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Andrew Donaldson on Heinrich Gerlach's "lost" fictional account of the Battle of Stalingrad, Sue Grafton's passing, and Michael Wolff's inside look at the sentient naartjie's presidency

BACKSTORY’S MAKE FOR THE BEST STORIES

Breakout at StalingradSOMETIMES the story behind the publication of a novel can be even more extraordinary than the novel itself. This is certainly the case with Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad (Apollo), which is now published in English for the first time after being “lost” for 70 years. This is the original version of Gerlach’s 1957 classic of post-war literature, The Forsaken Army, an epic, fictionalised account of the battle of Stalingrad from the invading Germans’ point of view.

The 30-year-old Gerlach, an academic, was drafted as a reservist into the Wehrmacht in 1939, and in November 1942 was one of the 300 000 troops trapped by the Red Army outside Stalingrad. When the Germans surrendered in February 1943, only 91 000 remained. Gerlach, severely wounded, was one of them.

As a Soviet prisoner, he worked on an anti-Nazi newspaper, Free Germany. For this he was tried in absentia by the Nazis who sentenced him to death. He also worked on his novel, convinced the Soviets would allow its publication. They confiscated it instead. In 1950, the Soviets offered Gerlach his freedom – if he spied for them. He refused, but then changed his mind when he realised that failing to cooperate would result in a 25-year prison sentence. He was put on a train to Berlin where he was to meet his East German spymasters.

Fortunately, his train arrived hours early. The platform was empty. Gerlich hopped off and caught a local train to the western sector. In West Germany, he returned to teaching – and started afresh with his novel, taking a course in hypnosis to recall the contents of his confiscated manuscript. That 600-page manuscript, untouched for decades, was found in a Moscow archive in 2012 by Carsten Gansel, a researcher working on an unrelated project.

According to the London Sunday Times the differences between the two versions are instructive. “Where The Forsaken Army is almost thematically analytical, emphasising the deliberate betrayal of the army by Hitler and the Nazi leadership, the original Breakout at Stalingrad is more obviously built of viscerally immediate experiences.”

CRIMES & MISDEMEANOURS

Farewell, then, to Sue Grafton, author of the alphabetically titled detective series that began in 1982 with A Is for Alibi who passed away last month at 77.

The series’ female protagonist was introduced thus: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

The latest in the series, Y Is For Yesterday (Mantle) was published in August last year. At the time of her death, Grafton had been battling with a final, Z Is for Zero.

Grafton’s daughter, Jamie Clark, has said that it would not be completed. Her mother, she wrote on the author’s website, “would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”

EVEN IN WESTERN EUROPE? YES, EVEN IN WESTERN EUROPE. . .

Fire and FuryDid you know Donald Trump pronounced Xi Jinping’s name as “Ex-ee”, and had to be reprogrammed to think of the Chinese president as a woman so that he would be able to pronounce “She” when they met? True story, apparently.

By now, most of us are familiar with the contents of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Little, Brown); its revelations about the childlike nonentity now sometimes resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that made pre-publication headlines are now old news.

Reviews have been mixed. Most of his detractors have accused Wolff of unethical journalism. All those off-the-record comments from Steve Bannon, the most indiscreet of the author’s informants, now on-the-record? As critic Peter Conrad put it in The Observer, Wolff’s observation that Trump is “a symbol of the media’s self-loathing” is an indictment that applies to Wolff in particular.

Conrad does have a particularly elegant turn of phrase. “Fire and Fury,” he writes, “also gives the lowdown on the lacquered trompe-l’oeil that is Trump’s hairdo, with those tinted tendrils combed over a cranium that is totally bald and resonantly empty. But beyond such acts of exposure, what makes the book significant is its sly, hilarious portrait of a hollow man, into the black hole of whose needy, greedy ego the whole world has virtually vanished…”

Fire and the Fury has however found favour in North Korea. According to the country’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper, run by the ruling Workers’ Party, “The anti-Trump book is sweeping all over the world so Trump is being massively humiliated world-wide… Voices calling for the impeachment of Trump are on the rise not only in the United States but also abroad. Since the book was published, it has triggered a debate on whether Trump is qualified to be president, even in Western Europe.”


THE BOTTOM LINE

“Factory manufacture robs us of a special something: contemplation.” – Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands (WW Norton & Company)

Book details

"O'Farrell reminds us how vulnerable we all are" - Michele Magwood reviews Maggie O'Farrell's remarkable memoir

Published in the Sunday Times

I Am, I Am, I Am
*****
Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, R305

If you are interested in how writers are formed, the conditions and experiences that shaped their proclivity, you’ll want to read this remarkable memoir.
 
Maggie O’Farrell is a superb novelist. Her books such as The Hand That First Held Mine and Instructions For A Heatwave are luminous in their perceptiveness and humanity. She is a truly gifted storyteller.

Consider then the eight-year-old O’Farrell near paralysed by encephalitis: “I become a listener, a witness. I glance from the faces of my parents, standing on one side of my bed, to those of the doctors, standing on the other. I learn to be alert to nuance, to inflexions of brows, to minute alterations in facial expressions, to the setting together of teeth, the gripping of fists, to my parents effortful, watery smiles. I search for meaning in the gaps between words, between questions, in the hesitations before the doctors’ answers.”

