Shine Bright, Fierce Star: On the Loss of Daša Drndić (1946-2018)

on Thursday, June 7, 2018
My dearest, dearest Daša.

For two days now, I have been crying. You are gone and I have only this: memories of a friend. So indulge me.

I'll start at our first meeting; an entirely unremarkable one, the same as any between reader and writer. Back in July 2012, I was in London, perusing the new releases in Hatchards. For some reason, I was drawn to one book in particular. Its dust jacket was a simple tan, the colour of unbleached pulp. The author's name was unfamiliar to me, though I must confess a soft spot for part of it. My grandmother's name was also Daša. And those red lines, stark bolts bleeding from the letters of the title: TRIESTE. Train tracks, perhaps, bent briefly out of shape to form the symbol that still strikes fear into any Jew who might happen upon it. SS. I flicked through the pages, saw the photographs, the documents, the transcripts, the lists. I read the first page right there in store, Haya Tedeschi sitting with her box of memories, and I was transfixed. I went to the counter, bought it, and spent the rest of the day under your spell. I knew right away that I had stumbled across an outright classic, a revelation.

Had I only read your magnificent book, it would have been enough.

I reviewed it a couple of weeks later on this blog. You must have set up a google alert, because within a few days I received an email. Polite, but unimpressed. "Dasa Drndic calling," it began. "Thank you for understanding my book." You then took issue with one aspect of what I'd said. I had been sucked in to a controversy surrounding Trieste, that you thought unfounded. We discussed it at length, emails flying back and forth, and I was swayed by what you had to say. For the first (and last) time ever, I printed what amounted to a retraction. Trieste went on to become my Book of the Year. At which point, it should have ended. Who has the chutzpah to write to a blogger to complain, anyway? Isn't that the cardinal rule: "Ignore your reviewers"? Do not engage. It can only end badly. But somehow, in those furious few days, we had proven the adage wrong. We had forged a bond. You, the literary titan of Croatia. Me, a struggling writer here in Australia, who spent most of his time procrastinating, reading books by the dozen and pontificating about them on the internet, when he should have been writing. We were, dare I say it, becoming friends.

I have spent the last two days reading over our six years of correspondence. In it I found entire lives - ours, our families', our books'. We spoke of everything: literature, criticism, politics, the mundane and the ridiculous, often punctuated by you with cat emojis. I was reminded of that first while, when everything about you struck me as intense, fierce. Your extraordinary intellect intimidated me no end, and I was always waiting for the moment you would cut me off. You were cynical and sarcastic, unforgiving and unrelenting. Holy shit, you were impressive. But here's the kicker, the thing that made it all the more delightful to speak with you. You were funny. Like, fuck off, fall-on-the-floor-laughing funny. Yes, behind that uncompromising wall was one of the funniest people I've known. You made me laugh through some pretty dark times. Both mine and yours. And you were generous. You knew me only as some guy across the world who once said something infuriating about a book he loved and who you set straight. Yet, when I told you about my friends Mieke and Will, editors at the literary journal Higher Arc, who wanted us to have a conversation "on the page", you jumped at the opportunity. I've read over it today, cringing at my contributions. But you, you answered so beautifully, every word a deadly weapon. You doubled down on your ferocious railing against the shitness of the world. It was, like much of what you wrote, a massive middle finger to convention, to complacency, to human failing. Yes, a warning to us all: Do better.

The years passed, and the books kept coming. Leica Format, which you were disappointed to hear I didn't like as much. And then Belladonna. You sent me the uncorrected proof, made me promise I wouldn't tell your publisher that I had it. What a magnificent achievement it was; arguably an equal to Trieste, and one for which you are still garnering great praise. Also, Doppelgänger and EEG, which have yet to be translated. In the background, I was finishing The Book of Dirt. You hadn't read a word but you were unwavering in your support. When at last it was done, I spent weeks building the courage to ask you to read it. "Yes," you said without pause. "Send it over." Did you know that impressing you was the single most important thing for me at the time? Did you see in what you read, a letter of devotion and admiration? Did you realise, at that point, that you had taught me how to write, had shown me the potential of unconventional literary form? In your work, I discovered the key to my own voice. I waited the next however long, nervously checking my inbox each day, wondering if you'd read it. Then: an interrogation. We spent a couple of hours on Messenger while you subjected me and the book to critical vivisection. I got defensive, upset. We argued. And then, at the point of greatest despair, you laughed and told me I'd passed the test. Of course you liked it. You would provide a quote. If you could only have seen me then, a shaking mess on the floor of my study, giggling like a maniac.

