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Archive for the ‘Literature Month’ Category

I read ‘A Long Blue Monday’ by Erhard von Büren for the readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, as part of the celebrations for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life .

Erhard von Büren is a Swiss writer. The last Swiss writer I read was Peter Stamm, I think, and the only other Swiss writer I have read is, probably, Pascal Mercier. So I was very excited and was looking forward to reading ‘A Long Blue Monday‘.

The story told in ‘A Long Blue Monday‘ is narrated by a retired school teacher. He used to teach English at school with a focus on American literature, and after retiring he is working on a book on Sherwood Anderson. The narrator starts the story from the present time and shares conversations with his daughter and talks about his own life now. He, then, slowly takes us back to his past, and tells us about his childhood, his parents, his sisters, his family, how they struggled when they were young, how hard the narrator had to work to get out of poverty, how he enjoyed life in smalltown Switzerland. The story then pauses at around the year 1959, when the narrator is in high school, when he falls in love for the first time. Her name is Claudia. The love story progresses slowly, it is beautiful and complicated, there is a gang of friends who hang out together each of whom have distinctive personalities (my favourite was Bede – he comes across as pretentious in the beginning, but I grew to like him as the story progressed). We get to know how young people lived their lives in the Switzerland of that time, what kind of conversations they had, what kind of parties they had, what their ideals were, what dreams they had and what they worried about, the difference between the upper classes and the others, how hard it was to move across class boundaries in real life but how easy it was to fall in love with someone on the other side – these and other things are beautifully depicted in this middle, biggest part of the book. In the last part of the book, the narrator describes how he moves out of his hometown, which friends he keeps in touch with and which ones he doesn’t and which ones he meets again years later, new people he meets, new lovers he has, how all his loves are all influenced deeply by his first love, and how he ends up being an English teacher (he says this in one place – “What’s strange is that I became a teacher, and stayed a teacher, although from early on I’d always preferred to study on my own. Just me and a book, no need for a teacher“) and how he ended up in his current situation. Throughout this interesting journey, the narrator shares his love for literature and films and we read a lot about Adalbert Stifter, Thornton Wilder, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and many others and the film adaptations of their books. Those pages were a pleasure to read. I loved this nod to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel, ‘Goldfinger‘ – “Once doesn’t count, twice can be a coincidence, but now Katherine was caught.

A Long Blue Monday‘ is a nostalgic book. It looks back to the past and takes us on a beautiful journey. I liked it very much. I hope to read more books by Erhard von Büren. I discovered that there are atleast two more translated into English.

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

“An accidental meeting could only be made to happen with great difficulty.”

“Books and films were what showed me what true life was like. But what did true life have to do with my real life?”

“It was quite true, nearly everything my father did was wrong, and yet I was somehow fond of him. On the other hand, everything my mother did was always right, yet I never really managed to give her credit for it.”

“How easily I’d always memorised my part in plays, and how rapidly I’d also memorised what each of my opposite actors had to say. But this here was different. And I couldn’t do it.
I’d set out to do something I couldn’t do, something for which I had not the slightest talent. All the dialogues I’d ever heard or read, the dialogues I’d learned by heart, were of no use to me now. Writing a play was something different, something entirely different from learning a role and then performing on stage. That someone like myself should aspire to write a play was nothing but a bad joke.
And yet I had to do it.
If I only kept on writing and writing and then deleting and deleting, something might yet come of it. But today I hadn’t written anything for hours, and all the drafts I’d written so far needed to be deleted too.
It had to be a trilogy, a trilogy of all things! If not a work of intelligence it should at least be long, gigantic – sublimely ridiculous, for all I cared. Claudia, if anyone at all, would be the only person to read it. I had to prove something to Claudia, and to no one else. I’d got myself into this situation. I was right in the middle of it. Now I had to find a way out.
So I remained seated at my table beneath the lamp.
And then I found something to continue with.
Some sentence or other, and I typed it into the machine. Considering that I’d waited a whole afternoon and evening, that sentence would do, at a pinch.
And a single sentence wasn’t the end of it, the flow went on, and continued for one, even two whole pages. The sudden feeling of relief was immense, ridiculously so.”

“If you want something for long enough you get it in the end. Spare no effort and it can be made to happen. That was the principle that guided my life. And on the same principle I hoped to win Claudia, her respect, her friendship, her confidence, whatever: all the things that were to be found in the books I read, or that were shown so strikingly in the films I saw. If Claudia was always in my thoughts, it was inconceivable that I shouldn’t also be in hers. All you had to do was hang on to your passion, and in the end your passion would be reciprocated!
I confused winning someone’s love with scrupulously doing one’s homework. I thought the strength of a sentiment guaranteed that it would be reciprocated, I thought that when it came to sentiment, too, everything was determined by merit.
Ludicrous! It might be possible to earn the odd act of kindness because a faint feeling of justice is aroused, so that what was given comes back. But twenty acts of kindness still don’t make a friendship, they can’t be exchanged for love. Love accounts don’t balance.
‘The pangs of desprized love …’ I should have known, I’d parodied Hamlet’s soliloquy often enough. And anyway, wasn’t being crossed in love the rule rather than the exception? It had been childish to imagine that an exception would be made in my case.”

