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The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Handed Gunsmith from Tula and the Steel Flea

The 19th century was an extraordinarily rich period for Russian literature. Among the numerous gifted and productive authors of that period is at least one that – according to my impression – is not valued and read outside Russia as much as he would deserve it: Nikolay Leskov.

His probably best work The Steel Flea (full title: The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Handed Gunsmith from Tula and the Steel Flea) contains on about 50 pages everything that makes this author so interesting in a nutshell, such as: a folk-like story about an unsung Russian everyday-life hero of the past; a narrative spiced with mild irony; a playful voice that uses many neologisms that are so up to the point that many of them achieved proverbial status and found their way into everyday communication of many Russians; a not condescending sympathy of the author/narrator with the “ordinary people”.

What is it about: Czar Alexander I (we are in the 1820s, more than half a century before Leskov wrote the story) is visiting England, then the technically most developed country; he is accompanied by Platov, a Cossack ataman, who represents the ordinary Russian that is proud and less easy to impress than the Czar by the display of technical superiority with which the English hosts shower their Royal guest. While the Czar views everything he sees as a sign of the hopeless inferiority and backwardness of his country, Platov makes it clear to the Czar that he thinks otherwise (ironically his opinion is confirmed in one instance much to the embarrassment of the hosts.)

As a gift, the Czar receives a tiny steel flea that can even perform a dance when properly wound up. How this complicated and perfectly crafted mechanism that can be seen properly under a strong microscope only is constructed is not revealed and leaves the Czar wondering how such a miracle of engineering was possible.

After the coronation of Alexander’s brother Nikolay a few years later, the steel flea becomes a political issue. Platov, in the meantime retired, is re-activated to service in order to investigate if somewhere in Russia craftsmen can do something that even “tops” the English feat of the dancing steel insect. Platov finds in Tula a left-handed and cross-eyed craftsman who, together with several of his colleagues indeed “improves” the English invention. (You have to read by yourself how.)

In the end, the Russians have a field day to see the impressed English who cannot believe their eyes when a Russian delegation with Lefty is visiting the island. So impressed are they this time that they try to lure the nameless Lefty to stay in England; but to no avail: the man from Tula is homesick and returns to Russia, where he dies soon after his arrival as a consequence of a drinking contest with a sailor. The last important message he has and that could have change the fate of Russia is not delivered.

In the end, Leskov tells his readers:

Lefty’s real name, like the names of many of the greatest geniuses, has been lost to posterity forever; but he is interesting as the embodiment of a myth in the popular imagination, and his adventures can serve to remind us of an epoch whose general spirit has been portrayed here clearly and accurately.

It goes without saying that Tula no longer has such master craftsmen as the legendary Lefty: machines have evened up the inequalities in gifts and talents, and genius no longer strains itself in a struggle against diligence and exactness. Even though they encourage the raising of salaries, machines do not encourage artistic, daring, which sometimes went so far beyond ordinary bounds as to inspire the folk imagination to create unbelievable legends like this one.  

One of the things I like particularly are Leskov’s neologisms that are translated quite ingeniously in the edition I had at hand. For example: the steel flea and its dance can be seen properly only when viewed under a strong microscope, or nitroscope – as the narrator says (it seems Leskov was the Godfather of nanotechnology); and when the steel flea is dancing, he is doing it in various fairiations.

Another thing I found amusing was the fact that the steel flea, a childish toy after all, becomes a state affair and the main object of national pride of two European leaders and their nations they represent; on a more serious note: how much better seem these old times to be where a Russian leader paid attention to the shoe strings of a tiny steel flea – especially considering most of the Russian leaders that came later… – !

Leskov had a difficult time as a writer in his days. The progressives viewed him as a conservative, the conservatives suspected him to be a leftist; the Slavophiles considered him as a propagandist of Western modernism, and the Westerners saw in him a romantic that was spreading nostalghia for Russia’s backwardness. A writer whose work is still so fresh and who was caught between so many stools is definitely worth it to be read again.

My edition was the one from Penguin’s “Little Black Classics”. This series contains many (re-)discoveries; the small format and limited number of pages make it (together with the very attractive price) the perfect companion for the daily commuting routine or on other occasions. When you carry (like me) always at least one book with you to use every opportunity for reading, this is an excellent series for you.

Leskov

Nikolay Leskov: The Steel Flea, translated by William Edgerton, London 2015

© 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. 

Castle Gripsholm

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

This is the perfect summer book and that I read it in November makes my longing for the next summer even stronger. It refutes all prejudices that literature written by German authors has to be serious, heavy, distant, humorless, difficult, and boring.

