Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Category: Authors E (page 1 of 3)

Food for thought to digest

Gut by Giulia Enders

GutI still have a small pile of other books to review I read last year, I’ve promoted this one, the last book I finished in 2015, to be the first reviewed in 2016, and will get back to the others soon.

I’m notoriously bad at persevering with projects – it’ll be interesting to see how I fare with the reading challenges I announced for myself the other day.  There is one project I really ought to take in hand though – and that’s myself.  Mid-50s, overweight, unfit, menopausal and moody – I do need to do something – but as I’ve seen before, to make it last I need to be a bit sneaky about it to make long-lasting changes.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a little bloated after Christmas with all the extra food and drink (although I don’t drink so much these days). I usually start January with a few weeks of probiotic yoghurt drinks alongside trying to eat better. I think the probiotics do make a difference for me when my gut is stressed, and now having read Gut by the rather perky young German doctor Giulia Enders, I’m beginning to understand why that may be so.

The book is split into three sections. The first, Gut Feeling explores the physiology of the gut from mouth to rectum, how pooing works, all about faeces and also a section on allergies and intolerances. Yes, there’s necessarily a lot about the less savoury aspects of our digestive tracts here, but it’s all fascinating – such as this about … suppositories!

The final few centimetres of the large intestine, however, do not send their blood to the detoxifying liver; blood from their vessels goes straight into the main circulatory system. … everything useful has already been removed. But there is on important exception: … Suppositories are able to contain much less medication than pills, and still take effect more quickly. Tablets and fluid medication often have to contain large doses of the active agent because much of it is removed by the liver before it even reaches the area of the body it is meant to act on. That is, of course, less than ideal, since the substances recognised by the liver as ‘toxins’ are the reason we take the medicine in the first place. So if you want to do your liver a favour and still need to take fever-reducing or other medication, make use of the short cut via the rectum and use a suppository.

This, and I don’t think I’m generalising here, is a practical and efficacious European attitude towards medication – but we’re a bit squeamish about them here in the UK, aren’t we?  I also learned that rumbling tummies aren’t due to hunger and empty stomachs, but are due to the small intestine sensing a break in digesting and getting down to doing some housework.

You may have heard that we all have a ‘gut brain’, the second section concentrates on the nervous system of the gut and the many ways in which it interfaces with the brain – most of the time unconsciously:

When you eat a piece of cake, you taste it while it is still in your mouth, and you are also conscious of the first few centimetres it passes through after you swallow it. But then, as if by magic, the cake is gone! From then on, what we eat disappears into the realm of what scientists call ‘smooth muscle’.

Of course we again become conscious of our guts when we overdo it – Enders discusses reflux and vomiting – and at the other end constipation.  Another important part in this section introduces us to the theory that good gut health affects our minds – ‘95% of the serotonin we produce is manufactured in the cells of our gut, where it has an enormous effect on enabling the nerves to stimulate muscle movement, and acts as an important signalling molecule.’  This and the whole gut brain theory are areas of endocrinology in their infancy – and I’d love to find out more.

The final section of the book concentrates on gut flora. The good and bad bacteria that populate our gut. I learned the appendix is one of the places that many of the good bacteria like to hang out in. I had my appendix out when I was ten, so maybe that’s why the probiotic drinks help when my gut gets stressed…

Studies carried out on obese subjects show that they have less overall diversity in their gut flora, and that certain groups of bacteria prevail – primarily those that metabolise carbohydrates.

She acknowledges that this is far from the only factor – here was me being ready to blame my gut flora for being overweight.

Several studies have shown that our satiety-signal transmitters increase considerably when we eat the food that our bacteria prefer. And what our bacteria prefer is food that reaches the large intestine undigested, where they can then gobble it up. Surprisingly enough, those foods do not include pasta and white bread.

Surely, that should have been ‘Not surprisingly’? This is where prebiotic foods come into their own, primarily dietary fibre and foods such as onions, leeks and asparagus for example. If you eat enough fibre for it to get to the lower reaches of your large intestine before being eaten up, the theory also suggests (but is yet to be proven) that it can protect against cancer by making sure the good bacteria there have the right things to digest. Prebiotics require the presence of the right bacteria to do their job, so I may top up my own with capsules from the health food shop for a while.

