Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.

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Grand Tour #19 – Hungary. Journey by Moonlight / Antal Szerb

August 11, 2017

Most of my Grand Tour books I’ve been finding off my own bat, but Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was a recommendation from a friend. When I spotted it was in the library (the only Hungarian novel in translation we have, apart from Imre Kertész’s brilliant but harrowing Fatelessness, which I read last year), I was convinced it was meant to be. I read the Pushkin translation by Len Rix.

I normally know what I’m going to write about a book before I start, but this time I’m stumped. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I found it a hard book to get a handle on. Perhaps writing a basic synopsis will help. It opens with newlyweds Mihály and Erzsi honeymooning in Italy. One night, looking for a bar where he can have a glass of wine, Mihály gets lost in the back alleys of Venice and doesn’t find his way back until the following day. This is a sign of things to come: later in their journey he gets off a train to buy a cup of coffee and boards a different train by mistake, ending up in Perugia. Erzsi and Mihály’s separation is bound up with his quest for his lost … not love, exactly, but a ghost of his childhood. A lengthy but engrossing early chapter is devoted to a description of Mihály’s teenage friendship with two theatrical siblings, Tamás and Éva. Tamás is long dead and Éva long vanished, and the appearance in Ravenna of another friend, the weaselly János Szepetneki, awakes in Mihály memories of these halcyon days.

One of the ways I understand books is to establish connections between them and other books and films – presumably there’s a knotty network somewhere in my head with strong and weak bonds between everything I’ve ever seen and read – and at moments reading this book I thought, aha! Death in Venice, or, more often, aha! Don’t Look Now. Italy, the insatiable desire to pursue the unreachable, even at the expense of your personal safety. Le Grand Meaulnes also came to mind, with its themes of nostalgia, of the folly or at any rate the impossibility of recapturing what is inescapably past. Nostalgia is a powerful pull in this book too. But none of them stayed in my mind for long: Journey by Moonlight is very much its own beast.

I wrote – well, I didn’t write it, but I thought it – that the plot is unpredictable. How is it unpredictable, you ask. Well, one thing is that its characters behave in unexpected ways that are nevertheless utterly credible. The touchingly unconventional relationship of Mihály and Erzsi is a case in point. Ninety-eight percent of the time, let’s say, a husband and wife separated accidentally on their honeymoon would make great efforts to be reunited. Here, neither does: Mihály, one of the more passive of men, has cold feet about his marriage already, feet coldened further by his having received a letter from Erzsi’s ex-husband advising him that because she is accustomed to the finer things in life he had better stop being such a cheapskate, and moreover he wants to spend time chasing his past; for her part, the pragmatic Erzsi not only loves Mihály but appears to understand him, and believes that leaving him alone for a while may optimise her chances of getting him back. She goes to Paris to visit her friend Sári.

‘Well of course you must divorce Mihály.’

‘It’s not quite so “of course”.’

‘What, after all he’s done?’

‘Yes. But Mihály isn’t like other people. That’s why I chose him.’

‘And that was a fine move. I really dislike the sort of people who aren’t like other people. It’s true other people are so boring. But so are the ones who aren’t like them.’

Separated, the unexpected (but nevertheless utterly credible) happens: Erzsi learns to embrace thrift, and Mihály has a fling with a dim American art student, Millicent Ingram (‘She knew of Luca della Robbia that it was a city on the Arno, and claimed that she had been with Watteau in his Paris studio’). There’s a freewheeling fun to the Millicent episode, with Mihály apparently liberated for the first time from his staid adult existence, but it doesn’t last, and once more he sets off in search of Éva. This is followed by further adventures with an old acquaintance, Ervin, now become a monk, and a university friend, Waldheim, now a philosopher of death (a marvellous comic creation, a man who eats only cold meat but welcomes Mihály to his house saying he’s ‘arranged for a bit of variety’ and proudly produces a banana). These characters assume a symbolic importance that was generally lost on me, but might be less so on a second reading. I sensed a spirituality to the book that was tantalisingly out of reach.

In the end Mihály’s life is redeemed by several acts of kindness, and he returns to a semblance of normality. The conclusion is beautiful in its way, though sad, a hymn to a small life. Many people whose opinions I respect not only adore this book but acclaim it as one of the great masterpieces of modern fiction. Nicholas Lezard writes that on finishing it he went right back to the beginning and read it again. I almost feel I should do the same: it’s a book that has grown in stature through my contemplation of it.

Grand Tour #18 – Romania. Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent / Mircea Eliade

August 7, 2017

Mircea Eliade’s Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent was written in the 1920s when the author was the same age as its nameless narrator (seventeen), but not discovered and published until after Eliade’s death in 1986; this translation by Christopher Moncrieff, ‘with reference to an original translation by Christopher Bartholomew’, appeared in 2016.

