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Archive for the ‘non-fiction’ Category

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.

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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.

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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

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Having ignored Book Week Scotland for the last few years due to the clash with #germanlitmonth, I decided to challenge myself to find a book that satisfied the demands of both events.  Et voilà!

imageTranslated from German by Brian Battershaw

At the age of forty, twenty years before turning his pen to fiction, Theodor Fontane travelled to Scotland with his friend, Bernard von Lepel,  like many others enticed by the romantic historical novels and ballads of Sir Walter Scott and entranced by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their journey was a pilgrimage of sorts, and, I must admit,  well-planned.  I’m not entirely sure how long it lasted – matter of months I suspect – but they accomplished more that I have managed in 28 years of living here!

imageThe map on the right shows the route, and those in the know, will realise that it takes in  sites that are still major tourist attractions today.  Most of which I have visited too, and I found it interesting that the places Fontane describes are often as they appear today. (The places around them will have changed beyond all recognition and so I challenged myself to spot the details that Fontane didn’t mention: so no Nessie in Loch Ness (the story only began to spread in 1933), no McCaig’s tower in Oban (erected 1897) and curiously no mention of the bird colonies on the Isle of Staffa (and they must have been there when Fontane visited.) Neither did he visit a distillery, or if he did he didn’t tell us about it – perhaps the many temperamce preachers he met imfluenced him after all!

But enough of things, Fontane and Lepel didn’t see.  Here are some of the things that they did.

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Fontane’s travelogue is detailed amd multi-faceted with fastidious descriptions of places and people, historical anecdotes (lesser known as well as milestone events), translations of Scottish poems, retellings of Scottish legends, interspersed with personal experiences. These latter show the realities of travel in the mid-19th century.  Remind me never to take the end seat on the outside of a stage-coach.

passengers at the ends of each row … sat with only one cheek on the bench, so that the outer half of each individual dangled and swung to and fro together with hat-boxes and portmanteaus.  I need hardly say that such a minimum of travelling comfort would have been unbearable over a stretch of 75 miles, but for  the fact that at every stage the flanking passengers on the outside changed places so that their right and left halves, alternately rested at the last stage, constituted fresh reserves to put into  line.

The sketches  of his travelling companion Lepel complement the text.  3 of these are reproduced on the book jacket.  (From top to bottom: Loch Leven Castle, Isle of Staffa, Edinburgh) The book was intended to be a travel guide, and, for the most part, it could still serve that same purpose today (modes of transport excepted, of course.) I enjoyed Fontane’s keen observations and I learnt much about Scotland too.  A couple of  examples shall suffice.

1) Of Edinburgh and Stirling castle (Page 100)

Edinburgh Castle is like a recumbent lion while Stirling Castle resembles a sitting one.

2) Of the British Army (Page 102 doubtless a sly swipe at the Prussian Army and possibly not true today.)

We make a great mistake if we think of the British Army as a machine that removes the last vestiges of freedom and independence from the individual.

I will say, however, that there are very few references to the weather – from this I shall assume that the late summer of 1858 must have been a good one!

9 of the 27 chapters are devoted to Edinburgh.  Glasgow is lucky to get 9 lines! How so?  One look at the 300 foot-high factory chimneys of which a number were to be seen rising into heaven like pillars of petrified steam sufficed to make Fontane and Lepel rush for the  next train back to Edinburgh.

Fontane’s most scathing comments, however, are reserved for Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s self-designed ‘Romance in Stone and Mortar’.

There is a rhyming party game in which the participants write a line, then turn the paper down save for the last word, so that there can be no possible connection between what  the next man writes and what has been written before him.

Abbotsford is like that. It has been built for the sake of some forty or fifty catchwords.

