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After reading ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘, I decided to read the Oxford VSI (Very Short Introduction) on the subject, ‘Chinese Literature : A Very Short Introduction‘ by Sabina Knight.

Sabina Knight’s book is divided into five chapters, each of which focuses on a different theme. The first one is on Chinese philosophical works, the second one is on poetry, the third one is on early prose works, the fourth one is on prose epics and drama, and the fifth one covers 20th and 21st century literature. The book starts slowly, and in the initial chapters the prose veers towards the academic, with sentences like this –

“Sensitivity to these dynamics fostered awe for the potentials underlying natural dispositions, plus profound faith in human capacities to navigate these propensities.”

But the pace picks up by the third chapter and the book kicks ass after that. The book is just 120 pages long and can be read in a few hours, but the amount of information it packs is amazing.

I loved most of the book, and the book’s coverage of the Chinese prose epics and its analysis of classical Chinese poetry is brilliant. One of my favourite lines in the book is this one –

“Scholars sometimes liken traditional novels to Chinese gardens and landscape painting, both of which encourage wandering rather than a single fixed perspective or presentation.”

It is a perfect depiction of all the major Chinese prose epics, which are complex and refuse to get pigeon-holed into restrictive themes and structures.

Sabina Knight says this in the chapter on poetry – “Du Fu, arguably China’s greatest poet…” It made me smile 😊 (I love Du Fu, but Li Bai was, is, and will always be, China’s greatest poet. Sorry Sabina 😊)

The last chapter in the book was fascinating, and was especially my favourite, because it featured many 20th and 21st century writers who were new to me. That is many exciting new writers waiting to be explored. I was disappointed that Jin Yong, the most popular Chinese writer of the 20th century, just gets a mention in one sentence, while ‘Fortress Besieged‘, one of the greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century, doesn’t even get a mention. But I was happy that two 20th century greats, Lu Xun and Ba Jin (both of whom should have won the Nobel Prize, in my opinion), both got good coverage. I was happy that Wei Hui and her controversial ‘Shanghai Baby‘ were featured, and I was also excited that the book introduced me to many wonderful women Chinese writers, including Wang Anyi, Dai Houying, Zhang Jie and Yang Mo.

This book is a great introduction to Chinese literature and a great companion read alongwith ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘. These two books cover most of the same ground but in completely different styles and so they complement each other perfectly. Sabina Knight’s book is not always easy going, and it is a bit challenging initially, but if you are persistent, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

There is a beautiful publisher in Singapore called Asiapac Books. They publish Chinese classics and books on Chinese history and culture in comic / graphic novel form. Their magnum opus is their 10-volume graphic novel adaptation of ‘Three Kingdoms‘. When I first discovered Asiapac Books, I was very excited and got a number of their books. One of the books I got was this one, ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘. I thought I’ll read this today.

This book gives a beautiful overview of Chinese literature from the earliest times to the beginning of the 20th century. It features all the major poets, philosophers, historians, novelists, playwrights and gives a brief biography of them, describes an anecdote from their lives and shares excerpts from their work, either in text or in comic form. The book is just 158 pages long and it looks deceptively like a regular comic, but reading the book is like dipping into an infinite well, as it covers more than 3000 years of Chinese literary history. All my favourite Chinese poets – Li Bai, Bai Juyi, Wang Wei, Du Fu, Tao Yuanming – are featured here. So are Sima Qian, the grand historian, and Zhuangzi, he of the butterfly dream fame. The Tang Dynasty gets good detailed coverage – it is the longest chapter in the book. All the four major Chinese prose epics are featured in detail with excerpts from them. I was thinking that the fifth epic, the-book-that-shall-not-be-named, (also called ‘Jing Ping Mei‘) would be ignored, but even that got a mention. Many of the minor epics like ‘The Scholars‘ and ‘Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio‘, were featured, and I was surprised that even ‘Seven Heroes and Five Gallants‘ got a mention.

As you can see, the book is packed with information. It is hard for me to imagine how the authors managed to squeeze in so much content in so few pages.

I loved ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘. If you are looking for an introduction to Chinese literature, this is a great place to start.

I’m sharing some of the pages below so that you can see what exactly is there inside.

Zhuangzi’s legendary butterfly dream
Sima Qian, the Grand Historian
The story of the legendary Peach Blossom Spring by Tao Yuanming, which inspired the legend of Shanghri-La
Li Bai, the deity of poetry
The famous haunting, heartbreaking scene from Bai Juyi’s ‘Song of Unending Sorrow’
The poet emperor Li Yu, China’s own Nero / Bahadur Shah Zafar
One of my favourite poems by the great Su Shi
Li Qingzhao, China’s greatest female poet

Have you read this book? Do you like reading literary history or nonfiction in comic form?