There’s some ambiguity about the title: the cover of the Istros Books edition has the word ‘Diary’ obliterated and replaced with ‘Novel’, and indeed the Romanian title, Romanul adolescentului miop, seems to suggest a novel rather than a diary; in fact the book is a fictional diary that chronicles inter alia the diarist’s efforts to write his magnum opus, to be entitled The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. Simple really.

His primary motivating factor for writing the novel is that he’s not doing well at school, and he thinks that if he manages to get the novel written and published within the year it will impress his teachers enough that they’ll pass him in spite of his poor performance. The characters will be based on people he knows. When he announces that his friend Robert will be used to exemplify ridiculousness, Robert modifies his behaviour so as not to be ridiculous any more. He’s worried about writing convincing girl characters, so asks his cousin for advice on what it’s like to be a girl.

This is by way of giving a taste of the interior world we are immersed in. The book has been championed by Nicholas Lezard, who says it’s funnier than Adrian Mole. I’d take issue with that, but to anyone even vaguely familiar with Mole the similarities leap out. Take the diarist’s minute inventory of his procrastinations as he tries to learn trigonometry in a single day, which recalls Adrian’s minute-by-minute account of his class’s calamitous trip to the British Museum:

By evening I had read twenty-seven pages, with a hundred and one to go. This was because at 4.30 I had taken a cold shower; at 5.30 I had decided I was starving and went downstairs to have something to eat; at 6.30 I started reading a magazine; at 7 o’clock I was thirsty, at 7.15 my pencil broke, at 7.30 the sound of the birds twittering made me feel melancholy, at 8 o’clock I felt persecuted, at 8.15 I lit the lamp, – even though it wasn’t really necessary – at 8.30 I studied my face in the mirror, at 8.40 I made some notes for the psychological aspects of my novel, at 8.50 I decided to have a short rest so as not to overexert myself, and at 8.55 I was called to supper.

After supper I played the piano for quite a long time, something I hadn’t done for several years. It was quarter past eleven when I went back up to the attic.

His friend Dinu is the equivalent of Adrian’s Nigel, a friendly rival. While he is slaving away at his maths work, Dinu has a private tutor. When his own mother gets him a tutor to help with German, the tutor is a 16-year-old boy… There is also a John Tydeman figure, Mr Leontescu, a magazine editor to whom the diarist gives his writing for publication without remuneration. I’m sick of calling him ‘the diarist’ or ‘the narrator’. Fuck writers who don’t name their characters. I’m calling him Jake Westmorland from now on.

Jake has emotional crises and setbacks. A passage relating one:

Today, just before sunset, I died. From now on, a different light will shine on my disfigured face. My clouded eyes will see the world in a different way, and another life will rise up from the depths of my soul.

Again, pure Adrian Mole, but in Adrian’s case the reader would be in hysterics because of the certainty that within a couple of days things would be all right again (not that one doesn’t love Adrian or feel his pain). Lightness rules Adrian’s world. Jake’s volatile episodes last longer, and affect the reader more deeply. Adrian’s bookishness, similarly, is always played for comic effect (‘Started reading Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I think I might like to be a vet when I grow up.’) but Jake’s is not, though we may still be amused by his devotion to the likes of Anatole France or his fantasies of himself as Ibsen’s Brand… (The real bookworm is Jake’s friend Marcu, who is delighted when he is suspended from school for reading in class as it gives him the time to finish Les Misérables.)

Another book that frequently occurred to me as I read this one was The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil, one of those novels I seem to have absorbed by accident. The darker side of adolescence is indulged in these books as it isn’t in Adrian Mole’s safe suburban hell. Musil’s protagonists visit a prostitute, Božena, and some of them sleep with her; Jake has a similar experience, and is ashamed. Flagellation figures heavily in Musil’s book, and features in one bleak scene in Eliade’s, where Jake whips himself.

But the book ends, pleasingly, on a upbeat note. You come to care for Jake and to see yourself in him. Well, I did anyway. In the raucous choir singing Christmas carols, in the intentions to reform his work ethic perpetually scuppered by apathy (evoking memories of Christmas when I was about 15, a shadow cast over the whole holiday by a piece of physics homework I swore to do immediately but didn’t get around to until the last moment), in his spaniel-heartedness (quoting The History Boys here, as usual). Reading Ionel Teodoreanu’s book Childhood Lane, Jake falls for the character of Sonia.

Forgive me, Ionel Teodoreanu; but if Sonia really exists, then tell her that an ugly boy who doesn’t know what he wants is sad because of her eyes.

The sweet melancholy of feelings like this is one of my fonder memories of adolescence, the discovery of new emotions in oneself. Nice to revisit it.

