Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Grand Tour #14 – Croatia. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg / Dubravka Ugrešić

June 21, 2017

What do we, i.e. I, know of Baba Yaga? Well, this.

And only this. (The image on the video shows Viktor Hartmann’s illustration of Baba Yaga’s hut, which was Mussorgsky’s inspiration.) But not any more! Now I know all sorts of things about her, thanks to Dubravka Ugrešić’s book Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Jaga je snijela jaje), translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Celia Hawkesworth and Mark Thompson.

The book is in three parts, the first of which is told by a woman looking after her elderly mother in Zagreb and amounts to a sort of comedy of obstinacy, and the second of which is a longer narrative about three women (of whom one, Pupa, may be the friend of the aged mother in the first story) descending on a spa hotel and getting up to various mischiefs. The third part is a commentary on the first two written by an Eastern European academic, Dr Aba Bagay (aha! tricks), looking at the Baba Yaga myth in some depth and its use in the two narratives specifically.

What happens is easy enough to follow, but the directionlessness of the plot, particularly in the first part, means it’s difficult to make sense of, and for that reason I found it a frustrating book to read. That’s in spite of its lively humour, which is abundant in the second part and translates excellently into English.

Example: Kukla, one of the trio of women, is taken golfing by an American gentleman, Mr Shaker, but inadvertently kills him by hitting him in the mouth with a golf ball.

‘Heart attack!’ announced Dr Topolanek.

And then, smoothing his hair, ruffled by an invisible fan, he turned to Kukla and added:

‘I do hope that this disagreeable incident will not have put you off golf forever. Golf is an exceptionally fine sport.’

The spa’s resident masseur is the sweet-natured Mevlo, a young man who as a result of an injury sustained in the Yugoslav Wars has a permanent erection. ‘Just look at it, it’s stuck and it won’t go down,’ he says to no one in particular. When, following several years of rigidity, he goes soft, you can sense it is the result of some kind of magic.

But just what kind of magic, and what it means, isn’t clear, and so I leapt on the commentary section with something approaching ardour. It begins excellently, and informatively.

Baba Yaga lives in a forest, or on the edge of a forest, in a cramped little hut that stands on hen’s legs and turns around on the spot. She has one skeleton-leg (‘Baba Yaga, bony leg!’), dangling breasts that she dumps on the stove or hangs over a pole, a long sharp nose that knocks against the ceiling (nos v potolok ros), and she flies around in a mortar, rowing herself through the air with a pestle, wiping away her traces with a broom.

Increasingly, though, I got tired of the folklore too. I felt like the first section’s narrator, who rails, ‘If there was something I could not abide, it was folklore and the people who studied folklore. Folklorists were inane, they were academic infants.’ Dr Bagay, summing up at the end of the book, writes, ‘In some places you sighed with boredom.’ You got that right, I thought.

To what extent, I wondered, is the reader meant to take the commentary at face value? I thought of my beloved Pale Fire, where the reader is constantly conscious that games are being played and that the commentary is unreliable. With the commentary here, even the far-fetched claims about world mythology, for instance that ‘The Empusa is a female demon with one leg of iron and the other made of donkey excrement’, check out. Does it clarify or illuminate the stories? Not really. At the end it turns suddenly into a feminist rallying cry, which is something I am always glad to get behind, but that doesn’t quite excuse the mixture of bafflement and boredom that has preceded it. Is it really credible that the book is a satire on the demonisation of women? I’ve probably missed the point as usual.

The weirdness sometimes saves it, the diversions provided by an impromptu disquisition on depictions of women and parrots in art, or Beba’s fevered dream in which she is besieged by eggs, ‘arrogant high-protein bastards’. Still, it’s not a book I can imagine wanting to read again.

14 countries down, 14 to go, and still on schedule. If you’ve been reading these write-ups, thank you for your indulgence. I tell myself I’m not writing them for an audience, but that’s just to console myself in the event of there not being one. And so far, so good. Germany and Austria especially successful, and there is some good-looking stuff coming up shortly. Grotesquerie, fairytales, sexy sex books. Something for everyone.

