Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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.


The 1947 Club: Doctor Faustus / Thomas Mann

October 14, 2016

Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend was a book I vowed to myself to read at the start of the year, and when the 1947 Club came along and I spotted the publication date of Mann’s book it seemed a pleasingly neat coincidence. I’ve loved Mann since discovering Death in Venice at 14, a book I’ve read more times than probably any other, and given it’s been five years since I was blown away by Buddenbrooks, it was high time to try another. I read the 1997 translation by John E. Woods, then Michael Beddow’s volume on the book in the Cambridge Landmarks of World Literature series.


The book, ostensibly a fictional biography of the composer Adrian Leverkühn written by his friend Serenus Zeitblom, is Mann’s reimagining of the Faust myth. Leverkühn, perhaps in a hallucination brought on by syphilis, makes a pact with Satan: he will forfeit his soul in exchange for 24 years of success. Success comes, but at great personal cost. Leverkühn’s story is set against the rise of Fascism in Germany. Beddow:

The relationship between Mann’s novel and the history of Germany is in one sense simple to the point of crudity. Adrian Leverkühn is meant as an allegory of modern Germany.

I’ll get the apologies out of the way at the start: because my own understanding of the book is indeed at the crudest of levels, I will restrict myself to a handful of observations that occurred to me as I read it. This is very much a novel of ideas, and though my musical education enabled me to follow the musical elements (which, as you’d expect, are several), I floundered during the lengthy discussions of philosophy, theology and political theory.

Within the first few pages I was put in mind of a favourite book of mine, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, another fictional biography. Nabokov’s narrator, Charles Kinbote, is an egotist who sees himself represented throughout the work of his subject, the poet John Shade. I was pleased to see Beddow draw the same parallel. Did Nabokov, who detested Mann, intend the Kinbote/Shade relationship to be a travesty of Zeitblom/Leverkühn, he wonders. There are many similarities, and most of Mann’s humour (and he’s not a humourless writer, though next to Nabokov he can seem that way) comes from Zeitblom’s pomposity, enhanced by the occasional hint of passive-aggressiveness. On the subject of names:

Our use of familiar pronouns is rooted in those years, and he must have addressed me by my first name back then too – I can no longer hear it, but it is unthinkable that as a six- or eight-year-old he did not call me Serenus, or simply Seren, just as I called him Adri. It must have been during our early years at school, though the exact moment cannot be determined, when he ceased to grant me that intimacy and, if he addressed me at all, began to use my last name – whereas it would have seemed to me impossibly harsh to reply in like fashion. It was so – though far be it from me for it to appear as if I wished to complain. It simply seemed worth mentioning that I called him Adrian, whereas he, when not evading use of a name entirely, called me Zeitblom.

Mann and Nabokov must both have enjoyed the invention of fictional bodies of work for their creations. Mann also does it with Aschenbach in Death in Venice, devoting several pages of the novella to a description of the writer’s output, establishing his credentials as a man of letters. Zeitblom again:

It was my lot in life to spend many years in intimate proximity with a man of genius, the hero of these pages, to know him from childhood on, to witness his growth, and his fate, and to play a modest supporting role in his work. The libretto adapted from Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, Leverkühn’s mischievous youthful composition, comes from me; I was also permitted some influence on the preparation of the texts for both the grotesque opera suite Gesta Romanorum and the oratorio The Revelation of St. John the Divine.

Nabokov goes so far as to present Shade’s poem ‘Pale Fire’ in its entirety as a preface to the analysis/biography. Leverkühn is a composer, and so isn’t accorded this luxury, though Mann describes certain works of his in detail. The violin concerto, untypically romantic, sounded bewitching to me in Zeitblom’s description, like the most beautiful piece ever written, and I wondered if any composer had tried to extrapolate any of the music from the book. Proust’s Vinteuil Sonata too: there are various pieces thought to have inspired it, but has anyone set out to compose the piece in real life? A thought that occurred to me in passing.

Theodor Adorno, scourge of music students throughout the world, advised Mann on the book’s musical content. Some readers equate Leverkühn with Arnold Schoenberg because Mann has Leverkühn invent twelve-tone composition. Schoenberg was a bit put out by this, and Mann was obliged to insert a disclaimer at the end of the book setting the record straight. In fact Leverkühn resembles no single real composer, but in some respects Stravinsky is a closer fit than Schoenberg. Around the time of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), Leverkühn composes a work, Marvels of the Universe, that feels very much its counterpart, and the changeability of his style recalls Stravinsky’s series of chameleon-like self-reinventions.

