Tag Archives: French literature

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.

 


Coup de Grâce

Coup de Grâce is a short novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, published a few months before the outbreak of WWII. It is the account of the tragic relationship of three people, told by one of them in retrospect.

Erich von Lhomond, the narrator, is a German officer of the Legion Condor who was wounded in the Spanish Civil War and is recovering in Italy which gives him an opportunity to look back at events that happened briefly after WWI, and that had a lasting impact on his life.

Erich and his close childhood friend Conrad took part in the fighting in the Baltics in 1919 between the Red and the Czarist Army; the so-called White Russians were supported in this civil war by German Freikorps (in which Erich and Conrad serve as officers), paramilitary groups with strong nationalist, anti-communist, and frequently anti-Semitic convictions (many later Nazi leaders served in Freikorps units); the situation was rather complex since there were already independent states in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania who were caught somehow in between. The fighting in the Baltics with its atrocities, summary executions of prisoners, or massacres of people who were just suspected of being sympathetic to the other side foreshadowed in many respects what was to come about twenty years later. It is despite its great importance for the understanding of the history of this century a today almost forgotten episode.

The action of the biggest part of the book takes place in Kratovice, the castle-like family home of Conrad and his sister Sophie whom Erich and Conrad meet again after a long time. In their youth and adolescence, the three of them formed a very close triangle, and they used to share their thoughts, dreams, and secrets. But the war and their growing-up has changed things between them. While Erich and Conrad share a homoerotic attachment to each other, Sophie falls in love with Erich and declares her feelings very openly to him – but Erich is not responding to her feelings.

Yourcenar focuses on the development of the relationship of these three young people, that are tormented by their feelings and also the political situation. An additional complication is the fact that Sophie has sympathies for the Reds, and doesn’t hide it. After being rejected by Erich, she starts a number of short affairs with other soldiers, probably in the hope to arouse Erich’s jealousy. But Erich keeps his calm at least on the outward. Only once, after another compromising short affair of Sophie, he gives her a dressing-down that destroys her last hopes in ever arousing serious interest in her:

“Toutes les réponses eussent été bonnes, sauf celle sur quoi je trébuchai par irritation, par timidité, par hâte de blesser en retour. Il y a au fond de chacun de nous un goujat insolent et obtus, et ce fut lui qui riposta:

– Les filles de trottoir n’ont pas à se charger de la police des mœurs, chère amie.”

“All responses would have been good except the one on which I stumbled by irritation, by shyness, by aiming to hurt back. Deep within each of us there is an insolent and obtuse bounder, and it was he who replied:

– Pavement princesses do not have to take on the vice squad, dear friend.”

This moment seems to mark the turning point of Sophie’s feelings; she is soon leaving Kratovice without giving note to anyone, obviously with the intention to join the Reds.

What follows is the evacuation of Kratovice and the withdrawal of Erich’s unit, skirmishes in which Conrad is mortally wounded, and a truly breathtaking last meeting of Erich and Sophie who has been taken prisoner. I prefer not to reveal more of the story here, but the title of the book gives already away a lot.

This short novel is in my opinion one of the really great works of French 20th Century literature. There are many reasons to consider this book as at least very remarkable.

One reason is the intelligent choice of the central “hero” of the book. The narrator and main character Erich is an ambiguous and therefore interesting character. With his refined and chivalrous manners and his interest in literature and art he is not the heel-clicking stereotype of a German soldier you can see in many Hollywood movies, but probably a more typical example of the old Prussian military elite that was predominantly of French-Huguenot origin – as Erich himself.

Although being historically on the “wrong” side – being part of the military machinery that was responsible for the rise of fascism in Europe and other parts of the world – he is an intelligent man able of introspection and empathy. That is self-evident in his relations with Sophie, but also in his opinion about Grigori Loew, the man with which Sophie was living while siding with the Reds. Loew is a Jew and convinced communist, but nevertheless Erich thinks more highly of him than of most his own brothers in arms:

“…il avait sur lui un exemplaire du Livre d’Heures de Rilke, que Conrad aussi avait aimé. Ce Grigori avait été probablement le seul homme dans ce pays et à cette époque avec qui j’aurais pu causer agréablement pendant un quart d’heure. Il faut reconnaître que cette manie juive de s’élever au-dessus de la friperie paternelle avait produit chez Grigori Loew ces beaux fruits psychologiques que sont le dévouement à une cause, le goût de la poésie lyrique, l’amitié envers une jeune fille ardente, et finalement, le privilège un peu galvaudé d’une belle mort.”   

