"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 31, 2014

Bach Cantatas (52): Trinity XIX

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity. The readings for this Sunday combine an exhortation by Paul to the Romans to live better, more truthful lives, combined with the story of Jesus' cure of the paralyzed man.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
Ephesians 4:22–28, "Put on the new man, which after God is created"
Matthew 9:1–8, Healing the paralytic at Capernaum

References:
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Cantatas:
  • Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen, BWV 48, 3 October 1723
     
    Chorus: Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen
    Recitative (alto): O Schmerz, o Elend, so mich trifft
    Chorale: Solls ja so sein
    Aria (alto): Ach, lege das Sodom der sündlichen Glieder
    Recitative (tenor): Hier aber tut des Heilands Hand
    Aria (tenor): Vergibt mir Jesus meine Sünden
    Chorale: Herr Jesu Christ, einiger Trost


    ("Wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me") As the tile already announces, this is a dark-hued, but also profound cantata. The text stresses the need of the sinner for redemption, but concludes in hope. The superb opening chorus sets the atmosphere of deep despair, based on a line from Paul's letter to the Romans, "Wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" The despairing text sung in a slow meter and with sparse accompaniment is set against an almost hidden chorale theme ("Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut") played in strict canon by the trumpet and oboes. A recitative of the alto, lamenting the "the poison of sin that rages in my breast and veins" (unfortunately, almost comical for a modern sensibility!) leads to a short chorale with an interesting chromatism. The ensuing alto aria starts with a nice oboe melody, but the text is far from congenial: "Ah, lay the Sodom of sinful limbs, as it be Your will, down destroyed!" In other words, this is a plea to destroy the sinful body but spare the soul. In the recitative and aria for tenor, the soul realizes that its redemption lies in Christ which forms the turning point to hope in the cantata. The tenor is accompanied by the strings with oboe, and the music has a characteristic lilting rhythm. That being said, the aria also retains the sorrowful demeanor of the beginning of the cantata, we don't find any real joy in this dark work. The cantata closes with a straightforward harmonization of the chorale "Lord Jesus Christ, only comfort, I will turn myself to you."


  • Wo soll ich fliehen hin, BWV 5, 15 October 1724
    Chorus: Wo soll ich fliehen hin
    Recitative (bass): Der Sünden Wust hat mich nicht nur befleckt
    Aria (tenor): Ergieße dich reichlich, du göttliche Quelle
    Recitative (alto): Mein treuer Heiland tröstet mich
    Aria (bass): Verstumme, Höllenheer
    Recitative (soprano): Ich bin ja nur das kleinste Teil der Welt
    Chorale: Führ auch mein Herz und Sinn


    ("Where shall I flee") Chorale cantata, based on a chorale in eleven stanzas of the same name by Johann Heermann (1630). The theme of Heermann's chorale and this cantata is the awareness of being a sinner who needs healing, like the paralytic in the story from Matthew. Like many of the cantatas, the theme is of a journey from dark into light, from the burden of sin to redemption. The opening chorus starts in an agitated and aggressive mood, with consciously erratic harmonies, picking up from Matthew, where Jesus almost begrudgingly cures a man with palsy to prove his qualification for forgiveness of sins. After a secco recitative follows a rather joyous tenor aria, accompanied by an obbligato viola. The tenor recitative announces that sins will be washed away by Christ's sacred blood, and the tenor aria sings of the actual washing away of these sinful stains: "Pour yourself richly, you divine fountain, Ah, wash over me with bloody streams!" The viola (only one of two times this instrument is used as an obbligato instrument in Bach, used here because it has more "red corpuscles" in its register than the violin) illustrates the washing movement, the gushing of the divine blood - a sort of divine washing machine churning away in a rather visually expressive manner. A brilliant and very rich aria. At the central position in the cantata follows a recitative by the alto, the turning point to hope, with the oboe playing the choral theme on top of the alto lines. The recitative finishes with the statement that Jesus' blood is also a shield from "the devil, death and sin" and in the ensuing aria for bass with obbligato slide trumpet (and full orchestra) this is further developed: "Be silent, host of hell... I need only show you this Blood, and you must suddenly be mute!" The virtuoso trumpet blazes fiercely away in this ferocious anthem, scattering the forces of evil. Next, the soprano (sung by a boy in Bach's time) offers a message of innocence and hope in the final recitative, after which the straightforward chorale setting brings the cantata to its close.

  • Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56, 27 October 1726
    Aria: Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen
    Recitative: Mein Wandel auf der Welt / ist einer Schiffahrt gleich
    Aria: Endlich wird mein Joch / wieder von mir weichen müssen
    Recitative: Ich stehe fertig und bereit
    Chorale: Komm, o Tod, du Schlafes Bruder


    ("I will the cross-staff gladly carry") Solo cantata. The text of this cantata is by an unknown poet, with only indirect references to the readings for this Sunday. Just like BWV 82, it is a solo cantata for bass voice. In the opening aria, the singer impersonates the follower of Christ who bears his cross and suffers torment until his sins are forgiven. There is some interesting music painting here: the awkward, stumbling song line symbolizes the dragging of a heavy cross, with descending sighing figures. It is an austere movement with an oppressive atmosphere. In the first recitative life is compared to a sea voyage to the Kingdom of Heaven - the faithful will have to suffer many tribulations, but will not be forsaken. This alludes to the reading from Mathew which starts with a voyage across a lake. The undulation of the sea is vividly depicted, as is the relief when Jesus steps on firm land. The feeling of relief is continued in the joyous second aria, a lively duet for bass and solo oboe. As often in Bach, the joy is coupled with a yearning for death. The second recitative halfway changes into an arioso, bringing back the last two lines of the first aria with a new text: "my Savior himself will wipe away my tears." The cantata concludes with a four-part chorale harmonization "Come, o death, brother of sleep" on a melody by Crüger from 1646. Here we find again the metaphor a ship being brought safely to port and the cantata concludes on a harmonious and glorious note.

