This is a blog about my reads as well as everything related to them.
My taste is for good quality literature - old and new. Some of it I review here or on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany.
As beautiful, highly educated and endowed for the arts as Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964) was, she could have achieved a lot in the world, but during most of her life she remained in the shadows of her famous husbands and lovers. She had the bad luck to have been born at a time, when women only made their first tentative steps to claim their rights and their own place in society. Although her family and the circles that they frequented were among the most liberal of the fin de siècle, young and shy Alma quite naturally obeyed the command of her much older first husband Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) to give up for good all her own musical ambitions and activities. In 1939, when the Nazi regime defamed his work because he had been a Jew converted to Protestantism and refused him his place in the world of music, she brought out her very personal tribute to him under the title Gustav Mahler. Memories and Letters.
Alma Mahler-Werfel begins her largely admiring memories of her late husband with their first encounter at a dinner party in November 1901. Although frequenting the same circles, until then she had managed to avoid meeting the controversial conductor and composer Gustav Mahler against whom public opinion and malicious gossip had biased her. Moreover, Alma had been to a performance of his First Symphony and – like most music lovers of the time – she loathed it because even she as a student of composition couldn’t understand his modern approach. However, the middle-aged musician was immediately attracted to the young woman and quite naturally she was impressed by the man and flattered by his attentions. Passionate and used to getting what he wanted, Gustav Mahler didn’t take long to make Alma his bride and he expected of her no less than giving up her own life as well as identity. For her it was a great sacrifice to abandon her music studies and composing, but she was convinced that it was worth it. And she never lost this conviction although she acknowledges to have been too young as well as too inexperienced and romantic to have known better. On their wedding day in March 1902 – scarce four months after their first encounter – Alma was already with child, but her condition changed nothing. He and his needs were all that counted even after their daughter was born and then another daughter. She never once reproached him for his egotism and lack of regard for her because she felt that as a musical genius he stood so much above her. Besides, she was aware that he needed the stability of home and her support since he had to cope with opposition from all sides – for his Jewish descent, for his modernist understanding of music, and for his tempers and idiosyncrasies. At the cost of her own health, she stayed by his side on his travels until his untimely death in May 1911.
Every word of Alma Mahler-Werfel shows her unshakable awe of her ingenious husband and of his music although she didn’t go far beyond summarising the facts of their life together. I can’t help thinking that she left out quite a lot in order to paint as positive a picture of the man Gustav Mahler as she could. Maybe this was also due to her innate reserve and delicacy. It seems that she wasn’t actually a woman who wished to spread out her private life in public and in the foreword from 1939 she says herself that she hadn’t intended to publish her memories of Gustav Mahler or his letters to her during her lifetime. Seeing the Nazi regime talking ill of her late husband and denying his musical genius urged her to bring out the book in the dawn of World War Two. Although her portrait is necessarily biased and moreover incomplete, Gustav Mahler. Memories and Letters by Alma Mahler-Werfel is a partly forgotten read that definitely deserves my recommendation.
Women or men who need to come to terms with the loss of a loved one are popular figures in literature. Often, the grieving find new joy, maybe even new love by the end of the story and at first this also seems to be the case in the late nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-morte by almost forgotten Belgian journalist, poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). But he was obsessed with death and so it’s little wonder that his symbolist chef-d'œuvre first published in 1892 is a thoroughly gloomy piece of prose poetry, a short Gothic novel in the vein of his contemporary Oscar Wilde. The book focuses on the melancholy scene of dead or moribund Bruges in Belgium at least as much as on the woebegone protagonist who has chosen the city to indulge in his infinite sorrow after the death of his adored wife and in keeping her memory alive.
The central figure of Bruges-la-morte is the widower Hugue Viane who is forty years old and whom the author describes as prematurely aged by grief. In the opening scene, aptly set on a day in November, he has been living in Bruges for five years, i.e. ever since the day after his beloved wife had died. It was the bleak atmosphere of the mediaeval city with its many convents, dark canals and narrow streets that brought him there because it corresponded perfectly with his anguish and allowed him to get completely wrapped up in mourning. In the first edition of his short novel Georges Rodenbach included several black-and-white photos of the city to increase the effect of his very poetical though sombre portrait of Bruges. But he shows the city also as a place of deep religiosity and he makes Hugue Viane live on Quai du Rosaire (Quay of the Rosary!) where a big procession passes every year on Ascension Day. To the widower his house is less a home than it’s a shrine dedicated to his dearest departed. Above all, the drawing rooms serve him as places of adulation. With great skill and in great detail Georges Rodenbach evokes the feeling of two rooms crammed with all kinds of memorabilia of Hugue Viane’s late wife. Some of them can be called her relics with due right, notably the long blonde plait that, on one of the last days of her suffering, he cut from her head instead of just a curl and that he keeps under glass on her now mute piano. The plait is so sacred to him that he doesn’t even dare to touch it! As can be expected of an inconsolable mourner, he leads a withdrawn life following an almost monastic routine. Mostly, he stays at home in his room, but in the late afternoon, he likes to go out for a walk through the city that he loves at this time of day because it’s sad like him. During one of these solitary walks, a woman looking just like his late wife crosses his way. The encounter is so brief that he isn’t sure that he really saw her. Nonetheless, he begins to search her during his walks and one evening there she is again. He follows her into the theatre where she is a dancer. Not without hesitation he addresses her and he can’t help beginning an affair with the woman who seems a second chance for happiness with his wife resurrected. And thus fate takes its fatal course…
Overall, Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach is an impressive short novel that flows over with all kinds of most beautiful allegories and metaphors that not only allow but also inspire thorough analysis. I loved its poetical language that offers lots of remarkable images and that feels exceedingly precise in spite or because of the author’s frequent use of vague or ambiguous words or expressions. For me the read was a great pleasure and I can’t thank enough my friend in Belgium who surprised me with the book past year. It’s a shame that such a marvellous piece of fiction had to remain in the darkness of literary oblivion for a hundred years until someone thought of bringing it back to light… and to the attention of avid readers like me.
