"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 1, 2015

"Morpho Eugenia" by A.S. Byatt (from Angels and Insects)

Morpho Eugenia, written in 1992 by A.S. Byatt, and named after a beautiful Neotropical butterfly from French Guiana, tells the story of a Victorian naturalist, William Adamson, who in the early 1860s has returned from the Amazon to his native England where he is cast upon the mercy of a wealthy sponsor, Sir Harald Alabaster. He has lost all his possessions and most of his insect specimens in a shipwreck, but Sir Harald kindly hires him to classify his chaotic natural history collection and gives him refuge at Bredely Hall. William also falls with the speed of a man who has spent ten long years in the jungle in love with the eldest of the three Alabaster daughters, Eugenia. He is of a different (=lower) class than the aristocratic Alabasters, who form a tightly knit family, but – also to his own surprise – he is welcomed into their fold and into the arms of the coldly beautiful, very blond and very white-skinned (indeed “alabaster”) Eugenia. This despite the vehement opposition of one of her half-brothers, the brutish Edward.


The day he wins Eugenia, William fulfills a promise: he sets a cloud of colorful butterflies free so that they swarm around his beloved in the conservatory, which is a wonderful sight, beautifully described by Byatt and very apt in the story for when he – as lepidopterologist – first saw her, she danced with her sisters like a trio of butterflies.

Thus William becomes an awkwardly grafted adjunct of the wealthy family. Of course, things are not what they seem and just as in original Victorian fiction a hasty marriage is never a good idea, as there usual are some skeletons rattling in the closet. Although playing a witty game with Victorian forms and ideas, this novella is decidedly very different from the 19th century “happy ever after” tradition – as is real life.

An at first sight not so disagreeable surprise is that the cold-looking Eugenia proves to be a fountain of passion in bed, but the less pleasant result for William who is not a fan of a large family is that she bears children like a veritable Ant Queen, producing one twin after another, making it impossible for him to leave on a new Amazon expedition. And being bombarded with five babies in three years also means the married couple has little time to get to know each other better: William feels that he is used like a breeder ant, a disposable drone, fertilizing the Queen and nothing more. Strangely enough, their kids, too, all look like Alabaster clones, none has the face of William.

The only person at Bredely Hall with whom William gradually develops a real friendship and has meaningful discussions, is another hanger-on, the assistant governess Matty Crompton, a mysterious dark fairy. William begins a study about ants with her and they even write a book together, a treatise on the social system of the local ant colonies. It is also from her that William finally learns the shocking incestuous secret of the Alabaster family – and realizes his own sore lack of insight and perception.

This novella is an ingenious postmodern work, with a generous admixture of mock Victorian texts, as well as philosophy and science – philosophy in the discussions where Sir Harald uses William as a sounding board to test out his creationist arguments on the Darwinian William (very much to the disgust of the latter), and science in the generous ant and butterfly lore sprinkled throughout the text, which is both interesting and true for its time; in both cases, writings by Sir Harald and by William are quoted extensively, as is the habit of Byatt. In the final analysis, the book is also a sustained analogy between the two communities of humans and insects; and on a micro level, William has become like certain captive ants, who imitate their captors in their behavior and may even imagine they are free, while in reality being nothing but slaves. It is a great accomplishment of Byatt that people are made to resemble insects and behave like them, and still sound perfectly human.

A. S. Byatt (real name Antonia Susan Drabble; she is the sister of the novelist Margaret Drabble) was born in 1936 and educated at Cambridge and Oxford, before teaching at various London universities until she left academia to become a full-time writer. She has written more than 10 novels and 5 short story collections. In 1990 she won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Possession: A Romance. It parallels the emerging relationship between two contemporary academics with the lives of two (fictional) nineteenth century poets whom they are researching. Byatt was a friend and admirer of Iris Murdoch and was influenced by Henry James and George Eliot. She often plays with Victorian modes of fiction in her own work, extensively “quoting” 19th century poetry and prose that she has composed in style (although ultimately her novels are squarely postmodern). She is also strongly interested in Darwinism, zoology, entomology and geology.

Available edition: Vintage International, coupled with a second novella, The Conjugial Angel, and published under the joint title Angels and Insects, Two Novellas.

December 24, 2014

"A Heart So White" by Javier Marías (Book review)

One of the greatest contemporary Spanish novels is A Heart So White by Javier Marías, a celebrated literary bestseller about honesty and memory and the weight of personal history, and at the same time a very funny and sexy book.

But first the title, "A Heart So White," which is a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white." 
These words are spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, who on her instigation has just murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland, by stabbing him in his bed. She helps Macbeth - who is bemoaning his crime - by putting the dagger next to the guards of the king, so that they will be blamed for the murder. She is just as guilty as her husband, she says, she also has blood on her hands, but at least she is not a coward like he "with his white heart" - she is continually questioning his courage and manhood to drive him on in his (or rather, her) criminal ambitions.

Such a title promises a book full of drama and that is what we get, at least for starters. The book opens with a dramatic suicide, where the narrator's aunt (to whom his father was married before marrying his mother, her sister) shoots herself in the chest, just after returning from her honeymoon. This has happened forty years before the present, and is a mystery the narrator's father never is willing to talk about. The next chapter jumps to the honeymoon of the narrator, Juan, a translator/interpreter working for the United Nations, who overhears a conversation in the neighboring hotel room where a woman is pushing her lover to murder his wife. This setup almost seems like a thriller, but don't worry, it is a serious book that mixes apprehension with reflection. We could say that elements of the thriller serve as a catalyst for existential observations. Against that background it is gradually revealed how the narrator learns the secret behind his father's three marriages - his father is an art expert who has become rich by defrauding his clients, and also something of a womanizer. In fact, as Juan will learn, discovering the truth does not solve anything, it only serves to make life more complicated.

Marías writes in the tradition of James and Proust, of Borges and Nabokov. His long, meandering sentences even reminded me of that other great Iberian author, Saramago, who also may start with the description of an event, to continue in the same sentence with a discursive observation. Marías has also been highly praised by W.G. Sebald, and indeed, he exhibits a Sebaldian obsession with history and memory (and even uses black-and-white photos in some of his books - though not in this one -, which was Sebald's trademark). His basic theme is the transience of human life, how everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened - which means that everything is constantly in the process of being lost. A second theme is the ambiguity of language - not for nothing is his protagonist a translator / interpreter, someone who is well aware of the pitfalls of language.

But different from Sebald, Marías' books are also very sexy and full of humor. A good example is the scene in A Heart So White where Juan for the first time meets Luisa, the woman who later will become his wife. Juan is acting as interpreter at a private discussion between the premiers of Spain and Great Britain (the British PM is clearly Margaret Thatcher). As is usual at such high level meetings, a second interpreter is present to check on the first - for mistakes can have far-reaching consequences. This is Luisa and she is sitting diagonally behind Juan, watching the back of his neck, so he only sees her long crossed legs and Prada shoes out of the corner of his eye. Translating for these two heads of state, Juan intentionally misinterprets what they say (in fact, they don't have much to say, this is a very ironical act), just to see what happens. He watches Luisa's legs to get a cue as to how she will react: startled, she uncrosses them, but does not intervene. And as he goes on changing more and more parts of the conversation, leaving out certain remarks and adding others of his own fabrication, he notices that Luisa's "gleaming legs" don't move anymore, they remain crossed and only sway a little, a sure sign she isn't going to ruin Juan's career by speaking up - and for him also the sign "that she would allow him anything for the rest of his life." This is one the most beautiful and funny seduction scenes from all literature.

The book contains several scenes that echo other events in the narrative. The above mentioned, overheard conversation in the hotel foreshadows what Juan will discover about his father, although his father acted on his own initiative and his second wife, Juan's aunt, far from spurring him on like Lady Macbeth, was so shocked by his crime that she killed herself. And Juan learns this through another overheard conversation, between his father and Luisa, where Luisa persuades her father-in-law (who has a weakness for her) to tell her the truth about his first two wives.

Another example of such parallelism is "the person standing below in the street, looking up at the balcony." This is how Juan first sees the woman who comes for a tryst with the man occupying the next-door hotel room during his honeymoon (this happens in Havana, while Luisa is ill in bed with a slight form of food poisoning): the woman, a fierce, local type, stands in the street and he notices her "strong legs that seemed to dig into the pavement with their thin, high, stiletto heels." She then shouts at Juan sitting on the balcony and waves angrily with a swift flourish of her fingers, mistaking him for the man with whom she has a date - something which is only resolved when the man next door also appears on his balcony. Later, in Madrid, Juan notices a somewhat sinister friend of his father, who seems strangely interested in his marital relation with Luisa, standing motionless in the street, watching his balcony. And when Juan is on a business trip to New York, he stays with an old flame, a woman who is searching for romance by placing contact advertisements and sending out kinky videos of herself. She has had a traffic accident and now one of her legs is shorter than the other. She has hooked a man (also a somewhat sinister type, so here, too, is the suggestion that she could end up being murdered) and Juan has to leave the apartment and stand in the street during her lovemaking, so this time he becomes the one looking up at the balcony, waiting for a sign that the coast is free.

