Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Grand Tour #11 – Italy. The Betrothed / Alessandro Manzoni

May 27, 2017

When I asked him for ideas of books to read for this project, an Italian friend suggested Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), which he had read at school and enjoyed. (All Italians read this book at school: it’s the classic Italian 19th-century novel.) I’d heard of the book, albeit primarily as an opera title (Ponchielli’s is the most famous adaptation), and was attracted by the idea of reading a substantial book for a change, most of those I’ve read so far being on the thin side. I read an anonymous 1834 translation of the novel’s original version from 1827 (it was revised by Manzoni in 1842). I’d like to say I chose it carefully, but in fact it was the only one on Project Gutenberg.

Just because a book’s long, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily long-winded, but this is both. The plot is minimal. It is 1628, and the intended marriage of two young peasant lovers, Renzo and Lucia (called Lucy in this translation; the fashion among translators of the time was clearly for Anglicisation), is stopped by the intervention of a corrupt baron, Don Rodrigo. The lovers, under threat, separate, throwing themselves on the mercy of well-wishers. Following nearly two years apart, each of them having suffered the privations of e.g. bread riots and plague, Renzo and Lucia are reunited and get married at last. (Spoiler alert.)

The secondary characters are more intriguing than Renzo and Lucia, who are open books, the former good-hearted but overly rash, the latter good-hearted but overly pious. The Nun of Monza, who takes Lucia under her wing but is herself under the power of shady forces, is a fascinating character, a woman living as a nun almost by mistake, and has a personal story related with great compassion, but is abandoned when her part in Lucia’s rescue and capture has been completed, her eventual fate related in a few brief paragraphs towards the end. The conversion to Christianity of the enigmatic character called L’Innominato is also involving, and might be the model for similar twists in more recent works of fiction.

Among the comic characters, the priest Don Abbondio is a success, if rather one-note, making every decision according to what will cause the least inconvenience for him. The scene where Federico Borromeo (the real-life Archbishop of Milan) attempts with limited success to show him the error of his ways is very amusing. Satisfying too, if not to the same extent that similar talkings-to in other books (I thought particularly of Trollope) are.

(The presence of Borromeo is restrictive: as a real-life character, moreover a documentedly heroic one, Manzoni cannot treat him as anything other than a saint, nor would he wish to. Other religious characters are morally flawless, most notably Fra Cristoforo, the protector of Renzo and Lucia. They cannot be otherwise. When Oscar Wilde wrote there was no such thing as a moral book, he presumably hadn’t read this. Almost without exception the good end happily and the bad unhappily.)

The most satisfying moments tended to be those where I was able to join dots between The Betrothed and other books. I thought most frequently of Candide, a book that packs ten times the action of this book into a fifth of the space. The moving reunion of Renzo and Lucia amid the devastation of the plague of Milan (the plague scenes are quite harrowing, which is to Manzoni’s credit) is like one of the unexpected reunions in Candide, both characters changed by their experiences but evidently meant to come together once more. Just as Cunégonde becomes ugly in Candide, there’s a nice detail about Lucia losing her looks after her recovery from plague (or perhaps never having been a looker in the first place).

The reports the Bergamascans had heard of Lucy, together with Renzo’s extraordinary attachment to her — perhaps, too, the representations of some partial friend — had contributed to excite an extravagant idea of her beauty. When Lucy appeared, they began to shrug their shoulders, and say, “Is this the woman? We expected something very different! What is she, after all? A peasant, like a thousand others! Women like her, and fairer than she, are to be found every where!”

Unfortunately, some kind friends told Renzo these things, perhaps added to what they had heard, and roused his indignation. “And what consequence is it to you?” said he. “Who told you what to expect? Did I ever do so? Did I tell you she was beautiful? She is a peasant, forsooth! Did I ever say I would bring a princess here? She does not please you. Do not look at her, then: you have beautiful women; look at them.”

I was quite touched by this, though I’m not sure quite why. Elsewhere, Don Ferrante is a character straight out of Voltaire: he surrounds himself by books and thinks himself a scholar, believes the plague is caused by planetary motion, takes no precautions against it, and dies. You see, the book’s not without humour. Manzoni even knows he’s a bit of a bore, and that the chapters giving historical context derail the narrative rather too much. ‘Don’t be alarmed, reader,’ he writes at one point in a paragraph about the progress of the plague, ‘our design is not to relate its history.’ I just wish he’d practised this abstemiousness a bit more elsewhere.