Enders and her translator, David Shaw, have done a great job to make a complex subject comprehensible, it is informal in style and easy to read. Throughout the text are little cartoons and diagrams drawn by the author’s sister. I could have done without all of the cartoons frankly – I don’t need bacteria as little soldiers to get the point across. I like a good diagram though, and some of these were indeed useful.

It’s amazing to realise that Enders is only 25 and still studying for her medical doctorate. She wants to become a gastroenterologist – and this explains her bias towards our gut flora in this book. I would have been interested to read a little more about hormones, peptides, enzymes, stomach acid, low GI food benefits etc. – the more chemical side if you like.  For instance, as in the BBC series last year, it has been suggested that people who tend to be ‘feasters’ have less GLP-1 hormone in their gut – which tells the brain when you’re full. The chemistry of the gut could probably fill another book on its own.

Of course, this is not a diet book either. It does give some good pointers on how to keep your gut happy though and that is enough to inspire me to make some gentle lifestyle changes. It’s a good thing I love asparagus!  A fascinating read. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy.

Gut by Giulia Enders, trans David Shaw. (Scribe Publications, May 2015). Paperback, 288 pages.

A book to admire rather than love: Book Group Report

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

End of Days We’ve actually read quite a lot of translated fiction in recent years in our Book Group, including: a good handful of French books, a wodge of Scandi-crime, a pair of Dutch ones, and an Arabic novel just last month, among assorted others.  Our German reads have tended to be classic – All Quiet… and The Jew’s Beech. The only other German book we’ve read was Anna Funder’s fascinating work of memoir/reportage Stasiland.  (All links to my reviews). When we chose The End of Days for our July read, it had just won the IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), so we had high hopes for it, knowing that the book had been received so well everywhere.

It’s fair to say that The End of Days wasn’t a hit with our Book Group at all. Around half the group didn’t finish it, the other half read it but didn’t really enjoy it for a variety of reasons; I did finish it, but it left me rather cold.  Before I discuss it further however, a very brief introduction for those of you still yet to read it:

It’s the story of one woman’s various lives through the 20th century moving from Galicia to pre-war Vienna to communist Moscow to present day Berlin. In each of the novel’s five ‘Books’, she dies. In between each book is an ‘Intermezzo’ which shows ways in which she could have carried on living, before picking one to continue with. It begins at a grave:

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up. Three handfuls of dirt, and the little girl running off to school with her satchel on her back now lay there in the ground, her satchel bouncing up and down as she runs ever father; three handfuls of dirt, and the ten-year-old playing the piano with pale fingers lay there; three handfuls, and the adolescent girl whose bright coppery hair men turn to stare at as she passes was interred; three handfuls tossed down into the grave, and now even the grown woman who would have come to her aid when she herself had begun to move slowly, taking some task out of her hands with the words: oh, Mother – she too was slowly being suffocated by the dirt falling in her mouth.  Beneath three handfuls of dirt, an old woman lay there in the grave: a woman who herself had begun to move slowly, one to whom another young woman, or a son, at times might have said: oh, Mother – now she, too, was waiting to have dirt thrown on top of her until eventually the grave would be full again …

The quote, above – which forms the opening two thirds of the novel’s first paragraph, illustrates both the ambitious structure and the stylised prose of the novel to come. You’re not sure whose grave it is, a child’s, a mother’s, a grandmother’s or an embodiment of all three generations, whether they actually lived or their lives could have been lived.

It moves on to recount the life of a young Jewish woman who had married a goy. Their baby died, and the husband ran off to New York.  In the Intermezzo, the baby is revived into breathing again by the shock of a handful of snow on its chest and lives – to die again in 1919 – and so on.

Given that most of us had read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (reviewed here), which also explores multiple lives, we couldn’t help but compare and contrast a little, especially as they were probably written contemporaneously. Whereas Atkinson’s main character Ursula is reborn each time she dies and lives her life again from the beginning with just little differences which often lead to quite different outcomes,  Erpenbeck’s unnamed woman moves on by not dying and one path forward out of several possibles is picked for her. Erpenbeck’s process is philosophically more demanding, but it lacks the drama of being able to spot the differences in the lives lived by Ursula.

