Grand Tour #23 – Latvia. Tit for Tat / Mae Durham

October 10, 2017

I have not read a great deal of folklore, either for this project or indeed in my whole life, so I was pleased to track down a book from 1967, Tit for Tat, and Other Latvian Folk Tales, retold by Mae Durham, from the translation of Skaidrite Rubene-Koo. I believe I found a website giving the background to this collection: the two women worked together at UC Berkeley, and Mae Durham persuaded her colleague to transcribe and translate the fairy tales of her own culture, which she then tidied up for publication. Mae Durham was a librarian and children’s book collector of note. If you search online for Skaidrite Rubene-Koo you find a more grisly detail, that in 1972 her teenage daughter Aiko was abducted and killed. Nothing as brutal as that among these fairy stories, but they have their darkness.

What were the fairy tales of my youth, I was prompted to contemplate. I don’t remember many in books. I had a cassette with some traditional stories like Thumbelina on, but I was so indifferent to it that I stuck sellotape across the tab and recorded over it. Another cassette had Penelope Keith reading some of the wonderful stories from Pamela Oldfield’s collection The Terribly Plain Princess, about which Nick has written most evocatively here. Later, my brother and I were introduced to a magical book from my mother’s childhood, Whimsical Stories to Tell by Helen Williams, which contained modern (well, 1920s-era) fairy tales, including one that involved the pouring of some unpleasant-tasting medicine out of a window on to some raspberries, which were then consumed. But broadly speaking my childhood was one of A.A. Milne and Roald Dahl, not Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

There are 22 stories collected in Tit for Tat, most of them not longer than three or four pages, and a good bunch they are too. Perhaps one doesn’t expect much in the way of scholarship from a 50-year-old book of fairy tales, but this one has an excellent notes section at the back written by the pioneering folklorist Alan Dundes, putting each story in context and identifying its place in the Aarne-Thompson index.

The Latvian flavour of the stories comes from the presence in most of them of barons, that old baron/peasant dichotomy we all know and love, and the religious element. ‘The Devil’s Partnership’ is a pleasing story of how the schism between God and the Devil occurred. Turns out it was all to do with crops: the two of them decide to divide up their potatoes and the Devil foolishly chooses the bit above ground; then they plant some wheat and the Devil, still stinging from the potato fiasco, again foolishly chooses the roots. The Latvian tellers of this story, no stupid people themselves, would be all too pleased to identify with God. The lively illustrations by Harriet Pincus depict the Latvians throughout as a big-nosed people. Whether this is an accurate representation or not I cannot say.

A handful of stories feature the familiar tropes of the bad daughter and the good stepdaughter, the courting of the fair Prince, the final enaction of karma. The karma can be brutal: ‘Out of the box fire shot forth, burning down the house, the cruel mother, and the pampered daughter,’ ends one story. By and large, modern gender politics can take a back seat. ‘The Bad-Tempered Wife’ has a henpecked husband cannily losing his wife down a hole and eventually claiming for himself the money she has found so he can live a peaceful life of solitude; in ‘The Silly Goose War’, a man’s foolish wife blabs to the Baron that they’ve come into some money, so he gaslights her until her maniacal ravings about bagels falling from the sky convince the Baron she is but a harmless madwoman. There are a few straightforward morality tales, some of them very pleasing. I thought ‘The Poor Brother’s Bad Luck’, in which a rich man, by wishing bad luck on his poor brother, brings it upon himself, was the pick.

My favourite stories were the unexpected ones. My tolerance of whimsicality varies. I didn’t warm to the stories in which, for instance, a pea germinates into a golden apple tree, or the Devil is baked into a loaf of bread, and goodness knows why, because written down they look tremendous, but some of the odder stories I adored. The one I loved best of all was ‘The Bird and the Man’, in which a man wonders what eternity is like, walks into a forest, gets distracted by the singing of a bird, and emerges from the forest to find a hundred years have passed. Nothing more than that, just a simple, fantastical story told with admirable unadornedness.

Or try ‘The Fox and the Cock’, the shortest of all the stories, and not the only one that evokes Aesop:

A fox caught a cock and started down the road with him. The maidservant, seeing this, cried out, ‘A fox is carrying off the cock! A fox is carrying off the cock!’

The cock looked up at the fox and said, ‘Why not tell the maid that this is none of her business?’

This advice pleased the fox, who, in turn, blurted out, ‘This is none of your business!’

As the fox opened his mouth to say these words, the cock – shwirr – was away and up a tree.

Ah, well. So, the fox continued his way down the road.

