"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 9, 2014

"The Tunnel" by Ernesto Sabato (Book review)

The Tunnel  (Spanish: El Túnel) is a dark, psychological novella by Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato, written in 1948. It tells about a deranged painter, Juan Pablo Castel, and his growing obsession with a woman named María. Castel stalks her after he notices her in a gallery studying one of his paintings with interest. Her attention to an apparently minor detail of one of the paintings (which other viewers usually miss) makes the artist take strong notice of her. After she has left the gallery, he starts obsessing about her.

By chance, some months later he sees her coming out of an office building in Buenos Aires and accosts her... she is willing to talk to him and meet him... they become friends. But during those trysts, the painter increasingly subjects her to a sort of interrogation about her life, forcing himself more and more into her privacy. He learns that she is married, but that her elderly husband is blind. He also hears that she once had a lover who killed himself. The more the unstable Castel learns about María, the more possessive and jealous he becomes.

[Ernesto Sabato - Photo Wikipedia]

That is why the story is called "The Tunnel:" a symbol for Castel's emotional isolation from society, his own private tunnel, the tunnel of his jealousy and obsession. Castel is rather introverted and narcissistic. Not surprisingly, he is also a strong misanthropist, which in literature is not so bad as in real life, for his harsh opinions of others offer readers secret pleasure. Take his caustic witticism about children: "I have always had a tenderness and compassion for children (especially when through supreme mental effort I have tried to forget that they will be adults like anyone else)."

We know from the first line of the book that this relationship will end in disaster, for Castel is telling his story from prison, just like Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus, published six years earlier. In fact, Camus saw similar existential themes in The Tunnel and enthusiastically supported the publication of the French translation. In my view, Sabato's novella is in many ways superior to the more famous one by Camus - if only, because his protagonist does have an inner life. His obsession is so intense that it becomes contagious. The book is full of energy. There are also really funny passages, such as where Castel has written a letter to María, hastily mailed it by express, then suddenly realized that he wanted to change something in the letter, tried to get it back from the post-office and ended up having a long row with a very bureaucratic post office employee.

We could say that Castel is already a prisoner before he is arrested: a captive of his existential loneliness, of his inability to really communicate, of his delusions and paranoia, leading him into a vicious circle. He finally murders María out of mad jealousy, because he feels she has been "disloyal" to him.

In this novella, Sabato brilliantly catches the intensity of passions where love brings not peacefulness but danger.

Ernesto Sabato (1910-2009) was active as writer, painter and physicist. Although he wrote little fiction (only three novels, including the present one) and was in the first place active as an essayist, he was very influential in the literary world throughout Latin America and won many international prizes. The Tunnel is his most famous work and has been rightly called "Camus on steroids."

The English translation of The Tunnel is available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

September 7, 2014

"The World of Yesterday" by Stefan Zweig (Book review)

This year it is 100 years ago that the Great War which would devastate Europe and European culture started. We have seen many new publications which look back at this disaster - one I have read is The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, which borrows its title from the great novel by Hermann Broch - but the best book about this watershed in history and culture is in my view an older one: The World of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern), the autobiography of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Different from most other autobiographies, Zweig did not write about his private or family life, but he wrote a memoir of a country, Austria, and a time irrevocably lost. He wrote the book in desperate times, by the rise of the Nazis chased out of Austria to England, and then having to leave England where at the start of WWII he was no longer welcome as a former Austrian (although he had lost his passport because of his flight), to end up - via the U.S. - in Brazil. Uprooted from his culture and having lost most things he valued, in February 1942 he and his second wife Lotte Altmann committed suicide, dying in each other's arms, just after he had send off the manuscript of The World of Yesterday to a Swedish publisher - making the book a sort of suicide note. The Zweigs, who already had lived through one terrible war and in the interbellum had seen their hopes for a better and peaceful world shattered, were too exhausted to wait for better days.

[Stefan Zweig in 1912 - image Wikipedia]

Indeed, Stefan Zweig was so to speak everything that Hitler and his brutish henchmen hated. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, was well-educated, spoke many languages and was an ardent pan-European. He believed in the need for an international community of artists that would oppose the short-sightedness of politics (Zweig did not see himself as an Austrian Jew, but as a European - his book carries not for nothing the subtitle "Memories of a European"). His novels, stories, plays and carefully researched biographies (Zweig in fact wrote more non-fiction than fiction) had been translated in countless languages and he was one of the most popular authors in the German language. Starting in 1933, these books were forbidden in all European continental countries where Nazis, Fascists or other barbarous rightists had come to power, and they were burned by the thousands. Unfortunately, Zweig was much less known in the Anglophone world (a condition which still persists), so with the persecution by the Nazis, he also lost his authority as an author, all that he had built up during a lifetime.

