Tag Archives: Elias Canetti

Bulgarian Literature Month: title pick and giveaways

As I have mentioned earlier, the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative is organizing a Bulgarian Literature Month in June, and I will be the editor of this event.

In the meantime, I have already commissioned quite a number of reviews and will also post one or two things myself. However, there are still a number of books that could be included, provided I find a reviewer (preferably a book blogger or someone else who is doing bookish things).

Here is a short list of books which – if you belong to the category mentioned above – are open still for reviewing during Bulgarian Literature Month:

Classics:

Ivan Vazov: Under the Yoke – the first Bulgarian novel, and until today read in school
Aleko Konstantinov: Bay Ganyo – not all Bulgarian love this book, because it is satirically exposing certain elements of the Bulgarian national character (just like not all Czechs love Schwejk!)

A modern classic:

Ivailo Petrov: Wolf Hunt –  

Contemporary Bulgarian literature:

Virginia Zaharieva: 9 Rabbits
Albena Stambolova: Everything Happens As It Does
Angel Igov: A Short Tale of Shame
Zahary Karabashliev: 18% Gray
Hristo Karastoyanov: The Same Night Awaits Us All
Georgi Gospodinov: Natural Novel
Deyan Enev: Circus Bulgaria
Angel Wagenstein: Farewell, Shanghai

Bulgarian-born authors that write in another language:

Miroslav Penkov: East of the West
Miroslav Penkov: Stork Mountain
Kapka Kassabova: Street without a Name
Ilija Troyanow: Collector of the Worlds
Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free

Fiction by foreign authors but with a Bulgarian setting:

Will Buckingham: The Descent of the Lyre
Rana Dasgupta: Solo
Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You
Elizabeth Kostova: The Shadow Land
Julian Barnes: The Porcupine

Non-fiction:

Dimana Trankova / Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria
Dimana Trankova / Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Communist Bulgaria
Tzvetan Todorov: The Fragility of Goodness
Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke
Clive Leviev-Sawyer: Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century
 
The reviews need to be unpublished and preferably in English. Let me know if you are interested in reviewing a book on this list.

I have also a few giveaways. Those will be given preferably to those who commit themselves to write a review of the above mentioned titles. If you are interested in a giveaway (it should be reviewed too for Bulgarian Literature Month), please let me know until 29 April. If several people are interested in a giveaway, I will draw lots.

The giveaways:

Milen Ruskov: Thrown Into Nature – a novel by one of Bulgaria’s most acclaimed contemporary writers
 
Kerana Angelova: Elada Pinyo and Time – “The novel describes the myth of the person who travels through various wombs and embraces, undergoes multiple transformations due to the culture of times, yet never stops expressing the deep faith that above our earthly trials watches the law of love.”
 
Randall Baker: Bulgariana – diary of one of the founders of New Bulgarian University in Sofia; a fun read that gives a deep and sympathetic insight into the Bulgaria of the 21st Century
 
Nikolai Grozni: Claustrophobias – an autobiographical novel of an author that was a wunderkind pianist and a monk in an ashram in India, and a lot of other things
 
Ivailo Petrov: Before I was born – story collection of one of the most important post-WW II authors from Bulgaria (the book is antiquarian, but in very good condition)
 
Hristo Hristov: Kill the Wanderer – Hristov, an investigative journalist, describes the life and the assassination of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian author and journalist, in London. Considering the recent news about Julia Kristeva, who was exposed as a collaborator of the Bulgarian State Security, it is important to not forget what this institution did to enemies of the system.
 
And now, let me know which book you want to review, and in which giveaway you are interested. (The winners will be informed individually and by a post here on 30 April.) 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


In Ruse with Elias Canetti

In the first volume of his autobiography Die gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free), Elias Canetti writes about his early childhood in the Bulgarian city of Ruse – Canetti uses throughout the book the old name Rustchuk -:

“Everything that I experienced later, had already happened once in Rustchuk…On any one day you could hear seven or eight languages.”

Despite having spent only his first six years in the city of his birth – the family emigrated to Manchester in 1911 and Canetti came back only once for a visit in 1915 – Ruse and its unique multilingual and multicultural atmosphere at that time left a lifelong mark on the future writer.

A small book in Bulgarian language with the title In Ruse with Elias Canetti (В Русе с Елиас Канети) sheds additional light on this early period of Canetti’s life, family background and social surrounding.

In the middle of the 19th century Ruse had developed into a thriving city. Located at the Danube it had by then attracted a lot of trading activities and the port of Ruse was the main artery through which goods were imported and exported from and to the whole region. An additional boost to the economic development was the fact that Ruse had a fast-growing Jewish (Sephardic) community which was one of the driving forces for Ruse’s modernization; this together with a general economic boom in the then revived Bulgarian state (until the Russian-Turkish War 1877-78 it had been part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five hundred years) made Ruse the then most modern and truly European city in Bulgaria.  

The authors give us interesting information about the origin and growth of the Jewish community in Ruse and trace back also the family background of Canetti’s parents. Grandfather Elias Canetti (the namesake of little Elias) came from Adrianopel (Edirne) to Ruse and became a successful trader, first with his partner in Constantinople, later on his own. He reigned his firm and his family like a benevolent despot, a true family man that cared a lot for his grandchildren and particularly his oldest grandson Elias; but at the same time he expected that his sons gave up on their own plans and would be part of the future family business with branches in all other important Bulgarian cities.

For Jacques, young Elias’ father, this was a source of permanent inner conflicts – he was a talented violinist and dreamed of a career as a musician in a chamber quartet. Also Mathilde, his wife and Elias’ mother, was a talented amateur musician (she played the piano); there are photos that show the parents as musicians in a public concert in Ruse. Another photo shows Jacques, then a dashing young man, in a carnival costume – both parents who had spent years in their youth in Vienna loved the theatre and literature, things for which Grandfather Canetti had not much interest and which he might have considered at best as harmless hobbies, but as nothing serious.