On another note, even certain reflections of the narrator are repeated, to demonstrate that our thought processes are often repetitious. An interesting thought of Juan that is repeated in the novel is:
"What takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told."
In short, Marías mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation, wading through the swamp of ambiguous language, to tell a tale where people never seem to learn anything about their true selves. But A Heart So White is also a highly engrossing novel full of human passion that is difficult to put down.

[Javier Marías - photo from Wikipedia]

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. His father was the philosopher Julián Marías who was banned from teaching as he opposed the France regime. As his father therefore moved for a time to the U.S., Marías was partly educated at Yale and Wellesley College. He became a translator of English literature into Spanish, and is known for his renditions of Shakespeare, James, Nabokov, Updike, Faulkner and Sterne, to name a few. In the mid-1980s, he lectured for a few years in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford. Critical acclaim for his own novels came with The Man of Feeling (1986) and All Souls (1988), which was set at Oxford University, while his breakthrough to commercial success came with A Heart So White in 1992. Fourteen of his sixteen books have been translated into English, the last one The Infatuations from 2011. The protagonists of Marías' novels are often interpreters or translators, like Marías himself, "people who are renouncing their own voices."

Here is the answer Marías gave when during an interview he was asked what was the purpose of writing:
"I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better."
 ***
Javier Marías, A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco). Translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Penguin Books). With this book, Marías and Costa became joint winners of the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. 

December 10, 2014

"The Radetzky March" by Joseph Roth (Book review)

Who doesn't know the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss Sr., played annually as the last piece at the New Year's Concert from Vienna? This famous piece of music is dedicated to a war-horse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemian-born Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, who during a 70-year long career first fought against Napoleon and finally ended up trying to suppress the First Italian War of Independence. He was a ruthless disciplinarian, but also idolized by his soldiers as "Vater Radetzky." Joseph Roth used "Radetzkymarsch" as the title for his greatest novel, written in 1932, because the march symbolizes the greatness of the perished Empire, while the protagonists actually also hear it played at important moments.

[Joseph Radetzky von Radetz,
the type of Austro-Hungarian "war horse"
that also figures in the novel - photo Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, and this is paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. The Trottas are professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin. Joseph Trotta, the patriarch, happened to famously save the life of the blundering Emperor, Franz Joseph I, by toppling him from his horse during the Battle of Solferino (1859), and was ennobled for his service, although his parents had been Slovenian farmers. After his promotion and ennoblement, Baron Joseph von Trotta degrades into rural obscurity, except for one anecdote where he demonstrates that he has always remained a naive peasant: he remonstrates (even to the level of the Emperor) against a textbook for use at schools where his deed is made more heroic than it was by changing some facts. As a result, the war hero stubbornly opposes his son Franz' aspirations to a military career, having him become a government official (district administrator in a Moravian town) instead - the second most respected career in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Like the first Baron, also the second Baron Trotta is a square and conservative man, a pillar of the nation, but also a rather nondescript government functionary. The grandson, Carl Joseph, has a character that is very different from his forefathers, but at the urging of his father joins the army - with consistently disastrous results. It is his fate to die in WWI, just before the destruction of the empire.

The life of Carl Joseph is not a happy one. He stands for the frivolous generation that lost the empire, addicted to the pleasures of the flesh, to drink and gambling. He has a relation with the wife of the police commander in the town where he has grown up and is shattered when she dies in child birth, especially when the husband openly returns a stack of his love letters. At his next post, he has an affair with the wife of his best friend, the Jewish military doctor; as a result, the doctor dies fighting a senseless duel. It seems as if everything Carl Joseph does falls apart under his hands. He sinks into despondency, becoming old before his time, and seeks forgetfulness in drinking and gambling. For the third time, he takes a married lover, and piles up gambling debts, living in an alcoholic daze in a remote military outpost near the border with Russia (the local drink is a sort of extremely strong vodka called "Ninety Degrees"). Just as he is about to permanently damage the family's honor and good name, the Emperor's son Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo and the Great War breaks out, to devour Carl Joseph's life and those of unnumbered others.

The Austrio-Hungarian Empire was a very authoritarian and hierarchical society. It was a world with a clear order, with clear rules and regulations. People knew who they were and what their place in the greater scheme of things was. This is especially clear in the early chapters where we see that Carl Joseph has been disciplined so by his father, the district administrator, that to any question his father poses he answers obediently "Yes, Pappa." The relation between father and son is so formal that the son doesn't talk when he is not invited to do so. When his father picks up some official documents, the son may read the paper, but he is careful to put this immediately away when his father looks up from his reading. Life has been regulated strictly, everything, such as meals, takes place at fixed times. Somehow, this strict and disciplined society reminded me of the Japan of the Meiji-period (1868-1912). And we also know this world from the descriptions in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (see my post about this book). It is of course not a very warm society and you can see the gulf that gapes between father and son - especially since for the son the old order ceases to have any meaning. For his father, being the district administrator and a pillar of the empire is his identity - he defines his life in terms of the social order and not in terms of his own being. But the times have changed and Carl Joseph is unable to do that. He is an individualist who simply floats through life, and unfortunately he has chosen the wrong occupation for the army doesn't suit him at all and the boredom even brings out the worst in him. His greatest problem is his lack of reflection, as a more thoughtful life might have brought him to new values.

[Emperor Franz Joseph I - from Wikipedia]

A fourth important character in the novel is the Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who is everywhere present in the form of his official portraits and who with his own unchangeability (he is over eighty years old) symbolizes the state of the realm. But he also meets all three Trottas in person and the fate of the barons seems inextricably linked to that of the Empire, tottering towards its destruction as the Emperor totters towards his grave.

Roth uses historical persons and events in a most imaginative way, that is, they only appear when they are important for the story and not the other way round. He relates the story in a supple style, somewhat understated and matter-of-fact, keeping a fast pace, and his voice is always full of compassion - he treats the death of a small thing like a canary with as much feeling as he does the death-throes of the great Empire.

This superb novel remained long in obscurity. In the Germanic countries, the 1930s were a time that another terrible war was brewing and people didn't have time to read about a previous one. The Nazis next forbade Roth's work because he was of Jewish ancestry. It is only in the last decades that Joseph Roth has been fully rehabilitated - Radetzkymarsch, for example, was in 2003 included in the canon of the most important German-language literary novels by the influential German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. The first English translation appeared in 1995 and as a result, the novel was widely acclaimed. The last twenty years have seen a great flow of Roth translations, especially by Michael Hofmann, who also made a second translation of Radetzkymarsch. For more about Joseph Roth, see my post about his last novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker.  

The German original, Radetzkymarsch, is available from DTV (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag). It is also freely available as ebook from various internet sites, as the German Gutenberg site or the Internet Archive. 
The first English translation was made in 1995 by Joachim Neugroschel and is available from The Overlook Press as well as from Everyman's Library. A second translation was made in 2003 by Michael Hofmann (who has translated many works by Roth and is a great Roth advocate) and is available from Granta Books. I have read the novel in German, but a quick comparison of both translations with the original, shows that the translation by Hofmann is closest to Roth's style.







December 6, 2014

Three Great Nostalgic Novels from Hungary

Hungarian novels can be beautifully melancholic and romantic, but strangely enough, they are very little known outside their country of origin. Here are three great novels and story collections from the first half of the 20th century:

1. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy. Translated by George Szirtes (New York Review Books).
Twenty-four fantastic and nostalgic tales, originally published between 1911 and 1917, about a sort of Hungarian Casanova called (why not?) "Sindbad." Sindbad haunts both Hungary's capital and the obscure corners of its provinces, looking for love - or rather, revisiting past lovers. For in most of the stories Sindbad is already dead, he is like that other, more famous count from Transsylania (a region that used to be part of the Hungarian lands in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) "undead" - but although this lovesick suicide keeps coming back to revisit past loves, there is nothing horrible about him, on the contrary, these stories are all filled with romantic nostalgia. Each story is the evocation of a past love affair, from which not only Sindbad is unable to free himself, also the women he has loved still need him to gratify their fantasies. But it is love with the grave hanging over it, passion that is unavoidable but futile, and the memories are sweet but also painful. These stories are like La Valse by Ravel, a dirge for a lost world, for the year Krúdy finished writing about Sindbad, the empire collapsed. Krúdy's prose is enchanting and evocative (thanks to the excellent translation by the poet George Szirtes), a repetition of sighing sentences building up the dream of Sindbad's life - and ours. For Krúdy, love never dies, but it keeps coming back all the time to haunt us.