“Those dialogues can surely be improved. It’s not important that the sentences follow each other in an orderly pattern, question, answer, question. What matters is that I should make some discovery in the process. The sentences should lead me on to something I didn’t know beforehand, they should show me something I hadn’t seen before. That’s what they’re there for, that’s why I’m writing them down, that’s why I’m stringing them together. They don’t have to be to my liking, they don’t have to be to anyone’s liking. All I’m trying to find out by writing them down is how a simple love story could turn into such a calamity.”

Have you read ‘A Long Blue Monday’ by Erhard von Büren? What do you think about it?

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This is the third book I have read for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

After reading the novellas of Stefan Zweig, I was tempted to read the collected stories. So I picked this up and after some readathoning finished reading it yesterday.

Before I get into the stories in the book, there are a couple of things I want to say about Stefan Zweig. This book has ‘stories’ in the title. Most of us, readers, will instinctively and automatically add the adjective ‘short’ before that word, and believe that the book contains short stories. We will be surprised though when we open the book. There are a few real short stories in the book, which are around ten pages long. But those are few. Most of the stories in the book are somewhere between thirty and sixty pages long. And they are in small font. If we give allowance to font size, they would be much longer. They are too long to be called short stories and too short to be called novellas. They are neither here nor there. They defy classification. Publishers and bookshops will be confused on where to shelve this collection. I loved that aspect of this book. It looks like Stefan Zweig didn’t care what his stories were called. He refused to follow the artificially created rules and categories. He just wrote what he wanted and he wrote it as long as he wanted it to be. It is so cool.

The second thing I wanted to say about Stefan Zweig was this. If something can be said in five words, and that something comes to Stefan Zweig, he will say it in twenty words. In the hands of ordinary mortals this will look like an inefficient use of words which doesn’t serve any purpose, but in the hands of Stefan Zweig, it is beautiful – the beautiful sentences, metaphors, descriptions, insights into the human condition are a pleasure to read. We delve deep into those long, ornate, beautifully sculpted Zweig-ian sentences and we don’t want them to end. They are not like the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ long sentences of Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner or the long sentences of Marcel Proust or Bohumil Hrabal. Zweig’s sentences are different. They are unique in their own way and offer a lot of delight to readers. He doesn’t necessarily write long sentences always. But he takes more words to say something. It is interesting, because Zweig mostly wrote stories and novellas. He wrote just two novels. He was not a writer of epic-length books. Within the short length of the overall story or book, he wrote long sentences or used more words to say something. This combination of short and long seems to have produced sparks and created magic. It is fascinating.

This book has twenty two stories. I had read some of them before – Forgotten Dreams, A Story Told in Twilight, Moonbeam Alley, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Invisible Collection, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, Incident on Lake Geneva, The Debt Paid Late. The other stories were all new to me. I read all the new ones, and re-read most of the already read ones. Here is a short description of the stories in the book. These descriptions are inadequate, as each of the stories deserves a separate review of its own with a proper discussion of the story, characters and favourite passages. Unfortunately, that will make things too long.

Forgotten Dreams – A woman and a man, who were in love with each other once, meet after a long time. They remember their past together. This is the first story in the book and the shortest one.

In the Snow – A story of Jewish people suffering at the hand of Christians. Very heartbreaking.

The Miracles of Life – A novella length story about a painter who tries to paint a picture of the Madonna and a young Jewish woman who models for the picture. So beautiful and heartbreaking. Esther, the Jewish woman, is such a beautiful, haunting character.

The Star Above the Forest – What happens when a waiter falls in love with someone who is way above his social station, like a Countess? This story presents one of those scenarios. So beautiful and tragic.

A Summer Novella – An interesting love story which is told through a conversation between two strangers during summer.

The Governess – A story about two young girls who lose their innocence because of some happenings at home. When towards the end of the story, I read this – “They know all about it now. They know that they have been told lies, all human beings can be bad and despicable. They do not love their parents anymore, they do not believe in them. They know that they can never trust anyone, the whole monstrous weight of life will weigh down on their slender shoulders. They have been cast out of the cheerful comfort of their childhood, as if into an abyss…access to their minds has been cut off, perhaps for many years to come. Everyone around them feels that they are enemies, and determined enemies at that who will not easily forgive. For yesterday their childhood came to an end” – it broke my heart.

Twilight – A story of a woman who falls out of favour and is banished from the French court and what she does about it.

A Story Told in Twilight – A beautiful, sensual love story of two young people.

Wondrak – A story about a mother’s love for her son.

Compulsion – A story about a man who is asked by his country to go to war when he and his wife don’t want to, and what he decides and what happens to them. So beautiful and realistic and asks some profound questions.

Moonbeam Alley – I was so excited to read this, because this was the first Stefan Zweig story I ever read seven years back and this is the story which inspired me to read more of his stories. This time around, the story didn’t have the impact that it had the first time, but this story will always have a special place in my heart, because it introduced me to one of my favourite writers. It tells the story of a man who has an adventure in the night in one of the port towns.

Amok – The story of a doctor who is working in the tropics and a strange experience he has. I discovered the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘running amok‘ through this story. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here.

