In the port of Alexandria, a very long time ago, Julius Caesar impregnated then abandoned Cleopatra. The child of their union – groomed for greatness by his devoted mother but destined for tragedy – was called Caesarion. Little Caesar.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In our time another boy, Ludwig, is born in Alexandria and again the father flees, leaving the boy and his mother to move on. She, Marthe, is stormy and vain. She will not rest until she finds their ideal home – which needs to be both dramatic and cheap, and so they end up living in some crumbling old house on the cliff tops of Alburgh in Suffolk - living in a constant state of awareness that the sea could take away all that they have.
The lines written above are either direct quote or me paraphrasing the back cover of this book. We learn all this through Ludwig, who has returned to Alburgh as an adult for a funeral of his once neighbour (and the man who originally sold his mother the house). Ludwig has taken a job playing piano at a local hotel whilst waiting for the funeral & deciding his next move. At the bar of this hotel he meets this woman, Linny Wallace and over a period of a few days he tells her his life story. It’s through this medium we trace his life story from the young child in Alexandria & the disappearance of his father, through the journey back to Holland where his mother was born & onto the crumbling house on the cliff top, where they live until its collapse & his mother moves to Los Angeles. We learn that his father was an Artist, though all he appeared to do is destroy & his mother was originally a porn star. We follow this through the eyes of Ludwig, learning about the tug and pull of his claustrophobic relationship with his mother of a strange interdependence that’s part love, part horror, of him trying to discover his own father within himself. This leads to the search & discovery of his father, with it comes the realisation of how much he is his mothers son & how little of his father there is. We also follow the last days he has with his mother and watch as parental roles reverse and what was considered solid can crumble, then all that’s left is to fathom the pieces.
This is a beautifully written book that manages within its 327 pages to fit an awful lot in, that contained between its pages a multi-layered tale of a complexity that dazzles, you follow Ludwig's story listening to the musicality of the wordplay, as its vast canvas washes over you slowly eroding the external world. This book reminded me of the writing of Lawrence Durrell, the combination of the lyricism, acute psychological insight and the sheer ambition of the storytelling.
Translator, Sam Garrett (b. 1956) is an American who currently divides his time between Amsterdam and the French Pyrenees. As well as work by Frank Westerman he has translated books by Karel Glastra van Loon, Arnon Grunberg, Tim Krabbé, Lieve Joris, Geert Mak and Nanne Tepper among others.