Grand Tour #4 – Luxembourg. Your Heart of Ice is Hot as Vice / Guy Rewenig

March 18, 2017

your-heart-of-ice-is-hot-as-viceThe first hurdle of this project. With France or Spain you can pick and choose, but when you get to Luxembourg you take what you’re given. If I’d been doing this a year ago, I’d have drawn a blank, as the only Luxembourgish book I found available in translation was one published only three months ago, Your Heart of Ice is Hot as Vice (Dein Herz aus Eis macht mich ganz heiß), by Guy Rewenig, translated by Sandra Schmit.

Rewenig’s a big name in a small country, and writes in French, German and Luxembourgish. This is a collection of four short books originally written in German and published fifteen or so years ago. The first three, A Real Canoeist Paddles With His Hands, Your Heart of Ice is Hot As Vice and With a Big Salute the Stag Jumps into His Suit, consist of unrelated aphorisms and vignettes; the fourth, Album of Errors and Comforts, is a satirical dictionary in the mould of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

The ungainliness of the English titles leaves you unprepared for the fleet-footedness of Rewenig’s writing (and Schmit’s – more on her input later). The best mode of illustration is quotation, which I hope you will forgive me for doing at length.

Small Comfort
I am not who you thought I was. Actually I’m not even who I thought I was. Maybe we’ve just been thinking too much, instead of simply being who we are not.

Goal-Oriented Peacemaking
I’ve sent a petition to NATO to drop some bombs on my voles. They are separatists who breach my garden sovereignty, threaten the vegetable peace, employ terrorist strategies, conspiratorially crowd together in dark catacombs. I insist, however, that the bombers do not harm a single leaf of my parsley!

Highest Safety Level
This morning, my airbag suddenly jumped out at me, even though I was only doing forty kilometres an hour on a deserted country road. My mechanic explained this to me: This new generation of intelligent airbags does not like to be humiliated by provocative slow driving which deliberately puts their raison d’être to ridicule.

Oh God!
The god I could believe in is a god who would allow me not to believe in him.

Overpowered by Softness
Sometimes, I am so in the right that I would love to hit out hard, but all of a sudden flowers grow out of my knuckles and my fist turns into a rose bush, sadly my opponent isn’t really fond of flowers, he knees me in the gut so hard that it is raining petals.

You see here the recurring themes: Rewenig is preoccupied with the absurdities of modern life, but also likes absurdity for its own sake, and whimsicality, and the dinky paradox.

The third book, With a Big Salute the Stag Jumps into His Suit, was written in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, and its political commentary is more prominent and perhaps more solemn.

After the End
The experiment called Humanity has failed dismally. All that is left is the anxious question: What if cockroaches are just as belligerent and capable of dictatorship?

Bitter, too. The longest piece of all, which comes at the end of that book is an escalating series of threats exchanged between two interlocutors that is mordantly funny in its inventiveness:

If you dismember my postman, electrocute my tax advisor and pour boiling oil over my wife, I’ll poison your Syrian hamster, hack your 37 goldfish to pieces, gas all the amphibians in your terrarium, gag your uncle and nephews, chase your grandmother into a deep gorge, drive your colleagues into a blazing fire and castrate your brother.

~~~

The fourth book, the dictionary, contains more of the same – witticisms and irreverences. Health is defined as the ‘prerequisite for dying successfully’, love as a ‘desperate, sometimes lifelong effort to find a copy of yourself in another person’. Some other favourites:

Amateur gardener – horticulture pedant. When temperatures drop under minus 15°, he puts a tiny wool cap on his beloved tomatoes. You recognize the truly radical amateur gardener by the numerous wool threads in his Bolognese sauce.

Diplomacy – variant of brainwash, redefines negative facts by means of positively connotated terms. Some examples: a) not “Students struck by lightning”, but rather “Young people’s thirst for knowledge quenched by penetrating contact with the laws of electricity during school outing” b) not “We lost the war and everybody is in jail”, but rather “In monkish seclusion we contemplate together the benefits of a future without weapons” c) not “Our economy goes down the drain”, but rather “Economics excels in free-style swimming through running waters” d) not “It’s the end of the world”, but rather “Humanity soon free from all existential dread” e) not “He’s dead and buried”, but rather “He now devotes his time exclusively to the contemplation of subsoil geological strata”.

Miscast – neo-Nazi on the police force. Leads to automobbing (job-related self-bothering, which can escalate into self-arrest). Most annoying symptom: self-pursuit. When a neo-Nazi is running through town all by himself, one can never be sure whom he’s after.