[Gyula Krúdy - photo from Wikipedia]

The Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy (1878-1933) worked as a newspaper editor and writer of short stories, much against the wishes of his father, who disinherited him. Krúdy had to support his wife and children with his writings, and therefore the success of Sindbad, of which the first stories were published in 1911, was very welcome. Krúdy also wrote novels about Budapest and the Hungarian revolution. His popularity started to fade in the 1920s and 1930s, when his health also failed due to his excessive lifestyle. He was in fact forgotten until the writer Sándor Márai published a novel about Krúdy's last day - this succesful book also again generated interest in Krúdy's own writings and today he is considered as one of the most original Hungarian writers of the 20th century.

2. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Translated by Len Rix (New York Review Books).
This beloved classical novel, written in 1937, follows Mihály, and his new bride, Erzsi, on their honeymoon in Italy. Mihály possesses a romantic and poetic nature and has lived a wild youth with his four friends János Szepetneki (a sort of conman), Ervin (who wanted to devote his life to religion), Tamás (a friend who suffered from life and has committed suicide) and Éva Ulpius (the type of the femme fatale, who was involved with the suicide). To please his conservative father, Mihály has now resigned himself to a bourgeois existence: he has taken a position in the family company and married Erzsi, a practical woman (although with one complicating factor; Erzsi is using Mihály as a tool for her own liberation, she wanted to get out of her first marriage that was suffocating to her). But Mihály is unable to shake off the nostalgia for his bohemian youth, and his romantic feelings are aroused by the towns and countryside of Italy, a country he visits for the first time. Unfortunately, Italy also calls up the death-haunted and erotic elements of Mihály's past. Not surprisingly, Mihály manages to "loose" his bride by missing the train at a small provincial station and then starts a hallucinatory and bizarre journey through Italy that will eventually make him rejoin the three surviving friends from his youth - and also face something hidden deeply in his psyche, an erotic death-wish connected with the friend with whom he is secretly in love, Éva Ulpius. At the same time, the novel also follows his wife Erszi on her own journey to Paris. Finally, both Mihály and Erszi will have to make the choice what to do with their lives. A beautiful, poetic novel about vacillation between the expectations of society and their incompatibility with our youthful ideals.

Antal Szerb (1901-1945) had a Jewish background, although he was baptized as a Catholic. He was a great scholar, who studied Hungarian, German and English and established a formidable reputation with his studies on Blake and Ibsen. He also lived for five years in France and Italy, and one year in England. In 1933 he was elected as president of the Hungarian Literary Academy and later became professor of literature at the university of Szeged. In 1941, he published his magnum opus, a huge history of world literature, which remains authoritative even today. He also wrote about the history of Hungarian literature and the theory of the novel. His own first novel was published in 1934, The Pendragon Legend, followed in 1937 by his best-known work, Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág). Despite antisemitic persecution, Szerb choose to remain in Hungary, although his third novel, Oliver VII, had to passed off as a translation from the English. In 1944, Szerb was incarcerated in a concentration camp, where in early 1945 he was beaten to death, at age 43.

3. Embers by Sándor Márai. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway from the German translation (Vintage International)
This novel written in 1942 is another La Valse, an expression of profound nostalgia for the destroyed multi-ethnic and multicultural society of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. There is a clear link with the work of Joseph Roth such Radetzky March. The Hungarian title (A gyertyák csonkig égnek) means "The Candles Burn Down to the Stump" and that is what literally happens in the novel, during the night-long conversation between an seventy-five year-old general (Henrik) and the man who used to be his closest friend (Konrad), whom he now meets after the passage of forty-one years. The mournful glamour of the lost empire is called up in the secluded woodland castle of the general, where time seems to have stopped. The novel is a duel in words and silences between host and guest, where the general gives a long monologue, a sort of rant, accusing the guest, who mostly answers by acknowledging silences. The back story is only gradually revealed. Henrik and Konrad were close friends from their school days on, despite their difference in status and wealth. They were inseparable as brothers and it was Konrad who introduced Krisztina, who became Henrik's wife. The three often meet together and the reader will already guess what happened - something the general also realizes when at a hunting party he sees Konrad point his gun at him (without being able to pull the trigger), before leaving without saying goodbye for a far-away, foreign destination. Searching for Konrad, the general visits his apartment where to his shock he meets his wife Krisztina, who only speaks one word, referring to Konrad: "Coward." After that, the life of the general falls to pieces. He never speaks another word to his wife until she dies eight years later, living apart in the hunting lodge. Now, so many years later, Konrad who has made his fortune in the colonies, has briefly returned to Hungary and takes the opportunity to meet his old friend. The general wants Konrad to confess not only his own guilt, but also that of Krisztina, whom he suspects of having enticed Konrad to kill him. But Konrad meets his long accusations with silence, because, after all, Henrik already knows perfectly well what happened on that day, forty-one years ago, when something was lost forever. During their conversation, the candles have burned down, just as the candles of their lives have almost burned down to the stump, and just as only embers are left of the glory of the empire they once served. An exquisite structured novel about the disillusion that life inevitably brings, told with melancholy grandeur.

[Sándor Márai - photo from Wikipedia]

Sándor Márai (1900-1989) was born to an old Hungarian family in a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that is now Slovakia. He travelled in his youth and lived in Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris, and even considered writing in German. But in 1928 he settled in Budapest and chose his mother language. He was active as a journalist, critic and author, and became known for his clear realist style. Márai wrote more than 40 novels and was one of the most influential representatives of Hungarian literature during the interbellum. Although Márai was highly critical of the Nazis and known as antifascist, he remained in Hungary during the war, but was driven away by the Communist regime that seized power after WWII. He left Hungary in 1948 and after a brief stint in Italy, settled in San Diego in California. Cut off from his own culture, he sank in depression and finally died by his own hand in 1989. He was only discovered as a great European author in the 1990s, when the first translations of his work appeared in French, and then in many other languages as well.

P.S. In Hungarian, family name comes before personal name, just as in Japanese or Chinese. However, in this post, I have followed the English custom.

November 30, 2014

"Rue des Boutiques Obscures" ("Missing Person," 1978) by Patrick Modiano

The Nobel Committee in Sweden doesn't always get it right - and they have their own agenda which is narrower than the total range of literature - but their choices are usually well worth checking out. It were Nobel Prizes that initially attracted my attention to José Saramago and J. M. Coetzee, who are now among my favorite authors. And this year's choice, Patrick Modiano, is a highly interesting author as well. Here I discuss one of his best novels, Prix de Goncourt winner Rue des Boutiques Obscures from 1978.

The novel tells the story of a man suffering from amnesia who searches for his identity, a tale of memory and repression. Guy Roland has lost his memory ten years ago; since then, he has worked in a detective agency. Now, in the mid-1960s, on the retirement of his boss and closure of the office, he finds the time has come to use his sleuthing technique to recover what he can of his tenuous past.

The pieces do not fit easily together. Guy Roland goes around talking to various persons, but is himself  a so-called "empty narrator," a first-person narrator devoid of self or identity, who only listens to others but never talks about himself. He tries to reconstruct his old self using unreliable, fragmentary evidence he receives from those he interrogates, such as old photographs, letters, a magazine, a book. These bring back flashes of memory, but it is not certain whether these recollections are authentic, or just dreams, the result of his imagination. Perhaps he is just creating his past with the memories and the past of others.

First Guy thinks he might have lived in a milieu of Russian émigrés; then he imagines he lived once in Hollywood, serving as the companion of the actor John Gilbert. Next it seems he worked as a diplomat for a Latin-American embassy under the assumed name Pedro McEvoy - a false identity to evade arrest - but in reality he may have been a Greek Jew, a broker who lived in Rome and Paris, called Jimmy Stern, who consorted with the idle rich, including exiled Russian aristocrats. Jimmy Stern was married to a French model called Denise, and was friends with Freddie Howard de Luz of Mauritius (a youth friend whom he met at an exclusive private school) and his wife Gay Orlov, an American dancer of Russian origin. To avoid the Nazi occupation (dangerous if Guy/Jimmy was indeed a Jew) the four friends, together with an English jockey, seem to have moved to the winter sports village of Megève in the French Alps. From there, Guy and Denise tried to flee to Switzerland but they were cheated by their guides and became separated. Guy was abandoned in the snow and Denise disappeared forever. This was in 1943.