As a group, we could understand why, but also were very frustrated by Erpenbeck’s refusal to name her characters.  It was all very well for some deliberate confusion to exist over which generation of the main character’s family we were following sometimes – the mother, the grandmother, but by the time we got to the Russian section and met Comrade H and Comrade V, it was wearing – and then in the final book, some of the supporting characters get proper names – but the main family of the narrative remained nameless. This aloofness made it hard for us to bond with them.

Although the novel nearly lost most of us in the Moscow section,  we all agreed that the prose was quite beautiful in parts and showed the translator’s skill. The deliberate repetitions (as in the quote above with the ‘three handfuls’) give it a certain poetry,  (a device I remember loving at one point in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Solider – review here) especially when read in short segments, but became, well,  repetitive when used too often in this book.

In summary, The End of Days was a book to admire rather than love, we felt. (6.5/10)

witmonth15* * * * *

Although I read this book in July, I’m reviewing it in August – which is Women in Translation Month – hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. She is keeping tabs on things and there will be a large variety of wonderful posts on her blog this month about the subject.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans Susan Bernofsky. Portobello books (2014), paperback, 280 pages.

Incoming and plans for August!

I don’t often review my new bookish acquisitions but there have been such recent riches that I couldn’t resist. Heaven knows when I’ll actually get around to reading most of them, so I’ve also included a smaller pile of the three books I am definitely going to read this August.

New books bought – batch the first:  I made the mistake of saying I’d meet my daughter in Waterstones and look what happened!
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  • I couldn’t resist Stevie Smith whom I’ve never read.
  • Satellite People is a Scandi-crime book that sounds rather different and has a Saul Bass style cover.
  • Lock in is a dystopian medical thriller – just love those.
  • Victoria rates The Mersault Investigation.
  • A novel by Steven Berkoff about an actor – looking forward to that!
  • I did read a Stewart O’Nan book pre-blog, and he’s so highly thought of – this new one is all infused with F Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Jenny Eclair is wonderful and her books are too.

New books bought – batch the second:  from Abingdon bookshops.
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  • I love Rebecca Front on the TV, so have big hopes for her book of “true stories and everyday absurdities” from her life.
  • This Miriam Toews novel mentioned The Stones and Marianne Faithfull in the blurb – gotta have it.
  • A YA novel about a family of third generation settlers on the red planet
  • I loved Victoria’s Shiny review of Heather O’Neill’s novel.
  • Similarly I loved Ana’s Shiny review of this YA novel with adult appeal.
  • Curtain Call is a mystery set in a theatre – again what’s not to like?

Moving on to reading plans…

My immediate review copy TBR pile looks like this:

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It contains from the top, a romp of a novel set in 1799, two thrillers, a Russian novel set in the crumbling Soviet empire, a YA novel about a mermaid,  some Steampunk, and finally in this pile – Clive James new book of essays (out soon).  Much to look forward to here.

And finally:  Three from the TBR I plan to read in August…

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  • August is Women in Translation month hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. I will enjoy seeing what everyone reads, and will join in with the first Commander Adamsberg novel by Frenchwoman Fred Vargas. I also have The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck to write up after we discuss it at Book Group tomorrow.
  • My Annabel’s Shelves project – D is for?  Well,  I’ve gone for DeLillo and his first novel Americana. I figured that this was the only way I would at least attempt to read one of his books.
  • The Shiny Book Club meets to discuss The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters on August 20th – so I’d better get a wiggle on.

I’m also hoping that I can squeeze some of the above into crossing off squares on my Book Bingo card, which I will update you on soon.

PHEW! So what are your reading plans this month?

First person plural…

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

virgin suicidesTwo things prompted me to promote this novel, which had been in my bedside TBR bookcase for ages, to the top of the pile.

Firstly, although not written for teens, I cited it in the post I wrote trying to comprehend the current vogue for suicide-lit in teen novels (see here).

