Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Grand Tour #6 – Netherlands. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played / Simon Vestdijk

April 1, 2017

To the Netherlands, and I suspect to the only book of this project that I will have read before. Years ago I was the moderator of a message board (technically I still am, but it’s so quiet these days that it moderates itself), and one of our regular contributors was a translator who frequently deplored British readers’ lack of interest in translated literature. In the spirit of appeasement we decided to do a group read of a book from an unfamiliar language, and he suggested The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (De koperen tuin), a 1950 novel by the Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk, translated by A. (Alex) Brotherton. I felt like paying it another visit.

the-garden-where-the-brass-band-played

It’s a coming-of-age novel (a genre I inevitably gravitate towards) set in the early part of the last century, telling the story of Nol, the son of a judge in the northern town of W …, and his relationship with a girl four years his senior, Trix, the daughter of local musician Henri Cuperus.

Near the start of the book we witness 8-year-old Nol at a public garden where Cuperus conducts a Sousa march that fills Nol with such joy that he is moved to dance with Trix, also present. This moment of delight – of falling in love, as it turns out – colours everything that follows it. The Dutch title of the book would be more accurately rendered in English as ‘The Brass Garden’ (to be pedantic, ‘The Copper Garden’), the brass (or copper) referring not merely to the musical instruments but to the sheen that Nol’s memory of that afternoon assumes. It’s not a spoiler to write that the book ends with Nol returning to the garden and finding it damp and desecrated, not golden like the garden of his memories: that’s what has to happen when you grow up.

If the book ends with tragedy, it opens with exuberance, even in the trials of Nol’s childhood. Nol has heard his older brother Chris, frustrated by his piano lessons, crying in the room next door, and has even shed sympathetic tears himself, despite the coolness of their relationship. He nonetheless takes a vindictive pleasure in the prospect of getting one over on his brother:

Both of us came to supper with red-rimmed eyes, looking dazed, like geese after a storm. It had already been decided that Chris didn’t have to go to piano lessons any more. After the soup he had just as much to say as ever, but during the dessert, when my father told him to keep quiet, he didn’t kick me, which was just as well for him because, despite the sympathy that gave me a glow of pleasure for days afterwards, I had my answer ready. I wasn’t going to say: ‘He kicked me, the beast’, as I had done once and been sent to the kitchen by my father. I’d just make a sign, a movement of my hand, tracing the course of a tear down my own cheek with a finger.

Incidentally, though a minor character, Chris is at the centre of a comic interlude early on that I can’t believe I’d forgotten, in which he sets up a small business at school selling peppermints that gets out of hand. It’s so funny that I can’t resist quoting it.

He had rings under his eyes from sitting up, night after night, first at his homework, then, till after midnight, studying ‘economics’, compiling peppermint statistics, pricing shares with stock exchange quotations and all the fiendish complications of dealing in shares. He got thin and haggard, he looked as if he was bent under a heavy load. Even my parents, who knew nothing of his nightly labours, began to show the strain because he talked of nothing else at the table and persecuted my father with unanswerable questions. He always had a supply of peppermints of diverse shapes with him. Sometimes he would offer these to us after dessert. It was all treated as a joke though my parents used to look at each other with raised eyebrows and never kept the peppermint long in their mouths.

Tremendous.

To return to music, the reasons for Chris’s abandonment of the piano are Clementi and Dussek, two names that strike terror into the hearts of little boys even now, presumably. Nol is not deterred by the failure of his brother, and persuades his parents to let him take piano lessons from Cuperus, who proves an inspiring teacher. Though the story of Nol’s love of Trix is the main focus, his love of music runs throughout the novel, always underscoring his hero worship of Cuperus, his estrangement from Trix, his contemplations of the past.

