Feeds:
Posts
Comments
image

Translated from German by Anthea Bell

I’ve been rationing myself so as not to come to the end of the Pushkin Classic editions of Zweig’s novellas, but I reckon that the week of the 75th anniversary of his suicide is as fine a week as any to do so.  I also wanted to evaluate this volume, published in 2011, against the critique that Seksik has Zweig level against himself in The Last Days.

In the end, they were all invariably similar to one another: short stories about single-minded passions, irrepressible loves and macabre consequences … His work lit a series of conflagrations in the hearts of his heroes … The characters would attempt to resist their passions and once they relented and gave into them, their guilty consciences prompted them either to turn their backs on life or to lapse into madness.

Actually this is Zweig repeating the accusations of his critics and fellow writers (Klaus Mann and Ernst Weiss are specifically named)  which they used to argue his status as a minor writer.  And yes, they have a case, but those very same qualities are what make Zweig’s novellas compulsive reading for me and numerous others.  Still what about the four novellas in The Governess and Other Stories?

The Miracles of Life (1903), written at the age of 21, clearly demonstrates that the interest in history, that resulted in multiple biographies throughout Zweig’s career, began early. It is set Antwerp in 1566, the year of rebellion and rioting against Spanish rule, which forms the background.  Esther, a Jewish girl previously rescued from a pogrom by a kind-hearted soldier, becomes the subject of a religious painting destined to hang in a Catholic church. A number of passions are evident here: that of the artist for getting his painting  just right; that of both artist and subject for their respective religions (he is Christian, who believes his task is to convert the girl, while she, although having lost all connections to her own religious community, remains passionately attached to the Jewish faith); and finally, the passion that proves fatal, that of the girl for the child, who is the Saviour to her Madonna in the painting. This is the longest and most complex of the stories in this volume, full of atmospheric  historical detail and dramatic irony.  While the painter couldn’t convert the girl, he nevertheless unsuspectingly inflames her with a love for the child. This leads directly to the girl’s death.  For the Jewess, who has rejected the Christian faith,  dies defending a Catholic icon in the aforementioned riots. It’s also fascinating to see the conflict between Christian and Jew taking centre stage, particularly as Zweig never was an observant Jew.

The Governess (1907) is the usual tale of a governess who falls from grace, following her seduction by a member of the famiily she is working for.  Or rather it would be the usual tale except that the episode is described from the uncomprehending viewpoints of her two charges, aged 12 and 13. Their naivety is charming, and it lends a bittersweet charm to their narrative, because, of course, the reader knows where this is heading. That the girls have absolutely no clue of what has happened at that age is incomprehensible to us today, but this is Vienna in the early 20th century, and the disgrace is the governesses’s own. Of course, she must pay the penalty.

Downfall of the Heart (1927) moves us beyond the First World War, when the younger generation had rejected the moral values at play in The Governess. The problem here is that old man Salomonsohn is stuck in the past. The discovery that his daughter is sleeping with one of the three men flirting with her on a family holiday is as a blow to the heart, triggering an obsessive reaction that sees him increasingly withdraw from both wife and daughter.  This is the story that best fits the monomaniacal template of the critique above.  Yet not quite. I usually feel sympathy for the victims of their passions. I felt none for maudling old Salomonsohn.

If I were to describe Did He Do It? (1935-1940) in one word, it would be playful, and that even though it incorporates tragedy and a monomaniacal murderer!  Written sometime during the years Zweig spent in exile in the UK, this is both his homage to Bath, where he spent those happy years, and to the classic British murder mystery.  Obviously I can’t say too much about this, particularly as the ending is left open to interpretation, but there’s no doubt in my mind.  He did do it!

There’s no denying it – all these novellas fit the emotional template quoted above for tragedy is to be found in all walks of life – from the working classes to high society. After all,  human nature is the same regardless of station in life.  Yet Zweig rings the changes with historical settings (from the beginning of the Reformation to the roaring twenties and beyond) and narrative point-of-view (naïve young children, chatty middle-aged women, kindly or otherwise old men). Atmosphere and tone always fit.

