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 #20 – Slovakia. That Alluring Land / Timrava

September 16, 2017

To Slovakia, and to Timrava, the enigmatic pen name of Božena Slančíková (1867-1951), a handful of whose stories I read in an anthology called That Alluring Land, translated by Norma L. Rudinsky. It’s a collection of six stories written from 1894 to 1918, the last of which, ‘Great War Heroes’, might be better classified as a novella, being around 100 pages long.

It took me a disproportionately long time to read this book, and part of the fault is Timrava’s. I don’t mind writers reusing names across their stories, which she does incessantly (was there a pool of only ten Slovak names to choose from? everyone’s a Pal’o or a Ďuro or a Jano), but I do draw the line at having more than one character with the same name in a single story, which is asking for trouble. ‘Great War Heroes’ has an Anča, an Anka (called Anička as a diminutive), and another Anička. Am I just being racialist? The failing is doubtless mine too. I struggle to remember who’s who in Russian novels (for instance) much more than I do in English, French or German ones. Let’s move on.

Chronicles of Slav peasantry are always a thrill, I’m with you on that one, but what makes Timrava’s writing of particular interest is that she’s a woman, and moreover a feminist. Two stories seem to anticipate Virginia Woolf’s assertion that a woman needs a room of her own. The first story, ‘The Assistant Teacher’, turns on its protagonist’s bedroom being given over to the eponymous teacher, arriving from out of town. ‘This room will no longer be mine,’ she says to herself, though her thoughts quickly turn to fantasies of falling in love with the new man. A humorous story, ‘The Ťapák Clan’, has a stand-off between the indolent Ťapák family, who live fourteen to a house, and the enterprising and intellectually stifled Il’a, who has married into the family and is irritated beyond belief by their inertia, miraculously resolved by her moving back into her old house where she has her own space to live.

Il’a is a magnificent heroine, strong-willed but fallible. She walks out on her apathetic husband Pal’o, convinced that it won’t take more than a few days’ absence to make him realise her value, and is horrified to find him apparently having learned self-sufficiency, and wearing a dazzling white shirt. The job she has taken as a school cleaner (which brings shame on the Ťapák family) is a letdown in its own way.

They didn’t let her sit for a single hour but ordered her to do a hundred things at once. She would never have thought educated people could behave like this. She had imagined that at least once a day they would invite her to sit down on a nice chair, or on the sofa, and converse with them about the intellectual matters her mind thirsted for. They used to do that when she would visit the schoolhouse. But now they didn’t – not once since St. George’s Day! They didn’t treat her as an enlightened woman but just as an ordinary hired girl.

This dashing of hopes is common to all Timrava’s stories, and often relates to romance or matrimony. ‘The Assistant Teacher’ has elements of the Austenesque comedy of manners, acutely observed and witty, its conclusion a bittersweet capitulation. ‘Battle’ is the acrimonious story of a wrangle for a ring (to borrow Larkin’s words), Marta and Mária a pair of marriageable sisters at war with a number of other young women for the affections of a small number of men. Mária’s reputation as a vamp breeds suspicion among the others. Emotions are repressed, expectations variously scuppered or deflatedly submitted to. The sins of the parents are visited on the children, and the chance for redemption arrives far too late. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is simply what life is like for Timrava’s people: a struggle and a disappointment. The story ‘No Joy at All’ is aptly named.

Not that they don’t try to fight it. In the 1907 title story, ‘That Alluring Land’, America seems to offer an escape. Jano is inspired by the plans of other men from his town to go to America, a common dream among Slovaks at the time, to earn capital that he can use on his return home in a couple of years. When he gets there, the reality, told through a letter home, is even more brutal than that of the life he has left behind.

The final story in the collection, ‘Great War Heroes’, is the most ambitious and the most impressive. It’s a darkly satirical portrait of how the inhabitants of a town react to the outbreak of the First World War, and was written as the war came to its end. It’s a striking companion piece to Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains, though less absurdly humorous. For some, the war is an opportunity: one woman sees the calling up of her abusive husband as a blessing, and the hypocritical notary Baláň is delighted to have an excuse to do some browbeating; but most simply fear the death of the town’s young men. The heroes of the title are thin on the ground, but the assistant notary Širický, the one voice of reason, is the closest thing to a traditional hero in any of the stories. Although at times he toes the party line, he is at heart a pacifist, world-weary, and disillusioned with violence. The final chapter is bitter and resolutely unsentimental. Timrava’s stories are sometimes compared to Chekhov’s, and this is perhaps where she comes closest to the master.

