Tag Archives: novel

Contempt

Riccardo and Emilia are happily married for two years in post-war Rome. While Riccardo, the intelligent and likeable, though slightly narcissistic and delusional narrator, works as a journalist writing film critics to make a living, his dream is to become a serious writer and novelist. His beautiful wife Emilia, coming from an impoverished family, dreams on the other hand of living in their own house and of creating a comfortable nest for them, something much better than the rented room in which the financially struggling couple lives. When Riccardo is offered work as a screenwriter by the film producer Battista, he decides to accept despite serious reservations. He considers this kind of work as a waste of time and talent, but since it is comparatively well paid, he can fulfil his wife’s dream and buy a small flat; at a later stage, also a car, another sign of his growing success in the eyes of society. But on his way upward in the social hierarchy, something happens to the relationship between Emilia and Riccardo: Emilia becomes reserved and grows cold toward her husband, love turns into indifference and even into hatred and contempt. Contempt is also the title of the novel by Alberto Moravia that I am reviewing here.

Moravia has been praised for his elegant prose, and I can see why, even when I read the book in German translation. The prose is flowing effortlessly, the dialogues of the tormented Riccardo who wants to find out the reason for the growing alienation between him and his wife, and Emilia sound very real and convincing. Another thing I admire especially in this book is his talent to keep the reader’s interest in a seemingly rather trivial story of alienation and estrangement between husband and wife by adding some other interesting aspects. 

One of the issues that play a major role in the novel, are the relationship between success and money, and the real needs and wishes of people; the characters are forced to do things that are in contrast with what they really want in order to make a living, or to satisfy the (vain) dreams of their partners, or to be perceived as successful and dynamic in a capitalist society. That’s not only true for Riccardo and Emilia, but also for the other two major characters of the novel, Battista and Rheingold, a German film director who is commissioned by Battista to make a monumental movie adaptation of The Odyssey. (In Jean-Luc Godard’s film adaptation of the novel, this character is played by Fritz Lang!)

Battista and Rheingold have strongly opposing approaches to the movie and Homer’s epic. While Battista wants to produce a monumental adventure movie, Rheingold on the other hand is only interested in the psychological conflict that he sees as the reason for Odysseus (Ulysses) participation in the War of Troy, and his delayed return to Penelope. According to his Freudian reading, Odysseus participates in the war because he wants to escape an unhappy relationship: he feels not loved by his wife. For the same reason, it takes him many years to come home. While Riccardo rejects Rheingold’s in his eyes simplistic psychoanalytic approach to Homer’s work, he understands reluctantly that what Rheingold says for the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope is like a mirror regarding his own and Emilia’s relationship and the reason for the obvious alienation between the partners may be a very similar one.

While Moravia is showing us a rather bleak picture of the modern Western world, where money, success, and sex serve as substitutes for a more meaningful existence, his reference to Homer seems to say that it has in principle been always like this. Emilio’s (and Moravia’s) membership in the Communist Party may be more inspired by a vague Utopian hope of a better future than by a real wish for a social revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat. In the meantime, it is best to acknowledge the mechanisms of the inherent contradictions of capitalist society. If Riccardo would have had more time to resolve the basic conflict and predicament of his life with Emilia, it would have been best to divorce and focus his future life on what he really aspires to be, a novelist and serious author. A sudden blow of fate spares him from actively taking this decision on his own.

Moravia knew the film business well; he worked also as a script writer and met probably people very similar as those described in his novel. Contempt describes an at that time thriving film industry in Italy as he experienced it, and the picture he is painting is not a particularly flattering one. Moravia had also a house on Capri similar as the one owned by Battista in the novel, where the final crisis takes place (the Godard movie was shot partly at the Casa Malaparte, another rather famous villa on Capri). And it is also known that at the time he published Contempt, his own marriage with novelist Elsa Morante was in a crisis that ended in divorce a few years later. So, while the novel is not a strictly autobiographic one, Moravia knew about what he was writing and was able to transform this into a rather short, fascinating novel. While some other so-called “existentialist” novels have not aged very well, Contempt was a surprisingly fresh book to me, and I guess I will soon read more by this author.