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Grand Tour #22 – Lithuania. Breathing into Marble / Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė

September 30, 2017

Ah, Lithuania. The very name evokes memories of wondering where Lithuania was and why I should care about it. I once had some school trousers marked ‘Made in Lithuania’, on the observation of which fact my mother said blithely, ‘Oh, you should tell Mr Roberts, he’d be really interested.’ (Roberts here being the altered name of my geography teacher.) I neglected to take her advice, lacking the nerve, and also thinking perhaps that for proof Mr Roberts might ask to see inside my trousers; sure enough, within a year, he left the school following a misdemeanour (that for the sake of accuracy I should stress was not sexual). Apart from those trousers, which I wore almost every weekday for a period of presumably a couple of years, my experience of Lithuania (was it Lithuania? yes it was) is nonexistent.

Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė! (Bless you.) A Lithuanian writer who has had a novel published in translation, which is what makes her of interest to us (to me, at any rate). Namely her 2006 novel Breathing into Marble (Kvėpavimas į marmurą), which appeared last year in a translation by Marija Marcinkute, published by Noir Press.

I don’t normally shrink from the spoiler, but in this case I think I will, partly because I don’t want to deter future readers of the book, but mainly because the plot elements that might count as spoilers aren’t really the point. I could say, X kills Y at the start of the book, but the interest of the book is primarily psychological, and in places supernatural. So I’ll just write about some of the things I thought while I was reading it.

Breathing into Marble is ostensibly about the relationship between a woman, Isabel, and her wild adopted son, Ilya. Isabel and her husband Liudas have a son already, the precocious Gailius, but on a visit to the orphanage run by her friend Beatrice, Isabel takes a shine to the uncommunicative boy with the piercing brown eyes who refuses to take her hand.

I think about feral children a lot, read books about them, watch films about them. Ilya’s not feral, but he’s an enigma, his pre-orphanage childhood unknown. Perhaps it is the trauma of Isabel’s own childhood, which we do see in flashback, that is the source of her bond with Ilya, that makes her determined to get through to him, even at the expense of the other things she holds dear.

From a distance Ilya’s tiny face was hard and dark, but when Isabel drew closer it stirred like wind-blown blossom.

No, it wasn’t blossom yet – more like a tightly folded bud, the petals of his personality firmly knotted still inside, all his lines shy and inarticulate.

Nobody could tell yet when he would bloom, what he would be like and into what he would mature.

It is hinted occasionally that Ilya shares a kinship with the fox. I don’t know why stories of foxes move me so much, but that is certainly the case. Harriet Graham’s unjustly forgotten children’s novel A Fox Under My Jacket, Fantastic Mr Fox, and so on, but particularly David Garnett’s fable of vulpine metamorphosis Lady into Fox. Ilya spies a fox in its den, and the den becomes a place of pilgrimage to him; an encounter with a deer also has a profound affect on him. A boy closer to animals than to people. A part of the book’s mythology that appealed to me.

Gailius is a sympathetic character, Ilya’s ‘good’ counterpart, a boy wise beyond his years but with a spirituality of his own that upsets Isabel. Perhaps as a result of his occasional epileptic fits he has a morbid streak. He talks matter-of-factly about his own death, and even anticipates it in a section drawn from his notebook, where we briefly hear his own voice, the only part of the novel told in the first person.

When I think about death I can’t picture it. I can only feel it as it approaches – it always comes a bit too early … I know that my death is growing up with me, and that it is sharp and fast, like a stab. It won’t attack me from the back. It will call out with its secret, velvet voice and, when I turn, it will pierce me like a knife. But we will have looked into each other’s eyes. It isn’t sly – it’s just that death is much faster than we are.

I salute Černiauskaitė (and her translator) for their creation of a mood of macabre unease. It reminded me at times of Ian McEwan’s early books, of intelligent horror films like Goodnight Mommy, of the Dardenne brothers’ The Son. If this sounds like your sort of thing, give it a go.

Grand Tour #21 – Poland. The Stranger / Maria Kuncewiczowa

September 27, 2017

I was very into Polish stuff in my teens, mostly because of Chopin’s piano music and Polański’s Knife in the Water and Kieślowski’s Dekalog (which I’m currently re/watching, as it happens), and the rousing Polish national anthem (which I still revere), as a result of which obsession I taught myself elementary Polish. Nowadays most of the vocab’s gone (‘I’d like some cheese’ is about my limit, though I put it into Google Translate and it came out as ‘She will ask the cheese’, so even that phrase I may be wrong about), but my pronunciation’s pretty solid, and my spelling too. In her own presence I once had to write out the name of someone called Drzazdzewska, and she was appropriately amazed and told me it was the first time anyone had ever done it.