Fantastic Night – One of my favourite stories from the book and probably one of my favourite Zweig stories ever. It is about a man who has everything but is bored with life and how a series of accidental experiences happen to him one particular day and how that changes his life profoundly. It is a fascinating story, almost Russian, almost Dostoevskian, and offers an insightful, amazing commentary on the human condition. There is this beautiful passage at the beginning of the story in which the narrator talks about the challenges of writing. It goes like this :

“I have not a trace of what people call artistic talent, nor any literary experience, and apart from a few rather light-hearted squibs for ‘The Theresianum‘ I have never tried to write anything. I don’t even know, for instance, if there is some special technique to be learnt for arranging the sequence of outward events and their simultaneous inner reflection in order, and I wonder whether I am capable of always finding the right word for a certain meaning and the right meaning for a certain word, so as to achieve the equilibrium which I have always subconsciously felt in reading the work of every true storyteller.”

He continues with this :

“For the whole thing is really just a small episode. But even as I write this, I begin to realize how difficult it is for an amateur to choose words of the right significance when he is writing, and what ambiguity, what possibilities of misunderstanding can attach to the simplest of terms. For if I describe the episode as small, of course I mean it only as relatively small, by comparison with those mighty dramatic events that sweep whole nations and human destinies along with them, and them again I mean it small in terms of time, since the whole sequence of events occupied no more than a bare six hours. To me, however, that experience – which in the general sense was minor, insignificant, unimportant – meant so extraordinarily much that even today, four months after that fantastic night, I still burn with the memory of it, and must exert all my intellectual powers to keep it to myself.”

Later he says this, in this almost Dostoevskian passage :

“With passionate ardour, I still relive what I experienced that day…But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word. Only now that, for the first time, I am to tell a story in its full context do I understand the difficulty of expressing the ever-changing aspect of all that lives in concentrated form. I have just written ‘I’, and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June, 1913. But the word is not really straightforward, for I am by no means still the ‘I’ of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former ‘I’ and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand. I am quite distinct from the man I was then, because of this experience of mine, I see him now from the outside, looking coolly at a stranger, and I can describe him like a playmate, a comrade, a friend whom I know well and whose essential nature I also know but I am not that man any longer. I could speak of him, blame or condemn him, without any sense that he was once a part of me.”

Letter from an Unknown Woman – A writer receives a letter from an unknown woman. The letter describes how she knows him. Very fascinating.

The Invisible Collection – The story of a provincial man with an amazing art collection. You have to read the story to find out why it is invisible. You can read Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman – Self explanatory title. Describes the strange happenings in life of that woman. One of my favourite Zweig novellas. You can find my longer review of the story here. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here. You can find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) review of the story here. You can find Brontë’s Page Turners’ review of the story here.

Downfall of the Heart – A beautiful study of family life and the relationship between parents and children. Very heartbreaking too.

Incident on Lake Geneva – A beautiful sad story and also a commentary on artificial borders created by humans. There is this beautiful dialogue towards the end of the story, which is heartbreaking.

Manager : “What do you want, Boris?”
Boris : “Forgive me, I only wanted…I wanted to know if I can go home.”
Manager : “Of course, Boris, to be sure you can go home.”
Boris : “Tomorrow?”
Manager : “No Boris…not just yet. Not until the war is over.”
Boris : “When is that? When will the war be over?”
Manager : “God only knows. We humans don’t.”
Boris : “But before that? Can’t I go before that?”
Manager : “No, Boris.”
Boris : “Is it so far to go?”
Manager : “Yes.”
Boris : “Many more days’ journey?”
Manager : “Many more days.”
Boris : “I go all the same, sir. I’m strong. I don’t tire easily.”
Manager : “But you can’t, Boris. There’s a border between here and your home.”
Boris : “A border?” (He looked blank. The word was new to him. Then he said again with his extraordinary obstinacy) “I’ll swim over it.”
Manager : “No, Boris, that’s impossible. A border means there’s a foreign country on the other side. People won’t let you through.”
Boris : “But I won’t hurt them! I threw my rifle away. Why wouldn’t they let me go back to my wife, if I ask them in Christ’s name?”
Manager : “No, they won’t let you through, Boris. People don’t take any notice of the word of Christ anymore.”
Boris : “But what am I to do, sir? I can’t stay here! The people that live here don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them.”
Manager : “You’ll soon learn, Boris.”
Boris : “No, sir. I can’t learn things. I can only work in the fields, that’s all I know how to do. What would I do here? I want to go home! Show me the way!”
Manager : “There isn’t any way at the moment, Boris.”
Boris : “But sir, they can’t forbid me to go home to my wife and my children! I’m not a soldier anymore.”
Manager : “Oh yes, they can, Boris.”
Boris : “What about the Tsar?”
Manager : “There’s no Tsar any more, Boris. He’s been deposed.”
Boris : “No Tsar anymore?” (He stared dully at the other man, the last glimmer of light went out in his eyes…)

Mendel the Bibliophile – About a bibliophile called Mendel. He almost seemed to resemble the way I am, some days. One of my favourite stories from the book. You can find Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Leporella – A story about a cook and her relationship with her employers.