While Zeitblom’s laughableness is entertaining – the fact that as a student he misses his own lectures to attend Leverkühn’s, so convinced is he that he must observe everything his idol does, already certain that one day he will write this biography; the conviction (like Kinbote’s) that he sees cryptographic messages in the master’s work that no one else does – his political observations make for sober reading, perhaps because his horror of the rise of totalitarianism feels eerily current. There are innumerable passages about art as the antidote to extremism, about the anti-intellectualism of his society, about the ‘anti-humanity’ of the odious iconoclast Chaim Breisacher, misrepresenting Bach and Palestrina as hateful reactionaries who despoiled the glory of monophony, and about the scourge of nationalism, where I felt sharp pangs of recognition as I read. His shame at the moral bankruptcy of his country mirrors what I have sometimes felt about my own in recent months:

Our thick-walled torture chamber, into which Germany was transformed by a vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start, had been burst open, and our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world … is it mere hypochondria to tell oneself that all that is German – even German intellect, German thought, the German word – shares in the disgrace of these revelations and is plunged into profoundest doubt? Is it morbid contrition to ask oneself the question: How can “Germany,” whichever of its forms it may be allowed to take in the future, so much as open its mouth again to speak of mankind’s concerns?

In these passages, where (perhaps) we see ourselves reflected, this is a viscerally terrifying book, more so than any horror story I’ve read. Books don’t usually scare me, but I was glad to get to the end of this one. It’s brilliant, but profoundly unsettling. Part of the scariness, as my fellow blogger the Argumentative Old Git has observed elsewhere, is that Germany has such a rich cultural history. If Germany could turn to barbarism, what hope for the rest of us? Let us pray that we heed the lessons of history.

Back to the allegory: the political life of Germany in the first part of the twentieth century seems to correspond to Leverkühn’s own. He sells his soul and ends up killing the things he loves and descending into madness. But although the two mirror each other, their stories don’t seem inextricably linked, and the comparisons are not exact. Take Leverkühn’s music. Serialism – a democracy of tones in which no single note of the twelve is superior to any other – is a logical extreme, a dead end. There is nowhere beyond it to go, which is not to say that much great serialist music has not been written. With political extremism, when things are pulled down we have no option but to carry on, and good generally emerges from the wreckage. (I suppose I mean the NHS.) What came after serialism? Minimalism, blankness, emptiness? I think I’ll keep Schoenberg, thank you. The more I compare political with musical extremism, the more I see it can’t be done. For the reader of Doctor Faustus to feel tempted to equate twelve-tone music with Nazism is, I think, to misread the book. I just can’t say exactly why.


November 19, 2015

For some months I’ve been thinking about the labels we use to define ourselves, prompted partly by this article by Charlie Mitchell, which is perceptive about several things like the reductiveness of labels and, contrarily, the necessity of having words to hang our identities on. You might consider yourself above labels, but if you’re on Twitter (for instance) then there’s a good chance there are several in your 160-character biography alone. Your job, your age, your interests, your gender, your location. We label ourselves to help others build up a picture of us, and for our own sake too.

You’ll be familiar with the sensation of noticing a word for the first time and then seeing it everywhere. That word for me, at the moment, is ‘intersectionality’, which relates to the interaction of overlapping systems of discrimination. One of the central theses of Julia Serano’s brilliant book Whipping Girl is that trans women face discrimination not merely because they’re trans, but because they’re women. Throw in factors like race, class, education, dis/ability, and you have a multiplicity of intersectional permutations.

I’ve been reading what by my standards is an absurd amount of theory this year (approximately two books), and something that becomes apparent is that you can’t understand queer theory, say, without a grounding in gender theory and feminist theory, and probably other theories of oppression too. I struggled with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble because I haven’t read Foucault; but by the same token I’d struggle with Foucault because I haven’t read Nietzsche, for instance. Everything is connected. No person is an island, entire of itself, as John Donne meant to write. Intersectionality.

It wasn’t until I attended a performance of Tribes by Nina Raine a couple of weeks ago that I realised how ubiquitous labelling is in my life. Raine’s play is about a deaf young man, Billy, brought up in a hearing household, who comes to realise that his own family is as cloistered in its way as the ‘deaf community’ that he has avoided all his life. It can be nice to feel included in a tribe, but it can also be oppressive, and not helped by every member being an individual with a different understanding of what should define membership. The problem with so many tribes is the nuance-free ‘them and us’-style tribalism that in time evolves.

No Homers

Watching the play, I started thinking about the semblance of order I try to impose on these blog posts, assigning broad and unsatisfactory categories and then adding narrower tags so that (in theory) someone can click on one and be met with a raft of similar results. We have a thousand tags we could attach to ourselves in a similar manner, if we were only computerised. I don’t often tag myself as a Chelsea fan, or as a sufferer of a chronic illness, because although I would place myself in both demographics, however tentatively, neither feels of primary importance to my being; but I could if I wanted to.