Most prominent of all the music in the book is Bizet’s Carmen, a performance of which Cuperus conducts when Nol is at the impressionable age of 17, with Trix singing the minor role of Frasquita. The second intermezzo (which I take to be the Entr’acte between Acts 2 and 3), with its gorgeous duet between harp and flute, later joined by clarinet and strings, recurs at strategic points. (There is also a clear parallel to be drawn between the characters of Carmen and Trix, though it’s not gratuitous.) The sweet wistfulness of this music infects the book.

Nol’s growing up is depicted partly through his changing taste in music. Snob that I am, when I read of Nol’s being moved by Sousa, my first reaction was, Sousa? Only now I think of it, I myself had a brief Sousa phase when I was about nine.

Frasier: Remember when you used to think the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?
Niles: Was I ever that young?

Before he is too much older, Nol thinks back on Sousa as ‘the music that I had long since grown out of.’ He is introduced by Cuperus to the likes of Bizet and Wagner, and eventually branches out on his own, falling in love with the music of Debussy and Ravel that even the progressive Cuperus does not care for. Vestdijk writes about music with sensitivity and understanding. I remember flinching, the first time I read it, at Nol’s dismissal of Op. 31 No. 1 as Beethoven’s dullest piano sonata, the finale notwithstanding; I listened to the music this time and found myself nodding sadly with sympathy.

The growth to maturity of Nol is so delicately drawn that you are barely conscious of it as it is happening. A small event can change his understanding of life subtly, such as the conversation where he asks his mother, ‘But surely … you must have been in love once?’ and receives the poignant reply, ‘Not really.’ At various points he repeats his mantra, ‘Time is irrelevant to love’, which seems to me frankly bullshit, and perhaps by the end of the book he realises as much. Whatever else romantic love is, it is not stationary: it kindles, surges, mutates, dies (or am I making the mistake of assuming everyone experiences love in the same way I do, which I confess is probably not the case); and the depiction of love in this book, though reserved, convinces and moves me deeply.

This smile wasn’t like the sunlight breaking through the clouds. It was something altogether different, it must have been the lines around the eyes that lit up again with their natural mischievousness, the eyelids, and those lashes … I don’t know how to describe it exactly. I don’t know either how soon I forgot her again during those summer holidays, or how long, how many months, years even, I let pass by and scarcely gave her a thought. I don’t know how that was ever possible.

netherlands

Grand Tour #5 – Belgium. Cheese / Willem Elsschot

March 25, 2017

In nature, tragedy resides in the things that actually happen. In art it is more a matter of style than of what happens. A herring can be depicted tragically, even though there is nothing intrinsically tragic about such a creature. On the other hand it is not sufficient to say ‘My poor father is dead’ to achieve a tragic effect.

The words of Belgian writer Willem Elsschot (1882-1960) in the preface to his 1933 novel Cheese (Kaas), which I read in the translation by Paul Vincent. I could have picked one of any number of fine Belgian novels, I’m sure, but who can turn down the opportunity of reading the book that, according to the blurb on the back, ‘marks Edam’s great moment in world literature’? Not me.

cheese

Elsschot doesn’t achieve tragedy through saying ‘My father is dead’, but the book does open with its protagonist, Frans Laarmans, relating the death of his mother, who, having peeled her life’s share of potatoes, gives up the ghost. I thought it might be a nod to Camus (‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’), but it turns out that L’Étranger wasn’t written until 1942, so presumably Camus was inspired by Elsschot. At his mother’s funeral Laarmans, a lowly clerk, meets the mysterious Mr Van Schoonbeke (‘the cause of all the trouble’, according to the cast list at the front of the book), and before too long he finds himself in possession of 20 tons of Edam that he has to shift somehow.

Laarmans, who has never sold anything in his life, is not an obvious candidate for such a job. He begins by scoping out the cheese world.

I stopped outside a cheese shop to admire the window display. In the bright light of a host of bulbs lay cheeses of all shapes, sizes and origins, next to and on top of each other. They had converged on this spot from all our neighbouring countries.

