Grand Tour #16 – Cyprus. Immoral Tales / Andreas Karayan

July 7, 2017

To Cyprus. My choices were limited: either a book of short stories I had read an indifferent review of (£15) or an erotic memoir (£4). Naturally I went for the latter, thinking that if it wasn’t very good I might at least get an erection out of it. On that front, mission very much not accomplished. (Not that I’d tell you if it had been, my attitude being that I will take every opportunity to talk of erections in the abstract, but will decline to discuss my own under any circumstances.)

Where was I? Oh yes, I read a book. The ungainlily titled Immoral Tales: London – Alexandria: A Coming of Age Erotic Odyssey by Andreas Karayan, edited by Peter Archer and translated by Antoine Bohdjalian. Karayan writes in Greek, I believe, but is of Armenian extraction, as (judging by the name) might be his translator. The book, though, takes place in Greece and Cyprus and (mainly) London and Alexandria. A chronicle of a peripatetic existence.

From the title (and the cover, which I suspect is by Karayan himself, an artist by profession) you might expect a torrid, shameful trawl through illicit basement-room bonks I have known. Banish this image from your mind. It’s an altogether more circumspect and tender book than that.

The first part takes place mainly (to my delight) against the backdrop of cultural London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where young Andreas and his wife Eleonora, a promising pianist, are living. She is studying with Rose Inlander-Gover, a grande dame of London pianism, and they encounter people like the young Kiri Te Kanawa, David Hockney and the like. Andreas is studying art and spends a lot of time in museums, and his method of storytelling has perhaps a parallel with something like Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières’, one of the paintings he loves to contemplate in the National Gallery. The picture of his life is built up from pointillistic portraits of people, moments, disagreements, affairs. One friend, Martin:

I noticed him at the college – rather scruffy, slim and wiry. His chest showed beneath his unbuttoned shirt. With his dark blond hair, he looked like The Little Prince. We met one Friday and, after I found myself penniless and unable to get home, he immediately gave me all the change he had for his evening meals. He came from another world, the world of Public Schools, which we knew about only from television. His father was the Queen’s secretary and, as a boy, he went with his parents to tea parties at the Palace. Around him, people stood to attention in uniforms decorated with gold. Protocol dictated all.

Andreas and Eleonora grow gradually apart as he comes to accept his attraction to men. His witnessing of a kiss between James Laurenson and Ian McKellen as Gaveston and Edward in a BBC adaptation of Edward II is one of a number of significant moments in his ‘odyssey’ of self-discovery.

After a brief excursion into Germany and Cyprus, for part of which the author appears to assume the persona of his own lover, the second half of the book is devoted to Alexandria, a love letter to a changing city inspired partly by Karayan’s adoration of Lawrence Durrell and C.P. Cavafy (whose poems he has translated). This section reads as the work of a maturer writer than the first, the erotic episodes more assured, more taken for granted, though still full of wonder. I like the unfloridity of Karayan’s writing about sex. Not that sex is the point. Alexandria is the point, the place his life has been leading towards. Again, a picture of the place is built up through vignettes, some Karayan’s own, some the stories of his friend and/or lover Adham, told to Karayan and preserved here.

This book is a ragbag, incoherent and lacking structure. So far, so lifelike. There were a couple of things that impressed me particularly: one was the organic feeling of Karayan’s frequent allusions to art. Art is his passion, his obsession, and he sees it everywhere. Too often in other authors I see artistic, literary and musical allusions that feel tacked on, mere status symbols. (Michael Cunningham, I may be talking about you.) That’s not the case here. The other was the translation, which reads as naturally as if the book had been originally written in English. Antoine Bohdjalian, I salute you.

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Grand Tour #15 – Greece. Kassandra and the Wolf / Margarita Karapanou

June 28, 2017

‘I’ll tell you the one about the Birdman,’ I said. ‘The Birdman lived on a high mountain and loved the Fishwoman very much. But they could never manage to meet each other, you see, because he couldn’t get in the water and she couldn’t fly. That’s why the Bird always flew over the sea, and the Fish always followed in the waves, until, finally, the Bird covered it and became its Shadow. Before that none of us had a Shadow. We walked about quite plain and we were cold too. But from that time on, the Shadow was born, and now we all have one to keep us company.’

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been looking forward especially to this stretch of the journey. Just because modern Greek writers aren’t widely read down my way, I’d probably assumed the place had been a cultural wasteland for the past two and a half millennia. It turns out I was wrong: there is at least one book written in Greece during that period that is worth reading, and it is Margarita Karapanou’s Kassandra and the Wolf (Η Κασσάνδρα και ο Λύκος), which I read in the translation by N.C. Germanacos. I fell head over heels in love with it.