Then, suddenly, came a realisation of the extent to which my daily work, cataloguing, relies on labels. The cataloguer’s greatest friend is the Library of Congress Authorities website. This is a database of names and subject headings expressed in a standardised way to enable matching. Search it yourself. If you know a published author, they will (in theory) have a name entry in the database. Subject headings are the most interesting. A keyword search for ‘librarians’ brings up 2,000+ entries, including the following:

  • Academic librarians–Effect of automation on
  • African American librarians–Kentucky–History–19th century
  • Bisexual librarians–Canada
  • Christian Librarians’ Fellowship
  • Cuban American librarians
  • Detroit Suburban Librarians’ Round Table
  • Gay librarians–United States–Directories
  • Jewish librarians–Lithuania–Vilnius–Biography
  • Librarians–Anecdotes
  • Librarians for Nuclear Arms Control
  • Librarians in motion pictures
  • Louisiana Teen-age Librarians Association. Convention (1989 : Baton Rouge, La.)
  • National Workshop on Effective Management of Polytechnic Library Resources for Polytechnic Librarians in Nigeria
  • Part-time librarians–Germany (East)
  • Transgender librarians
  • Ukrainian Librarians Association of Canada
  • Women librarians–Job satisfaction–India
  • If you’re above a certain age, you’ll have seen this sort of thing in card catalogues; nowadays a bibliographic record online will contain several of these headings as hyperlinks, to facilitate the identification of similar books. A global web of connections.

    At the end of Tribes, following estrangement, comes reconciliation. Dan, the older brother, reaches out to Billy, offering his hand and asking him the sign for LOVE, sign language having been a bone of contention throughout the play. That, I suggest, I hope, is what is behind labelling. Wanting to make a connection, wanting someone else to hold our hand, figuratively or actually. So let’s try not to let our differences set us against other people. Let’s celebrate the differences, acknowledge the humanity we have in common, and unite against our one common enemy: the government.

    Nasty forward minxes

    November 8, 2015

    I don’t normally write here about what I’m reading, but I do read, incessantly, and I recently came across a book that is worthy of wider attention, A Newnham Anthology, edited by Ann Phillips.

    To most people Cambridge means King’s College Chapel. In fact, that’s merely the public face of an institution with many private ones. This book was commissioned to mark the centenary of Newnham College in 1971, and was eventually published in 1979. My library copy had a dedication inside by Lady Archer, and a further pencil annotation in a rougher hand, ‘Wife of Jeffrey’. I’d have liked the second writer to elaborate further.

    Newnham was the second college to admit women, after Girton. Its alumnae include the likes of Joan Bakewell, Mary Beard, Iris Murdoch, Rosalind Franklin, Jane Goodall, Emma Thompson, A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble. This book amounts to a documentary history of Newnham told by its members in the form of recollections, diary entries, letters home, poetry, and official documents and statutes.

    It’s possible to view the University of Cambridge as a microcosm of British society, albeit a skewed one. Over the course of the century covered by the book, women slowly gain emancipation, initially allowed to attend lectures under sufferance, granted permission in 1881 to sit exams but not to receive degrees for passing them, and admitted as full members of the University only in 1948. Times have changed, I think, but it’s embarrassing to reflect on how recently the barriers came down. My own was one of the first all-male colleges to admit women, but that wasn’t until 1972. Today there are three women-only colleges, including Newnham; all the rest are co-educational.

    ‘Nasty forward minxes’ was Professor Adam Sedgwick’s epithet for female students seeking admission to Cambridge. It is true that women were met with much resistance, only permitted to attend lectures (to attend anything, it seems) if chaperoned, segregated from male students by having to sit at the front of the lecture hall. More than one graduate remarks on Arthur Quiller-Couch’s spiteful habit of beginning his lectures pointedly with, ‘Gentlemen!’

    Individuals, though, gained small victories:

    I always considered at the time that Newnham and Girton had been accepted as official colleges of the University. I put it to the test one day. Trinity was giving a concert in the chapel by invitation to members of the University. I and another student made up our minds to go. We streamed through the quad with all the swells, and at the door the verger, or someone in authority, said, ‘What college?’ ‘Newnham,’ I said firmly, and we passed in. Perhaps I was right, perhaps, however, the verger wasn’t sure, and thought it best to let things go.

    K.M. Rathbone (Dixon, matriculated 1880)

    There is a sense that in the early years of Newnham students were compelled to strive particularly hard for excellence to justify their existence, being very much second-class citizens within the University. That may also account partly for the heavy-handedness of Newnham’s own authorities:

    No cinemas – but there was the New Theatre in Regent Street, viewed with stern disapproval, though students of English were allowed to go to Shakespearian plays. I remember one occasion when a friend and I had taken tickets for The Merchant of Venice and at the last moment the programme was altered and a non-Shakespearian play substituted. The College authorities heard of the change and a don was sent forthwith to the theatre and we were ignominiously extracted from our seats just before the curtain went up.