August 26, 2014

"The Rider on the White Horse" by Theodor Storm (Book review)

The northern parts of the Netherlands and Germany - all the way to Denmark - are boarded by a shallow sea with tidal mud flats and wetlands, as well as a series of small islands. The land here is continually contested by the sea and must be protected behind tall dikes - the landscape was in fact formed by storm tides in the 10th to 14th centuries. At low tide, nowadays mud flat hiking is a popular pastime. For its biological diversity (you can find seals here), the Wadden Sea has been ascribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

[Mud flats of the Wadden Sea - Photo Wikipedia]

It is in this area, along the German coast, that Theodor Storm's novella The Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter), written in 1888, is situated. It is, not surprisingly, the story of a dikemaster and his dike, which is battered by a huge storm as well. But the tale starts as a ghost story: a traveler along this North Sea coast is caught in rough weather, and through the wind and rain glimpses a ghostly rider on a white horse, rising and plunging somewhere offshore. He takes shelter at an inn in the area and when he happens to mention the apparition, the local schoolmaster volunteers to tell the history behind it - an alien tale, about a different world.

The story tells of an intelligent and determined young man, Hauke Haien, living in a remote community at the coast, close to these coastal marshlands continually threatened by storms and floods. He has a talent for numbers and a fascination with the ways of water and not surprisingly, becomes an apprentice to the local dikemaster. He soon makes himself indispensable and also falls in love with the daughter, Elke. When the old dikemaster dies, despite his youth, Hauke becomes his successor, and marries Elke.

[German Wadden Sea - Photo Wikipedia]

Hauke is full of ambition. His study of geometry has taught him that the present dikes with their steep sides towards the sea are not very good - it would be better to have dykes with more gradual profiles. This will also make the village safer.

Dikes are not only built for protection against the sea, they also serve to extend the land for grazing and cultivation. To open up new fields, Hauke orders the construction of a new dike, built on his new principles. But that goes against the wishes of the villagers - it will be much hard work and cost a lot of money before the new fields start bringing in profit. The villagers are also content with the dikes as they are and don't see why a - more laborious and expensive - new technique is necessary. They obey grumbling, as a dikemaster is not easily disobeyed, and the new dike is built, but Hauke stands all alone in the village, distrusted by the community. The fact that he forbids superstitious practices, such as burying something alive in the new dike (a dog), makes the separation only greater, which finally leads to sabotage. He is doing his job to technical perfection, but he forgets the human element. Symbolic for his isolation is the figure he makes when he sits on his white horse, towering high above the other villagers.

{Storm on the North Sea - Photo Wikipedia]

Of course, this is not the end of the story. A huge storm hits the village, and the old dyke is threatened... but read for yourself how this strange and powerful story ends. The climax is full of suspense... let me only say that finally, in death, Hauke becomes a ghost, galloping on his otherworldly horse along his dyke, as the narrator at the beginning of the story saw him.

This is a story of determination and devotion, of pettiness and superstition, of pride and loneliness, of the beauty and indifference of the natural world. Theodor Storm fills his tale with mud slicks, icy marshes, fog banks, raging waves, vulnerable dikes and howling winds, but in the end this is an inner landscape as well, where the savagery that forms the basis of human society is revealed. In this unenlightened universe, a great man pays with his life for his pride and creativity - a very pessimistic conclusion, were it not that his achievement - the new dike - survives his death.

The German original "Der Schimmelreiter" is available at Zeno.org and the German Gutenberg site. A new English translation by James Wright is available from New York Review Books under the title The Rider on the White Horse. This book also includes several other stories by Theodor Storm, such as the famous lyrical love story Immensee.


August 24, 2014

"Nadja" by André Breton (Book Review)

Nadja is the most famous literary work of André Breton (1896-1966), the founder of surrealism. Breton published his surrealist manifesto, in which he defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism" in 1924, just four years before writing Nadja, which would become one of the iconic works of the surrealist movement.

Nadja is a near-novel that incorporates autobiography, a case study, and surrealist theory. It is decidedly a non-psychological novel, as Breton himself indicates at the beginning (“Happily the days of psychological literature, with all its fictitious plots, are numbered”). Interestingly, Breton has also included black-and-white photographs of Paris streets, buildings and of several drawings, in the same way as W.G. Sebald would do sixty years later.

The book starts with a blend of Surrealist theory, gossip, and Breton's back story. When Nadja appears, the novel shifts to dated diary entries, which take up most of the book, until the ending which is a straightforward epilogue. Besides Nadja, the city of Paris is also an important protagonist, as Breton as a flaneur roams its streets and takes pictures of houses and shop fronts. The book ends with an important and famous statement about beauty: "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all."

