One of the challenges of working as a freelance writer is that you constantly have to renew and redirect your career. It does not happen by itself. At the beginning of this year, I set myself the goal of writing more journalism because 2021 had been a bit of a fallow year for journalism after taking a detour into science writing and communications for a while.
I also wanted to write another book in 2022, and I put together a proposal for a Swiss true crime book. In hindsight, I’m glad that project didn’t work out because the crimes were gruesome and I think writing about them would have taken its toll.
If I do manage to produce the bones of a book this year – and time is running out – it’s more likely to be fiction, as I have something percolating in the back of my mind and I’m waiting for news on a related funding application, coming next month. Fingers crossed!
One really positive development was that I completed my first literary translation, a long-standing goal. I had the pleasure of translating a play by Joëlle Richard from French to English. I have translated non-fiction books in the past but this was a different kind of challenge. Very rewarding.
The play Mångata (a Swedish word for the road-like reflection of the moon on the water) tells the story of a Venetian woman who falls in love with a mermaid. It’s a bittersweet contemporary fairy tale about love, lockdown, isolation, self-hatred, gender fluidity, tolerance, female desire and empowerment. It packs a punch, and will be performed in Fribourg in the original French in September.
On the journalism front, I have become a regular contributor to The Local Switzerland and I’d like to share some of my opinion pieces here in case you might be interested. If you’re based in Switzerland, it would be worth subscribing to the website which produces extensive coverage of Swiss news plus a lot of material that’s helpful to Swiss residents.
An expected opportunity came along in March, when I was invited to give a TEDx talk by students at the Geneva Graduate Institute. My topic was the lack of voting rights for foreigners and TED chose to feature the talk on their website, which meant it was only released online two weeks ago. Check it out! (If the embed doesn’t work, you can click on the hyperlink in the previous sentence.)
To round off this writing news update, a reminder that Le Livre sur les Quais festival is taking place next month in Morges. I’ll be interviewing four writers in two events this year. The guest country of honour this year is Iceland so it’s a wonderful opportunity to discover Icelandic writers. The English programme is not up on the website yet; will keep you posted.
Enjoy the rest of the summer, preferably in the shade!
There are lots of reasons why I would like to recommend the work of Swiss-American author Kim Hays. First, she writes great crime fiction, and if you like her debut novel Pesticide, there are more to follow soon in the Linder & Donatelli series. Second, her authentic, clever and gripping police procedurals are set in Bern, a city I know well. Third, she has served her time in the writing trenches and is now enjoying well-earned success. And, finally, she is my friend.
Kim’s heroine in the series is homicide detective Giuliana Linder, ably assisted by her younger colleague Renzo Donatelli. Both characters are sympathetic and have depth and realistic married lives. They grapple with the moral questions thrown up by police work, and the little, or not so little, complication of being attracted to each other. I particularly like Urs, the character of Giuliana’s husband, who is a freelance journalist, working all hours and keeping the home fires burning. Nice to come across a male character in this role.
The murders are brutal and gruesome as murders inevitably are but the violence is not the focus, nor is it there in any way to titillate – something that puts me off a lot of crime fiction, especially with female victims and sadistic killers. Kim writes the kinds of murders that could happen to people you know, involving murderers you might meet in the corner shop or a Dorffest (village festival).
Kim has a flair for dramatizing the investigation in a really interesting and human way, building momentum, unravelling all the knots, as her heroes doggedly search for the truth, and hopefully justice.
The suspense-filled stories take place in a Switzerland I recognise, an ordinary, gritty, diverse, and complicated place with secrets beneath the surface. The settings are pleasingly far from the clichés of bankers and Alps.
Here’s what you need to know about the opening action of Pesticide …
When a rave on a hot summer night in Bern erupts into violent riots, a young man is found the next morning bludgeoned to death with a policeman’s club. Giuliana Linder is assigned to the case. That same day, an elderly organic farmer turns up dead and drenched with pesticide. An unexpected discovery ties the two victims together.