Secondly, after reading reviews of Weightless by Sarah Bannan by Victoria at Shiny and Harriet on her blog. (I desperately want to read this book now!) Weightless is not about teen suicide, although it does appear quite dark – but it is written in that rarest of styles – the “first person plural” – as is The Virgin Suicides

This novel was Eugenides’ 1993 debut – a very daring one at that.  Fancy publishing as your first novel a story about a family of five unconventional teenaged sisters who commit suicide and told from the collective point of view of the group of teenaged boys who had worshipped them wanted to get into their pants!  It hits you right from the start:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how hast we go.’  He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

We’re then told of Cecilia’s first attempt at suicide, slitting her wrists in the bath. Cecilia, at thirteen the youngest of the Lisbon girls, survived this. She gets patched up in hospital:

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The Lisbons’ five daughters were born a year apart. Somehow I couldn’t help but mentally compare the family to the Bennets in Pride & Prejudice!  The girls are very close-knit, and Lux (14) is definitely a Lydia-type. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, perplexed by his five daughters, so not unlike Mr Bennet in that regard. Mrs Lisbon is the antithesis of the flighty and voluble Mrs Bennet though – she is steely, closed and authoritarian, a strict Catholic – and to be honest we never find out much more about her. Mr Lisbon is a maths teacher at the local high school, and seems to be liked well-enough there, but is totally under the thumb at home. But enough of the Austen comparison!

The Lisbon family kept themselves to themselves. The girls weren’t allowed out on their own, and weren’t generally allowed to have guests home either. No wonder the girls are the subject of speculation and a challenge to the local teenaged male population. A while after Cecilia returns home from hospital, Mr Lisbon persuades his wife to let the girls have a chaperoned party at home – the first and only one they’ll have. Their friends and neighbours join the girls in the basement and things are getting going when Cecilia, wearing a cut-down vintage wedding dress, quietly asks to go upstairs – and defenestrates herself, impaling her body on the railings.

This is the beginning of the end really, although it will take a year before the other girls follow suit. The family is never the same, Mrs Lisbon is even more closed in, Mr Lisbon becomes an emotional wreck, their house starts to get shabbier and shabbier. The girls close ranks too whether by choice or confinement. Only Lux has a wild, feral air about her – sneaking out at night to have assignations with countless partners on the roof. Then the anniversary of Cecilia’s death approaches… naturally I can’t tell you more about what happens.

All the while the boys watch and talk about the Lisbon girls. They collect anything to do with the girls, from the news articles after Cecilia’s and later the others’ deaths, to Lux’s discarded album sleeves, to copies of medical reports later smuggled out for them. These items form a catalogue –  ‘The Record of Physical Evidence’ as they try to come to terms with and understand the events of that tragic thirteen months. Everyone has their own theory about why they did it, but will they ever really know?

VirginSuicidesPosterThere is a dreamlike quality to this novel, contrasting sharply with the events within. I remember that feeling came across very well in Sofia Coppola’s feature-film debut – she wrote and directed. Kirsten Dunst (having turned down American Beauty) was troubled teen Lux, with James Woods and Kathleen Turner as Mr and Mrs Lisbon. I must watch it again, I remember it as rather good.

I read Eugenides’ epic second novel Middlesex pre-blog – I remember finding it rather drawn out (in the same way as Donna Tartt to me). The Virgin Suicides is much shorter, coming in at just under 250 pages. If you think that makes for a fast-paced read though, think again. Although it’s not long, the months between the bookending events are explored in much detail. This does make for a slightly flabby middle – as  the boys recount the events in hindsight, collect their evidence and present it to us through their team leader narrator. We never get to know which one of them narrates and we never get to know how long after the events they’re actually telling the story. If you’re looking for answers and resolution, this isn’t a novel to give them to you – in fact it’ll leave you with more questions.

The Virgin Suicides certainly marked the emergence of a great new American writing talent though, and I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, 4th Estate paperback, 260 pages.
The Virgin Suicides [DVD] [2000] dir Sofia Coppola.

Consumer culture gone mad in a warped and very funny novel…

Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton

Scanning my TBR shelves for something different to read the other week, I alighted on this novel remembering that Kim had loved it! It was time to return to a novel by Henry Sutton. Many moons ago, pre-blog and in the early days of keeping my reading list spreadsheet, I made a note after reading Sutton’s first novel published in 1995 entitled Gorleston:

Gorleston

Having actually lived in Gorleston [-0n-Sea, adjacent to Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk] for a year I can completely understand this novel. It was lonely enough as a Londoner fresh from university in my first real job, but at least I could get away at weekends. For dear old retired Percy in this novel however, who leads a very humdrum existence, the chance to have some fun when he meets Queenie is totally irresistible! He has a whale of time, but Queenie moves on and he’s left alone again to discover some uncomfortable new truths about his dead wife. A touching novel full of wry observations about being old from a young first-time author.

