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A Journey To Nowhere Reviews

A stunning review of Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s A Journey to Nowhere has just been published in the Financial Times, courtesy of Ian Thomson, Primo Levi’s biographer. The full review is essential reading . . .

The literary travelogue – with elements of history, anthropology, personal experience and quest – is a difficult genre. In the absence of conventional plot, the challenge is to create a forward momentum, something that WG Sebald was skilled at doing. In lesser hands, such a book could easily stagnate.

A Journey to Nowhere, fortunately, is a triumph. In absorbing detail, Jean-Paul Kauffmann explores Courland, even though it “no longer exists”. Between 1561 and 1795, Courland (in German, Kurland) was a duchy that extended into modern-day Latvia. Having been subsumed into the Tsarist empire, Courland was occupied by Imperial Germany during the first world war, but subsequently disappeared when Latvia proclaimed independence in 1918. What remains of this once glittering Baltic outpost?

***

A Journey to Nowhere, superbly translated by Euan Cameron, provides a vivid amalgam of opinion, history and travelogue; I was absorbed from start to finish.

Kauffmann’s book has also been reviewed in Standpoint Magazine by the organ’s editor, Daniel Johnson. The notice was no less rapturous . . .

Although I do not much care for travel writing, there are (as with every literary genre) some exceptions: Patrick Leigh-Fermor for one, V.S. Naipaul for another. A new discovery for me is Jean-Paul Kauffmann. His latest work, superbly translated by Euan Cameron, is A Journey to Nowhere. It describes a journey to Courland, the Latvian peninsula inhabited by the human debris of a history as picturesque and desolate as its windswept landscape.

***

There is something haunting about this story within the story of Kauffmann’s journey, which is embellished by random encounters with more or less colourful and eccentric Courlanders, none of whom however has the charm of Mara. She belongs to Courland’s amnesiac present, yet evokes its exotic past — from the Order of Livonian Knights to 19th-century Jewish emigrants, fleeing Russian pogroms from the principal port of Liepaja; Baron Munchhausen concocting his fabulous adventures; the exiled Louis XVIII, last of the Bourbon monarchs; and Eduard von Keyserling, whose novels immortalised the doomed Baltic barons: Courland’s Chekhov. Kauffmann’s homage to his lost beloved leaves us all in his debt.

Read the full review . . .

And finally — for now — Clare Russell has reviewed it in The Lady, giving it four stars, although it reads more like a five-star review . . .

Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s Journey To Nowhere is an intriguingly eccentric book – a kind of Gallic version of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes. Both are fuelled by an obsession and a quest. Kauffmann – a French journalist – is obsessed with a region. Courland, a stretch of land between the Gulf of Riga, the Baltic and Lithuania, no longer exists. It was once ruled by Teutonic Knights, captured by Nazi Germany, then returned to Soviet Russia. It’s now part of Latvia, and its strange history holds a potent charm for the author and reader alike.

Kauffmann is a gripping narrator. The minute he lands in Riga to find out more about a place that’s possibly ‘not going to be very jolly’, the ‘opposite of Italy’, you’re hooked. His first book, The Dark Room At Longwood, about Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, won six prizes. This should win a few more.

Mentioned in the same breath as W.G. Sebald, Patrick Leigh Fermor, V.S. Naipaul and Edmund de Waal all in one week. Now that is not bad going.

A Journey to Nowhere is available in Hardback at £18.99


Recent Non-Fiction Reviews

There have been some excellent reviews over the last weekend for two MacLehose non-fiction titles — we will never publish a great deal of non-fiction, here, but you count on our titles always being distinctive. And perhaps none more so than Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s A Journey to Nowhere, which was pounced on by Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times:


In common with Claudio Magris and, particularly, the late WG Sebald, Kauffmann has an imagination that thrives on history, literary references, anecdote, lives retrieved and footsteps retraced; he is a natural investigator possessed of equal amounts of patience and tenacity.