~~~

The acid test of the success of Sandra Schmit’s translation is that it made me laugh as much as it did, and yet to translate a book that contains so much humour and wordplay must have been quite a challenge. She writes as much in an informative afterword where she admits that some of the puns were so untranslatable that they ended up being omitted.

Although most of my laughter was genuine and spontaneous, sometimes it was provoked by seeing there was meant to be a joke that had perhaps worked better in German (a story about a whole family sharing a funeral urn, where following a posthumous argument ‘all the ashes were reduced to ashes’). Elsewhere I would have liked a footnote explaining the translation (a play on words involving ‘happy’ and ‘hapless’ made me want to see the original). To take another example:

Making a Stand
I’d rather be left alone
than right with everyone else.

This is neat, but it can’t be a direct translation. I wonder how it was done.

I salute Sandra Schmit, then, but I wish her proof-reader had been more eagle-eyed. There are too many mistakes in this book. Sometimes they are ambiguous (I couldn’t work out if a reference to spending Christmas ‘in perfect hormony’ was a typo or a pun; I suspect the former), more often clearly wrong. The mixture of American and British English can be distracting. But I don’t want to dwell on the negatives of a book that gave me a lot of pleasure. One for the road.

Perfect Happiness
Instructive fairy tale 1
A dentist, who was also a fanatic railway modeller but unfortunately had to neglect his railway modelling projects because of dentistric [sic] duties, and inversely also got sloppier and sloppier at removing toothaches because of his time-consuming railway modelling activities, had the good idea to fuse profession and passion once and for all. Unbeknownst to his patients, he implanted entire model railway landscapes with innumerable tracks and marshalling yards into their missing tooth structure, the patients never noticed a thing, they just thought: There he goes repairing my fillings again, when in reality the model railway implantation dentist was dedicatedly repairing the semi-collapsed railway tunnel on the northernmost mountain connection in the penultimate lower left molar.

luxembourg

Grand Tour #3 – France. Dawn & Morning / Romain Rolland

March 11, 2017

The name of Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was familiar to me, but it wasn’t until I read a piece by E.M. Forster, written on Rolland’s death (‘Romain Rolland and the Hero’, in Two Cheers for Democracy), that I became intrigued to read him. Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 on the strength of Jean-Christophe, a roman-fleuve in ten volumes, the committee citing ‘the lofty idealism of his literary production and … the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.’

It’s not that I dislike lofty idealism of literary production exactly, but it’s rarely the first thing that attracts me to a book. Forster, though, made it sound good, recalling the excitement with which friends would ask one another if they’d read the latest volume, and stressing the musical aspect.

There is a scene in the opening volume … where the hero, still a baby, touches the piano for the first time, and experiments in the marriage of sounds. I have never come across a scene like it in literature, for it is not merely poetic, not merely good child psychology: it seems to take us inside a special chamber of the human spirit, and make us co-creators.

Given that Forster is never one to overstate anything, these are strong words indeed, and so I dug out (well, the staff of the University Library dug out) the first couple of volumes, Dawn (L’Aube) and Morning (Le Matin), in the hundred-year-old translation by Gilbert Cannan that no one has yet attempted to improve upon. It shows its age: Cannan anglicises the hero’s name as ‘John Christopher’, which would never be done these days. (I’ll stick to Jean-Christophe, if you don’t mind.)

romain-rolland

Cannan’s introduction made me wonder whether it was too late to turn back:

The first volume … carries John Christopher from the moment of his birth to the day when, after his first encounter with Woman, at the age of fifteen, he falls back upon a Puritan creed.