Beside this latent conflict between Jacques and Elias Senior, another quite open conflict clouded the childhood of the future Nobel Prize winner. Mathilde’s family, the Arditis, were against the marriage of their youngest daughter with Jacques Canetti. The Arditis, one of the oldest and high-ranking Sephardic families could trace back their origin until the 13th century when some of their ancestors were astronomers and doctors at the courts of the Kings Alfonso IV and Pedro IV. After 1492, the family settled in Livorno and later in the Ottoman Empire, where several of their members became famous rabbis, kabbalists and scientists; the Arditis were among the first Jewish families in Ruse and looked down on Elias Senior and his family as upstarts, who had just arrived from the Orient and were no match for the famous and cultured Arditi family. One of the remaining (and traumatic) memories of his early childhood in Ruse was for Canetti a visit in Grandfather Arditi’s house. This grandfather, who never paid much attention to Elias and never gave him a present, asked his grandson on one occasion, which of his grandfathers he loved more – Grandpa Canetti or Grandpa Arditi. When the poor boy said “Both!”, he was immediately called a liar and hypocrite by his maternal grandfather. 

One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on the artistic talent of Canetti’s parents, especially that if his father. Ruse had quite an active social and cultural life, and much of it was initiated and kept alive mainly by its Jewish citizens. Ruse has a beautiful theatre that regarding its size and architecture could be as well in Vienna or Budapest. During Ruse’s best times, many famous international troupes visited the Danubian city, the same goes for many musicians and orchestras. There were amateur theatre groups and concerts that raised funds for the education of poor but talented Jewish children, the Bnai Brith Loge played an important role in the social fabric of the Jewish community, and there were also some of the first Zionist organisations in Bulgaria which had their headquarters in Ruse. Other chapters cover the donations made by Canetti’s grandfather and father, the efforts of Jews from Ruse to support the war effort in the Balkan Wars and WWI, either as soldiers or by financial support. Another short chapter describes how Canetti learned some folk rhymes and stories from young Bulgarian peasant girls, stories he later found again in a German book about Bulgarian fairy tales and folk stories and that left obviously a deep impression on him. Philately, the role of the different newspapers in the Canetti household (in Ladino and in German), and the comet Halley are also covered by short but instructive chapters.

The Orator is the title of the longest chapter of the book, and it deals with Canetti’s relationship with one of the most colorful members of the Canetti-Arditi family, Elias’ cousin Benjamin ‘Bubi’ Arditi (Canetti calls him ‘Bernhard’ in a letter addressed to him that is reproduced in the book). Bubi, just a few years older than his cousin, was for some time a strong influence for Canetti and he is explicitly mentioned in the second volume of Canetti’s autobiography Die Fackel im Ohr (The Torch in My Ear).

After Canetti’s parents moved to Manchester with their three sons (Elias, Nissim and Georges), Elias saw his cousin during both visits in Bulgaria; in Summer 1915 in Ruse and in 1924 in Sofia. During this period Bubi had became a fervent Zionist and public speaker. Elias was so impressed by his cousin who engaged himself with all his energy in something much bigger than himself, a cause for the Jewish community, that we find traces of The Orator also in Masse und Macht and in his Aufzeichnungen. For a short time, young Elias seemed also to have considered to become a Zionist. Bulgarian Jews were in those days frequently targeted by the terrorist IMRO (today this extremist right-wing political party that is still proud of its criminal and antisemitic origin and which propagates quite openly violence against ethnic minorities and refugees is part of the Bulgarian Government!), that openly threatened to kill those who didn’t pay hefty sums to them; blackmail, collection of “protection” money and contract killings were the main financial sources of this “patriotic” group – today, being part of the Bulgarian government, they use means that are only slightly more subtle – that was in its high time considered the most ruthless group of assassins in Europe.  – When Canetti fell in Vienna under the spell of an even greater orator, Karl Kraus, this interest in Zionist politics faded away completely. 

The book reproduces several letters of Canetti to his cousin Bubi and to people in Bulgaria who got in touch with him in his later life. He found touching words for his attachment to Ruse and the importance of the city for himself and his development as a writer.

This small book is not only very informative, it is also an important document of the renewed connection of the writers’ birthplace with this extraordinary son of Ruse. Canetti’s daughter visited Ruse for the first time in 1998 and initiated together with Penka Angelova from the University Veliko Tarnovo and other supporters the International Elias Canetti Society, which is now very active to promote the literary work of Elias Canetti, and the values for which he stood. The three engravings that show Old Ruse and that were among Canetti’s most treasured belongings, are now back in Ruse – a donation by his daughter. And there is a chance that not only the former building of the trading house Elias Canetti (Senior) in Slavyanski Street 14 in Ruse will be revived, but maybe also that the author’s birthplace at Gurko Street 13 will be turned into a museum one day. (Interestingly, the English Wikipedia page about Canetti, claims that the building at Slavyanska is his birthplace – a building that the author has rarely ever entered, since it was an office and a warehouse, not a residential building.)   

While the book provided me with interesting, new to me information and is written with real love and devotion to the subject, I have to mention two points with which I had a problem.

The book contains many reproductions of photos and other documents; that’s a good thing since it adds considerably to the quality of the given information and makes the book even more interesting and readable. However – and this really unforgivable – the book mentions absolutely no sources of any of the photos and documents, and therefore also not of the owners of the copyright of these illustrations. That is highly disappointing and doesn’t correspond with the standard of a book publication; it is even infringing the copyright – something that is considered in Bulgaria unfortunately as no offence at all by many people. For me it is a question of honesty and intellectual integrity not to disregard in such a shameful way the intellectual property of others, and it is a real pity that such an otherwise recommendable book has such a very serious flaw. 

I had also a problem with a question regarding a detail in the chapter devoted to The Orator. Bubi Arditi, a lifelong supporter of the revisionist Zionist Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, the Irgun, and other right-wing groups, was also politically involved with the last Czar Simeon II (and later Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski).

Simeon launched a long time ago a campaign to depict his father Boris III as the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews during WWII, a claim that has been a long time ago discarded by serious historians. In the contrary, Boris III was the main Bulgarian responsible for the extermination of the Jews in the annexed territories in Macedonia and Thracia. I don’t want to go into the details here regarding this topic, but it is important to know that Bubi Arditi wrote a book that supports Simeon’s revisionist theory.

After referring Arditi’s position that Boris III was the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews and his blaming the “Jewish communists in Bulgaria” that they are liars, the book claims surprisingly that Canetti shared his cousin’s opinion on this question. But while there can be no doubt about the fact that Canetti rejected the communist system in Bulgaria with harsh words, he was never a supporter of the thesis that Boris III was the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews and the reproduced letter proves – if anything – the opposite. The rather ambiguous wording of the authors in this particular context leaves room for the interpretation that they think that Canetti shared his cousin’s opinion. But Canetti was never ever a supporter of revisionist ideologues and I was rather annoyed by this passage in an otherwise very recommendable text.   