Here the memories break off again, and it seemingly follows that Guy lost his memory in 1943. But elsewhere it is stated unambiguously that this happened in 1955 - so what has occurred in the twelve years between those dates? Was this twelve year gap a case of conscious forgetting, just like the French after the war tried to forget their history of cooperation with the Nazis and the Holocaust? This is one of the many questions that is never answered in the book.

The novel has a playful relation to the conventions of detective fiction, by raising the reader's expectations according to the rules of the genre, but always failing to fulfill them. Guy Roland's quest is a never-ending search for identity in a world where "the sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments."

By the way, in English this book has been renamed "Missing Person," which is not only wrong (it is not what the book is about), but which also destroys the rich references of the original title "Street of Dark Shops." This is the name of an actual street in Rome (which also appears in Modiano's previous novel, Livret de famille), and it also points at small clothes shops owned by Jews and therefore hints at the (implied) Jewish identity of the protagonist, Guy Roland, while the "shops" suggest his "shopping around" for an identity, and that he never seems satisfied with what he finds. Guy Roland remains an empty self, trying to fill the void in him with various narratives. The title also embodies "obscurity," connected to the fact that Guy Roland never finds clear proof of his past self, which remains shrouded in darkness. And, finally, a reference to the actual street Rue des Boutiques Obscures in Rome stands at the end of the book suggesting "lack of closure" - the search for identity goes on and will never end. So you see how much is lost when a too commercially-minded publisher changes a title the author has given deep thought to, into a simplistic phrase suggesting a cheap genre novel!

Patrick Modiano was born in Paris in 1945 as the son of an Italian Jewish father and a Belgian mother. His father hid his Jewish identity and evaded arrest, but spent the war doing questionable business on the black market. Modiano always had a difficult relation with his father, who was often absent. Instead, he was emotionally close to his brother Rudy, who died from an illness when only ten years old. After high school, Modiano did not continue to university, but started writing. The famous author Raymond Queneau, a friend of his mother, acted as his mentor and played a decisive role in Modiano's development. His first novel, La Place de l'étoile, was published in 1968 and attracted much attention.

Since then, Modiano has published a new novel every year or every other year. He has also written children's books and film scripts - the most important of these is Lacombe Lucien, a film set under the German occupation, filmed by Louis Malle in 1974. Modiano's books center on themes as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt - there is a decided similarity to the work of German author W.G. Sebald here. Paris also plays an important role in his work, it is evoked by using real addresses and Modiano follows the evolution of its streets. Modiano uses many autobiographical elements in his work. He is also obsessed with what happened during the Nazi occupation. Some of his novels have a documentary character, being built on newspaper articles. Modiano's many novels not only share the same topics, but also hang together because the same persons may return in different novels, and earlier, concise episodes may be extended in later books. Modiano writes in a bare and unemotional - indeed documentary - style.

Some important novels, also translated into English, are: Villa Triste (1975); Voyage des noces (1990, translated as Honeymoon) and especially Dora Bruder (1997, again a title severely mistranslated as "The Search Warrant"). This last novel documents the true history of a fifteen-year old girl (called Dora Bruder) in Paris who ran away from the convent that had sheltered her during the Nazi Occupation and who subsequently became victim of the Holocaust. It shows, again, how little remains of a human life.

November 27, 2014

"The Emigrants" ("Die Ausgewanderten") by W.G. Sebald

The Emigrants, a work of fiction written in 1992 by W.G. Sebald, consists of four short biographical narratives. The original German title, Die Ausgewanderten, has a nuance that is impossible to convey in the same way in English: it means people who have already emigrated, and who are now living away from their original homeland, not "emigrants" still on the move, which would be "Auswanderer." "Displaced persons" or "exiles" would be a better description for the four persons described in these tales, as they have not only emigrated in a spacial sense, but also in a social and above all psychological sense. The Emigrants is the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four such displaced persons, and it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page.

They four "displaced persons" are:
Dr. Henry Selwyn, the estranged and unworldly husband of the English landlady of the narrator. The narrator and his wife first meet him when they come to look at a house for rent in Norwich and in fact find him face down on the lawn, talking to the grass. When Dr. Selwyn was only seven, in 1899, his family emigrated from a village in Lithuania to England. It was their intention to go to New York, but the boat dumped all emigrants in London, where they unknowingly for a long time kept searching for the Statue of Liberty. In this way, the originally Jewish Dr Selwyn, who had a distinguished career as a medical doctor, could remain untouched by the horrors of Nazism. However, it is clear that psychologically he increasingly suffers under the shadow of the (never mentioned) Holocaust - that is the reason he gradually dissolves most relations with other humans and only feels close to plants and animals. At the same time, Dr Selwyn doesn't like to speak about the past and it is only via chance meetings that the narrator hears part of his life story. Dr Selwyn finally commits suicide by shooting himself.
Paul Bereyter, the primary school teacher of the narrator in a town called "S" in southern Germany. The story is triggered when the narrator reads a small notice of the death by suicide of his old teacher. Although partly Jewish, and therefore having trouble finding work in Germany in the 1930s, Paul Bereyter has served in the Wehrmacht because at that time he felt his identity was "German." After the war he leads a quiet life as an inspirational school teacher, who takes his pupils often out of the classroom. But after his pension he moves to France, not feeling at home in Germany anymore - as his grandfather was Jewish, he gradually realizes he belongs to the "exiles." He finally commits suicide by lying down on the railroad.
Ambros Adelwarth, a long-dead great uncle of the narrator. During a visit to relatives living in New Jersey, the narrator hears the story of this great uncle. In his youth, in the early 20th century, Uncle Adelwarth has emigrated from Germany to the U.S. where he became the traveling companion (both valet and lover) of a young man from a wealthy Jewish family who wandered around the world (the narrator paraphrases his diaries to tell about this period). They visit casinos and famous hotels were the pre-WWI jetset used to seek its enjoyment. When his companion has become mentally ill, Uncle Adelwarth continues serving the same family as a butler on their estate on Long Island. After his pension, he suffers from depression and undergoes an electroshock treatment whereby his memories seem to be dissolved. He finally dies in a mental institution.
Max Aurach (in the English version: Feber), an expatriate German-Jewish painter. He scratches his paintings as much as 40 times away, until they become veritable "images of the lost." The young narrator (who has come to the U.K. to study) meets him in the dilapidated city of Manchester. Years later, the painter gives the narrator the diary of his mother, which describes her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village in the early 20th c. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the Nazi death camps. In this way, the narrator gradually discovers the effects of the Holocaust on Aurach/Ferber and his family.

In the above, I have on purpose spoken about "the narrator" and not "Sebald." I wanted to make clear that we should distinguish between the two - although the narrator shares many autobiographical elements with Sebald, The Emigrants is a work of fiction. That same fictionality is true for the four narratives: these "biographies" ring very true, but we know that Sebald included fictional elements, making them rather "mock biographies." For example, the painter in the fourth story is a composite, fictional figure, partly based on the real Frank Auerbach, a German-born painter with a Jewish background working in London, who indeed paints in the style described by Sebald. But Sebald has said in an interview that he has never met Auerbach and in order to protect Auerbach's privacy, he changed the name of the painter in the English translation from "Aurach" into "Feber." This of course means that the diary of the mother of the painter is also fictional, or that Sebald used another diary here. And so there are more instances revealing the ultimate fictionality of the biographies - which does not alter the fact that the book as a whole points at a higher truth.

There is one more fictional element that all four stories have in common: In all of them suddenly a man (in the last story, a boy) with a net catching butterflies appears - this obviously is the famous author Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great butterfly fan and spent all his holidays hunting butterflies, either in the U.S. or Europe. The inclusion of Nabokov is more than just a post-modern joke - after all, also Nabokov was an "emigrant," exiled from Russia by the Revolution, and his autobiography is significantly called "Speak, Memory."

Sebald illustrates his mix of fact and fiction with small blurry black-and-white photographs which are another form of "memories," but here, too, we can never be sure we have to do with real documents - teasingly, they may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the narrative.

What Sebald shows in a masterly fashion is how our lives are constituted by chance, how they rather randomly consist of both realized and unrealized possibilities. On top of that, for Sebald the major elements of life are not the great themes of love, truth or friendship - but rather unremitting loneliness and permanent disquiet.

No life develops as originally scripted, "life stories" only exist in Hollywood films. In fact, life can be stranger than fiction, as in the story about Dr Selwyn, who tells the narrator about his friendship with a Swiss mountain guide - until that guide suddenly disappeared. Long after the death of Dr Selwyn, the narrator reads in a paper that the body of exactly this guide has been found in a retreating glacier, many decades after his death. "And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," he concludes.