Zweig was better writer than his critics have and still do suggest, and for me, reading him is much more enjoyable than reading many an acclaimed masterpiece. Which would explain why Zweig has more shelfspace than any other author in my personal library.

_______________________________________________________________

Stage 5 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Next stop: Italy

image

Translated from French by André Naffis-Sahely

In memoriam Stefan and Lotte Zweig (died 22.02.1942)

One didn’t have to be a genius to imagine what people would say about him.  That he had abandoned others to their pain and deserted when the time had come to fight the enemy. When others had expected him to be an example, a hero even, he had run off like a coward.

Did people hurl such accusations at Stefan Zweig when, together with his wife, he committed suicide 75 years ago today? Do they today? If so, then a reading of Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days might ellicit a more sympathetic response.

Reconstructing the 5 months the Zweigs spent in Petrópolis, Seksik’s narrative, written in alternating 3rd person his and her points-of-view, takes us into the minds of two despondent human beings.  For those who have read Volker Weidermann’s Summer before the Dark, the contrast between the Zweigs of 1936 and those of 1942 is stark.  In 1936 the Zweigs were still in the rosy days of their love affair, his initially self-imposed exile had lasted just two years and he still had sufficient strength and creativity to support his less fortunate friends, both financially and emotionally. They really hadn’t realised how dark the world was to become.  Six years later and that was all too apparent.  Having fled Austria in 1934 (a prescient action, following a search of his home in Salzburg on a trumped-up excuse), and becoming a British citizen, Zweig was nonetheless declared an enemy alien in 1939.  Whereupon he fled again to New York, where he was too well-known, and could get no peace.  Thus another flight to  Petrópolis in 1941.

Lotte, totally besotted with her Great Austrian Writer, followed him.  Due to her chronic asthma, the air in New York was killing her.

The injustice of his being declared an enemy alien preyed on his mind – he was a committed pacifist, had been since 1914, and he never wavered.  Yet the effort of remaining on the higher moral ground was exhausting.  Then the guilt – the guilt of having left his family behind (regardless of the fact they thought him mad when he left of his own accord), imagining their suffering in a world going from bad to worse. Imagine reading reports like these, knowing your kin are trapped, and you are powerless to act:

City authorities in Vienna have decided to cut off all gas supplies to appartments occupied by Jews.  The ever rising number of suicides by gas have inconvenienced the population and such acts will henceforth be considered breaches of public order.

Of course, this was mild in comparison to reports that followed.  But, instead of relief at being safe, torments: survivor guilt, dismay over the deaths and suicides of his author friends (Roth, Toller, Weiss), creative difficulties (everything seemed irrelevant, and the voices of his critics were ringing ever louder in his head), despondency over his world that was lost forever. It would not return even if the Allies were victorious.  Neither was he positioning himself for an afterwards.  As his closest friend in Petrópolis, the journalist Ernst Feder pointed out:

You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself away in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone revolves. …. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world … On the other hand, here you are doing the utmost to disappear.

And disappear he did, following the British defeat at Singapore. Convinced that now it was only a matter of time before the Gestapo would find him in Petrópolis, and totally overcome by world-weariness, he decided his last flight would be the final one.

But why take Lotte with him?  She was only 30 to his 60.  (If I had any accusations against him, it was that.) Seksik’s analysis of Lotte’s psyche is just as incisive as of her husband. She was as psychologically afflicted by the times as her husband.  Chronically ill.  Worn down by exile. With no family of her own, no career of her own, she was even more isolated than Zweig himself.  He literally was her everything.  What was she to do when he made known his intentions?

He didn’t take her with him. Lotte followed him.  Of course she did.

It was a tragedy.  Unnecessary, as we now know, but inevitable, given the darkness of the times and the darkness inherent within Zweig himself.  Seksik incorporates some interesting observations about Zweig’s literary themes as well as a thought-provoking comparison of Kleist and Zweig that suggests an undercurrent I’ve never suspected before now.  I’m sure it will colour my reading as I continue to read through his oeuvre.