Since George Rodenbach died already in 1898, the original French versions of his work are all in the public domain and can be downloaded legally and free from sites like Ebooks libres et gratuits. If old translations of this impressive short novel exist, they might be in the public domain too, but all English editions that I found are of very recent date and therefore copyrighted.
All his life Gustave Flaubert claimed that only the story counted and that its author should disappear without trace behind it, but however passionately a writer may assure that her or his work has nothing whatsoever to do with her or his life, such complete objectivity is an illusion. It’s impossible to achieve because nobody’s soul is an empty slate. Every word that a person jots down, be it on the spur of the moment or after long thought, be it in fiction or non-fiction, inevitably mirrors past experiences, education and views. To truly understand a literary work it can therefore be helpful to know the biography of its author, notably when the writings are complex or full of symbolism. In her critical study The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō Yasuko Claremont from the University of Sydney analyses the literary oeuvre that the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature produced between 1957 through 2006 and links it with important events in the Japanese author’s private life beginning in his childhood.
As Yasuko Claremont illustrates, the writing of Ōe Kenzaburō – like every author’s – isn’t static but changes over the decades and often mirrors events that had a more or less important impact on him as a person, on his family or on society altogether. She also demonstrates by several examples that the works of the author, notably early ones like Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids and award-winning Prize Stock, clearly show the marks of his partly traumatic, partly spiritual experiences as a boy in a remote village surrounded by dense forests during and shortly after World War II and then as a young man in war-shattered Tōkyo where he studied French literature. According to the scholar these formative years quite naturally account too for the more constant elements in his opus, above all for Ōe‘s themes that are generally depressing as well as full of violence and despair in all their (cruel and destructive) manifestations. She states as well that his entire literary oeuvre is permeated with humanistic moral views that are clearly influenced by Western literature and philosophy, notably Jean-Paul Sartre, C. G. Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Mikhail Bakhtin and the Bible. Moreover, Yasuko Claremont finds the roots of the mythical abstractions that he uses throughout his career in the ancient legends that he heard in his childhood and that he internalised. The most obvious changes in Ōe’s writing the scholar sees in his approach to themes and characters. The three big stages of development that she identifies in the author’s long as well as successful literary career are a deeply Sartrean existentialism that saturates his rather bleak early work – e.g. the story Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids or the novella Seventeen – on which follows a more positive phase surrounding the principle of atonement – as in the novels A Personal Matter and The Silent Cry – that eventually leads the author to the concept of salvation in daily life – like in the novel Somersault.
Having read so far only one novel by Ōe Kenzaburō (»»» read my review of The Changeling on Edith’s Miscellany), it was difficult for me to follow the literary and spiritual path that Yasuko Claremont traced in such detail. It’s true that she integrated summaries of all the author’s important works into her study (not least because several of them aren’t available in English translation), but naturally it wasn’t the same as knowing the full text. Certainly, her target audience were other scholars and fans of the author with a comprehensive knowledge of his work. Nonetheless, this critical study of The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō was an interesting and as regards the novel that I read and reviewed also an enlightening experience that made me curious about the en-NOBEL-ed writer’s other works, above all the later ones that seem to be less bleak and less overtly violent.
During much of European history men shaped the world of things and thought as they believed right and passed over women in silence, if they didn’t hold them in contempt. Highly revered Fathers of the Christian Church like Saint Augustine of Hippo Regius further institutionalised this contempt of women… and of earthly pleasures altogether as shows his autobiography titled Confessiones. In this theological key text he admits that before his conversion to Christianity in 385 he was a man who tasted life to the full. For over ten years he lived with a concubine (probably law forbade a formal marriage) and had a son with her, but in retrospect he regrets this sinful and immoral relationship because it kept him from true love of God. In Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine (also translated into English as The Same Flower) the Norwegian writer, philosopher and theologian Jostein Gaarder gave this abandoned woman a voice.