Norfolk wasn’t me, but I really enjoyed Gorleston, so hoped I’d have a treat with his more recent novel Get Me Out of Here too.

Get me out of hereThe book starts in an opticians shop at Canary Wharf, East London’s business district, where Matt Freeman is trying to get a refund on his new pair of designer glasses, which he has deliberately mistreated because he doesn’t like them. He’s angling for a refund so he can go to another optician for a different pair he’s spotted. They call his bluff though, offering to replace the scratched lenses with stronger ones, it’ll take two weeks! Matt Freeman is, as they say, having a very bad day.

Right from the start we know that Freeman is a wannabe, he has some kind of unspecified financial start-up company about which he is very secretive, while accepting ‘investments’ from friends and family. All the time, he is living beyond his means in a flat with a bust boiler that isn’t actually in the most desirable location of the Barbican development in central London. Set in 2008, if you thought this novel was going to be about the credit crunch, you’d be mostly wrong but also a little right – for the only credit that will get crunched in this novel is Matt’s.

I’ve never read about a character so obsessed with brands and shopping! If starts on page one, and doesn’t let up for the whole novel… In fact, on the copyright page at the front, the publishers have inserted a paragraph to dissociate the author and themselves from Matt’s ‘highly subjective views about a variety of well-known brands and shops. These are purely a product of his imagination and state of mind.’

There’s a brilliant scene where he proves that an indestructible suitcase can be the opposite, which commenters over on Kim’s review likened to a John Cleese rant, so I won’t repeat that here. Another telling moment happens in Prada, where he goes to pick up a jacket he bought at half-price in the sale on which he’s had some alterations done. Needless to say it no longer fits and he can’t get his money back so he attacks the sales assistant.

I’d never hit a sales assistant before and I didn’t hit this man very hard. It was more of a slap with the back of my hand, which I sort of disguised as part of my desperate struggle to tear off the ruined piece of clothing as quickly as possible. He was too shocked, I think, to realise quite what had happened. But I couldn’t stand it when places such as Prada proved so unaccommodating. It was particularly shoddy behaviour, from an establishment that tried to project such a refined, stylish image.
‘Keep it,’ I shouted, letting the jacket fall to the floor. ‘But don’t expect to get my custom again.’ I couldn’t afford to waste £480, but I didn’t see why a trickle of Prada customers shouldn’t be made aware of how they treated their non-celebrity clients.

Underneath all the hilarious ranting and raving by Matt, the bad customer, is something all together more macabre as evidenced by that slap, for Matt is not just Mr Angry.

Shortly after the start of the novel we meet Matt’s current girlfriend, Bobbie. She shares a house in South London, and is addicted to reality TV – which is where the title of this novel comes from, as Ant and Dec are currently in the jungle on screen doing ‘I’m a celebrity…‘ in it. Bobbie is the latest in a long string of girlfriends, none of whom seem to last very long. With her TV addiction, she is on the way out.

It’s not clear what actually happens – with our unreliable narrator Matt telling his own story, he never actually admits to anything. We, naturally, fill in the gaps and with all the clues, can only assume the worst.

If I described this novel as a typically British response to Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1995 novel American Psycho, I wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that where AP is just nasty, Get Me Out of Here is very funny, a black comedy of the highest order with the pace of a thriller. It’s not often that you encounter a leading character that you love to hate so much but who keeps you riveted to the page – Matt Freeman is one of those. You’ll either love it or hate it – I’m the former.(9.5/10)

Sutton’s new novel My Criminal World features a struggling crime author, whose failing marriage and need for more gore in his writing begin to converge. Sounds irresistible, I’ve ordered a copy.

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Source: Own copies.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
All by Henry Sutton:
Gorleston – O/P – S/H copies available.
Get Me Out of Here – Vintage pbk, 2011, 272 pages.
My Criminal World – Vintage pbk, 2014, 288 pages.

John Buchan meets Umberto Eco via Dan Brown

The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

P1010976 OK – so I put Dan Brown into the title of this post to grab your attention!