I discovered Frank Schätzing’sThe Swarm‘ recently by accident. I’ve never read sci-fi / speculative fiction written in German before and so decided to read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The story starts with the disappearance of fishermen in the coast of Chile. Then whales start attacking people at the Canadian coast, something which is unheard of. Strange eyeless crabs invade multiple cities in the U.S. A lobster ends up in a restaurant kitchen in France, and it is infected with something strange and the chef who is trying to cook it dies. This leads to further infection and an epidemic. In the North sea, at the place where the Norwegian oil wells are, strange worms start appearing near the wells. This last thing leads to a big disaster as the continental collapses there leading to a huge tsunami. Scientists investigate these strange happenings, initially separately, and then together. They suspect that all these strange happenings arise from a common cause. Then the stunning truth is suspected and revealed and what happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I loved the science part of the book. Frank Schätzing has done his research well and the science part of the story is very impressive – we can learn a lot about oceanography, continental shelves, the different kinds of waves, the origin of tsunamis, deep sea exploration, whales and other deep sea beings, oil drilling in the deep, the technology involved in all this. I learnt a lot about all these while reading the book. It was almost like reading Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’, in which the nonfiction part outweighs the fiction part of the book. The speculative part of the book, especially the main hypothesis, is very interesting. I can’t tell you what it is, in case you plan to read the book. The story is interesting and makes us want to turn the page to find out what happens next. In a book of this size, the pace is uneven as one would expect, and some parts of the story move faster than the others. Frank Schätzing’s prose is functional and workmanlike, as could be expected in a plot-based novel and moves the story nicely along. But occasionally, once in a hundred pages, there is a beautiful passage. Schätzing is German, after all. He can’t just keep writing plain vanilla prose. The romance parts of the book are very unconvincing and laughable though 😄 Clearly, writing romance scenes is not Schätzing’s thing 😄

One curious thing I noticed towards the end of the book, after all the revelations, was that nearly all the bad guys in the story were Americans. It was almost as if, Frank Schätzing had said to himself – “I’m tired of all the thrillers written in the last 70 years, in which the bad guy is German (or Russian or East European), while the good guy is American who comes and saves the world. I want to change this. I want to write a novel in which all the bad guys are Americans.” Then he went and wrote this 1000-page novel. One can almost imagine him, receiving the first copy of this book, after it had been printed, and thumping it on his writing desk and saying “Take that!” I couldn’t stop laughing when I thought about this 😆

I enjoyed reading ‘The Swarm‘. I wouldn’t say that I loved it, but I definitely liked it. I rarely read 1000-page novels. I’ve read only a handful of them in my life. I can count them in one hand. It is not like I don’t like 1000-page chunksters. I love them and I buy them and start reading them but give up halfway through. My home is filled with half-read 1000-page chunksters. So, I was pretty proud of myself when I finished this book. I hesitated to pick it initially, because of its size, but it was so tempting that I couldn’t resist it any longer, and I decided to dip my toe in and see how it went. I’m happy to report that five days later, I’ve finished reading this book. I discovered another book by Frank Schätzing which is even longer. He seems to be the German Neal Stephenson, specializing in chunksters. It is safe to say that I won’t be picking up another Frank Schätzing book anytime soon 😊 But I’m glad I read this one.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“At sea the world was just water and sky, with little to tell them apart. There were no visual markers, which meant that on clear days, the sense of infinity could suck you into space, and when it was wet, you never knew if you were on the surface or somewhere beneath it. Even hardened sailors found the monotony of constant rain depressing. The horizon dimmed as dark waves merged with banks of thick grey cloud, robbing the universe of light, shape and hope in a vision of desolation.”

“Time was of no importance on the land, where the routines and patterns of cities and settlements ceased to exist. Distances weren’t measured in kilometres or miles but in days. Two days to this place, and half a day to that. It was no help to know that it was fifty kilometres to your destination, if the route was filled with obstacles like pack ice or crevasses. Nature had no respect for human plans. The next second could be fraught with imponderables, so people lived for the present. The land followed its own rhythm, and the Inuit submitted to it. Thousands of years as nomads had taught them that that was the way to gain mastery. Through the first half of the twentieth century they had continued to roam the land freely, and decades later the nomadic lifestyle still suited them better than being confined to one place by a house.”