The narrator – who can very easily be taken for the author – is off for his summer holidays. He is an author publishing for Rowohlt, then and now one of the best addresses for writers in Germany and an – invented – correspondence with Rowohlt who is asking his author to write a light summer story gets the story started.

Our author is traveling by train with his girlfriend (called the Princess) from Berlin to Sweden. But they have of course a stop in Copenhagen. The following quote gives a good idea of the playful tone of the book:

“… We looked at everything: the Tivoli Gardens, the beautiful town hall and the Thorwaldsen Museum, where everything looked as though it was made of plaster. “Lydia!” I called, “Lydia! I almost forgot. We absolutely have to visit the Polysandrion!”

“The … what?” 

“The Polysandrion! You’ve got to see it. Come along.” It was a long walk, because the little museum was right outside the city. 

“What is it?” asked the Princess. 

“You’ll see,” I said. “It’s where a couple of Balts built a house for themselves. One of them, Polysander von Kuckers zu Tiesenhausen, imagines he can paint. But he can’t.”

“And we’re going all this way just to see that?”

“No, not exactly. He can’t paint, but he does – and he always paints the same thing, his adolescent fantasies: young boys and butterflies.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked the Princess. 

“Ask him, he’ll be there. And if he isn’t, then his friend will tell the whole story. Because it has to be told. It’s wonderful.” 

“Is it at least improper?” 

“Would I be taking you if it were, my raven-haired beauty?” 

There stood the little villa – it was unattractive, and it didn’t fit in here at all, either; you might have expected to find it somewhere in the south, in Tuscany or somewhere. We went inside. 

The Princess’ eyes grew round as saucers, and I beheld the Polysandrion for the second time. 

Here a dream had become reality – may God protect us from the like! The good Polysander had covered about forty Square kilometers of expensive canvas with paint. There were the youths, standing and reclining, floating and dancing. It was always the same picture, always the same young men. Pale pink, blue and yellow; the youths in the foreground, the perspective at the back. 

“Those butterflies!” exclaimed Lydia, and took my hand.

“Shh!” I said. “Not so loud! The cleaning woman is following us round. She’ll report everything back to the artist, and we don’t want to hurt him.” But really, those butterflies. They fluttered in the painted air, they had landed on the plump shoulders of the young men, and if until now we had thought that butterflies liked to settle on flowers, this was shown not to be the case. These butterflies much preferred to perch on the young men’s bottoms. It was all highly lyrical. 

“Now I ask you …” said the Princess. 

“Be quiet!” I said. “His friend!”

The painter’s friend appeared, quite an old, pleasant-looking man. He was very respectably dressed, but he had the air of despising the standard grey clothes of our grey century. And his suit got its own back by making him look like an emeritus ephebe. He murmured an introduction, and began explaining. In front of us was the picture of a young man who stood very upright with sword and butterfly, his right hand raised in salute. In the most beautiful, lilting Baltic tones, with all the r’s rolled, the friend said, “What you have beforre you is an entirrely spirritualized verrsion of militarrism.” I turned away – quite appalled. We saw dancing lads, in sailor-suits with floppy collars, and over their heads hung a little lamp with tassels – the kind you have in corridors. It was a sort of furnished version of the Elysian Fields. A whole Paradise had blossomed here, little bits of which so many of the painter’s bosom friends carried around in their souls. Whether it was through being unjustly persecuted, or whatever it was, when they dreamed, they dreamed in soft sky blue, the pinkest shade of blue, so to speak. And they indulged in an awful lot of it. On one wall was a photograph of the artist in his Italian phase, dressed only in sandals and a Zulu-type spear. So paunches were all the rage in Capri. 

“It takes your breath away!” said the Princess, once we were outside. “They aren’t all like that … are they?” 

“No, you shouldn’t blame the species for that. That house is just a plush sofa stuck in the 1890s; they’re not all like that by any means. That man could just as well have peopled his chocolate-box paintings with little elves and gnomes … But imagine what a whole museum would be like, full of those fantasies come true – exquisite!” 

“But it’s so … anaemic!” said the Princess. “Well, it takes all sorts! Let’s drink a schnaps to that!” So we did.”