Did He Do It? – A beautiful, heartbreaking story about a dog and his human masters. The dog is not the good person here.

The Debt Paid Late – The story of a woman, who accidentally bumps into her favourite actor which makes her reminisce her past. I had read this story before and it has preserved its magic when I read it again. Beautiful story.

I loved all the stories in the book. Each was beautiful in its own way. But one story which leapt up above all else is ‘Fantastic Night‘. It was incredibly beautiful and touched me deeply and pulled so many heartstrings. That is a story I want to read again soon, slowly, savouring each word.

So, that’s it. I think I have read all Stefan Zweig’s stories which are out there in print. There are two novels of his that I have to read still – ‘Beware of Pity‘ and ‘The Post Office Girl‘. I hope to read them sometime. It is a bittersweet moment, because there are no new Stefan Zweig stories left. But I am glad he wrote these beautiful stories which continue to delight readers, decades after they were first published. Stefan Zweig is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century who is virtually unknown today. I wish more readers discover his works and delight in the pleasures they offer.

Have you read ‘The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Stefan Zweig story?

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Stefan Zweig is one of my most favourite writers and I have dipped into this collection of his, before, but this time I wanted to take this book and read all the novellas in it together, especially the ones I have not read before.

This book has five novellas – ‘A Burning Secret‘, ‘A Chess Story‘, ‘Fear‘, ‘Confusion‘, ‘Journey into the Past‘. I had read ‘A Chess Story‘ and ‘Journey into the Past‘ before (my reviews are here and here). I read the other three novellas this time. This is what I think.

In ‘Burning Secret‘, a young Baron comes on a holiday to a small town. He is looking for adventure. He discovers that there is a woman with her twelve year old son staying in the same hotel as him. He decides to seduce this woman. He starts by becoming friends with the son, and through him he becomes friends with the mother. At this point in the story, the point of view shifts to that of the son, and we see the story unfolding through the son’s eyes. What happens after that, does the woman respond to the Baron’s overtures, does the Baron’s plan succeed, how does the son react – the answers to these questions form the rest of the story. I loved the story more when the narration shifts to the son’s point of view. The way the son slowly loses his innocence and does everything in his power to thwart the Baron’s plans while maintaining an innocent face (at one point we read this line – “Now that he was certain he was in their way, being with them became a cruelly complex pleasure.“), is very fascinating to read, and makes us smile. The ending of the story was beautiful and heartwarming, which was not at all what I expected.

In ‘Fear‘, a thirty year old woman, who is happily married to a successful lawyer and lives a comfortable life, decides to have an affair with a young musician. One day while leaving the musician’s house, she is confronted by another woman who refuses to let her leave the building unless she gets paid some money. Our main character pays her something and leaves the building. She is then worried and scared. But nothing happens for the next few days and life goes back to normal. But before long, this other woman finds our heroine’s residence and starts blackmailing her for more money and this makes our heroine’s life a living hell. What she does about it and whether she is able to come out of the clutches of the blackmailer and whether her husband and her family discover her secret – the answers to these questions form the rest of the story. I loved the way the title of the story perfectly depicts the atmosphere pervading throughout – how our heroine’s fear of being exposed starts from the first page and continues till the last. The ending of the story was very unexpected and heartwarming, but also a little movie-ish. But I was happy with it.

In ‘Confusion‘, an old professor is honoured for his achievements. This professor, who is the narrator of the story, says that what is known about his career, is based on facts, but the real truth of how things happened, is a totally different story. He then proceeds to narrate what happened. When this professor was a young man, he had lost his way as a student, and one day he arrives at the university in a small town to focus on his education. He attends a lecture by an inspiring professor and before long he becomes close with the professor and his wife and is working on a book project with his professor. How this teacher-student relationship evolves and how the book project moves along forms the rest of the story. In the scene in which our young man first attends the professor’s lecture for the first time, there is a four page description of what happens. It is beautiful and inspiring and gave me goosebumps. It made me think of all my favourite teachers who inspired me, and all my favourite inspiring fictional teachers like John Keating, the character played by Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society‘ and Katherine Ann Watson, the character played by Julia Roberts in ‘Mona Lisa Smile‘. This story was worth reading for those four pages alone. But, of course, there is more to the story than that, and I suspected something at the beginning of the story, but ignored that because I thought it was just a product of my overactive imagination, but in the end, what I suspected came true. The ending to the story is very surprising and completely unexpected. ‘Confusion’ was first published in 1927 and it was way ahead of its times. I can’t tell you why. You should read the story to find out.

I loved all the three novellas that I read, but I think ‘Confusion‘ is the one I loved the most. Those four pages which described the inspiring teacher were something. I wish I could quote that part here, but it is too long. I can’t wait to read more stories by Stefan Zweig. I have another thick, chunky volume waiting for me 🙂

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

From ‘Confusion

“I have never heard anyone speak with such enthusiasm, so genuinely carrying the listeners away – for the first time I experienced what Latin scholars call a raptus, when one is taken right out of oneself; the words uttered by his quick tongue were spoken not for himself, nor for the others present, but poured out of his mouth like fire from a man inflamed by internal combustion.”