“Research shows that human beings are incapable of discerning intelligence beyond a certain micro- or meta- threshold. For us to perceive intelligence, it has to fit within our behavioural framework. If we were to encounter intelligence operating outside that framework – on a micro- level, for instance – we would fail to see it. Similarly, if we were to come into contact with a far higher intelligence, a mind vastly superior to our own, we would see only chaos, as its reasoning would elude us. Decisions taken by a higher instance of intelligence would prove inscrutable to our intellect, having been made within parameters beyond the reach of human understanding. Imagine a dog’s view of us. To the dog, a person appears not as a mind, but as a force to be obeyed. From its perspective, human behaviour is arbitrary: our actions are based on considerations that canine perception fails to grasp. It follows therefore that, should God exist, we would be incapable of recognising him or her as an intelligent being, since divine thought would encompass a totality of factors too complex for us to comprehend. Consequently, God would appear as a force of chaos, and therefore scarcely the entity that we would like to see governing the outcome of a football match, let alone a war. A being of that kind would exist beyond the limits of human perception. And that in turn prompts the question as to whether the meta- being God would be capable of perceiving intelligence on the sub- level of the human. Maybe we are an experiment in a petridish after all . . .”

Have you read ‘The Swarm‘? What do you think about it?

I’ve wanted to read a Robert Walser book for a while now. I decided to read this one, ‘The Assistant‘, for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Joseph lands up one day morning at the office of the inventor Tobler. Joseph is hired to work as Tobler’s assistant and handle correspondence and enquires and other things that assistants do. Tobler’s wife and children are also there in that big villa. Joseph is from a poor background and he enjoys this new lifestyle. His employer and his family are pleasant to him and his workdays are comfortable. What happens during the course of the next year, when Tobler’s business starts with a lot of promise and bright future dreams and ends in near ruin and what experiences Joseph has when he is a part of it, is told in the rest of the story.

I liked ‘The Assistant‘, but I didn’t love it. The story is interesting and it shows how being an inventor is a perilous life and how things can sink or swim in a short span of time. Robert Walser’s descriptions and observations on nature (and sometimes Joseph’s dreams and fantasies of nature) are a pleasure to read. I highlighted many beautiful passages.

I’m glad I read my first Robert Walser. I am a little disappointed though – I was almost expecting a Thomas Mann style observation on life, but I didn’t get that. What I got was Walser’s observations on life. The book has an interesting afterword by the translator Susan Bernofsky which is very insightful to read.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The depths have no shape, and there is no eye that can see what they are depicting. They are singing as well, but in notes no ear can catch. They reach out their long moist hands, but there is no hand able to grasp them. They rear up on either side of the nocturnal boat, but no knowledge in any way present knows this. No eye is looking into the eye of the depths. The water disappears, the glassy abyss opens up, and the boat now appears to be drifting along, peaceful and melodious and safe, beneath the surface of the water.”

“Such a slender and delicate script already hinted at great wealth. Nearly all capitalists wrote just like this man: with precision and at the same time somewhat offhandedly. This script was the handwritten equivalent of an elegant easy bearing, an imperceptible nod of the head, a tranquil expressive hand motion. It was so long-stemmed, this writing, it exuded a certain coldness, certainly the person who wrote like this was the opposite of a hot-blooded fellow. These few words: concise and courteous in their style. The politeness and succinctness extended even to the intimate format of his blindingly white letter paper.”

“How true it is that each of the four seasons has its own particular scent and sound. When you see spring, you always think you’ve never seen it like this before, never looking so special. In summer, the summery profusion strikes you as new and magical year after year. You never really looked at fall properly before, not until this year, and when winter arrives, the winter too is utterly new, quite quite different from a year or three ago. Indeed, even the years have their own individual personalities and aromas. Having spent the year in such and such a place means having experienced and seen it. Places and years are intimately linked, and what about events and years? Since experiences can color an entire decade, how much more powerfully and swiftly they can color a short year. A short year?”

“And the world, was it changing? No. A wintry image could superimpose itself upon the world of summer, winter could give way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same. It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge, beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same. It was a great lover of make-up, it painted its face now more brightly, now in paler hues, now it was glowing, now pallid, never quite what it had been before, constantly it was changing a little, and yet remained always vividly and restlessly the same. It sent lighting bolts flashing from its eyes and rumbled the thunder with its powerful lungs, it wept the rain down in streams and let the clean, glittering snow come smiling from its lips, but in the features and lineaments of its face, little change could be discerned. Only on rare occasions might a shuddering earthquake, a pelting of hail, a deluge or volcanic flare disturb its placid surface, or else it quaked or shuddered inwardly with worldly sentiments and earthly convulsions, but still it remained the same. Regions remained the same; skylines, to be sure, were always waxing and expanding, but a city could never fly off and find somewhere else to live from one hour to the next. Streams and rivers followed the same courses as they had for millennia, they might peter out in the sand, but they couldn’t suddenly leap from their beds into the light open air. Water had to work its way through canals and caves. Streaming and burrowing was its age-old law. And the lakes lay where they had lain for a long, long time. They didn’t leap up toward the sun or play ball like children. Sometimes they became indignant and slapped their water in waves together with a great whooshing noise, but they could transform themselves neither into clouds one day nor wild horses one night. Everything in and upon the earth was subject to beautiful, rigorous laws, just like human beings.”