“… he had a copy of the Book of Hours of Rilke with him, that Conrad also had loved. This Grigori had probably been the only man in this country and at that time with whom I could have conversed nicely for a quarter of an hour. It has to be recognized that this Jewish obsession to rise above his father’s thrift had produced at Grigori Loew these beautiful psychological fruits like the dedication to a cause, the taste for lyric poetry, the friendship toward a fiery young girl, and finally the somewhat overused privilege of a beautiful death.”

In retrospect, Erich realizes that the communist Russian Jew Grigori Loew was in a way his own mirror image; he also realizes that Sophie’s last wish to which he had complied was indeed an act of revenge that overshadowed Erich’s whole future life. His life after the catastrophic events seems to matter very little to him; he is also aware of the fact that his engagement in diverse conflicts all over the world (Manchuria, Latin America, Spain) have turned the once honourable soldier into a mercenary and adventurer (who will in all probability be soon part of the Nazi aggression in WWII).

There are many other reasons to estimate Yourcenar’s book very highly: the crisp and elegant language, the deep psychological insights in the motivation and the different psycho-sexual orientations of the characters, the dialogues and atmospheric depth of the setting in the family castle of the de Reval family – I enjoyed this gem of a book very much. It made me curious to read more by Yourcenar.

I read the book in the original French; it turned out to be a surprisingly easy read.

An interesting movie is based on the novel: Der Fangschuss (1976), by Volker Schlöndorff (cinematography: Igor Luther).


Marguerite Yourcenar: Le Coup de Grâce, Folio 2016
Marguerite Yourcenar: Coup de Grâce, translated by Grace Frick, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1981
The text quotes in this blog post are translated from the French by Thomas Hübner.
© 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.

Missing in Mexico

Ambrose Bierce, Hart Crane, Arthur Cravan, B. Traven / Ret Marut (or whatever his name was), – it seems that Mexico is the perfect place for authors who want to vanish without traces.

 

Ambrose Bierce: The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, Penguin Classics 2001

Carlos Fuentes: The Old Gringo, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007 – a biographical novel about Bierce’s mysterious disppearence in Mexico

Works of Arthur Cravan, translated by A.G. O’Meara, CreateSpace 2014

The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, Centennial Edition 2001

B. Traven: Ich kenne das Leben in Mexiko. Briefe an John Schikowski 1925-1932, Limes 1982 (=I know about life in Mexico. Letters to John Schikowski 1925-1932) 

© 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.

Procrastinators, take this!

Bad news for the procrastinators among the authors of novels!

According to Enrique Vila-Matas’ very enjoyable book Bartleby & Co. (review to follow), Georges Simenon, the most anti-Bartlebyan author of French language, wrote 41 novels!

And what is even worse, procrastinators – this was his output not of a lifetime of writing. It was what he wrote in one single year: 1929.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Bartleby & Co., translated by Jonathan Dunne, New Directions, New York 2004

© 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.

Hypnos

It is always interesting to read the blog posts of fellow book bloggers. So many interesting books would have been unknown to me, so many aspects of books I read would have been probably hidden to me if I wouldn’t read my blogger colleagues. And sometimes you feel compelled to pick up a book again you have read a long time ago, just because of a quote that reminded you how much had you enjoyed that particular book.

This is exactly what happened when I read a blog post by Anthony from Time’s Flows Stemmed. I will repost the full quote here:

“One day, during the war, I was asked to find an empty strip of land on the plateau de Valensole where Allied planes in difficulty could land. I find a large field that fits the bill but there’s a magnificent three-hundred-year-old walnut tree in the middle of it. The owner of the field was willing to rent it to me, but stubbornly refused to cut down the beautiful tree. I eventually told him why we needed the land, whereupon he agreed. We start clearing the soil around the base of the tree; we follow the taproot . . . . At the end of the root, we find the bones of a knight buried in his armour. The man must have been a medieval knight . . . and he had a walnut in his pocket when he was killed, for the base of the taproot was exactly level with his thigh-bone. The walnut tree had sprouted in the grave.”

I can wholeheartedly recommend you René Char’s Hypnos, either in the original French or in the English edition by Seagull Books (the translation by Mark Hutchinson is excellent), one of the best publishers of translated fiction. And when you are at it, don’t miss Char’s excellent poetry, available in a new edition (The Inventors that contains also some prose texts) by the same translator and publisher as well!

René Char: Hypnos, translated by Mark Hutchinson, Seagull Books 2014

René Char: The Inventors, translated by Mark Hutchinson, Seagull Books 2015

© 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.