Grand Tour #17 – Bulgaria. Street Without a Name / Kapka Kassabova

July 24, 2017

I didn’t set myself strict rules for choosing EU books, but I did make a conscious decision to avoid poetry where possible, poetry being (to my mind) the medium least susceptible to translation, and to favour fiction over non-fiction. So it was that I didn’t read a work of non-fiction until book sixteen (Cyprus); book seventeen (Bulgaria) is not merely non-fiction but also my first non-translated book, having been originally written in English, albeit by a Bulgarian writer and on the subject of Bulgaria. And I must admit, if the objective of this project was to understand what life is like in each book’s country of origin, this book has succeeded better than the preceding sixteen. The book is Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova.

Kassabova’s book is in two parts, as suggested by the title, the first a chronicle of her childhood in the Bulgaria of the ’70s and ’80s, the second a travelogue by the adult writer, now an émigrée living in Britain, returning to Bulgaria for more or less the first time since her childhood. Her mission in writing the book is to make Bulgaria personal, not just another ‘country without a face’. I’m certainly guilty of laziness in my own conception of Bulgaria. Dour, tough-tackling footballers, poor Georgi Markov and his poison-tipped umbrella, the lev, and, to a lesser extent, the stotinka.

But amazingly there is more to Bulgaria than this, and Kassabova’s observation of small details is telling right from the off, people-watching at Frankfurt Airport as she waits for her flight to Bulgaria, knowing instinctively from their bearing which passengers are Bulgarians and which aren’t. When they touch down in Sofia, the Bulgarians applaud. ‘Bulgarians know not to take anything for granted,’ she writes.

This is 2006, and Bulgaria is on the verge of joining the EU, though the deal hasn’t been sealed yet. Kassabova’s compatriots are understandably anxious. She takes a train journey.

The old man goes to the toilet and returns at once, scandalized.

‘Have you seen the toilet?’ he cries out in anguish. ‘It has to be seen to be believed. No toilet seat, all rusty, stuff all over, words fail me … How are we going to get into Europe with this toilet? Tell me, how!’

Theory: the state of any society’s public toilets is an indicator of its prosperity. (Not that it’s a watertight theory, as anyone who has visited the gents’ at Cambridge station will verify; the old ones, with their sticky floor and mirror walls, were gross, but it’s taken next to no time for the refurbished ones to go the same way. Please spend more of my tax money sorting this out, government. Though it’s the taxpayer’s fault they’re in such a state, isn’t it; incontinent male commuters. I accidentally went into the ladies’ once and it was like Narnia. Where was I.) When young Kapka’s mother accompanies her father on a work visit to Delft University, she is moved to tears by the cleanliness of the public toilets, and too embarrassed to explain why to her husband’s concerned colleague.

Although Kapka’s childhood appears by and large to be a tolerable one – freedom at home, piano lessons, humourless strictness at her state-controlled school with its attendant shadowy threats – it isn’t until her parents return from Delft that the poverty of her country is borne in on her.

They brought records of Western pop music you couldn’t buy in Bulgaria, like Barry Manilow and a two-record album The Best of the Beatles – finally, twenty years late, my father could listen to his favourite band. A pair of tiny wooden clogs, a gift from my father’s Dutch colleague, which took pride of place in our living-room. A tin of salted, peeled peanuts. We had peanuts, of course, but they were unprocessed and sold on street stalls. Someone in Holland had shelled, peeled and salted these peanuts especially for us. A giant packet of raisins. There were no raisins in Bulgaria, only grapes. Next, an electric blue T-shirt for me with a girl doing aerobics printed on it, and orange trousers with multiple pockets, in which I felt ultra-cool. In fact, wearing these clothes made me feel so obviously Western that I imagined the envious eyes of all Sofia were on me.

Western! To Kapka, even Libya seems a Western dreamland (the atlas confirms it), a place where lavish and exotic presents are brought from. Kapka turns sixteen in the momentous year of 1989 – the Berlin Wall comes down, the Ceaușescus are executed, and the Communist regime in Bulgaria ends. Before too long, she emancipates herself.

The toilets may not have improved in the post-Communist thaw, but how are other things on Kapka’s return? Well, the phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose comes to mind. The arrival of Western accoutrements has not altered the character of the country or its people. Who would have guessed capitalism wasn’t the answer, that moderate monetary prosperity does not automatically translate into happiness.

I, being me, was less interested in the places and people adult Kapka visits than in her own reactions to the remnants of her past. The pang of nostalgia on returning to Plovdiv to find her beloved semolina cake restaurant closed, or to the coastal town of Balchik, scene of idyllic childhood holidays, to find it eroded away, irrevocably changed. The bittersweet experience of returning to a childhood home, something one once thought one’s own property, now modified beyond recognition.

At the end of the book, Kassabova quotes the 19th-century travel writer Felix Kanitz, who observed that a journey through Bulgaria is ‘marked at each turn by the catacombs of disappeared peoples and eras’. That comes across strongly during the travelogue section of Kassabova’s book. She writes apologetically at the start that the portrait she will sketch of modern Bulgaria is ‘almost never flattering’, but it is at any rate honest and sympathetic, and enlightening.