Walter Kempowski (1929-2007) grew up in a middle-class, well-off shipping family in Rostock, Germany’s largest coastal port, situated on the Baltic. His father was in the SA and later died fighting the Russians in East Prussia during the endgame of the second World War, young “Walterli” having been automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth.
In the postwar carve-up, Rostock became part of the GDR and the adult Kempowski spent eight years in prison on being convicted of espionage by the Soviet authorities. His acclaimed chronicles of 20th- century German history include Swansong 1945, and his final novel, about the last days of the war, is the shattering masterpiece of futility, All for Nothing. Now another autobiographical work – which reads almost as reportage but which is above all an intimate, gossipy, conversational snapshot of a “normal” family in Nazi Germany – emerges in An Ordinary Youth (Granta, £18.99) translated with huge care and dexterity by Michael Lipkin. In an illuminating afterword, Lipkin explains Kempowski’s re-creation of the past and his distinctive writing style: “The very obscurity of the references is an essential component of Kempowski’s realism, which tried to capture a sense of the living world as a forest of historical signs each clamouring to be deciphered.”
The book begins with the family excitedly moving into a new apartment sometime after Kristallnacht – “A charming view from the balcony. The central heating was a plus.” We are not told who has had to vacate the apartment, but the dark inferences are all there. That balcony and its potted plants is a touchstone throughout the book as youthful dreams and teenage slapstick are replaced by disillusionment, fear, deprivation and bombing raids. Even to the end, Kempowski’s mother is reluctant to leave her cherished spot: “And now closer still: individual shots, probably shots of peace. One sailed through the pear tree and blossoms rained down. ‘I think we should go inside,’ my mother said.”
“What I tell here, after all, is a rather small story of love and violence” comments Elizabeth Duval in the author’s note to her scorching, exhilarating Madrid Will Be Their Tomb (Fum D’Estampa, £12.99, fluently translated by Alice Banks), a novel of deep political and philosophical engagement, indelible imagery and great energy. Spain’s capital is depicted as “filthy… bent on self-destruction… where the people drank their cans of Mahou beer and drank, waited, lived on, and drank until they died.” Where late-stage capitalism triumphs and “the university hospital Ramón y Cajal would be sold to the owners of KFC Spain”.
In a disparate and psychologically pulverised city, two characters, militants Santiago and Ramiro, are connected to two “rival” buildings and two opposing political cells – one fascist (this group has taken over the former headquarters of the Franco era’s NO-DO news propaganda organisation), the other Marxist-Leninist, occupying what were once film studios. Meeting on the popular queer hook-up app Grindr, Ramiro and Santiago will transform each other’s lives (“they must have thought it was a joke at first: a communist falls in love with a fascist”) even as Madrid, along with the rest of Europe, slides into a meltdown of orchestrated and spontaneous violence – mosques are attacked, cyberterrorism prevails and the very soul of the city – if it still retains a soul beyond that of “parasite” – and its future lies in the hands of two warring factions. There is great tenderness in this important and arresting work, amid the shock, the anger, and sense of fatality: “They would have stopped time if stopping time was something they could afford.”
Tobi Lakmaker’s funny, joyous and wholly irreverent debut novel A History of My Sexuality (Granta, £12.99, translated by Kristen Gerhman) about a young Dutch person’s exploration of coming out, gender identity, tussles with parents, frenemies, life expectations, and above all, desire, is a breath of fresh air. “Idiots, eighteen-year-olds, right?” breezily confides Sofie, who’d love to be an intellectual and a writer, but “every time I tried to read a book I fell asleep” and “a word of advice for people trying to find a publisher. Never shout that you have more. They’ll deadbolt the door to you. If it were up to publishers, everyone would just stop writing literature… If you really want to find a publisher, you’d be better off saying you have a refreshing personality. Then they’re all ears.”