The Stranger (Cudzoziemka) is a 1936 novel by Maria Kuncewiczowa (1895-1989), now out of print. I read the translation by B.W.A. Massey, which on account of his having given us a copy on its publication in 1945 was the only Polish novel in the library, or at any rate the only one I was interested in reading (take that, Stanisław Lem). The translation reads fluently, but has the familiar quirk of everyone’s name being Englishified, so that (for instance) the protagonist Róża is rendered as Rose. I can’t work out all of the characters’ authentic Polish names online, and the accents are a faff to paste in, so please forgive me for using their tidied-up names here.

One nice thing about reading obscure books that no one in the English-speaking world has ever heard of, let alone read, is that you don’t know what to expect. The Stranger turns out to be a psychological study. Rose is a stranger in several senses, most specifically a woman out of place: out of place in Russia because of her Polish ancestry, out of place in Poland (where she now lives) because of her Russian upbringing. Today she is a stranger in the home of her daughter Martie (Marta), but Martie isn’t there. Rose is irritated at Martie’s absence, and at the behaviour of Martie’s young son Zbyszek, and at Martie’s careless treatment of a table that is a family heirloom. There isn’t much that doesn’t irritate Rose. Her semi-estranged husband Adam turns up, then her highly-strung son Wladys (Ladislas), both of whom she treats with coldness, and finally Martie.

The narrative is divided between this one day and the past, perhaps the past as recalled by Rose. She remembers her own childhood, her youthful romances (‘the sufferings of men stimulated her like alcohol’) and her great lost love, Michael. Then, as they arrive in sequence at Martie’s house, each family member’s past relationship with Rose is rehearsed, Kuncewiczowa adeptly juggling past and present.

I came to think of the book as an exercise in the limits of sympathy. How far can the reader sympathise with Rose? Most of the time, not very far. The closest character to her I’ve encountered elsewhere is Arrested Development‘s booze-soaked matriarch Lucille Bluth. The two share an emotional coldness, and a brazen manipulative streak. You’d cast someone glacial to play her in a film, probably Gene Tierney. The villainy in The Stranger isn’t really played for laughs, but it could be.

At its darkest moments Rose’s behaviour verges on the murderous. While the infant Martie is seriously ill with diphtheria, she considers withholding the girl’s medication and letting her die, then on administering the life-saving digitalis she paints herself as Martie’s saviour. Is this sociopathy, or is it severe depression? The key to Rose’s erratic behaviour, to her fractious relationships with others, may be the death in childhood of her younger son Kazio (not a keyboard, it’s a diminutive of Casimir; he’s also called Kaziuczek). On the tenth anniversary of Kazio’s death, Rose and Adam visit his grave:

When she found herself at home, Rose soon forgot her husband. Wladys embraced her perfunctorily in memory of his dead brother. He had not been able to go to the cemetery, because of a problem in mathematics which he could not neglect, since it was the year before his leaving examination. With his whole heart he desired to pass this examination. The date of it seemed to him to be a gateway through which he would enter his own independent world. Rose felt this aloofness in the embrace of her adolescent son, and her longing for Kazio returned more bitterly than ever before.

You can see how little moments like this can poison a relationship, and you understand the motivations of each character, the tactless son desperate to emancipate himself from the controlling mother, the mother unable to entertain anything but grief, and resentful of those who fail to express it as deeply as she does (though you sense she’d resent them just as much either way).

Another of Rose’s many disappointments has to do with music, and music is central to the book, as it was to Kuncewiczowa, a music student herself and later a singer. Rose studies the violin, but her career never takes off, and for the rest of her life music is a source of equal pleasure and pain, her inability to play the Brahms violin concerto a particular torture to her. A comical episode has Rose singing Schumann’s ‘Ich grolle nicht’ at the piano, a song that climaxes on a high A she is unable to reach. ‘Why is Granny screaming like that, Mamma?’ ask the children. (She also sings ‘Er, der herrlichste von allen’, one of Schumann’s most passionate love songs, to Wladys. Way to fuck up your son, lady, I thought.)

The text of Heine’s poem ‘Ich grolle nicht’ is printed as an epigraph at the start of the novel. It’s a perverse poem for a perverse character. ‘I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking,’ claims the poet deludedly, and really there can’t be many people who bear grudges more readily than Rose; but today something has changed. A visit to a doctor who has advised Rose, among other things, ‘nicht immer so grollen’, has jogged memories of her lost love and prompted her to mend her ways. Though she remains bad-tempered, she seems sincere in this intention, and suddenly self-aware. Prompted by her self-castigation to praise her for having raised her children, Adam is met with the rebuke: ‘My good honest man, did I bring them up? Did I not rather hinder them from being human beings?’ There is a sense, particularly in a conversation with Martie, of Rose trying, however belatedly, to lay old ghosts to rest.