If you want to order the book, you can find it in the usual online places. For Swiss deliveries I recommend Books Books Books in Lausanne or Stauffacher / Orell Füssli. The book is in the system so you should be able to order it anywhere in the US or Switzerland. Published by Seventh Street Books and distributed by Simon & Schuster.
To find out more about Kim Hays, check out her website and blog or read this interview on the Cosy Dragon website. I’ve known Kim since 2016 when I sat beside her at a writing workshop in the Geneva Writers’ Group and we got on like a house on fire.
A little more about my summer reads, which also fall into the category of liking the author before discovering their work. I am just about to start Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale about the life of the enigmatic British WW2 poet Charles Causley. Before that I read the wonderful Edith by Martina Devlin about the life of Edith Somerville around the time of the Irish War of Independence. I keep finding treasures in this booming genre of historical biofiction.
I have another book on the go about real-life conflict but I’m working through it slowly. It’s much harder to read because it’s set in (recent) present-day Ukraine and it brings the reader straight into the horror of what Russia has perpetrated there. The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan is visceral, depressing, eye-opening, staggering. If you think that’s too much to take, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees is a gentler version of blighted lives in the occupied zones, more sweetly devastating but still hard hitting.
Finally, Voting Day was mentioned on this list of summer reads put together by Isabel Costello on her literarysofa blog, which I’ve been following for years. She found my novella “very moving and beautifully written”. I still can’t believe it when I get a reaction like this. Feeling very grateful.
You’re bound to find some reading inspiration on the list. Lest I forget, Isabel Costello’s highly enjoyable new novel Scentis the quintessential summer read, set between Provence and Paris. A heady summer affair from her youth comes to the surface for Clementine in a disturbing way just at the moment when her own marriage seems to be grinding to a painful, empty halt. Clementine is a successful perfumer with her own shop but the time has come to confront the façades in her life.
Happy summer reading, folks! Do report back if you pick up any of these titles.
The last time I went to Kerry it was for a week-long diving course. I took the train and bus from Dublin to a tiny place on the coast but the diving school/hostel had lost my booking and given their only instructor the week off. The hostel owner phoned around and found me a place in a school two hours’ drive away in Baltimore. He then drove me all the way to Bantry in Co. Cork where I was handed over to my newly hired teacher to complete the journey. So I’ve had unfinished business with Kerry for the past twenty years and now the universe has paid me back handsomely with a different kind of exhilarating Kerry experience – Listowel Writers’ Week.
This legendary festival has been running since 1971 and it was back in person after a three-year hiatus. The whole town was in high spirits. The fact that the Listowel Races June Bank Holiday Meeting overlapped with the literary festival added to the excitement – and the fashion on display.
A lot of the action was centred around the 18th century Listowel Arms Hotel, which overlooks the Town Square and the racecourse. Throw in a few First Communions on the Saturday and I’ve never seen so much finery in one place. All we were missing was a wedding.
Floating serenely through all this activity was the organising team of the Writers’ Week, giving directions, selling tickets, rounding up writers and herding audiences, while manning (mainly wo-manning) and managing the 50+ events on the programme.
There was something happening every minute of the day – workshops, walking tours, author interviews, plays, poetry readings, art exhibitions, and a prize-giving for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year to kick things off on the first evening. The award went to Claire Keegan for her exquisite novel Small Things Like These.
Irish novel of the year
I was lucky enough to see Claire Keegan being interviewed by Rick O’Shea on the Thursday evening. Claire has quite a regal presence and strong ideas; frivolous would be the last word to describe her. We all listened with rapt attention to her carefully chosen words.
She said many things I agreed with – on the importance of structure and how she doesn’t like cryptic books, for example. ‘I want to be moved by the book and I can’t be moved if I don’t understand.’ Hear, hear! She’s also inclined to quiet prose rather than drama and, she says, the subject material never matters. ‘A good book can be about anything.’
