Grand Tour #7 – Denmark. The Diary of a Parish Clerk and Other Stories / Steen Steensen Blicher

April 9, 2017

In January 2008, records show, I bought a copy of The Diary of a Parish Clerk and Other Stories by Steen Steensen Blicher, translated by Paula Hostrup-Jessen. I can’t for the life of me remember why, though I imagine it was the result of following up a reference in another book. Anyway, it’s finally come in useful, as it meant that when I got to Denmark there was a book ready and waiting.

Blicher (1782-1848), like many of his characters, was a clergyman by profession, though not, perhaps, a typical one. The seven stories in this anthology are set in his native Jutland and are concerned with the small lives of the landowners, farmers and clergy who live there. They are also frequently lurid, gossipy and scabrous.

The 1824 story ‘The Diary of a Parish Clerk’ was Blicher’s first major success. It consists of a diary that intermittently spans nearly fifty years of the life of Morten Vinge, from youthful piety through an adolescent passion for the girl of a grand family, to his disappointed old age. Blicher comes across here as a fan of realism. One early diary entry opens, ‘Alas, alas! My dear father has frozen to death!’ These unexpected tragedies happened in Blicher’s time, the bleak Jutish landscape harsh and unforgiving, and as much a character in these stories as any of the personnel.

Blicher’s narrators are an odd bunch of liars, tale-tellers and fools. Though ‘The Diary of a Parish Clerk’ is told through the clerk’s own words, one senses Blicher’s gentle amusement at the Latin tags sprinkled through the early diary entries, and at Vinge’s po-facedness generally. Taken in by a French-speaking family, he attempts to learn French by reading a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which he knows in Latin, and has some success.

But one thing is odd: when I hear them talking upstairs, I don’t seem to hear any French words – they are certainly not discussing Ovid.

(He’s like Adrian Mole.)

Peer the Fiddler, who narrates the story ‘Alas, How Changed!’, shares Vinge’s lack of self-awareness. At the outset Peer acknowledges himself to be a fool, a ‘useless nitwit’, and proceeds to tell stories against himself, of a catalogue of embarrassing incidents on a duck shoot, for instance, but even he does not seem to realise just what a notorious geck and gull he is. When Peer relates that the object of his affections is taken with him when he strikes a particular pose, the reader senses instinctively that he is the butt of a joke. It’s an amusing and poignant story, but whether Peer is meant to be scorned or pitied, I can’t tell. Perhaps both. I’m sure Blicher knows.

Elsewhere, the unreliable narrator is a speciality. ‘The Gamekeeper at Aunsbjerg’, a story of grief, death and sexual intrigue, is a delight in this respect, its narrator admitting at the start, ‘I am well aware that I have a reputation for lying; and at this point too someone may perhaps accuse me of fabrication.’ What is the reader supposed to think? To a passing reference to ‘this true story of mine’ is appended an asterisk, which leads to the footnote, ‘It is indeed true’. I love a writer who knows how to deploy the comic footnote. The incompleteness of this story does lend it credence, though, and an air of the folkloric; and my favourite story of the collection is indeed based on a true story.

This is ‘The Pastor of Vejlbye’, a crime story with elements of horror. The pastor of the title is accused of having killed a man, and comes to believe that he may have committed murder in his sleep, being a sleepwalker by temperament; but is all what it seems? There is a directness, a paring down to the bare elements, in the way this story is related, that made me think of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces of the early 1960s, Winter Light especially (though that might just have been the presence of the pastor). The story’s cold-bloodedness is both shocking and invigorating. It would make a superb film (has been made into three already, in fact). If you’ve got half an hour to spare, you can read a different translation of it (as ‘The Rector of Veilbye’) here. Go on.

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.

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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.

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Seeing stupid people happy

March 30, 2017

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

This from an amusingly oddball Q&A with Slavoj Žižek. Whether or not we subscribe to Žižek’s personal brand of Eeyoreish misanthropy (and I confess I don’t, though the thought of Žižek being miserable is certainly a pleasing one), I expect most of us have felt depressed at seeing stupid people happy, whether we realise it or not.

It’s often a symptom of their not sharing our tastes. How, we ask ourselves, can they find joy in something so self-evidently wrong? ‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other,’ says Jane Austen’s Emma. I don’t know precisely what Emma is getting at here, but as an Austen heroine she may be alluding to the harpsichord vs fortepiano question. A debate as old as time.

Horses for courses, I suppose. We all know people who spend their time collecting figurines of cats sleeping on pianos, say, or pursuing a career in recruitment, and we don’t call them out on it because it’s not worth ruining the friendship for. They may have had similar thoughts about our increasing dependence on alcohol. But there comes a time when one has to put one’s foot down, and putting one’s foot down usually involves Disney (as it does now).

I happened some time ago upon a quotation of more than usually revolting sentimentality. It was this:

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together … there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart … I’ll always be with you.

I’m very sorry for having made you vomit, as you will find you just did. I left the ellipses in place because the dramatic pauses they imply are particularly emetic, but even without them this paragraph would constitute probably the most loathsome violation of the Roman alphabet in the history of recorded time.

But enough vituperation. There is a time to spout invective and a time to take action and kill someone, and this is obviously the latter. Who has perpetrated this monstrosity? Step forward, A.A. Milne! Or at least that’s what the internet says.

Look at this. It’s a catalogue of saccharine platitudes, but I’m going to keep quoting it, so if you read further you have only yourself to blame.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

Ready for this?

Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.

I mean, Milne’s not exactly Raymond Chandler, but the Pooh books are a fuck of a lot more hard-nosed than this steaming pile of horseshit. Anyway, it’s not Milne, as anyone with half a brain can tell. It’s Disney, or Disney-lite. I can’t trace the source of every spurious Pooh quotation on the internet, but it’s clear enough where the rot started. Milne himself isn’t blameless, but he couldn’t have anticipated the full horror of what would follow when in 1930 he sold merchandising rights to the USA.

The problem is that as the originator of the character in print, every Pooh emission is attributed by default to Milne, and not to whatever faceless corporation reckons (wrongly) that the Hundred Acre Wood’s bee-botherer-in-chief would even think anything as sappy as ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, let alone say it out loud; and because of the way the internet works, one error being duplicated in a second and endlessly reduplicated thereafter, the fake A.A. Milne quotation is now ubiquitous. I manage to avoid them most of the time, but sometimes an otherwise benign website posts you a bookmark like this one, as happened a few days ago, and the black heffalump descends.

(This is a perverted rewrite of a comment made by Christopher Robin at the end of The House at Pooh Corner, the episode in which he and Pooh say goodbye. It’s one of the most moving scenes in English literature. It loses something here.)

Pooh Bear has been despoiled by the Disnetic infantilisation of the senses, and the common perception of him now is of an emotionally incontinent brainstormer of fridge magnet slogans. It gives credence to Dorothy Parker’s disingenuous broadside on the books (‘And it is that word “hummy”, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up’). I hate that Dorothy Parker piece, but it now seems prophetic.

Comrades, we can fight back! Every time someone wrongly attributes a quotation to A.A. Milne on Twitter, inform them politely that they’re an idiot and then block them so they can’t reply. Reread the books, or listen to Alan Bennett reading them. And if you’ve never seen them before, make time for these brilliant Russian cartoons, respectful of the source material in a way that I can only imagine Disney never is.

Grand Tour #5 – Belgium. Cheese / Willem Elsschot

March 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I have to go to the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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