A very profound work of fiction, that gains from repeated readings.

P.S. Sebald, who since 1970 lived permanently in England where he taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was himself an emigrant as well.

English translation by Michael Hulse, published by New Directions.
See my review of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald for more information about the author.

November 18, 2014

"The Following Story" by Cees Nooteboom (Book review)

The novella The Following Story by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is - at less than 100 pages - a little gem. It is also a strange and uncanny story, although told with the necessary humor. A man who as usual went to bed in his apartment in Amsterdam, to his surprise wakes up in a hotel room in a different country. What has happened to him? What kind of metaphysical mystery has him in its grip? Is he still alive?

[Socrates in the Vatican Museum - Wikipedia (German)]

The man called Hermann Mussert (a surname with a notorious connotation as this is also the name of the leader of the National Socialist Movement in Holland before and during WWII, who was executed for high treason) is in his fifties; he used to be a teacher of Greek and Latin, until he lost his job, after which he became a writer of popular travel guides. He is not an attractive man - not for nothing was his nickname as a teacher "Socrates" (the Greek philosopher was reputedly one of the ugliest men in history) - and a typical intellectual who only lives for his books and study - of course he is unmarried and lives alone. He is obsessed by Greek and Roman literature, and especially by the mythology as described in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

But twenty years ago he was harshly pulled into ordinary life (the life of other mortals) when a rather forceful and outspoken female colleague started an affair with him - to take revenge on her husband who was having his own affair with one of his pupils. The affair with the female colleague, a biology teacher called Maria Zeinstra, started in the same hotel room in Lisbon where he now finds himself, and the next day he spends his time walking through Lisbon, bringing back memories of his life and especially of what happened twenty years ago. The pangs and pleasures of memory bring him to the fundamental question of his identity, and what he has done with his life. They are also filled with an inexpressible melancholy.

[Torre Belem in Lisbon - Wikipedia (German)]

And then, in the second half of the novella, the scene suddenly changes, as the man takes passage on a mysterious ship that sails west, and finally will reach South-America where it enters the mouth of the Amazon. There is only a handful of other passengers, who seem to be in the same circumstances, plus a woman, a sort of guide. They are from different walks of life and only thrown together by accident, as travelers usually are. Gradually we understand that they are all dead, shades as in classical mythology, on their way to Hades. When the ship enters the mouth of the Amazon, the passengers one by one are invited to tell their life story, after which they have to follow the guide and disappear. They all tell how they died. The teacher is the last one to tell his story and he starts with the words that he will tell "the following story" - at which point the novella ends, for this is the story we have just been reading.

As the author has indicated, the two parts of the story represent the first few moments during and after dying: at first, one sees the most important scenes of one's life flashing before one's eyes; next, one leaves the earth. Nooteboom is not religious in the traditional sense, so he doesn't conjure up a heaven or paradise - he uses images from classical Greek and Roman mythology, as that is the specialty of the teacher - and mixes these with the contemporary insight that death is the end: in life we are a collection of a particular set of atoms, after death these atoms will be scattered and their function will change so that even they will have no memory of the body they once formed.

[The Rio Negro at sunset - from Wikipedia (German)]

The scenes that appear before his eyes the moment the teacher in the story dies, have been the crucial ones in his life, because this was a time that he was untrue to himself. This truth is buried deep in the story and never stated in so many words. For the relation with the biology teacher was not a tale of love: Maria was an overbearing, assertive and - as Dutch can be - aggressively outspoken person and just swept the shy classical language teacher, who had no experience in love or life, from his feet. She didn't love him, and the way she spoke to him shows that she in fact looked down on him. She only used him for taking revenge on her philandering husband. That husband is a teacher at the same school and has an affair with a beautiful pupil, Lisa d'India. She is the best pupil also in Latin and Greek, and much admired by our protagonist. He is even secretly in love with her, perhaps without being wholly aware of that.

As events develop, Lisa sends him a letter, and he receives it while the biology teacher is standing next to him. Maria Zeinstra demands that he throws the letter away, unseen, or else she will stop loving him. The meek classical teacher obeys, and so throws away his own chance of happiness - this was the crucial moment in which he failed Lisa d'India and himself, something which he only now realizes as it had been buried deeply in his consciousness. That same day, he gets involved in a fist fight with Maria's husband, after which both teachers are sacked; and Lisa d'India dies in a car accident.

Finally Hermann Mussert discovers who he is, and the answer is not a pleasant one.

First published in Dutch with the title Het volgende verhaal in 1991. The English translation was made by Ina Rilke and published in 1994. A Vintage paperback edition has followed in 2014 (with a foreword by David Mitchell). The German edition was translated by Helga van Beuningen and published by Suhrkamp in 1991; this led to a breakthrough for Nooteboom in Germany, where Die folgende Geschichte was not only highly praised by critics (as Marcel Reich-Ranicki of Das Literarische Quartett) but also led to highly successful sales (seven printings in only the first three months). 

October 21, 2014

More Best Films Based on Classical Novels (2)

For a general introduction about literature and film, see my previous post Best Films Based on Classical Novels.

1. Octave Mirbeau: Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, 1900), filmed in 1964 by Luis Bunuel. With Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli & Georges Géret.
The outspoken diary of Célestine R., a chambermaid, who exposes the hypocrisy and perversions of bourgeois society, before herself becoming "one of them." 
Although a political context is certainly not lacking in Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel (in the form of the Dreyfus affair), Bunuel changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In the novel, Célestine comes to work for the Lanlaires (in the film called Monteils), an estranged couple living on a large estate in Normandy, while telling tales about her previous employers in flashbacks. The book was shocking because a chambermaid was given voice here via her so-called diary, and what a voice! She exuberantly hangs out all the dirty washes of her hypocritical bourgeois employers. (By the way, in Anglophone countries this French novel is often presented as "naughty" or "obscene," but that is absurd: it is a serious novel with nothing in the least "titillating.") In both film and book, the lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. Bunuel leaves out the loose stories the chambermaid includes in her diary about her past employers, but includes the first one by making the "shoe-fetishist employer" with whom the novel starts into the father living with the Monteils. In both cases, the man dies of excitement while embracing one of Célestine's boots. Like in the novel, there is the mystery of the murder of a young girl and the suspicion which falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent rightist. In the book, Célestine finally marries Joseph, because she is sexually attracted to his "animalistic spirit," and they start a successful cafe business together; in the film, she does even better by marrying a rich (though very old) neighbor and becoming a grand lady herself - lording it over her husband. Bunuel sets Joseph down as an outright Fascist - as a joke, at the end of the film the director has him join a rally where people shout the name of a Fascist leader... who is none other than the police chief who in 1930 had censored Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene even when facing off with the elderly shoe-fetishist, and above all, wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's films made after Diary of a Chambermaid, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts. Although less well known, this a perfect film that deserves to be viewed more often and should take its place beside Bunuel's other great films, as Tristana and Belle de Jour.


2. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902), filmed in 1997 by Iain Softley and with Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache and Alison Elliott.
An American heiress, who is seriously ill, is befriended by an impoverished English woman who lives with her wealthy aunt, and her journalist lover, for less than honorable motives: they need money to be able to marry, and hope the heiress will fall in love with the journalist, and leave her fortune to him... of course, things turn out rather differently.
I have included this film only because it is an excellent example of how NOT to film a classical novel. This cheap and sentimental film is an insult to the artistry of Henry James, who in The Wings of the Dove wrote a sensitive, ambiguous and multi-layered psychological novel, one of his best achievements. The film keeps the period dresses (although changing the time from late Victorian to Edwardian) but infuses the characters with late 20th century egotism and lack of principles ("I want it now!"). It includes various sex scenes which are not in the novel, starting with a bout of groping in an elevator, a scene of lovemaking on the cold stones of Venice, and a final sequence where the important discussion between Kate and Merton which changes their fate, has been made to take place during a soft-core sex scene. Can it get more silly? This is like drawing feet on a snake - cheap and commercialized, and totally foreign to the rather inhibited character of James' protagonists. The great psychological novel has been reduced to a sugary Harlequin romance. Despite the period dresses, the images are never impressive, not even in the scenes set in Venice, and neither are the performances of most of the "stars." This is all the more a shame as Helena Bonham Carter, as Kate, alone gives the performance of a lifetime.

