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IMG_0160What attracted Tracy Chevalier to writing a modern day Othello for The Borough Press?  “It’s the quintessential story of an outsider”, she said.  “And I’m an outsider.  I still sound like this (referring to her American accent) after 30 years,” she quipped. (See footnote.)

Was she constrained by the thought of following in Shakespeare’s footsteps?  “Not at all.  I had a setting I know well and I was liberated from all the historical research!”.

By choosing to bring Othello into a 1970’s Washington school playground, Chevalier not only knows the setting, she has lived it. There are details in this book straight from her childhood, even if the racial element is inverted.  Chevalier was a minority white kid in a mostly black neighbourhood.  She knows how her Othello, or Osei Kokote, the son of a Ghanian diplomat feels.

And she knows how modern day 6th graders behave.  I’ll be honest – all these pre-adolescent relationships between boys and girls felt a bit grown up to me.  But Chevalier says these “couplings” – even if they only last for one hour – are the norm in her son’s school.  The kids are trying it out.

So back to Othello – his  passionate relationship with the lovely Desdemona,  the deadly nature of his unjust jealousy fired by Iago’s betrayal. It’s a true Shakespearian tragedy, and it ends with bodies strewn all over the stage.  “I couldn’t follow Shakespeare there.  In a theatre the audience is prepared to suspend disbelief.  But my novel is in a playground.  I’ve made the ending fit the scenario.   Even so I’ve littered my last act with metaphorical dead bodies.”  said Chevalier.

Don’t let that fool you.  The ending may be an emotional softening but it remains devastating.  Chevalier’s retelling is set over the course of one day.  Perhaps she sacrifices an element of realism in doing this?  Would things escalate so quickly, even in a 1970’s playground, where the supervising teachers are as rascist as the pre-adolescent Iago? Maybe not, but it ensures that the pace never slackens. Chevalier also incorporates the development of Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship – something Shakespeare never did. Was it really the great love we assume? Chevalier certainly wasn’t convinced. Nor is she happy with the relative silence of the women in Shakespeare’s play.  “I’ve kept to his five acts”, she said.  “I’ve just given more airplay to the girls.”

She does this by following the action over the shoulders of her four main characters:  Osei and the golden-haired Dee (Othello amd Desdemona); Ian and Millie (Iago and Bianca). This allows her to examine the issue of racism from multiple perspectives, including the black boy’s point-of-view.  The decision to keep the narrative third-person avoids any accusation of cultural appropriation. (See footnote 2.)

The result is, as I have already said, a fast-paced and intense read, and, for me, the most enjoyable Hogarth Shakespeare retelling to date.   Once I suspended my disbelief.  6th grade = 11 years old for goodness sake.  Mind you, it is a long time since I was in the 6th grade playground.  What do I know?


Footnote 1: Edinburgh Book Festival 20.08.2017

Footnote 2: Am I alone in feeling distressed at the fact that Chevalier even had to consider this? What happened to artistic license?

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There’s an industry when it comes to writing about Kafka.  His works are analysed and reinterpreted again and again.  But has anyone written about baking with Kafka?  Not that I know of.  Not even Tom Gauld.  But he has drawn a cartoon.

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Baking with Kafka is a collection of cartoons, mostly commissioned by the Guardian, the New Yorker or the New York Times.  The vast majority have a literary theme with others referring to art, film and world of the critic. As such the cartoons are current, well-informed and extremely witty.  There are a few pointed barbs scattered in the mix, but these seemed reserved (quite rightly) for the world of politics.

Gauld projects into the bookish future with advice such as how to get published in a skeleton apocalypse and a demonstration of the behaviour of a rogue bibliophile in 2500 AD.  Staying firmly in the now, however, whether you are a reader, a writer, a translator, or a critic, Gauld captures your pecadilloes in a way that you will recognise and make you smile.

On second thoughts, maybe translators won’t smile.

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Consisting of 150 cartoons, this is a book for devouring in one sitting, and then dipping in and out of whenever in need of a quick pick-me-up.  I’ve also spent quite a while trying to determine my three favourites. It was an impossible task.  Instead I will leave you with three cartoons that tickled my funny bone all over again whilst writing this review.

