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.
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.
As I already remarked two years ago, when I wrote a biography of Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851-1921) on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany (»»» read her author’s portrait there), the important Spanish author unlike her male counterparts from English-speaking countries and France began to fall into oblivion rather soon after she gained considerable fame for her work. Several of her books have been translated into English. Two of them are her most famous novel The House of Ulloa from 1886, which has been reissued in English translation only in 2013, and its often overlooked sequel Mother Nature from 1887. As an example of Spanish Naturalist writing above all the first deserves a closer look.
The House of Ulloa is set towards the end of the reign of Spanish Queen Isabel II, more precisely just before the liberal revolution of 1868. Father Julián Alvarez enters into service with Don Pedro Moscoso who has a remote country estate in Galicia and is generally known as marquis of Ulloa although in reality the title belongs to a cousin living in Santiago. The young priest is supposed to take care of the marquis’ affairs sorting papers in the library that are in a complete mess, but to his great dismay he finds that his private life is in disorder too and the estate threatened by ruin. In fact, his employer turns out to be a man of loose morals who openly consorts with his mistress Sabel working in the kitchen and treats his illegitimate four-year-old no better than his hounds. Moreover, his daily life is filled with little more than hunting and drinking. When pious and naïve Father Julián asks Don Pedro to change his ways, he admits that he can’t because his steward Primitivo, the father of Sabel, would never allow it and has the power to turn all peasants of the region against him. Nonetheless, the priest hopes to lead his employer back on the path of virtue and suggests that he passes some time in Santiago to choose a wife from his Cousin Manuel’s daughters. Thus he marries Marcelina, called Nucha, and brings her to the house of Ulloa as his wife and new mistress of the estate, but the discreet young woman soon realises that she isn’t accepted and that her husband goes on with his life as if she weren’t there. She suffers and makes Father Julián her confidant. The priest, though, is powerless and can only watch what is going on. Meanwhile, Don Pedro gets involved into politics which at the time is inseparably linked with corruption and risks his estate…
In this naturalist masterpiece the nineteenth-century author Emilia Pardo Bazán skilfully interweaves the main story of predominantly male decadence and corruption in politics as well as society with a feminist critique of a patriarchal world that submits women of all classes to a sexual double standard, violence and abuse in the name of Catholic religion and often with the help of clerics. Although the novel touches very serious topics and has a not less serious plot, its tone is not only gloomy like the wintry landscape of Galicia but also full of wit and clever irony. Moreover, it’s a timeless work of literature that has lost none of its power and meaning in this modern world. In other words, The House of Ulloa is one of those almost forgotten classics that deserve being read more widely outside its country of origin Spain.
The original Spanish versions of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s work have long entered into the public domain and many of them as well as some older translations are available for free via the Virtual Library Miguel de Cervantes, on Feedbooks, on Project Gutenberg, on Wikisource, and several other sites of the kind.
When I picked this slim novel by Jean Rhys, I thought that it would take me to England because she is an English writer, but as it turned out already on the first page I was completely mistaken!
Good Morning, Midnight is the sad (according to many: depressing, even repulsive) story of an Englishwoman called Sasha living in Paris. She has no job, no future and she lost her baby. Altogether the world seems to have nothing to offer to her but misery. She feels terribly lonely and hopeless. In other words she belongs to the helpless and resigned who slip into depression and drown their pain in alcohol – like the author did. In fact, there's very much of Jean Rhys herself shining though the lines.
It's true that Good Morning, Midnight isn't a cheerful read, but the novel is excellently written, deep and thought-provoking which is why I liked it. I talked about the book at length on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany and I invite you to read my review there. To go directly to the post click here: I hope that you'll like what you'll find!
In the USA the word "Babbitt" has become synonymous for Philistine, thus for "But how many of those who use the word know that it's actually the title of a novel and the name of its protagonist?
Babbitt was first published in 1922 and without doubt it must be called an important classic of American literature. Its author was Sinclair Lewis who would eight years later, in 1930, be the first US American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. And yet, I'm led to believe that these days the novel isn't widely read anymore, if not forgotten by the great majority. What better reason to take it from my shelf and give it more than just a quick glance to see what it has to offer to a reader in the twenty-first century.
In fact, Babbitt is a novel that seems to me very up-to-date. It touches on many issues of our modern world, e.g. on the unhealthy craving for constant progress and growth, on globalisation = standardisation = uniformity, on the meaninglessness of life, on conformity and exclusion, on mid-life crises, on escape through entertainment,... I reviewed the novel at length on my other book blog – just click here to read what I wrote about it on Edith's Miscellany.
This charming French novel first published in 2006 happens to be one of my favourites of all time. It's imbued with philosophy from beginning to end and everything revolves around the meaning of life from the point of view of a well-read French concierge who hides behind the façade of a typical speciman of her profession and a twelve-year-old bourgeois who feels disgusted by the empty life to which she seems doomed by birth. It's only thanks to the influence of a Japanese business man who moves into the house that the concierge gradually learns to live her true self and makes friends. A happy end announces itself page by page, but it isn't to be.
This book written by one of the most famous Albanian writers of our time takes the reader back into the Balkan past when blood feuds were still common in the remote highlands... less than a hundred years ago.