When the diagnosis came, you slipped it casually into conversation. "And now some bad news..." you said. It became a constant cloud over our chats. We spoke as we always did, but there was the odd comment about a bad test, some pain, a setback. You didn't let it dampen your vigour, though. You were always rushing off to this book fair, that literary festival. There were book launches and celebrations. You sent me photos, always smiling. Yes, there were flashes of anger, of despair. But they were soon washed away by another excitement: a new book, a different edition, some achievement by your daughter. Mostly, you deflected the conversations back to me, to my book. You took pride in its success like a godmother might. And, above all, you wanted to know about my little girl. That always made you happy. Knowing you, in part, inspired her name. "I miss it, having little children," you wrote. "She makes me smile."

A few months ago, I asked you to send me a signed book. I wanted something inscribed from you, a token of our friendship. Neither of us said it, but we both knew why. Things were not good. You were in bed, with back pain. The cancer was spreading. You said you'd try. "When I'm feeling a little better." I didn't say anything. We had tried once before. A friend of mine was on a panel with you in Edinburgh. You gave him a book for me, but he was unable to take it. So you had your publisher mail it to me instead. It got lost along the way. I like to think it is in some Kafkaesque postal nightmare, maybe even an existential Escher painting. Anyway, I waited and didn't push the point. Then you told me you just received the Italian edition of Doppelgänger. "It's ugly," you said. "But I will send it anyway." A few days later, this: "I went last night to send you the little ugly book, it was cold and pouring, and i forgot to write anything inside, i haven't even signed it. I feel like punching my nose. So sorry... the post office is less than a kilometre from my home. It took me almost an hour to limp there and back." This time it arrived, much cuter that you made out. The inscription, of course, is what's on the envelope. My name in your handwriting. And the knowledge of your effort to send it. That I possess a clean copy of a book I've never read in a language I can't understand is the kind of absurdity you loved. We laughed about it together. You said you'd send something else when you had the chance.

Our last exchange was from our respective sickbeds. Your health was rapidly deteriorating. The cancer had reached your brain. I, meanwhile, had just had a minor stroke. We talked about brains and memory and language. "I just said parmesan instead of marzipan," you said. "It's ok," I replied. "I prefer parmesan anyway." And you left me with a somewhat reassuring thought as I waited for the results of my MRI: "Don't worry. If your brain is broken there's nothing to find out. Relax." Followed by five emojis of cartoon sheep blowing kisses. It was the last I'd hear from you.

Last month I sent you the link to an article in an Australian paper in which, as always, I raved about Trieste. You didn't write back, though you shared it on your Facebook page. I wrote to you again a week later but you didn't see it. I tried not to think what that might mean. And again last week. But you didn't see that either. I didn't have the guts to say goodbye. I hoped that you would pull through and write something back. I didn't want to have to explain that I might have given up on you. You would have ripped me to shreds. Also, like now, I was not ready for our friendship to end. You fundamentally changed me as a person and as a writer. I still can't imagine not having you to turn to when things get too hard in this shitty writing caper.

You are already being spoken of as one of the greats, as one of the most important emerging voices from Europe. A successor to Ferrante, The Guardian said only two weeks ago. Yes, your star is still very much on the ascent. And I will be at the frontline, screaming your name to anyone who might listen. We will continue to talk. That is, I suppose the magic of what we do. Our voices live on even when we are gone. Knowing there are books of yours that have yet to be translated, that are in the process of being translated, means that I can look forward to new conversations, new arguments. Yes, we will continue to speak for many years to come. Because yours is a voice I refuse to stop hearing.

My dearest, dearest Daša. Thank you for everything. I will miss you forever. And I will hold you close for just as long.