Grand Tour #10 – Austria. Magdalena the Sinner / Lilian Faschinger

May 12, 2017

For Austria, I had in mind Joseph Roth’s classic The Radetzky March, which I’ve been intending to read for some years; only I foresee quite a lot of grimness ahead once I reach Eastern Europe (it’s what publishers seem to think we want to read), and, all things considered, prefer not reading about social unrest to the alternative. Call me an ostrich if you will.

Not that the book I settled on, Lilian Faschinger’s 1995 novel Magdalena the Sinner (Magdalena Sünderin), translated by Shaun Whiteside, sounds light-hearted exactly. Magdalena abducts a Catholic priest at gunpoint during a Mass for Whitsun, drives him off into the countryside in her motorbike and sidecar, ties him to a tree and gags him, and proceeds to confess to the murders of seven ex-lovers.

Although ostensibly narrated by the priest, who comments periodically on his reactions to Magdalena’s confession, the novel’s real voice is that of Magdalena, who talks uninterrupted for the best part of 300 pages. At times it resembles another novel in the form of an extended monologue, Philip Roth’s filthy masterpiece Portnoy’s Complaint, although Magdalena rants less than Portnoy, and rarely if ever reaches his pitch of self-righteous anger. Perhaps ranting is the prerogative of men; certainly one recurring theme is the unrealistic demands men make of women.

Magdalena’s irreverent tone is established early on, as she compliments the priest for his response to being kidnapped, while critiquing the performances of the panicked server and organist. She proceeds to tell the story of her life, and there is a pleasingly absurd strain running through her recollections – a food-related dream in which Magdalena’s family house is surrounded by a moat containing a series of sauces; her sisters protesting Magdalena’s attempts to emancipate herself with entreaties to ‘declare your aunthood!’; a delightful description of her escape from the stifling pretensions of middle-class existence …

You must try this recipe that we found in southern Burundi, the cosmopolitan academics cried; you must listen to these songs performed only in a little mountain village in the interior of Sardinia during Easter week by three ninety-year-old women, which have thankfully been made accessible to us by the tireless efforts of a Viennese ethno-musicologist; you must try on this mask carved from the wood of a two-hundred-year-old sequoia by a Shawnee tribesman directly descended from Chief Tecumseh.

Magdalena’s relationships with her seven lovers overlap, so that often one will provide a refuge from her present relationship before becoming a problem himself. They’re a motley bunch, each from a different country, each with his own particular flaw (self-absorption, violence, philandering, vampirism, etc.), each dispatched in a different way, often pleasingly. Highlights? You have to go some way to beat a Transylvanian Jehovah’s Witness, I think, but the Bluebeardesque Baron Otto is an engaging character, as is the swimming instructor Karl Danzinger, who spends most of the duration of his relationship with the preternaturally patient Magdalena observing the various ways in which his three ex-wives are her superiors. Magdalena brokers peace between the wives, but there comes a point when Karl has to go the same way as the rest.

You come to love Magdalena. The reason she has gagged the priest is that she needs her story to be listened to in its entirety, something no man has ever been able to do. There’s a certain element of danger involved: I can’t be the only reader who has wondered if the nasty twist at the end, and this is exactly the kind of book that would have a nasty twist, will be that the priest is victim number seven. You see, like all of her victims, he loves Magdalena, a love that evolves slowly but surely during their brief time together. His pious sister Maria aside (the saint Maria and the sinner Magdalena – you see the hints at religious allegory; it’s pleasing but unsurprising when the priest’s name is eventually revealed to be Christian), he has never really spent time alone with a woman before, and has led an altogether sheltered life. At first shocked by Magdalena’s crimes, he comes to feel compassion for her, taking her part against her victims, and even begins to desire her. He compares her beauty favourably with a number of artistic depictions of her namesake Mary Magdalene, and, as the end of her narrative approaches, appears to be on the verge of throwing over the priesthood to run away with her.

Twenty-four hours ago I had been feverishly wondering how I could free myself from the power of my abductor, but in the meantime our relationship had changed so drastically that I was already yearning for her return. I realized that it was a scandal, and not only from the point of view of Catholic doctrine, for a consecrated Catholic priest, a man respected and popular both in his parish and beyond its borders, to be on the point of entering a frankly erotic relationship with a woman leading an extremely indecent life in comparison to the overwhelming majority of her sex, who had abducted him at gunpoint, but that it also, from the perspective of so-called common sense, revealed a rashness bordering on insanity, which could lead to my excommunication. But I simply swept such considerations aside.

It is the tension of this relationship, I think, that makes the book special, and the way Faschinger resolves it is simple but undeniably right-feeling.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. To finish with another detail that pleased me, early on Magdalena recalls having fallen in love with Cary Grant and James Stewart at a Hitchcock film festival (we’ve all been there, I thought); later, Hitchcock returns, with this moment, surely intentionally, combining elements of Vertigo and Psycho.

