European Reading x3 – Kundera, Laurain, Malvaldi

I’m taking part in the European Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader this year, hoping to cross off as many European countries as possible in my reading. With these three, I’m up to six in January alone… (Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Italy, Russia, UK). Here are my reviews for the Czech Republic, France and Italy, which also just happen to be all from indie publishers. It’s also #ReadIndies month this Feb, hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Translated by Michael Henry Heim

I can’t believe I’ve never read Kundera before. I was also surprised to find this novel was only published in 1985, it’s the 1968 Prague spring setting that fooled me. The novel is constructed around a rebuttal of Nietzsche’s concept of ‘eternal recurrence’, so Kundera posits that we only have one life to live, will only experience anything once which frees us, gives us ‘lightness’. This was our book group choice this month, and we all had a similar reaction to the novel… in that it’s primarily a European shagfest!

It’s the story of Tomáš (a womanizer), Tereza (his photographer wife), Sabina (his mistress), Franz (Sabina’s lover and an idealist), Šimon (Tomáš estranged son from previous relationship) and a dog, Karenin (a female dog called by a male name confusingly). Tomáš does his best to live a life of lightness, but Tereza, whom he does love, weighs him down. Sabina actually achieves the lightness, usually being resolute in living her life how she wants it. Tomáš and Tereza get separated at one stage, she back in Prague, he stuck in Paris – and this is when the book ventures into Carry On territory with lines such as:

‘Tomáš had been a window washer for nearly two years when he was sent to a new customer whose bizarre appearance struck him the moment he saw her.’

Sorry to lower the tone, but yes, he services his clients, just as Robin Askwith did in the 1974 British sex comedy film, Confessions of a Window Cleaner; of course George Formby had already ploughed that furrow long before in his 1936 song Cleaning Windows!

Kundera has some interesting things to say about living under Communist rule in Prague, particularly through Tereza who initially sees it through her camera lens. We all found the narrator who interrupts a pain, but we all liked Sabina. We also all liked the fact that Kundera designs his own covers, the dog was sweet.

Although some of our book group are still young, we all felt a world-weariness reading it that we wouldn’t have experienced reading it as an older teen or student say, so none of us would be in a rush to read more Kundera necessarily. I would certainly try more from the library though. (6.5/10)

Source: Own copy. Faber 1985, paperback, 305 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link (free UK P&P).

The Readers’ Room by Antoine Laurain

Translated by Jane Aitken / Emily Boyce / Polly Mackintosh at Gallic Books

Laurain’s novels tend to have a perfect blend of Gallic Whimsy and a little edge to keep them on the right side of being too saccharine, and Je les adore! I’ve read all that the Gallic team have brought to us, and this, his eighth novel, is a cracker.

The Readers’ Room really reminded me of a publisher’s equivalent of the French TV series Call My Agent, which I’m currently addicted to on Netflix. The premise is simple. Violaine is partner in a publisher; when she was an editor she instigated ‘The Readers’ Room’ where a team of readers plough through the piles of manuscripts submitted by hopeful authors, finding just two or three to publish each year. Laurain entertains us from the off with some hilarious responses to rejection letters.

‘I have received my manuscript back from you in the post. I placed a hair on page 357 and I see it is still there.’

Marie is the newest recruit to the readers team, and she finds Sugar Flowers by Camille Désencres. Violaine will publish it, but the author remains reclusive, only communicating by email. As we all know from the success of Elena Ferrante, an air of mystery can add to a novel’s profile, and Sugar Flowers becomes not only a bestseller, but is nominated for the Prix Goncourt, France’s premier literary award. Violaine is under pressure to produce the author in person…

The combination of publishing and a mystery told with Laurain’s sense of humour was absolutely irresistible, and I read this 172 page novella in one session. One of his best. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Gallic books 2020, hdbk or paperback original, 172 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link (free UK P&P).

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi

Translated by Howard Curtis

This is the first of Malvaldi’s series of ‘Bar Lume’ series of novels set in Pineta, a resort near Pisa. Said bar is owned by Massimo, and he has to put up with his regular foursome of octogenarians, which includes his grandfather, bickering, playing cards, eating too much ice-cream that is bad for them at their age, and generally intefering. The prologue sets the scene and tone… It’s ten past four in the morning:

He had just come out of the disco, and in addition to having the blood alcohol level of an unemployed Russian, his head was full of little lights that made it hard to think.