This sounds like precisely the kind of posing small-minded macho conservative moralism I despise, and Forster isn’t blind to that aspect, suggesting that Rolland’s ‘lifelong insistence on the Hero … has its distant parallel in the sinister cult which has produced Hitler.’ That said, there’s some of that in Montherlant, whose writing I love, and how much of a male chauvinist can a newborn baby really be? I decided to power through.

It didn’t take long for me to see what Forster was on about. Dawn opens with Jean-Christophe, a few hours old, being nursed by his mother while his paternal grandfather waits nervously for J-C’s profligate father to come home. In the scenes that follow, Jean-Christophe grows gradually, almost imperceptibly, learning to play. The reader shares his joy.

He was also a magician. He walked with great strides through the fields, looking at the sky and waving his arms. He commanded the clouds. He wished them to go to the right, but they went to the left. Then he would abuse them, and repeat his command. He would watch them out of the corner of his eye, and his heart would beat as he looked to see if there were not at least a little one which would obey him. But they went on calmly moving to the left. Then he would stamp his foot, and threaten them with his stick, and angrily order them to go to the left; and this time, in truth, they obeyed him. He was happy and proud of his power.

(Perhaps there are hints of fascism here too.)

Rolland is not a sentimentalist. He ends the first chapter with a warning that his ‘little salamander’ will be ‘brought to reason’ by life. The dawn of the book’s title doubtless relates to the dawn of Jean-Christophe’s life, but also to the several dawnings on him of life’s brutalities. These start at an early age, the realisations of his family’s social inferiority and of the merciless cruelty of others, both at school and at his mother’s place of work. (There are scenes in both Dawn and Morning that strongly recall Pip’s childhood humiliations in Great Expectations, which I like to imagine Rolland cherished, though it’s probably my sick fancy.)

Rolland notes almost boastfully that Jean-Christophe never has a day’s illness, and I thought: Heroism, tick. Heroes can be so boring. But while he has an iron constitution, Jean-Christophe is an intense boy. Sent back to school against his will following an episode of bullying, he attempts to strangle himself. He is troubled by various spectres: the spectres of a boy born to his parents before him and now dead, whose recycled name he has inherited, and of any number of mysterious things that scare him. He invariably suffers in silence, trying to be grown up, not knowing how to communicate his fear to his parents. The loneliness of childhood is brilliantly depicted.

The members of Jean-Christophe’s family embody radically different approaches to life (which is convenient). His musicality is nurtured by his grandfather, who notates Jean-Christophe’s various hums and turns them into piano pieces for him to play; his father encourages his pianism with thoughts of exploitation; his uncle Theodore cares only for the mercantile, and favours Jean-Christophe’s younger brother Rodolphe; but his uncle Gottfried becomes a vital influence: he dismisses Jean-Christophe’s early compositions as ugly, not out of cruelty but because he sees only the beauty of nature, which Jean-Christophe comes to see too.

Jean-Christophe had often heard these sounds of the night, and he loved them. But never had he heard them as he heard them now. It was true: what need was there to sing? … His heart was full of tenderness and sorrow. He was fain to embrace the meadows, the river, the sky, the clear stars.

Jean-Christophe’s unhappiness deepens in Morning: his patron, the Grand Duke, is a philistine, and the conversation at home leaves him intellectually stifled. If you’re a hero, you’ve got to be a bit miserable. Unexpectedly, he falls in love with a boy, Otto (Rolland’s quite explicit that it’s love), but the fact that J-C’s never had so much as a friend before means he goes somewhat overboard in his correspondence.

It is three days now since I heard a word fall from your lips. I tremble. Would you forget me? My blood freezes at the thought … Yes, doubtless … The other day only I saw your coldness towards me. You love me no longer! You are thinking of leaving me! .. Listen! If you forget me, if you ever betray me, I will kill you like a dog!