_______________________________________________________________

This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

Almost a world tour in itself – taking us to Vienna, Austria (pre- and post Anschluss), Bath in Great Britain, New York, USA and Petrópolis, Brazil – this post is also stage 4 in my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press.  We’re staying in Austria for Stage 5 – at keast I think we are.  It depends on where my chosen collection of Zweig’s short stories takes us!

imageWinner of the Sapir Prize for Best Debut
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Bad news first.  It’s just as well that I read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, Waking Lions, last year. (It made my best of 2016 list.) Otherwise I might not have continued beyond chapter one of her debut, because of the crude talk. However, because of last year’s experience, I gave One Night, Markovitch 3 chapters, by the end of which there was no chance of me abandoning it.  All my hopes for another complex and absorbing read were coming to fruition (and the crude talk had thankfully settled down).

Of course, I know that chapter one was establishing essential differences  between the plain, inexperienced farmer, Yaakov Markovitch and handsome, virile, action man, Zeev Feinberg, the two men whose lives form the backbone of the novel.  Theirs is a friendship formed when Markovitch saves Zeinberg’s life, not once but twice in the same night.  Circumstances dictate, however, that they must both flee.  Thus do they end up on a boat to Europe, where they are to mary Jewish women seeking to flee the Nazis. They are to divorce once their brides have  obtained the necessary permission to stay in British Palestine.  However, when Markovitch, whose face is so instantly forgettable, he makes an excellent arms smuggler, sets eyes on Bella, the most beautiful woman in the room, he falls irrevocably in love and determines to make her love him.   Once back in Palestine, in his first ever act of assertiveness, he refuses to divorce her.

Is this a romantic gesture, or an act of cruelty?  Or both? Certainly Markovitch’s life is never straightforward again.  Neither, for that matter is Zeev Feinberg’s.  Having divorced his European bride, he is free to marry the love of his life, Sonia.  Yet their happiness isn’t a given.  Much heartache and many separations follow,  resulting in both men bringing up children not their own – sometimes knowingly, sometimes not.  And then, just when life seems to be settling,  there’s a tragedy, or a war, or the revealing of a deeply hidden secret.  It seems that love and life are designed to test these characters to the max.

And in the testing Gundar-Goshen’s characters (and I include all, except the contemptible Bella) demonstrate not only their flaws, but such spirit, sensuality, generosity, weakness and vulnerability that I couldn’t help but love them. My heart broke with theirs.  Not that I knew we were heading for heartache, as the narrative tone is frequently comic with fabulous (as in fable-like) events and sprinklings of magical realism. For instance, the lustrous moustache of Zeev Feinberg reflects the man’s vitality;  Sonia always smells of oranges; her son Yair of peaches; houses freeze or heat up, according to the emotions experienced within. That tone led me to believe there would be, after all the trivialities, raising children, working to earn a living, eating a good meal or two, a mellow, contented, if not exactly happy, ending. But then, after all that effort, both personal and political, when the homeland had been gained (see footnote), out of the blue, the cruellest tragedy of all.

Crack.  That’s the sound of my heart breaking all over again.

_________________________________________________________________

Footnote: The personal drama is, of course, an allegory for the political events of the day. Cf: Review at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

________________________________________________________________

This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

It’s also a stop 3 of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press reading project. Next stop: Austria

I remember the first time I met Teffi.  It was in the literary oasis of Watermark Books, King’s Cross Station (sadly no more, and funnily enough I haven’t visited London since it closed. Make of that what you will.) They had a table tucked at the back of the shop, filled with translated fiction, most of it published by independent presses. A table I approached with great excitement every time I visited, because I knew I would find something special.  One time Teffi’s Subtly Worded was waiting to greet me.  I opened it randomly and this is what I read:

I’m in love with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. I hate Natasha, first because I’m jealous, second because she betrayed him.

