Posts Tagged ‘Nostalgia’

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.

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Grand Tour #17 – Bulgaria. Street Without a Name / Kapka Kassabova

July 24, 2017

I didn’t set myself strict rules for choosing EU books, but I did make a conscious decision to avoid poetry where possible, poetry being (to my mind) the medium least susceptible to translation, and to favour fiction over non-fiction. So it was that I didn’t read a work of non-fiction until book sixteen (Cyprus); book seventeen (Bulgaria) is not merely non-fiction but also my first non-translated book, having been originally written in English, albeit by a Bulgarian writer and on the subject of Bulgaria. And I must admit, if the objective of this project was to understand what life is like in each book’s country of origin, this book has succeeded better than the preceding sixteen. The book is Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova.

Kassabova’s book is in two parts, as suggested by the title, the first a chronicle of her childhood in the Bulgaria of the ’70s and ’80s, the second a travelogue by the adult writer, now an émigrée living in Britain, returning to Bulgaria for more or less the first time since her childhood. Her mission in writing the book is to make Bulgaria personal, not just another ‘country without a face’. I’m certainly guilty of laziness in my own conception of Bulgaria. Dour, tough-tackling footballers, poor Georgi Markov and his poison-tipped umbrella, the lev, and, to a lesser extent, the stotinka.

But amazingly there is more to Bulgaria than this, and Kassabova’s observation of small details is telling right from the off, people-watching at Frankfurt Airport as she waits for her flight to Bulgaria, knowing instinctively from their bearing which passengers are Bulgarians and which aren’t. When they touch down in Sofia, the Bulgarians applaud. ‘Bulgarians know not to take anything for granted,’ she writes.

This is 2006, and Bulgaria is on the verge of joining the EU, though the deal hasn’t been sealed yet. Kassabova’s compatriots are understandably anxious. She takes a train journey.

The old man goes to the toilet and returns at once, scandalized.

‘Have you seen the toilet?’ he cries out in anguish. ‘It has to be seen to be believed. No toilet seat, all rusty, stuff all over, words fail me … How are we going to get into Europe with this toilet? Tell me, how!’

Theory: the state of any society’s public toilets is an indicator of its prosperity. (Not that it’s a watertight theory, as anyone who has visited the gents’ at Cambridge station will verify; the old ones, with their sticky floor and mirror walls, were gross, but it’s taken next to no time for the refurbished ones to go the same way. Please spend more of my tax money sorting this out, government. Though it’s the taxpayer’s fault they’re in such a state, isn’t it; incontinent male commuters. I accidentally went into the ladies’ once and it was like Narnia. Where was I.) When young Kapka’s mother accompanies her father on a work visit to Delft University, she is moved to tears by the cleanliness of the public toilets, and too embarrassed to explain why to her husband’s concerned colleague.

Although Kapka’s childhood appears by and large to be a tolerable one – freedom at home, piano lessons, humourless strictness at her state-controlled school with its attendant shadowy threats – it isn’t until her parents return from Delft that the poverty of her country is borne in on her.

They brought records of Western pop music you couldn’t buy in Bulgaria, like Barry Manilow and a two-record album The Best of the Beatles – finally, twenty years late, my father could listen to his favourite band. A pair of tiny wooden clogs, a gift from my father’s Dutch colleague, which took pride of place in our living-room. A tin of salted, peeled peanuts. We had peanuts, of course, but they were unprocessed and sold on street stalls. Someone in Holland had shelled, peeled and salted these peanuts especially for us. A giant packet of raisins. There were no raisins in Bulgaria, only grapes. Next, an electric blue T-shirt for me with a girl doing aerobics printed on it, and orange trousers with multiple pockets, in which I felt ultra-cool. In fact, wearing these clothes made me feel so obviously Western that I imagined the envious eyes of all Sofia were on me.

Western! To Kapka, even Libya seems a Western dreamland (the atlas confirms it), a place where lavish and exotic presents are brought from. Kapka turns sixteen in the momentous year of 1989 – the Berlin Wall comes down, the Ceaușescus are executed, and the Communist regime in Bulgaria ends. Before too long, she emancipates herself.