Last quote from Claire Keegan: ‘Beautiful sentences make me tired. What I love is a good paragraph.’ Basically, she believes that sentences shouldn’t be competing with each other to display their individual brilliance but should work together to create a pleasing whole (to paraphrase with less perfect words). I like it.
The 12-week challenge
I caught Donal Ryan and Louise Kennedy at a joint event in town’s old dance hall which is now called the Plaza Centre. One thing Donal said that fascinated me is that it takes 12 weeks to get a novel written, at least the first draft. Apparently, a lot of writers feel 12 weeks is a magic amount of time, if you’re writing in an applied way. When I think about it, the first draft of Voting Day took me 14 weeks to write, so not far off.
Both Donal Ryan and Claire Keegan teach creative writing (oh to be in those classes!) and they both mentioned that they can’t really write while teaching. This seems like such a big sacrifice but they still manage to produce great work so maybe it’s a good balance overall. By the way, Louise Kennedy worked as a chef for 30 years before she wrote anything. She was dragged along to a creative writing class by a friend and never looked back.
In between events, there were lovely places to discover in the town – the River Feale walk, Listowel Castle, St. John’s Church, John B. Keane’s pub. Team O’Dea included my mother and two sisters and we enjoyed exploring together.
I had a great chat with Margaret in the Castle. It was the perfect weekend for striking up conversations with anyone and everyone (hello Audrey!). And if you’re looking out for someone in Listowel, you will definitely bump into them (hello Denis!). You can also be brave and introduce yourself to people you admire (hello Martina Devlin and Patrick Gale!).
By the time my event came around on Friday afternoon, I felt totally at home. Sophie Grenham did a brilliant job directing the discussion with John Boyne and myself. We certainly had plenty to talk about but I need someone else to tell me what I said! One thing I do remember is our comments on how to approach writing a character who is quite different to you. In my case, all of them! But as much as there are differences between me and a disenfranchised and uneducated 1950s Swiss farmer’s wife or a young mother from a Yenish background, I believe there are enough things we share that can help me understand and express their frustration, joy and despair. If as writers we can’t tap into that shared humanity, we might as well all pack up and go home.
Slán go fóil
I did eventually have to tear myself away from Listowel and I took the scenic route back – well, there are many – by getting the ferry across the Shannon estuary from nearby Tarbert to Killimer in Co. Clare. It was a happy ending to a joyful festival.
I hope you enjoy my photos of Listowel. I have nothing worth sharing from the events because my phone snaps didn’t come out well. But the hardest working person at the festival was the photographer Ger Holland and you can find all her fantastic pics on the social media accounts at the end of the Writers’ Week page.
And if you still haven’t read Voting Day, it’s available to order in bookshops pretty much anywhere, or through the usual online retailers. For online orders in Ireland, I recommend Kennys.
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes but I can assure you that you are safe with Ece Temelkuran. When I heard the celebrated Turkish writer was coming to speak in my back yard – not literally, the event was about ninety minutes’ drive away – I knew I had to be there.
Temelkuran took part in the Bibliotopia festival on May 15, hosted by the Jan Michalski Foundation in the beautiful setting of Montricher in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The Bibliotopia programme is in French and English with simultaneous translation. It’s a great place to discover international voices.
Temelkuran played a prominent role in public life as a critic of the Erdogan regime until it was no longer safe for her to stay in Turkey. In her 2019 book How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, she passes on her hard-earned wisdom as a dissident who experienced first-hand the slide towards right-wing authoritarianism. I found the book fascinating and reviewed it for the Dublin Review of Books.
Having listened to the author yesterday speaking about her new book, I have high expectations for my newly-purchased copy. Entitled Together: A Manifesto Against the Heartless World, the book offers a roadmap to a better present and future. She gives us 10 guiding principles and each one is a choice, such as ‘choose dignity over pride’ and ‘choose strength over power’.