A word about the movie Le Mépris by Godard, which I have mentioned above: overall a good movie in my opinion, and the fact that Godard made a few major changes compared to the novel doesn’t distract from the quality of the film. The setting, particularly the scenes at the Casa Malaparte, is next to perfect for this movie. However, I had the impression that Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance were not really the right choices for two of the major roles (while Michel Piccoli is brilliant); therefore, it is for me a good movie, but not the masterpiece it could have been with a more adequate cast of characters.

Contempt was also published in English as A Ghost at Noon.

Alberto Moravia: Contempt, translated by Angus Davidson; with an introduction by Tim Parks. New York Review Books, New York 2004

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. 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 21st Century Greatest Novels”

The BBC asked a number of well-known literary critics to name “The 21st Century greatest novels”. And just as I imagined it: all the 12 books on the top of the list are written in English!
 
That says little about “The 21st Century greatest novels”, but a lot about the state of (mono-) culture in the English-speaking countries, where hardly three percent of the published books are works translated from other languages.
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. 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.

#germanlitmonth 2016 – Robert Seethaler: The Tobacconist

The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant) is after A Whole Life (Ein ganzes Leben) the second novel by Robert Seethaler that was published in English translation. I read it in the original German, therefore my review cannot do justice to the English translation.

The year is 1937. Franz Huchel, the main character of the book, is a 17-year-old from the Austrian countryside, who grows up as a single child of a single mother. At the beginning of the book, Franz is very much a protected child, a namby-pamby, but after the unexpected death of his mother’s wealthy lover, the days of dreaming are over: he is sent to Vienna for work. His employer, Otto Trsnjek, is also a former lover of his mother from pre-WWI days, and is running a trafik, a shop where people can buy tobacco, newspapers, stationery. Otto Trsnjek lost a leg in the war and with his shop he is a well-known presence in the neighborhood; he is teaching Franz how to properly read and understand the newspapers, but also the psychology of the different customers of the shop, and the characteristics of the different varieties of cigars they are selling (although none of the two is a smoker); and a few lessons about life in general. Otto’s tobacco shop becomes the new home of Franz, and it is from there where he learns to adapt to the big city.

With his mother Franz stays in touch via the picture postcards they are writing each other; it is from these postcards his mother learns about the major changes in Franz’ life: Franz falls in love with Anezka, a girl from Bohemia, and he gets acquainted with an old gentleman who is a regular customer of the tobacco shop: Sigmund Freud who is living nearby in the Berggasse, is buying cigars from Otto Trsnjek.

While the buxom Anezka with the charming tooth gap is awakening Franz’ sexuality and lust, the professor, who is taken in by the persistence with which the simple country boy is asking him for advice regarding his sorrows related to love and lust, is reassuring Franz. The frailness of the old professor, his fight with old age and the illness from which he is suffering since many years – the permanent pain and the problems with his jaw prosthesis are a recurring theme -, but also his frankness about how little he actually knows about the human psyche, impress Franz very much and the moment when the professor teaches him how to enjoy the smoking of a cigar on a park bench belong for sure to Franz’ most happy moments.

What would be in other times a normal coming-of-age story gets a twist because of the political events that are taking place in Austria at the time the story of Franz unwinds: 1938 is the year of the “Anschluss”, Austria is uniting with Nazi Germany, a development that is changing things forever in the lives of many people. Professor Freud is emigrating in the last moment (thanks to the organizational skills of his daughter Anna), socialists and other leftists are arrested or forced into suicide, and the tobacco shop is vandalized, and finally Otto Trsnjek is arrested by the Gestapo, a development that is seen by some neighbors with obvious glee, particularly by the rather disgusting butcher from next door, a sadistic figure as if from a play by Ödön von Horvath.

