Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tricks of the Trade

I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful book and it is of course Floortje Zwigtman’s ”Schijnbewegingen” (Tricks of the Trade). To my big surprise this Dutch masterpiece from 2005 hasn’t been translated into English, and really I don’t understand why. This book should be filmed, it should be made into theatre, it should be on everybody’s lips as it is plain and simple brilliant.
Luckily I read a little Dutch and I read both German and Danish fluently, so I’ve read the book in all three languages (in German and Danish the book has been renamed ”I, Adrian Mayfield”) and I was amazed. I just couldn’t get enough. I have already ordered volume two of the series in German (as the Danes are not going to publish the rest of the series) and volume three in Dutch (as it’ll take a little time before the German translation surfaces).
Few books have made as huge an impression on me as this masterpiece by Floortje Zwigtman. William Faulkner’s “The Sound and The Fury” was one, Elias Canetti’s “Die Blendung” another, not to mention Douglas Adams’ “A Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy”, but with this book I’ve got a new favourite. I just couldn’t put it down and read the entire 500+ pages in one go!

The year is 1894, the place is London and here 16 year old Adrian Mayfield works for a men’s tailor. After a bar brawl he quits his job and tries to figure out what to do next. His father is an alcoholic actor and former pub landlord and his mother - who has left her husband because of his drinking - is a poor seamstress. His older sister Mary Ann works in a music hall and all in all none of them are able to help the street-hardened Adrian. Instead he hooks up with the middle aged second-rate artist August Trops, who introduces him to Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and other flamboyant and powerful personalities of the time. Adrian finds work as an artist’s model and slowly comes to term with the fact that he is gay.
Adrian’s life seems to be on track, he even falls in love with a young lord, but then his new friends relocate to Europe for the summer and Adrian is again out of a job. He finds work in a male brothel and learns how dangerous it is to be gay at a time when this was regarded a crime; blackmailers and the police being your worst enemies.
In the end Adrian has to choose between his integrity and his fears, his flamboyant friends and the outraged bourgeoisie and last but not least true and false love.

Floortje Zwigtman has won several prizes in the Netherlands, and the book “Schijnbewegingen” has seen her compared to Charles Dickens. Although they both are brilliant writers describing Victorian England, the comparison doesn’t do Zwigtman justice. Where Dickens tended to be both bleak and sentimental, Zwigtman doesn’t overdo thing, neither in the positive nor negative direction. There’s no sensationalism there, she just tells things as they are; raw, sharp and to the point. And yes, that includes describing gay bashing, male prostitution and explicit gay sex. Could that be the reason why the book has never been translated into English? I sure hope not, but I suspect it to be the case. Shame on you, British publishers! We’re in the twenty-first century now and you have to realise that straight people like me are fully capable of enjoying works about gay people like Adrian Mayfield! The film and television industries seem to have got the message, isn’t it about time, that you get it, too?
In 2005 “Schijnbewegingen” was named youth book of the year by the Dutch booksellers and that is probably part of the problem. The book fully deserved the title as book of the year, but really, the book isn’t just a youth book, if it is a book for young people at all. This isn’t an ordinary coming of age book, it isn’t even a book about coming to terms with your own sexuality, it is first and foremost a masterly journey into late ninety century London, its artists, its atmosphere and its dark sides. It is a realistic novel based on thorough research, but it is also an entertaining novel, a compassionate novel and one that’ll give you food for thought. I can’t wait to read the next volume!

Six out of five stars, ha-ha! ******

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