After a few days in Stockholm, the two rent a room in Castle Gripsholm, an old residence near Lake Mälaren (today housing the National Portrait Gallery of Sweden). Sweden with its friendly and polite inhabitants seems just the right place for the two stressed Berliners to enjoy nature, swimming, reading and bantering with each other. The stories the princess is telling about her boss, an obese soap trader and honorary consul are really funny and so are many remarks of the narrator. For a few days, Karlchen, an old friend of the author and a true original, joins them. He and the princess like to communicate in Low German (Plattdeutsch), a language also the author likes even more than High German. After he leaves, the two lovebirds meet Billie, a Swedish girl they both like immediately and who spends the remaining days of the holiday with them (and a threesome night too).

But even Sweden is not paradise. Near the Castle is a boarding school for girls mainly from Germany where a Mrs Adriani is governing with a mixture of strict rules that are ruthlessly enforced, daily verbal and physical abuse, and the absolute absence of empathy and understanding for the children. Mrs Adriani loves only one thing: her absolute power over the frightened children. Especially Ada, a child that the author, the princess and Billie remark on one of their walks, is the favorite victim of this sadistic dictator. How the small team plots to get Ada out of the hands of this cruel woman is exciting and as a reader I hoped very much for a happy end.

The book was published in 1931, a time of crisis. In Germany the Nazis were on the rise, unemployment and misery too. The story of Mrs Adriani shows one thing: the thirst for power is very strong in many individuals – but when you show resistance, their system can collapse. In a boarding school in Sweden and anywhere else.

Kurt Tucholsky was one of the leading journalists of the Weimar Republic and one of the main contributors of the famous journal Weltbühne, a fighter for democracy, civil rights and press freedom, and against militarism – but he was also a poet and a prose writer, whose witty, light and ironic style was unrivaled in German literature. He died 1935 in his Swedish exile (if it was suicide or an accidental overdose of medicine is still not clear) and is buried near Castle Gripsholm.

If you are looking for the perfect summer story, I strongly recommend you this book.

 Gripsholm

Kurt Tucholsky: Castle Gripsholm, transl. by Michael Hofmann, Overlook Press, New York 2004

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

The Black Gallery

Romance, adventure, a heroic fight for freedom and independence against an army of brutal oppressors, a young couple that is re-united against all odds: this story has it all. No wonder that it was a kind of bestseller for generations in the author’s homeland. It offers entertainment and the heart-warming message that a fight for national independence against foreign rule can be successful in the end. But although this seems to be the message on the surface, there is a much deeper (and darker) hidden meaning in this story.

Jan Norris and Myga van Bergen are inseparable friends since their early youth and everybody expects them to be married one day. But the times are difficult. This is Holland in the late 16th century, the time of the Dutch Independence war against Spain. The couple is separated due to the circumstances and Jan is becoming a member of the so-called Watergeuzen, a group of rebels that is fighting the Spanish on the sea and that has a reputation of being particularly cunning, brave, and cruel.

Despite his young age, Jan is admitted as an officer on board of the “Black Gallery”, a mysterious ship that appears only at night and with whom the Watergeuzen have several spectacular successes against the Spanish fleet and fortresses. In the meantime, the beautiful Myga, now orphaned, is in serious trouble: the captain of the Spanish ship Andrea Doria falls hopelessly in love with her, and there is a plan to kidnap her. But Jan Norris gets by chance some information on the plot and rushes to protect his Myga…

I don’t want to give away the whole story here of course. But I think it is interesting to read Wilhelm Raabe’s The Black Gallery (Die schwarze Galeere) not only as an adventure and romance story.

Raabe, one of the great realistic authors of the 19th century (and today almost forgotten), proves with this early story not only that he knows how to entertain his readers with a colorful action and love story. He introduces also “gothic” elements like the Black Gallery (although based on a real ship it clearly reminds the reader of the Flying Dutchman) into the tale. And there is an interesting figure in this story which deserves particular mentioning: the experienced Spanish officer Jeronimo is a disillusioned old fighter who understands that this war is a useless effort: although the war is raging already since many years and too many soldiers and civilians have died, none of the parties has made any real progress…and for what all this bloodshed? Jeronimo is clearly a mouthpiece of the author in my opinion.

Raabe, deeply influenced by Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, was anything else but a warmonger and chauvinist. Even the fight for a good cause has in any case very bad consequences and affects the character of each involved person in a very negative way.

It is surprising that Raabe’s story has been read for such a long time as a kind of simple heroic story that supports the virtues of the fighter for a good cause, the national independence.