And Franz? He is still in doubt about Anezka, who appears and disappears without note on various occasions, and who displays her naked body in a “Varieté” (a kind of music hall), finally starting a relationship with a young SS officer for whom she is deserting Franz. When Franz is arrested in the tobacco shop which he is running after Otto’s death in the hands of the Gestapo, he locks the doors of the trafik because “you never know”. But when Anezka passes by the shop in March 1945, briefly before a major bombing raid, all that is left from the previous tobacco shop are some chairs and a note on which Franz had noted a dream he had, a habit he developed after Freud convinced him of the usefulness of this practice. Obviously, Franz never came back after his arrest, and it is easy to guess why.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much! There are a number of reasons for this. Seethaler writes a beautiful, elegant, effortless prose, and I hope that also the English translation will give a good idea of his stylistic abilities. As a professional actor (you can see him here in the movie Youth), Seethaler has obviously a good ear for dialogues and for the individual way of expression of each of his characters. He succeeds with very simple means to give the reader a clear indication about how each of the major figures in the book is speaking. Anezka for example comes from Bohemia, a region whose people were famous for their problems with the German umlauts, and a very few examples are already enough to have her voice practically in your ear. Another beautiful element are the postcards between Franz and his mother which in the beginning are full of platitudes but which develop into a real correspondence parallel to the process of Franz’ intellectual and sensual awakening. The atmosphere of the growing paranoia after the Anschluss, the outbursts of personal violence and sadism on a large scale of otherwise “normal” citizens that was without precedence even in Nazi Germany; the seemingly im-probable and “impossible” friendship between the simple Franz and the sophisticated Professor Freud; and the fine characterization of the inhabitants of Vienna – all this made me enjoy the book.

Franz is a hero in the typical German tradition of the simple, good-hearted, noble fool (“reiner Tor”); but contrary to Eichendorff’s Good-for-Nothing, The Tobacconist has no ending in which “everything, everything was delightful” – the exact opposite is true in this case. A Happy End is not possible in the time of Nazism.

It was particularly interesting for me to read this book for this year’s German Literature Month after I reviewed last year The Tortoises by Veza Canetti, a work that covers the same period in Vienna. Considering the recent very strong support of right-wing extremists by the voters of those political forces in Austria who represent the ugly side of the Austrian national character in the latest elections in the country, the book had also sometimes a chilling effect on me. The mentality that showed its ugly face after the Anschluss in 1938 is still existing and very widespread in Austrian society; however, the wave of successful political movements which are based on hatred of certain groups within a society is unfortunately not limited to Austria alone these days.

 

 

Robert Seethaler: Der Trafikant, Kein & Aber, Zürich 2012; The Tobacconist, Picador 2016, translated by Charlotte Collins

#germanlitmonth

(This review is part of the German Literature Month, again hosted by my two blogger colleagues Caroline@beautyandthecat, and Lizzy@lizzysiddal, who are doing a great job promoting German literature in translation since years.)

© 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.

 


Twilight of the Eastern Gods

Moscow, 1958. A young and talented Albanian author is sent to the centre of the Communist world in order to complete his literary education at the renowned Gorky Institute. The bustling atmosphere of the Soviet capital with all its interesting opportunities in the cultural sphere (despite the limitations that the communist ideology imposes), the chance to meet with fellow writers from diverse backgrounds, the less puritan lifestyle in Moscow compared to the more and more paranoid atmosphere in Enver Hoxha’s Albania, and its (then) backwater capital Tirana, and the elevated feeling to belong visibly to the chosen intellectual elite of the future in the communist world – all this should make this stay a pleasant experience for someone who aspires to be a professional writer.

And indeed we see our hero/narrator (who shares many experiences and characteristics with the book’s author) at a writer’s holiday retreat on the Baltic sea – a previous one at the Crimea is mentioned -, enjoying romantic infatuations with several young women, indulging in “typical” student’s activities in Moscow at that time, like getting terribly drunk on several occasions, and so on. In between, we follow our hero to lessons at the Gorky Institute, which are moderately interesting, or we read his talks, discussions or overheard rumors that usually centre around the Russian literary elite; Yevtushenko asks the hero on one occasion in the corridor of the student’s building, if he has seen Bella (Akhmadulina) – that’s the kind of every day experience the narrator has. And yet, for the main character Moscow and particularly the Gorky Institute and the literary circles become a serious disappointment, for various reasons.

When Lida Snegina, the hero’s love interest for most of the book mentions to him that she doesn’t like living but only dead authors, it sounds a bit provoking first. But somehow this casual remark is a kind of trigger for some soul-searching and analysis of the authors and would-be authors that surround the hero at the Gorky Institute: the majority of them mediocre figures, willing to sell their souls and to change their convictions immediately if a new party line requires it. And their works: books that have got almost nothing to do with the real life of the people in the Soviet Union or their respective homeland, most of them idyllic descriptions of a non-existing communist paradise without any literary value.