In 1995 in a second-hand bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jostein Gaarder comes across an old manuscript in a red box titled Codex Floriae. Its first sentence shows that it’s the letter of a certain Floria Aemilia to Augustinus Aurelius, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa (today: Algeria) who was later to become Saint Augustine. When he translates another sentence, it occurs to him that Floria Aemilia might be the saint’s long-time concubine whom he mentioned in his Confessiones without ever revealing her name. Of course, the author doesn’t know if the seventeenth-century copy is of an authentic letter, but it intrigues him that it might be and he buys it. Back home he makes a copy of the entire letter and sends the original to the Vatican Library for inspection. The Codex Floriae gets lost and the author decides to translate the Latin text from his copy and to publish it as Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine. So far in brief what Jostein Gaarder says in his introduction about the actual letter of Floria Aemilia that makes up the major part of the book.
As it soon turns out, the author was right to assume that Floria Aemilia is the concubine of Saint Augustine. The exceptionally intelligent and self-assured woman from Carthage read the Confessiones of her former lover and obviously felt the urgent need to comment on them, notably on the passages dealing with their life together in Northern Africa, Rome and eventually Milan and with the emotional bonds between them that he tries to reduce to sexual desire. But she doesn’t only give her point of view of events (sometimes drifting into bitterness or mockery seeing how religious frenzy distorted his memories and opinions). Thanks to thorough studies of philosophy, theology as well as rhetoric during the years since Augustine sent her back to Carthage, she is able to challenge his notions of (original) sin and morality with great dialectical skill. Above all, she can’t agree with his attitude towards women who are for him the seducers leading men astray from the way to God and Eternal Life. Augustine postulates that all pleasures on Earth are sinful and should be avoided in preparation of life after death, while Floria Aemilia is convinced that pleasures are God-given and that denying them means to deny God’s creation. She supports her arguments with many quotations from classical Greek and Roman sources that Jostein Gaarder points out and explains in footnotes if necessary for understanding.
All things considered, Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine isn’t so much a book about Floria Aemilia than it’s about Saint Augustine, his biographical background and above all his philosophy that helped to marginalise women not only in the Christian Church, but in Christian society altogether for more than one and a half millennium. Alone for the critical examination of the Confessiones from a female point of view, it’s a worthwhile read. In addition, it’s well written and easy to follow despite the complex philosophical argument.
Many have wondered, if the Codex Floriae really exists or if the “feminist manifesto” of Floria Aemilia is an invention of Jostein Gaarder. As it seems, the author always refused to clearly answer the question. I think that the book is a gorgeous work of fiction.
To read the first work of a much adored writer can be either a revelation or more likely a deception, sometimes even a big one because not many succeed in producing outstanding literature already in the very first try. Writing like any other occupation needs practice. And experience of life usually isn’t a disadvantage, either. Quite a lot of the great men and women of literature that we know today saw their first novels (poems, short stories,…) rejected by publishers, often by more than just one, as show their biographies. In the Victorian age this wasn’t any different from today. Charlotte Brontë, for instance, never saw her first novel in print. The Professor was first published under her pen name Currer Bell in 1857, i.e. only two years after her premature death, and to this date it’s less widely read than her masterpieces Jane Eyre and Villette or even Shirley.
In fact, The Professor can’t compete with the literary quality of Charlotte Brontë’s later success novels although it shows already her extraordinary talent for storytelling and her liking for an action-driven, not to say melodramatic plot. Also the world that she describes in powerful images and with the sometimes annoying verbosity characteristic of her time is one that she knew well from own experience and that would be the setting of her more famous novels too: all her protagonists are in one way or another involved in teaching the children of the well-to-do, be it at their homes or in a school. For her first novel, however, the author chose the point of view not of a young woman and governess as would be expected, but of an orphaned young man – William Crimsworth – who received an elite education at Eton College thanks to the financial support of his aristocratic and condescending maternal uncles. William defies their wish for him to become a clergyman and sets out to follow in his late father’s footsteps as a tradesman accepting the petty job as a clerk that his much older brother Edward offers him in his mill business. Unfortunately, things don’t turn out as desired because Edward is a tyrannical boss and he is jealous of his brother’s good education. With the help of his unusual friend Hunsden Yorke Hunsden, William obtains a job as a teacher in a boys’ boarding school in Brussels, Belgium. His skill in class soon attracts the attention of the headmistress of the neighbouring girls’ boarding school, Mademoiselle Zoraïde Reuter, who offers him to give lessons to her students and to earn a small, though very welcome extra. What follows seem to me the typical tribulations of a Victorian romance without great depth. William gets a crush on Mlle Reuter who is charming and kind to him, but he contents himself with dreaming because he knows that he has neither the looks nor the financial means to win her. Moreover, he soon learns that she is engaged to his headmaster M. Pelet and from then on his behaviour to her becomes even more formal. It’s then that Mlle Reuter begins to really flirt with him and despite her she even falls a little in love. To make him come over to her school more often, she suggests that he gives English lessons to one of her young teachers. He accepts and passes much time with the half-Swiss, half-English girl called Frances Evans Henri who is orphaned like himself and shows extraordinary talent. Of course, teacher and student fall in love to the great dismay of Mlle Reuter who interferes at once. But this wouldn’t be a Victorian romance if their story ended so unhappily...