 


Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran

Paris, 1960. Moïse, or Momo as he is usually called, is a Jewish boy that grows up in a rather loveless household. Mother and an older brother, Popol, have left soon after Momo’s birth and left the baby-boy with the father, a lawyer, that is hardly ever communicating with his son (or anybody else), except for the cases when he is suspecting Momo to steal money from the funds from which he is supposed to buy the household supplies.

At 13, Momo is getting interested in the other sex, and so the short novella Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran starts with him crashing his piggy bank and using the savings for a first visit at a prostitute. The real centre of the story however is the slowly developing friendship with Monsieur Ibrahim, the Arab of the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, where Momo is buying (and sometimes stealing) his supplies.

While at the beginning they exchange usually only one sentence every day, over a longer period they become closer and the ever-smiling Monsieur Ibrahim, an elderly man who is rarely ever seen leaving his shop, is beginning to share his view of life with the boy who is looking for answers, answers that usually a father is supposed to provide if possible – but on the one occasion Momo is looking for a serious talk with his father, he realizes that his old man is a broken man, unable to even make sense of his own life. Something terrible happened in the life of Momo’s father, and it is only after Monsieur Ibrahim, a true Sufi, explains it to him at a later stage, Momo begins to understand that his twice being deserted by mother and father alike is not his own fault, of course. He is in a way suffering because he too is a victim of the holocaust – his life is tremendously affected by the consequences of this great crime, although he is born after WWII.

I don’t want to give away the whole story but rather dramatic developments are still ahead of Momo. At a bit below 70 pages in print, this book is a fast read, so you can easily go through it in a few hours.

A friendship between a Jewish boy and an Arab in Paris – I think the author realized that he had to tell us this story in the past tense. By placing his story in the early 1960s he makes this friendship more probable; at the same time this past is a bit like a lost Utopia where people that belong to different religions learn to accept each other and even become true friends for life. And on a more symbolic level – the protagonists’s name derive from Abraham and Moses – it is also a book about the fact that the followers of the big monotheistic religions share in the end much more than many of the legalistic interpreters of these cults want to know nowadays.

“Avec monsieur Ibrahim, je me rendais compte que les juifs, les musulmans et même les chrétiens, ils avaient plus de grands hommes en commun avant de se taper sur la gueule. Ça ne me regardait pas, mais ça me faisait du bien.” – (With Monsieur Ibrahim, I realized that the Jews, the Muslims, and even the Christians had more great men in common before they were hitting each other’s faces. It had nothing to do with me, but it made me feel good.)

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is a popular and very prolific French-Belgian author of bestsellers. I didn’t expect very much from the book but was pleasantly surprised. Since I decided to read again more French books in their original language, it was also a test if I can still do it – it went well and I will tackle also some longer and more complex works in French again in the future.

It is said that the book is inspired by Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us – I haven’t read Gary’s book yet and can therefore not comment on this aspect.

By the way, there is a movie with the same title with Omar Sharif in the title role – probably his best performance of his later career.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran, translated by Marjolijn De Jager, Acorn 2004; Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran, Albin Michel 2014

The above quote from the French edition is translated by Thomas Hübner.

© 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.

Reading/Reviewing Plans

The end of the year is approaching with fast steps. This year I haven’t been so active as a blogger as last year until recently – German Lit Month brought me back to the usual pace – and I have done more blog posts on poetry and translations than the year before; also I did more posts in German and one in Bulgarian too. Book blogging is a dynamic process and the focus of such places will always be subject to small unplanned changes, but I will keep also in the next year my habit to publish reviews of books that were interesting to me.

As you already know when you follow this blog on a regular basis, my taste in books is rather eclectic. I am definitely not a person who is permanently scanning bestseller lists or is jumping in on discussions about books that were – usually for marketing reasons – the “talk of the town”. Therefore I avoided so far reviewing books by Houellebecq or Knausgård; it is difficult to not be influenced by the public discussion that focuses frequently on aspects that have very little to do with the literary quality of the books by such authors but a lot with their public persona and their sometimes very controversial opinions about certain topics. Not that the books by these authors are necessarily bad, but I prefer to read without too much background noise. So I will come also to these authors, but most probably not in the near future.

My blog tries to be diverse, but without quota. But of course my choice is subjective and I am aware of the fact that probably most readers will find many authors/books on this list that are completely unknown to them. If you look for just another blog that is reviewing again and again the same exclusively Anglo-saxon authors, then this might not be the best place for you. If you are eager to discover something new, then you are most welcome. 