O BROTHER, HERE THOU ART: Census by Jesse Ball

on Friday, March 2, 2018
When it comes to fiction, grief makes a lousy muse. Far from inspiring imaginative responses, it tends to trap the writer in a narrow realist frame, often to the point of sentimentality. Sure, schmaltz sells books, and it can be genuinely moving, but it very rarely demonstrates anything beyond the writer’s fear of losing perfect sight of the person they are mourning on the page. Indeed, I can think of only one novelist who has pulled it off successfully in the last decade. Miriam Toews wrote her sucker-punch to the heart, All My Puny Sorrows, in the wake of her sister’s suicide. But even that remained firmly rooted in the 'real'. Most other novelists think better than to take the risk and, instead, sidestep into memoir: Julian Barnes, Joan Didion, and Philip Roth all wrote powerful books as part of their creative shiva. Now Jesse Ball has entered the fray with his latest novel, Census, and, I dare say, completely changed the game.

In a brief introduction, Ball tells us of his older brother, Abram, who had Down syndrome and died twenty years ago at the age of twenty four. “What is in my heart,” Ball writes, “is something so tremendous, so full of light, that I thought I must write a book that helps people to see what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.” For a while he struggled with how he would go about it. Then: “I realised I would make a book that was hollow. I would place him in the middle of it, and write around him for the most part. He would be there in his effect.” Yes, Jesse Ball would honour the memory of his brother by doing what he does best: being Jesse Ball, contemporary literature’s lovechild of Calvino, Borges and Ballard.

Census opens at the end of the story, with an old man digging a grave. He once was a doctor but is now a census taker. For what we aren’t told. We know only that the census is older than the nation. The old man has a son, we learn, and once had a wife. The boy is gone, the wife is dead. His journey began a while back with a notification: he, too, would soon be dead. His heart was literally breaking. It was this that caused him to become a census taker, so that he could take his son along, spend time, prepare him for what was to come. And so they set off into the northern lands, each district identified by only a latter (in alphabetical order), each town with its own history and distinct population. In this regard, I was reminded of Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles, in which a doctor also takes his son on a journey through a strange land. As in Bernhard’s book, they meet a number of people and listen to their stories, giving the reader fly on the wall access to the unsettling familiarity of a world just outside our experience.

Where the books differ wildly, of course, is with the sons. Bernhard’s boy is a budding scientist, who the father seeks to ply with data about how horrible the world can be. The son in Census, while never explicitly described as such, has Down syndrome. Here is the brother around whom the book is written. As an avatar to engage with an ever-changing environment, he is perfect. His condition provides an experiential innocence that removes the layer of cynicism polluting the way we tend to view the world. There is a certain delight to be had simply in his presence, particularly when viewed from a loving father’s perspective. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said of those they encounter, and Ball brilliantly gives us the range of reactions, from the heartwarmingly tender to the infuriatingly cruel. Some gave me pause to think about moments in my own life, one of which stands out thirty-five-odd years after it happened. On a family holiday to America, we went to Knott’s Berry Farm. Dad took me on the spinning saucers (I was too scared to try the rollercoaster with my brother). As the ride came to an end, a kid with Down syndrome ran to our saucer and jumped in, whooping and laughing with unbridled joy. I burst out crying. The kid’s father ran over and apologised, saying his son just loved to play. For some reason, the memory has stuck with me, though it has transformed from one of fear to one of wistful shame.

There is a profound existential dimension to Census. What, Ball asks, makes a person? What makes a life worth living? And who are we to judge? The census itself serves as a powerful metaphor in this regard, and not only in the most obvious sense. The old man does more than count the people he meets. He tattoos a mark on their ribs - a shape that differs from census to census. Some welcome the tattoo and proudly show the marks of censuses past. Some are more reluctant. Some oppose it violently, though the old man notes early on that it makes no difference to him; he doesn’t really care about the work of the census. The act of tattooing in the book is reminiscent of Kafka’s horrifying machine from In The Penal Settlement. What it leaves behind on the skin is the ultimate truth: existence. That some people do not get the mark adds a caveat: one can exist without seeming to be being counted.

These same considerations surface when we are told about the old man’s wife. She was a clown of sorts who once attended The Shape School, a mysterious training college. Her act, more performance art than entertainment, riffed heavily (and absurdly) on the idea of being. In one show, she mimicked a member of the audience until the two were indistinguishable. In another, she sat on a chair with a trumpet and did nothing until the audience left, bored. Over the following week she tracked each one down, blew the trumpet in their face and handed them a note. It read: It is your life, your presence is required. You can’t say where a thing will happen.