3. E.M. Forster, Howards End (1910), filmed in 1992 by James Ivory and with Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins.
The story of the hunt for a house called Howards End. Depicts three different classes in Edwardian England: the capitalistic and businesslike Wilcoxes, the cultured and humanistic Schlegels and the working-class Basts. Will they finally connect?
In contrast to the previous entry, this is a film adaptation that fully lives up to the great classical novel on which it is based. It is a first class and tasteful achievement, as is usually the case with director James Ivory, with superb acting from Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter as the cultured Schlegel sisters, and Anthony Hopkins as the hard businessman Wilcox. Vanessa Redgrave is also great as the mystic - and dying - Mrs Wilcox. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala does fully justice to the novel and accurately renders all the critical scenes. The unavoidable changes, such as removing the German family from the film, or having Helen visit the concert where she meets Leonard Bast alone instead of with her family, are all logical. In fact, there are few film adaptations which manage to be so faithful to the original, while at the same time enhancing it by great acting and beautiful visuals. The locations and period details are accurate as well. A most impressive film that I highly recommend.


4. Virginia Woolf: Orlando: A Biography (1928), filmed in 1992 by Sally Potter as "Orlando." With Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane & Quentin Crisp.
Mock biography of a perpetually youthful, charming hero/ine, who starts out as a nobleman living in Elizabethan times before traversing three centuries and both genders. 
A fairy tale, already in Woolf's novel and even more so in independent film maker Sally Potter's version. Potter remains true to the spirit of the book but has simplified the storyline and removed any events not significantly advancing Orlando's story. As Potter wrote in her Notes on the Adaptation, elements that can be abstract or arbitrary in the novel, had to be explained in the film. Orlando's long life (he has lived for many centuries and may still be around today) is never explained in the book, but in the film Queen Elizabeth bestows Orlando's long life upon him with the words "Do not fade, do not wither, do not grow old . . ." In the same way, Orlando's sex change is explained in the film as the result of his having reached a crisis of masculine identity when looking death and destruction in the face on the battlefield. The "moral" of both book and film is that gender is just a convention prescribed by society - it is the inner essence of people which matters. Thus, Potter's Orlando, on discovering (s)he is now a woman, declares, "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex." Like the book, the film follows its character through four centuries of sexual politics, by taking 50-year steps. In the 18th c. clad in an impossible dress, Orlando experiences society's disdain for women, and in the 19th century she looses her vast country house as women were not allowed to own property. The film ends at the present day, when unmarried mother Orlando rides on a motorcycle with her little daughter in the sidecar. The androgynous title character is played delicately and marvelously by Tilda Swinton. True to the gender-bending theme, Quentin Crisp has a great act as the aged Queen Elizabeth I. Despite the feminist message, the film is not at all preachy but rather deliciously playful. It also makes its modest budget go a long way - a most memorable scene is a skating waltz by courtiers on ice.


5. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense (1930), filmed in 2000 by Marleen Gorris as "The Luzhin Defence." With John Turturro, Emily Watson, & Geraldine James.
A novel about a brilliant but socially awkward chess master who connects to life only through the language and conventions of chess and finally descends into madness.
Nabokov is truly impossible to film, although both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne had a go at Lolita. In my view, perhaps the best results have been achieved by Marleen Gorris' adaptation of an early novel written in Russian, when Nabokov lived in exile in Berlin: The Luzhin Defense. Gorris is a Dutch feminist film maker known for Antonia, who also made a wonderful film based on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. In The Luzhin Defence she doesn't stick to the main details of the book but rather sets out to capture its spirit. The movie looks at things from a decidedly feminine point of view. Gorris has greatly enhanced the role of the woman Luzhin marries, and even made Natalia the heroine - while in the novel her name is not even mentioned! The novel ends with Luzhin's supposed suicide, but in the film Natalia finds Luzhin's notes (the "Luzhin defense") for the championship match he is then playing and decides to finish the game for his posthumous honor - and she wins (see this chess site for an evaluation of the realistic chess scenes in the film). Despite the dramatic ending, the film is filled with light humor as well. Luzhin is a near-autistic genius, dwelling only in the chambers of the mind, and wearing filthy suits while chain-smoking. He is unable to make small talk, so when Natalia asks him how long he has been playing chess, he answers, after calculating: "9,263 days, 4 hours and 5 minutes." Gorris sees him with great empathy and John Turturro gives a magnificent performance. Also Emily Watson is touching and convincing as Natalia, who has the inner strength to stand up against her aristocratic mother who wants her to marry an eligible count. A great and delicate film about the vulnerability of genius in our cruelly ordinary world.

6. Georges Simenon: The Engagement (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933), filmed in 1989 by Patrick Leconte as "Monsieur Hire." With Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire.
An introverted, middle-aged man who has no contact with his neighbors, and who is considered as "strange," is wrongly suspected of murder by police and neighborhood when a young woman is found killed in the vicinity. But M. Hire has his own secret...
The Engagement is one of the earliest "Romans durs," serious psychological novels with often an element of crime (and different from the Maigret-series) written by Simenon (see my post about this author). It is a small book, almost a novella, in which the tragic tale is told with the utmost economy. Leconte has updated the film from the 1930s to the late 80s - his detective with long hair and rough clothes is a far cry from the neatly uniformed police officers in the original. But Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire is perfect - just as I imagined him when reading the novel, with a white face, balding head but always overdressed in suit and tie. Monsieur Hire's secret is that he peeps into the room of a young woman living in a wing of the same building, just opposite a small courtyard (almost Rear Window-style). She never closes her curtains, and Monsieur Hire every evening switches off his lights and stands watching her, also when she undresses... When Alice finally notices his voyeuristic behavior, she approaches him, first by spilling a bag with tomatoes in front of his door (a great idea, only found in the film). Later they become friends, more so in the film than in the book where Alice works in a dairy shop; in the film she is more intellectual, admirably played by Sandrine Bonnaire. But in but book and film she has a boyfriend who is a small criminal, and who may be the real murderer, something which also means disaster for Monsieur Hire. His plan that she ditches her boyfriend and run off with him comes to nothing and then his own existence hangs suddenly - literally - in the balance... What remains a mystery is what Alice really thinks of Monsieur Hire - does she after all love him although she plants false evidence in his room and then informs the detective? Is she sorry for him? And what does that last look mean, when she stands behind her window, and Monsieur Hire sees her in an extraordinary final shot? It are the two main actors who make this a great film and worthy comment on the original novel.


7. Julio Cortazar: "Blow-Up" (original title in Spanish "Las babas del diablo,” “The Drool of the Devil,” 1959), filmed in 1966 by Michelangelo Antonioni. With David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles.
A photographer believes he has seen something intriguing through his camera, which when he blows up the picture, turns out to be possibly tragic.
In Cortazar's experimental story an amateur photographer living in Paris happens to snap a shot of a woman and a boy, wondering whether he has captured the seduction of an adolescent boy by an older woman. When the woman notices her picture is being taken, she starts shouting angrily at the photographer about the invasion of her privacy and the boy sees his chance to run away. After enlarging the photo and studying it again, the photographer realizes to his horror that the woman was in fact "pimping" the boy for an older man waiting nearby in a parked car. Then the story moves into the surreal: the photographer is drawn into the enlarged photo, he becomes the camera and also becomes the seduced boy, and is murdered by the man who has come out of the car, and finally  lies dead in the photograph staring immobilized as a camera at the sky, where the clouds pass by and now a then a pigeon flies past - the world has become a photograph. Antonioni uses the idea of the Cortazar story, but unavoidably greatly changes it. The most visible aspect is that he changes the scene to the swinging London of the 1960s, and his protagonist becomes a popular fashion photographer, Thomas, who leads an empty life of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll." He is bored by all the gratuitous sex, the brainless models, the groupies and the languid pot parties, and goes soulless through the motions of his work. He happens to take pictures of a couple in park, a woman and an older man; the woman remonstrates with him and even follows him to his studio. She even takes off her shirt, wanting to seduce him and steal the film. Thomas sends her away with the wrong roll, but is intrigued by this woman, so different from the superficial girls around him. Then out of curiosity Thomas enlarges the photos and in a beautiful sequence, hanging ever larger and larger prints on his wall, discovers that he has photographed a murder - in the grainy image he sees is a man with a gun hiding in the bushes behind the couple and the elderly man who was with the woman later lies prostrate on the grass. Thomas checks again in the park, now by night. The mystery deepens and proves at the same time unsolvable as the mysterious woman has also disappeared... but for a short while, the mystery has woken him from his lethargy. Antonioni has filmed in a great style, with little dialogue, almost telling the whole film with the camera. In its day Blow-Up was notorious for an orgy scene with groupies and some nudity; today, the sex is tame, but what shocks is the cruelty and contempt for women of the protagonist as shown in the way he treats his models and girlfriends, an aspect of the 60s we seem to have forgotten. The film ends with a nice symbolic scene where a group of students with white faces mimic playing tennis in the park - Thomas pretends he can see the ball and we hear it on the soundtrack, but it isn't there, just like the core mystery of the film.