Have you read ‘The Assistant‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered ‘Doppler‘ by Erlend Loe sometime back. I love Norwegian and Scandinavian literature but haven’t read one recently, and so was excited to read this.

The story is narrated by Doppler. He lives in the forest bordering the city at the start of the story. He used to be a regular guy – worked hard, had a good job, was a responsible family man, with a kind wife and two kids. Then one day his father died. And then he goes cycling through the forest and trips on some tree roots and falls. He is not able to get up or call for help and while he is down something happens. Something in his mind opens up and lets in a new kind of light and suddenly he starts questioning everything about his life. Before long he moves into the forest and starts living there with a baby elk for company and the beautiful things that happen after that form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Doppler‘. Doppler’s narrative voice is wonderful and his sense of humour is charming and I couldn’t stop laughing at many of his observations. The book asks many of the big questions on what is important in life without providing any simplistic answers. It is not all wonderful and pleasant for Doppler in the forest and the book doesn’t shy away from depicting that. One of the things I loved about the book was the way the forging of new friendships is described. The way Doppler and the baby elk, whom he calls Bongo, become friends is itself complex, because it starts with a heartbreaking event, but when they start hanging out together, and Doppler starts treating Bongo like a human child, it makes us smile with pleasure. Before long Doppler’s son starts camping in the forest with him and he becomes friends with Bongo, and Bongo’s friend circle starts going up. There are three other fascinating characters in the story, with whom Doppler becomes friends, but I don’t want to write about them, because it is more pleasurable to discover about them yourself.

I enjoyed reading ‘Doppler‘. It was such a pleasurable read and I was smiling most of the time when I was reading it. I can’t wait to read more books by Erlend Loe.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“…as a cyclist you’re forced to be an outlaw. You’re forced to live on the wild side of society and at odds with established traffic conventions which are increasingly focussed on motorised traffic, even for healthy people. Cyclists are an oppressed breed, we are a silent minority, our hunting grounds are diminishing all the time and we’re being forced into patterns of behaviour which aren’t natural to us, we can’t speak our own language, we’re being forced underground. But be warned because this injustice is so obvious, and it cannot surprise anyone that anger and aggression are accumulating in cyclists and that one fine day, when non-cyclists have become so fat that they can hardly manoeuvre themselves in and out of their cars, we will strike back with all our might and main.”

“On the kitchen worktop there is the biggest Toblerone that money can buy. It weighs four and a half kilos; it’s over a metre long and as wide as my thigh. I’ve often seen bars like that myself. At Kastrup and other airports I used to fly on business before moving into the forest. But I’ve only ever bought the small ones. I’ve never dared to go the whole hog and buy the big one. It was being nice that held me back, I recollect. Always being nice. Small Toblerone bars are nice. They demonstrate a father’s consideration for his family. He remembered them. He thought of them. But big Toblerone bars are too big to be nice. They’re extreme and say dark things about the buyer. He’s got an eating problem. He’s lonely. He’s weird. He’s capable of anything.”

“It’s embedded in our DNA that we constantly have to be doing things. Finding things to do. As long as you’re active that’s fine, in a way, however mindless the activity. We want to avoid boredom at all costs, but I’ve started to notice that I like being bored. Boredom is underrated. I tell Gregus that my plan is to bore myself to happiness.”

“It’s become far more difficult to do things, and it’s become impossible to do nothing. Doing nothing is a very demanding job when other people are constantly on your back.”

“One problem with people is that as soon as they fill a space it’s them you see and not the space. Large, desolate landscapes stop being large, desolate landscapes once they have people in them. They define what the eye sees. And the human eye is almost always directed at other humans. In this way an illusion is created that humans are more important than those things on earth which are not human. It’s a sick illusion. Perhaps elk are the most important creatures when it comes down to it, I say to Bongo. Perhaps you’re the ones who know best but you’re extremely patient. I doubt that, of course, but who knows? It’s definitely not humans anyway. I refuse to believe that.”

Have you read ‘Doppler‘? What do you think about it?

I loved Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s first novel ‘A Whole Life. I decided to read his next book ‘The Tobacconist‘ for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Franz lives with his mother in a small village in the middle of the mountains. Franz is seventeen years old. It is the 1930s. One day his family’s benefactor dies. Franz’ mother decides to send him to Vienna to an old’s friend’s place to work. This old friend is a tobacconist called Otto Trsnyek. Franz goes to work there as an apprentice. The tobacconist teaches him the finer points of the business and also tells him that most of the time he has to just keep quiet, read the newspaper and keep himself abreast of worldly affairs, and pay attention and learn when a customer arrives. All kinds of customers visit the shop. One day an elderly gentleman visits the shop. The tobacconist gets up with respect and calls him ‘Professor’. In the Vienna of that time, there can be only one Professor, of course. It is our famous Sigmund Freud. Soon a beautiful friendship develops between Franz and Freud. What happens after this, the experiences that Franz has as he grows up from a teenager into a young man, what impact Freud has on Franz’ life, and how the great historical events of the time impact individuals’ lives is told in the rest of the story.