Out of context this reads as highly comical, but surrounded by the details of their torrid relationship it’s perfectly convincing, if tiresome. I suppose adolescence is boring, though I don’t think I ever wrote anything that overwrought when I was in love, or if I did then I had the decency to keep it to myself. The relationship is cruelly curtailed when Jean-Christophe’s brother Ernest discovers the correspondence, calls J-C a major-league fag (you have to read between the lines), and that’s that. The young can be very puritanical, can’t they.

Before the end, though, comes Woman. To be specific, Minna, a girl the same age as Jean-Christophe whom he is teaching to play the piano. To begin with he thinks he’s got the hots for her mother, but his affections change subtly, and she finds she feels the same way. This relationship is rather more engrossing than the one with Otto, partly because, nineteenth-century morality being what it is, something might actually end up happening. I particularly liked Rolland’s observation of the selfishness of love, of how when you’ve got only one person on your mind everyone else can fuck off. (I’m paraphrasing.)

To tell the truth, they were kind only by fits and starts … Jean-Christophe, who was consumed with love for all humanity, and would turn aside so as not to crush an insect, was entirely indifferent to his own family. By a strange reaction he was colder and more curt with them the more affectionate he was to all other creatures; he hardly gave thought to them; he spoke abruptly to them, and found no interest in seeing them. Both in Jean-Christophe and Minna their kindness was only a surfeit of tenderness which overflowed at intervals to the benefit of the first comer. Except for these overflowings they were more egoistic than ever, for their minds were filled only with the one thought, and everything was brought back to that.

Excuse my quoting at length, but though I didn’t love it wholly I thought there were parts of it that were very good indeed. I won’t go into detail about what happens with Minna, but you already know about his Puritan creed, yawn.

Getting back to Forster: ‘As the series proceeded, our excitement slackened,’ he writes, and he seems to suggest that the award of the Nobel Prize was as much for Rolland’s having completed his proposed ten volumes as for the volumes themselves, which fall off in quality when Jean-Christophe reaches Paris at around the halfway point. Forster doesn’t think Rolland’s work will survive as Proust’s (in which respect, well predicted), but he singles out Rolland’s internationalism for praise. That’s something I can certainly get behind, and if I end up not returning to Rolland I hope it will be because I have other authors from other countries demanding my time, and not because of indifference.

I’m sorry this has been so long.

france

Grand Tour #2 – Spain. Living’s the Strange Thing / Carmen Martín Gaite

March 6, 2017

From Portugal to Spain (my route through Europe is largely contiguous). I must apologise for the delay in posting this. I had been going to read a novel by Esther Tusquets that we had in the library, but it looked so unpleasant that I couldn’t face it. After some digging around online I settled on Living’s the Strange Thing (Lo raro es vivir) by Carmen Martín Gaite, translated by Anne McLean. Only it got lost in the post, hence my lateness.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Magda, I’m more confused every day. I know other researchers concentrate on their theme, get to the point and that’s it, they can separate it out from the rest. But I can’t. For me everything’s important.’

‘From the rest? What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know, I mean a bit of everything, like when what happens to me at each moment gets mixed up in my head with what happened to me before, and with other people’s stories, living, dead, ghosts, scenes from movies, everything folded up together in a mess, so much so that I say to myself: It’s not worth separating things out from other things, what’s the point?’

This is the gist of the book, I suspect, the connectedness of human existence (and the absurdity of being here at all, hence the title, which recurs like a mantra). Águeda is a 35-year-old woman dealing with the fallout from her mother’s death a couple of months earlier. The book opens with Águeda visiting her grandfather’s nursing home, where its manager suggests to her that she impersonate her mother (also called Águeda) so that her grandfather might see his daughter one last time. Meanwhile, her research on the 18th-century adventurer Don Luis Vidal y Villalba is stagnating.

If the first chapter suggests intrigue, that’s not quite what follows, and I suspect the experience of reading the book is an infinitely less frustrating one if you abandon expectations and let yourself be led by Águeda’s thoughts. Though it has a large cast of people and places, the novel’s focus is largely inward- and backward-looking.