There is of course another literature in Russia at that time, but it’s a literature that is banned, and circulated only in Samizdat, copied secretly and handed over clandestinely from friend to friend. In an abandoned tract of the student’s building, the narrator finds an incomplete manuscript of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the famous banned novel for which Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Once the news regarding this award is public, a ferocious, well-orchestrated, nation-wide campaign against Pasternak is let loose, a campaign that is so vicious that the narrator asks himself how it must feel when one is at the receiving end of so much hate propaganda, venom, and even threats against one’s own life. No wonder, that his opinion about most of his colleagues at the Gorky Institute becomes free of any illusions:

“At long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism, Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, after having done what had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.”

While this evaluation may be true for the big majority of students, there are a few of his colleagues with whom the narrator develops a distanced friendship. One of them, the Greek Antaeus, a veteran of the Greek Civil War, and by coincidence a one-time patient of a hospital in Gjirokaster, the narrator’s home town, reminds the narrator of the besa, this Albanian obsession about the keeping of a once given word under all circumstances, and even when it means to rise again from the dead, as it happens in the old Albanian legend of Kostandin and Dorutine; this legend that plays a certain role in this novel was later made the theme of The Ghost Rider, another Kadare novel. There are more references to Kadare novels that obviously are brain-childs of his stay in Moscow: The General of the Dead Army, The Niche of Shame, and The Three-Arched Bridge. The world of the Kadare novels is full of cross-references, and The Twilight of the Eastern Gods is no exception.

I mentioned it in another review of a Kadare book: it rains a lot in Kadare’s novels – as much as it does in the movies of Andrey Tarkovsky. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is no exception, but it gives a hint why this is a recurring theme in all of Kadare’s books. In the books that were typical for the Socialist Realism of the 1950s it would hardly ever rain, the sun was always shining over the Worker’s Fatherland. The insistence on rain is also an act to distance himself from this kind of fantasy literature that was expected from writers who had graduated from the Gorky Institute; at least this is how I understand Kadare.

In the end, Albania and the Soviet Union start to distance themselves; everybody seems to realize it before the narrator does it. We know what will happen: the narrator will have to return home, and experience his own, even worse dictatorship again.

Maybe Twilight of the Eastern Gods is not exactly on the same literary level as some of his masterpieces (Broken April, The Pyramid, Palace of Dreams, The General of the Dead Army, Chronicle in Stone, The Winter of our Discontent), some of the characters are a bit flat, but still it is a good novel that gives valuable insights in the world of this giant of contemporary world literature. It is his most autobiographical book and I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in Kadare’s works.

One word about the translation, and about the translations of Kadare’s books in general. The reviewed edition in English is translated by David Bellos from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni – similarly to The Siege that I reviewed here previously. Overall not a bad effort, although I am in principle opposed to this kind of translations that are for me only acceptable when there are no translators at all for a given combination of languages; so for this edition there is no excuse based on availability of translators. There are excellent translators from Albanian to English. But the case of Kadare is a bit more complicated, and – very typical for this author – even a bit ambiguous.  

All books of Kadare that were published in Albania before 1992 were subject to censorship. Some of his books were even banned after publication in Albania, despite having undergone careful reading by the censors. At the same time, Kadare could publish some of his novels abroad or in Albania in translations. His translator in French was Jusuf Vrioni, also an author and close friend of Kadare. Kadare speaks French and worked usually closely together with Vrioni in the process of translation to French. After the fall of communism in Albania, Kadare started to review his books and included in new editions also banned paragraphs and pages. Therefore, the updated French language editions of Vrioni would contain more authentic versions of Kadare’s novels than the originally published Albanian versions. At a later stage the expanded, uncensored French versions were then published in Albanian, in Kadare’s favourite publishing house Onufri. The German translations of Kadare novels on the other hand are exclusively translated directly from Albanian, based on the versions that Kadare authorized.