With Census, Jesse Ball has achieved what he set out to do in a beautifully original way. He has built a world in which his brother can simply be, and allowed us as readers to appreciate and come to love him. If there is such a thing as what I will, with apologies, crassly call disability literature, then surely Census must be both a major work and a watershed moment. Yet any attempt to reduce it to one of its constituent elements would be doing it a disservice. Census is a deeply humane and tender novel, brimming with compassion, deep and original thought, sweetness and, yes, even humour. It asks big questions, and offers gentle guidance towards meaningful answers. It also throws down the gauntlet for how future writers might consider engaging artistically with their loss. Ball suggests that while breaking from the 'real' might not bring someone back to life, it can give them new life. To this end, there is a particularly poignant passage where Ball breaks the fact/fiction divide. On the final pages, there is a series of family photos in which little Abram (he appears to be no more than ten in the most recent one), is captured going about his everyday life with his family. The photos are referenced in the novel - the son literally becomes Ball’s brother - but new context is imagined for him. These are the old doctor’s memories. It is a touching nod to the ultimate purpose of what is an astoundingly good book.

Microviews 59: The Summer Reading Stack Edition

on Thursday, February 15, 2018
Well, it's been a twenty five book kind of summer (and by summer I mean the first six weeks of 2018) which, I hope, goes some way to explaining why I've already fallen behind on updating this here blog.

I'm not going to review them all in depth (obvs!) but a few worth noting before I get into the longer form pontification:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie didn't quite live up to the hype, but I still found it to be a powerful and very timely reworking of Antigone, exploring some of our most pressing contemporary paranoias. Terrorism, Islamophobia, political upheaval and, well, forbidden love all get a good look in with more nuance (and less razzle dazzle) than, say, Houellebecq's sensationalist Submission. I was particularly taken by Isma and Parvaiz (the latter mostly because I'm interested in the process of radicalisation), which I suppose almost made up for the overly cartoonish Aneeka and total wet-blanket dickwad Eamonn.

Jim Heyman's Ordinary Sins was a rather intriguing collection of tiny character sketches of regular people going about their business while wrestling with their personal failings. There was something recognisable in each of them, something uncomfortably relatable. Worth a quick dip, I say.

At last I get the love people have for George Saunders. No I didn't like Lincoln In The Bardot. And I was only mildly entertained by Tenth of December. But holy shit, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders's batshit crazy novella, was a revelation.

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman was a thoroughly beguiling novel about a young man (a hack writer, really) entangled by his grandfather in a scheme to defraud the German government with Holocaust claims for survivors deserving of compensation but who did not fit the very strict criteria for getting any. A somewhat ethically challenging, though witty and moving, book.

And now onto something a little more substantial:

The Only Story by Julian Barnes
The years have not been kind to the former rock stars of English letters. Ian McEwan now cranks out fair-to-middling minor entertainments on a semi-regular basis while Martin Amis has gone all scattergun on his readers, misfiring more often than not. Their books have become something akin to Dorian Gray’s portrait in the attic: withered, unseemly, a mere shadow of what came before. For Julian Barnes, however, the portrait remains intact. Time took a far more personal toll: stealing away his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. Since then, Barnes has been producing books of immense depth and beauty. Sure, they might resemble his early work but something more profound has crept between the covers, an understanding of life that most never come to possess. Sense of an Ending finally saw him win the Man Booker Prize. The Noise of Time was one the best meditations on art and power that I’ve ever read. And then there was his strange, uneven but moving memoir, Levels of Life. The Only Story continues Barnes’s quiet exploration of love and loss that seems to characterise his later oeuvre. What starts as a fairly standard May December romance - 19-year-old Paul meets 38-year-old Susan (married, of course) at tennis club, and begins torrid affair - gradually shifts into something much more significant and complex. The affair continues - the two run away and try to start a life in London. Paul begins to study law. Susan does her best to make something of her independence. The years pass, age creeps in: the depredations begin. Conventional wisdom has it that these kind of romances collapse with the weight of time. In Paul and Susan’s case, time is a trash compactor, crushing them against one another, leaving no avenue for escape. As Susan descends into chronic alcoholism and, later, dementia, Paul cannot let go. Perhaps love runs deep, but it seems that Paul is driven more by guilt and obligation. He has lost the chance to know what love really is. And, as a result, he lets opportunities for a fulfilling, dare I say normal, life pass him by. The Only Story is a sad book, wistful and philosophical. It is also throughly, thoroughly British. What might come as a bit of a surprise to Barnes fans is its stylistic experimentalism; Barnes slips between first, second and third person throughout, making the reader sometimes witness, sometimes accomplice, and sometimes protagonist. I doubt The Only Story will go down as one of Barnes’s strongest offerings - it is a little too quiet and slightly overwrought - but it remains a novel of considerable beauty and wisdom from a writer who, unlike his contemporaries, still clearly has a lot to say.
3.5 out of 5 Michael Douglases