[André Breton in 1924 - Photo Wikipedia]

Nadja is a young woman Breton happens to meet on one of his walks through the streets of Paris. He immediately strikes up a conversation with her, and is struck by the fact that she seems the personification of the surrealist ideal. She is a totally free spirit who calls herself a "soul in limbo." She is called Nadja “because in Russian it is the beginning of the word hope." For a Surrealist like Breton, coincidences like the present accidental meeting were very important, as they were events transcending the limits of traditional logic. They spontaneously created new and unexpected connections.

Breton and Nadja meet daily over ten days in the book for bizarre conversations, about Surrealism and art, but also the surrealistic aspects of daily life. Nadja is a desperately poor but lovely woman, with gorgeous eyes outlined in black. She clearly holds power over Breton (who is already married), but although there are indications of a short romance, this is not a love story in the normal sense - Breton is in the first place in love with her bizarreness, her surrealistic attitude towards life. He stops meeting her when he has learned so much about her background that she becomes demystified. You can feel in Breton's prose when the obsession starts waning. But Nadja does not give up so easily and for a time keeps sending him letters with interesting surrealistic drawings (some of which have been reproduced in the novel).

The character of Nadja is based on an actual young woman Breton met in 1926, Léona Camile Ghislaine D. (1902-1941) - their meetings lasted a bit longer than in the book, but in early 1927 Léona was committed to a sanatorium for the mentally ill, where she also would die fifteen years later. So this is in fact a very sad story: Nadja paid with her sanity for her subversion of the rigid norms of society. She could not exist any longer in the normal world. It is rather unfeeling of Breton that he never visits her after her hospitalization (he only rants about the problems of psychiatry which causes more problems than solving them). But he does what Nadja has once asked him: write a book about her.
Andre? Andre? You will write a novel about me. I'm sure you will. Don't say you won't. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us...
P.S. Nadja was the second novel to appear with embedded photographs. The first one was Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (1892). Besides Sebald, another contemporary author who uses this technique is the Soviet author Leonid Tsypkin (Summer in Baden-Baden, 1981).

Nadja is available from Penguin Books in a translation by Richard Howard. 

August 21, 2014

"The Newton Letter" by John Banville (1982)

The Newton Letter (1982) is an exquisite novella by John Banville, written in an enigmatic and often cryptic style, about a historian who discovers he is wrong in the interpretation of his relations with others and the world around him, which in its turn brings on a crisis of faith in his work as a historian.

[Sir Isaac Newton - Portrait Wikipedia]

The nameless narrator of The Newton Letter is a historian somewhere in his fifties who has spent seven years writing a book about Isaac Newton. Seeking a quiet place to finish his work, he rents a small cottage at an estate in southern Ireland known as Fern House. Gradually, he neglects his studies as he becomes involved with the family on whose property he is living: the tall, middle-aged Charlotte Lawless, who has a noble but rather abstracted air, and occupies herself with gardening; her husband Edward, a clumsy and inarticulate man who is often drunk; and Otillie, Charlotte's niece, a big, blonde and somewhat graceless woman in her mid-twenties. There is also Michael, the son of Edward and Charlotte, who as later appears has been adopted and whose real mother may be (or not) Otillie.

A rather hot and heavy physical relationship develops with Otillie, but the narrator doesn't feel in love with her and gradually realizes that he is in fact obsessed with the withdrawn and mysterious Charlotte. But he can't get any closer to Charlotte - when he speaks of his love, she is so distracted that she does not hear what he says.

The point is of course that the narrator has got everything wrong about this family. With remarkable skill Banville shows how his imagined history of them is undermined by successive, incremental discoveries of the rather common reality of their lives. This also undermines the authority of the historian's voice with which he has started the tale - he obviously has deduced too much from faint clues. Eventually it brings on a shock that will make him abandon his Newton project and suddenly leave Fern House.

The Newton Letter is a postmodern work in that it references another famous novel which is similarly organized around a structural metaphor drawn from the sciences: Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (see my post about this novel). Charlotte, Ottilie and Edward share their names with the three main characters of Goethe's novel, and Banville's narrator plays the role of the fourth character, the Major, - the one who stirs things up.

[John Banville - Photo Wikipedia]

Newton is of course the scientist who discovered the laws of gravity and laid the foundation for classical mechanics  (as a small joke the family of Fern House carries the surname of "Lawless"), but who also in later life turned to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy. The narrator of The Newton Letter believes that the turning point, the breakdown, where Newton gave up science, can be found in an anomalous letter Newton wrote in 1693 to John Locke (the letter is mentioned in the novel, but not cited - in fact, Newton only plays a role as a distant background). Banville stresses that turn-around by the invention of a second Newton letter, in which the scientist abandons the absolutes of time, space and motion, leaving his universe open and ambiguous - just as open and ambiguous as John Banville's novella. At the same time, the reason why the narrator-historian abandons his Newton book, may be that from personal experience he now realizes the danger of making large inferences from small clues such as the original letter by Newton to Locke.

The Newton Letter is a concise but intricate and allusive work that demands the reader's careful and thoughtful attention. It has been written in lyrical, but also very precise prose.

Interestingly, the novella itself has been written in the form of a letter to a person called Clio - and not accidentally, Clio is the muse of history.

The Newton Letter by John Banville has been published by Picador.


