Posts Tagged ‘Childhood’

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 #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.

Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.

Grand Tour #3 – France. Dawn & Morning / Romain Rolland

March 11, 2017

The name of Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was familiar to me, but it wasn’t until I read a piece by E.M. Forster, written on Rolland’s death (‘Romain Rolland and the Hero’, in Two Cheers for Democracy), that I became intrigued to read him. Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 on the strength of Jean-Christophe, a roman-fleuve in ten volumes, the committee citing ‘the lofty idealism of his literary production and … the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings.’

It’s not that I dislike lofty idealism of literary production exactly, but it’s rarely the first thing that attracts me to a book. Forster, though, made it sound good, recalling the excitement with which friends would ask one another if they’d read the latest volume, and stressing the musical aspect.

There is a scene in the opening volume … where the hero, still a baby, touches the piano for the first time, and experiments in the marriage of sounds. I have never come across a scene like it in literature, for it is not merely poetic, not merely good child psychology: it seems to take us inside a special chamber of the human spirit, and make us co-creators.

Given that Forster is never one to overstate anything, these are strong words indeed, and so I dug out (well, the staff of the University Library dug out) the first couple of volumes, Dawn (L’Aube) and Morning (Le Matin), in the hundred-year-old translation by Gilbert Cannan that no one has yet attempted to improve upon. It shows its age: Cannan anglicises the hero’s name as ‘John Christopher’, which would never be done these days. (I’ll stick to Jean-Christophe, if you don’t mind.)

romain-rolland

Cannan’s introduction made me wonder whether it was too late to turn back:

The first volume … carries John Christopher from the moment of his birth to the day when, after his first encounter with Woman, at the age of fifteen, he falls back upon a Puritan creed.

This sounds like precisely the kind of posing small-minded macho conservative moralism I despise, and Forster isn’t blind to that aspect, suggesting that Rolland’s ‘lifelong insistence on the Hero … has its distant parallel in the sinister cult which has produced Hitler.’ That said, there’s some of that in Montherlant, whose writing I love, and how much of a male chauvinist can a newborn baby really be? I decided to power through.

It didn’t take long for me to see what Forster was on about. Dawn opens with Jean-Christophe, a few hours old, being nursed by his mother while his paternal grandfather waits nervously for J-C’s profligate father to come home. In the scenes that follow, Jean-Christophe grows gradually, almost imperceptibly, learning to play. The reader shares his joy.

He was also a magician. He walked with great strides through the fields, looking at the sky and waving his arms. He commanded the clouds. He wished them to go to the right, but they went to the left. Then he would abuse them, and repeat his command. He would watch them out of the corner of his eye, and his heart would beat as he looked to see if there were not at least a little one which would obey him. But they went on calmly moving to the left. Then he would stamp his foot, and threaten them with his stick, and angrily order them to go to the left; and this time, in truth, they obeyed him. He was happy and proud of his power.

(Perhaps there are hints of fascism here too.)

Rolland is not a sentimentalist. He ends the first chapter with a warning that his ‘little salamander’ will be ‘brought to reason’ by life. The dawn of the book’s title doubtless relates to the dawn of Jean-Christophe’s life, but also to the several dawnings on him of life’s brutalities. These start at an early age, the realisations of his family’s social inferiority and of the merciless cruelty of others, both at school and at his mother’s place of work. (There are scenes in both Dawn and Morning that strongly recall Pip’s childhood humiliations in Great Expectations, which I like to imagine Rolland cherished, though it’s probably my sick fancy.)

Rolland notes almost boastfully that Jean-Christophe never has a day’s illness, and I thought: Heroism, tick. Heroes can be so boring. But while he has an iron constitution, Jean-Christophe is an intense boy. Sent back to school against his will following an episode of bullying, he attempts to strangle himself. He is troubled by various spectres: the spectres of a boy born to his parents before him and now dead, whose recycled name he has inherited, and of any number of mysterious things that scare him. He invariably suffers in silence, trying to be grown up, not knowing how to communicate his fear to his parents. The loneliness of childhood is brilliantly depicted.