The young man wanders off up the road, having been persuaded not to drive, and needing a pee goes finds a litter bin.

About a century later, as he was pulling up his zipper, he noticed there was a girl in the trash can. It also struck him that she was quite pretty. Almost simultaneously, something told him that she was probably also dead. He wasn’t immediately surprised. Rather preserving a calm that only alcohol could have give him, he started to think alound. Contrary to what we read in mystery stories, the discovery had not helped to clear his head.

He calls the police–they don’t believe this drunkard. So he looks for help and finds Massimo, who thus is thrust into the middle of a murder investigation. The old men are delighted with all the gossip this generates, and when Massimo discovers an important fact from OK, the local homeless guy, they’re desperate to find out…

‘But keep it to yourselves as long as possible, please.’
Believe us, the four faces said, while Massimo’s face made an effort to keep as deadpan as possible. The important thing, when you gossip, is to maintain a formal structure. The person spreading the gossip has to demand the maximum secrecy, and the listeners have to grant it. Obviously, they’ll broadcast the news as widely as they can later. It’s just a matter of time. If someone says, ‘Keep it to yourselves as long as possible,’ he doesn’t mean ‘Tell it to the fewest possible people,’ but ‘Resist for at least a little while coming out with it, that way it’ll be harder to trace it back to me.’

The mystery is suitably complex, the local police inspector is suitably pompous and useless at solving the crime, so it’s Massimo that ends up discovering the key clues. All the while, the old guys are fuelling the gossip machine, and Tiziana, Massimo’s barmaid grumpily has to cover for him while he’s off doing a better job than the police.

I really enjoyed this short crime novel, and will look out for more in the series. Massimo is an unusual bar owner, he cares for the health of his customers–refusing to serve hot cappuccinos for those sitting in the hot full sun, trying to restrict his grandpa’s gelato addiction–he also has a strong sense of social justice and tries not to look at Tiziana’s generous tits! The story is told with great humour and I loved the interplay between the old men. Again, I read the 140 pages in one sitting. (9/10)

Source: Own copy. Europa editions, 2014, paperback, 140 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link (free UK P&P).

19 thoughts on “European Reading x3 – Kundera, Laurain, Malvaldi

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I do think if I’d have read it in my 20s, I would have had a difference experience with this book.

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Echoing Cathy in my dim recollection of Unbearable Lightness although you’ve made me want to seek out the ‘ooh, er, missus’ moments! I remember the film more clearly.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There’s one scene where he gets caught in a woman’s bedroom and has to pretend he’s washing the insides of the windows too – yes, it is that ooh, er, missus!

      Apparently Kundera hated the film (which I haven’t seen) and won’t option his books any more (now I want to see it!)

  2. Calmgrove says:

    The Readers’ Room appeals, but I wouldn’t say no to the Malvaldi — you sell them well!

    I’m a bit slow off the mark with this prompt, myself, having only read Marie de France’s lais so far, but at least I have a Polish author lined up for February…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I love Italian crime novels nearly as much as I love French ones. They definitely do have a different character. Laurain’s books are great to read in stressful times, they’re not exactly cosy, but are playful.

      • Calmgrove says:

        I have a pile of Camillieri’s Montalbano novels to plough on with, should I be at a loss for Italian (or rather Sicilian) crime fiction! And scripts for a couple of Maigret radio dramatisations in French which I’ve had since I think I was a student…

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    I had to read the Kundera for a book group I briefly belonged to and found it very wearing – the most I could say about it was that I learned quite a lot of history!

    We got interested in Call My Agent but are learning Spanish while being OK at French at the moment and felt that would make it not work well, promoting French in our brains just when we need not to do that … so we discovered you can get it dubbed into Spanish with the same English subtitles! Result!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      French dubbed into Spanish with English subtitles would do my head in. The other day, the cat managed to switch the Disney film I was watching into Danish by stepping all over the keyboard – that was an experience!

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