August 16, 2014

"The Black Spider" by Jeremias Gotthelf (1842)

While the English in the 19th century were churning out unwieldy, three volume novels because the market in the shape of the omnipresent lending libraries demanded it, the Germans (and others writing in the German language) were free to pursue shorter forms, such as the novella. And indeed, the novella flourished in Germany and many of the best works of the 19th century are exquisite stories of novella length.

One of the best novellas was written by a Swiss pastor writing under the pseudonym Jeremias Gotthelf (his real name was Albert Bitzius): The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne), dating from 1842. The Black Spider is a horror story imbued with Christian mythology.

[Basler-Kopp: Die Schwarze Spinne - Wikipedia]

The story starts with a frame tale: a christening is being celebrated in a smart farmhouse in a Swiss village. It is a beautiful day and the guests are enjoying the food and drink. Then one guest notes that a blackened, old post has been built into a new window frame of the farm house. He asks the reason for this anomaly and a wise grandfather who has always lived in the house, proceeds to tell the tale behind this phenomenon. It is a chilling story and the audience listens in appalled silence.

Centuries ago, a cruelly overbearing manor lord asked an impossible service of the villagers, to plant the lane in front of his castle with scores of trees that had to brought from a far-away mountain, and that all in a very short time. When the villagers were discussing their oppressive burden, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and green hunting hat came by and offered his help. The villagers were wary of the uncanny man, but when he repeated his offer to Christine, a strong and willful woman, she accepted on their behalf. There was of course a pay-off, a terrible one: the villagers would have to give the first new-born baby to the hunter, before it was baptized. To seal the deal, the mysterious man - who was none other than Satan - gave Christine a kiss on her cheek. 

And he kept his word: using his demonic powers he transported the trees in no-time from the mountain side to the castle - and then asked for his reward. But Christine and the farmers cheated on him: as soon as a child was born, the priest immediately baptized it so that it was saved from the clutches of the devil. But at the same time Christine felt a burning pain on her cheek: where the hunter had kissed her, a black spot appeared that grew larger and larger, and finally changed into a black spider. When next again a child was saved by immediately baptizing it, the black spot broke open and countless small black spiders escaped into the village, where they killed the cattle and also attacked humans. 

Things got worse. Christine tried to stop the spider plague by taking the next baby to the mysterious hunter, but was stopped in her tracks by the priest who again baptized it just in time with holy water. Christine who had been touched by the same water, shrank away and turned into a huge black spider, killing the priest and setting upon the villagers. 

I won't divulge how this disaster is finally averted - how the spider is caught and pushed into a hole in the black old pillar, which is then safely locked behind a piece of wood. But human beings are innately stupid - a few centuries later a curious person lets out the spider and the same disaster is repeated. Will the villagers this time be more wise and leave evil alone? 

The Black Spider is an unforgettably creepy tale that is as appalling today as when it was written in the mid-19th century. It is a parable of good and evil, in which evil is painted in glaring colors - both evil in the heart of human beings and evil rampant in society. It is also a vision of cosmic horror in the style of Lovecraft, or, as Thomas Mann interpreted it, as a sort of foretelling of the horrors of Nazism. 

The German original can be found at Wikisource; an English translation by Susan Bernofsky can be found in New York Review Books

August 13, 2014

"The Island of Dr. Moreau" by H.G. Wells (1896)

Early in his career H.G. Wells wrote the six "scientific romances" for which he today is known in the first place - his later, realistic novels are all but forgotten, as are his short stories (in both cases, this is at least in part unjustified). But in fact, many of these early SF novellas carry strong political or sociological messages, like his later work that was often inspired by socialism. They are not the pure entertainment or escapism that Hollywood makes of them in its many empty movie versions. In The Time Machine, for example, Wells is not so much interested in the time machine in itself (or how it works), but he wanted to show his readers how the industrial relations of his day - with haves and have-nots - could in the future very well develop in two different races of man, the "lower" one literally living below the earth. It was his originality to bring a time traveler on stage to show that future.

[H.G. Wells - Photo Wikipedia]

It was not the scientific argument that is important to Wells, he was not interested in connecting the lines of technological development towards the feature, but he used his romances in the first place for political and sociological commentary, or to try out a philosophical hypothesis: what would happen, if... This in contrast to Jules Verne, who did make future scientific developments the focus of his books (although Verne's "science" is often quite faulty). Happily, Wells also could tell a good story and he was never preachy.

The best and most genuinely horrific of these early novellas is in my view The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), because here the message is more generalized: a warning against scientific hubris and a parable on Darwinian theory.

The problem that Dr. Moreau tempted to solve was: "Can we by surgery (vivisection) so accelerate the evolutionary process as to make man out of a beast in a few days or weeks?"

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked and rescued by a passing boat that carries a very unusual cargo - a menagerie of savage animals. Their keeper Montgomery nurses him back to health, but Prendick is worried by Montgomery's weird servant, who seems to have animalistic qualities. Prendick is taken to the ship's destination, an uncharted Pacific island, where he is introduced to Montgomery's master, the sinister Dr. Moreau - a questionable scientist earlier chased out of England for torturing animals in notorious experiments in vivisection. As Prendick now gradually learns, Dr. Moreau has perfected surgical techniques by which he can accelerate evolution. Under Dr Moreau's Darwinian scalpel, animals are painfully raised to quasi-humanity. With the assistance of Montgomery, who is an outlawed medical student, Dr Moreau has succeeded in producing some creditable parodies of humanity by his operations on pigs, bulls, dogs and even panthers. These hyena-swine and mutant ape-men walk on their hind legs, have mastered rudimentary language, and can even be taught to do simple work as servants. But when Prendick sits in the room to which he has been confined, he hears the most terrible cries of tortured animals from the doctor's lab. Not able to sit still, he ventures outside the compound, although that has been strictly forbidden as too dangerous.