I was very interested in what Temelkuran had to say about friendship, which she considers the best medium to redefine our political connections. “Citizenship is not working, political party membership is not working, comradeship is not really working – it sounds so retro now. So how about we become friends?”
There is a chapter in Together about the unique role that friendship, with its lack of hierarchy, obligation, duty or power dynamic could play. It is the only type of relationship where, as Temelkuran says, absolute justice can be found.
“When friendship has a solid foundation that allows it to mature, friends and conversations with friends eventually become the gravitational force in one’s life. Friendship is the most profound confirmation of the individual as a human being. It is the confirmation that you are able to see the beauty in humankind and the ultimate recognition of the fact that you are, as well, human.”
She goes on to talk about enlarging this kind of “warm regard” to the scale of humanity. Just to give you a little bit more …
“What stands at the core of such wide-scale friendship is not sentimental love but a moral stance; a commitment to acquire and maintain a certain perspective on life and humankind.”
Living in a time where the word friend has been stripped of much of its meaning by social media, I find this exploration of the theme of friendship really important and encouraging. I will read more and report back. Or you could start reading Temelkuran yourselves.
Temelkuran spoke about a lot of other things, ably interviewed by Patrick Vallélian of Sept Info. She said that representative democracy had failed in its fundamental promise which was equality. This has left it hollowed out and vulnerable to right-wing populism. When there is no social justice, it is easy for a ruthless leader to come along and exploit the system, manipulating people into making choices against their own interests.
When asked to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she used the words tragic, absurd, incomprehensible and frightening. However, she cautioned against demonising the Russian people, who, she says, should not be equated with Putin.
Temelkuran wrote Together because, “I wanted to heal my politics and my faith in people.” Here’s hoping that her message of faith and courage will travel far.
If I could describe Voting Day in one word, it would be dignity. That’s what each of my characters has in common, despite all the limitations and frustrations they face. Not that I set out with this theme in mind but this is what Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice brought to the story.
I only came to this realisation when I had to answer the question in this interview for Fairlight Books. You can also read an extract from the book at the end of the interview. The other two words that sum up the novel are solidarity and hope.
Today, April 1 2022, is publication day for Voting Day with Fairlight Books in the UK, the US, Ireland and beyond. I am over the moon that the novel is going to find new readers outside Switzerland. Though it is a quintessentially Swiss story, the dignity of oppressed women and solidarity between them is a universal phenomenon. As is hope for a better life.
I’d like to share links to some of the reviews I’ve seen so far for the book. This lovely review by Anne Goodwin includes a bonus piece of flash fiction inspired by Voting Day. Anne writes: “Clare O’Dea’s fiction debut is one to savour, with beautiful language and convincing characterisation.”
This one by Craig Smith for the Mechanics’ Institute Review is pretty amazing too: “Each tale is beautifully told by first time author, Clare O’Dea, who skilfully depicts the character of each woman and spins the connections between them into a compelling, coherent narrative.”
And you might be interested in this opinion piece I wrote for The Local Switzerland about the Swiss response to Ukrainian refugees (there may be a paywall, not always). As the horror of the war drags on in Ukraine, I admire the dignity of the Ukrainian people and I hope for a swift and just end to their ordeal.
To find out about the inspiration behind Voting Day, check out this essay I wrote for the Women Writers website. I’m going to steal the closing paragraphs of that essay for today’s post.
“When I covered historical injustices in the care system as a journalist, I felt deeply sorry for the survivors. Even in the less severe cases, where ‘nothing bad’ happened, there was the pain of being looked down upon, of growing up without love or protection. I ended up writing about one such child in Voting Day.
By the time I sat down to write, I felt familiar with the life and times of my characters. I knew what their homes looked like inside, what they ate, how they spoke and what their worries were. I was also able to borrow from the traces of the past that are still visible today.
