The Children’s Home

I’ve been sitting on this for an uncomfortably long time (imagine a cushion filled with walnuts), but the news is finally official. Nan Graham and John Glynn at Scribner have just bought the North American rights to a new novel of mine entitled THE CHILDREN’S HOME. You can find out more about the deal, and the novel, here.

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Recording and retail opportunities

Just back from two days in London, where I recorded the audio book of With a Zero at its Heart. This is something I’ve never wanted to do with any other book of mine, and would have refused if I’d been asked, but Zero is special to me in a way (more personal, more intimate) that my other books haven’t been, and the idea of hearing any of it in some other voice (although Matthew Licht did a fine job in Florence earlier this year) was something I didn’t want to contemplate. It’s an easy book to read in some ways, divided as it is into bite-sized chunks of language, not that much longer than a decent breath (average time per section, just under a minute, I discovered), and with enough variety of tone to keep the reader alert. In other ways, as I also discovered, it’s not easy at all. One of the problems I had was that the microphone I was reading into was, well, just too sensitive. It didn’t hear only my voice, over which I had almost total control; it also heard my stomach, over which I had none. The man on the other side of the glass wall, the ever-patient, consummately professional Sam, would interrupt me alarmingly often with the words ‘A little bit of tummy on that one, Charles’. The greater my awareness of this became, the more my stomach decided to make itself heard. I ate a Kit-Kat, my first in decades, to no effect.  A banana. Likewise. Eventually, Sam gave me a large, thick cushion, which I held, pressed close to my tummy, to muffle its intrusive presence.

The other problem, if this is the right word (and I’m not sure it is; perhaps realisation comes closer), was in the nature of the text itself. I say above that it’s an intimate book, but I think I only became aware of just how intimate it is as I read it out loud to a single other person (long-suffering Sam), not quite visible behind a sheet of glass to my left, listening to the entire book, to every word (and every gurgle), with an attention that no one had ever given the book before last Thursday, in my presence at least. I felt myself exposed in a way, or to a degree, that I hadn’t expected; I’d thought that the insulating distance afforded by the act of writing would protect me, and, with a larger audience than one, it always has done. But sitting in that small room at the top of a building in Wardour Street, with a cushion pressed hard to my stomach, and the shadowy presence of another person only feet away, isolated and yet almost pruriently close, I found myself wondering exactly what I’d chosen to share. The act of reading it aloud for what I’d like to think of as posterity is another, further exposure, I half welcome, half fear. I think this may make the audio book worth listening to in a way that I can’t control. I’ll let you know when it’s available and I hope you’ll tell me what you think.

It took us a day and a half to record the book. Almost as soon as I’d finished (after an excellent dish of pork belly slow-cooked in a clay pot at Tre Viet, Mare Street) I was travelling back to Italy, via Stansted. Stansted always struck me as a relatively pleasant environment (relative to London’s other main airports). I liked the sense of air and light in Norman Foster’s original design, with the roof suspended on elegant white spokes branching out parasol-fashion to cover the space beneath. There was an extravagant emptiness about it, as though the business of air travel were less important than the aerial wonder of it. Well, that was then. In its latest refit, the airport has become the epitome of mall culture, with a claustrophobic snake-like passage squeezing its way between fragrance hawkers, armed with their little wands of scented paper and weary smiles. The perceived ceiling is low, the air unbreathably perfumed. We trip over one another’s carry-on trolley cases to avoid the hard sell, or succumb to it, as I did (Dior Homme aftershave, if you must know). WH Smith is a shadow of what it was (and it wasn’t much to start with), the food outlets are jammed up together at the end of the gauntlet, the whole place looks tawdry only months after opening. Oh yes, there is no longer a bookshop. Not one bookshop. The only books for sale beyond security are the top 20 fiction and non-fiction choices at WHS, and the airport specials, possibly the least attractive or practical format for a book to have been devised in the history of publishing (although those odd little horizontal flip books, something else you hardly ever see except at airports, come very close). If I were Norman Foster, I’d be seriously pissed off. As it is, I pull my case onto the shuttle and join the queue for the flight to Ciampino, watching Italian fellow-fliers pretend not to understand the word Priority, or assume that it automatically applies to them. And I think about the time I flew into Genoa airport over thirty years ago, and the walk from the plane to a sort of hastily constructed shed, where we picked up our luggage from a heap in the middle of the room. Simpler times.