***

Physically this is a beautiful book: it draws the reader towards it and rewards on many levels. Kauffmann is informed and sophisticated but always kindly, never knowing, and his polite engagement is brilliantly rendered by Euan Cameron’s graceful translation. Jean-Paul Kauffman is a thinker and a marvellous companion. This singular little odyssey of a book is both profound meditation and erudite joy.

Kauffmann gazes into the heart of times past; he is also a terrific storyteller.

Read the full review.

Meanwhile, Stieg Larsson’s non-fiction, collected in The Expo Files, was picked up in the Guardian on Saturday, and, not surprising, was roundly lauded:

With the rise of populist parties across Europe, and one gaining traction in Hungary, Stieg Larsson’s anxieties as a journalist seem more pressing than ever. This is no cynical exercise, a gathering of Larsson’s journalism in order to milk the cash cow of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two books in the Millienium trilogy. Rather, the selection is both a memorial to a dead friend and colleague’s passions, and a political opportunity, its aim being to inform readers and, to quote Tariq Ali’s introduction, “even push them in the direction of political activism”. Certainly Larsson’s admirers will find much of the ardour that animates his crime novels – in particular, in a long piece on “Swedish and Un-Swedish Violence Towards Women”, which makes clear his disgust at sexist oppression.

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Inevitably perhaps I found myself comparing him with George Orwell, and quickly realising that the comparison was unfair. Even Orwell’s most ephemeral pieces summon up an authorial presence and possess a literary subtlety that Larsson was not even attempting to emulate. Rather these are practical, lucid, well-researched articles intended to educate the reader, and little more. And they are valuable pieces that merit attention. The book’s title evokes Mulder and Scully and “the truth that’s out there”, but mercifully Larsson shows little interest in conspiracy theories – in fact, belief in them appears part of the anti-democratic, rightwing culture that he loathes. Instead there is admirably clear journalism, the patient accumulation of devastating facts.

Read the full review.

 

May I Interest You In?

This month there are no fewer than three new books from the MacLehose stable, two fiction and one non-fiction, a Goncourt winner, an Italian novel about the Sardinian Robin Hood and travelogue about a country that no longer exists . . .

Marie NDiaye must be (or perhaps have been?) the most precocious author on the MacLehose list. Her first novel was published when she was just seventeen: the story goes that legendary French publisher Jerome Lindon waited at the gates of her lycee to sign her up when the school bell rang. Since then she has become the only author to have won the Prix Medici and the Prix Goncourt, and the first black woman to win the latter (for Three Strong Women). Three Strong Women, also the winner of the Berlin International Literary Prize, is a blisteringly powerful novel about three women who almost have it all, who come so close, but end up having to fight and scrap for their very survival.

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One for the ultra-boutique MacLehose non-fiction list this. Jean-Paul Kauffmann is probably best know over here for a book about St Helena called The Dark Room at Longwood. He has a knack for writing about the worlds most obscure and esoteric reaches. A Journey to Nowhere is about a journey Kauffmann made through Courland, a once-independent kingdom that is now a part of Latvia — except that many Latvians you meet will probably scratch their heads if you mention it. Kauffmann has always been irresistibly drawn to this buffer between the Germanic and Slav worlds — not least because a former love hailed from there.

 

 

Marcello Fois is a Sardinian author and a member of a groups of Italian writers and crime writers known as “Gruppo 13″, who are particularly interested in exploring the cultural roots of their respective regions. Memory of the Abyss follows the life of the historical and legendary figure of Samuele Stochino, a Sardinian bandit and outlaw who can be thought of almost as the Sardinian Robin Hood — with Mussolini as his Sheriff of Nottingham. Fois’ Stocchino is given two “s”s, and his story — which sees him go from colonial soldier in North Africa to fighting in the First World War, to falling foul of the richest clan in his village — is to some extent . . . embellished. Stirring stuff.