Michael looked at me speechlessly for a minute, and then said quietly, with emotion in his voice, that it was astonishing how closely I resembled his departed mother wearing those clothes. Couldn’t I put my hair up in a bun before we set off? he asked.

Grand Tour #9 – Czech Republic. Closely Observed Trains / Bohumil Hrabal

April 29, 2017

The best known work of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is probably his short novel of 1965 Closely Observed Trains (sometimes Closely Watched Trains, Ostře sledované vlaky in the original Czech) – best known probably because of Jiří Menzel’s acclaimed film adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968. I’ve been meaning to watch the film for about 20 years, but haven’t got around to it yet. The book, though, I have read, in the translation by Edith Pargeter, herself best known for writing medieval murder mysteries under the name of Ellis Peters.

It’s a blackly comic portrait of life at a rural railway station in early 1945, told from the perspective of young Miloš, a graduate trainee railwayman who returns to work after three months’ sick leave following a suicide attempt. The other main players are the blustering station-master Lánský, more interested in his pigeons than his work (‘They pecked at his cheeks, but so tenderly, as though they’d been his little children’), and the dispatcher Hubička, who is in trouble with the authorities for stamping the bottom of his inamorata Virginia with official railway stamps. Bureaucracy and sex, it’s a lethal combination. It made me think of Gavin Ewart’s silly poem about office life.

Sex suppressed will go berserk,
But it keeps us all alive.
It’s a wonderful change from wives and work
And it ends at half past five.

The presence of lively Hubička, the embodiment of sexual freedom, seems to promise adventure for Miloš, whose suicide attempt was the result of what David Nobbs would have described as an amorous disappointment. The sex comedy is quite broad, the most farcical scene involving Miloš forcing himself on Lánský’s wife, who protests she’s going through ‘the change’. There are hints that she might have liked to accept him otherwise, Lánský himself not being a great proponent of sex. ‘The curse of this erotic century!’ he fulminates. ‘Everything’s saturated with sex, nothing but sex and erotic stimulants!’ (Of course, this may be a front.)

Hrabal’s comic writing has a great economy. Lánský is a case in point, his character distilled into small descriptions. From this alone you can tell what kind of man he is.

He combed his hair carefully so as to smooth it from the left side over his bald patch to the right side, and again from his right ear over the bald patch to the left side. But sometimes when he walked out on to the open platform without due care, and there was a wind blowing, it blew the strands apart, and stood both wings of his hair on end like a Gothic arch.

See also what might be my favourite sentence of the book.

‘Sit down,’ he invited me, and as he rose from his table a leaf of the palm laid itself on his head.

But despite the comic interludes and daydreams, I felt that the predominant tone of the book was one of pity. In his unpreparedness for the brutalities of war, Miloš might be any one of us, and the brutalities are not ignored. The book opens with a German plane crashing. While the locals steal the wings for metal, Miloš goes to inspect the fuselage, finding the body of the pilot. Trains arrive carrying people wounded by the bombing of nearby Dresden. There are bombing raids, dead horses, cattle rotting alive, and gutted train carriages streaked with blood. I didn’t think of The Catcher in the Rye often, but this passage where Miloš remembers his stay in hospital shows a sense of pity at the fragility of human beings that he shares with Holden Caulfield.

I was sad that day, because lying next to me was a fifteen-year-old girl. She’d found in the cupboard a present her parents had bought for her, it was a pair of felt boots, and she couldn’t resist putting them on and going off to Prague in them, but there among the rocks by Satalice this train she was in collided with another passenger train, and the seats were rammed together in such a way that the girl’s feet were crushed. When she came out of the anaesthetic she was all the time crying: Put my boots in the cupboard, please, my boots …

Even amid the pity and tragedy, there is beauty. There is a spellbinding description of Miloš returning home from hospital to discover that the frost has been so hard that the rooks and crows in the wood near his house have frozen on the branches in their sleep.

I stamped the sole of my shoe against the trunk of a tree, that time, and out of the boughs and branches showered hoar-frost and dead birds; several of them brushed my shoulders, but they were so light that it was only as if an empty beret had fallen on me.

The chief of the mail train that carries the wounded of Dresden utters the phrase that becomes the motto of the book: ‘Sollten Sie am Arsch zu Hause sitzen.’ (‘You should have sat at home on your arse.’) As a portrait of the futility of war, it’s a minor entry in the literary canon, but a poignant one. As a comparison I’d recommend Josef Škvorecký’s less farcical novel The Cowards, which I wrote about several years ago here.

Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.