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One morning.

Some time ago I was asked by the Italian Institute of Germanic Studies in Rome to contribute a story to an issue of their review dedicated to Kafka and edited by Giorgio Manacorda. The issue has now been published and is also available online here. You need to click on SOMMARIO (twice, for some reason) to get to the story, and to a host of other stories, essays and other pieces inspired by Kafka in one way or another, in a variety of languages. My own story was triggered by the kind of news story involving an abuse of power that people tend to describe as Kafkaesque; others have approached the author from different angles. I imagine though that we have in common the belief, or hope, that literature can be the axe to break the frozen sea within us, or at least chip away a few fragments at the edge of it.

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Occasioni di Morte

occasioni di morteAnd while I’m here, some news for those of you who read Italian, or would like to, or know people who do. The View from the Tower, the first in my trilogy of novels examining the darker side of Rome, has just been published in Italian by Voland Edizioni, in the impeccable translation of Isabella Zani. The Italian edition has the title Occasioni di Morte (Chances of Death), from the epigraph (from the original version of Spain by W.H. Auden):

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,/The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.

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With a Zero at its Heart: Update (2)

zero coverBack with some recent links to ZERO-related stuff: two interviews, a review, a piece on the structure of the book in response to a request from Isabel Costello, and some news. The first interview, with Megan Taylor, appeared in the very fine online literary magazine The View from Here, sadly no longer with us. I talk about formal constraints, truth, lucky jockstraps and books that have made me cry. You can find the interview here.

The second interview is available in the first issue of the brand-new Rome-based magazine, Lotus-Eater.  (Le roi est mort, vive le roi!). Elizabeth Geoghegan asked me questions about format, being an open book, spirituality, the significance of the Coda and what I’m busy with at the moment. If you want to know what I said, you can find the interview by clicking on the link above, which will take you to the PDF file. The interview is on p. 58, but you really should take a look at what else the magazine has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.

The review comes from a blog I hadn’t come across before called The Only Way is Reading, run by Colin Stewart and well worth taking a look at, and not only because he loved ZERO. You can see what he has to say about it here. There’s also a photo of a mouth-wateringly good bacon and brown sauce sandwich.

Last week, Isabel Costello asked me to relax a moment on her literary sofa and tell her why With a Zero at its Heart is the way it is. And that’s exactly what I did.

Finally, it looks as though ZERO will be coming out as an audio book. What makes this particularly exciting for me is that I’ll be reading it myself. With any other novel of mine, I’d be more than happy to have someone else take on the task – I don’t do voices, I don’t do accents – but this book is special to me and I’m delighted that I’ll be the one to record it. More news about this later.

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With a Zero at its Heart: update

zero coverWith a Zero at its Heart was published at the end of May, almost four months ago now. They’ve been busy months, but it really is about time I produced a round-up of what’s been said about the book since then. This is an exercise that normally requires a little judicious editing by omission. You know, the ‘could have done better/different/nothing’ reviews that dog the heels of even the best-received books. But ZERO seems to have pleased everyone, either because of or despite its formal aspects. The most common response to the book (variously described as a novel, novella, short story collection, autobiography, etc.) has been to nod at the number-crunching aspect of it (120-word paragraphs, 10 paragraphs per theme, 24 themes, plus – although not many people have mentioned this – a one-paragraph coda to round the whole thing off), and then to say that, despite all this ingenuity, this Oulipian bravado, it’s actually very readable. For which, much thanks. Anyway, here are some links for anyone who’d like to see what kind of reception the book has had in more detail.

The Guardian: “… elegantly written and carries considerable emotional clout…”

Savidge Reads: “Highly recommended reading, one of the most original books I have read in a very long time.”