There is another reason why Kadare (or his agent, Mr Andrew Wiley) usually favors a translation of his older novels from the French translation, and not from the Albanian originals, I suppose. Albania has become very late a member of the relevant international agreements on authors’ rights and copyright. As a result, authors of Albanian works that were published prior to the ratification of these agreements by Albania, have no copyright protection. Kadare wouldn’t see a penny of royalties for a translation of any of his earlier novels, unless a publisher would – for ethic, not for legal reasons – decide to compensate him. The French translation is considered according to these agreements as a new work (because it includes many changes compared to the original Albanian text), and is therefore subject to royalties. Not that it affects in any way the literary value of Kadare’s works, but this background is important to know, if one wants to understand the strange translation practice of his work in the Anglophone world.

Ismail Kadare: Twilight of the Eastern Gods, tr. David Bellos, from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni, Canongate Edinburgh London 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.

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.

Woman of the Dead

I have seen several favourable reviews of Woman of the Dead by Austrian crime fiction writer Bernhard Aichner. Therefore I expected something at least entertaining, maybe even well written. However…

Let me not bother you with the plot and come straight to the point: this is pulp fiction of the lowest class. The writing consists of strangely clipped sentences, and a pseudo-literary style that reads unintentionally funny at times, especially in the German original. The development of the story is entirely predictable, and the author seems to be a big fan of graphic descriptions of completely unmotivated violence. The more disgusting, the better, seems to be the credo of this author.

I didn’t enjoy this book even a little bit, and after I read a truly revolting FB posting of Herr Aichner in which he is inviting his FB friends to describe an “efficient, creative and spectacular torture method”, and which was promptly answered by more than a hundred obviously sexually aroused resident FB perverts who describe with obvious glee and sadistic pleasure in all graphic and sick details the contents of their demented torture fantasies (the most “creative” and disgusting will be used by Herr Aichner in his next book), I realized that this author writes not for me, but for that part of the population with strong anal-sadistic predisposition – people who would torture me or you to death with orgiastic pleasure, if they just had an opportunity. His books are obviously meant as arousal templates and masturbation help for those sick people, pornography for sadists. It seems that he is very successful in servicing to the needs of this lower segment of humanity.

My apologies for the explicit language in this blog post, but I was rarely more disgusted by any book or author and I strongly recommend you not to waste your time with the poorly written shmutz Herr Aichner is producing.

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Bernhard Aichner: Woman of the Dead, translated by Anthea Bell, Orion 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.

 


Lake Como

Residency programs are an important part of the working life of many authors today. They provide for a limited time, maybe a few weeks, a month, or a little bit longer a place in an interesting surrounding, suited to the specific requirements of authors, and frequently they come with a certain sum of money plus free board and plenty of opportunities to socialize with other people working on projects in the making in their respective field – other authors, artists, scientists. In the best case, residency programs provide an opportunity for an author to focus on his/her work, to write or finish a manuscript with which he/she has struggled since a long time and also to collect and exchange new ideas for new projects. Participating in such a program means that as an author you have for this limited time not to think about anything else than your work, particularly not about money. Everything is well taken care of by the host.

Contrary to what you could expect, the central role of residency programs for many modern authors is not reflected in the literary output of most of these authors. Very rarely – at least this is my impression – are works of fiction dedicated to experiences that authors make with such programs. There are exceptions of course, such as Lake Como by the Serbian novelist Srdjan Valjarevic, the book about which I am writing here.

Nothing spectacular happens in this book: the narrator, a Serbian author that has for sure many similarities with the author of Lake Como, wins a Rockefeller scholarship that comes with an invitation to spend one month in the lovely Villa Maranese in Bellagio near Lake Como. A good opportunity to finish a novel (which he has indeed no intention to write at all), and also to leave behind a flat in Belgrade with a leaking roof, some financial debts and other personal problems, and a more and more difficult situation for intellectuals that are not in line with the official ultra-nationalist Serbian politics and its consequences. It is the end of the 1990s and the armed Kosovo conflict is in its early stages.

During his stay in the Villa, the author meets all kind of other Rockefeller fellows from all over the world busy with all kind of projects. People talk, socialize, eat and drink, gossip, work a bit or rather not, a composer gives some house concerts. The author feels like an outsider because of his age (he is by far the youngest in the Villa), his origin, his interests and even his clothes (he only reluctantly gets used to wearing a tie, which is strongly recommended in the Villa), not to talk about his drinking and smoking habits. (My apologies when I mention the drinking so frequently, but there isn’t probably a single page in the book when the narrator doesn’t have a drink.)