No-one is more mortified than Fontane himself that he cannot adopt that tone of love and reverence to which one’s lips  have almost become accustomed when they utter Sir Walter’s name.  Lest we forget, visiting the places that Sir Walter Scott had written about was the primary reason  for Fontane’s journey.  Scott’s ballads were also the inspiration for Fontane’s early writing, who gave a number of his own ballads  Scottish settings. So to find his hero guilty of such poor taste was devastating. (Incidentally I disagree with Fontane here – I find Abbotsford quite charming and Scott’s novels unreadable.)   Regardless, the disappointing visit to Abbotsford, which lies on the Tweed,  is the final stage on this journey and signals a change of direction for Fontane.  When he finally publishes his debut, the historical novel Before the Storm in 1878, there is no trace of Scott’s romantic style and chivalric flourishes. He has become the realist writer on which his fame is based.

His love affair with Scotland had not ended, however.  Some 30 year later he wrote that this journey was one of the most beautiful in my life, at all events the most poetic,  more poetic than Switzerland, France, Italy and everything that I saw later on.

As a Sassenach in Scotland, I’d better not argue with that!!

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imageWinner of the 2015 Costa Biography Award

When Alexander von Humboldt, at the age of 30, took himself off to South America in 1799 little did he, or the world, realise that he would be there for 5 years and that he would formulate the theories and proofs that would shape and inspire scientists and thinkers for centuries thereafter. He would show that the earth, the sea currents, the air currents, the ecosystems are bound together in one living organism, a great chain of cause and effect. Disrupt one link in the chain and you disrupt the whole. He was the first to become concerned with the ecological damage we humans cause in general and with deforestation in particular. Not only that, he knew how to engage the public. His writings presented his findings in a way that was inclusive – blending science with literary flourish and sentiment to enable non-experts to understand his discoveries. His drawing of the natural landscape and the plant distribution in the Andes was revolutionary.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics (from wikmedia)

The books he published were magnificent. Lavishly illustrated, no expense spared. The production team consisting of the best cartographers, illustrators, typesetters and bookbinders available to him. By the time he published the first volume of Cosmos in 1845, they were collector’s items before they even left the presses and the rest of world waited breathlessly until a translation became available. (I’ve added an activity to my bucket list. I need to see an original one day. )

So how did Humboldt, the discoverer of continental drift, the magnetic equator and the inventor of isotherms we see every day on the weather maps, become “The Lost Hero of Science” in the English-speaking world? We may have chosen to forget him due to his nationality and the course of 20th century history. ( A supreme irony in that he was happier in France than in Germany and would have chosen to stay in Paris, had he not been dependent on his income from the King of Prussia. His inheritance was spent financing the South American trip.) Or we may have assimilated his ideas so completely, that their originator has been rendered invisible. Andrea Wulf wrote her book in order to find him, to make him rematerialise and to reassess his importance to our current understanding of the world.

Her book is a wonderful read, written in an accessible style that Humboldt would approve. Tracing Humboldt’s early years of restlessness and frustration, staying in Germany on the orders of his mother – no inheritance otherwise. Sailing to South America with Aimé Bonpland on that life-defining and dangerous adventure, one which Wulf brings to life. Returning to the Europe of the Napoleonic Wars, striving to remain apolitical until recalled to Germany to serve the king. His restlessness never leaving him. Making his final expedition across the Russian Steppes and into China at the age of 60! What a man! What a mind! His monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia once called him “the greatest man since the deluge”. I wouldn’t ascribe to that but I understand  the sentiment.

The final third of the book is devoted to the influential scientists, writers and environmentalists who took up Humboldt’s ideas and ran with them: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. These chapters are as immersive as Humboldt’s biography, with every word proving Wulf’s point that the man who shaped the way we understand the world, whose centennial in 1869 was celebrated with parades on the streets of America but is now largely forgotten, deserves to be restored to his rightful place in our collective memory.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

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Summer Before The DarkHow long have I wanted to read this book?  From the minute Thomas reviewed it during German Literature Month 2014. I got really excited when Mel reviewed the English translation by Carol Brown Janeway during German Literature Month 2015. I think that makes it Lizzy’s most anticipated release of 2016.  Thankfully with a January release date (today!), I didn’t have to wait until German Literature Month 2016!

