Posts Tagged ‘Adrian Mole’

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.

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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.