The autobiography is a lament for the past, written from the perspective of a man who grew up in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who like others of his generation lost his innocence in the Great European War, worked hard for peace and understanding between the citizens of different nations in the interbellum, but finally had to concede defeat to the dark forces of barbarity that made him a stateless fugitive. In fact, Zweig was a pacifist who usually took an a-political stance - until events did not allow such luxury anymore.

Here are some points that struck me when reading The World of Yesterday:
  • In the last decades of the 19th century, up until WWI, people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and other countries of Europe, firmly believed in a stable and peaceful world. They lived in well-ordered societies in which everything and everyone had its place. Their material lives were getting increasingly better, thanks to scientific progress and a flourishing economy. They believed in the stability of banks, of governments, of institutions. There was still - in the main - tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities, especially in the multi-ethnic state that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The outburst of the Great War, into which the politicians of the time entered while sleepwalking, meant the end of this belief. (I was born after WWII, when a similar belief in perpetuity existed under the protection of the Pax Americana - although there was the threat of the Cold War, we in Western-Europe believed that our stable societies, with their great social security systems would last forever - and how wrong we were).
  • Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a vibrant city, where culture was valued above all else. The school system was old-fashioned and fossilized (read Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Torless, 1906) or Hermann Hesse's Unterm Rad (Beneath the Wheel, 1906) for novels about the strict discipline and senseless root-learning in Austrian and German schools of the same period), but Zweig and his friends stealthily read poetry, plays, philosophy and literature in their class. It was a world full of books, theater performances, music, ideas, and debates about art. The culture of this period in Vienna in the first place rested on the shoulders of cosmopolitan Jews (Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Kraus, Klimt, Mahler, Schoenberg, Korngold, Kreisler, to name a few).
  • Nineteenth century society was a hothouse of sexuality, exactly because sex was negated and hidden (think only of the impossible dresses of the women that left no skin bare, the fact that young women could not go out without a chaperon, the segregated school system, etc). For this reason, the number of prostitutes in Vienna was huge and sexual diseases were rampant. This situation changed after WWI, when there came more equality between the genders, women dressed in modern clothes, could freely meet with friends of both sexes, joined sports clubs, etc. As a result, the hothouse atmosphere was replaced by a more healthy climate and the number of prostitutes dwindled. 
  • Before WWI Zweig traveled to the United States and to India - interestingly, in the period before the war passports, visa etc. were not yet necessary. Borders of countries were invisible lines, which were easy to cross. After WWI, that changed into the ever stricter system that still plagues us today. What a great time when as a world citizen you could travel without papers!
  • During a visit to a provincial movie theater in France in the years just before WWI, Zweig realized the hatred these locals felt towards the German Emperor - the public burst out in spontaneous booing and shouting of imprecations when the German head of state appeared on a newsreel. This deep hatred of neighbors in the same Europe had been caused by indoctrination at school and by an inimical populist press. Zweig now for the first time realized that a war in Europe was possible. 
  • In his book, Zweig describes friendships with many writers and artists, often of other countries - these friendships survived the war, as most of his friends were also pan-Europeanists: Romain-Rolland, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, Verhaeren, Freud, Rodin, James Joyce, Shaw, Gorki, H.G. Wells, Richard Strauss and the German politician Rathenau. 
  • After defeat in the Great War, the Empire which had had a population of more than 50 million, fell apart and only the rump state of Austria remained, with 7 million inhabitants and with Vienna as its "water head" capital of 2 million. But Austria was not allowed to join Germany, and new countries like Hungary didn't want it, so the small country had to survive on its own (something which was difficult in the interbellum - see the later fate of Austria, or of other small states. It was only after WWII, when the European Union was established, that small states could join into a stable and well-ordered system with larger states). 
  • Zweig had been in Switzerland for the last year of the war, and when returning, at the border he watched the train with the last emperor leave Austria. With little food, a housing shortage and run-away inflation, this was a period of privations (caused by the war, when all the men were fighting at the front and normal industrial and agricultural production was halted). That same inflation would soon afterwards also destroy savings accounts in Germany - something which for ordinary citizens was even a worse experience than losing the war. 
  • Between the wars Zweig lived in a small castle on the outskirts of Salzburg, where he found the quiet atmosphere to write his best works. Ironically, from his residence he could almost see the house where Hitler lived in Berchtesgaden, on the other side of the German border. He describes the rise of the Nazis, who utilized the feelings of humiliation left by the loss of WWI among the general population. They operated in gangs that were well-funded, riding in brand-new cars, wearing spotless uniforms and carrying shining weapons. In this form they would execute lightning fast attacks on people they considered as their enemies (often Socialists or Communists), severely beating them up with their cudgels. Thus democracy was intimidated and terrorized away by the violence by these political bullies. Gradually, the ominous signs of Nazi influence were growing.
  • In the interbellum, Zweig had become one of the most celebrated authors of the world. On his fiftieth birthday, his German publisher gave him a thick catalog listing all of his publications in various editions and translations. But in 1933 when Hitler had finally come to power, after just two performances, Strauss' opera Die Schweigsame Frau was banned because of the Jewish background of Zweig who wrote the libretto. Not long afterwards, all Zweig's works were banned and burned on huge bonfires with the books of other Jewish authors. From being one of the most widely read authors of both fiction and nonfiction, in only a few months time Zweig went to a stateless nobody.
[Zweig's novella collection Amok, a victim of book burning by the National-socialists in 1933 in Germany - Photo Wikipedia]