P.S. In case you wonder, the French actor Pierre Arditi is also a member of the Canetti-Arditi family. His father Georges and Elias were cousins.

.В Русе с Елиас Канети

Veselina Antonova / Ivo Zheynov: In Ruse with Elias Canetti, MD Elias Canetti, Ruse 2016

Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free, Granta Books, London 1999, translated by Joachim Neugroschel 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Again Women in Translation Month

Incredible how fast one year has passed – another Women in Translation Month!

My modest contribution to Women in Translation Month is an overview regarding the books by female authors (or co-authors) I have reviewed, mentioned or from which I have translated texts (poetry) that I have published on this blog since last years’ Women in Translation Month:

Bozhana Apostolowa: Kreuzung ohne Wege
Boika Asiowa: Die unfruchtbare Witwe
Martina Baleva / Ulf Brunnbauer (Hg.): Batak kato mjasto na pametta / Batak als bulgarischer Erinnerungsort
Veza Canetti / Elias Canetti / Georges Canetti: “Dearest Georg!”
Veza Canetti: The Tortoises
Lea Cohen: Das Calderon-Imperium
Blaga Dimitrova: Forbidden Sea – Zabraneno more
Blaga Dimitrova: Scars
Kristin Dimitrova: A Visit to the Clockmaker
Kristin Dimitrova: Sabazios
Iglika Dionisieva: Déjà vu Hug
Tzvetanka Elenkova (ed.): At the End of the World
Tzvetanka Elenkova: The Seventh Gesture
Ludmila Filipova: The Parchment Maze
Sabine Fischer / Michael Davidis: Aus dem Hausrat eines Hofrats
Heike Gfereis: Autopsie Schiller
Mirela Ivanova: Versöhnung mit der Kälte
Ekaterina Josifova: Ratse
Kapka Kassabova: Street Without a Name
Gertrud Kolmar: A Jewish Mother from Berlin – Susanna
Gertrud Kolmar: Dark Soliloquy
Gertrud Kolmar: Das lyrische Werk
Gertrud Kolmar: My Gaze Is Turned Inward: Letters 1938-1943
Gertrud Kolmar: Worlds – Welten
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff
Nada Mirkov-Bogdanovic / Milena Dordijevic: Serbian Literature in the First World War
Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke
Milena G. Nikolova: Kotkata na Schroedinger
Nicki Pawlow: Der bulgarische Arzt
Sabine Rewald: Balthus: Cats and Girls
Angelika Schrobsdorff: Die Reise nach Sofia
Angelika Schrobsdorff: Grandhotel Bulgaria
Tzveta Sofronieva: Gefangen im Licht
Albena Stambolova: Everything Happens as it Does
Maria Stankowa: Langeweile
Danila Stoianova: Memory of a Dream
Katerina Stoykova-Klemer (ed.): The Season of Delicate Hunger
Kathrine Kressmann Taylor: Address Unknown
Dimana Trankova / Anthony Georgieff: A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria
Marguerite Youcenar: Coup de Grâce
Edda Ziegler / Michael Davidis: “Theuerste Schwester“. Christophine Reinwald, geb. Schiller
Rumjana Zacharieva: Transitvisum fürs Leben
Virginia Zaharieva: Nine Rabbits
Anna Zlatkova: fremde geografien
The Memoirs of Glückel from Hameln

What remarkable translated books by women have you read recently or are you reading right now?

 © Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Bulgarian Literature Month 2016 – a few suggestions (2)

In my latest blog post, I gave an overview regarding some of the translated Bulgarian authors and their works. If you want to have a bit more background information about contemporary authors from Bulgaria, I would recommend you to have a look at the website Contemporary Bulgarian Writers.

The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation is since years successfully supporting particularly the translation and publication of books by contemporary Bulgarian authors, and the website is also a result of their work. Apart from short authors’ bios, there are plenty of translation samples that will for sure be a useful starting point not only for publishers, but also for readers. The English-language Bulgarian journal Vagabond (a well-written and edited periodical for anyone with an interest in Bulgaria) publishes in every new edition a story or a chapter of a novel by a contemporary Bulgarian author. So there are now quite a lot of accessible media that can tease the curiosity of readers for Bulgarian literature.

Although the main focus of this first Bulgarian Literature Month 2016 is on the works of contemporary Bulgarian language authors, I want to be not too strict. Also non-fiction works by Bulgarian authors can be included. The same goes for works by Bulgarian-born authors that write in another language than Bulgarian. I am even open for reviews of books (fiction or non-fiction) by foreign language authors that are related to Bulgaria.

Here are a few recommendations for all above mentioned categories:

Bulgarian-born authors that write in other languages:

The only Bulgarian-born author that was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was Elias Canetti. Canetti’s only link with Bulgaria is his birth in Ruse and the first years of his early childhood he spent there, and which had nevertheless a strong lifelong impact on him. More on his childhood in the first volume of his brilliant autobiography:

The Tongue Set Free (Granta Books 2011)

Some time ago, I reviewed the debut of Miroslav Penkov, his story collection East of the West, enthusiastically. The English-language author Penkov has now published his first novel, again focused on Bulgaria and similarly enticing:

Stork Mountain (Farrar, Straus , and Giroux 2016)

Kapka Kassabova, another English-language author with Bulgarian roots, left the country of her birth in 1991. Many years later, she came back for a longer visit and her impressions there brought back a lot of mostly not very pleasant memories. A somewhat controversial book, not liked by everyone in Bulgaria, but definitely an interesting read about the difficult process of transition which is still going on 25 years after the fall of communism:

Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (Skyhorse Publishing 2009)

One of the most prolific contemporary German-language authors is Ilija Trojanow (sometimes transcribed as Iliya Troyanov in English). Of his so far translated works I recommend particularly the following books:

Along the Ganges (Haus Publishing 2005)
Mumbai to Mecca (Haus Publishing 2007)
The Collector of Worlds (Haus Publishing 2008)
The Lamentations of Zeno (Verso 2016)

Together with the photographer Christian Muhrbeck, Trojanow published an impressive book with photos from Bulgaria:

Wo Orpheus begraben liegt (Carl Hanser 2013) – this book, as all other works of Trojanow related to Bulgaria, are still not translated in English

Unfortunately Dimitre Dinev’s books, written in German, are so far also not translated in English. His touching and brilliantly written novel about two families is one of my favourite books:

Engelszungen (“Angel’s Tongues”) (Deuticke 2003)

Several other Bulgarian-born authors write also in German. I can recommend (this so far untranslated book) particularly:

