Must Have Must do: Wednesday's Book: Blue Mondays by Arnon Grunberg

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Even the most generous-spirited novelist may feel a touch aggrieved on learning that Arnon Grunberg wrote this, his first novel, at the age of 22 for a dare, and that it has already sold 70,000 copies in his native Holland. But not since Goldoni agreed to write 16 plays in as many weeks has a literary challenge produced such a happy result. This remarkable novel concerns the misadventures of one Arnon Grunberg and falls into two distinct halves. The first describes his adolescent school career among weird friends such as Thomas, who squirts pus from his pimples in gym, Erich who swallows his own sperm, and an unnamed girl who spits in his face for 20 minutes after a recorder concert. His most intense relationship is with his girlfriend, Rosie, who shares both his ennui and his delinquency. At one point, he tells her, "we are the most boring people in the world"; and yet their boredom is of such heroic proportions that no reader could wish it otherwise.

The second half of the novel begins two years later with Arnon, now aged 19, having been expelled from school, working in a dead-end office job and helping to look after his father who has been incapacitated by a stroke. He devotes most of his energy to visits to prostitutes which, while described in clinical detail, are never cold. On the contrary, Grunberg the writer treats the women with the same courtesy in his pages that Grunberg the punter does in life. The encounters are both homely and full of telling incongruities, such as the brothel where he watches cartoons with one of the girls and the part-Jewish prostitute who interrupts her frottage to tell him of her grandfather who never returned from the camps.

Blue Mondays is extraordinary for its very ordinariness. It is a cry of despair which never raises its voice. Grunberg's writing is not literary; on the rare occasion that he attempts an analogy (such as the old prostitute's breasts "which drooped like wilting flowers") the effect is self-conscious and secondhand. The book is striking for its authenticity of emotion rather than its felicities of style.

In its deadpan acceptance of the most off-beat behaviour, the writing is often very funny. Its humour, self-revelation, degradations and drunkenness make Blue Mondays seem like a much younger version of Jeffrey Bernard's "Low Life" column.

Secker and Warburg, pounds 9.99.

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