It has taken almost two decades of living in Switzerland to bring me close enough to inhabit Swiss characters. Once I set the story in motion, I only had to follow and see what they would reveal. What have I learned? How difficult it is for us as humans to truly see and accept each other. How easy it is to make a difference when we do.”
Many thanks to the team at Fairlight Books for believing in my book and giving it wings, especially to Laura Shanahan, Daniela Ferrante, Sarah Shaw and Louise Boland. And congratulations to my Fairlight Moderns twin Polis Loizou whose fantastic novel A Good Year, set in Cyprus in 1925, is also published today.
Ps. If you’re in Dublin on April 21st, come along to Hodges Figgis at 6pm for the launch of Voting Day with Anne Griffin!
This year, the Republic of Ireland is celebrating a century of independence. I promised myself last year that I would be in Dublin for the celebrations, but the best laid plans …
Instead, I would like to share two things with you in honour of the occasion. First is a selection of Irish proverbs, taken from my family WhatsApp group chat this morning. Yes, that’s what we’re like!
Second, the video below, produced by the Irish foreign ministry which sums up the feelings of so many of us for the freedom-loving people of Ukraine, who are forced to endure the horror of Russia’s military invasion.
Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin
There’s no place like home (there’s no hearth like your own hearth)
Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte
Health is better than wealth (wealth in this case the old word for a herd of cattle)
Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine
People live/survive in the shelter/shade of each other, meaning we can’t do without one another.
And here’s an extra one I found that I hope will be true in the case of Ukraine.
Filleann an feall ar an bhfeallaire
Treachery rebounds on the treacherous (person).
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh go léir! Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all!
Spring is in the air and I’m ready for more colour and connection. I think everybody feels the same. At the moment, I’m gearing up for the UK & Ireland launch of Voting Day with Fairlight Books on April 1st. The book will also be available in the United States which is very exciting (links to order below).
When Voting Day came out in Switzerland, this time last year, book shops were closed and the maximum number of people who were allowed to gather was five. It makes me all the more grateful for the opportunities coming up this year – especially an invitation to the legendary Listowel Writers’ Week!
Here are some dates for your diary if you live in Switzerland or Ireland:
March 8 BERN International Women’s Day event in Stauffacher Book Shop, Neuengasse in Bern. Stauffacher was founded in the 1950s and my book is set in Bern in the 1950s. Serendipity! My characters could have shopped there. I’m pretty sure Beatrice would have been a regular.
Doors open for the FRAUEN IM FOKUS event at 8pm. There’ll be music from pop duo Cruise Ship Misery and I’ll be in conversation with the German translator of Voting Day, Barbara Traber. Come along, bring your friends, and let’s celebrate books, women’s rights, music and other positive things. Tickets (CHF 15.00) and more info here. The event is in German.
April 6 ZURICH at the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum). As part of the current exhibition Amazingly ambivalent (Wunderbar widersprüchlich), I’ll be giving a short tour and talk on the topic of contradictions in Switzerland. The tour, in German again, starts at 6pm. You can reserve a place at this link.
April 21 DUBLIN for the launch of Voting Day (Fairlight Books) in Hodges Figgis Book Shop, Dawson Street. After two years of cancellations and missed opportunities, I’m not missing the chance to celebrate the new edition of Voting Day. The book will be launched by the lovely Anne Griffin, author of Listening Still. The launch starts at 6pm and everyone is welcome. The more the merrier!
June 1 – 5 LISTOWEL WRITERS’ WEEK in Co. Kerry. One of Ireland’s longest-running book festivals, Listowel Writers’ Week is a famously friendly and stimulating occasion. Lots of great writers have been part of the festival over the years and I’m truly honoured to be asked to present Voting Day in this beautiful part of the world. Date of the event to be confirmed.
For all my books I’ve worked with small publishers and no agent. It’s been a bit of a rocky road but somehow, good things keep happening – just in the nick of time – that make it all worthwhile. I hope I get to meet some of this blog’s readers in person over the next couple of months.