Huge Gruyères as big as millstones served as a base, and on top of them were Cheshires, Goudas, Edams and numerous varieties of cheese that were entirely unknown to me, some of the largest with bellies slit open and innards exposed. The Roqueforts and Gorgonzolas lewdly flaunted their mould, and a squadron of Camemberts let their pus ooze out freely.

An odour of decay wafted from the shop, but this decreased after I had stood there for a while.

I didn’t want to give way to the stink, and would only leave when I thought the time had come. A businessman must be as tough as a polar explorer.

‘Go ahead and stink all you want,’ I said defiantly. If I’d had a whip I’d have set about them.

Laarmans is a fun character. Some compare him to Walter Mitty or Charles Pooter. In his moments of hubris and dramatic self-pity (‘My battery is empty. I have bled dry.’) I thought of Adrian Mole. At any rate, he is a fool, and sympathetic primarily for that reason. During the hours when he should be out there making business contacts, he is focusing instead on working out what to call his company so he can start ordering his headed stationery. He plans the layout of his office in mundane detail.

An austere, plain background without flowers or anything, with nothing else hanging up except a tear-off calendar and, for instance, a map of the Dutch cheese area.

The Dutch cheese area! I hope David Nobbs knew this book. The image came into my head of Reggie Perrin drawing the outlines of a waste paper basket and Joan’s handbag on Tony and David’s sales maps.

Planning is not Laarmans’ forte. He is out when the deliveryman calls, and because the message is garbled he is briefly in the position of having lost 20 tons of Edam sight unseen. In order to be able to concentrate on his cheese work he takes three months’ feigned sick leave from his paid job, without realising that if he wants to maintain the façade of being ill he will have to be constantly on his guard for colleagues if he ever leaves his house. His resolution to sell his cheeses only in boxes of 27 restricts his marketplace.

The farce builds steadily. Laarmans is astonished to be elected Vice-President of the Association of Belgian Cheese Merchants. In an important budget meeting with the association’s Director-General, feeling drastically underqualified, he stands up, apparently on the verge of coming clean, but the D-G takes his stand as a bargaining tactic and grants him more money. The decaying smell of cheese infects his life. He comes to realise he will never ‘vanquish the cheese dragon’.

The word Kafkaesque is bandied about more than most in literary discussions, but it may be appropriate here. Who is the shady presence (the eminence cheese, if you will) behind Laarmans’ bizarre new career? The friends of Van Schoonbeke, who appear periodically, are an interesting phenomenon. They appear to be successful businessmen, and to begin with Laarmans feels out of place in their presence. They talk of swanky eating establishments, and the only comparable place Laarmans can think of to mention is a restaurant a friend of his visited in Dunkirk that, one of the others witheringly points out, has since been turned into a cinema. As Van Schoonbeke begins to talk up Laarmans’ prestige, he feels more comfortable, eventually becoming the life and soul of the party. Once the cheese dream is up, he continues to spend time with these people. Is there a hint that they may all be former protégés of Van Schoonbeke now fallen on hard times?

That a crisis eventually comes to Laarmans isn’t a surprise; what does surprise, perhaps, is that when it happens it is more moving than it is comical.

I stand there for a moment and a great feeling of acceptance fills my whole being. It’s as if I’m being tucked up in bed by a loving hand.

But I have to go to the kitchen.

My wife is standing there doing nothing and looking into our back garden.

I go to her and take her in my arms. And as my first tears fall on her weathered face, I see that she is crying too.

Another poignant detail is that in the early days of his new enterprise Laarmans laments the death of his mother because she would have been proud to see him as a success; by the end he realises it is a blessing she cannot see what a failure he has become.

The line dividing tragedy from comedy is one Elsschot treads with skill. Paul Vincent’s fine introduction notes Elsschot’s gloomy response to the news that a producer wanted to put the book on stage: ‘I’m afraid he’ll play it for laughs.’ Vincent does an excellent job of translating the deadpan humour, so that there are moments when you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Generally the former. It’d make a fine film.

I’ve been on the Reblochon recently. Good stuff.

belgium

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

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.