There are no ads on this blog and this will also not change in the future. There is zero financial interest from my side to keep this blog alive, I do it just for fun. Please don’t send unsolicitated review copies if you are an author or a publisher. In rare cases I might accept a review copy when contacted first but only when I have already an interest in the book. All blog posts contain of course my own – sometimes idiosyncratic – opinion for what it is worth. In general I tend to write reviews on the positive side. When a book disappoints me, I tend to not write a review unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise.

These are the books presently on my “To-be-read” pile; which means they are the one’s that i will most probably read and review within the coming months. But as always with such lists, they are permanently subject to changes, additions, removals. Therefore I (and also the readers of this blog) will take this list as an orientation and not as a strict task on which I have to work one by one. 

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Jim al-Khalili: The House of Wisdom

Ryunosunke Akutagawa: Kappa

Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

Sinan Antoon: The Corpse Washer

Toufic Youssef Aouad: Le Pain

Abhijit Banerjee / Esther Duflo: Poor Economics

Hoda Barakat: Le Royaume de cette terre

Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

Nicolas Born: The Deception

Thomas Brasch: Vor den Vätern sterben die Söhne

Joseph Brodsky: On Grief and Reason

Alina Bronsky: Just Call Me Superhero

Alina Bronsky: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

Leila S. Chudori: Pulang

Beqe Cufaj: projekt@party 

Mahmoud Darwish: Memory of Forgetfulness

Oei Hong Djien: Art & Collecting Art

Dimitre Dinev: Engelszungen (Angel’s Tongues)

Anton Donchev: Time of Parting

Jabbour Douaihy: June Rain

Michael R. Dove: The Banana Tree at the Gate

Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes

Isabelle Eberhardt: Works

Tristan Egolf: Lord of the Barnyard

Deyan Enev: Circus Bulgaria

Jenny Erpenbeck: The End of Days

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Mani

Milena Michiko Flašar: I called him Necktie

David Fromkin: A Peace to End All Peace

Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra

Amitav Ghosh: In an Antique Land

Georg K. Glaser: Geheimnis und Gewalt (Secret and Violence)

Georgi Gospodinov: Natural Novel

Georgi Gospodinov: The Physics of Sorrow

Elizabeth Gowing: Edith and I

David Graeber: The Utopia of Rules

Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You

Knut Hamsun: Hunger

Ludwig Harig: Die Hortensien der Frau von Roselius

Johann Peter Hebel: Calendar Stories

Christoph Hein: Settlement

Wolfgang Hilbig: The Sleep of the Righteous

Albert Hofmann / Ernst Jünger: LSD

Hans Henny Jahnn: Fluss ohne Ufer (River without Banks) (Part II)

Franz Jung: Der Weg nach unten

Ismail Kadare: Broken April

Ismail Kadare: The Palace of Dreams

Douglas Kammen and Katharine McGregor (Editors): The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia: 1965-1968

Rosen Karamfilov: Kolene (Knees)

Orhan Kemal: The Prisoners

Irmgard Keun: Nach Mitternacht

Georg Klein: Libidissi

Friedrich August Klingemann: Bonaventura’s Nightwatches

Fatos Kongoli: The Loser

Theodor Kramer: Poems

Friedo Lampe: Septembergewitter (Thunderstorm in September)

Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star

Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy

Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt

Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers

Sandor Marai: Embers

Sean McMeekin: The Berlin-Baghdad Express

Multatuli: Max Havelaar

Alice Munro: Open Secrets

Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women

Irene Nemirovsky: Suite française 

Ben Okri: The Famished Road

Laksmi Pamuntjak: The Question of Red

Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra

Georges Perec: Life. A User’s Manual

Leo Perutz: By Night Under the Stone Bridge

Boris Pilnyak: Mahogany

Alek Popov: Black Box

Milen Ruskov: Thrown Into Nature

Boris Savinkov: Memoirs of a Terrorist

Eric Schneider: Zurück nach Java

Daniel Paul Schreber: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness

Carl Seelig: Wandering with Robert Walser

Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Anthony Shadid: House of Stones

Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales

Raja Shehadeh: A Rift in Time

Alexander Shpatov: #LiveFromSofia

Werner Sonne: Staatsräson?

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Way to Babadag

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: A Mute’s Soliloquy

Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The Buru Quartet (4 vol.)