I agree with other reviewers that The Professor isn’t Charlotte Brontë’s best work, but the short novel certainly has its merits. As regards the plot, I actually prefer it to Jane Eyre because it’s a little less sentimental despite taking a turn from the coming-of-age story of a penniless and (almost) friendless young man who needs to make a living to a rather ordinary story of two lovers who have to cope with all kinds of difficulties. Maybe this is because the point of view is male. Overall, I enjoyed the read and can recommend it without bad conscience although it’s a Victorian novel including to a certain degree all that I don’t like about them.
»»» read also my review of Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë on Edith’s Miscellany
However much we love reading, we seldom think about the book trade in general or about bookshops in particular. We take both for granted until something unexpected happens: the one-man bookshop around the corner that has been there ever since you can think closes because sales have constantly gone down and costs up; a small local publishing house files bankruptcy because it can no longer compete with transnational media companies swamping the market with cheap books; the middle-aged writer whose career you’ve been following with interest and something bordering on awe for many years sells hot dogs in the street because literary magazines don’t pay for short stories and revenues from her books are low thanks to pirated copies multiplying like rabbits on the internet. But none of this is new. The book trade has always been tough for everybody involved as shows The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee.
In his book first published in 2006, the author from California alternates at relatively quick pace reminiscences of his own experiences as a passionate reader, as a bookseller, as a publisher’s sales representative, and eventually as a writer with musings about the pleasures of reading and with a general history of the book trade from its beginnings in Ancient Egypt and China to twenty-first-century USA and Europe. Spanning a period of no less than several thousands of years, it’s inevitable that The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop only gives a brief survey of the history of books highlighting its most important milestones. Thus it turns out that the first bookseller and publisher of the western world happened to be an Egyptian… undertaker! He provided everything needed for a funeral following the religious rules including The Book of the Dead to secure the deceased’s smooth passage into eternal life in the other world. Of course, then a book was a papyrus scroll. That for nearly a thousand years the world’s largest library was in Alexandria in Egypt is common knowledge although not everybody will remember its shameful end. The rival library in Pergamum in Asia Minor, on the other hand, paved the way for bound books as we know them today because Egyptians forbade the export of papyrus and the book trade was forced to find a material to replace it – parchment. In China they already knew paper and block printing. Much later paper made its way from China to Europe, Gutenberg invented movable type and literacy rose to unprecedented heights. Every rise in literacy increased the demand for books, just as (for a long time) easier availability of books meant more literacy. The book trade split up into different professions: bookseller, publisher, writer. And here we are today in the author’s own life story that has been told along the way.
All things considered, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee is a skilful as well as entertaining blend of personal memoir and historical essay. As a passionate reader, I could relate with much that the author said about his obsession for books and how it began. Most of all, however, I liked his very personal and charming way of relating the history of books and of bookshops. It’s a delightful read that I warmly recommend.
It’s a well-known truth that love has the potential to make blind for anything unpleasant involved and at all times writers gladly took up the theme to dwell on the tangle and the suffering that results from it. In the history of literature there are scores of novels – all-time classics and probably many more forgotten ones – surrounding ill-matched couples whose relationships are doomed from the start however much they try to bridge the factual, emotional, social or psychological divide. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer is an impressive, though often overlooked example of an Austrian novel dealing with passionate love leading into a marriage that is based on the desperate longing to escape loneliness in a “normal” life with a husband and self-denial. First published in 1957, the primarily male critics of the time showed all but enthusiasm for the book because they had neither an interest in nor an understanding for what might be called the female condition in a patriarchal society.