Mischief and Miscellany: “It’s quiet, and fragmented, but the feelings are whole and strong. It’s tender, melancholy and playful all at once.”

Writer’s Little Helper: “The search for the ‘book of the year’ is over.”

Tony’s Book World: “…a rigorous honest approach to conveying a life…”

Freeburner: “…the story is always fresh, with every little piece filled with a degree of surprise and wonder.”

A Spoonful of Happy Endings: “…a unique, incredibly intimate and gripping read.”

Polari Magazine: ” Cumulatively the effect is searingly honest and, as a result, rings emotionally, intellectually and morally true.”

BookCunt: “…just fucking lovely. Give it a whirl.”

A life in books: “The beauty of this book lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words.”

Follow the Thread: “With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture.”

Words around Books: “Lambert is a masterful writer and storyteller and With a Zero at its Heart is a testament to his thorough understanding and appreciation of both the human condition and the beauty of words.”

Girl, 20: “…sublime and poetic…reminded me of Milan Kundera…”

Out and About in London: “The cumulative effect of these fragments is quite stunning…”

Viv Groskop in Red’s 10 Best Summer Reads: “…an unusual and wonderful book…”




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Two weeks in Budapest

IMG_3789We’re staying in a very attractive top-floor flat just off Andrassy ut, between Heroes Square and the House of Terror. Andrassy ut is what’s known as a good address, with its cluster of designer outlets at one end, the Opera House (see left) and Oktogon tér in the middle, and a series of minor embassies at the other end, before the avenue opens out to the monumental square and, beyond it, City Park. It’s tree-lined, and, for long sections, bar and restaurant-lined, and entirely pleasant to walk along, even when a gang of young men, almost certainly English, horribly drunk and perched on something called a Beer Bike, decide to moon in relative unison. Most of the pedestrians are tourists little older than the mooners, or local people with perfectly trained dogs, not always on leads. Neither group bats an eyelid. The traffic is light, presumably because it’s August. Around Oktogon, there are hop-on hop-off bus tour touts, a disproportionate percentage of them black, and a scattering of beggars, one of whom spends all day, every day, sitting behind a paper cup, head buried in a well-thumbed hardback, oblivious. When I drop some coins into the cup he thanks me in what sounds like an English accent, but I don’t stop to find out more.

budapest metroBeneath the avenue runs what must be the cutest underground railway system still in action; three mustard yellow minuscule carriages, each with seats for maybe fifteen passengers, dating from the last few years of the nineteenth century, that produce a guttural farting noise and flash red lights at each station to warn people they’re about to stop. The trains pass through each white-tiled station with impressive regularity every few minutes; from a polished wood kiosk, from the same era, tickets are available. Sold in carnets of ten, they’re flimsy scraps of grey-pink paper like something made by a John Bull printing outfit from my childhood. The line was built for the millenary celebrations of 1896 and renovated a century later, when Hungary once again had something to celebrate, its return to the west and the bitter joys of capitalism. Moving just one block to either side of the avenue, the economic crisis of the country, as in the rest of Europe, becomes more visible. Wonderful secessionist facades are shedding swathes of butter-coloured plasterwork, intricate balconies are pitted by rust. Some buildings have no roof, and not all of these are being restored, although many are. At the same time, there’s a vibrancy and sense of care here that, after Rome’s air of arrogant menefreghista slovenliness and civic disregard, is its own sort of affluence. I like the city very much.