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor
Early money had Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 a high chance to win the 2017 Man Booker Prize. When it failed to make the shortlist there was a collective gasp. Poor Jon had been robbed! I was more ambivalent; I had appreciated the subtlety of Reservoir 13, but couldn’t get quite as excited as my writer friends on Twitter who devoted entire threads to fawning about it. Maybe it was the buzz - they generally have impeccable taste and I came to the book quite late so my hopes were impossibly high. Or maybe it was because Reservoir 13 reminded me too much of one of my favourite novels of the past decade, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. That book also deals with the fallout from the disappearance of a child in a small town, and the ongoing ripple effect on those who knew her. As a study of grief, and the legacy of lost friendships, it is beyond compare. For me, Reservoir 13 lacked its emotional weight and narrative drive. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a very good book - it most certainly is! - but I felt there was something missing. Enter The Reservoir Tapes. Billed as a sequel, it is really more of an equal. Fifteen short pieces - interviews, snippets, side stories - in a slim, elegant volume that makes the main novel look like War and Peace. Here we hear the voices of those who knew poor, lost Becky, those who saw something, or heard something, or thought they saw or heard something, or might just be contributing to the scuttlebutt. Here we get to see McGregor doing what he does best: concise, daring, razor sharp storytelling. Indeed, had I just read this and not bothered with Reservoir 13, I’d have hailed it a masterpiece. It tells the same story better. Yep, this is the book that should have won all the prizes. This was the one robbed of the Man Booker. Whether or not you’ve read Reservoir 13, I implore you to rush out and buy this. For although it was conceived as a series of pieces to be read on BBC Radio, and perhaps almost an afterthought, The Reservoir Tapes is contemporary literary fiction at its absolute best.
4.5 Out of 5 Phantom Menaces

Lullaby by Leïla Silmani
Okay, seriously. What the fuck is with the whole “Next Gone Girl” thing? Sure, I get you need to shift units but whoever thought it would be a good idea to flog Leïla Silmani’s far more sophisticated Lullaby as some cheap psychological thriller should be made to read Gone Girl over and over again while sitting in a tub of week-old, lukewarm, curdled milk. Silmani won the Prix Goncourt - one of the world’s most prestigious prizes and consistent indicator of excellent literary cred - with this for heaven’s sake. Lullaby opens with a horrific scene: two little children are brutally murdered by their nanny. Rewind to Myriam, a driven, successful lawyer, and her aspiring music producer husband Paul, searching for a carer for their two kids. A bunch of decidedly unremarkable applicants are interviewed. Myriam and Paul are ready to give up when Louise appears. She seems perfect. Her references check out. The kids take to her almost immediately. Problem solved. Of course, as you would expect from any book billed as the next Gone Girl - particularly one that opens with a grisly murder - the cracks soon begin to show. Louise becomes a little too obsessed. Too clingy. Think Single White Female or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. We get flashbacks to moments in her former life. We learn she had an abusive ex-husband and wayward daughter from whom she is estranged. She is by and large homeless. She sees in Myriam’s family a chance to belong. The disappointment of her standing in the pecking order, when pointed out to her, is inevitable. as is her completely unhinged reaction. Lullaby is a pretty passable thriller but readers looking for the next Gone Girl are likely to be rushing back to the store and asking for a refund. What the book really does, and does well, is hold a magnifying glass over the relationship between servant and master. Louise is a fine study in the frustration of life when stuck on the lowest end of the socioeconomic totem pole. There is no question Louise had a terrible run, and Silmani demonstrates the kind of conditions that might (though she in no way determinative) result in catastrophe. For me, this strength is also the book’s greatest weakness. Because when it comes to examining the kind of relationship Silmani has chosen as her subject, there already exists an unassailable masterpiece: Magda Szabo’s The Door. No killing. No Gone Girl. Just a perfect observation of human relations. By all means read Lullaby - it is a throughly enjoyable book (though maybe if, like me, you are a new parent, you might want to give it a miss). But do me a favour. When you’re done go and read Szabo. That’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
3.5 Out of 5 Rebecca De Mornays