In the jungle, Prendick stumbles upon a colony of the beastly creations of the sadistic doctor: the cut up and remolded creatures (Dr. Moreau fits parts of different animals together) somehow have the appearance and intelligence of humans, but are unstable in the sense that they have to be maintained at that level by the exercise of discipline and the constant recital of "the Law" (a sort of Ten Commandments forbidding animal-type behavior). When they are completely left to themselves they gradually revert to the habits and manners of the individual beasts out of which they have been carved. They may never drink blood, as that would make them revert immediately to animal status. If one of them happens to show animal behavior, the poor beast will be carried off to Dr. Moreau's lab, something which they fear very much because of the sadistic infliction of pain that takes place there. The doctor on purpose performs his painful operations without the use of anesthesia - a way of keeping his creatures in check by making them afraid of pain. In other words, this hybrid race is being kept in check by fear... and as happens in dictatorial situations, they worship Doctor Moreau like a god - their cruel God.

Of course, one day things go wildly wrong - Dr. Moreau is killed by a puma he is operating on in particularly cruel way, the prohibitory laws are disobeyed, the difficult equilibrium breaks down, and in open rebellion the hybrids revert to their original nature.

This is a haunting tale, where also the doctor's strange creations are not simply monsters, but in the first place victims and where even the mad doctor is not so much a through-and-through bad guy as a misguided scientist whose technology runs ahead of morality. That is something that still happens today, making Well's story with its moral that technology itself can be problematic, still valid for us. And above all the story poses the important question what it means to be human - and shows us how inhuman it is to use violence on animals. To close with a quote from another author, Milan Kundera:
"...animals have accompanied human life since time immemorial. Facing his neighbor, man is never free to be himself; the power of the one limits the freedom of the other. Facing an animal, man is who he is. His cruelty is free. The relation between man and animal constitutes an eternal background to human life, a mirror (a dreadful mirror) that will never leave it."   [From Encounter, Essays, by Milan Kundera, p. 177, published by Faber and Faber] 
P.S. By the way, two years after the publication of The Island of Dr. Moreau the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was founded.
Read The Island of Dr. Moreau on the internet, or download it in epub or kindle format. There is an edited and annotated edition available in Penguin Books.

August 10, 2014

"The Gate of Angels" by Penelope Fitzgerald (1990)

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) has been called a writers writer - she wrote extremely fine novels which however have not been embraced by a wider group of readers (real quality is after all only valued by connoisseurs). Penelope Fitzgerald only started writing novels when she was past sixty and over two decades managed to create an exquisite oeuvre of nine novels and two short story collections. Her most famous work is perhaps The Blue Flower about a love affair of the 18th-century German poet and philosopher Novalis (see my post about this novel).

[Penelope Fitzgerald - Photo Wikipedia]

The Blue Flower has some uncanny elements, which are lacking in The Gate of Angels, a novel set at Cambridge University in 1912, when the modern age and modern science are knocking on the venerable doors of its lecture halls. The world was about to change from a world governed by god into a universe governed by the laws of physics.

Fred Fairly, a junior fellow at the (fictional) College of St. Angelicus, is happy about that - he believes that science will soon explain everything. Reason will conquer the mysteries of the world and the demands of the soul will be seen for what they in fact are: a distraction. Fred is a pure scholar, a country vicar's son who has lost his faith, and his whole life is filled with science. He has no girlfriend and, anyway, the College he happens to belong to does not allow its fellows to marry (it was founded long ago by monks). Women are also not allowed inside the college.

Then Daisy Saunders, a working girl, comes into his life. They are accidental fellow cyclists on a dark country road and get involved in a freakish accident with a horse-drawn farm cart. Both unconscious victims are taken in by a family living close to the place of the accident, and so the virginal Fred finds himself in one and the same bed with Daisy - he has never been so close to a woman before, and also never has met one so outspoken and at the same time, so mysterious (she wears a wedding ring, which is the reason why they are put in the same bed, but as she explains later, the ring was a fake which served to ward off aggressive males during her commutes in London, where she worked as a nurse). The nurse-business also means she knows what a man looks like, and has no false shame. Although they are from very different walks of life (England was still a strict class society in 1912) and an accident was necessary to bring them together, Fred is smitten with her. Unfortunately, the next morning she is gone, and Fred starts a frantic search for her - at which a satisfying plot unfolds, with some nice mysteries to be solved, and a finale that has been taken from the traditions of the comedy (the end seems open, but in fact is not - Fitzgerald rightly skips spelling out the obvious).

There is a strong postmodern feel to this novel,  a delicious playing with conventions. The most interesting of these is the presence of one Dr. Matthews, an antiquarian and Cambridge scholar who is clearly modeled on M.R. James, who also happened to be a famous writer of ghost stories.