An additional predicament is that the protagonist has to lie to almost everyone about his work: since he is known to be a novelist, people want to know how the work with the novel is going and instead of telling them that he is just enjoying the time doing nothing – except eating, drinking, sleeping, and the occasional walk to the village or a nearby hill – the author/narrator is making up things related to the non-existing novel. But the not existing work in progress is at least a good excuse to get away from activities in which he doesn’t want to participate.

Apart from that, he explores the village, has a short fling with a female guest of the Villa, makes friends with a friendly bar owner, as well as with Alda, a young charming girl working in another bar with whom he is communicating in a mixture of English, Italian, and drawings. He makes some friends at the Villa as well, particularly the waiters that provide a never-ending stream of wine, whiskey and other alcohol, but that are also a valuable source of information about the place. With Mr Sommerman, a holocaust survivor and retired literature professor and his wife, he is developing a friendship that will probably last even after he leaves the Villa when the time is over. And the meeting with another guest who visited once the island of Korcula in what is now Croatia brings back long hidden memories to the author because this place had a particular importance in his earlier life.

Of course, this book reminded me more than a bit of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. The villa is on a hill – ironically called “Tragedy” – not a real mountain, but the setting is very idyllic (Bellagio is already part of the Mediterranean world, but with a view to the snow-covered mountains of the Alps), like a temporary paradise isolated from the rest of the world with all its problems. Valjarevic has a very good ability to characterize people and it seems he talks of his own experience, so vividly retold are many episodes, frequently with a slightly detached irony. There are also beautiful pages where he is describing the nature at Lake Como. And also small observations like what he is writing about the transistor radio, were really interesting to read for me. The visit of Alda and her family on the hill – for some strange reason, most people from the village have never visited the Villa; so near and yet so far are these worlds from each other usually – is a highlight of the book.

A little bit on the downside though is the fact that a considerable part of the novel is a repetitive mentioning of drinking, eating and sleeping habits of the narrator. Not a single drink goes unnoticed, and after a while I was really not so much interested any more in what the narrator did to his liver. This feeling of repetitiveness is even strengthened by the author’s habit to write many short sentences starting with “I”. I did this. I did that. I did this. Then I did that. Ok, most sentences are a bit longer, but the style was for me in many parts of the book not very attractive. Although the narrator refers to Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin as favourite authors, the style of the novel is more like Hemingway – and that is not at all a compliment in my opinion. These issues somehow prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I wanted to like it.

Srdjan Valjarevic is an interesting and very talented author. With some more editing, Lake Como could have been an excellent novel. 

Geopoetika, a publishing house in Belgrade, has published a series of books by contemporary Serbian authors in English. I can recommend you this series if you want to get to know interesting literature from Serbia.

Lake Como

Srdjan Valjarevic: Lake Como, translated by Alice Copple-Tosic, Geopoetika, Belgrade 2009

© 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.

Child of God

The novels of Cormac McCarthy are not exactly cheerful, uplifting books – in the contrary! This author is exploring human loneliness and isolation, depravation, and extreme violence in his work. The subject matter that leaves little to no space for any hope, consolation or redemption contrasts with a prose that is sparse but frequently very poetic. As a reader, I therefore feel usually quite wrought out after I finished one of his books, but at the same time I have the impression that I read something very remarkable and even beautiful. Very few authors leave the reader with such contradicting feelings.

My latest try with a McCarthy book was Child of God, his third novel and published before his devastating masterpieces Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. And it is again confirming what I said in the above paragraph.

Lester Ballard, the main character, grows up in a small town in East Tennessee (the region in which McCarthy grew up) in the 1960s. Although his family seems to have lived in the area for generations – his grandfather was obviously a local Ku Klux Klan leader, and his father committed suicide by hanging himself – the boy is socially rather isolated. Already during his childhood he shows a violent, sociopathic behavior. After he loses his small farm and serving a prison sentence because he is threatening potential buyers of his former property with his rifle, he returns to his home region. He starts to live as a squatter in a dilapidated cabin, lives on stolen corn or squirrels and other prey he is shooting, and is considered as at least half crazy by the people in his home town.