The nature of the book makes it a very hard thing to write about, and all I feel able to do here is to choose a few individual moments to illustrate Martín Gaite’s oblique approach to storytelling.

The idea that Águeda (or any of us) lives in multiple worlds – in the present, in the past, in dreams and fantasies, in the world of films, and perhaps elsewhere too – is a beautiful one to me. There are close affinities between Águeda’s several worlds. She contemplates Don Luis Vidal y Villalba and his loyal servant Juan de Edad imprisoned in separate cells and unable to communicate with one another, and draws a parallel with her own relationship with her mother.

In the shower one morning, Águeda has an epiphany: she realises that she imagines Rosario, the woman she perceives has usurped her in her mother’s affections, with the features of Anne Baxter, the usurping starlet in All About Eve. I love this depiction of illogical logic. I can’t think of examples, but I’m sure I have allowed people’s resemblances to others to colour the way I view them.

Águeda is visited by the ghost of a dead relationship when she encounters an ex-boyfriend, Roque, performing in the street as a human statue. She isn’t sure it’s him and tries to engage his attention, but, being a human statue, he doesn’t respond. This meeting prompts her to remember that she fell for him because he was the embodiment of a man she had dreamed of, her real life at the mercy of her dream life.

The delicacy of the tapestries woven by our minds is another theme. In one chapter, Águeda writes that her memory of Tangiers is of a stairwell where her mother had to rest during a visit to the city during Águeda’s infancy. This is bound up with the memory of a self-portrait painted by her mother, and of a cruel lie told by Águeda that was intended to prompt a rebuke from her mother but failed to. When we most want to connect with someone, we fall short.

It’s hard to accept how incidental we are, our inability to convey to each other anything more than travesties of vacillating souls; and to accept at the same time the gestures and babbling we stubbornly use to try to get close to those we’ve supposed form part of our stories.

A lot of threads are tied up at the end – an unexpected message from the grandfather, a coming full circle – which is satisfying to the reader who likes neatness, but it doesn’t quite ring true. Surely the other worlds continue; they can’t just dissolve.

It seems appropriate, given the novel’s preoccupation with the difficulty of communicating with people, that I’ve done such a poor job of expressing why I liked it so much. It is very much worth your time.

Diary excerpts 7

February 26, 2017

4 January
Looking at old home videos I realise I peaked physically at New Year 1998. But I’m better now than I was at ten, which is a consolation.

13 January
Glimpsed through a window on Hertford Street: a middle-aged couple watching Up Pompeii in stony-faced silence.

30 January
M’s idea, several years ago, of an 11-year-old maths prodigy coming up to Cambridge and leaving with a third because he spends all his time with Footlights seems to me as brilliant now as it did then.

8 February
Wandering past the gift shop on the corner of Rose Crescent, I spot the same Mr Bean coaster set that’s been there for several years. Thinking of Mr Bean coasters as status symbol. Who would own such a thing? Someone who loves Mr Bean, perhaps. Thinking of the universal appeal of Mr Bean, given the absence of any language barrier, and the jarring notion of a family in Ethiopia, say, using their set of Mr Bean coasters (which isn’t after all so unlikely, given the work of Comic Relief). In a gift shop on King’s Parade, a Queen figurine and a Mr Bean figurine side by side. Perhaps Mr Bean would be one of the, say, ten most globally recognised British people. I can certainly think of several less desirable candidates.

8 March
We’re all so full of unacknowledged prejudices, aren’t we. I just walked past a pigeon in Webb’s and called it a fat fucker for no reason.

pigeon

21 March
Message just received on my voicemail: ‘I’m really sorry, I called your number by mistake and I think I might have sworn, which wasn’t intentional, so please accept my apologies.’

24 March
I like to think of Lemsip as the proprietary name of a generic drink called lemon sip.

13 April
Awoke today to hear myself singing ‘Was ist Silvia?’ What a lovely voice I’ve got, I thought. Turned out to be Fischer-Dieskau.