless. Sometimes I don’t write for months, trying to figure out how to start. And then, sometimes, I take off and it works. I don’t want to mystify the process, but there is a certain amount of magic in it.

Q: You’ve mentioned before how translation is more important for readers than it is for writers. How do readers benefit from reading literature from a multiplicity of countries? How has reading from countries outside of Switzerland shaped your writing? Considering the importance of translation, how has it been to work with a translator as well regarded as Michael Hofmann?

PS: I couldn’t have read half of the books I have if they hadn’t been translated. Literature was always translated; it’s our best means to understand people from other countries, other times, to widen our worldview. What would the Romans have been without reading the ancient Greek texts? We can only learn from other literatures. A literature that is not open to the world gets complacent and doesn’t develop.

Michael Hofmann is very easy to work with. He does not ask many questions and just does a wonderful job. After having translated all my books he knows my work probably as well as I do. He understands what I’m after. And, perhaps most important, he likes my books, if that’s not too vain to say.

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Overview

Book Summary

In a series of diary entries, the unnamed Jewish narrator details a cruel prank he participated in when he was younger that left the only Catholic student at his elite Jewish school terribly injured. He examines the episode from different angles and tries to understand it within the context of his family history: his father has Alzheimer’s and obsessively records every memory that comes to mind, and his grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor who wrote his own diary but never once mentioned his experiences during the Holocaust.

Personal reflection and heartfelt consideration of the place history holds in our lives lead to a poignant and hopeful resolution to one man’s struggles with what he inherits from his father and grandfather.

Contains mature content. You may want to preview before reading aloud.

Teaching the Book

How do you navigate the stories your family creates for itself? How do those stories interact with those we make for ourselves and with history? Diary of the Fall is a meditation on the intersection of family and history that provides students with the opportunity to analyze Jewish identity in the 21st century and the role of history in shaping personal narratives.

Theme Focus: Identity; History vs. Personal Life

Comprehension Focus: Narrative Structure

Language Focus: Evocative Adjectives

Get Ready to Read

 Pre-reading Activities

 Preview and Predict: Discuss with students the title and cover of the book. Consider these questions:

1. Do you think the book will have chapters, or will it be written like a personal diary, with dates for separate sections?2. What does the man on the cover of the book make you think of?

Brainstorming: Have the students read the book jacket description. Ask the students what they know about the Holocaust. How do they know it—did they learn it from school or from family and friends? Ask the students to think about the difference between knowing about something from being taught about it and knowing about something from personal experience.

 Vocabulary

Explain to the students that the author uses adjectives that eloquently describe the ideas he explores. These adjectives help to pierce through the narrator’s confusion so the narrative can come to a conclusive understanding. The following list contains some of these words.

Ask students to write down what they think the following words mean as they come upon them. Afterwards, have them look up the words and write down their definitions. Have students compare their own definitions with the ones the dictionary provides and decide which one they think applies better and why.

1. condemnatory (p.13)

2. abstract (p. 13)

3. banal (p. 31)

4. inexplicable (p. 64)

5. vulnerable (p. 71)

6. profound (p. 103)

7. systematic (p. 120)

8. ethnic (p. 157)

9. symbolic (p. 201)

10. gratuitous (p. 224)

 Using Vocabulary: Ask students to refer to the definitions they wrote for the above words to answer the following questions.

1. What abstract moral is the narrator referring to on page 13?

2. What about the narrator’s grandfather’s actions is inexplicable?

3. Who else, beside the narrator’s father on page 71, is shown to be vulnerable?

4. Do you think the novel’s structure is systematic in the way the narrator describes on page 120?

5. What is the difference between how the word gratuitous is used on page 186 and how it is used on page 224?

As You Read

Reading the Book:

Modeled Reading: Read aloud from the first few pages of the book. Ask students to consider the length and cadence of the sentences, and why the author chose to write in such a way. When they read on their own ask them to consider the difference in how they read the sentences.

Textual Analysis: Ask students to keep this question in mind as they read the book, and to point to sentences or passages from the book to support their answer: Do you think the novel says anything definitive about the nature of cruelty?

Reading Comprehension

Narrative Structure: Ask students to make a graph showing the grandfather’s actions, the father’s actions, and the narrator’s actions, and how the three are interrelated.

After You Read

Questions

Comprehension Focus
On Narrative Structure: What is the purpose of repetition in the novel? (See “hygiene,” pp 39, 111, 142; “Auschwitz,” pp 143, 150–151; “a repetition of what I did on his birthday,” p 176; “because that would be a reminder of what I was capable of doing to him over and over again,” p 177; “the nonviability of human experience at all times and in all places,” pp 205, 215, 217.)

Theme Focus
On History vs Personal Life: What is “the fall” that the title of the novel references? Does it manifest in more than one way? Does “the fall” seem to have the same effect on João that it has on the narrator? Is there more than one character who suffers through a “fall”?