October 19, 2014

Bach Cantatas (53): Trinity XX

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity. The cantatas for this day are based on the parable of the marriage of the King's son, for which invitations are sent out but largely ignored because people are too busy; when finally guests do come, one person lacks a wedding garment and is severely punished. This parable may be mixed with the more practical message of the Epistle to avoid bad company and bad habits.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
Ephesians 5:15–21, Avoid bad company: "walk circumspectly, ... filled with the Spirit"
Matthew 22:1–14, parable of the great banquet (marriage of the king's son)

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

[Jan Luyken: The Man Without a Wedding Garment]

Cantatas:
  • Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe, BWV 162, 3 November 1715 or 25 October 1716
    Aria (bass): Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe
    Recitative (tenor): O großes Hochzeitfes

    Aria (soprano): Jesu, Brunnquell aller Gnaden
    Recitative (alto): Mein Jesu, laß mich nicht
    Duet aria (alto, tenor): In meinem Gott bin ich erfreut
    Chorale: Ach, ich habe schon erblicket

    ("Ah! I see, now, when I go to the wedding") An early cantata written in 1715 in Weimar on a text by Salomon Franck. Although the narrative is based on the notion of a wedding, it is not at all joyous, but focuses on the worries of the invitees that they may be unworthy (lacking a wedding garment). Bach performed the cantata again in 1723 in Leipzig and then added a part for a corno da tirarsi, a rare Baroque wind instrument thought to have been similar to the slide trumpet (tromba da tirarsi). This instrument is used in the opening movement, an austere solo aria for bass. The slide trumpet adds a haunting note to the contemplative music. Not all parts for the embellished soprano aria have come down to us, so in some performances parts for a flauto traverso and oboe d'amore are reconstructed. Although the consoling duet for alto and tenor is only accompanied by the continuo, this seems complete. The cantata closes with a short chorale on a beautiful melody by Johann Rosenmüller from 1652.
  • Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 180, 22 October 1724
    Chorus: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele
    Aria (tenor): Ermuntre dich, dein Heiland klopft
    Recitative and chorale (soprano): Wie teuer sind des heilgen Mahles Gaben! – Ach, wie hungert mein Gemüte
    Recitative (alto): Mein Herz fühlt in sich Furcht und Freude
    Aria (soprano): Lebens Sonne, Licht der Sinnen
    Recitative (bass): Herr, laß an mir dein treues Lieben
    Chorale: Jesu, wahres Brot des Lebens


    ("Adorn yourself, o dear soul") Based on the beloved chorale melody "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele" by Johann Franck and its associated melody by Johann Crüger. A joyful cantata in a swinging rhythm. The first movement is a chorale fantasy where two recorders as well as oboe and English horn dance lightly over a gigue-like figure in the strings. The following tenor aria is accompanied by a virtuoso flute, while the knocking from the line "Arouse yourself: your Savior knocks" is humorously depicted in the bass line. The soprano recitative and arioso feature a violoncello piccolo (today often played on the viola), playing a lively figuration beneath an ornamented version of the chorale. In the alto recitative the two recorders appear again and this is followed by a wonderful dancing soprano aria with the full instrumental ensemble, celebrating the joy of communion with Christ. The bass then asks for a rekindling of the fire of faith before a final chorale, one of Bach's greatest chorale harmonizations, brings this wonderful cantata to a satisfying end.
  • Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49, 3 November 1726
    Sinfonia
    Aria (bass): Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen
    Recitative (soprano, bass): Mein Mahl ist zubereit
    Aria (soprano): Ich bin herrlich, ich bin schön
    Recitative (soprano, bass): Mein Glaube hat mich selbst so angezogen
    Aria (bass) + Chorale (soprano): Dich hab ich je und je geliebet – Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh


    ("(I go and seek with longing") A solo cantata for soprano and bass, a dialogue between the Soul and Jesus, her bridegroom, based on the parable of the wedding feast. The opening sinfonia is an arrangement for organ of the third movement of Bach's E Major harpsichord concerto. The bass as the vox Christi then sings the words of Jesus, based on a passage from the Song of Songs, in an opening aria that is full of longing. The aria is accompanied by an organ obbligato. Next follow a duet recitative and a soprano aria, the latter accompanied by oboe d'amore, viola and continuo. With the words "I am glorious, I am beautiful," the bride reflects on her beauty. This is one of the most impressive arias Bach wrote. After some more dialogue, the cantata is closed by a duet. While the bass sings of his happiness about the consummation of the marriage, the soprano intones a verse of the chorale, “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.” This is accompanied by quite magical organ music.

October 17, 2014

The Best Stories of Anton Chekhov (4): Period of Maturity B 1892-1895

In this period, Chekhov's finances had improved so much, that in early 1892 he was able to buy a country estate at Melikhovo near Moscow. He moved there with his family and would remain in this new home until 1899 (although also making regular trips to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Southern Russia) - a very happy period in his life. As landowner, he intimately got to know peasant life, something which he used in such stories as "Peasants" and "In the Ravine;" he treated the medical problems of his peasants free of charge and organized measures against the cholera epidemics of 1892-93. He also built schools and a clinic. In contrast to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Chekhov never idealized the peasants, but he portrayed them in a realistic fashion - in other words, instead of regarding them as the saviors of Russia, he showed how stupid, backward, superstitious, and debauched they often were. Life as a peasant was hell, and peasants were also hell to each other.

In 1894 Chekhov Tolstoy at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, and they seem to have been good friends despite their different views (Tolstoy was of course a peasant-adorer, trying hard to become one himself).

These were years that Chekhov wrote many excellent stories; in 1895 he also published one of his most original plays, The Seagull. The premiere in 1896 was, however, a disaster - it had to wait until 1998 when Stanislavski performed it successfully with his innovative Moscow Art Theatre.


Here are the stories from 1892, 1893, 1894 and 1895 (I have only left out a few sketches of which I could find no translation). I have provided links to the translations by Constance Garnett at Adelaide University and Gutenberg.

“My Wife [The Wife]” [1892]
Pavel is married to the much younger Natalia. Since two years, they live together-apart, the wife on the ground floor and Pavel on the first floor of the house. There is almost no communication between them, she hates him, he is indifferent to her. Then in the year 1892 there is terrible famine and the peasants are dying, also in the nearby village. Natalia organizes and coordinates the help from local landowners, but to her despair, Pavel also sticks his nose in it. She does it from conviction, he from duty. Everybody flees his pompousness. Finally, he returns to his wife and puts his fortune at her disposal to use for her charities. He will soon be ruined but feels at peace.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“The Grasshopper [The Butterfly] [The Fidget]” [1892]
Ossip Dymov, a young hardworking medical doctor has married Olga, a gay and artistic woman. While he is occupied with his profession, she parties with artists and also makes a trip with a group of friends. She even has an adulterous affair with Ryabovsky, a bohemian-type landscape painter. But when her husband tries to save a patient from diphtheria and himself is infected and dies, she finally realizes that her quiet and hard-working husband was the person with much higher qualities than her artist friends. But now it is too late...
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“After the Theater” [1892]
The idealistic reveries of a 16-year old girl, who has just seen a romantic piece in the theater.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“In Exile” [1892]
One of the few stories based on experiences during Chekhov's 1890 journey through Siberia to Sakhalin. Old Semyon and a young Tartar are working with other exiles as ferrymen at a river crossing. Semyon urges the Tartar to accept his fate. It is no use fighting. He gives the example of Vasily Sergeyitch, a wealthy aristocrat also sent into exile, whose daughter is afflicted with consumption. The father keeps looking for new doctors, often using the ferry crossing when he sets out on his searches, but Old Semyon mocks him, preaching the doctrine of accepting one's fate and doing nothing. This is the attitude Chekhov subtly criticizes: not only is the resignation of Semyon egoistic (he has no empathy for the struggle of others), on top of that he suffers from the common Russian ailment, fatalism - which "justifies" being stone drunk every day because it is no use doing anything.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Neighbors [1892]
About the problem of inter-human communication. Ivashin's sister Zina has left home to live as common-in-law wife with their neighbor, Vlassitch. A marriage is impossible as Vlassitch wife refuses to grant a separation. After hesitating for a whole month, Ivashin finally visits Vlassitch to clarify the situation. He does not understand what his sister sees in this man. But the visit is unsuccessful: Zina asserts herself and refuses to return home (causing her mother pain), Vlassitch appears to have mortgaged everything to buy off his wife without making any progress, and Ivashin returns home feeling depressed and empty. How will these people be able to find happiness?
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Ward No. 6” [1892]
The director of a decrepit insane asylum (Ward No. 6) in a provincial town ends up committed to his own ward in a story criticizing repressive society. Doctor Ragin is a solitary man, who has neither pride nor pleasure in his profession. When he was young, he tried to take his duties in the hospital seriously (although he has always felt superior towards the country bumpkins around him), but gradually he has lost all interest and leaves most of the work to his assistant Sergey. The hospital is dirty but Ragin looks away and prefers to spend his time reading. He fails to empathize with the sick and believes that there is no point in trying to cure patients or alleviate suffering. "Dying is the normal end of us all." Then Ragin becomes fascinated by one of the five patients in the ward, Gromov, who is a well-educated man, but also a paranoid. Ragin daily spends hours debating with Gromov. Ragin's outrageous behavior finally leads to his dismissal, and incarceration as a lunatic himself. Happily for him, he soon has a stroke and dies.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Terror [Fear]” [1892]
Dimitry Silin seems to have everything needed for a happy life: Marya, a wife he loves, children, a well-run farm, and a friend who often visits him. That friend is the narrator, and he feels ill at ease as he is in love with Marya. One day, Silin tells him that his marriage is not really a happy one, he loves his wife, but she doesn't love him. That very evening the narrator happens to be alone with Marya and he confesses to her that he makes such frequent visits because he loves her, although she is the wife of his best friend. He spends the night with her in his room. In the morning, as Marya is leaving his room, Silin appears to say goodbye to his friend before going to his fields. Has he understood what happened? The shameful narrator leaves immediately and never again visits Silin and his wife.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