“…when I had leafed through the two hundred industrious pages and looked my intellectual reflection in the eye, I couldn’t help smiling. Was that really my life, did it truly trace as purposeful a course with such ease, from the first to the present day as the biographer describes, sorting the paper records into order? I felt exactly as I did when I first heard my own voice on a recording : initially I did not recognize it at all, for it was indeed my voice but only as others hear it, not as I hear it myself through my blood and within my very being, so to speak. And so I, who have spent a lifetime depicting human beings in the light of their work, portraying the intrinsic intellectual structure of their worlds, was made aware again from my own experience of the impenetrability in every human life of the true core of its being, the malleable cell from which all growth proceeds. We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second when (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes – a magical second, like the moment of generation, and like that moment concealed in the warm interior of the individual life, invisible, untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone. No algebra of the mind can calculate it, no alchemy of premonition divine it, and it can seldom perceive itself.
The book says not a word about this most secret factor in my mental development : that is why I couldn’t help smiling. Everything it says is true – only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me. It speaks of me, but does not reveal what I am.”

Have you read ‘The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig‘? What do you think about it?

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After taking a short break from reading, which was threatening to morph into a reading slump, I am back with a new book review. November for me is German Literature Month. German Literature Month is hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. During this month, German Literature fans across the world get together and read books originally written in German. I have been participating in this event since inception and it has expanded my German literary horizons in a rich way. The first book I read for German Literature Month this year was ‘Elective Affinities‘ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe is most famous today for ‘Faust‘ which is probably regarded as his greatest work. But he wrote all kinds of things – novels, plays, poems, travelogues. ‘Elective Affinities‘ is one of his famous novels. The title comes from this fact observed in chemistry – that some chemicals are naturally attracted towards each other and get together and form new chemicals. Sometimes two chemicals are not attracted towards each other and actually refuse to mix together, but in the presence of a third chemical, they get together and do surprising, interesting things. These behaviours were referred to, by chemists, as ‘elective affinities’. What happens when we take this story to people? What happens when two people are joined by a third person? Or a fourth person? Do we see some elective affinities in play here? This novel explores that.

Eduard and Charlotte are happily married. They loved each other when they were younger, but things didn’t work out as they had planned. They ended up marrying other people, but as time passed their partners passed, and they ended up together. That is a good story with a happy ending. But this story starts with that happy ending as its beginning. While Eduard and Charlotte are enjoying their happy life together, Eduard tells Charlotte that his old friend, the Captain, is not doing well now, and he wants to invite his friend to stay with them. Charlotte is apprehensive about this, because she feels this will disturb the equilibrium of the household and their relationship. Charlotte has a ward called Ottilie. Ottilie is Charlotte’s best friend’s daughter, and after her friend passed, Charlotte takes Ottilie under her wing, and treats her like her own daughter. Charlotte also has a daughter of her own from her previous marriage. Ottilie and Charlotte’s daughter study in the same school together. Charlotte’s daughter is a star there and excels in every way, while Ottilie is very quiet and goes about her business in her own quiet way. Charlotte discovers this after a while and she feels that Ottilie feels out-of-place at the school. She thinks of getting Ottilie back and asking her to help Charlotte out at the house. But she is hesitant to talk about this with Eduard because of the same reason – she doesn’t want to disturb the equilibrium of the household with the addition of a new person. At some point, Charlotte and Eduard have a conversation about it and they feel that it is silly to deny themselves the opportunity to help the people they love. They decide to invite the Captain and Ottilie to stay with them. Things go well for a while. The four of them hang out together, do things together, have wonderful conversations, and a beautiful friendship develops between them. But then the inevitable happens and elective affinities come into play. Eduard and Ottilie are attracted towards each other, while Charlotte and the Captain are attracted towards each other. What happens after that? Will the four friends do something about their feelings? Will they break social norms? Does it end well for them or does it end badly? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Elective Affinities‘. It was probably far ahead of its times – the book was published in 1809 – and the main theme of the story feels very fresh and contemporary. The introduction to the book says that it created a lot of controversy when it first came out. I loved two things about the story, the most. The first thing was how the four main characters were portrayed. It was hard to dislike any of them. They were all real, believable, complex people, and they all were likeable. I occasionally had problems with the way Eduard reacted, but the other three were beautiful characters. And the very beautiful thing was that they all loved each other. They loved each other in different ways, but it was mostly positive and beautiful. My twenty-first century self, at one point, wanted them all to live together in the same house, like a ‘modern family’, and live happily ever after. That was a pipedream, of course. This was a novel written in the early 1800s, and so unfortunately, that happy ending was not happening. I won’t tell you what happened though. You have to read the book and find out. The second thing I loved about the book was the beautiful prose and thoughts. They didn’t come in every page like they might in some of today’s literary fiction, but the beautiful passages came once in a while. The book was focussed on the plot, and each sentence and paragraph did its thing to move the plot forward. But like a breather, once in a while, there was a beautiful passage, which made us pause and ponder and re-read it again and contemplate more. It was liking taking a hike to the top of the mountain, when we are focussing on the climb to the top, but when we reach the top, a beautiful vista opens up and we can see the whole green valley revealing all its glorious beauty and we want to stand there and take it all in and don’t want to leave. The beautiful passages were that valley, that beautiful view from the top. Once upon a time, novelists wrote like this. Nowadays they don’t write like this anymore. It is sad.