I loved the different relationships depicted in the story – between Franz and his mother, between Franz and Otto Trsnyek the tobacconist, the warm friendship between Franz and Freud and the beautiful relationship between Franz and a young woman called Anezka. I loved all the main characters. One of my favourite scenes in the story was at the beginning when Otto Trsnyek inducts Franz into the life of a tobacconist and describes to him the importance of reading newspapers and the magic of cigars. I also loved the conversations between Franz and Freud. Freud comes through as a cool person with a wonderful sense of humour, which is not at all how I imagined him. The way in which the historical events of the time impacted normal people, and how some of them resisted the bad things that happened is beautifully depicted in the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Tobacconist‘. There is one more book of Seethaler which is available in English translation. I want to read that now.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Franz : “Where I come from, people might understand a bit about the timber industry and how to get summer visitors to part with their money. They don’t understand the first thing about love.”
Freud : “That’s not unusual. Nobody understands anything about love.”
Franz : “Not even you?”
Freud : “Especially not me!”
Franz : “But why is everybody always falling in love all over the place, then?”
Freud : “Young man, you don’t have to understand water in order to jump in head first.”

“The professor swallowed. ‘A Hoyo de Monterrey,’ he said, huskily. Franz nodded. ‘Harvested by brave men on the sunny, fertile banks of the San Juan y Martínez River and tenderly hand-rolled by their beautiful women.’ Freud gently palpated the cigar along its entire length and squeezed it lightly between thumb and forefinger. ‘An aromatic habano that is light in taste, yet persuades through great elegance and complexity,’ said Franz, with a naturalness that gave no hint of the many painstaking hours it had cost him to learn the descriptions on the cigar box by heart. He took a silver-plated cigar cutter from the pocket of his trousers and handed it to the professor. ‘A habano should be cut precisely on the line — here, where cap and wrapper join.’ Freud cut off the end and lit the Hoyo with a match as long as his finger. In doing so he held the flame about a centimetre away from the tip and drew on the cigar until the flame reached it. Then he turned it slowly between his fingers and blew softly on the embers. He leaned back with a faint smile and gazed at the bluish smoke curling up and away in the clear winter air.”

“Sometimes a quiet rustling reached him from the shop. Mice, perhaps, thought Franz, or rats. Or the events of the previous day, already turned into memories and rustling out of the newspapers. It’s pretty odd, actually, he thought, the way the newspapers trumpet all their truths in big fat letters only to write them small again in the next edition, or contradict them. The morning edition’s truth is practically the evening edition’s lie; though as far as memory’s concerned it doesn’t really make much difference. Because it’s not usually the truth that people remember; it’s just whatever’s yelled loudly enough or printed big enough. And eventually, thought Franz, when one of these rustlings of memory has lasted long enough, it becomes history.”

“Those who knew nothing had no worries, thought Franz, but if it was hard enough painstakingly to acquire knowledge, it was even harder, if not practically impossible, to forget what you had once known.”

“…it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity — or, best of all, all three at once — can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”

Have you read ‘The Tobacconist‘? What do you think about it?

I wanted to read a book by a Swiss author and so decided to read Martin Suter’sThe Last Weynfeldt‘. I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Adrian Weynfeldt is an art expert. He helps in writing art catalogues, valuing works of art, organizing art auctions. He is in his fifties. He is a man of simple, steady habits. One day, very surprisingly, he comes home with a beautiful woman. The next day morning, when he gets up, he discovers that the woman is standing at the balcony, ready to take the plunge. Adrian tries to talk her down. The strange sequence of events which arise from this and which flow rapidly takes us into the art world, the world of painters and paintings and art auctions and art forgeries.

The Last Weynfeldt‘ is kind of a thriller. A sleek one though. The start is spectacular and though the rest of the book can’t keep up with that, it is still interesting. There is a lot of information in the book about Swiss art and artists. There is also a lot of information about furniture designers and architects. One of the things I loved was the description of food. Martin Suter takes a lot of pleasure in writing about food. I made a list of things that I’d like to try. Especially ravioli ricotta with sage butter (have never tried sage butter), buckwheat blini (have tried blini and I love it, but I don’t think I’ve tried buckwheat blini), Birnbrot (pastry filled with dry pears – sounds wonderful!). The characters in the book are interesting – I especially liked Adrian, his housekeeper Frau Hauser who behaves like his mom, being affectionate and tough at the same time, his secretary Veronique, and the beautiful woman who tries jumping out of his balcony, Lorena. The story has a surprising fascinating ending, but I won’t tell you what 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘. I won’t call it my favourite thriller, but it was pleasant reading for a Sunday afternoon.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book.