Language Focus
Have the students choose one of the evocative adjectives from the above list and use it tin a one-paragraph review of the book.

Content Area Connections

History: Have students research the history of the Jewish diaspora after WWII, with a focus on migration to South America.

Language Arts: Have students write a 500 word diary imitating Laub’s writing style.

Arts: Have students create a new cover for the book.

Extension Activities

Compare and Contrast: The novel is intertextual, in that it directly references other books that speak about the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors. Ask students to consider how the book compares to other books they’ve read about the Holocaust, and how Diary of the Fall has added to or changed their knowledge about it. Remind them about the pre-reading brainstorming activity they completed where they thought about what they knew about the Holocaust.

 

About the Author

Michel Laub was born in Porto Alegre and currently lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He is a writer, a journalist, and the author of five novels. Diary of the Fall is his first to be published in English, and has won the Brasilia Award and the Bravo!/Bradesco Prize. Laub was named one of Granta’s twenty Best Young Brazilian Novelists in 2012.

 

 

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Other Press: How does Gödel’s most intimate relationship, his marriage to Adele, offer a more complex understanding of the many dimensions that made up this man? Why did you choose to tell his story from Adele’s perspective?

Yannick Grannec: When I was eighteen, I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and became fascinated by the work of Kurt Gödel. Twenty years later, I read, by chance, an essay about the friendship between Gödel and Einstein and, as the subject interested me, read other essays. In one of them, I came across a few lines about Adele that struck me as condescending. This question was implied: How could such a genius marry such a common woman?

Knowing Gödel’s life—the man was paranoid, anorectic, depressed—I wondered: How could a woman love such a difficult man for fifty years? There was nothing scientific about it, but that seemed to me to be the real mystery.

I had the intuition of a human story that needed telling, one that came with an opportunity to share what has always fascinated me, the history of science, as part of the fabric. To tell it in the voice of Adele seemed to me completely natural: she was the Candide, which allowed to me to transmit complicated ideas with simple words. I felt an immediate empathy for her, as though I’d always known her: she spoke to me of all these destinies of women, of these lives sacrificed for love or out of social obligation. She spoke to me of my mother, my grandmothers, and all those other women howling through my DNA.

 OP: In chapter 26, a poignant conversation between Kurt and Adele makes Gödel’s elegant and abstract Incompleteness Theorem accessible to the lay reader. Was it difficult to achieve this accessibility?

YG: For all the parts of the book that dealt with mathematical theories, the exercise presented a succession of difficulties. First of all, it was necessary to attempt to understand. For this famous Incompleteness theorem, I could talk about it in a general way, but not with any detail; I’m not a mathematician, and I’m not at all conversant in the language of logic in which it’s expressed. Then, I had to betray. Because the language of mathematics is, by its very definition, objective. But, to integrate it into fiction, and to share it, I could only use written language, a subjective tool. To go from sign to metaphor is a betrayal. So I needed to accept, and have others accept, an inevitable inexactitude.

For the part on the continuum hypothesis, I took a course taught by a mathematician friend. This part is more developed, because I thought I understood it better, and my intention was to use only what I thought I understood, because it was important to me to be intellectually honest. Of course, often, we think we understand, but it’s only the surface of things.

OP: Tell us about your experience researching for the novel. How much time did you spend researching the Gödels, Einstein, and other Princeton luminaries, before you felt comfortable writing about them? What did you find in your research that was surprising or unexpected?

YG: Even before beginning to write, I read a great number of documents over the course of at least a year. Of course, I had begun with everything that was within my intellectual reach that had to do with Kurt Gödel, then Einstein, then the biographies of those scientists who shared their destiny. But as soon as I pulled on one thread, an infinite tapestry appeared: I had to stick my nose into epistemology, into history in general, into philosophy, etc. I admit to having had a few periods of discouragement. In particular about Husserl, on whose subject, clearly, I stumbled. I didn’t have the keys, like Adele. I assembled a wide-ranging collection of photographs to nurture my imagination (the people, the period clothing, the places, etc.) and then I went on reconnaissance to Vienna and to Princeton, to soak up those places. In certain neighborhoods, those two cities seem to be stopped in time. It is very easy to imagine the era before the war in Vienna and the 1950s in Princeton. I had come up with a route, from house to café, from university to sanatorium, to follow in Gödel’s footsteps. I understood why, for example, they lived in the suburb of Grinzing: the 38 tram was direct from the mathematics university. Kurt didn’t like complications in his daily life. Each new discovery stirred up big emotions: seeking Kurt and Adele on the street where they lived, I found an old photography studio, at the address that had belonged to Adele’s father. I’ve returned there since, only to discover it was replaced by a snack bar. Destiny, in this case, gave me this gift. Three years later I would have missed it. At Princeton, I timed the route, to determine the length of the conversations with Einstein. At the Gödels’ tomb, in Princeton, I cried. I’ve lived with them; they’re my family.