I am happy that I finally read ‘Elective Affinities‘. It is a beautiful study of marriage and love, within and without marriage. This is my second Goethe novel, after ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther‘, and though I liked both, I think I like ‘Elective Affinities’ more. The book has a beautiful introduction by the translator R.J.Hollingdale, in which he describes how Goethe came to write this book and how his own experiences and ideas led to the story.

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

“The case of the craftsman and the sculptor supplies the clearest evidence that man is least able to make his own that which most completely belongs to him. His works desert him as the bird deserts the nest in which it was hatched.
The architect above all has in this the strangest of destinies. How often he employs his whole mind and his whole love in the production of rooms from which he himself must be excluded. Kingly halls owe to him their splendour, but he cannot enjoy them at their most effective. In temples, he fixes a boundary between himself and the holy of holies, he may no longer mount the steps he himself has erected, just as the goldsmith may worship only from afar the monstrance he has made. The architect hands over to the rich man with the keys of his palace all the ease and comfort to be found in it without being able to enjoy any of it himself. Must the artist not in this way gradually become alienated from his art, since his work, like a child that has been provided for and left home, can no longer have any effect upon its father? And how beneficial it must have been for art when it was intended to be concerned almost exclusively with what was public property, and belonged to everybody and therefore also to the artist!”

“Only let us firmly determine on one thing : to separate everything that is actual business from living. Business demands seriousness and severity, living demands caprice; business requires consistency, living often requires inconsistency, for that is what makes life agreeable and exhilarating. If you are secure in the one, you can be all the more free in the other; whereas if you confound the two, your freedom uproots and destroys your security.”

“Actually my dear, it is our own fault if we are surprised in this fashion. We do so like to imagine that earthly things are so very permanent, and especially the marriage tie. And as to that, we are misled by all those comedies we see so much of into imaginings which are quite contrary to the way of the world. In a comedy we see a marriage as the final fulfilment of a desire which has been thwarted by the obstacles of several acts. The moment this desire is fulfilled, the curtain falls, and this momentary satisfaction goes on echoing in our minds. Things are different in the real world. In the real world the play continues after the curtain has fallen, and when it is raised again, there is not much pleasure to be gained by seeing or hearing what is going on.”

“I should like to see the man who has a greater talent for love than I have.”

“As life draws us along, we think we are acting of our own volition, ourselves choosing what we shall do and what we shall enjoy; but when we look more closely we see they are only the intentions and inclinations of the age which we are being compelled to comply with.”

“Just as the gardener must not let himself be distracted by other interests and inclinations, so the peaceful progress of the plant towards lasting or transient perfection must not be interrupted. Plants are like self-willed people with whom you can do anything provided you handle them properly. A tranquil eye, an unruffled consistency in doing, each season of the year, each hour of the day, precisely what needs to be done, are perhaps required of nobody more than they are of the gardener.”

“Why is the year sometimes so long, sometimes so short, why does it seem so short and yet in retrospect so long? That is how the past year appeared to me, and nowhere more strikingly than in the garden : what is transient and what endures are involved one with another. And yet nothing is so fleeting but it leaves some trace of itself behind.”

“We often encounter in everyday life something which, when we encounter it in art, we are accustomed to attribute to the poet’s artistry : when the chief characters are absent or concealed, or lapse into inactivity, their place is at once taken by a second or third character who has hardly been noticed before, and when this character then comes fully into his own he seems just as worthy of our attention and sympathy and even of our praise.”

Have you read ‘Elective Affinities‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my third and final post for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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I think I first heard of Stefan Zweig through a comment made by Peter Hall in his book ‘Cities in Civilization‘, in which Hall talks about Vienna and its culture and architecture and mentions Stefan Zweig’s thoughts on Viennese culture at the beginning of the 20th century. I still can’t believe that I remember that, but happily I do. Later, I read one of Zweig’s short stories in an anthology. I then got his book ‘The World of Yesterday‘ and read the first fifty pages and loved it, but got distracted and kept it aside for a rainy day. I thought that I will get back to it one day and also read other Stefan Zweig books. I have still not got back to that book, but I discovered this story collection ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ and so I thought I will read this first.

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A Game of Chess and other stories‘ has four stories – two of them are short stories and two of them are novellas. The first story ‘The Invisible Collection‘ is about an art dealer who goes to visit a longtime client. He has never met this client, but has been impressed by this client’s wisdom because he has collected little known pieces of art across the years which have gone on to become extremely valuable. Of course, when he actually meets that client, he ends up in an unusual situation. I can’t tell you more – you should read the story.

The second story is a novella called ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘. In this story, a few people are holidaying in the Riviera. They don’t know each other originally, but get to know each other because they are staying in the same guesthouse. They have interesting cultural and intellectual conversations everyday and some of them even play tennis. At one point the wife of one person elopes with one of the guests. Most of the people are critical of the woman and call her irresponsible. But the narrator of the story takes her side and says that given the right circumstances, anyone can break the prevailing social rules and fall in love or get attracted to a stranger. This leads to a lot of heated debate. Then one of the older women takes aside the narrator, asks to speak with him privately and tells him the story of what happened one day in her life many years back. The forms the major part of the story.