Ballard is shown as practically unable to lead a normal conversation or to interact adequately with others. A conversation between Ballard and a smith who is sharpening an old axe for him is almost comical, but it is Ballard’s complete lack of ability to make a normal contact with women, that will have disastrous consequences for him.

The remainder of the book shows how the main character sinks deeper and deeper in isolation, degradation, even perversion. The social degradation and decline corresponds with a moral one and even a physical one: from squatter to cave dweller to prisoner; from voyeur to necrophiliac to serial killer; from healthy young man to mutilated prisoner to dissected corpse – this is the path Lester Ballard is going.  And yet, he is

“A child of God much like yourself perhaps.”

Although the main character in this book is not a man most of us would be keen to meet, McCarthy is describing him with sympathy and understanding. If Ballard would have ever had a positive experience with others, if he had got as a child at least a little bit human warmth and support, he might very probably never turned out to be the person he became.

McCarthy is also a compassionate storyteller. The men who threaten to lynch the already crippled Ballard if he is not leading them to the corpses of his alleged victims, are full of blood lust and sadistic pleasure in their (self-)righteous endeavor, and as a reader we rejoice probably quite a bit when Ballard succeeds in escaping (temporarily) his tormentors.

The author is using different perspectives – some chapters are told from the viewpoint of neighbors of Ballard – and he is using spoken language for the dialogues which are given without quotation marks, a method that takes a little bit time to get used to as a reader. 

What is it with Cormac McCarthy and the women? I cannot recall any remarkable female character in his books (at least the ones I read). Also in Child of God, the women are marginal figures, mainly victims of men. Not that he is particularly misogynistic, but this virtual absence or marginal role of women in his works is rather strange and I have no real explanation for it.

It would be not true to say that I have enjoyed this book. Too unpleasant, violent and full of graphic descriptions of human depravity is this novel. It is not McCarthy’s best book, but still an important step on the way to the mature masterpieces of his later years.  

Cormac McCarthy: Child of God, Picador 2009 (originally published 1973) 

© 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.

Sociology of organizations – a (kind of) manual

Recently I was asked by a friend with an interest in sociology of organizations if I could suggest to him a good book on this topic (obviously he thought that my working experience in a comparatively big variety of organizations and countries made me a kind of expert regarding that matter).

After some consideration, I suggested to him not a scientific book, but a work of fiction.

In my opinion, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller contains (among many other things) everything you need to know about how any big organization, institution, or corporation works. And I can assure you, none of the absurd situations in the book are unrealistic or exaggerated. 

An example: General Peckem (sic) assigns Colonel Scheisskopf (a word that means “shithead” in German) to write letters 

“to let everyone know how good we are and how much work we’re turning out.”

Scheisskopf’s answer that he doesn’t know a thing about writing is receiving the following retort:

“Well, don’t let that trouble you,” General Peckem continued with a careless flick of his wrist. “Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation of responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part. I suppose that’s because I am a good executive.  Nothing we do in this large department of ours is really very important, and there’s never any rush. On the other hand, it is important that we let people know we do a great deal of it. Let me know if you find yourself shorthanded. I’ve already put in a requisition for two majors, four captains and sixteen lieutenants to give you a hand. While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it.”

Trust me, this is all you need to know about the sociology of organizations.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22, Simon & Schuster

© 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.

Bartleby & Co.

The hero – if I can call him that – and narrator of Bartleby & Co., a novel by the Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas, is a failed writer who had published as a young man a novel on the impossibility of love. As a result of a personal trauma and the reaction of his surrounding to the publication of the book, he has become silent as an author, a modern Bartleby that spends most of his uneventful life in an office.

A misheard remark of a colleague (“Mr. Bartleby is in a meeting”.) triggers in him again an urge to write –  a novel in the form of footnotes on the representatives of what he calls “the Literature of the No”, a collection of aphorisms, short musings and essays, glimpses of personal memories, quotations from phone conversations with a friend or from letters of a writer, and recollections of meetings with other authors.

The 86 footnotes that form the biggest part of the text circle around those authors who at a certain moment in their lives “preferred not to” write any longer, and whom the narrator considers as brothers (although also a female author plays an important role, the “Bartleby syndrome” seems to be by far more widespread among male writers.).