Was it worth the anticipation?  Yes, yes and yes again!

(Editor: Calm down, Lizzy, you’re meant to be reviewing – not gushing.

Lizzy takes deep breathes, and works out how to write the piece without the adjectives, wonderful, fantastic, superlative, etc, etc.

Pause …….. Thinks a bit longer ……. This is tough.)

I’m tempted to leave it there, with an invocation to every fan of Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun to go out, grab a copy and read it now.  Do the same, even if you’re not. You won’t read anything more illuminating about these writers or the extended community of artistic exiles that congregated in Belgium in 1936.  Nor will you read anything faster.  I sat down intending to read just the first chapter.  Next time I looked up, I had turned the final page. (168)

The summer of 1936 was a time for reflection, for working out what to do now that doors were closing in Nazi Germany.  Putting a brave face on it, enjoying the summer, each other’s company in the Café Flore, plenty of drink and a passionate, if extremely puzzling love affair (Roth/Keun).  Their worlds may have been falling apart, yet still they found the wherewithall to write literary masterpieces.  The supportive and collaborative community they formed that summer enabled that.  Weidermann shows how that community came to be, the dynamics involved and just how that period was the summer before the dark.

As a long-time Zweigette ( 😉 ), I offer this book as an antidote to the venom of that article written by Michael Hofmann. (See footnote.).  Yes, Zweig was a multi-millionaire, some of it inherited, most of it earned by his writings.  (He was the best-selling author in the world during his day.) Of course, this gave him a position of privilege.  Yet he used his wealth to support many less fortunate – such as Roth, who he bankrolled for 10 years.  (Think of all the masterpieces that wouldn’t have existed for Hofmann to translate, had Zweig not done that.)

(Editor: Lizzy, behave yourself!  You’re reviewing, not polemicising.

Lizzy: Sorry, Ed, but 6 years later, to the day, I am still outraged.)

The point I’m making is that Weidermann’s portrait of Zweig is sympathetic, a response to those who think him insincere, or a non-entity in terms of world literature.  In fact, Weidermann shows how much of a hand Zweig had in the some of Roth’s work.  (And vice versa.)

Now for a confession.  I’m not particularly fond of Roth or Keun as writers.  This statement is based purely on having read a single book by each: The Radeztsky March and The Artificial Silk Girl. But having now “met” the people behind the pens, I’m curious to read more, particularly the books they wrote during that summer of 1936: Roth – Confession of A Murderer; Keun – After Midnight, and, of course, Zweig – The Buried Candelabrum. Also Britta Böhler’s The Decision, a contemporary novel about Thomas Mann, who at this time in 1936, had not yet made his stand against Nazi Germany, and was ridiculed for it by the exiles in Ostend.

(Editor: Lizzy! I commissioned a review, not a reading list!

Lizzy: Sorry Ed, I don’t know how to review non-fiction without simply reiterating book content, and this book is so much more than a stand-alone read for me.  For a while I’ve been intending to delve deeper into the literature of this period. I have found my springboard and I shall be diving in for the rest of the year.  But as you insist on a final verdict ….. )

Absolutely fab-u-lous! (A modest amount of gushing is allowed, isn’t it?)

5stars.GIF

(Footnote: I refuse to link to it but search for Vermicular Dither if you must.)

 

 

 

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Schiller_Reading_Week.png3 trips to Weimar in 2 years and it’s already a custom to spend a couple of hours browsing (and spending lots of cash) in my favourite bookshop.  There are lots of excellent bookshops in Weimar but my favourite without a shadow of a doubt is the one in the Bauernhaus, tucked just behind the marketsquare: the Eckermann-Buchhandlung, with its wall of books dedicated to literary history in Weimar, and its two literary giants Goethe and Schiller.  The selection ranges from the highly academic to the distinctly quirkly.  I now have a capsule collection and it has been my great pleasure in the run-up to Schiller Reading Week to refer to these time and time again. As the knowledge from these has contributed significantly to my posts about Schiller, it’s only right to give them their five minutes of fame.