Teffi was talking about her 13-year old self, and her teenage literary crush.  He was mine also; he probably still is.   And that sentence was enough to secure a place for Subtly Worded and Teffi’s other works, published by Pushkin Press on my shelves.

image

Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson

For obvious reasons, in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution I decided to read Rasputin and Other Stories, a selection of essays, that shows Teffi to have been anything but the fool her nom-de-plume suggests.  Born in 1872, Teffi lived through turbulent times; a liberal in the days of the last Tsar, not Bolshevik as Lenin came to power, and yet she survived.  In the introduction  this volume, Robert Chandler attributes this to the witty tone of her voice, which made it palatable to her foes, despite incisive and non-complimentary observations.  Nevertheless she was eventually forced into exile in 1920, never to return to her homeland again.

The first 2/3rds of these autobiographical writings cover her childhood, her writing career up until her exile. We see her develop from a nervous ingenue – My first steps as an author were terrifying –  to the confident investigative journalist gleefully thwarting Rasputin’s attempts to hypnotise her.  The final 1/3 comtains memories of famous Russian authors.

Taking centre place are the two longest pieces; one chronicling Lenin’s ruthless takeover of the newspaper, The New Life, and the second, her two encounters with Rasputin.  In both she is dropping the names of famous Russians like sweeties. She’s not being boastful – this was simply her world, and she is describing people and events as she experienced them.  The pieces, written years after the events, are therefore lively, filled with quirky details that historians would pass over.  For instance:

Lenin was living in Petersburg illegally. He was, of course, under official surveillance. ….. Nevertheless,  he would come into the office, quite freely, day after day, simply turning up the collar of his coat when he left so as not to be recognised. And not one of the gumshoes on duty ever asked any questions about this character who was so keen to cover up his chin.

Teffi may pass herself off as a clown (in the essay My Pseudonym) and some of the pieces may have comic intent, but others are bitter, such as The Gaderene Swine, which describes the panicked flight of the Whites in 1919. Neither does she hold back when delivering her judgments of people. How’s this for a sardonic put-down?

Andrei Bely writes that Merezhkovsky wore shoes with pompoms, and that these pompoms epitomised the whole of Merezhkovsky’s life. Both his speech and his thought had “pompoms”.

Not the most precise of descriptions, but certainly not a very kind one. Though Andrei Bely was not without “pompoms” of his own.

Stories about her childhood and her early encounters with literature are full of charm.  Her meeting with Tolstoy – she decides to go and plead for Prince Andrei’s life – shows none of the great author’s curmudgeonly side.  I was delighted to find My First Tolstoy included in this collection too. Besides providing a link to my first Teffi, it added the -est onto an altogether fine reading experience.

________________________________________

This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

It’s also a stop 2 of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press reading project.  Next stop: Israel

image

Translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich

Inoue burst onto the Japanese literary scene in 1949 with two novellas, the second of which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.  But it was his debut that pleased me more.

The Hunting Gun is a novella set within a traditional framework. This is a structure that always delights me, as it allows an exploration of both past and present, adding additional poignancy to the present, when that is a sad one.  It’s particularly effective here in that it left me feeling much more sympathy towards a character who, in some respects, deserves his current lot.

Following publication of a prose poem describing a man seen climbing Mount Amagi with his dog, a double-barrel shotgun resting on his shoulder, the unnamed narrator is surprised to receive a letter from Misugi Josuke claiming to have been the subject  of the poem.  He also sends her three letters, one from his niece, the second from his wife, and the third, a posthumous letter from his lover. He wants to share the reasons for the desolatedried-up riverbed of a man the poet recognised within him.

The three letters form the body  of the novella, and they tell of a family destroyed by a long-standing secret.  When Josuke’s niece, Shoko, reads her mother’s diary following her death by suicide, she is shocked to discover that her mother and Josuke had been lovers for years.  You might expect the potential damage of the affair to dissipate once the lover is dead.  However, Saiko’s death turns out to be the catalyst for the complete disintegration of the family, as the two living women react in wholly unexpected ways.

