"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 (Non-Fiction)

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 voluminous 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.

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography

Culture



Essays





Food & Drink


Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History



Literature





Memoirs


The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



Music





Philosophy



Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering



Science





Travel


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom


This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

September 4, 2014

"A Dog's Heart" by Bulgakov (The Art of the Novella 19)

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.