bitt und bettelbriefe Gnädigster Herr, Ich habe Familie – Schillers Bitt- und Bettelbriefe (Most gracious Sir, I have a family – Schiller’s requests and begging letters) is a judicious selection of Schiller’s letters with commentary from Christiana Engelmann.  The first letter dating from November 1780 is from the time when the young Schiller was looking for an agent to help him publish The Robbers.  He’s trying to persuade his former school friend to take on the role and in the P.S he promises:

Höre Kerl! Wenn’s reussiert.  Ich will mir ein paar Bouteillen Burgunder drauf schmecken lassen.
Listen Mate.  If it succeeds, I’ll drink to it with a couple of bottles of burgundy.

The final letter, dated 20 August 1804 is addressed to Princess Caroline of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and asks her to become the godmother of his fourth child.  The tone is markedly different.

Werden Sie mir verzeihen, gnädigste Prinzessin, dass ich mir die Freiheit genommen habe, Sie als Patin meiner kleinen Emilie zu nennen?
Most gracious Princess, will you excuse me for taking the liberty of naming you little Emily’s godmother?

The letters inbetween chart the difficulties, struggles and triumphs of Schiller’s life.  All I can say is that his supporters must have worshipped him, because at times, despite desperately needing every penny they can send him, he comes across as quite imperious. And yet, when writing to the aristocracy he never forgets his position.  He’s a fawning groveller par excellence – no more so than in his sign-off to Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg.

Euerer Herzoglichen Durchlaucht untertanigst treugehorsamster Schiller
Your Excellency’s most submissive and obedient Schiller

The book is illustrated through with cartoons by Gottfried Müller.

schillers frauenSchillers Frauen (Schiller’s Women) consists of 42 portraits of the women – both real and fictional – in Schiller’s life.  It provides a look at the man from another angle as well as insights into which woman inspired which character.  For example Charlotte von Kalb – the married woman with whom Schiller had an affair before fleeing Mannheim when all became too intense. Her feelings are projected onto Elisabeth von Valois, married to the King of Spain but still in love with his son, Don Carlos, to who, she was formerly betrothed.

The chapters are presented chronologically with fictional women inserted into the timeline of the real.  All are visualised either by painting, drawing, lithograph or in silhouette.

It’s not a book I’m likely to read cover to cover but it is a book I’ll reference again and again.

schillers kritikerSo too, the final book in this selection, Torsten Unger’s Freiheitsschwabe und Moral-Trompeter: Schillers Kritiker (Freedoms’s Swabian and Moral Trumpeter: Schillers Critics). A book full of insults and invective spanning the centuries from the C18th right up to the present day.   A quick scan of the contents page reveals that the world of German literature hasn’t universally acclaimed dear old Fritz, who had a penchant for making enemies.  It seems the fire in the writer of The Robbers never diminished and he didn’t reserve his criticism to his literary works.  That feud with the early Romantics I alluded to in the A-Z that began Schiller week was more or less an outright war at times.  C19th and C20th  giants of German culture added their tuppence worth to the mix.  Heine, Buechner, Jean Paul, Grillparzer, Hebbel, Nietzsche, Fontane, Brecht, Enzensberger, Duerrenmatt, they’re all here.  They can’t all be wrong, or can they?

Grillparzer is particularly damming in his faint praise. Schiller geht nach oben, Goethe kommt von oben. (Schiller is on his way to the top, Goethe comes from there.)

This book is wicked and I can’t read a chapter without a gleeful smile on my face.  I recommend this to those who, scarred by school experiences, think reading Schiller is torture.  (I know you’re out there.) There is a companion volume Fuerstenknecht und Idiotenreptil: Goethes Kritiker (Prince’s henchman and reptile of idiots: Goethe’s Critics). No-one is safe from a literary critic it seems.

(Apologies for the lack of umlauts in the second half of this post  – they will return when I retrieve my ipad from the office.  I was in such a rush to leave earlier today ….)