Grand Tour #19 – Hungary. Journey by Moonlight / Antal Szerb

August 11, 2017

Most of my Grand Tour books I’ve been finding off my own bat, but Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was a recommendation from a friend. When I spotted it was in the library (the only Hungarian novel in translation we have, apart from Imre Kertész’s brilliant but harrowing Fatelessness, which I read last year), I was convinced it was meant to be. I read the Pushkin translation by Len Rix.

I normally know what I’m going to write about a book before I start, but this time I’m stumped. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I did. But I found it a hard book to get a handle on. Perhaps writing a basic synopsis will help. It opens with newlyweds Mihály and Erzsi honeymooning in Italy. One night, looking for a bar where he can have a glass of wine, Mihály gets lost in the back alleys of Venice and doesn’t find his way back until the following day. This is a sign of things to come: later in their journey he gets off a train to buy a cup of coffee and boards a different train by mistake, ending up in Perugia. Erzsi and Mihály’s separation is bound up with his quest for his lost … not love, exactly, but a ghost of his childhood. A lengthy but engrossing early chapter is devoted to a description of Mihály’s teenage friendship with two theatrical siblings, Tamás and Éva. Tamás is long dead and Éva long vanished, and the appearance in Ravenna of another friend, the weaselly János Szepetneki, awakes in Mihály memories of these halcyon days.

One of the ways I understand books is to establish connections between them and other books and films – presumably there’s a knotty network somewhere in my head with strong and weak bonds between everything I’ve ever seen and read – and at moments reading this book I thought, aha! Death in Venice, or, more often, aha! Don’t Look Now. Italy, the insatiable desire to pursue the unreachable, even at the expense of your personal safety. Le Grand Meaulnes also came to mind, with its themes of nostalgia, of the folly or at any rate the impossibility of recapturing what is inescapably past. Nostalgia is a powerful pull in this book too. But none of them stayed in my mind for long: Journey by Moonlight is very much its own beast.

I wrote – well, I didn’t write it, but I thought it – that the plot is unpredictable. How is it unpredictable, you ask. Well, one thing is that its characters behave in unexpected ways that are nevertheless utterly credible. The touchingly unconventional relationship of Mihály and Erzsi is a case in point. Ninety-eight percent of the time, let’s say, a husband and wife separated accidentally on their honeymoon would make great efforts to be reunited. Here, neither does: Mihály, one of the more passive of men, has cold feet about his marriage already, feet coldened further by his having received a letter from Erzsi’s ex-husband advising him that because she is accustomed to the finer things in life he had better stop being such a cheapskate, and moreover he wants to spend time chasing his past; for her part, the pragmatic Erzsi not only loves Mihály but appears to understand him, and believes that leaving him alone for a while may optimise her chances of getting him back. She goes to Paris to visit her friend Sári.

‘Well of course you must divorce Mihály.’

‘It’s not quite so “of course”.’

‘What, after all he’s done?’

‘Yes. But Mihály isn’t like other people. That’s why I chose him.’

‘And that was a fine move. I really dislike the sort of people who aren’t like other people. It’s true other people are so boring. But so are the ones who aren’t like them.’

Separated, the unexpected (but nevertheless utterly credible) happens: Erzsi learns to embrace thrift, and Mihály has a fling with a dim American art student, Millicent Ingram (‘She knew of Luca della Robbia that it was a city on the Arno, and claimed that she had been with Watteau in his Paris studio’). There’s a freewheeling fun to the Millicent episode, with Mihály apparently liberated for the first time from his staid adult existence, but it doesn’t last, and once more he sets off in search of Éva. This is followed by further adventures with an old acquaintance, Ervin, now become a monk, and a university friend, Waldheim, now a philosopher of death (a marvellous comic creation, a man who eats only cold meat but welcomes Mihály to his house saying he’s ‘arranged for a bit of variety’ and proudly produces a banana). These characters assume a symbolic importance that was generally lost on me, but might be less so on a second reading. I sensed a spirituality to the book that was tantalisingly out of reach.

In the end Mihály’s life is redeemed by several acts of kindness, and he returns to a semblance of normality. The conclusion is beautiful in its way, though sad, a hymn to a small life. Many people whose opinions I respect not only adore this book but acclaim it as one of the great masterpieces of modern fiction. Nicholas Lezard writes that on finishing it he went right back to the beginning and read it again. I almost feel I should do the same: it’s a book that has grown in stature through my contemplation of it.

Grand Tour #18 – Romania. Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent / Mircea Eliade

August 7, 2017

Mircea Eliade’s Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent was written in the 1920s when the author was the same age as its nameless narrator (seventeen), but not discovered and published until after Eliade’s death in 1986; this translation by Christopher Moncrieff, ‘with reference to an original translation by Christopher Bartholomew’, appeared in 2016.