“He believed that regularity prolonged life. There was also the opposing theory: regularity makes each day indistinguishable, and the more events and habits are repeated, the more the days resemble each other and the years too. Till your whole life feels like one single year. Weynfeldt didn’t believe this. If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the differences become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them. Repetition slows down the passage of time. Weynfeldt was absolutely convinced of this. Change might make life more eventful, but it undoubtedly made it shorter too.”

“Adrian was waiting for Lorena to call, and waiting was not an activity for him; it was a state, not such an unpleasant one. Like flying. As soon as he boarded an airplane, he was placed in a state of absolute passivity. Of course he ate the food served him, and read a newspaper, or a book. But he was passive as far as flying itself was concerned. He knew there was nothing he could do to influence it and delegated it unconditionally to those who could.”

Have you read ‘The Last Weynfeldt‘? What do you think about it?

I stumbled upon Bernhard Schlink’sThe Woman on the Stairs‘ recently. I haven’t read a book by him in a while and so I thought I’ll read this now for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The narrator of the story is a German lawyer. He is in Sydney on a  work-related trip. During a break from work, he goes to the art gallery. He is surprised when he sees a painting there called ‘The Woman on the Stairs’. We discover that there are mysterious past events that connect him to the painting and the people related to it. Our lawyer tries to find out who owns the painting, but hits a dead end. Then he hires a detective to find that out. What happens after that, when our lawyer goes on a quest for a secret from his past and tries to find the mysterious woman in the painting forms the rest of the story.

I don’t want to tell you anything more on the plot, but I can’t resist saying this. The next passage is my own opinion, but I think it is also spoiler-ish. Thought I’ll warn you in advance 😊

The Woman on the Stairs‘ is a beautiful homage to Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler and ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. It is a beautiful love letter to Irene Adler. Atleast that is what I think. What happens when, after many years, Sherlock Holmes stumbles upon a clue and goes on a quest for Irene Adler? What if Sherlock Holmes is not a detective but a lawyer? What if it is not Bohemia of the 19th century but the Germany of the contemporary era? And what if Irene Adler is, well Irene Adler? 😊 Well, this is the story we get. It is beautiful. I loved it.

I had forgotten how much I liked Bernhard Schlink till I read this book. I loved his books, ‘The Reader‘ and ‘Homecoming‘, and some of the stories I read in ‘Flights of Love‘. Then I read his book ‘The Weekend‘ and hated it and I stopped reading Bernhard Schlink. Now I realize that he was probably having a bad day when he wrote ‘The Weekend’. Because his stories are consistently good. His prose is spare, his sentences are short. Every sentence moves the plot. There is no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. Occasionally there is a beautiful passage. Perfect reading if you don’t want to tax your brain too much, but want to relax and enjoy the story, and read the occasional beautiful paragraph. This book had all this, it was vintage Schlink. He has written one more book after this, ‘Olga‘. It looks fascinating. I want to read that soon.

This particular passage in the book made me smile 😊

“In our family, we did, and still do things by the book: no loud fights, no love fests or orgies of joy, no lazing about, as much work as possible, as much rest as necessary; day is day and night is night.”

When I was a kid, this was how my family was – no loud fights, spoke in low tones, didn’t show happiness or sadness or anger in an explicit way. I remember when my dad got angry, he spoke in a low menacing voice and it sent a chill down our spines. My sister, who was never scared of anyone, even she was scared of him at that time. All this changed when I got older. Now, I scream when I get angry at home  I scream when I am filled with joy, especially when watching a sporting event on TV – when Leyla Fernandez is match point down and she hits a delicate drop volley, or when Barbora Krejcikova is set point down and she hits a flowing forehand winner, or when Mohammed Hafeez delicately teases a ball between two fielders to the boundary and Alan Wilkins says on commentary – “Professor Hafeez is playing chess with his cricket bat…He is toying with the bowling with the delicacy of a surgeon” – I can’t stop screaming when I see that 😊 I love lazing about sometimes (or many times 😊) not doing anything, I rest a lot sometimes but do with very less rest on most days. And last but not not the least, day is night and night is day in these parts 😆 It is like night owl has gone rogue here 😆 I used to be the guy who followed all these rules, and now I’ve broken every one of them that it makes me smile 😊

I’ll leave you with some of my other favourite passages from the book.

“I read about the history of Australia, the convicts in chains, the settlers, the land grant companies, the gold miners, the Chinese. The Aborigines who died first from infections, then from being massacred, and then had their children taken away. The taking was well intentioned, it brought tremendous suffering to both parents and children. My wife would have nodded; she liked to say that the opposite of good is not evil, but good intentions. But the opposite of evil is not evil intentions, but good.”