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September Wrap-Up

It’s been a busy month – just not on the blog or in reading terms, comparatively speaking.  I’ve been travelling.  Actually I was only at home for seven days in September!  So, the fact that four books were read and five blog posts (excluding the August Wrap-Up) published should be regarded as a valiant effort!

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Books Read September 2017

The two German translations at the bottom of the read-in-September pile  (Kruso, This House is Mine) provide clues as to where I’ve been spending my time. Reviews will appear during German Literature Month in November.

Reviews
Spring Garden – Tomoka Shibasaki
Excavating Kafka – James Hawes  (Book of the Month – let not the paucity of competition fool you.  This is an astounding read!)

Features
6 Degrees of Separation – From Wild Swans to Wives and Stunners
Announcing German Literature Month VII
A Literary Tour of Schleswig-Holstein: Lübeck amd The Buddenbrooks House

2017 Reading Statistics
YTD 77 Read, 8 Audio Books, 8 DNF
August 2017 4 Read

IMG_0146Earlier this year, I read James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany – it was illuminating to say the least (and I thought I knew a thing or two about German history). So I decided to take the book he published in 2008 with me on a recent trip to Prague.  What was he going to teach me about the city’s most famous inhabitant?

To summarise in a sentence: Everything I ever thought I knew about Kafka is a myth!  Really? Yes, really.

The “facts”  – the accepted truths – are listed by Hawes on pages 6 and 7.

  • Kafka’s will ordered that all his works should be destroyed.
  • Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime, partly because he was shy about publishing.
  • Kafka was crushed by a dead-end bureaucratic job.
  • Kafka was crippled for years by the TB that he knew must inevitably kill him.
  • Kafka was incredibly honest about his feelings with the women in his life – too honest.
  • Kafka was imprisoned, as a German-speaking Jew in Prague, in a double ghetto: a minority-within-a-minority amid an absurd and collapsing operatta-like empire.
  • Kafka’s works are based on his experiences as a Jew.
  • Kafka’s works uncannily predict Auschwitz.
  • Kafka’s works were burned by the Nazis. 

The remainder of his book is spent debunking, each and every point, one by one.  Convincingly and yet the K-myth, as Hawes calls it, is still the one perpetuated by the industry. The enigma must be good for business.

Well I was in the right place to check things out. (No pun intended.)  I marched myself off to the Franz Kafka Museum.  What are they saying?

Let’s look at myth point 3: Kafka was terrified of his brutal father.  This is backed up by the museum, as the first exhibit introduces us to the “shadow of Hermann Kafka … the huge, oppressive figure which the writer chose as a recurrent motif in his inner life”. The museum presents the Letter to My Father as “a biographical and literary document of the first order” though I suppose there’s sufficient room for manoeuvre in its evaluation of the work as “an over-the-top diatribe” to suggest that, as Hawes argues, the relationship between son and father in the Letter to My Father is not to be mistaken for that between the real-life counterparts.

Myth point 2:  Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime. There’s plenty of evidence in the museum to show that Kafka was well-known in immediate circles, but interestingly not a scooby about his winning the Fontane Prize for Literature in 1912!   I wasn’t aware of that until Hawes brought it to my attention.

Myth Point 1: That legendary will exists and the literary world will be forever grateful for Max Brod’s act of disobedience.  Certainly that is how this is presented in the Franz Kafka Museum.  How can Hawes argue against this?  That Kafka was using reverse psychology which Brod, due to the closeness of their relationship, would have understood all too well.

I’m inclined to believe Hawes because there is just so much in these fascinating pages that brings a completely new image of Kafka, the man, to life.  “A clubber with a penchant for porn” as James Walton aptly phrased it in The Telegraph. (And I’ll leave you to wonder about the revelations in that particular chapter.)