IMG_3644One of the ways Budapest deals with abandoned or derelict areas, generally courtyards, seems to be by converting them into bars, hostels, community centres in the loosest sense of the word. They’re known (I think) as kertek, and the ones we stumble across are mostly in the Jewish quarter of Budapest VII. We walk past the first without realising what it is, then double back, intrigued by a glimpse of oddly assorted furniture and unexpected greenery (head-high weeds for the most part, except that weeds are, by definition, unwanted, and these seem to be welcomed or, at the very least, tolerated). Each kert (if that’s the singular form of the noun; Hungarian remains the most absolute of mysteries) has its character, and its bar, or bars. Some of them are surrounded by external first floor balconies linking rooms used as bedrooms, with towels and drying clothes and flags draped over the railings, and the chromatic infinitely derivative web of graffiti holding the whole scene together. We sit around a wonky zinc-topped table on unmatched 1950s Formica chairs, drinking espresso, while people half my age (OK, one third my age) drift round the place in shorts or what might actually be underwear, drinking vodka-based cocktails, their hair still in their eyes or bunched up on one side from improvised pillows. To our left, a Trabant has been sawn in half and converted into a pair of sofas. (Recycled Trabants are a fairly common sight in Budapest bars, as though people who weren’t even born then feel the need to mutilate and domesticate their Soviet past, transforming it into post-industrial kitsch.) Other tables have been made from doors, or frames, or scaffolding (and we notice an interesting use of timber for large-scale scaffolding in the city). There’s creativity and invention in abundance, along with a sense of temporariness, although the coffee is good, the bar organised and there’s clearly a business sense at work, beneath the neo-hippie trappings. The only other man in the place who is clearly over 25 strikes up a conversation, but all we want to do is watch. On another occasion – because we’re drawn to these places as dying moths are to the flame of youth – we see a young woman at the head of a long table, announcing, in English, that she’s German and asking where everyone else is from, and people answering – Australia, the Czech Republic, France – and it’s like watching one of those speeded-up films of a germinating seed, of lives bursting out. They don’t know how lucky they are, or perhaps they do. If they don’t, we know it for them, which is no use at all.

stop_art_tattoo_budapest_04The city seems to have more than its fair share of tattoo parlours, tattoo bars. Tattoos. Legs, arms, necks, the occasional forehead. Whole sleeves, and collars, of writhing collar. And under the tattoos, of the men at least, the muscles. Young and not so young men in Budapest are pumped, shaven-headed, depilated, big. So not just tattoo parlours: gyms, a lot of gyms, in cellars and up stairs, functional, unfussy, doing what they say on the tin. English names are rife, with the disquieting use of power and strength tempered by the more modish wellness. In the rest of Europe, youths may be into beards and a general hipster geekiness, and they’re certainly not absent here. But the number of biceps that rival in circumference the head of the average baby is, well, phenomenal. They’re smooth and pale, elaborately inked and eye-catching, which probably carries its own risk, although if they’re not there to be looked at what purpose do they serve? White singlets cut away to show the deltoids are also much in evidence and here too tattoos play their part in the general effect. I don’t know what this means. It’s glib to see this attention to macho display as a sort of incipient fascism, but maybe even more glib to dismiss it as vanity, or fashion. Sometimes the tattoos contain Hungarian words; I think I’m relieved that I can’t read them, although they might be the most innocent phrases in the world. And, before I move on, it’s curious to see how many Muscle Maries (if you’ll pardon the expression) have the kind of dog you’d more probably associate with Paris Hilton.  Or maybe not.

IMG_3815Talking of language and muscles, most waiters in the centre of Budapest are young, well-built, alert as meerkats and seem to have done the same course in the lingua franca of utilitarian service English.  They tend to say, ‘Thank you so much,’ when the emphasis isn’t really called for, and ‘Of course,’ in a slightly affronted but disarmingly charming way (I’m thinking of Béla at Centrál Kávéház). They all say ‘Cheers’ and ‘You’re welcome,’ and, when the bill hasn’t taken it into account, a variation on ‘May I point out that the tip is not included?’ Without exception, they’re courteous, obliging, efficient and easy on the eye. In fact, eating out here is a pleasure on many levels. Our last European city was Prague, which was wonderful, but not a culinary milestone. Budapest, on the other hand, turns out to offer not just cooking, but cuisine. Someone apparently said that the world had three great cuisines: French, Chinese and Hungarian. Well, no. But it is very good, although not perhaps a place for vegans. I’ve sampled most edible parts of the goose and duck, indulged my taste for soups (including goulash and delicious creams of garlic and wild mushroom), enjoyed lángos and lecsó (I’m showing off now). But I’ve also found excellent espresso, doner kebab, a memorable onion bhaji and a hot and sour noodle soup that left me gasping (in the right way). I won’t begin to say how good the wine is, nor how cheap the beer, in case I give the wrong impression. This isn’t a guide to restaurants, by the way, but two places we have gone back to more than twice are the deservedly much-recommended Menza in Liszt Ferenc tér and the less well-known Don Leone in Krúdy Gyula utca, in the delightful Palace District. And breakfast at Café Vian hasn’t disappointed either.