Lionel Trilling: The Middle of the Journey

Iliya Trojanov: The Collector of Worlds

Bernward Vesper: Die Reise (The Journey)

Robert Walser: Jakob von Gunten

Peter Weiss: The Aesthetics of Resistance

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

Marguerite Yourcenar: Coup de Grace

Galina Zlatareva: The Medallion

Arnold Zweig: The Case of Sergeant Grisha

Stay tuned – and feel free to comment any of my blog posts. Your contributions are very much appreciated. You are also invited to subscribe to this blog if you like.

© 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.

Mitsou

“Trouver une chose, c’est toujours amusant; un moment avant elle n’y était pas encore. Mais trouver un chat, c’est inouï! Car ce chat, convenez-en, n’entre pas tout à fait dans votre vie, comme ferait, par exemple, un jouet quelconque tout en vous appartenant maintenant, il reste un peu en dehors, et cela fait toujours: la vie + un chat, ce qui donne, je vous assure, une somme énorme. Perdre une chose, c’est bien triste. Il est à supposer qu’elle se trouve mal, qu’elle se casse quelque part, qu’elle finit dans la déchéance. Mais perdre un chat: non! Ce n’est pas permis.”

“Finding a thing, that‘s always fun; a moment before it was not there yet. But finding a cat, that’s incredible! For this cat, admit it, does not come entirely into your life, as would for example any toy while belonging to you now. It remains a little off, and it always will be: a life + a cat, that adds up to a huge sum, I assure you. Losing a thing is very sad. It has to be assumed that it is in bad condition, that it breaks somewhere, that it ends in decay. But losing a cat: no! That is not allowed.”

A boy finds a stray cat, adopts it and gets more and more attached to it. The two spend a lot of time together and we see them in many everyday situations and small adventures. Then, Mitsou, the cat, disappears again; cats are doing this sometimes, so we don’t need to suspect the worst. But the boy is inconsolable, searches for Mitsou everywhere, but to no avail.

A sad but everyday story of a heartbreaking loss. What makes it extraordinary is the fact that this real-life experience was made into a series of beautiful drawings by the 11-year old boy to whom it happened. Balthasar Klossowski, today known as Balthus, told this story 1919 in 40 drawings that show an already fully accomplished artist. Cats and girls proved to be his lifelong artistic interests. (His brother Pierre was a also a talented painter and a writer.) Stylistically, the drawings resemble woodcuts and a certain influence of the Flemish artist and book illustrator Frans Masereel, who at around the same time published several “novels without words”, can be detected.

Rainer Maria Rilke, who was at that time the lover of Balthus’ mother Baladine, added a foreword in French when Mitsou was first published in 1921 and from which the above quote is taken. Therefore the review is not included in German Literature Month. (Rilke wrote also occasionally poems in French.) 

Mitsou is a very charming and beautiful book. When you love cats or when you just want to enjoy a book with beautiful illustrations, you will like this precious work very much.

Art historian Sabine Rewald, author of the book Balthus: Cats and Girls describes here how she tracked down the surviving complete set of original drawings that were shown for the first time in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York not long ago. You can see also some samples of these wonderful drawings when you click on the hyperlink.

The English edition of the book is out of print, but you can find this gem with a bit of luck in antiquarian bookstores or online shops. The French and German editions are still available.

Balthus

Mitsou. Forty Images by Balthus. Preface by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Richard Miller, The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Harry N. Abrams, New York 1984

Sabine Rewald: Balthus: Cats and Girls, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2013

The Rilke quote in this blog post is translated from French by Thomas Hübner.

© 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.

Unforgiving Years

Unforgiving Years – a very suitable title for a novel that is reflecting the lives of the protagonists of Victor Serge’s posthumously published book about a group of life-long revolutionaries that have broken with the Communist Party after the show trials of the years 1936/37 in Moscow and the great purges in the Soviet Union, followed by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

D – like all Comintern agents he is using several names and passports – has sent his “letter of resignation” to the service, a step that can result in any moment in retribution, i.e. assassination by one of the services loyal agents. Defectors are considered as traitors and have to be eliminated, in pre-War Paris where the novel starts like in any place of the world where Stalin’s long arm is reaching.

The novel consists of four sections, which are like large panels of a painting that shows the ideological, physical and personal devastations of these Unforgiving Years. In the first part, D is preparing his and his partner Noemi’s escape to the New World; the atmosphere is that of growing paranoia: both fear for very good reasons that a killer commando is after them and they are using all stratagems of conspiracy to stay safe. D tries to convince Daria, a close friend and fellow revolutionary whom he knows a long time (and was once in love with) to join them, but to no avail. Daria has made up her mind to go back to the Soviet Union.