The members of Jean-Christophe’s family embody radically different approaches to life (which is convenient). His musicality is nurtured by his grandfather, who notates Jean-Christophe’s various hums and turns them into piano pieces for him to play; his father encourages his pianism with thoughts of exploitation; his uncle Theodore cares only for the mercantile, and favours Jean-Christophe’s younger brother Rodolphe; but his uncle Gottfried becomes a vital influence: he dismisses Jean-Christophe’s early compositions as ugly, not out of cruelty but because he sees only the beauty of nature, which Jean-Christophe comes to see too.

Jean-Christophe had often heard these sounds of the night, and he loved them. But never had he heard them as he heard them now. It was true: what need was there to sing? … His heart was full of tenderness and sorrow. He was fain to embrace the meadows, the river, the sky, the clear stars.

Jean-Christophe’s unhappiness deepens in Morning: his patron, the Grand Duke, is a philistine, and the conversation at home leaves him intellectually stifled. If you’re a hero, you’ve got to be a bit miserable. Unexpectedly, he falls in love with a boy, Otto (Rolland’s quite explicit that it’s love), but the fact that J-C’s never had so much as a friend before means he goes somewhat overboard in his correspondence.

It is three days now since I heard a word fall from your lips. I tremble. Would you forget me? My blood freezes at the thought … Yes, doubtless … The other day only I saw your coldness towards me. You love me no longer! You are thinking of leaving me! .. Listen! If you forget me, if you ever betray me, I will kill you like a dog!

Out of context this reads as highly comical, but surrounded by the details of their torrid relationship it’s perfectly convincing, if tiresome. I suppose adolescence is boring, though I don’t think I ever wrote anything that overwrought when I was in love, or if I did then I had the decency to keep it to myself. The relationship is cruelly curtailed when Jean-Christophe’s brother Ernest discovers the correspondence, calls J-C a major-league fag (you have to read between the lines), and that’s that. The young can be very puritanical, can’t they.

Before the end, though, comes Woman. To be specific, Minna, a girl the same age as Jean-Christophe whom he is teaching to play the piano. To begin with he thinks he’s got the hots for her mother, but his affections change subtly, and she finds she feels the same way. This relationship is rather more engrossing than the one with Otto, partly because, nineteenth-century morality being what it is, something might actually end up happening. I particularly liked Rolland’s observation of the selfishness of love, of how when you’ve got only one person on your mind everyone else can fuck off. (I’m paraphrasing.)

To tell the truth, they were kind only by fits and starts … Jean-Christophe, who was consumed with love for all humanity, and would turn aside so as not to crush an insect, was entirely indifferent to his own family. By a strange reaction he was colder and more curt with them the more affectionate he was to all other creatures; he hardly gave thought to them; he spoke abruptly to them, and found no interest in seeing them. Both in Jean-Christophe and Minna their kindness was only a surfeit of tenderness which overflowed at intervals to the benefit of the first comer. Except for these overflowings they were more egoistic than ever, for their minds were filled only with the one thought, and everything was brought back to that.

Excuse my quoting at length, but though I didn’t love it wholly I thought there were parts of it that were very good indeed. I won’t go into detail about what happens with Minna, but you already know about his Puritan creed, yawn.

Getting back to Forster: ‘As the series proceeded, our excitement slackened,’ he writes, and he seems to suggest that the award of the Nobel Prize was as much for Rolland’s having completed his proposed ten volumes as for the volumes themselves, which fall off in quality when Jean-Christophe reaches Paris at around the halfway point. Forster doesn’t think Rolland’s work will survive as Proust’s (in which respect, well predicted), but he singles out Rolland’s internationalism for praise. That’s something I can certainly get behind, and if I end up not returning to Rolland I hope it will be because I have other authors from other countries demanding my time, and not because of indifference.

I’m sorry this has been so long.

france