Here are those links I promised to buy Voting Day in different places:
And you might enjoy this review I wrote for the Dublin Review of Books of Rosita Sweetman’s wonderful memoir Feminism Backwards. One last link in this link-fest – I really enjoyed writing this essay for the booksbywomen.org website about time travellers and book research. Have you spoken to any time travellers recently?
I’m going to see if I can write a blog post while I’m on hold to Swiss airlines. It’s been 53 minutes already and I can’t sit here any longer doing nothing.
This week hasn’t gone very smoothly. I mean I got all the presents wrapped and under the tree on time and I cooked a wonderful Christmas dinner, as stipulated in my mother contract, but an uninvited and most unwelcome guest is causing havoc at home. Guess who?
It all started with the crooked Christmas tree. A little bit of imperfection is fine, I thought. No need to fix it, everything else will be just right. Little did I know, I was opening to door to all sorts of calamity!
Monday was spent making trips to the local Covid testing centre. My youngest had said she was cold on Sunday afternoon and I told her to put on a cardigan. She put on her winter jacket. It was an everyone-do-their-own-thing sort of day (living with four people, I need and encourage days like these) so I didn’t pay too much attention until I saw her later, still wearing her jacket. Alarm bells rang and I checked her temperature. A fever. Her rapid antigen test was positive, confirmed by a PCR on Monday.
This development brought a surprising amount of admin. Calling, emailing, texting, filling in forms online, researching, cancelling things. The big disappointment was cancelling our post-Christmas visit to Ireland to see family. That’s why I’m on hold to Swiss now, into my second call, now at 15 minutes. I’ve chosen German this time, hoping it will be picked up faster.
Monday was also the day that my husband, after several days of bad back pain suddenly had an episode of such severe pain that meant he couldn’t move from the floor for 15 hours. It proved impossible to get a home visit from a doctor so he just had to ride it out. He’s gradually recovering since then.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been waiting to hear about a grant I applied for to support my next writing project. If I received the grant, I could take a break from freelance work and concentrate on writing for six months. It would have also meant recognition in the Swiss literary establishment. I got the news on Wednesday – no grant.
Christmas Eve is when the Swiss have their festive meal and exchange gifts. Despite everything we managed to go ahead with our family celebration in a safe way. It was different but still felt special. I think it will make us appreciate future Christmases all the more.
‘May all your troubles be little ones’ is what you can except to hear in Ireland when you complain about anything less than tragedy. With only two more days to go in this isolation regime at home, no sign that the rest of the family has caught Covid, and my husband well enough to take short walks, things are looking up.
My 11-year-old daughter has light symptoms and she’s been a trooper all week, staying mostly in her room and keeping herself occupied without complaint. She can expect a lot of hugs on Monday evening.
I am somewhat back to the drawing board for 2022, both professionally and creatively. But I’m not short of ideas. Since I went freelance almost seven years ago, I have based my career on the Mr Micawber principle that ‘something will turn up’ and, thankfully, it always does.
Miraculously, a human being just answered the phone and is sorting out the flight rebooking problem (child changing age category) while putting me on hold again. So I will very soon have one definite thing to look forward to next year – Easter in Ireland.
Things could be worse. I could be working in a call centre on Christmas Day! Thanks for listening and I wish you all a happy and healthy Christmas break. See you in the New Year full of new possibilities!
This month I’ve had a flurry of book-related activity, some of which required learning new skills. Like video editing! We’ve all come a long way with video communication in the past year and a half, haven’t we?
I remember back at the start of the pandemic when members of my book club suggested holding our next meeting online. That’s not going to work, I thought. Too many people on screen, too addling. How could you possibly have a discussion?
Soon after that I was asked to do a live online interview about my books. I declined because I was pretty overwhelmed at the time with the children off school and a new temporary job. I also didn’t think I could bear to be live on screen for a whole hour.