The dull and uneventful life of the narrator, together with his tendency to bath sometimes in self-pity are frequently contrasted by remarks that made me smile. A good example which is typical for the “sound” of the book are the opening lines:

“I never had much luck with women. I have a pitiful hump, which I am resigned to. All my closest relatives are dead. I am a poor recluse working in a ghastly office. Apart from that, I am happy.”

The modern “Literature of the No” dates back to the 19th century when the two American writers (and friends) Melville and Hawthorne created their stories Bartleby the Scrivener and The Vicar of Wakefield, two stories about a rejection that in many ways foreshadowed

“future phantom books and other refusals to write that would soon flood the literary stage.” 

In his footnotes, the narrator explores famous examples of the “Literature of the No”, such as Robert Walser or Kafka; and while suicide or mental insanity seem to be among the most popular “strategies” for the Bartlebys among the authors, they are not held in particular high esteem by the narrator. He is definitely more interested in those cases where an author, while still alive simply disappeared from literature.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the abundance of examples of authors that are introduced to us readers; while I read many of them and know a few others by name, I discovered also plenty of seemingly extremely interesting writers particularly from the Spanish-speaking literature (mea culpa that I am not so well read in Spanish literature as I should considering the richness of this literary continent) who have fell silent at a certain moment in their lives. Felisberto Hernandez for example was not an author I had on my radar until now, but I will definitely look up what I can find about him. Another interesting author “without a work” is the Italian (non-)author Bobi Bazlen, whose name I came across once in Claudio Magris’ books about Trieste. 

I can imagine that one of the most annoying questions for an author must be the following: “What are you writing right now? On what are you working?”; or to an author who hasn’t published anything since a long time: “Why don’t you write again? What is the reason for your silence?” One of the best answers for me to the latter question is that of Juan Rulfo, an author for whose slender work I have the highest admiration:

“Well, my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories.”

Not that this Uncle Celerino was an invention, he had really existed and was known as a big storyteller – but there must have been something else behind the silence of Rulfo, something about which he rather preferred not to speak.

Our narrator gives us also some examples of his own experience and research that includes a chance meeting with J.D. Salinger in New York, a visit at Julien Gracq’s home, but also personal memories about his childhood friendship with Luis Felipe Pineda, or his infatuation with Maria Lima Mendes, a very impressive example of a female representative of the “Literature of the No” (and possibly made up by Vila-Matas).

Hölderlin, Chamfort, Rimbaud, Larbaud, Hofmannsthal, Fernando Pessoa, Juan Ramon Jimenez, and many others make an appearance in these footnotes. And although as a reader we will not resolve in a single case the true reason for the silence of an author, we will have experienced an abundance of witty, comical, tragic, interesting anecdotes, stories, musings when we have finished this – obviously well-translated – book.

The narrator of this book (and its author) deserve a place at the Olympus of writers and non-writers of books. Who is able to write wonderful ironic passages like this one:

“I’ve worked well, I can be pleased with what I’ve done. I put down my pen, because it’s evening. Twilight imaginings. My wife and kids are in the next room, full of life. I have good health and enough money. God, I’m unhappy!

But what am I saying? I’m not unhappy, I haven’t put down the pen, I don’t have a wife and kids, or a next room, I don’t have enough money, it isn’t evening.”

and who is granting his happy-unhappy and rather unreliable narrator the equally ironic luck to complete this wonderful book about authors who fell silent, must be a great author himself. My first book by Vila-Matas, and for sure not my last. 

P.S. And what about those who wrote, but were rejected by too many publishers, and who therefore gave up on being published? Also here, our narrator is helpful. Send your rejected manuscript to the Brautigan Library, the brainchild of underground author Richard Brautigan, nowadays hosted at the Washington State University Vancouver. 

“The Brautigan Library accepts exclusively manuscripts that, having been rejected by the publishers who were sent them, were never published. This library holds only aborted books. Anyone with such a manuscript, wishing to submit it to the Brautigan Library or Library of the No, need only pop it in the post … I have it on good authority – though there they are only interested in bad authority – that no manuscript is ever rejected; on the contrary, there they are looked after and exhibited with the greatest pleasure and respect.”

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.