[M.R. James - Photo Wikipedia]

M.R. James was a conservative Christian who was even against women entering Cambridge University. In the present novel, in the guise of Dr. Mathews he represents those who believe in the soul and the unseen and he even entertains us with an original ghost story - a ghost lurking close to the place of the cycle accident. The presence of this conservative scholar gives Fitzgerald the opportunity to address the position of women and the struggle in which they were engaged early in the 20th century to be allowed to go to university and have the same rights as men.

Fred Fairly in fact works under a professor who is skeptic about the atom and any other "unobservables," bringing the dichotomy between what can be seen with the eyes and what not, also inside the walls of academia. Working with "unobservables" will lead to randomness and ultimately chaos, the conservative science professor believes. On the other hand, Fred who has no belief, at a debating club has to argue the opposite of what he believes, and makes an excellent case for the separate existence of the mind. But he also is interested in atoms, and in fact, his random collision with Daisy is like a collision of subatomic particles in a physicist's laboratory.

And then the "Gate of Angels." This is the name of the gate of Fairly's St. Angelicus College, and at the end of the novel Daisy enters it by mistake and therefore is able to save the life of the Master of the College, who has fallen down in the courtyard because of a sudden heart attack. So she becomes a saving angel - and the random delay saves her happiness.

The Gate of Angels is published by Fourth Estate, London.

August 8, 2014

"The Golovlyov Family" by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1880)

There exists one great 19th century Russian novel almost nobody knows. I am not talking of Oblomov, which by now is reasonable famous, but about The Golovlyov Family (Gospoda Golovlyovy), a novel written by the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. Note that the writer, who was also a civil administrator and magazine editor, was called Mikhail Saltykov (1826-1889), but used the pen name "Shchedrin." Those two names are therefore often coupled with a hyphen, but the author can also be called just by his pen name as "Shchedrin."

[Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, portrait from Wikipedia]

The Golovlyov Family is one of the darkest Russian novels ever written. It tells the story of a land-owning family, in three generations, that destroys itself before the reader's eyes. Why? Because they waste their lives in pettiness, stinginess, faked religiousness and, finally, vodka. The lives of all characters in this novel are meaningless and pointless. They all die miserably, almost one per chapter.

The place where they live is just as desolate as their lives: an endless and dreary plain, full of mud, far from civilization. It either rains or snows. The house of the Golovlyovs is like the land: gloomy and depressing. There is also nothing to do here, life is one stretch of unrelieved boredom, the characters are just vegetating. One by one the family members fail in their endeavors in the outside world, and are sucked back to the remote estate, only to perish in misery.

Everything in the novel is related to the family's decay, an unrelieved catalog of mistrust, misdeeds and wretchedness. No opportunity for meanness is missed. The core of the novel consists of a series of conversational duels between the main characters, where they try to manipulate each other. Shchedrin has paid much attention to these dialogues: the speech of each character has its own genuine flavor.

There was frequent discussion about nihilism in the works of, for example, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, but one could say that The Golovlyov Family shows nihilism in operation. Or rather, what we find here is not even nihilism (as a philosophy), it just total emptiness, the absence of any values. It is the absolute void. And it is from this emptiness that evil is born, rather than from any "positive" maliciousness.

Besides the matriarch, Arina Petrovna Golovlyov (who is a tough sort of tyrant, controlling the estate with an iron hand, while treating here own children and others in a mean and stingy way - and who becomes a sort of King Lear after she releases power), Shchedrin's most original creation is Porphyry, one of her sons - nicknamed "Little Judas (Iudushka)," he is surely the greatest hypocrite in world literature. Porphyry is an unfeeling wretch who babbles on all the time in self-righteous and pseudo-pious talk, about family, work or duty, He can't keep his mouth shut for a moment. He continually calls on God to sanction all his misdeeds and lies spontaneously, without principles. He just prattles on in verbal incontinence and this useless prattle has smothered his feelings. His words have no meaning, because Porphyry has no morals, something which is made clear when we see his indifference to the suicide of his son and the suffering of others. In contrast to hypocrites in the French sense, like Tartuffe, who pretend to lead a proper life while playing the seducer when nobody watches, this is a Russian type of hypocrite, as Shchedrin tells us: one who thrives in the absence of fundamental principles.

When all this may seem off-putting, The Golovlyov Family is, on the contrary, a great read. It is a grim comedy, written in an intense style. Shchedrin is indeed a very accomplished author, whose lively novel is a strong protest against the greed, hypocrisy, falsehood, treachery and stupidity he saw around him.
The Golovlyov Family has been published by New York Review Books, in a translation by Natalie Duddington.

August 6, 2014

"The Skin" by Curzio Malaparte (1944)

When you like Celine, you may also like the Italian author Curzio Malaparte, who wrote the same type of delirious and amoral prose about war, destruction and degradation. And just as in the case of Celine, you need a strong stomach and a very thick skin to survive this verbal onslaught. The Skin contains many passages of savage invective and toxic stereotypes and is a sustained assault on every kind of piety and political correctness. When it was published in 1944, The Skin was immediately placed on the index of prohibited books maintained by the Vatican. Recently, New York Review Books have published the first complete and unadulterated English edition.