The toilets may not have improved in the post-Communist thaw, but how are other things on Kapka’s return? Well, the phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose comes to mind. The arrival of Western accoutrements has not altered the character of the country or its people. Who would have guessed capitalism wasn’t the answer, that moderate monetary prosperity does not automatically translate into happiness.

I, being me, was less interested in the places and people adult Kapka visits than in her own reactions to the remnants of her past. The pang of nostalgia on returning to Plovdiv to find her beloved semolina cake restaurant closed, or to the coastal town of Balchik, scene of idyllic childhood holidays, to find it eroded away, irrevocably changed. The bittersweet experience of returning to a childhood home, something one once thought one’s own property, now modified beyond recognition.

At the end of the book, Kassabova quotes the 19th-century travel writer Felix Kanitz, who observed that a journey through Bulgaria is ‘marked at each turn by the catacombs of disappeared peoples and eras’. That comes across strongly during the travelogue section of Kassabova’s book. She writes apologetically at the start that the portrait she will sketch of modern Bulgaria is ‘almost never flattering’, but it is at any rate honest and sympathetic, and enlightening.

Freedom and laziness

October 2, 2015

A moment of self-pity this morning, of wishing myself elsewhere, or at any rate elsewhen.

I was standing in the library, looking out on to the back lawn. The end of the academic year usually infects me with a mild melancholy; this time, it was students coming back that set me off. Emily, back for her fourth year, walking along with a laundry bag and her father in tow, acknowledging one of the gardeners, unaware of me looking on.

Window

The library was almost deserted, and the desk by the window beckoned me, Sit down. Sit and read and watch the students going past. Be free. I was transported through time. A sudden displacement, no harps or wavy lines. I was one of the students coming back, coming home. Working (or not working) in the morning, going for lunch in town at the sandwich place on Rose Crescent that no longer exists. Perhaps the cinema in the afternoon. Free, not obligated to anyone. Not that I was entirely free, but it’s possible to be almost entirely free if, like me, you resist committing to anything.

Was I really that apathetic, or is it a false memory? I did my work conscientiously, at least for the first term, and I performed in concerts and organised and publicised recitals, successful ones too, and attended committee meetings of varying degrees of tedium. But a lot of the time I spent on my own, browsing the record shops (also now closed), listening to Kindertotenlieder in my room, playing my piano, feeling gloriously independent. And sleeping.

That freedom is gone now, and work and routine and prescription have won. No more the short trek to the porters’ lodge to sign out the Recital Room key, no more the return to Cambridge at the start of term to find a package of CDs waiting, no more the self-consciously studenty midnight library visit in search of Apollinaire or Dylan Thomas. Take me back ten years, please, I prayed.

Except that my student days are so far in the past that by this time ten years ago I’d already graduated and was about to return to Cambridge, but not to study. I came back because I needed a course of treatment at Addenbrooke’s, and because I didn’t know where else to go. Months of unemployment followed, a continuation of the fecklessness of my third year that saw me barely scrape a 2.1 (I found a transcript of my marks the other week: it was a much closer run thing than I’d realised).

Eating pizza, watching Deal or No Deal, not applying for jobs, going to Blockbuster at the bottom of the road to borrow Godard films, listening to Carmen and Kodály and Jim O’Rourke on repeat, going to the hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, reading Wodehouse and Harry Potter on the bus. A pleasing existence in its own way, but untenable. When, miraculously, I got a job, it was a godsend. If I hadn’t, goodness knows what I might be doing now.

Our lives turn on the flimsiest things. A hackneyed thought, but a true one. Some time ago I was excited at the prospect of a new job that I would have been ideally suited to in many ways. If I’d got it, who knows what marvellous things might have happened. But I do know that some great things that have happened since then would not have happened, because of my being elsewhere.

Right now, I’m happy. I admit it to myself quite often. It’s nice that because of my past having been generally pleasant I have the luxury of nostalgia, and I do spend a lot of time thinking about stuff that happened when I was younger, but although I can contemplate it I can’t recapture it, and would I really want to? The future may be even better; for the time being, this’ll do. I’ve come over all fotherington-tomas. Apologies. It won’t last. Or maybe it will.