“I sat back down on the bench. Should I go to the firm? I could still put in a day’s work. I didn’t want to. When, in the Botanic Garden, I remembered that morning by the river, it occurred to me that I had never done that again, fritter away a day. Of course, with my fiancée, then wife, and then with my children, there were days when I didn’t work. But on those days I did what I owed my fiancée, my wife and children, what served our health, education, togetherness. Pleasant activities, certainly, and a nice change of pace from work. But just to sit, and watch the world go by, and close my eyes against the sun, and daydream hour after hour, to find a restaurant with good food and wine, take a little walk, then find another place to sit and watch, and close my eyes against the sun, and dream – I did that only that day, and now again in Sydney.”

“The wind felt weird. It came without clouds, and without rain; it had no right to show off, but it did. It did not blow on me, but around me and through me and let me know how frail I was, as it let the house feel how fragile it was.”

“It takes many masons to build the cathedral of justice; some hew blocks, others carve plinths and cornices, still others, ornaments and statues. They are all equally important to the project: prosecution and defence are as important as judgement; the drafting of rental, employment and inheritance contracts is as important as the implementation of mergers and acquisitions; the lawyer for the rich as important as the lawyer for the poor. The cathedral would still rise without my contribution. It would rise without this cornice, or that ornament, but still they are part of it.”

“Or is it the small defeats that we can’t get over? The first tiny scratch on a new car is more painful than a big one later on. The small splinters are harder to remove than the big ones and sometimes won’t come out however much you poke them with a needle, and they fester until they work their way out. The big early defeats change the course of our lives. The small ones don’t change us, but they stay with us and torment us, little thorns in our side.”

Have you read ‘The Woman on the Stairs‘? Which is your favourite Bernhard Schlink book?

I’ve read three books by Hermann Hesse before – Narcissus and Goldmund, Siddhartha, and a collection of poetry. Hesse was one of my favourite writers at one point. But I haven’t read a Hesse book in a while, and I thought I had grown out of Hesse. But then I read the first page of ‘Demian‘ and it was wonderful and so I decided to read it. I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

The narrator of the story is Emil Sinclair. As the story begins, he looks back on his past, and tells us his lifestory. He describes how when he was a kid, he discovered that the world was light and dark, how the safety and coziness of his home and family was light, while outside his house lurked many dark things. And what happened when one day, the darkness crept into the light. He goes on to describe, how this interplay between light and dark continued through his life, how different people took him under their wing and mentored and supported him and how he got caught in the middle of historical events.

The start of the story is brilliant and four-fifths of the story is wonderful, vintage Hesse. But things turn somewhere  in the last part, and the story becomes a melange of spirituality and history and some prescriptive philosophy, and though one of my favourite characters makes an appearance in the last part of the story, the story sinks here and it hasn’t aged well. Maybe, the readers of that time loved it more.

The mentors of the narrator are all very fascinating, including the title character Demian, but my favourite out of them was a person called Pistorius, who plays the organ in a small church. He looks simple, doesn’t dress well, doesn’t look good, doesn’t talk much, but inside his mind lives an amazing person. The conversations between the narrator and Pistorius were some of my favourite parts of the book.

I also discovered this sentence in the book – “For it had gained the whole world, while losing its soul in the process.” It made me smile  Because another version of this sentence is one of my favourite sentences ever, and it is from W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Fall of Edward Barnard‘. Maugham was a voracious reader who read in German and French too, and he was famous for borrowing plots and characters from the German and French novels that he read. Now, I am wondering whether Maugham just borrowed this sentence from Hesse and modified it to his story’s requirement 😊 Can’t put this copycatting past old, wily Will 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘Demian‘. Not as much as ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ or ‘Siddhartha’, but I still liked it. I wish I had read it when I was younger, at a more impressionable age. I think I would have liked it more then. Hesse’s thoughts on the greatness of eastern mysticism and how after the First World War a new world was going to come out which was going to be beautiful – these haven’t aged well. The world seems to be hurtling from one crisis to another with no end in sight. Francis Fukuyama  wrote a book after the end of the Cold War era called ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, the main contention of the book being that communism is dead, the West has won, and now life is heaven. Now, after nearly thirty years, we can’t resist laughing at this contention with contempt 😊 We’ll be more kind to Hesse though – he had no way of knowing that human beings were more crazier than he thought.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“I could do everything the others were capable of; with a little diligence and effort I could read Plato, solve problems in trigonometry, or follow a chemical analysis. There was only one thing I couldn’t do: tear out the obscurely hidden aim within me and visualize it somewhere before my eyes, as others did, those who knew precisely that they wanted to become a professor, judge, doctor, or artist, who knew how long that would take them and what benefits it would bring them. I couldn’t do that. Maybe I would become something of the sort in the future, but how was I to know? Perhaps I might even have to seek and seek for years and never become anything or reach any goal. Perhaps I might reach some goal, but it would be evil, perilous, frightening. All I really wanted was to try and live the life that was spontaneously welling up within me. Why was that so very difficult?”