Now of course, that’s completely routine. I’ve been part of umpteen ‘Team’ and zoom meetings with different organisations. Our book club did well for a year online. My extended family ran a monthly quiz with three generations taking part. And the online launch of Voting Day in February of this year was an amazing experience, almost better than the real thing!
Drink and the Irish
Which brings me to a new date for the diary. I’ve been invited to give an online lecture as part of the ‘Ireland and the World’ series hosted by the University of Zurich and the Swiss Centre of Irish Studies. These are free public lectures, and my topic, on December 1st at 6.15pm (Swiss time), is ‘Conquering the world, one Irish pub at a time’. You can find the link by clicking through on this page. For this lecture I’ll be returning to the chapter in The Naked Irish on the Irish relationship with the demon drink.
The video editing I tried is pretty rudimentary but it’s a start. To make this video for the Youtube platform Translators Aloud with translators Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi, I had to research how to get the record settings right on zoom, and I figured out how to add a title page and photo at the end. So here it is, Corinne, Anna and I reading from the opening of Voting Day.
One last date for the diary for Zurich people. I have a free public event in German coming up on December 5th in a vintage furniture shop on Ankerstrasse called WOW Props. The ambiance will fit nicely with the 1950s storyline of Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten (Voting Day). I’d like to thank Andrea Maurer for hosting and Yolanda Pantli of Ouï-e Communications for organising the event. There are two time slots – 11am & 1pm and coffee and croissants for everyone. Register by email: email@example.com and tell your friends!
Now is a good time to beat the Christmas rush by buying books from your local bookshop or online. The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths is the perfect read to demystify Swiss culture and politics. Available in Swiss bookshops or direct from Bergli Books (French and German translations from Helvetiq).
Marriage is great fodder for fiction. ColmTóibín’s latest novel, The Magician, tells the story of the life of Thomas Mann. In a sweeping narrative, it takes in German culture and politics of the first half of the twentieth century, Mann’s creative life, as well as his family and erotic life. But most of all, according to the author, it’s the story of a marriage.
Tóibín came to Zurich this week, and I jumped at the chance to hear him talk. He was interviewed on stage in a gorgeous venue, the 100-year-old Kaufleuten, a legendary nightclub, pub-restaurant and cultural space. It’s the kind of place Mann might have frequented when he lived in Zurich. James Joyce once had a play staged there.
The character of Mann craves a lot of things – stability, routine, recognition, young men’s bodies. He was one of many homosexual men of his time who married for convenience or safety. Yet his marriage to Katia Pringsheim, a student of physics and mathematics from one of the wealthiest families in Germany, was no less interesting for that.
“The marriage was intense, and the loyalty between them was intense, and the love was intense. It was in many ways a great relationship,” Tóibín said.
I agree, at least in how Tóibín depicts the relationship. But Katia remains a bit of a mystery. Once in the book, there is a scene where she is pressed to justify why she married Mann and she says it’s personal. All she reveals is that her father was a philanderer and she knew she would never have that trouble with Mann (who obviously fancied her beautiful twin brother). Marriage to Mann gave Katie a certain freedom. Coming from a rich, cultured, high-achieving family, he was a prize for her too.
Katia Mann is shown tolerating her husband’s roving eye and infatuations for boys and young men. More than that, she is quite magnanimous about it. Mann’s sexual life was mainly lived in his head and he rarely dared to follow up on these feelings. She seems to have understood that. Now I’m making the same mistake as the moderator on Wednesday night, treating the book as if it were a biography, and Tóibín the biographer.
A rich tapestry
Mann’s life is so interesting – a gay man, literary genius, dissident, exile, father of six extraordinary children, the most famous German voice in the United States during the war – it’s easy to get sucked into only thinking about him.