Karapanou’s book dates from 1974, when she was 28. It consists of a series of 56 short chapters, vignettes in the life of a six-year-old girl, Kassandra. A picture is built up of Kassandra’s life, which mainly takes place in Greece where she is cared for by her grandparents, her mother being in Paris and her father absent. It feels in some ways like a privileged childhood. ‘Grandmother strolls around the parlor, showing me the ancestors,’ says Kassandra. The servants and visiting grandees put me in mind of a favourite film of mine, Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos, also about a young girl’s interior life.

From a chapter about Christmas:

On Saturday nights, Miss Benbridge tells me the miracles in order. Last night it was the turn of the bread rolls and fish. Which is why I am now swallowing the bread and melting with sweetness. I make little girls and seat them around the table to keep me company. I put myself among them too, and we look at each other. I make compliments to them so that they’ll love me. We all stare at the snow together, our hair is freshly brushed and drawn back, we’re wearing pink ribbons, and we smell of soap.

Although the tone is always that of a child, the chapters vary widely in subject matter, ranging from the quotidian (a trip to the cinema to watch The Red Shoes, an elocution lesson to cure Kassandra’s silence) to the fantastical. A game of hide-and-seek with a boy, Zakoúlis, ends after three days when Zakoúlis is belatedly discovered, having shrunk to the size of an olive. Later, after being read The Turn of the Screw as a bedtime story, Kassandra is visited by its characters.

At night, Flora and Miles come to my room. Bending over, the Governess covers me with her wet hair. I’ve made friends with them.

It’s impossible to write about the book without at some point confronting its great darkness (Karapanou herself called it ‘a scary monster of a book’), and The Turn of the Screw may be a useful reference point, as another book with a menace whose precise nature is obscure. The main antagonist of Kassandra and the Wolf (as with The Turn of the Screw) is a Peter, in this case Kassandra’s grandmother’s servant. Peter is an unpindownable presence, at times a playmate of Kassandra, his gender fluidity the conduit for a game in which she plays at being a lady, at others a sexual threat. Sex is a frequent theme, occasional as innocent sex play or as childish misunderstanding of sex (Kassandra finds Peter having sex with the maid Faní but doesn’t comprehend what she sees), but more often as something that can only be read as sexual abuse. As Miles identifies Peter Quint as the devil, so Kassandra identifies Peter to her uncle as the son of the Devil.

It is at the times she talks about sex that Kassandra relies most heavily on the language of metaphor and fantasy. That’s the way it has to be, perhaps: children’s ignorance of sex means they do not have the words to describe it. I remembered Claude Barras’s marvellous animated film My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette), which I saw a few weeks ago, in which the children’s incomplete concept of sex is manifested in their talk of exploding willies: ‘Tu t’es fait exploser le zizi!’

What is the wolf of the title? There are wolves in the book, but the wolf might just as easily be a metaphorical one, like the opoponax in Monique Wittig’s book of that name. Perhaps the wolf is a personification of sexuality. Although Kassandra is not so traumatised by her abuse that she cannot talk about it (however obliquely), it may be the root of her disturbing behaviour elsewhere. There is a chapter in which she looks after with great care a kitten she has been lent but, confronted with the prospect of losing it at the end of the week, she begins to torture it systematically, and finally kills it. I felt quite desolate on reading it. Could it be just another fantasy?

This morning I woke up in bed and ran off to Grandmother to tell her the nice dream I’d had, but then I remembered that Grandmother had forbidden me to dream the dreams I like, so I’m keeping it secret.

A disturbing book, then, but one whose blurring of fantasy and reality felt to me as accurate a representation of the non-representational nature of memory as anything I’ve read. It really blew my mind.

For those who have read and loved it, or for those whose interest is piqued by what I’ve written, I must recommend this fascinating round-table discussion of the book and of Karapanou’s work more widely. One of the panel is Nick Germanacos, the translator of this volume.

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.

Grand Tour #13 – Slovenia. Games with Greta & Other Stories / Suzana Tratnik

June 17, 2017

I’m now done with the familiar countries until I get to Scandinavia. The Balkans and the Baltic beckon. Slovenia’s uncharted territory. I don’t know the first thing about it; even the football team’s a closed book. And the waters are only going to get murkier: Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania…

Still, I thought I’d probably found a winner: a book of short stories by Suzana Tratnik, Games with Greta & Other Stories, translated by ‘Michael Biggins and others’ and published by the brilliant and enterprising Dalkey Archive Press. (The ‘others’ turn out to be the unpronounceables: Tamara Soban, Špela Bibič, Mojca Šoštarko and Elizabeta Žargi.) And Tratnik’s Wikipedia page was most encouraging: she’s translated Judith Butler into Slovene (!) and has been heavily involved in LGBT activism in Slovenia. Onward.