    M.A. Quiggin (Hingston, 1899)

    Alongside the struggles to assert themselves, the early stories of friendship and ritual are charmingly old-fashioned. The practice of proposing, or ‘propping’, was widespread for some years, that is, proposing the use of first names to another student. ‘I have proposed to Miss Mutch,’ one student writes. Until the acceptance of your proposal, everyone was a Miss. The origin of the cocoa party amused me:

    When the College was still young a benefactor left a sum of money to provide a lady’s maid for every five young ladies, but most of the young ladies had no idea what to do with such a creature, and the benefaction was changed into half a pint of milk to be drunk at night by each young lady on finishing her studies: hence the custom of giving cocoa-parties, the guests bringing their own milk and the hostess supplying food, often of a very indigestible nature. I can remember eating extravagantly buttered muffins and cream buns between ten and eleven at night.

    E. Terry (1902)

    The variety of stories and voices in the book means there is little chance of the reader getting restless, other than in the sections written by boating bores that presumably must appeal to someone but not to me. On reading one piece I empathised immediately, thinking, this is a real writer and I recognise these experiences as mine as well as hers, and was delighted to turn the page and find the author was Catherine Storr, whose books I have always loved. She was convinced she was a fraud because of having had the good fortune to be asked about Edward Thomas at interview, whose poetry she had read recently. With me, it was a mention of Thomas Adès that I thought got me in; I later found out my Bach chorale harmonisation had also been good, which made me feel less of an impostor.

    Newnham clearly is a place held in great affection by many of its alumnae, and that may be why the most memorable pieces are by students who had a miserable time there. K.A. Rees (1929) was a streetwise girl from a London state school. Joining the University Labour Club was a sobering experience:

    I remember once listening to an impassioned talk by some good soul, who was horrified because there were households in Britain where the only hot water was obtained by boiling kettles. I’d been filling my weekly bath that way all my life.

    Work might have made it all worth while but, alas, there too I’d seen it all before. I was reading English, and I’d already at school achieved London University Intermediate B.A. standard. Now I was back to an elementary course in English Literature, designed for the products of the public schools who, as far as I could see, had read absolutely nothing.

    Well, that was my Newnham. I was lonely, bored, frustrated, humiliated, insecure, frightened, resentful. And I didn’t stage a sit-in, nor a demo; never so much as threw a tomato; just sulked my way through three long years.

    The likes of Rees were trailblazers, and provide an important corrective to the image (still true to some extent) of Cambridge as a place of privilege, scarves and toast. As she observes, she was then a minority of one but would now be in the majority. The state school students are taking over. (Well, in my dreams.)

    I’ll end with a longer excerpt, from N.S. Rinsler (Lee, 1946), that provides a delightful portrait of Miss Edith Chrystal, one of the many formidable women among the Newnham Fellowship, and of the changing attitudes to men within Newnham. The days of chaperoning were long gone by this time.

    During the second term of that first year, I was laid low, one cold, wet afternoon, by fever and a miserable cough. I retired to bed, hoping that the certain young man would assume that my failure to arrive for tea could only be due to an emergency, such as the sky falling on Newnham. At about half past six he arrived in my room, examined me with the eye of an experienced medical student, and pronounced me unfit for Hall; he would return shortly, he said, and make me some supper. He returned in due course with his one egg (they were still rationed in 1947), and proceeded to make up my decidedly ineffective coal fire – the room was big, the grate small, and our coal ration dreadfully inadequate for the damp Cambridge winter. It was at this moment that Miss Chrystal, having learned from one of my friends that I did not seem well at lunch-time, came up to see how I was. Her appearance was awe-inspiring. Visitors were not allowed in College from tea-time until eight o’clock, when they were admitted only if their names had been signed in the book. My visitor was out of hours, unrecorded and male; I was tucked up in bed. Miss Chrystal’s intelligent eye surveyed the cosy domestic scene, and she invited my nurse to step downstairs to her room.

    My mind, admittedly feverish, ranged wildly among visions of expulsion, public disgrace, and official letters to the young man’s Tutor, while my imagination conceived only too easily what Miss Chrystal might be saying downstairs. In ten minutes the young man returned. ‘She’s wonderful,’ he told me. ‘She gave me another egg so that we could both have one, and she lent me her egg-poacher; and she says I’m to put these logs on the fire because the room isn’t nearly warm enough for an invalid. Oh yes, and she signed me in the book.’ Humanity most skilfully combined with discipline – that was exactly Miss Chrystal. My nurse returned the poacher on his way out that evening. When I next saw Miss Chrystal, some two days later, she merely remarked in answer to my thanks: ‘The poacher was washed up very well. I should marry that one if I were you, he’s been brought up properly.’ As a matter of fact, I had already decided to do so; but I was oddly glad of Miss Chrystal’s approval; and we are both still grateful for her kindness.


    Cambridge Newnham” by Azeira at English Wikipedia – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.