The Jib Door is a short novel set in Vienna of the late 1950s that covers a period of only twelve months in the life of thirty-year-old Annette. To tell her story the author skilfully alternates third-person narrative focussing on the protagonist and diary entries that allow a more personal look into her soul. Above all the latter show Annette as a very intelligent and well-read young woman (she likes Kant and Schopenhauer) who despite all contents herself with an unchallenging job as a librarian. From the beginning the novel’s tone is melancholic which corresponds perfectly with her sad past and dull present. Of her family there’s nobody left but her much adored uncle Eugen who raised her together with his rather rigid late wife Johanna. Her mother died when she was two years old and her father, who couldn’t cope with the situation, fled to South America some time later. For years she has been living on her own in her little Viennese apartment enjoying her independence and even being alone. She has many friends with whom she meets regularly and in her adult life she already had several love affairs, but they all ended in boredom and disappointment. Her current relationship is no exception and when her lover leaves her for a job in Paris, she feels relief rather than regret. Then one day she receives a letter from the solicitor Gregor Xanthner because her father has died and she needs to sign papers. To her he seems the paragon of health and happiness, and yet, she doesn’t feel attracted to him at first. However, the more Annette sees of him, the more she falls for him although her friends can’t stand him and she knows that he’ll inevitably hurt her. Annette becomes Gregor’s lover and when she gets pregnant, she gives up her job, her apartment, her independence to marry him and share his life. But he isn’t interested in her as a person and Annette feels increasingly lonely. Moreover, she knows that he betrays her with others when he doesn’t come home for dinner at night. She still clings to him hiding her knowledge and all the while her belly is growing rounder and rounder…
In this second novel of hers – that like her other works gives the impression of being at least partly autobiographical – the author paints a very sensitive, psychologically deep and impressive portrait of a young woman in post-war Vienna who longs for love and slides eyes wide open into a relationship that brings her despair and pain instead. Consequently, the protagonist’s pointed reflections on men and love turn out to be rather resigned and gloomy. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer definitely isn’t a cheerful book, but thanks to its simple and unpretentious language it was despite all a mere treat to read. And it deserves a much wider audience.
This Austrian writer’s best remembered and most acclaimed work to this day is a rather impressive dystopian novel that she wrote in the early 1960s. It’s titled The Wall and in June 2014 I reviewed it here on Edith’s Miscellany .
There are melodies so unique that it’s enough to hear their first notes to know what is coming. Without doubt the Boléro by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is such a memorable piece of music. Although it’s a classical orchestra tune and not actually new – it premiered as a ballet in November 1928 –, virtually everybody knows it at least partly; most people will even remember the name of its French composer notwithstanding that they may never have heard any other work of his. After all, Ravel was celebrated already during his lifetime and his fame hasn’t faded since his tragic death following the desperate attempt to stop or even reverse his mental decline with brain surgery. But what kind of a man was Maurice Ravel apart from his compositions? In his short critically acclaimed biographical novel Ravel, which first appeared early in 2006, the French author Jean Echenoz evokes the last decade in the life of the musical genius starting with his 1928 grand tour of America.
Actually, Jean Echenoz set his unusual as well as comical opening scene of Ravel in the world-famous composer’s house in Montfort-l’Amaury that inspired him to write this almost completely fact-based biography in the first place. More precisely he shows the celebrated star in his bathtub on the morning of his departure for the USA on one of the last days of 1927 musing whether he should venture out of the warm water. It quickly becomes clear that Ravel is a bachelor who attaches such great importance to his appearance that it’s almost an obsession… and that it’s difficult for him to ever get ready on time. Moreover, his behaviour marks him as eccentric and inconsiderate. On this particular morning, for instance, he leaves his friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange waiting for him outside in her cold car for almost an hour and it doesn’t once occur to him that he could invite her in to warm up. When he finally emerges from the house, he is neat like a pin, the spit image of a – rather short and slightly old-fashioned – dandy in his early fifties on his way to the racecourse. Hélène takes him to Paris to make sure that the always-confused musical genius catches the special train to Le Havre where the steamer SS France is waiting to take him along with about two thousand others to New York. He is tired and grumpy because as so often insomnia has plagued him during the night, but he hopes that the six-week passage will be as good as a holiday for his strained nerves. Unfortunately, people recognise him, ask him for autographs or to play something. And insomnia doesn’t spare him, either. In New York begins an exhausting four-month concert tour crisscross America that Jean Echenoz skilfully traces without deviating unnecessarily from known facts. By the middle of the novel it’s late in April 1928 and the composer returns to France and his life continues as ever. He travels, attends concerts and mundane parties, smokes without end, but most importantly he writes the Boléro and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major. All the while, Ravel struggles with insomnia, boredom and indolence as the author shows at length and with the sly wit characteristic of him. After a car accident in October 1937, however, the humorous tone of the novel changes from major to minor key. Although the composer isn’t very seriously hurt, it’s from this moment that his mind increasingly fails him until he no longer knows how to write or to read and he not even recognises his own music. Doctors recommend a craniotomy as last treatment option. Ten days later the musical genius is gone.
Having read only a German edition of Ravel, it would be preposterous of me to comment on Jean Echenoz’s language and style although I think that unusually much of the original wit shines through in the translation by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel at my hand. Certainly, it’s a succeeded biography that makes skilful use of dry facts from the composer’s life setting them against the backdrop of his time to show the unique character of Maurice Ravel as his contemporaries have known and loved him. Moreover, the gifted narrator doesn’t depend on dialogue or extensive stream-of-consciousness to make the celebrated star appear as a human being with odd edges like everybody else instead of some kind of unearthly genius. It’s definitely a worthwhile read – not just for lovers of classical music.