Rumjana Zacharieva: Transitvisum fürs Leben (Horlemann 2012)

Bulgaria is also a topic in the work of a few fictional works by authors that have no connection by birth with this country:

Many of Eric Ambler’s books have a story that is located in some frequently not precisely named Balkan country. The following two books of this fantastic author have a Bulgarian setting (the first one partly, the second one is clearly based on the show trial in Bulgaria in the aftermath of the Communist takeover):

The Mask of Dimitrios (in the United States published as A Coffin for Dimitrios) (various editions)
Judgment on Deltchev (Vintage 2002)

Another author who is using the twilight of the Balkans as a setting for his spy novels is Alan Furst. Bulgaria features for example in the following book:

Night Soldiers (Random House 2002)

Two remarkable novels by younger international authors who spent a longer time in Bulgaria and who received excellent reviews (especially the second one, which was published recently has caused really raving write-ups in all major literary journals and even the mainstream media):

Rana Dasgupta: Solo (Marriner Books 2012)
Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2016)

Julian Barnes visited Bulgaria after the transition and witnessed the trial of Todor Zhivkov. His novel based on this experience is worth reading:

The Porcupine (Vintage 2009)

Two historical novels by men who lived or live in Bulgaria. I haven’t read them yet, but the synopsis sounds interesting in both cases:

Christopher Buxton: Far from the Danube (Kronos 2006)
Ellis Shuman: Valley of the Thracians (Create Space 2013)

A few more books by German authors that have a Bulgarian setting and that I enjoyed (with the exception of Apostoloff, but maybe you think otherwise). Only the book by Lewitscharoff is translated so far.

Michael Buselmeier: Hundezeiten (Wunderhorn 1999)
Nicki Pawlow: Der bulgarische Arzt (Langen-Müller 2014)
Roumen M. Evert: Die Immigrantin (Dittrich 2009)
Uwe Kolbe: Thrakische Spiele (Nymphenburger 2005)
Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff (Suhrkamp 2010)

Angelika Schrobsdorff (also known as an actress and wife of Claude Lanzmann) came 1938 to Bulgaria as a Jewish child from Germany and stayed there until 1947. Several of her works are based on her experience in Bulgaria or on her attempts to re-connect with friends and relatives at a later stage:

Die Reise nach Sofia (dtv 1983, introduction by Simone de Beauvoir)
Grandhotel Bulgaria (dtv 1997)

And finally some non-fiction recommendations:

The Bulgarian journalist and author Georgi Markov was one of the most prominent dissidents and victim of a so-called “umbrella murder”. The following book is the result of years of investigation and gives an extremely interesting insight into the real power central of communist Bulgaria, the State Security:

Hristo Hristov: Kill the Wanderer (Gutenberg 2013)

Works of Georgi Markov is available in a three-volume edition in German:

Das Portrait meines Doppelgängers (Wieser 2010)
Die Frauen von Warschau (Wieser 2010)
Reportagen aus der Ferne (Wieser 2014)

In the context of the attempts of certain right-wing circles in Bulgaria to whitewash the fascist regime of Boris III from its share of responsibility in the holocaust, it is particularly useful to read the following book by Tzvetan Todorov, who is together with Julia Kristeva one of the most prominent French intellectuals of Bulgarian origin:

The Fragility of Goodness (Princeton University Press 2003)

Another very heated discussion about a particular period of Bulgarian history  was the so-called Batak controversy a few years ago. Whereas in most other countries a conference about certain aspects of 19th century history would go unnoticed outside a small circle, it resulted in this case in big and very unpleasant smear campaign with involvement of Bulgarian politicians and almost all major media in the country who, either without knowing the publication or in full disregard of the content, organized a real witch hunt against a few scholars that had in the end to cancel the conference because they had to fear for their lives. The re-evaluation of certain historical myths that were in the past used to incite ethnic or religious hatred targeted at certain groups of Bulgarian citizens is still a difficult issue. A book that is documenting the Batak controversy and the historical facts behind it is available in a Bulgarian/German edition:

Martina Baleva, Ulf Brunnbauer (Hgg.): Batak kato mjasto na pametta / Batak als bulgarischer Erinnerungsort (Iztok-Zapad 2007)

A book on the history of Bulgaria may be useful for all those who dive into Bulgarian literature. Bulgarians love their history and love to discuss it with foreigners; or more precisely: the version of history they were taught in school…

R.J. Crampton: A Concise History of Bulgaria (Cambridge University Press 2006)

A fascinating book on how tobacco, its cultivation and production, shaped Bulgaria – until today, when there is still a political party that at least on the the surface mainly represents the interest of the – predominantly ethnic Turkish – tobacco farmers:

Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke (Cornell University Press 2012)

A German in Bulgaria is the subtitle of the following book, and of course I read the very interesting, insightful and sometimes funny work by Thomas Frahm (not translated in English, but at least in Bulgarian) with great interest and pleasure. Frahm is also one of the few excellent translators of Bulgarian literature (Lea Cohen, Vladimir Zarev):

Die beiden Hälften der Walnuss (Chira 2015)

And if you are planning a walk through the Balkans or a boat trip on the Danube, the following classical works should not be missing in your luggage:

Claudio Magris: Danube (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2008)

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts/Between the Woods and the Water/The Broken Road (NYRB)

In my next blog post I will give more information on how to participate in Bulgarian Literature Month 2016. And yes, there will be also a few giveaways! 

PS: The information in the two blog posts is of course not complete, and can never be. Still, I think I should include the following as well (which I have simply forgotten):

John Updike: The Bulgarian Poetess – one of Updike’s best stories, available in several of his short story collections, for example in The Early Stories, 1953-1975 (Random House 2004)

Will Buckingham: The Descent of the Lyre (Roman Books 2013) – a beautiful novel that catches the magical atmosphere of the Rhodopi mountains, the region of Orpheus, written by an author who knows Bulgaria, its history and culture very well.

Dumitru Tsepeneag: The Bulgarian Truck – a brilliant postmodernist novel by an author from neighbouring Romania (Dalkey Archive Press 2016)

The online journal Drunken Boat recently published an issue devoted to Bulgarian literature and art. A good selection and the perfect starting point for the Bulgarian Literature Month.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 


Two anecdotes about Robert Musil

As mentioned some time ago, I am an unsystematic collector of anecdotes that have writers as subject. Here are two of them about one of the giants of German 20th century literature, Robert Musil.