“Two or three times on my walks through town, I had heard organ music coming from a smallish suburban church…I felt that the man playing there knew that a treasure was locked away in that music, and was suing, insisting, and striving for that treasure as if for his life…Everything he played was religious, devout, and pious, but not with the piety of churchgoers and pastors—rather, with the piety of medieval pilgrims and beggars; it was pious with an unconditional surrender to a universal emotion that rose above any particular faith. He diligently played composers earlier than Bach, and old Italian masters. And they all stated the same thing, they all stated what the musician had in his soul as well: longing, the most intimate grasping of the world and the most reckless separation from it again, an ardent listening to one’s own obscure soul, a frenzy of devotion and a profound curiosity for the miraculous.”

Have you read ‘Demian‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Hesse book?

It is the first day of November and it is the start of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. This event steps into its second decade today, and it is one of my favourite reading events of the year, and so I am very excited!

German writers are famous for their novellas and so I thought I’ll start with one. I’ve wanted to read Heinrich Böll for a long time and so read his first book ‘The Train was on Time‘.

Andreas is a soldier in the German army during the Second World War. When the story starts, he is deployed into the Eastern Front. Andreas has a premonition that he is going to die soon. He even roughly knows where. He calculates the when while he is on the train and he is filled with dread. But he meets two fellow soldiers on the train, and an easy camaraderie develops between them, and they start hanging out together. One of them taken on the leadership role of the gang, and takes the other two under his wing. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. Does Andreas’ premonition come true? You have to read the book to find out.

I loved ‘The Train was on Time‘. The dread of a soldier going out to war is so beautifully and realistically depicted in the story. The camaraderie of the three soldiers and the experiences they share is also wonderfully depicted. In the second half of the book a character called Olina makes her appearance, and the long conversation that she has with Andreas is one of the beautiful and magical parts of the book. Heinrich Böll’s prose has the classic long sentences loved by German writers and is a pleasure to read.

One of the things that I discovered through the book was Sauternes, which is a French sweet wine. I love learning about new wines, and I love dessert wines and so this was a pleasurable discovery. My favourite dessert wine is a Canadian icewine called Inniskillin. Now I can’t wait to try Sauternes. So exciting!

The Train was on Time‘ is a nuanced war novel (or an anti-war novel). It is also a beautiful love story, though not a conventional one.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. When is Soon? What a terrible word: Soon. Soon can mean in one second, Soon can mean in one year. Soon is a terrible word. This Soon compresses the future, shrinks it, offers no certainty, no certainty whatever, it stands for absolute uncertainty. Soon is nothing and Soon is a lot. Soon is everything…”

“It’s a terrible thing to maltreat a person because that person seems ugly to you. There are no ugly people.”

“Suddenly he realized they were already in Poland. His heart stood still for a moment, missed another beat as if the artery had suddenly knotted, blocking off the blood. Never again will I be in Germany, Germany’s gone. The train left Germany while I was asleep. Somewhere there was a line, an invisible line across a field or right through the middle of a village, and that was the border, and the train passed callously over it, and I was no longer in Germany, and no one woke me so I could have one more look out into the night and at least see a piece of the night that hung over Germany. Of course no one knows I shan’t see it again, no one knows I’m going to die, no one on the train. Never again will I see the Rhine. The Rhine! The Rhine! Never again! This train is simply taking me along, carting me off to Przemy´sl, and there’s Poland, hopeless hapless Poland, and I’ll never see the Rhine, never smell it again, that exquisite tang of water and seaweed that coats and clings to every stone along the banks of the Rhine. Never again the avenues along the Rhine, the gardens behind the villas, and the boats, so bright and clean and gay, and the bridges, those splendid bridges, spare and elegant, leaping over the water like great slender animals.”

“He waited until it was dark. He had no idea how long it took, he had forgotten the girl, forgotten the wine, the whole house, and all he saw was a last little bit of the forest whose treetops caught a few final glints from the setting sun, a few tiny glints from the sun. Some reddish gleams, exquisite, indescribably beautiful on those treetops. A tiny crown of light, the last light he would ever see. Now it was gone … no, there was still a bit, a tiny little bit on the tallest of the trees, the one that reached up the highest and could still catch something of the golden reflection that would remain for only half a second … until it was all gone. It’s still there, he thought, holding his breath … still a particle of light up there on the treetop … an absurd little shimmer of sunlight, and no one in the world but me is watching it. Still there … still there, it was like a smile that faded very slowly … still there, and now it was gone! The light has gone out, the lantern has vanished, and I shall never see it again…”

Have you read ‘The Train was on Time‘? What do you think about it? And, which is your favourite sweet / dessert wine? 😊