While I totally agree with the rest of the world that the Da Vinci Code is not great literature, there is no denying that however silly the whole thing is, it is a rollicking fun adventure. I will nail my colours to the mast and say that, back in the day when I read it on holiday in the sunshine on the stoop of a New England clap-board cottage on Cape Cod – I enjoyed it a lot.

The reason I mention it, is that Antal Szerb’s 1934 novel, The Pendragon Legend, does share that definite sense of fun, and also has a plot that goes at breakneck speed involving manuscripts and ancient rituals etc.

János Bátky is a Hungarian scholar in London who is on the search for a new project. When he is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd at a salon, he finds a fellow scholar with a large library of rare manuscripts in the family mansion in Wales and an invitation to visit follows. Tagging along is Maloney, an Irishman, whom Bátky met in the British Library, who turns out to be a friend of the Earl’s nephew Osborne.

‘Doctor, you’re a hoot. We certainly hit the jackpot when we met. But this Osborne … I’d be so happy if Pat could seduce him. These English aren’t human. Now we Irish … back home in Connemara, at his age I’d already had three sorts of venereal disease. But tell me, dear Doctor, now that we’re such good friends, what’s the real reason for your visit to Llanvygan?’
‘The Earl of Gwynedd invited me to pursue my studies in his library.’
‘Studies? But you’re already a doctor! Or is there some exam even higher than that? You’re an amazingly clever man.’
‘It’s not for an exam … just for the pleasure of it. Some things really interest me.’
‘Which you’re going to study there.’
‘Exactly.’
‘And what exactly are you going to study?’
‘Most probably the history of the Rosicrucians, with particular reference to Robert Fludd.’
‘Who are these Rosicrucians?’
‘Rosicrucians? Hm. Have you ever heard of the Freemasons?’
‘Yes. People who meet in secret … and I’ve no idea what they get up to.’
‘That’s it. The Rosicrucians were different from the Freemasons in that they met in even greater secrecy, and people knew even less about what they did.’

Bátky is beginning to feel as if Maloney is interrogating him – a feeling that won’t lessen over the days to come, as he gets an anonymous message telling him not to go.

So our scene is set for action to transfer from London to Wales.  Llanvygan, the new ancestral home of the Earls of Gwynedd, since they abandoned the nearby Pendragon Castle is a typical country house, creaking and groaning at night. Its staff have to patrol the corridors to protect the Earl – for it transpires that someone is trying to kill him.

The plot gets ever more complicated as Bátky, Osborne, and the Earl’s niece Cynthia, get involved in a old feuds between the Pendragons and the Roscoes over a legacy, plus the Rosicrucians mystic alchemy and ultimately black magic.  Add secret passages, ghostly figures and scared villagers into the mix and there’s almost too much adventure!

Bátky rather reminded me of John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay from The 39 Steps (which I reviewed here). He’s a little less dashing, but by virtue of being European, like Hannay returning from Africa, he’s an outsider in London.  Combine Hannay with the learning of Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville from The Name of the Rose and you’re just about there.  Of course, Szerb may well have been familiar with Buchan’s book which was published in 1915.

This book has been on my shelves for a year or two, and I’d been putting off reading it, expecting Szerb to be another serious European author.  How wrong I was!  It was a joy to find that a rich vein of comedy runs through the entire novel, and I laughed a lot.  The swaggering Maloney was hilarious; Bátky’s statuesque German friend Lene trying to seduce the effeminate Osborne had me chortling away, and the whole bonkers plot was a running joke in itself.

However, the primary theme is that of a philosophic adventure, and adventure requires characters to be placed in danger.  That they are – it’s amazing that some of them come out alive. Yes, some, for there are deaths along the way too.  You mess with the ancestors of the Rosicrucians at your peril, as Eco fans will know.

Len Rix’s new translation for the Pushkin Press is sparkling.  Bátky of course is a delight – a European that knows English better than the English themselves. He has translated three other Szerb novels, of which I own two and won’t put off reading them now I’ve made his acquaintance. I loved it (9/10).

I read this book for Pushkin Press Fortnight, hosted by Stu of Winston’s Dad.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix, published by Pushkin Press (2006), paperback 236 pages.
Also mentioned:
– The Complete Richard Hannay Stories: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Island of Sheep (Wordsworth Classics) by John Buchan
– The Name Of The Rose (Vintage Classics) by Umberto Eco.
– The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

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