If you’d like to read a work of fiction from the pen of Jean Echenoz, I recommend his 1999 novel Je m’en vais available under the English title I’m Off, but also brought out as I’m Gone. Click here to read my review on Edith’s Miscellany.
Confronted with other cultures or just life-styles we all tend to be rather judgemental classifying the one as primitive, the other as aggressive, yet another (usually our own) as civilised, and so forth. Moreover, we use to think in the categories of good and evil like we who were born into an environment marked by Christian-European customs and values have been taught from early childhood. However, what seems perfectly normal behaviour to us may look completely absurd or even immoral in the eyes of a person socialised in a different culture... and vice versa. For many centuries Westerners – almost as a rule – looked down on other cultures. Not even scientists exploring all corners of the world were free of this arrogance. It is thanks to anthropologists like Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and her likes that today we seek a wider and less biased picture. In her 1934 book Patterns of Culture she brought the then relatively new approach to the attention of the public.
Considering that we have entered the second millennium already more than a decade and a half ago, it may seem strange to read an anthropology book first published in 1934. On the other hand, in everyday life there can’t be much left today of the cultures of the Pueblos of New Mexico, notably the Zuñi, the Dobu of eastern New Guinea, and the peoples of the American North-West Coast, above all the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (now known as the Kwakwaka’wakwa) that Ruth Benedict presented in her book. Already when she did her research, much of their cultural heritage had been lost in the process of continuing evangelisation and assimilation to a western life-style. Also for another reason Patterns of Culture keeps being a relevant work of cultural anthropology. Using the societies of Zuñi, Dobu and Kwakwaka’wakwa as extreme examples and pointing out the huge differences to each other as well as to European civilization, the author succeeded in showing how wide the range of culture actually is. She certainly made a good choice to demonstrate that no culture is better or worse than another, just different because the society came to attach value and importance to different things. Or to put it in Ruth Benedict’s own words:
“The three cultures of Zuñi, of Dobu, and of the Kwakiutl are not merely heterogeneous assortments of acts and beliefs. They have each certain goals toward which their behaviour is directed and which their institutions further. They differ from one another not only because one trait is present here and absent there, and because another trait is found in two regions in two different forms. They differ still more because they are oriented as wholes in different directions. They are travelling along different roads in pursuit of different ends, and these ends and these means in one society cannot be judged in terms of those of another society, because essentially they are incommensurable.”
As proves this quote, the language of Ruth Benedict is strikingly modern and accessible for that of a scholar. In fact, her descriptions are so rich in powerful, sometimes even poetic images that it’s almost a literary pleasure. I enjoyed reading Patterns of Culture very much and already put another one of her anthropological works, namely The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture from 1946, i.e. from right after World War II, on my list of books to read. I wish that more would read her books to widen their horizons and to discard their arrogance toward other cultures.
Multi-talented and restless as he was, August Strindberg (1849-1912) never limited himself to only one trade. In his life he was active as painter, photographer, natural scientist, and sinologist, but his lasting worldwide fame is based on his writing that was too controversial in his own country – Sweden – to earn him one of the early Nobel Prizes in Literature as many expected abroad at the time. Today the author is best known for his more than 60 plays of which a considerable number keeps being performed regularly on stages around the globe. And yet, they are only part of a much larger and more versatile œuvre. August Strindberg also wrote poems, essays, autobiographical works, narrations… and last but not least, ten novels that were mostly acclaimed by critics outside Sweden. One of these novels is By the Open Sea that first appeared in print in 1890.
The protagonist of By the Open Sea is Axel Borg who is in his mid-thirties and on his way to one of the tiny islands of the archipelago off the coast of Stockholm where he was assigned fisheries inspector. From the very first he provokes the hostility of the local population because he behaves like a bureaucratic know-all from the city. His arrogance, however, isn’t based on his rank in society, but on the concept of the world that his father instilled into him. Borg firmly believes that ridding himself of base desires to give unlimited room to pure reason instead and gaining knowledge to act according to it has risen him above most people in evolution. All his past efforts can’t prevent him, though, from falling in love with Maria who comes to the island with her mother for summer holidays away from the city. For him every woman is unreasonable by nature and this “girl” (who is only two years his junior) confirms his chauvinist ideas by appearing particularly childish and stupid. Nonetheless, he chooses her as his wife-to-be because he is lonely and convinced that he can teach her to accept her natural inferiority to him (and every man). Although lowering himself to Maria’s level exhausts him increasingly, they get officially engaged. Then Borg’s new assistant arrives on the island. His name is Blom and contrary to Borg he is an engaging young man who enjoys socialising. Maria begins to flirt with Blom and as can be expected Borg gets jealous. And yet, he soon realises that it’s actually a relief that he no longer needs to pass all his time with Maria…
Although the language of By the Open Sea is often highly poetic, the novel paints a very sombre and also somewhat sober portrait of a young man caught in his own limited world and ever more despairing at the mediocrity, not to say stupidity of others. Borg is shown as a highly educated, highly refined and highly sensitive person, thus as a Übermensch in the Nietzschean sense, but his father’s as well as his own exaggerated regard for everything intellectual left him with poor social skills. Certainly, his obvious introversion (»»» read for instance The Introvert’s Way by Sophia Dembling that I reviewed) and high sensitiveness (»»» learn more about it from The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron for example) add to his inability to adapt to life in a community, especially a small one where everybody knows each other and where you can’t hide as easily as in the anonymity of a big city. In brief: Borg’s intellectual ideals combined with his nature doom him to a life in loneliness that eventually changes into paranoia, i.e. madness. The psychological depth of the descriptions of the protagonist’s inner life makes it very likely that August Strindberg himself had many of Borg’s character traits. From own experience I can tell that they are extremely authentic. As for the misogynistic tone of all passages concerning women, it clearly corresponds with the author’s known sexism that may still have been shared by the majority of men in the late 1800s and that would be completely unpardonable today.