Musil worked for decades on his unfinished masterpiece Man without Qualities and published comparatively little during his lifetime. As a result of his obsessive efforts, Musil was always living in very precarious financial conditions and during his exile in Switzerland during the last years of his life, he was really destitute.

Musil seemed to have been a proud, extremely self-assured, maybe even arrogant person who had a very high opinion regarding his own abilities as a writer and he detested writers that were (contrary to him) popular and successful. With particular disdain he looked at the output of Stefan Zweig and Thomas Mann. While he couldn’t deny that Thomas Mann had talent – and success! – and he probably hated him just because of that, Stefan Zweig was another case. Zweig was according to Musil shallow, superficial, trivial, always responding to the requirements of the market that liked to read another collection of (in Musil’s opinion) not very accomplished novellas or another biography in Reader’s Digest style, Zweig’s slickness and wish to fit in, to be the centre of the attention of a circle of rich people and of the literary establishment, always very much concerned about increasing his bank account, his collection of antiquities and old manuscripts. In short: Stefan Zweig was for Musil the personification of everything that was wrong with the literature of his time.  

Hans Mayer, the great German-Jewish literary critic, writes in his autobiography Ein Deutscher auf Widerruf  how he visited Musil at his home in Switzerland during their emigration. It was 1940, and there was a widespread fear that the Nazis might invade also Switzerland.

“Musil couldn’t get into the USA, and Mayer was suggesting the relative obtainability of Colombian visas as a pis aller. Musil, he wrote, ‘looked at me askance and said: Stefan Zweig’s in South America. It wasn’t a bon mot. The great ironist wasn’t a witty conversationalist. He meant it … If Zweig was living in South America somewhere, that took care of the continent for Musil.’” (quoted by Michael Hofmann: Vermicular Dither, London Review of Books, 28. January 2010)

In the third volume of his autobiography, Elias Canetti describes how he after completion of the manuscript of Die Blendung (Auto-da-fe) in 1931 sent it as a parcel with an accompanying letter to Thomas Mann, hoping that Mann would read it (and possibly recommend it to a publisher). Alas, the parcel came back unopened with a polite letter by Mann, telling the unpublished author that he was not able to read the book due to his work schedule (Mann was working on his multi-volume Joseph novel at that time). The disappointed Canetti put the manuscript aside for a long time, until Hermann Broch arranged a few readings for him in Vienna. One of them was also attended by Musil who allegedly said to Broch: “He reads better than myself.” (Not surprisingly, Canetti was an extremely gifted stage performer in the mould of Karl Kraus.)

Later on, when the novel was finally published in 1935, Canetti wrote again to Mann, who now – four years later! – congratulated Canetti and wrote also very positively about the novel (which in all probability he hadn’t read except for a few pages). With this letter in his pocket and beaming with self-confidence Canetti was running into Musil one day when Musil brought it about himself to also congratulate Canetti. Not knowing about Musil’s strong antipathy regarding Thomas Mann, Canetti blurted out: “Thank you, also Thomas Mann praises my book!” – to which Musil answered with a short “So…”, turning around and ignoring Canetti for the rest of his life.

In defence of Zweig and Mann it has to be added that both writers supported many of their colleagues in need particularly during their time of emigration. Musil was during his last years ironically mainly living from a grant he received from an organisation that supported writers in need and that was mainly funded by – Thomas Mann. Musil knew about that and felt probably terribly humiliated.

Hans Mayer: Ein Deutscher auf Widerruf, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1982/84 (2 vol.) – there is unfortunately no English translation of this highly interesting autobiography.

Elias Canetti: The Play of the Eyes (Das Augenspiel), translated by Ralph Manheim, Farrar Straus Giroux 2006

Michael Hofmann: Vermicular Dither, London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 02, p. 9-12, 28 January 2010 – Hofmann’s article is a real assassination of Zweig; very, very harsh and spiteful indeed, but nevertheless worth reading because he points at various serious flaws in Zweig’s writing. 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A short rant on the translation of book titles

You probably all know the phenomenon: you read a translated book, the quality of the translation is excellent, good, average, poor, a crime – and all shades in between; if the language is good or not in the original edition you usually don’t know for sure unless you are able to compare. Many great books have been spoilt completely by an inadequate translation and there are also cases when the translation reads much better than the original. Fortunately, there are many excellent translators, and for a translated book the name of the translator has for me great importance because I know already what I can expect in terms of quality of the translation.

A particular annoying case are book titles that are not a translation of the original title, but that reflect the fact that nowadays the marketing departments of publishing houses seem to have greater importance as, mind you, people who wrote, edited and translated the book.

A few examples: Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (The Blinding) becomes Auto-da-fé, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The unburied dead) becomes The Victors or Men without Shadows, or Boualem Sansal’s Le village de l’allemand (The village of the German) transforms miraculously into An Unfinished Business or The German Mujahid. The Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles was for decades published as Der Hund von Baskerville (as if the English title would be The Hound of Baskerville!) and only the newer translations use the correct Der Hund der Baskervilles. Most German editions of Dostoevsky’s Преступление и наказание have been published under the title Schuld und Sühne (Guilt and Atonement), some under the title Raskolnikov, when the obviously best translation would be Verbrechen und Strafe (Crime and Punishment), which was used for the translations of Alexander Eliasberg in the 1920s and by Svetlana Geier in the 1990s and which now fortunately seem to stick. And, dear publishers, there was a reason why Herta Müller chose the poetic Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a great pheasant in the World) and not the prosaic Der Pass (The Passport), as the English edition of one of her books suggests. It is a lack of respect to the author and also to us readers to change such a title – do you marketing guys even believe that the book sold better because you invented a new title for it?

It would be easy to add dozens, if not hundreds of examples of wrong title translations. I am sure most readers of this post have their own list for this phenomenon.

There are a few cases when a different title for a translation seems acceptable or necessary. Not in every case the book appears in the original edition under the title which the author had in mind. Ismail Kadare’s The Siege (an exact translation of the Albanian title would be The Castle or The Fortress) should have been published under the title The Drums of Rain (in Albanian), and the title of the French edition Les Tambours de la pluie is therefore highly appropriate.

Another case may be copyright issues or the existence of a book under the exact same title that is already on the market. Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons was published in German as Das letzte Paradies (The Last Paradise) probably because almost at the same time another book by Lothar Reichel about Bali was published as Insel der Dämonen – both books referring to Walter Spies and Victor von Plessen’s movie Insel der Dämonen, and both with a cover illustration based on paintings by Spies. In such a case when even the content of the book is similar, a different title seems unavoidable.