The third story, ‘Incident on Lake Geneva‘ is about a stranger who ends up in the shores of Lake Geneva and the people of the town don’t know what to do with him as he speaks a strange language and it is war time. Who he is and what happens to him form the rest of the story.

The fourth story, a novella, is the title story ‘A Game of Chess‘. A ship is leaving New York for Buenos Aires. It has the World Chess Champion Mirko Czentovic in it. Our narrator wants to engage the champion Czentovic in some way. But Czentovic avoids people. The narrator tries to catch his attention by engaging in a game of chess with a fellow traveller. The trick works. Czentovic agrees to join them next day for a game or two. And he easily defeats them. But the story doesn’t end there. One of the spectators joins the amateur players against Czentovic. He is able to see the World Champion’s tactics and strategy many moves in advance and gives the right kind of advice. Before long, the amateurs are able to hold their own against the World Champion. Czentovic is impressed and calls for a game next day with this mysterious traveller. Meanwhile our narrator goes to meet this mysterious traveller and this mysterious chess genius tells the story of how he got so good at the game.

I loved all the stories in the book, but I loved the novellas a little bit more. I can’t decide which is my favourite story, because I liked both ‘A Game of Chess‘ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’ equally well. All the stories had beautiful passages that I liked very much. Most of them had an interesting structure – a narrator starts to tell us the story and this narrator meets another person who takes over and tells us the rest of the story, the important part of the story. This is how stories used to be written once upon a time, in which the original narrator doesn’t play an important part in the story. It made me smile. There is a description of the Riviera in ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘ which is incredibly beautiful which I loved. ‘A Game of Chess‘ has been called the best chess story ever written. I don’t know about that, but it definitely had one of the most beautiful passages on chess that I have ever read.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’

Most people have little imagination, and what does not impinge on them directly, or run a sharp wedge insistently into a sensitive spot, generally fails to arouse them. On the other hand, something quite minor can put them in a towering passion if it happens right before their eyes or touches off their most immediate feelings. So, in a sense, the rarity of their emotional involvement is offset by the unwarranted and excessive vehemence they show in such instances.

You know the Riviera landscape. It’s always fine, but it offers its rich hues complacently and with picture-postcard flatness to the eye, rather like a sleepy, languid beauty who is content to be touched by every gaze, almost oriental in her ever-luxuriant display. But sometimes, very seldom, there are days when this beauty rises up with a purpose and cries out for attention, sparkling with madly garish colours and flinging her myriad blooms triumphantly in one’s face, her sensuality burning bright. And just such an effervescent day had dawned after the stormy chaos of the night. The rain-washed street gleamed white, the sky was turquoise and on all sides lush bushes catching the light flamed like green torches. The mountains seemed nearer and more distinct in the crisp, sunny sky, pressing forward inquisitively on the glittering, brightly polished town.

From ‘A Game of Chess

But are we not guilty of belittling chess by calling it a game at all? For surely it is also a science and an art, poised between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique fusion of all opposing pairs : ancient yet eternally new, mechanical in its arrangement yet requiring imagination for its effect, limited to a fixed geometrical space yet limitless in its permutations, forever evolving yet sterile, a thought process without purpose, a mathematics that solves nothing, an art form with no artworks, an architecture without materials, and nevertheless demonstrably more enduring in its essence and being than any book or artefact. It is the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, and no one knows which divinity brought it into the world to stave off boredom, sharpen wits and firm up the spirit. Where is its beginning and where its end? Any child can learn its basic rules, any bungler can try his hand at it, and yet from within its small, unvarying square field it brings forth an extraordinary and incomparable species of virtuoso, people whose peculiar gifts make chess their only possible vocation. In this type of genius, vision, patience and technique operate in the same proportions as with mathematicians, poets and composers – only these elements are differently layered and combined.

I don’t think I have done justice to this beautiful book in my review. ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I will definitely be reading it again. I can’t wait to read more Stefan Zweig.

Other reviews

The Invisible Collection (Jonathan’s review – Intermittencies of the Mind)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Lisa’s review – ANZ Lit Lovers)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Melissa’s review – The Book Binder’s Daughter)

A Game of Chess (David’s review – David’s Book World)

Have you read ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my second post for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy Siddal from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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Continuing with more Kafka, I decided to read Michael Hofmann’s translation of Kafka’s shorter prose. The book is called ‘Metamorphosis‘ after Kafka’s most famous work, but in the 300-page book, the title story occupies only 50 pages and the rest, comprising the majority of the book at 250 pages, has some of his shorter prose collections. The collections featured are ‘Contemplation‘ (Kafka’s first published work), ‘A Country Doctor : Short Prose for My Father‘ and ‘A Hunger-Artist : Four Stories‘. There were also a few standalone stories – ‘The Judgement : A Story for F.‘, ‘The Stoker : A Fragment‘, ‘In the Penal Colony‘ and a few others. I didn’t read the last two.