In this way, the world that Zweig had once lost, but recovered by hard work, was lost for a second time. Despite the often dramatic contents, and the fact that Zweig committed suicide soon after finishing this book, it is written in a lucid, calm and factual style. Although some readers may regret this, it is not a private account of Zweig's life - it is a "biography" of the times he lived through and only includes personal information where relevant to that purpose. It is a most beautiful book, one of the best accounts of the years before, after and during the Great War, which almost seamlessly fused into that second, even more horrible war. It is book full of the feeling of loss - a loss caused by the stupidity and bestiality of human beings, even in what was then the most civilized part of the world.

The World of Yesterday was translated by Anthea Bell and is available from Univ. of Nebraska Press. The German original is available from Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, as well as from Insel Verlag. The text is also freely available at the German Gutenberg site. English translations of several of Zweig's literary works have been published by New York Review Books.

September 4, 2014

"A Dog's Heart" by Bulgakov (Book review)

A Dog's Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov is the fiercest literary criticism of Soviet society imaginable, written in 1925 when that regime was in power, although going through a small crisis - Lenin had just died, Stalin still was to appear, and there seems to have been a tiny possibility that the political experiment would be abandoned. It was a time of both hope and despair. The hope was soon squashed and A Dog's Heart  could only be published in 1987, many decades after the death of its author. Although a sharp satire, the story is nowhere strident or overtly political - it is always good fun and above all, extremely well written, on a par with Bulgakov's large novel The Master and Margerita.

Bulgakov certainly knew his Modernism and one of the nifty things is how he starts the story from the consciousness of the dog, roaming a bleak, snowbound Moscow, until the hungry mongrel is picked up by a passing medical doctor and taken to his comfortable apartment. The dog, who is called Sharik by the Professor (a common name for dogs in Russian), can't believe his good fortune: lots of meaty food, a warm home, a friendly master... but of course things are not what they seem. An funny motive here is, by the way, the recurring animosity the dog feels towards a stuffed owl that sits in the professor's study and that he seeks to destroy.

[Mikhail Bulgakov - Photo Wikipedia]

Professor Preobrazhensky has enticed the dog to his house to use it for a medical experiment, that he undertakes together with his assistant, Dr Bormenthal: they plan to implant human testicles and a pituitary gland into the dog and make it "human" - a parody by Bulgakov of the Communist experiment, where the proletarian masses were forcibly "uplifted" by the State in its social laboratory.

Professor Preobrazhensky is an old-time bourgeois who still holds on to his large and comfortable, multi-room apartment, because as a doctor he is granted many privileges by the State for his rare skills (the members of the Politburo are after all not immune from illness). But all around him the apartments from his wealthy neighbors are seized and divided into tiny flats into which disparate households are crammed by a crude and offensive "housing committee." The professor is basically depicted with sympathy by Bulgakov, as an old-fashioned gentleman-intellectual who stands up against the encroaching communists, and whose home is a rare spot of warmth and comfort in the cold new society.

The operation is described in great and gory detail - Bulgakov had not for nothing been an army surgeon during WWI. And, although difficult, it is successful - too much so, we might say, for the dog who gradually develops human traits - he starts walking on his hind legs and learns speaking - proves to be a real "proletarian:" brutish, vulgarian, aggressive, using "class revenge" as a pretext to get everything he wants. He teams up with the housing committee so that he can demand his own rooms in the professor's apartment, he is often drunk, noisy and uses vulgar language - and he can't keep his greedy hands off women... Of course he refuses to learn etiquette, because that smacks of Tsarism.

He drives the professor almost insane... what to do with him? Should the doctor just kill him, as he is after all a dog? But that is difficult, as the former canine now has papers and is officially registered under the preposterous name "Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov."

Is there a more sophisticated way to make him disappear?

A hilarious satire and scathing indictment of the "New Soviet Man." The novella moves at high pace, mixing surrealist scenes with lucid realism, and perfectly captures the mad atmosphere of those strange times.

A Dog's Heart has been translated by Andrew Bromfield and is available from Penguin Books.

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.

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


  • 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.