The worst are for me always such title translations which seem to be more or less correct, but are indeed not and that even by that change the intention of the author or suggest an interpretation of the text that is wrong or misleading.

An interesting case is the title of Christoph Hein’s novel Landnahme in English: Settlement. Settlement is an excellent novel which I intend to review later and the translation is overall good. My first reaction was that the title is obviously wrong. But the case is more tricky as it seems.

The main character is what was called in West Germany a Heimatvertriebener (literally “one who was expelled from his home place”), a German who had to flee from what was after WWII becoming Polish territory and resettled in his case in Eastern Germany, the future GDR (where these people were called Umsiedler, literally meaning “those who have resettled”).

The word Landnahme in German means literally “to take the land”, it is clearly an active, possibly even an aggressive act, depending on if the land was already occupied by someone (in that case it would be translated as “conquest” in English), or if the land was acquired by legal means (buying or acquisition by a lawful redistribution of the land).

Settlement is therefore under no circumstances a literal translation of Landnahme. The author plays with the ambiguity of the word in his text, showing how difficult it is for the main character to make this land (in every sense of the word) his own, and by all means.

Acquisition would have been a much better literal translation of this word, or even Conquest – although the ambiguity of the German word would have been lost. So what to do as a translator in such a situation? Go for the “correct” literal translation and decide to use either Acquisition or Conquest? Or go for another solution? The translator went for the second option, and rightfully so I suppose.

Settlement means in English either an inhabited place, a village, a community of people living in a place, but it means also an arrangement to settle a conflict or a dispute, so although it is not a “correct” literal translation of Landnahme, it keeps the ambiguity of the German title – and that is what counts most in my opinion. So contrary to my first reaction, I have to concede that Philip Boehm, the translator, has done an excellent job to find this title for Hein’s novel in English.

Do you have annoying examples of wrong translations of book titles, or of ingenious one’s as the last example?

 

Hein

Christoph Hein: Settlement, transl. by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008

(review to follow)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Tortoises

literatur_2015_gold-2

This blog post is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

Austria 1938. Andreas Kain, a renowned writer and his wife Eva, live in a beautiful villa just outside Vienna. What could be a normal and fulfilled life in the “loveliest city of Central Europe” turns for Kain, Eva, and Werner – Kain’s brother with whom he has a loving but nevertheless troubled relationship – into a nightmare: it is the time of the Anschluss, the Nazis are triumphing also in Austria, and for Jews like the three main characters of Veza Canetti’s novel The Tortoises (Die Schildkröten) a time of growing humiliations and deadly dangers has begun. The bank accounts of the Jews are frozen, those among them who have a regular job are dismissed, and the homes and furniture of Jewish households are being “requisitioned”. And that will be just the beginning.

While Kain and Eva have to leave their home, they have nowhere to go and visas are getting unattainable. Hilde, a Jewish girl from the neighborhood, tries to find a rather grotesque way out of this situation: with her father’s money and her charms for whom one of the new Nazi neighbors falls, she intends to hire or even buy a private airplane with which the whole group could possibly leave Austria (illegally), a project that is obviously doomed from the very beginning.

The Tortoises is a brilliant novel. Not only because of Veza Canetti’s ability to describe her own ordeal – the book is autobiographical – in an elegant, beautiful prose (well translated by Ian Mitchell). If you ever asked yourself how it was possible that the Nazis took hold of the big majority of Germans and Austrians within such a short time and how – at least on the surface – normal and otherwise decent people turned into Nazis or willing followers seemingly out of the blue then you should read this book. It gives a haunting description of the paranoid atmosphere in Vienna after the Anschluss.

Veza Canetti’s language is Viennese – elegant and always slightly ironic. The plays of Johann Nestroy, the prose of Arthur Schnitzler, the satiric furor of Karl Kraus, they all resonate in her writing. And she can write exceptionally well dialogues that sound as if they come directly from a Volksstück of Ödön von Horvath. The Nazis are ridiculous and pathetic figures; the name of the main villain in the book is Pilz (=mushroom), and this gives Frau Wlk (whose Czech name means “wolf”), the cleaner, an opportunity to denigrate this man but at the same time we readers get an insight in the mentality of even good-natured people like the landlady who is suddenly impressed by the Nazis:

“His name is Pilz-Mushroom! Toadstool, Mould, Fungus, Frau Wlk goes through all the variations. He lives down there where she lives, he’s a brownshirt, a bigwig, because he has a low number. Having a low number means he was one of the very first to be in the National Socialist Party….It seems that this low number exudes a fascinating effect. Because Frau Wlk was complaining. Even the landlady, here in this house, who is so kind, for whom she cleans the house, even she has been taken in. She who, after all, goes to church every Sunday. Who puts her last penny into the collection box to pay for a new figure of the Holy Virgin. Here in this house, the right atmosphere reigns to corrupt the landlady. The Mushroom came up and immediately won her over. And, simply because he has promised her South Tyrol, the landlady, who is so persnickety, is letting him move in here.”

Another “horvathesque” element are the dialogues between Pilz and Kain and his wife – on the surface polite (“Herr Ingenieur!” “Herr Doktor!”) and considering the changed circumstances even funny – but there can be no doubt that the new rulers will ruthlessly execute their program of extermination of the weak and of the “inferior” races, particularly the Jews.

While this is at least in the first days after the Anschluss not yet visible in the bourgeois villa neighborhood where Kain – the name is alluding not only to the biblical Kain but also to Peter Kien, the main character of Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-fé – and Eva are living, the open brutality of the new regime is evident from the very beginning in less privileged areas of the city. But also in the villa suburb, the signs are clear: a sparrow, and later a dog are killed by one of the new Nazis in front of a group of children to “teach” them that the weak and the useless have to be wiped out mercilessly. And the tortoises to which the title of the novel is referring, are branded with a swastika by another Nazi and sold as souvenirs, but some of them can be saved by the good-hearted Andreas Kain. As Schopenhauer says in The Basis of Morality

“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”

The novel is also a book about the relationship between the brothers Andreas and Werner, and is mirroring the relationship between Elias Canetti, Veza’s husband, and his brother Georges. In this respect it is not only interesting to read Elias Canetti’s autobiography (which mentions Veza’s great importance for Elias Canetti’s intellectual development, but doesn’t say a word about the fact that Canetti’s first wife was an exceptional author in her own right), but also the correspondence between Elias, Georges, and Veza Canetti that was published a few years ago.