At one stage she overhears a nurse outside her room saying “Hush, there’s a little girl dying in there.”

No wonder O’Farrell is so acutely observant of the world and of character.

I Am, I Am, I Am is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes With Death” and chronicles the occasions when the author has come close to dying. There is an escape from a murderer on a deserted hillside, and an attack by a mugger in Chile. She nearly dies of amoebic dysentery in China and again in the labour ward when she suffers a haemorrhage. She has almost drowned twice.

She may have survived these appalling incidents, but cruelly, she and her family still face death constantly. Her eight-year-old daughter suffers from extreme allergic reactions and regularly goes into anaphylactic shock.

O’Farrell reminds us how vulnerable we are, how thin the membrane between life and death, and yet this wise book is a celebration, a lesson in living. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Book details

Book Bites: 14 January

Published in the Sunday Times

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
*****
Matthew Sullivan, Cornerstone, R290

Prepare to be thrust into the life of Lydia Smith, a clerk at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, as she is plunged into shock, confusion and mystery by an unfortunate discovery during the late shift – a regular customer has killed himself. The suicide forces her to confront a traumatic childhood memory. The plot is complex and puzzling from the get-go and, in the best way, becomes even more so, until ultimately everything links together in a wonderful net of sense and epiphany. Sullivan’s writing is exceptional, and it flows naturally between the past and present and culminates in an absolutely enthralling novel. – Jessica Evans

The Mitford Murders
***
Jessica Fellowes, Little Brown, R275

Fellowes, who has written the Downton Abbey official companion books, has started a new mystery series, The Mitford Murders. The story is inspired by the unsolved 1920 murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the original Nightingale, on a Brighton-bound train. But in the land of fiction, anything can happen, including an 18-year-old nursery maid and the 16-year-old daughter of a lord turning into sleuths. It is a gentlewoman’s mystery, where the society of pearls and furs collides with the realm of washerwomen and gamblers. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation
*****
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, HarperCollins, R270

With all that is happening in Israel, this collection of essays is more important and urgent than ever. Written from inside the territories illegally occupied by Israel, the essays are glimpses into a water-restricted, violent world that finds creative solutions to the problems forced upon Palestinians. Whether it is the story of the soapmaker, the NGO that serves as a utility company or the parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement, each essay looks unflinchingly at life in Palestine and the occupied territories. No light reading, but its clarity and honesty make it as compelling as it is authentic. – Zoe Hinis @ZoeHinis

Book details

"I do believe our nation is scarred by violence" - Rehana Rossouw discusses the issues addressed in New Times

Published in the Sunday Times

New TimesNew Times
*****
Rehana Rossouw
Jacana, R250

Rehana Rossouw follows her award-winning novel, What Will People Say?, with the riveting New Times. Set in 1995, on the cusp of the rugby World Cup, the story revolves around political reporter Aaliyah (Ali), a woman whose faith is at odds with her sexuality.

Rossouw explains that even today, things are not easy for women in Ali’s position: “Muslim lesbians living openly are still very thin on the ground, despite there being mosques for gay people started after 1994. The country has made massive progress … but this has not filtered through in many communities in the grip of patriarchy.”

Ali’s inner tug-of-war does not hold her back in the newsroom. Tenacious and driven, she is chasing one exclusive story lead after another. It is a whirlwind of sources, deadlines, and office politics, a setting that Rossouw knows all too well, having worked as a journalist for over 30 years. That didn’t, however, make Ali’s story easy to write: “I started writing a book about a young woman whose father had died and who was struggling to cope as the head of the household. Three chapters in, my father died and the post-traumatic stress disorder I have been battling with for decades – as a result of the violence I witnessed as a young reporter – hit me hard and long.”

Mental health, violence, and PTSD thread through the narrative, from the newsroom, to Ali’s mother, to Ali herself. “I do believe our nation is scarred by violence,” Rossouw says. But while New Times may be set in the past, it is also a caution to the new generation. Rossouw explains, “The book was started in a fit of anger with the #FeesMustFall activists who blithely believed that their violence was justified because they had to ensure we all understood that Mandela was a sell-out. I wanted to warn them that violence is not a toy and could cause lasting damage.”

The well-drawn characters are damaged – whether an Afrikaans ex-military man turned sports reporter, a gay HIV/Aids activist, or Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man. But these broken souls all have one thing in common: Ali’s family table. This everyday piece of furniture pulls together a sense of community, responsibility and strength. The descriptions of the food throughout the book are so vivid that the smell of home cooking practically rises from the pages.

“The Malay community in Bo-Kaap made a massive contribution to early South African identity with their food,” Rossouw says. “Everyone knows koeksisters and bobotie and all of their sweets. Because the slaves that made up the Malay community had no roots they could pass down generations, their food showed that they were a fusion of Malay, Indonesian, Javanese and Indian people.”