Admittedly, By the Open Sea by August Strindberg is on the whole a rather depressing read that requires a stable frame of mind to be able to enjoy it, but its merits as a psychological novel cannot be doubted. And it’s beautifully written, at least the German translation of Else von Hollander is. Sidenote: I couldn’t help wondering if Borg might not have served as model for Mr. Spock in the Star Trek series because they have quite a lot in common although the cool Volcanan is definitely more sympathetic…
Nobody will deny that Anna Harriette Leonowens (1831-1915) was an impressive woman who led an extraordinary life for a woman in the Victorian Age. Nonetheless, nobody would still remember her, hadn’t her memoirs gotten into the hands of a Presbyterian missionary called Margaret Landon who wrote the biography of the English governess at the Royal Court of Siam in the 1860s. Anna and the King of Siam (»»» read my review on Edith’s Miscellany) quickly became a best-seller in 1944 and has been adapted for the stage as well as for the screen many times since. But how much of this story is true? In her biography Bombay Anna released in 2008 American scholar Susan Morgan ventures at telling The Real Story and Remarkable Adventures of The King and I Governess.
The biggest surprise is to find in a chapter dedicated to the ancestors of Anna Harriette Leonowens, née Anna Harriett Emma Edwards, that her origins aren’t as noble as she herself made believe even her closest family. While her maternal grandfather William Glascott in fact belonged to the minor English gentry, the woman he married or just lived with in India is a phantom who seems to have left no traces in written sources. Like other scholars, Susan Morgan assumes that she must have been Indian or of mixed race – “a lady not entirely white” as Mrs. Sherwood aka Mary Martha Butt put it in the nineteenth century – as was common with soldiers’ wives in India in the early nineteenth century because marriageable Englishwomen were extremely scarce. As the author points out, Anna Harriette Leonowens took great care to hide her maternal grandmother pretending to have been born in Wales of pure English blood almost three years later than in reality. From existing sources Susan Morgan draws the plausible conclusion that in fact she must have grown up in the camps of the Sappers and Miners Corps, in which her late father and her step-father had served. With vivid imagination supported by nineteenth-century reports the biographer reconstructs the life that Anna Harriette Leonowens must have led as a child in the camps attending the regimental school, but none of it is based on established facts about her person because historical sources lack. In the following Susan Morgan reveals still more biographical information that isn’t in line with reality until the moment when she became governess at the Royal Siamese Court in 1862. The later life of Anna Harriette Leonowens is better documented and her biographer confines herself to outlining the most important stages and to putting them into relation with her real as well as re-invented past.
In my review of Anna and the King of Siam I said that “there is much that can make somebody tell a story in one way rather than another”. This is certainly true for Anna Harriette Leonowens who changed and stretched the truth because she wanted to climb the social ladder and to be recognised as being of pure and noble English descent. It is also true for Susan Morgan who merged the information from historical sources, her background knowledge of the time and her imagination to bring to life the person Anna Harriette Leonowens as she believes her to have really been. It’s not for me to judge if her biography is state-of-the-art from the scientific point of view, but in any case it’s well-written and gripping portrait of an extraordinary woman.
See also the long review of Bombay Anna by Susan F. Kepner in the TLC/New Mandala book review series on Mainland Southeast Asia and the many expert comments there.
With thousands of refugees streaming to Europe along with (mostly illegal) immigrants and with terrorism being a futile though popular kind of “battle” preferably used by those who know nothing but violence to make their point, there is much talk about the clash of cultures. The most obvious tensions certainly are between the Christian and the Islamic world, but they didn’t just arise out of the blue. In fact, they date back a very long time and to understand them properly it is essential to know their historical as well as socio-political background. Undoubtedly, one of the key events in Muslim-Christian relations is the end of Christian Byzantium. In his book Constantinople. The Last Great Siege 1453 English writer Roger Crowley paints a vivid picture of the last weeks of the glorious capital of what remained of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire.