The Tortoises was completed after the Canettis could escape to England in the very last moment, but never published during Veza’s lifetime. She published very little during her life and in a bout of depression destroyed the manuscripts of most of her unpublished works. During the last years of Elias Canetti’s life, he published/re-published her remaining works. Veza Canetti is one of the greatest prose writers of the 20th century in German language. It is high time to discover her.  

The_Tortoises

Veza Canetti: The Tortoises, translated by Ian Mitchell, New Directions Books, New York 2001; Die Schildkröten, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 1999

Veza Canetti / Elias Canetti: “Dearest Georg!”: Love, Literature, and Power in Dark Times, The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti, 1933-1948, translated by David Dollenmayer, Other Press, New York 2010; Briefe an Georges, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2006

For German speakers I recommend also the performance “Der Herr Karl” by Helmut Qualtinger, a truly revealing portrait of a (fictional) Nazi follower in Vienna – where until today a considerable part of the population views itself – quite in contrast to the overwhelming and frenetic support of the biggest part of the Austrian population for the Nazis after the Anschluss – as “the first victims of the Nazis”.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Bibliomania, or The House of Paper

Are you a bookworm? Great, then we have a thing in common! Are you a bibliophile, a person who loves books? You are not alone! Are you a book collector? Yes, I also belong to that species! Are you a bibliomane? Uh-oh, then you might be in trouble!

According to Wikipedia, “bibliomania can be a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder which involves the collecting or even hoarding of books to the point where social relations or health are damaged.” Next to this definition you see a photo of some bookshelves with the neat caption: “Cluttered bookshelf, one symptom of bibliomania.” – No, the photo was not taken at my home – since even cluttering my bookshelves isn’t sufficient anymore for all the books at my place…

Bibliophilia or bibliomania can even have tragic consequences, in fiction and in real life; Peter Kien in Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-fe comes to mind, as well as the real-life biblio-criminals Don Vicente or Magister Tinius, two priests who committed murder out of an insane compulsion to increase their libraries. (Isn’t it interesting that of all people two priests are the most extreme cases of book-insanity?)

The small and charming book The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez (with beautiful illustrations by Peter Sis) fits very well here.

The ingredients: Bluma Lennon, an attractive female English literature professor with a – in the true sense of the word – fatal love of the poetry of Emily Dickinson; her Argentinian part-time lover and successor at the university who is the narrator of the story; a stained and gritty copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line; and Carlos Brauer, an Uruguyan book collector who sent this strange copy to Bluma.

While on a visit at home in Buenos Aires, the narrator uses the opportunity to go to Montevideo and investigates about Brauer who was obviously in a kind of relationship with Bluma. What he learns from the owner of an antiquarian bookshop in the Uruguayan capital, and a book collector who knew Brauer well, makes the narrator – and the reader! – more and more curious; and when he finally discovers the House of Paper to which the title alludes, Brauer has become a real mystery. Of course I will not give away the full story here – but for addicted readers like you this small book will be a treat, that’s for sure.

The House of Paper is a very enjoyable novella that I read in one sitting. For all of you that have an issue with bibliomania, the book may be also of educational value. Carlos Maria Dominguez is a very productive Argentinian author who lives in Uruguay. The House of Paper makes me curious to read more of his books. If I am not mistaken, this is the only book by him so far translated in English; two of his novels and another book with stories are available in German.

Dominguez

Carlos Maria Dominguez: The House of Paper, translated by Nick Caistor, illustrations by Peter Sis, Harcourt, San Diego 2005

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Kraus Project

glm_iv1

This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen is a hybrid book.

It contains on the upper part of each page on the left side the original German text of four essays and a poem by the Austrian author Karl Kraus, mirrored by the English translation of the respective text on the opposite right page.

On the lower part of each page are numerous footnotes that are sometimes longer than Kraus’ text itself.  The footnotes are partly by Jonathan Franzen, partly by the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter, partly by the German-Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, like Franzen an admirer of Kraus. Franzen is also the translator of Kraus’ texts.

Since Karl Kraus is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, the publisher obviously thought it a good idea to bring this book on the market with Jonathan Franzen as author on the title page. But again, this book is a translated and annotated collection of some of Kraus’ texts.

A few words about Karl Kraus:

coming from a wealthy assimilated Jewish family, Kraus grew up in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Vienna was at that time a melting pot of people and ideas. Literature and theater (two lifelong passions of Kraus) were at its height, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis that revolutionized later many aspects of our lives, Mahler and Schönberg revolutionized music, Adolf Loos, Kraus closest friend revolutionized architecture, the Vienna school of economists revolutionized economics, the Vienna Circle and Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy. All kind of modern ideologies came to light in that period in Vienna, including the “modern” racial Antisemitism and its natural reaction, Zionism, whose main propagandist was the journalist Theodor Herzl, a former colleague of Kraus who would become one of his most hated targets.

“Vienna’s streets are paved with culture; the streets of other capitals are paved with asphalt”,

is a popular aphorism by Kraus.

In this hotbed of culture and ideologies the typical Kaffeehauskultur developed where each faction of intellectuals had their favorite coffeehouses where they met and engaged in group and cartel building, gossiping, writing and reading. Kraus was part of this culture, but never belonged to any group. One of his most remarkable features is that he successfully obtained his absolute independence during all his intellectual life.

Kraus’ main “work” are the roughly 40,000 pages of his journal Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published between 1899 and 1936. In the first years, he admitted every now and then guest authors but from 1912 on, he wrote the journal exclusively by himself.

Die Fackel had a blog-like feel: Kraus’ was publishing whenever he had something to say and about whatever he felt he needed something to say. Although literature and theater were always prominent topics in Die Fackel, Kraus was an avid reader of the Austrian and foreign press – and from here he took most of his inspirations.

Kraus was writing about foreign and local policy, about the situation of workers in the factories, about women’s rights, he was an early advocate of equal rights of homosexuals, and he was an everyday observer of the journalism in Austria, which was in an extremely bad shape according to Kraus.

This opposition to the frequently badly written journalism made Kraus many enemies, especially since he combined it with irony and sarcasm, but also with undeniable truths. His lawyer was for sure a very busy man and it is said that Kraus won almost all his court cases. He knew the rules and acted within these rules very efficiently to expose corruption, nepotism, stupidity and wrong use of language.