In part Two, we are following Daria’s fate in the steppe of Kazakhstan and during the blockade of Leningrad. In part Three, she is on a dangerous mission behing enemy lines in a bombed-out German city during the last days of the war. These parts are full with some of the most impressive pages I have read about WWII; characters like the young officer Klim, the cripple Franz or the girl Brigitte and her fate leave a very strong impression on the reader. In the last part, Daria finally defects too and is joining D and Noemi – they have established themselves as small farmers in a remote part of Mexico – hoping that they have finally escaped the wrath of Stalin and the tentacles of his secret army of agents and killerati

It is interesting to compare Serge’s novel with a few others written by so-called renegades; authors that were not only “fellow-travelers” of communism but that participated actively as Comintern agents or in other official or secret function in the fight for the revolution (or for Stalin), and that grew more and more disappointed after the trials and the pact with the devil Nazism. Unforgiving Years, Like a Tear in the Ocean (by Manes Sperber), The Great Crusade (by Gustav Regler), Darkness at Noon (by Arthur Koestler), and I could mention also many other works by Silone, Spender, Malraux, Orwell and others – they all have a central character that turns after a long inner fight from a convinced communist and revolutionary into a renegade, a person that objects to brutal and inhumane Stalinist ideology.

Contrary to the other mentioned authors, Serge was a life-long activist and a revolutionary by birth so to say. He was born into a Russian family of emigrants in Brussels – a distant relative was the explosives expert of the anarchist group that assassinated Czar Alexander II -, got involved in the activities of an anarchist group (probably the first one to use cars as escape vehicles during their bank robberies), served some time in prison and went shortly after the October Revolution to the Soviet Union were he became a part of the so-called “Left Opposition”. The later part of his life resembles a lot that of the novel’s main character, 

Against all odds, this is also a novel of hope. D is expressing it after Daria arrives at his farm in Mexico and finds him changed and more calm, even philosophical:

“Every bit of basalt has its crown of greenery and flowers sprung from lifeless aridity. It’s a miracle of resurrection, like when the snows melt in our cold countries… For months there was nothing to see but a dried-up desert; who could guess that beneath the calcinated ground, millions of invincible seeds were concealed, ready to germinate. We observe that he true power is not that of darkness, or barrenness, but of life. All that exists cries, whispers, or sings that we must never despair, for true death does not exist.” 

For me, Unforgiving Years is first of all a novel about the conscience and responsibility of the individual. Quite in the beginning, D – who is also the narrator of this part – says something that reflects perfectly the author’s opinion of that question, I suppose. And I think it is worth it to quote it in detail:

“What is “conscience”? A residue of beliefs inculcated in us from the time of primitive taboos until today’s mass press? Psychologists have come up with an appropriate term for these imprints deep within us: the superego, they say. I have nothing left to invoke but conscience, and I don’t even know what it is. I feel an ineffectual protest surging up from a deep and unknown part of me to challenge destructive expediency, power, the whole of material reality, and in the name of what? Inner enlightenment? I’m behaving almost like a believer. I cannot do otherwise: Luther’s words. Except that the German visionary who flung his inkwell at the devil went on to add, “God help me!” What will come to help me?”

From his memoirs which I had read long ago, I knew that Serge was an interesting author. Judging from Unforgiving Years it seems that he was even a very accomplished novelist who is still to discover; the very informative preface of the translator explains us that a recent biography on Serge wants to make us believe that “writing, for Serge, was something to do only when he was unable to fight.” (Susan Weissman, The Course Is Set On Hope, Verso 2002). I find this opinion wrong and the biographer’s decision to reduce Serge to anti-Stalinist fighter and propagandist only diminishes this extraordinary novelist without reason.

In a perfect world, the works of Serge and other writers who tried to open the world’s eyes to see the ugly truth about Stalinism, would be read far more widespread – and the works of those authors who started their careers as GPU henchmen that organised the assassination of renegades and ended up as Stalin or Nobel Prize winners would be, where they belong…but, as we all know, the Pablo Neruda industry is still blooming, whereas Serge is still virtually unknown to a big part of the reading public. 

Thanks to New York Review Books, at least several of Serge’s books are available in English and we readers can do him justice: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Midnight in the Century, Conquered City, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, and Unforgiving Years, a masterpiece that I can recommend strongly.

Unforgiving Years

Victor Serge: Unforgiving Years, translated by Richard Greeman, New York Review Books, New York 2008

 
© 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.