When in spring 1453 the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmet II besieged Constantinople, the legendary capital of Byzantium, it was the final show-down between Christians and Muslims in the area. After the conquest, the Balkans, Asia Minor, the entire Middle East, Northern Africa, and large parts of the Mediterranean Sea remained under the control of Ottoman rulers for centuries. But it wasn’t only the overwhelming power of Ottoman troops – they outnumbered the defenders ten to one – that brought about the fall of Constantinople because in reality the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire had begun already long before. During the preceding hundreds of years political intrigues, religious schism, the pillage of Christian Knights during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, civil wars, devastating earthquakes, the plague of 1371, and altogether twenty-three sieges had gradually reduced the once prosperous metropolis to little more than a thinly populated agglomeration of dilapidated villages. The three-layered Theodosian land wall together with the chain across the Golden Horn that were considered insurmountable (some remains can still be seen in modern-day Istanbul) were more or less all that was left to guarantee Constantinople’s sovereignty, but by 1453 they were in poor condition and the Ottomans used a new weapon to break through – canons. Nonetheless, the Byzantines under Emperor Constantine IX Palailogos and supported only by a few thousands of Greek and Italian soldiers because Roman Catholic powers refused to send troops held out for weeks giving the Ottomans a fierce as well as bloody battle.
It’s to the author’s credit that he used a great variety of historical sources and chronicles the last siege of Constantinople with the relevant history of the centuries before from a relatively objective point of view. Thus in his account it isn’t a fight between Good and Evil, between the faithful and the infidels, between the cultured and the barbaric, but a war between equals who strive for power with religion as an additional incentive. Since the book is popular science, not in-depth historical research for academic purposes, the narrative style is light and gripping. Moreover, several illustrations and an extensive bibliography accompany the text. It was a mere pleasure to read this book.
So here's a classical novel dealing with a very serious topic. This time it's breast cancer. Its author is the Nobel laureate in Literature of 1926 who suffered from breast cancer herself. She died in 1936, the same year when the novel was published.
However, The Church of Solitude isn't just the author's attempt to cope with her own fate. Far from it! Like all this writer's novels it offers a very interesting as well as first-rate portrait of rural life on Sardinia, Italy, during the 1930s. Moreover, its plot surrounding a female protagonist who suffers from breast cancer and who longs for nothing but peace and quiet so she tries her best to keep at bay her suitors is touching as well as gripping. I enjoyed the read and hope that the novel will be to your taste too!
This surreslistic novel is one of the most famous works of French author Boris Vian, of those that he first published under his real name. It also made it on many school reading lists and it actually seems to be quite popular in its country of origin – I definitely understand why.
Writing Mood Indigo Boris Vian took a tragic, though altogether rather banal story of love and friendship and shaped it with great skill into a surrealistic masterpiece. Unlike other authors who tried the same he succeeded in producing a novel that doesn't need lots of explanations to be accessible even to a less practiced reader. I loved the bizarre images echoing the basic action and creating an amazingly vivid atmosphere. The word play in the French original is a particular treat too. And then there are the constant references to music, especially Duke Ellington’s Jazz standard Mood Indigo that accounts for the most often used title of the English edition.
Before You Sleep is a contemporary Scandinavian novel from Norway, more precisely a debut novel written by the daughter of actress Liv Ullmann and film director Ingmar Bergman. Can it be much of a surprise that it was an immediate success when it first came out in 1998?
The story centres on three generations of the Norwegian Blom family. Most of them have always lived in Norway, but one followed his heart and immigrated to the USA in the 1930s. He got married, had two daughters, managed to keep afloat during the years of the depression... and died unexpectedly just when things were getting better. His family returned to Norway and all that seems to be left of this episode of family history is a faded photo and a couple of stories. But the narrator realises that the experiences of her ancestors, notably of her mother, shaped her character too, especially her inclination to tell lies to protect herself from pain. This quest of her family and of herself gives a meditative story with a faintly surrealistic touch here and there.
This important work of Austrian literature has first been published in 1974 and is on many school reading lists in Germany, Austria and Switzerland today. The English translation, however, seems to have seen only one edition before going out of print again – unlike its French and Spansh translations.
The story basically is the fictionalised account of the author's own horrible childhood on a mountain farm in the Alpine regions of Salzburg during the 1950s. In shocking detail he evokes his love-less, even cruel biological father, who took him into house and family much rather as a free farm hand than as his son. His has to work hard for his living and he is only allowed to go to school when it suits the father or the teacher starts pestering. Beatings and abuse are an almost daily occurence and weigh terribly on the sensitive as well as intelligent boy who as he grows older begins to consider suicide as an acceptable way out. But then he turns into a teenager. Seeing that is stronger than his father he forces open his way into a better life.