So, more about the writing. It’s a linear narrative from childhood in Lübeck to the end of his life in Switzerland, divided into chapters entitled the year and place. Overall, a rich tapestry. After lingering in Lübeck, the story skips along through Mann’s career and home life. We enjoy dinner party conversations with a great number of clever and unconventional people, there are terribly poignant scenes of Mann receiving tragic news, his imaginings and travels, moments and settings where he got his ideas – the Davos sanitorium, the famous Lido in Venice – and regular interactions with (mostly negative) political events.
We see the marriage in action, in their conversations and habits, getting to the point as readers where we know what is unsaid between Thomas and Katia. But Tóibín never shows us any physical intimacy between the pair. I wish I’d had a chance to ask why he shied away from the marital bed but there were no questions from the audience.
I managed to scribble down a few notes in the dark. “There’s a difference always between what we think we feel, what we feel and what we say. A novel can show that gap,” Tóibín said.
The German question
The Irish writer had plenty of research material at his disposal to fill that gap. The lives of the Manns have been exhaustively documented in diaries, contemporary accounts and biographies. We even heard Thomas Mann’s voice in the Kauflauten theatre from a 1942 broadcast in English, one of several speeches he made railing against the Nazis. A nice touch.
Mann’s brother Heinrich and three of Thomas Mann’s children were also writers, so we also have their body of work to add to Mann’s oeuvre. Many of the Mann circle were the subjects of biographies themselves. Tóibín credits 35 works in the back of his book. It must have been quite a struggle to stop researching and start writing.
Interestingly, all of the titles Tóibín mentions are in English and I wonder how Germans feel about an Irish writer (researching in English) speaking for Mann who is after all a national treasure. But Tóibín didn’t want to be drawn on this. The interviewer Blas Ulibarri tried to ask about the German reception to the book but Tóibín just said, “the Germans are very nice” and pointedly put his microphone back down on the table. Because he came straight from a book tour in Germany, we would all like to have heard more.
Anyway, I loved the book. A lot happens, there are many scene changes, just as there were in Mann’s life – from his staid home city of Lübeck to Munich, Lugano, South of France, Princeton, Los Angeles and back to Switzerland.
The Nazis’ rise to power is the dramatic engine of the middle part of the book, not just because it forces the Manns into exile but because of the delay before Mann publicly denounced Hitler. His timidity almost cost him the love of some family members. But Tóibín makes this conflict between Mann’s private views and his public position an understandable failing.
Mann’s routine is dull and unchanging, working every morning in his study wherever he lives, taking meals and having conversations with his wife and children, receiving visitors. This lack of action presented a challenge, Tóibín said, but he clearly overcame the challenge. There is ample external drama in between the quiet days: complications with Mann’s mother and siblings, the horror of the Second World War and the unruly behaviour of his children.
Three out of six younger Manns were gay, two of them openly and joyously so, in the years before Hitler choked all the joy out of German life. The same three – Klaus, Erika and Golo Mann – were also prolific writers. All the Mann children were damaged by the experience of losing their homeland, however much they were protected by their parents’ great wealth.
Tóibín’sThe Magician(Penguin) is the third great work of biofiction I’ve read this year, all by Irish writers. If you want more after finishing The Magician, I highly recommend Nora (New Island) by Nuala O’Connor, a banquet of a novel written in the voice of James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle. Covering the same era, it’s another story of fame, genius, an unconventional marriage, the peripatetic life and difficulties with grown children.
A Quiet Tide by Marianne Lee is the third title, a masterful debut, also published by New Island Books. It tells the story of the great Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins, a solitary and tragic figure. A fascinating and moving novel that depicts the complexity of early nineteenth century Ireland in exquisite detail.
That should be enough reading to keep you occupied when the clocks go back. I have no decent photos from the Kaufleuten venue so I opted for this street view of the famous Bahnhofstrasse nearby. It was fun travelling to another city for a night of culture and meeting writing friends, especially with Thomas Mann’s story so fresh in my mind.
Have you been to a reading recently? If you’re in the mood, the Dublin Book Festival is running until November 12with a fantastic online programme. Have a great weekend!