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Once read, never forgotten

Enough about the man, what about his literature?  Here’s another myth: Kafka’s style is mysterious and opaque.  I certainly found that to be true at university and remember hurling (literally) “The Castle” into the rubbish bin!  Yet the section that Hawes devotes to analysis of Kafka’s works – including that beetle story – as the depiction of the “abiding psychological tension of our modern world” makes tham seem not only interesting, but perhaps even approachable. I’m not going to use the word enjoyable,  because I don’t to want chance my arm, but I do find myself contemplating what would have been uncontemplatable a couple of months before.  A reread of Kafka’s novels.  My stomach clenches at the thought, perhaps something shorter.  Hawes suggests there is no finer place to begin than with “The Judgement”, and, as I trust him, so I shall.

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Mengstrasse 4, Lübeck

Earlier this year I recorded my trip to Theodor Storm’s home town of Husum, but I never told you what happened after that.  I travelled from the North Sea coast to the Baltic Coast.  To Lübeck, the home town of Thomas Mann, where a visit to Mengstrasse 4, the former home of Mann’s grandparents, is obligatory for German litlovers.  Why? Because that is where the Heinrich and Thomas Mann Centre is situated.  Well, that may be it’s official name, but it is better known as the Buddenbrooks House, being the house Mann immortalised in his debut novel.

I made a beeline for the second floor. For it is dedicated to the novel, Buddenbrooks, in a way that is, as far as I am aware wholely unique.  Two rooms are presented as the Buddenbrooks’s sitting and dining rooms.

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The Sitting Room

They were sitting in the “land-scape room” on the first floor of the rambling old house in Meng Street, which the firm of Johann Buddenbrook had acquired some time since, though the family had not lived in it for long.  The room was hung with heavy resilient tapestries put up  in such a way that they stood well out from the walls. They were woven in soft tones to harmonise with the carpet, and they depicted idyllic landscapes in the style of the eighteenth century, with merry vine-dressers, busy husbandmen and gaily beribboned shepherdesses who sat beside crystal streams with spotless lambs in their laps or exchanged kisses with amorous shepherds,  These scenes were usually lighted by a pale yellow sunset to match the yellow coverings on the white enammelled furniture and the yellow silk curtains at the two windows.

For the size of the room, the furniture was rather scant.  A round table, its slender legs decorated with fine lines of gilding, stood, not in front of the sofa, but by the wall opposite the little harmonium, on which lay a flute case, some stiff arm chairs were ranged in a row round the walls, there was a sewing table by the window, and a flimsy ornamented writing-desk laden with knick-knacks. (Translation H T Lowe-Porter)

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The Dining Room

The tapestries in this room had a sky-blue background, against which, between slender columns, white figures of gods and goddesses stood out with plastic effect,  The heavy red damask window-curtains were drawn; stiff, massive sofas in red damask stood ranged against the walls, and in each corner stood a tall gilt candelabrum with eight flaming candles, besides those in silver sconces on the table.  Above the heavy sideboard, on the wall opposite the landscape room, hung a large painting of an Italian bay, the misty blue atmosphere of which was most effective in the candle-light. (Translation H T Porter Lowe)

Look more closely and you will see individual artifacts tagged with the the numbers of the pages in which they make individual appearances if you will.  Unfortunately the labels don’t detail the relevant edition.  Still I’ll include the photos here, for anyone who may be reading Buddenbrooks at the moment.  Let me know when you track down the relevant passage.

The permanent interactive exhibition on the ground floor details the life and times of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and made me understand that Buddenbrooks, like many debut novels, contains many autobiographical elements.  For instance, the Mann family originated from Rostock, and many of Hanno Buddenbrook’s experiences were based on those of the author, such as his torment during his school days at the Katharineum.

The museum’s mission statement is to encourage readers to pick up read or re-read the works of the Manns.  I can report a case of mission achieved, because right now, I am deep into what must be my 5th or 6th reading of Buddenbrooks, and  I am loving every word all over again.

It’s where my journey during German Literature Month VII will begin.  Have you made any plans yet?

IMG_0109Winner of the 2014 Akutagawa Prize

Translated from Japanese by Polly Barton

From one beautiful cover to the next – Pushkin Press certainly know how to package their goods!  But. While The Disappearances had me page-turning from the start, I can’t say I found Spring Garden so rivetting. But once I accepted that this is a quiet novel and a slow burner, I began to appreciate it a little more, even if I never really warmed to it.