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Ten random books

May 31, 2017

Courtesy of Simon, another getting-to-know-you exercise, the gist of this one being that you pick at random from your shelves or (more likely, in my case) piles ten books, and write a bit about them. Well, lookee here.

1. The Witch and the Holiday Club / Margaret Stuart Barry

I’m going through a Simon and the Witch phase at present. The BBC adaptation by Valerie Georgeson was my most beloved programme when I was about six, and I am belatedly reading the eight books. Most of them I have sourced from Cambridge University Library (finally proving its worth after several fruitless centuries), but the BBC tie-in editions I wanted my own copies of. Elizabeth Spriggs on the cover, squee! I also bought a copy of Joan Sims’ autobiography. What superb actresses they were. How I love them.

2. The Norman Conquests / Alan Ayckbourn

The sort of book one likes to have handy in case of emergency, not that I open it very often. This trilogy of plays was my introduction to Ayckbourn, twelve or so years ago, and their ingenuity and fun are enduring. Perhaps it’s because of Norman that I became an Assistant Librarian. But probably not.

3. Anybody: Poems / Ari Banias

A present I received for Christmas and read in March. Some lovely writing.

And the tree is a television
where the president appears in the form of a finch
(‘The Feeling’)

4. Transgender History / Susan Stryker

A birthday present last year from my brother. He knows what I like (because it was on my Amazon wish list). And I will definitely read it one day.

5. The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles With America / Joseph Berger

Staying in a largely Hasidic Jewish area of Brooklyn for a week last year made me curious about the lives of Hasidim, and this book looked interesting. I haven’t read it yet.

6. Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories / Robert Walser

I saw a pile of copies of this book in McNally Jackson and fell in love with it. I couldn’t afford it at that moment, but bought it on my return to the UK. It consists of fragments – ‘Some dwell on childish or transient topics – carousels, the latest hairstyles, an ekphrasis of the illustrations in a picture book – others on the grand themes of nature, art, and love.’ (Publisher description.) I love and covet these NYRB editions, and I expect one day I’ll read it.

7. The Book of Daniel / E.L. Doctorow

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Whenever anyone trots out the old question about what the best opening line is, I think of that sentence, from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. I’m sure I hadn’t heard of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg when I read it, but they later turned into a fascination. This novel inspired by their story is a book I bought as long ago as 2008, but I will finally read it soon because it ties in neatly with Tony Kushner’s brilliant Angels in America, which I’m going to see in a couple of months at the National Theatre.

8. Four English Comedies

The four comedies in question being Volpone, The Way of the World, She Stoops to Conquer and The School for Scandal, of which I’ve read the first and third. I used to love these 1990s-era Penguin Classics editions, the colour-coded spines, the larger-than-usual format. The first copy of Pride and Prejudice I read was in the same edition, with a red stripe along the top. I don’t remember She Stoops to Conquer one bit, but I know I enjoyed Volpone. Maybe it had some jokes in.

9. The Girls, Vol. 1 / Henry de Montherlant

The encapsulation of a recurring theme: I bought this beautiful two-volume set dirt cheap on eBay in about 2003, and I haven’t opened it yet, put off, possibly, by its reputation as a repository of misogyny. Still, the bright orange and pink are nice, and there are other Montherlant books (the homoerotic ones) that I have read and loved. Perhaps next year’s reading project, Proustathon aside, should be to resist buying books where possible until I’ve made inroads into those I own. I tried that once before, in 2011: I ended up buying 24 books that year, of which I have to date read only 12.

10. Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks / Fiona Maddocks

A perk of being a librarian is that there’s some scope for buying books you yourself want to read. This ‘conversation diary’ is one such book, though it fitted neatly into our collection or I wouldn’t have chanced it. On first impression it appears immensely approachable. Opening a page at random, you find Birtwistle and Maddocks playing ‘horse, bird, muffin’.

Beethoven is the horse. So Mozart’s the bird and Brahms is the muffin … I think Stockhausen is the muffin and Boulez is the horse. [and so on]

Do post your own!

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 #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