There’s some ambiguity about the title: the cover of the Istros Books edition has the word ‘Diary’ obliterated and replaced with ‘Novel’, and indeed the Romanian title, Romanul adolescentului miop, seems to suggest a novel rather than a diary; in fact the book is a fictional diary that chronicles inter alia the diarist’s efforts to write his magnum opus, to be entitled The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. Simple really.

His primary motivating factor for writing the novel is that he’s not doing well at school, and he thinks that if he manages to get the novel written and published within the year it will impress his teachers enough that they’ll pass him in spite of his poor performance. The characters will be based on people he knows. When he announces that his friend Robert will be used to exemplify ridiculousness, Robert modifies his behaviour so as not to be ridiculous any more. He’s worried about writing convincing girl characters, so asks his cousin for advice on what it’s like to be a girl.

This is by way of giving a taste of the interior world we are immersed in. The book has been championed by Nicholas Lezard, who says it’s funnier than Adrian Mole. I’d take issue with that, but to anyone even vaguely familiar with Mole the similarities leap out. Take the diarist’s minute inventory of his procrastinations as he tries to learn trigonometry in a single day, which recalls Adrian’s minute-by-minute account of his class’s calamitous trip to the British Museum:

By evening I had read twenty-seven pages, with a hundred and one to go. This was because at 4.30 I had taken a cold shower; at 5.30 I had decided I was starving and went downstairs to have something to eat; at 6.30 I started reading a magazine; at 7 o’clock I was thirsty, at 7.15 my pencil broke, at 7.30 the sound of the birds twittering made me feel melancholy, at 8 o’clock I felt persecuted, at 8.15 I lit the lamp, – even though it wasn’t really necessary – at 8.30 I studied my face in the mirror, at 8.40 I made some notes for the psychological aspects of my novel, at 8.50 I decided to have a short rest so as not to overexert myself, and at 8.55 I was called to supper.

After supper I played the piano for quite a long time, something I hadn’t done for several years. It was quarter past eleven when I went back up to the attic.

His friend Dinu is the equivalent of Adrian’s Nigel, a friendly rival. While he is slaving away at his maths work, Dinu has a private tutor. When his own mother gets him a tutor to help with German, the tutor is a 16-year-old boy… There is also a John Tydeman figure, Mr Leontescu, a magazine editor to whom the diarist gives his writing for publication without remuneration. I’m sick of calling him ‘the diarist’ or ‘the narrator’. Fuck writers who don’t name their characters. I’m calling him Jake Westmorland from now on.

Jake has emotional crises and setbacks. A passage relating one:

Today, just before sunset, I died. From now on, a different light will shine on my disfigured face. My clouded eyes will see the world in a different way, and another life will rise up from the depths of my soul.

Again, pure Adrian Mole, but in Adrian’s case the reader would be in hysterics because of the certainty that within a couple of days things would be all right again (not that one doesn’t love Adrian or feel his pain). Lightness rules Adrian’s world. Jake’s volatile episodes last longer, and affect the reader more deeply. Adrian’s bookishness, similarly, is always played for comic effect (‘Started reading Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I think I might like to be a vet when I grow up.’) but Jake’s is not, though we may still be amused by his devotion to the likes of Anatole France or his fantasies of himself as Ibsen’s Brand… (The real bookworm is Jake’s friend Marcu, who is delighted when he is suspended from school for reading in class as it gives him the time to finish Les Misérables.)

Another book that frequently occurred to me as I read this one was The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil, one of those novels I seem to have absorbed by accident. The darker side of adolescence is indulged in these books as it isn’t in Adrian Mole’s safe suburban hell. Musil’s protagonists visit a prostitute, Božena, and some of them sleep with her; Jake has a similar experience, and is ashamed. Flagellation figures heavily in Musil’s book, and features in one bleak scene in Eliade’s, where Jake whips himself.

But the book ends, pleasingly, on a upbeat note. You come to care for Jake and to see yourself in him. Well, I did anyway. In the raucous choir singing Christmas carols, in the intentions to reform his work ethic perpetually scuppered by apathy (evoking memories of Christmas when I was about 15, a shadow cast over the whole holiday by a piece of physics homework I swore to do immediately but didn’t get around to until the last moment), in his spaniel-heartedness (quoting The History Boys here, as usual). Reading Ionel Teodoreanu’s book Childhood Lane, Jake falls for the character of Sonia.

Forgive me, Ionel Teodoreanu; but if Sonia really exists, then tell her that an ugly boy who doesn’t know what he wants is sad because of her eyes.

The sweet melancholy of feelings like this is one of my fonder memories of adolescence, the discovery of new emotions in oneself. Nice to revisit it.