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RedThere are no prizes for guessing the identity of my favourite redhead, even though our Lizzie’s personality may not have been as dazzling as her locks.  “In her mournful beauty, her natural silence, her frigid apathy, she was like a statue to be warmed into life…” (Jennifer J. Lee)

It’s not the fire, tempestuousness and temper that is expected of a redhead in these parts … a licence for volatility which Jackie Colliss Harvey made good use of, if her childhood stories are the measure.  As she grew older, she discovered other expectations and as she travelled around the world, even more, though sometimes contradictory.  And yet, the common demoninator  always, redheads are different.  It begged the question why …

… one she answers in this history of the natural redhead.  Beginning with the Neanderthals, Harvey traces the voyage of the recessive gene through the human population, which has resulted in this intriguing distribution of red-headedness throughout Europe.

Courtesy of reddit.com

Courtesy of reddit.com

What accounts for the high concentration of redheads in Central Asia?  The answer involves Thracian slaves and Alexander the Great and disproves that all redheads must have Irish or Scottish ancestry.

Historically the book is fascinating.  I’d never thought of Elizabeth I’s red hair as incontrovertible proof of her royal descent. Never associated redheadedness with anti-semitism, due to the nefarious role of Judas, although many did (which accounts for why Shylock was played wearing a red wig until the C19th.)   I particularly enjoyed the art history section in which Harvey points out the significance and associations of the red-haired subjects.

Scientifically too, there are many interesting facts. Redheads avoid the sun for good reason and this behaviour led to accusations of vampirism in the past. A variation in hormonal balance presents a different smell and this, combined with character of the infamous Mary Magdalene, results in a reputation of sexual sizzle.

All of this and more was new to me, a brunette, and I found this definition of “the otherness” of the redhead fascinating.  Harvey has an engaging style, vivid and immersive powers of description.  She lost me though when she turned her text into a political agenda, arguing that the ignorance and intolerance of the past still prevail, that we live in a world that can’t cope with something as small and insignificant as people whose hair is a different color.  It sounds completely hyperbolic to me, but then I live in Scotland, amidst one of the highest concentrations of redheads in the world.

35_stars.GIF

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Notes from my recent trip to Prague.

i) At 30C it was hot and sunny.

ii) The beer was very good – actually very, very good and the rumour that it is cheaper than water is true.

iii) The city is breathtakingly beautiful (though all those cobbles are hard on the feet).

The View from Petrin Hill

The View from Petrin Hill

iv) The Old Town Square hosted the funniest street artist I’ve ever seen.

Cute, cuddly and very funny

Cute, cuddly and very funny

v) Kafka’s novel, The Castle, remains as inscrutable as ever.

Now, how do I get into this castle?

Now, how do I get into this castle?

Having had a great time, the question is would I want to live there permanently? Rachael Weiss’s The Thing About Prague provides the view of an Australian trying to relocate permanently,  This is not the first book she’s written about Prague, having previously published Me, Myself and Prague which was based on a 12-month temporary stay. Prague had impressed her so much during that trip, that she got her cat adopted, sold up in Australia and moved back to start a new life.

The Thing About PragueI think it would be fair to say that she wasn’t expecting things to be so difficult.  In addition to the usual things when moving countries – or in Weiss’s case continents and hemispheres – learning a new language, making new friendships, finding employment, there was the obstacle specially reserved for non-EC citizens, obtaining the work permit.  Hers is a narrative replete with dodgy employers, unethical practices, incompetent lawyers and real-life bureaucracy that makes Kafka’s inventions appear sane!  Weiss relates her trials and tribulations with aplomb, humour and lashings of (the most excellent) Czech beer.

While life didn’t go entirely to plan, and things worked out after three years (though not in the Czech Republic), this made for great in-situ holiday reading.  And the question of moving to Prague never was a real one for me.  One look at the winter temperatures is enough.  However, The Thing about Prague did make me regret destroying those diaries of my own adventures abroad.  There might have been a book in me after all.

4_stars.GIF

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2007-2015

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