After tackling some giant books in recent months it was quite a treat to settle down with something that wouldn't be giving me arm ache, and when Julia by Otto de Kat had arrived from MacLehose Press arrived I was indeed smitten by its 'littleness' above all else. MacLehose (do you think that's Mac-le-hose or Macklehose?) are specializing in fiction in translation and the wistfulness of that cover convinced me to try it. I think it must be a picture of Christabel Bielenberg given that her estate are credited for the photo, but it creates the perfect atmosphere for what follows. An inscrutable portrait of a young woman looking away from the camera and denying us any access to her thoughts.
I wonder whether you, like me. love the whole look and feel and promise of a small book??
How much harder a small book has to work in order to impress.191 well-spaced duodecimo (perhaps) sized pages is not a great deal of time in which to complete the task that seems to take so many authors nearer 500 medium octavo pages these days.
Is it me or are books getting longer in that way policemen are getting younger??
The book opens with the mid-summer discovery of the 'white and cold' body of seventy-two year old Dutch factory owner Chris Dudok lying on the floor of his study. It is the chauffeur and general factotum Van Dijk who finds his employer, and who quickly draws the conclusion that this is 'suicide for the posh' from the incriminating box of tablets close to hand.
What follows is obviously going to reveal the reasons why Chris Dudok may have taken his own life, but for now the emphasis is on Van Dijk, angry at the loss of his job more than the loss of his employer which gives the first indication that the ageing Dudok may have been a complex character, not liked or respected by everyone perhaps.
Slowly the story winds back in time to Lubeck in Germany,1938. Naive, young and inexperienced, Chris has won a temporary reprieve from the inevitable job for life in his father's factory back in Holland and is working for an engineering firm in Lubeck, where he meets and rapidly succumbs to an obsession for his colleague Julia Bender.
'Julia dominated his brain, seeped into the divisions and seams of his soul - a soul he no longer believed in...Julia. It was getting worse by the day...'
Tensions are rising in Nazi Germany and it becomes clear that the outspoken and anti-fascist Julia, whose brother, an actor, is already on the wanted list, will soon be a target herself for the attentions of the authorities. Chris meanwhile has the option to return to the relative safety of Holland or to stay, he must make some difficult decisions and then live with the consequences either way.
The passage of time is skillfully managed here. The years drift slowly back and forth, perhaps a truer reflection of natural thought patterns, as Chris reflects on his life, his childhood, his love, his marriage, his regrets and his entrapment in the family firm and the life that almost seemed pre-ordained for him, and above all his decisions about Julia. Haunted by his memories Chris becomes increasingly sterile and emotionless in his outlook towards others, it is as if this one obsessive love has used up all his available resources, and as the past infiltrates more often into the narrative I became keenly aware that I was deeply involved in that life and those thought processes, and not in the least confused when towards the end of the book the memories become increasingly scattered and seamless.
Otto de Kat is a Dutch author, this edition translated by Ina Rilke, and he has penned a beautifully spare yet moving book. Given that the reader, like Chris, barely gets to know the enigmatic Julia at all I too emerged feeling desperately sad for what might have been....as drawn into Chris Dudok's infatuation and imagining as the character himself.
In the way that my thoughts can wander as well as any character in a novel, I was reminded of Edward Thomas and the impact on his life of the cowardice he had been accused of by his father when he was a young man, how driven he may have become as a result and how plagued by guilt he became.
Then I suspect for no other reason than it is a book that reflects the same era and is even smaller, I thought of Address Unknown by Kressmann Taylor and published by Souvenir Press. A book that packs an even bigger punch, and having read my thoughts on first reading it back in 2007, when it made my list of top reads for the year, I rapidly convinced myself a second read was in order...
'... written with breathtaking prescience in 1938, its publication in a magazine causing something of a sensation. Published as a book by Simon & Schuster the following year it sold fifty thousand copies, no mean feat in those days and probably now.
A series of fictional letters between two business partners, one Jewish who remains in the US, the other German who returns to settle in his homeland in 1932. The end result, a tiny novella in epistolary form and shining a spotlight on life in Germany in the years immediately before the war from a very unusual perspective.
Events and attitudes unfold gradually in these letters and as an eavesdropper with a phD in hindsight you read a great deal between the lines.The twist is clever and to say much more would be to deflect the knockout punch of this tiny book.Suffice to say my flabber was gasted as I put two and two together and came up with Kressman Taylor's incredibly clever plot.
Kressman Taylor incidentally born Kathrine Kressman in Portland,Oregon in 1903. In 1938 this story considered "too strong to appear under the name of a woman" hence the literary pseudonym.Over the years Address Unknown slipped into obscurity and was only resurrected in 1995 "to commemorate the liberation of the concentration camps" and has thus found a whole new audience and one willing to recognise that is does indeed contain a message that is timeless and relevant no matter what the year.
So not one but two really good reads today.
Any other 'small' books that pack a 'big' punch to recommend?