Revisiting the affair from 3 viewpoints – the shocked niece, the abandoned wife, and the beloved – the letters are so psychologically astute that they provide a comprehensive answer to the question as to whether a man can write convincingly as a woman. Yes, yes, and thrice yes!  They show the damage inflicted  by the illicit affair, not only to the wife, Midori, (who has always known) but also to the lover – the burdens of betrayal, guilt and loneliness.  Also the contradictions inherent to human nature.  How can Saiko behave this way when she could not forgive her own  husband for imfidelity? All this and not a cliché in sight!

It appears that Josuke himself hasn’t suffered all that much, but following the receipt of the letters, it is his time to reap what he has sown.  He deserves much of it, but I still felt that his niece’s reaction was going to inflict far more pain that was his due.

The lover’s relationship in Bullfight is far more opaque.  That Tsugami (married, wife and two children living elsewhere) and Saikiko (war widow) are unhappy is not in question. This is the first mention of them as a couple: but Saikiko had come over the previous evening and they had started quarrelling, as they always did, about whether or not to break up. As the novella progresses, and one unhappy scene follows another, you’ve got to assume that Saikiko regrets being attracted by Tsugami’s unsavoury side.

Elsewhere Tsugami is described as an isolated lonely, soul with a core that refused to catch. In matters of the heart, maybe. He’s a different entity altogether when it comes to business, particularly that business of the bullfight. Tsugami, as editor-in-chief of a newspaper, agrees to sponsor a Japanese bullfighting tournament (one in which bull fights bull).  Besides generating money for the paper from ticket sales and onsite gambling, it will bring some colour back to war-torn Osaka and make his name.  From the start though the enterprise is beset with difficulty, with setback after setback, and exponentially rising costs.  Tsugami is engaged in an exhausting bullfight with his own project, forced eventually to accept the help of black marketeers and other shady characters to gain a chance of success.

The impact of this is that Tsugami, the cool lover, becomes the distanced one, and Saikiko’s love threatens to turn to hate.  She’s not even sure whether she wants Tsugami’s big gamble to succeed or fail.  While Tsugami’s project allows Inoue to invest his tale with a measure of post-war state-of-the-nation analysis,   I always felt that the bullfight itself was a metaphor for the struggle and tussle of Tsugami’s and Saikiko’s relationship – a suspicion finally confirmed in the dramatic closing scene.


This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

It’s also the start of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press Reading Project.  For my first circuit I’ll be travelling East to West from and to Japan.  I enjoyed Inoue’s clarity so much, that I’ll be reading  Life of A Counterfeiter upon my return.

Next stop: Russia

Given that Pushkin Press are second only to the Folio Society in terms of the number of books I have in my collection, I thought it might be a good idea to gather them all together and allocate them some shelf space.  It’ll only take an hour or so, I thought.

Three hours later, because they were indeed scattered to the four winds, this is the result.

image

Pushkin Press Corner

They are, like every other shelved book in the house, double-stacked.  The TBR is in the front row, so that I can see at a glance what I have to read. (This collection is, by the way, the result of many years of adding a Pushkin Press title to book orders to avoid postage costs, purchasing Pushkins in sales as well as the publisher’s generosity with review copies.) Along the top we have the signature Pushkin Collection titles arranged A-Z and down the side other Pushkin imprints arranged Z-A.

When I started thinking about what to read during Pushkin Press Fortnight, I decided that I would do an around the world trip. Looking at this little lot, I have enough for an Around the World and Back Again project. So that’s the project I will begin on Tuesday. The starting point is Japan, simply because the last book I read prior to reading for Pushkin Press Fortnight was partially set there. I won’t get round the world in the fortnight but it will be interesting to see how many air miles I rack up.

 

A decade! Who would have thought it?  This blog has come a long way since I lost that notebook with my reading notes, and decided to store them, henceforth, in a place where I wouldn’t lose them.  Many good things have happened along the way – far too many to list here.  Highlights must include German Literature Month (6 years and counting), meeting online booklovers in the flesh (I hope to meet more of you some time in the future) and gaining access to special places and events that would have been off limits otherwise.  I was also quoted in the Wall Street Journal!!