He did all this in a unique style, frequently playing with words and creating a richness of aphorisms that may be rivaled only by Lichtenberg. He was also a stage persona: he gave more than 700 performances reading, singing, acting alone on a stage – his audience consisted mainly of addicted Kraus fans; Elias Canetti for example said in his autobiography that he visited more than 300 of Kraus’ unique performances. Kraus must have been a magnetic personality that had many people under his spell.

The two main pieces in The Kraus Project are Kraus’ most famous essays on the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine and on the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy.

Heine is for Kraus on the one hand a great and extremely popular poet. Many of his poems were turned into popular songs and are part of the folk poetry. But Heine’s followers turn his spirit into something superficial. And this is not by accident, it is because of specific virtues in Heine’s works. In Kraus’ times there was a firm belief of many intellectuals that there was a deep difference between Romance and German culture. As Kraus put it:

Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He’d surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they’ve also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren window frames. Just spare me the pretty ribbons!…”

Austria, although linguistically part of German culture, is for Kraus deeply affected by the “French” poet Heine. Even the biggest Anti-semites “forgave” Heine his Jewish origin, just because his verses appeal so much to the tendency of most of the Vienna literati to gloss over everything with patches of jokes and irony. (I owe The Kraus Project the information that young Adolf Hitler in his Vienna years supported an initiative to build a monument for Heine – Heine’s poems were later not removed from the school books in Nazi Germany, just his name; it was all supposed to be “folk poetry” then).

While the Heine essay is very acerbic in it’s evaluation of the poems of this great German writer, the big hater Kraus shows in the other main essay that he can be also a great admirer and lover: he re-discovers the Austrian actor, singer, playwright Johann Nestroy, a popular performer of the first part of the 19th century who fell into oblivion soon after his death.

That Nestroy is nowadays considered to be one of the greatest authors for theater in German  is almost exclusively a result of the decades of Kraus’ efforts to make him again popular. I love Nestroy’s plays, and there is hardly anything (with the exception of Shakespeare, and the obscure play Datterich by Ernst Elias Niebergall, written in Darmstadt dialect) that I enjoy more on a stage than his plays. To me, the Nestroy essay is Kraus’s best essay – the Heine piece, although very interesting, shows also a side of Kraus that is not very appealing: the text is not free from Anti-semitic slurs.

Franzen’s translation is a heroic and brave effort and mostly very decent in my opinion. Kraus is extremely difficult to translate and that he tackled this task deserves a lot of respect.

The footnotes are frequently related directly to the text. Paul Reitter adds a lot of his knowledge about Kraus, much to the profit of the reader. Also many of Franzen’s and Kehlmann’s footnotes are interesting. The one thing that surprised me was that Franzen is dragging the reader a lot into his personal life during the time he lived in Germany and Austria as a student. We learn many details about the person Jonathan Franzen, including the story of his failed first marriage, and a short bout of mental illness when he was in Germany. If you like Jonathan Franzen as an author (I do), you might as well enjoy this part of the annotations, but if not you will have to skip some of them. I am still wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to split the book in two: a translation of Kraus only, and a longer essay with Franzen’s view of Kraus.

Kraus was a larger-than-life author. His play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) is about 800 pages long. The Kraus Project gives some insight in part of his work, but those who would like to discover the full Kraus and also the Vienna of his times (because most of his work can be only understood from the context) should maybe read in parallel also Carl Schorske’s excellent book Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.

Let me close with a poem by Karl Kraus in which he explains why he kept silent for a long time after the Nazis took power in Germany:

Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke.
I have nothing to say
and won’t say why.
And there’s stillness since the earth broke.
No word was right;
a man speaks only from his sleep at night.
And dreams of a sun that joked.
It passes; and later
it didn’t matter.
The Word went under when that world awoke,

Man frage nicht, was all die Zeit ich machte.
Ich bleibe stumm;
und sage nicht, warum.
Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte.
Kein Wort, das traf;
man spricht nur aus dem Schlaf.
Und träumt von einer Sonne, welche lachte.
Es geht vorbei;
nachher war’s einerlei.
Das Wort entschlief, als jene Welt erwachte.

kraus-project

Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project, Fourth Estate, London 2013

Carl Emil Schorske: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage 1980

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

From Bulgaria with Love

German Literary Spaces (Nемски литературни простори) is a new collection of essays by the Bulgarian poet, essayist, aphorist, and translator Venzeslav Konstantinov.

Konstantinov is one of those very important mediators between different countries, languages, cultures that make literature or other works from the cultural sphere accessible to us and whose work is so important and frequently underestimated. As for Bulgaria, a considerable part of the classical and modern literature in German language was translated and edited by Konstantinov and his translations are accompanied by essays that help the reader to understand the context of the work and the writer. Konstantinov is a particularly gifted translator of poetry. The “Bulgarian” poetry of Erich Kästner for example is so close to the original that it sounds as if Kästner has written the poems himself in Bulgarian.

A collection of twenty of Konstantinov’s essays on German literature is now published in the new book announced here. Each chapter is devoted to the work of one author, and the range of writers covers the period from the 18th century (the first essay in the book is devoted to Goethe) until today (an essay on Martin Walser concludes the book). All essays are comparatively short (five to ten pages), only the one on Elias Canetti (“From Rustschuk with Love”) is longer. And all of them make the reader curious to discover the work of the writer that Konstantinov is describing in the respective essay.

Konstantinov proves not only to be a congenial translator, but also a successful ‘literature seducer’, someone who knows how to wake up the wish in the reader to discover new literary horizons.

With two small critical remarks I want to conclude this review. First, it would have been great to make it clear that the essays are not dealing with the 20 most important German authors (there is for example no essay on Kafka, and an essay on Katja Mann instead of Thomas or Heinrich Mann). The essays reflect Konstantinov’s interests, and that’s absolutely fine. But they are not (and not meant to be) a systematic introduction to German literature. That’s in no way meant as a criticism of the author, but a short remark in this sense would be useful to readers that are not so familiar with German literature.

Additionally it would have been nice to mention if the essays were written for this book or if it is a collection of previously published articles. Nothing wrong with collecting previously published essays, it is even a commendable deed from the publishing house Iztok-Zapad (East-West) in Sofia. But as a reader I just want to know what exactly I am reading.

These remarks diminish in no way the excellent work by Venzeslav Konstantinov and his publisher. This collection of essays is worth reading and deserves a translation, and of course many Bulgarian readers.

Nemski_literaturni_prostori

Venzeslav Konstantinov: Nemski literaturni prostori (German literary spaces), Iztok-Zapad, Sofia 2014

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.