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.
These lines hit me especially hard: "(we) watch as parental roles reverse and what was considered solid can crumble, then all that’s left is to fathom the pieces." I don't mean to be morbid, or negative, but ever since my parents' recent trials (my father with his heart, my mother who crashed on our Bike The Drive ride last Sunday, fell unconscious on the street and had to be taken into the hospital for a brain scan) I have felt this way. My parents, once so much stronger than I, are now becoming more fragile almost every day. It's hard to see this, hard to see diminishment in any case but especially with those we love. This sounds like such a powerful book, Parrish. I appreciate how you always bring fresh/new/thought provoking literature into my life.
This sounds like an interesting book! I admit that I heaved a little sigh when I saw that his mother used to be a porn star. Some of my prejudice towards Dutch books as always having to feature hookers, lots of sex, or porn stars has not been eradicated yet (though it seems these are mostly reserved for the bestsellers with most publicity from a few years ago). However, it sounds like it is not that much of a gimick in this story? Anyway, Ceasarion sounds interesting and I think I might like to read it sometime (this year, perhaps next? - I hope to find it in the library).
Thank you for posting on a Dutch book :)
I enjoyed this book, but not as much as his first book, Joe Speedboat. That was really good. Not sure it's translated but I think it probably was.
Hi Bellezza, thanks for the comment & this book raised many similar thoughts in me, that were transferred into my thoughts on this post.
Hi Iris, although her being a porn star is part of the book, it's not the major part & shouldn't put you off.
Hello Judith, I remember reading about "Joe Speedboat" when researching this post & liked the idea of it.
It's an interesting premise, thanks for your thoughtful review
the mother son relationship was very unuasal in this book I found I read it last year ,all the best stu
An interesting story, especially with the historical parallels :)
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