There are moments when the melo part prevails over the drama, but by and large I found the psychology convincing, and was moved by the portrait of this complicated and pitiable human being, and by Kuncewiczowa’s compassion generally. A book worth seeking out.

Grand Tour #20 – Slovakia. That Alluring Land / Timrava

September 16, 2017

To Slovakia, and to Timrava, the enigmatic pen name of Božena Slančíková (1867-1951), a handful of whose stories I read in an anthology called That Alluring Land, translated by Norma L. Rudinsky. It’s a collection of six stories written from 1894 to 1918, the last of which, ‘Great War Heroes’, might be better classified as a novella, being around 100 pages long.

It took me a disproportionately long time to read this book, and part of the fault is Timrava’s. I don’t mind writers reusing names across their stories, which she does incessantly (was there a pool of only ten Slovak names to choose from? everyone’s a Pal’o or a Ďuro or a Jano), but I do draw the line at having more than one character with the same name in a single story, which is asking for trouble. ‘Great War Heroes’ has an Anča, an Anka (called Anička as a diminutive), and another Anička. Am I just being racialist? The failing is doubtless mine too. I struggle to remember who’s who in Russian novels (for instance) much more than I do in English, French or German ones. Let’s move on.

Chronicles of Slav peasantry are always a thrill, I’m with you on that one, but what makes Timrava’s writing of particular interest is that she’s a woman, and moreover a feminist. Two stories seem to anticipate Virginia Woolf’s assertion that a woman needs a room of her own. The first story, ‘The Assistant Teacher’, turns on its protagonist’s bedroom being given over to the eponymous teacher, arriving from out of town. ‘This room will no longer be mine,’ she says to herself, though her thoughts quickly turn to fantasies of falling in love with the new man. A humorous story, ‘The Ťapák Clan’, has a stand-off between the indolent Ťapák family, who live fourteen to a house, and the enterprising and intellectually stifled Il’a, who has married into the family and is irritated beyond belief by their inertia, miraculously resolved by her moving back into her old house where she has her own space to live.

Il’a is a magnificent heroine, strong-willed but fallible. She walks out on her apathetic husband Pal’o, convinced that it won’t take more than a few days’ absence to make him realise her value, and is horrified to find him apparently having learned self-sufficiency, and wearing a dazzling white shirt. The job she has taken as a school cleaner (which brings shame on the Ťapák family) is a letdown in its own way.

They didn’t let her sit for a single hour but ordered her to do a hundred things at once. She would never have thought educated people could behave like this. She had imagined that at least once a day they would invite her to sit down on a nice chair, or on the sofa, and converse with them about the intellectual matters her mind thirsted for. They used to do that when she would visit the schoolhouse. But now they didn’t – not once since St. George’s Day! They didn’t treat her as an enlightened woman but just as an ordinary hired girl.

This dashing of hopes is common to all Timrava’s stories, and often relates to romance or matrimony. ‘The Assistant Teacher’ has elements of the Austenesque comedy of manners, acutely observed and witty, its conclusion a bittersweet capitulation. ‘Battle’ is the acrimonious story of a wrangle for a ring (to borrow Larkin’s words), Marta and Mária a pair of marriageable sisters at war with a number of other young women for the affections of a small number of men. Mária’s reputation as a vamp breeds suspicion among the others. Emotions are repressed, expectations variously scuppered or deflatedly submitted to. The sins of the parents are visited on the children, and the chance for redemption arrives far too late. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is simply what life is like for Timrava’s people: a struggle and a disappointment. The story ‘No Joy at All’ is aptly named.

Not that they don’t try to fight it. In the 1907 title story, ‘That Alluring Land’, America seems to offer an escape. Jano is inspired by the plans of other men from his town to go to America, a common dream among Slovaks at the time, to earn capital that he can use on his return home in a couple of years. When he gets there, the reality, told through a letter home, is even more brutal than that of the life he has left behind.

The final story in the collection, ‘Great War Heroes’, is the most ambitious and the most impressive. It’s a darkly satirical portrait of how the inhabitants of a town react to the outbreak of the First World War, and was written as the war came to its end. It’s a striking companion piece to Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains, though less absurdly humorous. For some, the war is an opportunity: one woman sees the calling up of her abusive husband as a blessing, and the hypocritical notary Baláň is delighted to have an excuse to do some browbeating; but most simply fear the death of the town’s young men. The heroes of the title are thin on the ground, but the assistant notary Širický, the one voice of reason, is the closest thing to a traditional hero in any of the stories. Although at times he toes the party line, he is at heart a pacifist, world-weary, and disillusioned with violence. The final chapter is bitter and resolutely unsentimental. Timrava’s stories are sometimes compared to Chekhov’s, and this is perhaps where she comes closest to the master.