"The two Volodyas" [1893]
Twenty-four hours from the life of Sofya Lyovna. Just a few months ago, she has married Colonel Vladimir Nikititch (named Big Volodya) who is 30 years older - it was a marriage for money. In reality, she is in love with her youth friend Vladimir Mihalovitch (named Little Volodya), a military doctor in the regiment of her husband. Little Volodya plays constantly around with married women, but has never shown any romantic interest in Sofia. Sofia tries to persuade herself that she has done the right thing by marrying Big Volodya, and that she is happy. Driving home through the night with both Volodyas after a dinner with lots of alcohol, she stops at a convent to meet her friend Olga who has retreated there recently. Olga's seemingly fulfilling life in the religious order makes Sofya feel all the stronger that her own life is a mess. The next day Sofya becomes the mistress of Little Volodya, but a month afterwards, he already drops her. She realizes that she has a boring and vapid life before her.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“An Anonymous Story” [1893]
One of the five novellas Chekhov wrote, a mix of bits and pieces of Russian literary themes. The narrator ("Stefan") seems to be a political activist or spy (reminding us of Dostoevsky's Demons), and therefore remains anonymous - he gets the job of footman in the house of Orlov, a young Petersburg playboy, whose father is an important political figure. But this is not at all a political story: it is a love story (in the style of Turgenev, with Orlov as the typical "superfluous man"). The narrator observes how Orlov charms a beautiful young married woman, Zinaida, who leaves her husband, and moves in with Orlov. But the playboy soon grows tired of her, even moving in with friends in order to escape her presence, although Zinaida continues to love him passionately. As it happens, the narrator in his turn has fallen one-sidedly in love with her, and finally manages to persuade her to flee with him to Venice, and afterwards Florence and Nice. But when he tells her about his love, Zinaida is disappointed in him for she believed he was helping her purely out of altruism. In the meantime, Zinaida discovers that she is pregnant (from Orlov) and the narrator has an attack of "pleurisy" (in reality tuberculosis, but just like Chekhov he does not admit this). When Zinaida dies in childbirth (with the help of some poison), the narrator decides to bring up the child which has been delivered safely. He returns to Russia to do so, but after two years his tuberculosis becomes worse, so he resolves his conflict with Orlov and takes measures for the care of Zinaide's child after his death. A strange story that does not entirely convince.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“The Black Monk” [1894]
Kovrin, a brilliant scholar, is overworked and decides to take a holiday at the horticulture center run by his childhood friend Tanya and her father. Kovrin enjoys helping with work in the garden. But then he starts seeing the phantom of a black monk, a hallucination which strangely enough seems to give him new strength. In other words, Kovrin may be decidedly schizophrenic. As summer goes by, Kovrin keeps having the same hallucinations. But he has fallen in love with Tanya, marries her, and moves back to the city with her. His hallucinations now become so overwhelmingly frequent that he seeks a cure. The medical treatment helps him get rid of the "black monk," but also saps his energy and creativity. The marriage goes bad, both partners have started hating the other, and Tanya returns to her father's estate. Kovrin is offered the position of professor, but he has physically become ill, hemorrhaging from the lungs. After hearing the news of the death of his father-in-law, he sees the black monk again and then dies. A strange tale.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Rothschild's Violin” [1894]
The story of an ill-tempered old man, Yakov, who loses his wife, becomes depressed, develops pneumonia, and dies himself, to summarize the story in a nutshell. Yakov is a coffin maker who in order to supplement his meager income plays the violin in a Jewish klezmer orchestra - although he dislikes Jews. He in particular is antagonistic to the flutist, Rothschildt, whom he regularly beats up. When his wife lies dying, she reminds him of their shared past but instead of listening, Yakov already starts building her coffin. After the burial Yakov is overcome by an acute depression and regrets his coldness and indifference towards his deceased wife. Sitting by the river, he has a sort of epiphany, realizing what a nasty and quarrelsome man he has become. But he catches a cold, which develops into pneumonia. Before dying, he bequeaths his violin to Rothschildt.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“The Student” [1894]
An Easter story. In the night of Good Friday a clerical student happens to meet two widows warming themselves at a fire in the open. He tells them the story of the Apostle Peter who three times denied Jesus, but later was overcome with remorse and forgiven - showing the hope of redemption for all humans. Both the student and his listeners are overcome by the story and filled with a feeling of mysterious happiness.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

"The Head-gardener's Story" [1894]
The story of Thomson, a doctor who was such a good man that nobody could imagine that anyone would do him harm. Then the doctor is found murdered and a vagrant is arrested as he is in the possession of the doctor's snuffbox. The judge, however, acquits the vagrant, because he can't admit the thought that anybody would sink so low as to willfully harm the good doctor. An instance of typical 19th century humanism and belief in basic human decency that would be shattered in the 20th century.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Murder” [1895]
Two conservatively orthodox believers who run an inn clash with a man who has a more relaxed view of religion. The argument becomes so heated that they end up killing him. Sent to Siberia, the murderer first looses his faith, but then regains it in a sort of spiritual rebirth.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

“Ariadne” [1895]
On a steamer bound for Sebastopol, Shamokhin tells the story of his love for his neighbor Ariadne, a most beautiful but also very cold woman. She elopes with another, married man, but when things go bad, asks Shamokhin to join her in Italy. But the married man is still there and obviously the lover of Ariadne, making for an awkward menage-a-trois. Only when his money runs out a year later, does he go back to his wife and children. Now Shamokhin becomes Ariadne's lover. He is caught in her web: although his money, too, runs out, and he feels his life has been destroyed by his obsession for Ariadne, he is unable to extricate himself, and keeps running after her.
Adelaide; Gutenberg

"Three Years" [1895]
Another of Chekhov's five novellas, showing how people can change in the course of three years. When visiting his severely ill sister, Laptev falls in love with Julia, the 22-year-old daughter of the doctor treating the sister. The bland Yulia marries the good-hearted Laptev, not because she is attracted to him, but because she feels bad about disappointing him and also because she wants to live in the big city, Moscow. Although Laptev remains in love with Yulia, the marriage is not a success - Yulia dislikes her husband and his family. But she does not act on the cheap advice of a friend to take a lover or return to her father. The sister dies and her children stay for a while with the couple. Laptev and Yulia have a baby but the child soon dies of diphtheria. Then Laptev's family business fails and his brother has to be put into an asylum. Now Laptev becomes depressed... and, for the first time, Yulia, starts feeling tenderness for her battered husband. The story shows how people are neither good nor bad, they all have their faults. They muddle through to make the best of a given situation and with the passage of time, accommodation occurs. From blind infatuation in the case of Yakov and dislike in the case of Yulia, the feelings between the married couple finally mature into mutual understanding and appreciation.
AdelaideGutenberg

Also read my other posts about Chekhov's stories:
Best Short Stories by Anton Chekhov (1): Earliest Comical Stories (1882-1885)
Best Stories by Chekhov (2): The Years of High Production (1886-87)
Best Stories of Anton Chekhov (3): Period of Maturity A (1888-1891)