Taro, a young divorcé,  who has decided that he can no longer share his space, lives alone in an emptying apartment block in Setagaya, a middle class suburb of Tokyo.  The landlord has decided to demolish the building and sell the land for redevelopment.  Taro is one of the last renters in the block.  He has no friends, and spends his time, when not working, lounging on the floor brooding about his recently deceased father.  The ever increasing void around him doesn’t perturb him unduly.  He’ll find somewhere new to live when his lease expires.

One day he notices one of his remaining neighbours spying on the sky-blue house opposite the apartment block. A casual friendship develops between him and Nishi, the older women “spy”.  Her fixation on the house began years before when she found a coffee table book entitled “Spring Garden” with this house and the life lived by its then inhabitants as its subject.  The life seemed ideal, the couple happy, and yet they, a famous commercial producer and his actress wife, divorced only a couple of years after the publication of the book. Nishi has analysed the photographs for clues as to their unhappiness to the nth degree, but does not understand. Her objective is to see the whole house from the inside. When the opportunity arises, she takes it, but needs Taro’s help to complete her quest in its entirety.

I use the word quest purposefully, because to Nishi, it is just that, even if it doesn’t seem much of an adventure to me.  And so much of this novel seemed off kilter in other ways.   There is a mystery surrounding the celebrity couple, that turns out to be a non-mystery.  Those remaining in the apartment block – particularly Taro – seem stuck in a state of permanent stasis. Are they paralysed by the non-stop change of the city in which they live?

Because I have to say there doesn’t seem to be much character development or even story-arc.  That’s not to say that there aren’t character studies.  It’s just that they didn’t run particularly deep for me, and I couldn’t decide whether Taro was grief-stricken or simply lacksadaisical. Perhaps the objective of the piece is to simply to document the realities of urban life in contemporary Tokyo; loneliness, chance encounters and the resulting fleeting friendships, the temporariness of our place in the world. This latter point emphasised by fine observations from nature.

Spring Garden works on this thematic level.  But it falls apart when I start looking at details.  What is the purpose of that change of narrator 4/5ths of the way through the novel, for instance.  To help us see Taro through sympathetic eyes, those of his sister? To endear him to us?  It didn’t work.  And as for that plot device in the final scene in the Spring Garden house.  My eyes rolled. (Honestly I remember using it myself in a primary school story.)

Given that Spring Garden won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, I will assume that Japanese tastes differ widely from mine, and that I am blind to this story’s virtues. I wonder, though, whether the same would be true of the other titles in Pushkin Press’s Japanese novella series.  Has anyone read them?  Are they worth picking up?


This read, a rare fail, completes my Round the World With Pushkin Press reading project.  Or rather, it would have done, had I not had so much fun visiting 10 countries on my first circuit, that I’ve decided to add a second!

Next stop: Australia

Kate has opened this month’s journey with the bestselling Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Everyone was reading this in the 1990s – everyone except me, that is,

Neither have I read John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things – also set in China.  It won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize in 2015, and is the only winner I have yet to read. I intend to do so before the end of this year.

Talking of completist reading, I have only one book remaining from this year’s Walter Scott Historical Fiction shortlist – Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist.

The thought of vanishing leads me to The Disappearances, an excellent young adult novel recently published by Pushkin Press, with one of the most beautiful covers of 2017.

I do love a beautiful book, and each year I make a point of determining the most beautiful book in the Edinburgh Book Festival Bookshop.  A copy of this year’s winner made its way home with me a fortnight ago. That would be The Sketchbook of Edinburgh.

Most of my book shopping is done in Edinburgh, and when I’m looking for something special – like a copy of the Moxon Tennyson – I head for the second-hand bookshop paradise in the West Port. The Pre-Raphaelite woodcuts are what make this edition so special. Here are a couple graced with the presence of the real Lizzie.

Lizzie was, of course, the original stunner, but there were others – Effi, Fanny, Jane, et al, and in Wives and Stunners, Henrietta Garnett, tells their stories.  Men may have created the most famous paintings, but where would they have been without their muses?