‘Games with Greta’ itself is a good place to start. It takes place at a family gathering, and is told by a girl who is forced together with Greta, the adopted child of relatives who have moved to England. The narrator snobbishly dislikes the parents, and decides to dislike Greta accordingly. Memories came flooding back of my own childhood, and of the handful of occasions when I was thrown together with distant cousins simply because we were roughly the same age. We had different temperaments and different ways of playing. They had a Scalextric (which I dare say I judged them for not being able to pronounce; they even called Tetris ‘Tertis’), and I had a dead tortoiseshell butterfly in a plastic box. (Actually I yearned for a Sega Master System II, but I assumed my parents would never buy it so I didn’t bother to ask.) We compromised on football.

The narrator (apologies for the unwieldiness of repeating this phrase, but Tratnik’s narrators are invariably unnamed; there is one story where she is referred to by her interlocutor as ‘Suzana’, which makes one wonder whether these stories are fictions after all, or rather thinly anonymised episodes from Tratnik’s own life) – where was I? – the narrator finds that Greta isn’t so bad after all, or at any rate that she isn’t an intolerable prospect as a playmate. This said, what evolves between them is a sort of power struggle with elements of the dangerous and the macabre. It can’t be a coincidence that Tratnik has translated Ian McEwan. This story is reminiscent of McEwan’s early writings, hinting at natural but somehow distasteful infantile sex play, and the pushing of boundaries, even the boundaries of some mystical netherworld. I thought it was really something.

More often the focus is adult relationships, particularly romantic relationships between women, and frequently relationships that are going through difficulties, either dying because of them or weathering them, and often because of geography and/or the passage of time. The elegiac ‘Trips Are Cheaper Now, Too’ sees two lovers, Jana and Vivi, reuniting for New Year, one of them still living in Slovenia, the other having moved to the Netherlands, and having problems adjusting to being around one another again. The excellent ‘Letters Without Envelopes’ has one character, living in Slovenia, acting as go-between for two lovers divided by war in Yugoslavia. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Subway’, is about a woman visiting a public model of Ljubljana’s proposed subway system, assembled by her former lover. The two women have contrasting personalities (hence the break-up), and it doesn’t take long for the old animosity to be rekindled.

‘Does this … subway of yours have burek stands?’ I asked Ines, since burek struck me as the only appropriate food for chewing your way through the street scene of Ljubljana.

‘No,’ she came to her project’s defense without batting an eye. There’d be no bureks. ‘No greasy food at all, don’t you see. We won’t be selling any bureks. And at all the larger stations – for instance Bavarian Court, Central Station, Clinical Center, Šiška Cineplex – there’ll only be stands with vegetarian fare. And fitness centers. I wouldn’t even sell Coca-Cola – and I’m not going to allow any Benetton shops or Müller products.’

‘Do you mean those German Müller puddings? Those are the only ones I buy anymore.’

‘Yes, but they support really awful right-wing politics.’

God knows what bureks support.

If a lot of these stories blur into a lesbian miasma (which is hardly a criticism), that has the effect of making the exceptions really stand out. The pick of those, I thought, was ‘Sewing the Princess’, a fable in which a child beaten by bullies enacts a kind of poetical revenge through the creation of a ‘princess dress’. Perhaps the sewing/suturing symbolism is overdone, but I loved the magic of the ending.

The raised roses on my princess dress reflect the light of the blazing sun and the reddish snow simultaneously. They look like streaks of blood on the snowy white dress. I just stand there.

You may be familiar with a Roald Dahl short story about bullying, ‘The Swan’, that is absolutely brutal. It baffles me that it appears in a collection for children, it’s so much more disturbing than his stories for adults. This story is a beautiful counterpoint to that one, and with a happier outcome. And a welcome hint of gender ambiguity at the end, too. I had to read the story twice and I’m still not sure I’ve read it right. It makes me curious about gender in the Slovene language, and of how to translate from non-gendered into gendered languages and vice versa. See posts on any number of linguistics blogs for more on that endlessly fascinating subject.

For a deeper, more perceptive and altogether better review of the book, do read this.