It’s 17 March when twenty-six-year-old Gjorg Berisha from the village Brezftoht lies in wait for Zef Kryeqyqe to take revenge for the death of his brother. He doesn’t see much point in shooting the man because it seals his own fate, but it’s his duty in the family vendetta that has lasted already for seventy years and cost the lives of twenty-two kin on either side. He knows that after the killing he has only thirty days of his life left before it's his turn to become the next victim of the archic rules of the Kanun... to be killed or to hide until the end of his days in one of the dark towers of refuge that disturb the soft-hearted young wife of a writer from Tirana on honeymoon.
The Great War of 1914-18 had been raging in Europe and other parts of the world for over a year, when in December 1915 the little known French writer Romain Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings”. In reality, he may have been chosen because in his work he advocated peace and stood up against warmongers in his own as well as other countries. Just a few years later, in 1921, the by then already famous Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) portrayed the Nobel Prize laureate who was also his friend in the book Romain Rolland. The Man and His Work. But the biography isn’t a usual one because Stefan Zweig focuses on the artistic mission or rather vocation that his gifted friend felt in him from an early age and that he was determined to live although it meant sacrifice and even exile for a while.
Born into a bourgeois family in the small town of Clamecy, Nièvre, France, in 1866 Romain Rolland’s first acquaintance with the arts is with music that will always remain an integral part of his life. In school he also discovers his great love for literature and he makes friends with the writer-to-be Paul Claudel. Then he moves on to the École Normale to study History. There he makes friends with other important writers-to-be, namely André Suarès and Charles Peguy. After graduation fate has it that he is offered a two-year grant to further his studies in Rome and write his doctoral thesis. The experience is a revelation to him, not least because he meets a friend of Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner, Malwida von Meysenbug, who encourages him to go his way. Back in Paris Romain Rolland begins to teach Music History in different high schools and finally at Sorbonne University. At this time his writings are still closely linked to his work, but soon he makes first attempts at plays.
Around 1900 Roman Rolland and a group of friends found the literary magazine Cahiers de la Quinzaine. Moreover, they set out to modernise French theatre. Romain Rolland writes the seminal essay Theatre of the People (1903) and the first of a whole cycle of ambitious, though at the time unsuccessful plays. Then he turns to a cycle of biographies of the great men of history. Beethoven the Creator (1903), Michelangelo (1907), Handel (1910), and Tolstoy (1911) are the first to appear almost unnoticed by the public. In the early 1900s the author also begins to work on his most famous novel series in ten volumes surrounding a German musician in France, namely Jean-Christophe. The English edition is usually published in three volumes, namely Volume I – Jean-Christophe: Dawn, Morning, Youth, Revolt (1904/05), Volume II – Jean-Christophe in Paris: The Market Place, Antoinette, The House (1908), and Volume III – Journey’s End: Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, The New Dawn (1910-12). Immediately afterwards he writes the comic novel Colas Breugnon, but in summer 1914 the war breaks out and it can only be published in 1919. The author is in Switzerland at the time and decides to stay there in exile because he doesn’t want to be forced into line with French politics. He is against war and wants to work for peace although thanks to censure writings like his anti-war manifesto Above the Battle (1915) and his pacifistic articles later assembled in The Forerunners (1919) aren’t reprinted in France or other war-faring countries. In 1915 the Swedish Academy of Sciences awards him the Nobel Prize in Literature. And he continues to write. By 1921, when Stefan Zweig brings out his biography of Romain Rolland, the tragicomic play Liluli, the novel Clerambault. The Story of an Independent Spirit During the War (1920), and the idyllic novella Pierre and Luce (1920) have been published. By 1929, when a new edition of the biography appears with an addition to the final chapter titled Envoy also the first volumes of the novel series The Soul Enchanted (1922-1933) and a biography of Mahatma Gandhi (1924) have appeared. More biographical essays, plays and novels followed.
Since Stefan Zweig committed suicide in 1942, all original German editions of his work are in the public domain. A digital edition of an English translation of Romain Rolland. The Man and his Work is available on Project Gutenberg … like many of the works of Romain Rolland.
Although renowned for his fictionalised biographies of great historical figures – like the one of Romain Rolland that I just presented – and for his autobiography The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig was also a highly celebrated writer of fiction, especially novellas. To get an idea, I invite you to read my short review of Letter from an Unknown Woman posted here on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion earlier this year and my long review of Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany.
This one is a coming-of-age classic from Brazil surrounding the narrator-protagonist Maria Augusta, called Gusta, and her friends Maria José and Maria Glória. First published in 1939 the first-person narrative was quite ahead of its time showing the girl who grows up in the care of a convent boarding school and after her return home to her family abandons step by step her timidity as well as the limitations that religion and society impose on women of her time. Unlike many of her peers she doesn’t marry young, but she convinces her father to allow her to return to Fortaleza where she went to school and still has friends to learn a profession. Before long she is a fully trained typist with a job… and free to discover the world and the ways of men.
I love the work of Nobel laureate José Saramago and have already read a few of his books, not this one, though - his very first novel published posthumously because the editor to whom the author sent it didn't even bother to answer until decades later when Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Find out more in the great review that went online here on the Read the Nobels blog past week!