Unlike the seven-hilled Lisbon, which we visited last summer, Budapest (or the Pest part of it) is a city that lends itself to walking, which is just as well (see above). It’s not a difficult city to negotiate , and has just enough bends and curves to allow for creative confusion every now and again. We wouldn’t have found Palace District (in Józsefváros) if we hadn’t struck off from Kalvin tér looking for somewhere else, or stumbled on the grid of streets behind the splendid Opera House if we hadn’t followed our noses rather than our maps. We’re not talking rucksack and trekking boots here, just the slow unscrambling of an urban noise into single notes, and then idiosyncratic local riffs. And when you get tired of walking there are the thermal baths. The city is famous for them, which makes a visit something of an obligation, so we put it off for the first week and finally decide to sample one, if only not to lose face with our friends. Our first time we go to those nearest the flat (I’ll just check the spelling here): Széchenyi Baths, in City Park. A buttery masterpiece of municipal baroque, with a ticket office selling costumes, towels, bathing caps, flip flops, bathrobes; but we’ve come prepared. There are price lists in Hungarian, with startlingly high prices, and a small low window with a girl sitting behind it. I tell her we want a cabin, and none of what I think of as the trimmings, and she gives us both a bright-blue plastic watch, like one of those ultrathin swatches, which will get us into the place. And what a place it is. Outdoor pools at various temperatures, including the one that often appears in photographs, of old men playing chess surrounded by snow and steam – the temperature in that pool is 38°C. Inside a building that reminds me of the Savoy’s hunting lodge at Stupinigi, outside Turin. At Stupinigi, one frescoed room follows the next. Here, there’s a sequence of showers, saunas, steam rooms, plunge tubs, each with its aficionados. I try a sauna at 70°C, and then a steam room. It’s all remarkably homely, despite the grandeur, perhaps because people in swimwear really are, for the most part, homely. It’s not a competitive environment, surprisingly perhaps, given the muscle wars on the streets. I play in a whirlpool arrangement in one of the smaller pools until I’m giddy. Our second time, we go to the Gellert baths, behind the hotel that’s supposed to have inspired Wes Anderson, and we’re disappointed. They’re smaller, they don’t have a steam room (or, if they do, I can’t find it) and, dare I say it, there are too many Italians of a certain type (loud, arrogant, xenophobic). We pretend (or Giuseppe does) to be English and have a stilted conversation about how much nicer the other place is before going home. In the meantime, I’ve taught Giuseppe how to make a sausage from his swimming trunks and towel, a skill he lacked. Our plans to try the baths on Margaret Island are thwarted by a change for the worse in the weather, so I never get to go on the water slides. To make up for this, we visit an excellent exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec graphic works at the Museum of Fine Arts. I buy a fridge magnet of Jane Avril.