As for having the nerve to make Einstein, Gödel, or Oppenheimer speak, I owe it to a kind of wild foolishness, the one that urges you to jump from a diving board into cold water. In retrospect, I shiver at the thought.

OP: How did you become interested in mathematics? What interests you about the intersection between mathematics and literature?

YG: Since I was a good student, I was pushed to do a science baccalaureate. I had already decided to study the arts, but I always liked mathematics and physics. All my life, I followed my interest through my reading. I had, I think, a natural affinity for seeing the world through structures and interactions.

I am often surprised to see people, in other ways very cultivated, shrink back when you speak to them about mathematics or science in general.

For me, everything is connected, all human knowledge is interdependent. I wanted to share this conviction. Fiction, recounting a singular human adventure, seems to me to be the natural medium for speaking of the universal. I often use this image: the love story of Kurt and Adele is the Trojan horse that allows me to speak of more abstract subjects without paining the reader allergic to science. I’m going to talk to you about mathematics, and you won’t even see me doing it. (Or almost . . .)

OP: Was it harder to write about Anna, who is entirely fictional, or to write about Adele and Kurt? Why do you find that the weaving of fact and fiction is such a compelling combination?

YG: Each exercise has its own difficulties. To slip into Gödel’s life demanded a great deal of exactitude. When you use someone’s life, respect is an imperative at every moment. For Kurt, it wasn’t difficult; his life had already been explored and dissected by different biographers. For Adele, I had so little information. I had to make myself empathetic, attempt to guess her feelings, her emotions, through the few anecdotes I was able to gather: the aggression of the Nazis on the steps of the university, the naturalization scene in Oskar Morgenstern’s memoirs, Dorothy Morgenstern’s saying that she was very intelligent and funny. I constructed three chronologies: an historic and scientific frieze; a timeline of Kurt Gödel’s life (his trips, moves, work, depressions, and health problems), and underlining it, one of Adele’s life as well. She was the unknown in the equation determined by History and the history of her husband. I tried to guess at and date her moods, her joys, and, at times, her despair.

Anna was born in hindsight. I needed a character who would listen to Adele. And I felt a need to interrogate the Gödels about their lack of reaction to the rise of the Nazis. I needed to explore this gray area. As I wrote more, the character of Anna developed. The relationship with the old woman became a creative “recreation,” allowing me to work without documentation, following my intuition. But without—and here lies the difficulty—the crutch of reality, which gives a writer material that’s irreplaceable, even with lots of imagination.

OP: The Goddess of Small Victories is your first novel. What was it like to publish it in France, and now to have it published in the United States?

YG: From many angles, the story of this book is even more fictional that its content. I worked for four years, convinced that this book wouldn’t interest anyone, but happy to confront the mountain, as a personal challenge. I rented a maid’s room (so Parisian!) to finish writing it. The owner recommended an editor, to whom I sent my manuscript. Around the same time, I packed my boxes and left Paris, where I had lived for twenty-five years. On the road to my new life, five days after having mailed my manuscript, I received a call from this editor, Stephen Carrière, who told me he absolutely wanted to publish it. What happened next was even more fantastical, because the reception by booksellers and journalists was very enthusiastic and I won a number of prizes. Then, thanks to this book, I met mathematicians and experts on Gödel, including Sheryl and John Dawson, who had translated his papers and whose support was invaluable. I attended the international conference on Gödel, where I was able to meet just about everyone in my bibliography. To see it now translated in the United Sates is yet another event in this waking dream that never ceases to surprise me. Had I known, I’d never have dared to write it!

OP: Many writers have routines and tricks to help them with their work. Do you have any writing quirks?

YG: I’m a mother; I write when my children are at school. I’m very disciplined by nature, one could even say obsessive; I don’t have any problem working between set hours. While I write directly on the keyboard, my notes are handwritten. I’m very adept with the Post-it technique, which allows me to see on my wall the progress and the structure of the story. I rarely write in a linear way: I’m solving a giant puzzle that begins with digesting the documentation. Then I force myself to lightly freewheel with my characters, and little by little, helped by my intuition, these disparate pieces begin to fall into place. As with a puzzle, the beginning is laborious and discouraging, what follows gains speed until the moment when I have the flow, finally, and can write without interruption for five or six hours in a row. I need only silence, a thermos of tea, and a few legal drugs: nicotine and sugar. For me, writing is physical, something like a marathon; I finish my sessions exhausted before beginning my second day as a mother. The one and the other aren’t incompatible, with a little organization: daily life nourishes creativity and allows us to put our ego back in its place. As far as possible from the page.

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