[Curzio Malaparte - Photo Wikipedia]

The Skin (La Pelle) is a near-novel, a mixture of autobiography, reportage and fantastical elements. The narrator has the same name as the author (but is of course not the same, although it remains unclear how much both differ in their opinions) and is an Italian liaison officer working in 1943 with the Americans at the time of the liberation of Naples - the first major city in Italy and in Europe to be liberated by the Allied forces. His friend and colleague is Jack, an American colonel who likes to speak French as often as he can. The novel is a surrealistic tale about the degradation of values in Naples, where everything is for sale after the city has been liberated by the Allied forces (a universal human trait).

The title refers to Malaparte's comment that once people have lost all spiritual values, they are only out to save their own skin. 
“Our skin, this confounded skin... you've no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”
The fact that Malaparte works with the Americans provides ample room for intercultural comparisons, unfailingly given with a lot of smirking irony. The Americans are innocent, simple-minded, blandly Christian, optimistic and generous, but also shallow and uncultivated, while the Italians despite their hunger and squalor feel culturally superior. Malaparte praises the Americans so much that his overdone praise and false admiration change into pure irony. He in fact sees them as a plague — a moral plague that sweeps Naples like the terrible illness of the body in the Middle Ages.

Much of the bad state of affairs in Naples is caused by the unholy combination of a victorious army in a city where everyone is poor and literally starving. It is like a seething ruin filled with jackals. So countless women fall into prostitution, not only from the city but from everywhere in Italy - there is a long line of women traipsing to Naples to earn a few dollars. The ideal situation is to have your daughter entice a soldier to your home, where he will shower everyone with canned foods, chocolate and other delicacies. There exists a fierce competition for soldiers. Catching an American soldier means food and dollars. The population stages a frantic show of welcoming the liberating army, “singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been emblems of their foes.”

There are many surreal scenes in the book. Malaparte comes across a place where they make blonde wigs, because African-American soldiers like to embrace a blonde woman. But the wigs have a hole in the middle and are not meant to be worn on the head... Mothers stand in line to sell their young sons to North-African soldiers, a veritable meat market. In intense language, Malaparte describes all the indignities and desperation of the fight for life.

In one particularly surreal chapter, rare fish are served on silver platters to assembled officers and their important guests at a banquet. It appears those fish have been removed from the Naples aquarium, as it is impossible to fish in the bay because of the presence of mines. One of the fish encircled with a wreath of coral is a "siren fish" and looks suspiciously like the body of a young child - horror straight out of Dali. The diners suddenly feel ill and have the dish removed.

Another unreal scene occurs when Malaparte recounts an earlier experience he had during the war (he could travel rather freely through Axis-controlled territory as a journalist for a major Italian newspaper). In the summer of 1941 he traveled on horseback in the Ukraine, through a countryside infested by gangsters and marauders. Towards evening he rides through a deep forest and hears eerie voices calling out to him from above. Looking up, he sees that men are hanging crucified on all the trees along his path. They snarl at the pity he shows, some even beg to be shot. They are Jews, and this is one of the many undocumented pogroms that took place all over Eastern Europe. The next day, Malaparte has to return along the same route. He listens for voices, but the forest is strangely quiet. Looking up, he sees that crows are sitting on the shoulders of the crucified men...

[Villa Malaparte on Capri - Photo Wikipedia]

Malaparte owned a famous house in Capri, situated on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean, which he designed himself between the years 1938 and 1942. It has been called the most beautiful house in the world and was used by Godard as a location for his film Le Mepris (Contempt) - with an iconic scene of Brigitte Bardot sunbathing on the large, flat roof with its pyramidal stone steps. The house also features in The Skin, where the anecdote is told of a visit to the house by the German Field Marshal Rommel. The legendary "Desert Fox" asked if the author had designed the house himself. Malaparte pointed at the seascape, seen through the large windows, and answered: "I only did the scenery." When Rommel left, he kept glancing back suspiciously, apparently feeling that his leg had been pulled.

As if war alone is not enough, the book also contains a devastating eruption of the Vesuvius (which really took place in 1944) and some gruesome war scenes when the Allied army chases the Germans out of Rome and the northern Italian cities. When they reach Florence, an Italian man overjoyed to see the liberators, rushes towards the convoy and is crushed beneath the caterpillar wheels of a Sherman tank. What is left over, is so flat that it seems as if both clothes and skin have been neatly ironed. Malaparte remembers another similar occasion, where bystanders took part of the skin of the flattened man and waved it in the sky like a flag - another reference to the title of the novel.

And as everywhere in Europe, accounts are settled as soon as the occupied cities have been liberated. A group of partisans has cornered a number of teenage boys, followers of Mussolini, and gloatingly kill them off, the blood splashing down the steps of the church where the massacre takes place. Malaparte also sees Mussolini hanging by his feet from a hook, “bloated, white, enormous.”

The book is full of such cruel anecdotes, told with a combination of irony, disgust and grim playfulness.

Malaparte ("Bad Side," an ironic reflection on the name "Bonaparte") was born Kurt Erich Suckert (1898-1957) from an Italian mother and German father. He fought in WWI and in the 1920s became a sympathizer of Mussolini, whom he joined in the march on Rome. Along with many in the European avant-garde, Malaparte embraced fascism because of its celebration of violence. After having experienced WWI, he saw death and destruction as something beautiful, a dangerous sentiment which paved the way for the outrages and terrible crimes of the Fascists and the Nazis.