Plants

[Play the two videos simultaneously, it’s very pleasing.]

I remember 3 — back to school edition

September 6, 2015

I remember Miss D reading out a piece of work by Holly in which she wrote that she missed Hong Kong (or was it Singapore?) and didn’t like England, and I felt sorry for her, not because she was homesick but because I sensed she was mortified at having it broadcast to the whole class, being shy anyway and not having friends yet. What you submit to a teacher should constitute a secret contract. Miss D was an inspirational teacher, but she made some bad decisions. She did the same thing to me on two occasions.

***

I remember Mr R putting Nikolai, the new Russian boy, next to me in Maths. I was a bit shy of him, partly on account of his being cute. We were working on playing cards and probability, and he asked me ‘What is club?’ and I did a drawing but it was a bad one because it’s difficult to draw a club even if you’re not nervous and I’m not convinced the message got through.

***

I remember Harry faking an epileptic fit to play a practical joke on Mr S, the supply teacher, but it didn’t work because Mr S wasn’t very observant.

***

I remember Ben asking Mr O in an English lesson how to spell ‘hisself’, as he wanted to use the word in a short story, and Mr O saying there was no such word, which struck me as very unhelpful because it could have been dialogue, and people do say ‘hisself’ even if it isn’t grammatical.

***

I remember joking that Oliver Twist was an OK book but it didn’t have any of the songs in it, which made Neil laugh.

***

I remember being pleased when Kat objected to something she perceived as homophobic in a story we were reading in English, even though it wasn’t really necessary. The rest of us who cared about it wouldn’t have been bold enough to speak out.

***

I remember thinking my history teacher Miss L was beautiful.

I remember thinking she liked me more than the other pupils because the marks she gave me were disproportionate to the quality of my work and the effort I put into it, and anyway she just did.

I remember Miss L played the flute and was quite shy and had translucent skin and sometimes blushed.

I remember Miss L correcting me gently for my anachronistic use of the phrase ‘conscientious objector’.

I remember David, who was normally quite boisterous and disruptive, toning things down for Miss L, probably because he secretly liked her too.

***

I remember Mr T telling Helen that she sounded like Kenneth Grahame, and I realised he meant Kenneth Williams and felt bad for him, though I was the only one in the class who’d have known.

***

I remember Mark coming in one morning and telling me his cat had died the night before, and hanging around with him during break and lunchtime feeling sad together and not really speaking. I think a member of staff asked if we were OK and I explained. I wrote a piece of music in memory of Mark’s cat, though I never played it to him or even told him because it would have been embarrassing.

***

I remember devising a signature based on Miss R’s, which is still essentially my signature now.

***

I remember, when we were about twelve, Jamie euphemistically describing Luke to me as a ‘flower’, and me protesting because of my conviction that being effeminate did not equate to being gay, though Luke did turn out to be gay, and so did Jamie.

***

I remember Mr W banging his fist on the table during a play rehearsal, knocking a cup of water into his bag, and Paul having such a laughing fit that he had to go to the toilet to recover for so long that I wondered if I should go looking for him.

***

I remember taking a penalty in football and striking the ball very poorly but scoring because the goalkeeper was even worse than me.

***

I remember a student Music teacher correcting my use of ‘symphony’s’ to ‘symphonies’ in a piece of written work about the Minuet and Trio from Schubert’s 5th. I approached her after the lesson to explain why she was wrong.

***

I remember Tim being shocked at how late I went to bed and telling me the late nights would catch up with me, and thinking what a bore he was.

***

I remember Rachel asking me, possibly earnestly, if I was on drugs, probably because I liked to go around with my eyes half closed and sometimes walked into things. I wasn’t on drugs, I was just tired.

***

I remember feeling flattered when Max punched me repeatedly in the arm, and when Jake gave me this personalised message, because they amounted to tokens of friendship, albeit oblique ones.

Message, c. 1998