But even a good meal cannot stop the déjà vu when reading about the HIV/Aids crisis in 1995. Yes, ARVs are now available, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that over seven million South Africans are living with the disease, according to UNAIDS data. Nor does it mean the old players in the HIV/Aids denialism have disappeared. “It is astounding that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma considered herself presidential material when she supported the development of Virodene, a toxic industrial solvent, as an ‘Aids cure’,” Rossouw says.

But she is far from giving up: “I am fighting all over again as a novelist.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Book details

"Good, skilful, dirty fun" - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Joseph Kanon's Defectors

Published in The Witness

DefectorsMaybe it’s because anything seems better than the present, or perhaps the excitingly glamorous art of spying has now been reduced to a slew of dubious “intelligence” reports and fake news, but there’s a lot of fictional nostalgia for the Cold War.

It was ugly, depressing and horrible to endure, but it still makes for great spy thrillers.

This time, it’s Joseph Kanon (Los Alamos, The Good German, Leaving Berlin) who is trawling in the murky waters of the 1960s.

Back in 1949, charming, clever Frank Weeks, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a leading spook at the CIA was exposed as a Russian spy, and escaped to Moscow, where he and his wife become part of the ex-pat community of British and American traitors, loathed by those they betrayed and not trusted by their new masters.

But in 1961, Frank is given permission to write a memoir explaining his actions, or at least the bits of them the Russians want explained.

His brother Simon, who had been an unwitting source of some of the secrets Frank took to Russia, is now a New York publisher and is invited to fly to Moscow and work with Frank on the manuscript.

As a boy and young man, Simon worshipped his elder brother, but there is now a bitter history, and their reunion is fraught.

Still, a chance to reconnect with Frank’s wife, with whom Simon once had a brief fling, a bit of Russian sight-seeing, a trip to the Bolshoi and so on have their attractions, and glimpses of other high profile spies, both real (Guy Burgess) and fictional, have been laid on, along with the prospect of a bestseller at the end of the process.

But this is the Cold War, and nothing and no-one is quite what they seem on the surface.

As Frank draws Simon into a web of intrigue, the latter catches glimpses of other schemes and forces at play.

Spying is an amoral trade: collateral damage will occur and to those involved, will not matter all that much. The reader needs to concentrate as the tension builds, the complexities increase and the levels of duplicity deepen to a violent and shattering conclusion. Good, skilful, dirty fun. – Margaret von Klemperer

Book details

'A playful, highly imaginative, irreverent version of the Trojan War' - Moira Lovell reviews Jane Fox's The Unofficial Odyssey

Published in The Witness

Many writers have found inspiration for their own work in the great epics – The Iliad and The Odyssey – attributed to Homer. Not least among these, in recent years, have been Elizabeth Cook (Achilles, 2001), Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, 2005), Peter Ackroyd (The Fall of Troy, 2007), David Malouf (Ransom, 2009) and Madeline Miller, with her award-winning The Song of Achilles (2011). Now, South African writer, Jane Fox, presents The Unofficial Odyssey, a playful, highly imaginative, irreverent version of the Trojan War and its aftermath, based on her reading of Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and on the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides.

While the arc of the famous narrative is evident – from the abduction of Helen of Sparta to the trickery of the Wooden Horse and Odysseus’ subsequent perilous, decade-long voyage home to Ithaca – and while the major protagonists are featured, Fox’s focus is on Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and her women friends, left at home when the men sail for Troy.

Penelope’s closest friend and former lover, Sappho, is, like her namesake, something of a poet, and, in the absence of the men and of any news of the progress of the war, she suggests that the women – and the resident bard, Phemius – compose stories that reflect the possible development of events. Each of the women will be responsible for an instalment and will position herself in the narrative. Phemius will make a contribution and is responsible for committing the work to papyrus.

Each of the women bears the name of a female protagonist in the original saga, so that when she tells her imagined instalment, she is, in fact, reflecting, to some extent, the part she plays in the original.

The assembled Ithacan women include Iphigenia (named after the hapless daughter of Agamemnon); Cassandra (whose namesake is the prophetic Trojan princess to whom no one listens); Circe (named after the beguiling enchantress whom Odysseus encounters on the island of Aeaea); Calypso (the equally beguiling nymph with whom Odysseus spends seven years on the island of Ogygia); and Nausicaa (the Phaeacian princess who rescues Odysseus when he is shipwrecked on her father’s island).

In addition to the contributions of these women, Penelope herself, Sappho, Laertes (the elderly father of Odysseus) and Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) are given voice in their own chapters. Thus the imagined sequence of events unfolding beyond Ithaca is revealed, along with developments at home: Telemachus grows into a young man during his father’s protracted absence; there is the death of Odysseus’ mother; the invasion of Odysseus’ home by increasing numbers of loutish suitors (whom Fox dubs ‘refugees’); and Penelope’s famously duplicitous weaving of a shroud for Laertes. Even Odysseus’ dog, Argos, makes intermittent appearances and contributes to the poignancy of the conclusion.

Told in a jaunty, colloquial style and with considerable imaginative chutzpah, Fox’s novel is a light-hearted view of the origins of the famous texts. The Unofficial Odyssey is an elegant publication, coffee-table rather than bookshelf size, with striking illustrations by Ronel Wheeler.