Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

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.

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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.

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.