Covering the significant years between 18 and 21, Sofie, who abjures so-called “femininity” and is attracted to women – “so many women really” – nevertheless loses her virginity to Walter the Recruitment Consultant (the novel is divided into short, snappy chapters with brilliant titles such as “My Mother is a Patrilineal Jew”), “but that’s something I’d rather not dwell on. He voted conservative, and when I was really struggling to get excited, I tried to focus on that.” Despite the book’s often flippant tone, it is incredibly moving to follow Sofie’s journey to the place it’s possible to become “less of a girl and more of a boy”.
John Updike called him “one of the profoundest of later moderns”, but in The Possessed (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99) the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz (1904-69) created nothing less than a sly send-up of the Gothic novel, complete with creepy castle, haunted kitchens, possessed towels, a mad, elderly prince and sparring lovers. He wrote it in the late 1930s, when Poland and Europe were sliding irrevocably towards disaster. Originally published in serial form under the pseudonym Zdzislaw Niewiesk, the book was Gombrowicz’s attempt at pulp fiction (what he called a “good bad book”) but its extraordinary language and dreamlike, somnambulant atmosphere lift it above mere potboiler.
A young tennis coach, desperate to escape small-town boredom, ventures deep into the Polish countryside to teach the talented similar-age daughter of a bourgeois family who have fallen on hard times. He soon becomes drawn, not only into a love-hate relationship with his pupil, but also the bizarre and unearthly goings on at the adjacent run-down castle. Now the book has been translated for the first time directly, and sonorously, into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, one of the foremost interpreters of Polish literature. The “good bad book” which Gombrowicz, who was exiled from Poland after 1939, later felt ashamed of, takes comic flight, less a curio, more a complex stunner which bears comparison not only with Poe and Dostoevsky but also Gombrowicz’s Hungarian contemporary Antal Szerb. And, as Adam Thirlwell notes in a sparkling introduction: “it also has a strange layer of ultra-modernity: the dance halls and tennis courts of 1930s Warsaw.”
“A woman in a standalone house ran the vacuum every morning I saw my life reflected in her lot.” Marosia Castaldi’s (1951-2019) The Hunger of Women (And Other Stories, £14.99, translated by Jamie Richards) is a magnificently wayward document of female experience. Written without a break in sentence, emphasising the humdrum and quotidian nature of existence, a middle-aged widow (her husband died following a car accident) with one daughter itemises her daily life – cooking, complaining, observing – with disappointment, caustic insight, acceptance, and resilience. It is both a compendium of seemingly insignificant aspects of what makes up an individual’s rich generational history and vibrant litany of domestic sensuality. Her daughter on the cusp of adulthood, eager to depart Italy, the woman moves from her native Naples in the south to Lombardy in the north to open a restaurant and begin a new life – one that is nevertheless rooted firmly in her own past. A culinary treat in addition to being a striking and unusual feminist work.
It’s a challenge to encompass the ignominious effects of colonisation in a book, but Gabriela Wiener’s powerful, genre-transcending “collective autobiography” Undiscovered (Pushkin Press, £14.99, exquisitely and sensitively translated by Julia Sanches) is a quiet, lucid triumph. Visiting an exhibition of pre-Colombian artefacts in Paris, Wiener is astounded to find that the – effectively stolen – sculptures, whose indigenous features resemble her own, were purloined by her ancestor, the Austrian explorer Charles Wiener, her great-great-grandfather. Her father dying shortly thereafter, Wiener, in grief, loss, and bewilderment bravely begins to uncover the paternal line of her family history – a story of abandonment, racism, subjugation and violence – and to examine her own place within that history.
“What would Charles think if he saw me now? Am I anywhere near being the realisation of his civilizational project? Or am I just another failed experiment?” Wiener is also in the process of a different personal discovery – married to a man, and a mother, she is in love with another woman, and beginning to embrace the idea of polyamory. Wiener’s interrogation of herself and of the long-dead Charles go hand in hand: “My face looks a lot like a huaco [ceramic] portrait. Every time someone tells me this, I picture Charles brushing dust off my eyelids as he tries to determine when I was made.”