But it is so obvious that Raabe was far from the intention to write a piece to stir nationalistic feelings. His message is clearly that war brings out the worst in each person. Although in principle sympathetic with the Dutch freedom fighters, he also mentions their immense cruelty, and Jan, the loyal friend and lover sets also a very bad example for killing the already unconcious Spanish officer out of personal revenge: a murder, not a fair fight in battle. The worst is that there is a young generation without the longing for peace – because they don’t know what peace is. Unfortunately this is today true as ever in many places on this planet…

In my opinion, Wilhelm Raabe (1831-1910) is one of the greatest writers of the 19th century and this story is a good opportunity to discover this author. The Black Gallery is as far as I know available in English only in a collection of Sea Stories. A book with Raabe’s stories in English would be a commendable deed by any publisher.

Raabe

Sea StoriesWilhelm Raabe: Die schwarze Galeere, Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 2007

H.M. Tomlinson (ed.): Great Sea Stories of All Nations (2 vol.), Kessinger Publishing 2004

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

“I would prefer not to”

“That Herman Melville has gone ‘clean daft’, is very much to be feared; certainly, he has given us a very mad book…The sooner this author is put in ward the better. If trusted with himself, at all events give him no further trust in pen and ink, till the present fit has worn off. He will grievously hurt himself else – or his very amiable publishers.”

This grotesque reaction of a reviewer of a new work of Herman Melville, the author of  “Bartleby the Scrivener”, shows that something went indeed wrong with Melville. But he didn’t go mad – he did something even more unforgivable: he disappointed the expectations of his readers!

After his adventurous youth as a sailor and living on Pacific islands with cannibals, he became famous with adventure novels like Typee and Omoo. But instead of staying in this line of work and becoming a bestselling author, he delivered Moby Dick, an already very difficult to swallow piece of literature, too dark and too philosophical for the biggest part of the 19th century audience. And as if this was not already enough, he came up finally with one of the strangest literary heroes of all times: Bartleby.

What hasn’t been written about this story! Especially since the 1920s, when psychoanalysis and the publication of Franz Kafka’s (and Robert Walser’s with its countless office clerks) works lead to a Melville renaissance,

Melville’s oeuvre and especially Bartleby has been interpreted again and again – Bartleby, the psycho-pathological case study; Bartleby as a criticism of Thoreau’s flight from civilization; Bartleby as a self-portrait of Melville (who had to work as a customs officer after the publication of this story due to his falling out with the reading public of his time); Bartleby as a parable concerning the life of the artist in a world dominated by business interests (the story takes place mainly at Wall Street); Bartleby as a predecessor of Camus and existentialist philosophy; Bartleby as a modern Hiob or even Jesus (the story is full of biblical references). – And this is just a small choice of possible interpretations!

But this is not my main point here – Bartleby is one of the few cases in literature that is open to such a big variety of possible interpretations. So read it – in case you haven’t done it so far. Or re-read it again: it is just 60 pages, and at least for me one of the most unforgettable literary works ever.

Do not expect a longer review here:  “I would rather prefer not to”, as Bartleby used to say…Just read it!

Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener, Hesperus Press (and many other editions)

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

Poetry: the Abyss

“The Abyss” is the name of the journal in which the young would-be poet Karl Eugen Eiselein is publishing his works – and the name seems to be program since this journal is publishing the works without paying royalties and only after Eiselein is renewing the yearly subscription. It is Eiselein’s shopkeeper parents who pay for their only son’s education and his expensive fancies…and who have to throw more and more money into this abyss called “poetry”.

In a moment when he starts to doubt his vocation, young Eiselein is writing letters to the two symbolist poets he admires – and they answer, one of them in the “symbolist” style of his poems, the other one surprisingly bold and direct: he is asking for a loan from the young admirer (and reducing Eiselein’s illusions regarding the life style of a poet considerably by telling him that his object of admiration is surviving rarely by doing some hackwork as – a sports journalist!).

Hesse’s early story is balancing between the two possible outcomes: tragedy and comedy. His ironic description of the life of the Eiselein family with a benevolent but weak father and a strong and more realistic mother who shifts the “power balance” in the family to her favor as the story enfolds, his acerbic remarks about the literary fashions of the time (his particular targets are Oscar Wilde and the not explicitly mentioned but easily recognizable Stefan George) and his sympathy with (and ridicule for) the hero who has a lot in common with the young Hesse himself make this 60-pages story still a nice read for an evening.

The story was originally published 1903 in the “Neue Zuercher Zeitung” and later included in Hesse’s collection of stories “Neighbors” (1908). Suhrkamp published the story a few years ago as a separate book with the reproduction of a neat Hesse watercolor on the title. It seems that there is so far no English translation. It would be worth it. The story is one of Hesse’s best early works.

KarlEugenEiselein

Hermann Hesse: Karl Eugen Eiselein, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1985

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