But let’s not forget the authors, their publishers, and WordPress without which this blog would not have existed.

I now have a books read index of over 1000. I recently reviewed this and I was struck by the following:

– the number of books I read due to the recommendations, readalongs and initiatives of fellow bloggers.  This community we have is valuable, not only to ourselves but to the world of literature at large.  Forgive the namedropping here but, as Sebastian Barry once said to me, as I was staring into his deep brown eyes, trying not to swoon: Literary bloggers are changing the face of reading.  (This was a book-signing and THE special literary festival moment that will probably never, ever be surpassed.)

– how few I have forgotten.  There are some – those that I think are best forgotten – but they are a rare few.  I can remember most in sufficient detail to discuss.  So the time spent reviewing for this blog is not lost time. In fact reviewing makes me think deeper and appreciate more.

There are also a number of titles I absolutely adored but did not receive the attention or the praise I think they deserved. So, as a treat for yourselves, seeing as you’ve been putting up with me for 10 whole years, I have three of these to giveaway. My thanks to Saraband, Pushkin Press and Alma Books for making this blogiversary giveaway possible.

1) As I’m based in Scotland, a Scottish novel first, although there’s not much Scotland in it. Regardless it really is An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful.

imagePublisher’s synopsis
An eminent British writer returns to the resort hotel in the Japanese mountains where he once spent a beautiful, snowed-in winter. It was there he fell in love and wrote his best-selling novel, The Waterwheel, accusing America of being in denial about the horrific aftermath of the Tokyo firebombings and the nuclear destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we learn more about his earlier life, however – as a student in Bloomsbury, involved with a famous American painter – we realise that he too is in denial, trying to escape past events that are now rapidly catching up with him. A sweeping novel of East and West, love and war, truths and denials.

Link to my review

2) You all know by now that my heart belongs to Germany, and so I’ve chosen what is quite possibly my favourite German 20th-century classic. (Well it might tie with Buddenbrooks.) Ulrich Plenzdorf’s The New Sorrows of Young W.

image

Publisher’s synopsis
Edgar W., teenage dropout, unrequited lover, unrecognized genius – and dead – tells the story of his brief, spectacular life.

It is the story of how he rebels against the petty rules of communist East Germany to live in an abandoned summer house, with just a tape recorder and a battered copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for company. Of his passionate love for the dark-eyed, unattainable kindergarten teacher Charlie. And of how, in a series of calamitous events (involving electricity and a spray paint machine), he meets his untimely end.

Absurd, funny and touching, this cult German bestseller, now in a new translation, is both a satire on life in the GDR and a hymn to youthful freedom.

Link to my review

3) Finally, The Scent of Lemon Leaves, a  Spanish award-winning novel which took me completely by surprise.  I’ve loaned my proof copy a few times and all who have read it loved it.  Whoever wins this has an extra-special treat in store, because Alma Books has generously donated the last copy of the first edition hardback.  (And I’m a tinsy bit jealous.)

imagePublisher’s synopsis
Having left her job and boyfriend, thirty-year-old Sandra decides to stay in a village on the Costa Blanca in order to take stock of her life and find a new direction. She befriends Karin and Fredrik, an elderly Norwegian couple, who provide her with stimulating company and take the place of the grandparents she never had. However, when she meets Julián, a former concentration-camp inmate who has just returned to Europe from Argentina, she discovers that all is not what it seems and finds herself involved in a perilous quest for the truth.

As well as being a powerful account of self-discovery and an exploration of history and redemption, The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a sophisticated and nail-biting page-turner by one of Spain’s most accomplished authors.

Link to my review

Let me know which book(s) you’d like to win in comments.  UK entrants only. The giveaway will close on Monday 13.02.2017, so that I can send the Pushkin Press title out to coincide with Pushkin Press fortnight. The excitement continues.  Long may it last.