Sansom_DominionExtraordinary, though, how little one can really know about a city, a country. Six months ago, for me, Budapest, and the whole of Hungary, was, what? Goulash. The Hapsburgs. Mazurka? (No, Polish.) Tokai. The 1956 uprising. Liszt. Oh right, Bull’s Blood. And that was it. Then TripFiction heard I was coming to Budapest this summer and very kindly sent me The Invisible Bridge, a novel by Julie Orringer, and I learnt a great deal more about what I should have known already, that Hungarian Jews were persecuted with the same merciless efficiency Jews had been treated to in much of the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, a gradual attrition of rights followed by massive deportation, 600,000 in the case of Budapest in a matter of months. I followed Orringer’s thoughtful and gripping novel with the first volume of the Writing on the Wall trilogy by Miklos Banffy, They Were Counted, describing the privileged world of the Hungarian aristocracy as it teetered on the brink of a partly self-willed destruction at the outset of the last century. Instructive to move backwards in time, as I did, through fiction, and maybe not the worst way, or so I’d like to think, to approach a new country. I brought two books with me, A Book of Memories by the Hungarian writer, Peter Nádas, and Dominion, by C.J. Sansom. I read the first 50 or so pages of Nádas and, well, some books are right for holidays and some books are right for reading at home, and this turned out to be the latter. Which is more a reflection on myself than on the book, although it may continue to thwart me at home as well, despite the fervent thumbs up of Susan Sontag. Dominion, on the other hand, turned out to be just the right sort of read. For those who don’t know it, it’s a what-if? novel. What if the appeasers had won in 1940 and signed a treaty with Germany? It’s a picture of the England I was born into, the grey 1950s  – post-war for me, under the German yoke for the characters in the novel – and it couldn’t have been a more apposite read, given Hungary’s history since 1940. A history of appeasement, and resistance.

IMG_3807On our last afternoon I go to the House of Terror. It’s three blocks from our flat and we’ve walked past it at least once every day since we arrived. Folding round the corner of the building, the wall is studded at eye-height with the kind of photographs you see in Italian cemeteries, each with a name and the date of birth and death. It doesn’t take long to see that most of the people portrayed died between 1957 and 1959. They’re mostly, but not all, men, and mostly, but not all, young men. A two-yard-wide ribbon of matt black metal delineates the façade, rising from pavement to roof, following the roof as a sort of forbidding cornice – the letters of T E R R O R punched into it twice, with a communist star and a fascist arrow cross where the two sides meet – coming down to ground again where the next building starts. It’s oppressive, hard to miss; the shadow it creates is not only metaphorical. Inside, the courtyard of the building is occupied by a Russian tank. Already large, it looks enormous in the limited space. The courtyard is overlooked by internal balconies on the upper floors, which gives the place the air, fittingly enough, of a prison. The building was used by the AVH, Hungary’s secret police, as an interrogation centre. Above ground, the space is devoted to an exhibition of life under the Fascist and Soviet regimes, although the bulk of the exhibits concerns the period between 1944 and 1956. There are telephones from that period dotted along the walls. I pick one up and hear a voice in Hungarian, and can only imagine what it might be saying. In another room monitors show films of the trial and execution of, among others, Imre Nagy. But most of the films, with English subtitles, are of ordinary people, as we like to call them, talking about their lives. They’re my parents’ generation, and it’s pure chance that my mother and father aren’t there alongside them to talk about being displaced, or tortured. An accident of birth. Stalin’s death came just in time to save many of these men and women’s lives, according to their testimonies. One man, a Captain Mainwaring sort, shows the camera his hand, reduced to a two-fingered claw by torture. A lift takes you down to the cells in the basement, although there’s a room on the first floor, known as the ‘gym’, that’s kitted out for torture, with a row of tools hanging neatly on the wall, and a drain at the centre of the floor. The lift moves slowly and, possibly by design, begins its descent only when it’s almost too full. On one wall of the otherwise unlit, slowly descending box, is the film of a man explaining how public executions were carried out, the mechanics of it, in a calm, academic voice. You leave the lift and walk past one cell to the next, noting the variety, the creativity involved in inflicting discomfort, and then pain, and then, as a last resort, the noose on a scaffold that’s no more than a single vertical with a loop of rope at its summit. The walls of the final room are covered with photographs of the torturers, the collaborators, the implicated. In the words of the museum, the ‘perpetrators’. Unlike those of their victims on the outside wall of the building, many of these have a birth date but no indication of when they died. Which means they’re still alive, and presumably free. An American woman standing beside me calls it a wall of shame, in a disapproving way, and I suppose she’s right. The damage, after all, is done. But it must have given comfort too, to those whose fathers and mothers, and sisters and brothers, and husbands and wives, and children and lovers, were tortured to death in the adjacent rooms.

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