Peach by Emma Glass
Beware all who come to this book: it may well destroy you. In prose rich and visceral, Peach recounts the few weeks in the aftermath of a violent rape as the narrator struggles to make sense of her experience. The opening chapter is the most memorable thing you are likely to read this year. A woman stumbles home; battered, bruised, bleeding, defiled. It is as poetic as it is harrowing, written with a jarring rhythm that gives agonising immediacy while you are forced to bear witness. What follows is a hell ride into the hyper-real: Peach’s torment becomes your own. We learn little of the crime other than the name of its perpetrator - Lincoln. He is a sinister presence throughout, haunting Peach’s psyche, the counterpoint to her boyfriend, Green. How does she explain it to those who love her? How does she come to terms with her own body that has been so egregiously violated? How does she piece herself back together? And what of the child that might be growing inside her? Even the sympathetic characters have a ghoulishness about them: Peach’s parents try to force her to eat meat. That is when they aren’t bonking with gay abandon in the room next to her. Mr Custard, her teacher, begins to literally fall apart. Green seemingly metamorphosises into a tree. And Peach begins to disappear. To a large part I was reminded of the break from reality that also characterised Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. Indeed, the two have a lot in common, in their brevity, their form as prose poem, their haunting, surreal interpretations of loss and their astounding originality. Both are difficult reads, but essential ones if we want to glimpse the extreme edges of the human condition.
4 Out of 5 Straw Dogs

An Empty Chair at Tmol Shilshom: Aharon Appelfeld 1932 - 2018

on Thursday, January 4, 2018
It saddens me to start the year with a post in loving memory of one of my favourite writers. As some of you may have heard, Aharon Appelfeld, the last of the great survivor novelists, died today aged 85. Although eclipsed in the public eye by the likes of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, Appelfeld was the finest of them all. I long harboured a fantasy of meeting him in the cafe he was known to frequent, Tmol Shilshom. Whenever I went to Jerusalem, I made a beeline to Yoel Moshe Solomon Street, climbed the stairs, and plonked myself at a table. Without fail, I'd order a shakshukah, pull a book from my backpack and wait. He never showed. I did ask every now and then. He still came, I was assured. And he was famously generous with his time for anyone who cared to chat. Alas, it wasn't to be. I would only know him on the page. And maybe console myself with the knowledge that I sat where he once sat, and breathed the same fragrant air he breathed.

But back to his work. Appelfeld's compassion and unflinching humanity made him one of literature's truest moral compasses. He was also one of the few novelists I can think of who wrote multiple masterpieces: Tzili, The Iron Tracks, The Retreat, Katerina... I could go on. What sets his books apart from other Holocaust literature is the absence of the Holocaust itself in almost all of them. That's not to say it isn't there; it exists in the ether, either looming, peripheral or somewhere in the past, but we are never taken into the camps, or forced to bear witness to the horrors that have become the template for most other books. Appelfeld, in that way, was a soothsayer, a giver of wisdom and, most importantly, a town crier for what might still come.

Reflecting on his death it occurred to me that his greatest work is also his most relevant to our times. Written in 1978, Baddenheim 1939 - a slim, perfect novella - is the story of a bunch of Jews at an Austrian spa retreat at the dawn of the Second World War. As they frolic without a care, concerning themselves only with petty gossip and other such fripperies, turning away from the news that is seeping in, we sense their increasing isolation and, moreover, come to realise that they will soon be easy pickings for the Nazis. It is a cautionary tale of the highest order, and the ultimate train crash on paper: you know it's coming but you can't look away. That it ends just as the horror descends makes it all the more powerful.

A quick check of his works in translation proved an unexpected delight - he had another novel published last year that I have not yet read: The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. I ordered it straight away, knowing it will be my last "first dance" with this wonderful soul. Still, I will return to him time and time again in the coming years; for guidance, for a greater understanding of the craft, and for the familiar warmth of true goodness.