But Malaparte was also a strong individualist who could not feel at home in any mass movement (and, it should be said, he probably was also a slippery opportunist) and from around 1933 he seems to have offended Mussolini with his independence of opinion and suffered several years of banishment. Later he was allowed to continue his journalistic work (for example, traveling to the Eastern front with the German army), but continued to be viewed with suspicion. And when the Allied Forces arrived in Naples, Malaparte effected a major shift in loyalty and joined the victors as a liaison officer - just like his alter ego, the Malaparte in The Skin.

Besides The Skin, Malaparte also wrote the novel Kaputt about his wartime experiences in the years immediately before 1943 - a book that is just as strong. Both were long neglected because of Malaparte's obnoxious association with Fascism. But in these two novels, perhaps thanks to his peculiar and ambiguous position, Malaparte manages to give an authentic picture of the cruel chaos of wartime Europe from an unusual viewpoint.

The Skin was translated by David Moore and has been published by New York Review Books. The same publisher also brought out a translation of Kaputt.

July 31, 2014

"Doctor Glas" by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905)

Doctor Glas (1905) is arguably the greatest Swedish novel - its author, Hjalmar Söderberg, the novelistic equivalent of August Strindberg. The astonishing novel tells a story of the fatal obsession of a single man for a married woman, of a physician for one of his patients. The story takes the form of a fictional diary that describes four months in the life of Doctor Glas, living in Stockholm somewhere at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[Stockholm - Photo Wikipedia]

Doctor Tyko Glas is a lonely, reserved and introspective man, who is not very fond of other people (including his patients). He is settled in his profession, but has no particular love for it, calling it "the one which suits him least out of all possible trades." Doctor Glas is already over thirty years old, but still unmarried - even more than that, he has "never been with a woman." In fact, the physical aspects of sexual intercourse strike him as rather repulsive. He vaguely desires marriage, but when Miss Mertens, a young woman in town, approaches him pro-actively, he retreats into himself.

This particular summer he is kept occupied with the problems of two of his patients, Mr and Mrs Gregorius. The Reverend Gregorius is a 57-year old minister, a rather nasty and repulsive person in the opinion of Doctor Glas; while Mrs Gregorius is a lovely young woman, about half the age of the Reverend. Mrs Gregorius comes to Doctor Glas with the following problem: her husband's sexual advances have become so odious to her that she can't bear them any longer - can the doctor help her by pretending to the Reverend that his wife suffers from a pelvic disease and that he must avoid intercourse with her for several months, for the sake of her health?

Doctor Glas agrees, but the Reverend is not so easily put off. God has given man the task to procreate, and he is only trying to do his Christian duty (no lust involved here)! Moreover, there is such a thing as "marital rights..." (for men, not for women, apparently).

Mrs Gregorius again and again visits Doctor Glas and they devise a new and stronger strategy: this time the doctor pretends with the necessary theatricals that he "discovers" that the Rev Gregorius has a weak heart and must abstain from all strenuous effort - especially intercourse - on penalty of suffering a fatal heart attack. This warning works for a time...

[Hjalmar Söderberg - Photo Wikipedia]

Meanwhile, as summer progresses, Doctor Glas has fallen in love with Mrs Gregorius, who is a strong and interesting personality. But there is one problem: he discovers she has a lover, a handsome young businessman, whom she meets for secret trysts. But Glas can't help himself, his love for his patient becomes stronger and stronger, and he becomes a tortured person, as he must keep silent to her about his feelings and knows his love will never be requited...

The book has some ruminations on abortion and euthanasia, which were modern for the time the book was written and considered as "scandalous," although now they are quite ordinary. But, happily, this is not a novel of ideas, the ideas are there only to bring out the story. For example, when a patient asks Dr Glas for an abortion, he refuses, citing some high moral principles - and he thinks he is vindicated when he hears she has married and born a son... until, cynically, he later learns that the child is mentally retarded. But the hypocrisy of his position (or the measure of his infatuation with Mrs Gregorius) is shown clearly when he imagines what he would do in case Mrs Gregorius would become pregnant from her lover - of course, he would undertake an abortion, for her sake...

In his obsession, Dr Glas finally contemplates one further step, something which Mrs Gregorius has never required from him: to poison the minister with a cyanide pill, which will look like a heart attack... He soothes his conscience by telling himself that this would be part of his duty as a doctor, as it would help alleviate his patient Mrs Gregorius' suffering (and it would rid the world of an odious specimen). Glas is obsessed by the idea to free Mrs Gregorius from the oppressive sexual attentions of her husband, and there is a strong element of personal jealousy and rivalry involved here (the odious older man with the beautiful young woman, beast and beauty). At the same time, Glas knows there is no hope, for Mrs Gregorius sees nothing in him, she just treats him like a trusted adviser, but as lovers go, she prefers quite another type of man...

This all leads to a gripping intense ending, but no final resolution: Dr Glas is alone and will remain alone. "Life has passed me by," he concludes.

The novel is not all darkness. Doctor Glas is also a great flaneur who loves to take daily walks through Stockholm, making the water city almost a second protagonist of the novel. Hjalmar Söderberg has given us lively vignettes of life in the great northern city, and among the friends and acquaintances Doctor Glas meets are characters from his earlier novel, Martin Birck's Youth.

Doctor Glas is a searing literary masterwork, still completely fresh and vivid, as on the day more than a century ago that it was written.

Read the original Swedish text here. English translation by Paul Britten Austin (Anchor Books, 2002)