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I found Kafka’s stories to be roughly of three types. There were the short-shorts which ranged from single paragraphs to one or two pages. Then there were the short story length pieces, which were around ten pages. Then there were the longer stories ranging from 30 to 50 pages. I reacted to them in different ways. I loved most of the short-shorts. There was a beautiful passage in nearly every one of them and some of them were beautiful overall. The longer stories – I can’t really comment because I read just one, ‘The Metamorphosis‘, that too in a different translation. But based on this one reading, I can say that Kafka can tell a good story in this form and I liked it. The in-between 10-page short story – I liked many of them, but some I found quite challenging. The challenging ones all started well, but at some point, I didn’t know where the story was going. For example, there is one story called ‘A Little Woman‘, in which the narrator talks about how this woman finds him annoying in everything he does. (At one point the narrator says – “if one could divide life into minute constituent particles, and judge each individual particle separately, I am sure each little particle of my life would contain some irritant for her.“) They seem to have a close relationship. I was expecting some revelation through the story or in the end – something like how this woman is his mother or his wife or his lover or his daughter or even his dog, but nothing of that sort happened. She was just annoyed with him.

Some of the stories which I think are important in some ways are these. After writing ‘Metamorphosis‘, in which Kafka  talks about a man who wakes up in the morning to discover that he is a huge insect, it looks like Kafka explored related themes in other stories. In ‘A Report to an Academy‘, an ape which has evolved into a culturally sophisticated human-like being, writes a report about it for the scientific academy (at one point the ape says – “My achievement would have been impossible if I had selfishly clung to my origins and to memories of my early youth. And it was precisely the renunciation of my self that was my project; I, a free ape, willingly accepted this burden.“) In ‘Josefine, the Singer, or The Mouse People‘, the narrator, who is a mouse talks about the singer-superstar among mice, Josefine. We learn about the cultural life of mice and how Josefine is an oddball in the mice population. Then there is ‘A Country Doctor‘. A country doctor gets a midnight call. His coachman gets his coach ready, but then asks the doctor to travel on his own. The coachman then looks at the maid with lust and when she realizes what is happening she runs into the house and locks the door. The coachman runs after her and tries to break the door down so that he can go in and rape her. The doctor realizes what is happening but he is unable to do anything because he has to rush to his patient’s house. When he reaches there, he discovers that his patient doesn’t seem to have any major problem. But after careful examination, he discovers that his patient does have a life-threatening illness and he is beyond help. The patient’s parents hope that the doctor will work a miracle. While the doctor is waiting there wondering what to do, he contemplates on life – he is sitting with a patient who is beyond help while in his home his coachman is trying to rape his maid and he is unable to help her too. He ponders over the futility of it all. That situation must be the very definition of the word ‘Kafkaesque‘, I think.

Some of my favourite stories from the book were ‘The New Advocate‘, ‘The Neighbouring Village‘ and ‘A Hunger-Artist‘.

Instead of reviewing my favourite short-shorts, I will share some of my favourite passages here.

From ‘Children on the Road

Then birds flew up like corks out of a bottle, I followed them with my eyes, saw them climb in a single breath until I no longer thought they were rising, but that I was falling, and, clinging in to the ropes in my dizziness, I began involuntarily to swing a little.

From ‘Looking out Distractedly

What shall we do in the spring days that are now rapidly approaching? This morning the sky was grey, but if you go over to the window now, you’ll be surprised, and rest your cheek against the window lock.
      Down on the street you’ll see the light of the now setting sun on the face of the girl walking along and turning to look over her shoulder, and then you’ll see the shadow of the man rapidly coming up behind her.
      Then the man has overtaken her, and the girl’s face is quite dazzling.

From ‘The Way Home

I weigh up my past against my future, but find both of them excellent, am unable to give one or other the advantage, and am compelled to reprove providence for its injustice in so favouring me.

From ‘The Neighbouring Village

My grandfather was in the habit of saying : ‘Life is astonishingly brief. By now it is all so condensed in my memory that I can hardly understand, for instance, how a young man can undertake to ride to the neighbouring village without wondering whether – even if everything goes right – the span of a normal happy life will be enough for such a ride.

Have you read any of these shorter prose pieces by Kafka? Which are your favourites?

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My reading has been pretty bad this year and it has affected my blogging adversely. I tried to get out of this reading slump by participating in reading events, but this didn’t work. Reading plans just stayed plans. I missed participating even in my favourite reading event of the year – German Literature Month. But my heart couldn’t accept this state of affairs. So for the past few days I pushed myself and read a little bit. Though reading like this is not enjoyable, I managed to read three books. So today, the last day of this year’s German Literature Month, I decided to write about them.

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This first post is about Franz Kafka’sThe Metamorphosis‘. I read the graphic novel adaptation of this book a few years back and had wanted to read the original since. I had two translations of the book – an older 1972 translation by Stanley Corngold and a newer 2007 translation by Michael Hofmann. With respect to translations, readers normally regard the shiny new ones as always better and opt for them. I am slightly different in this regard. I read the first sentence and the first paragraph and then maybe the first page and then read a random passage in both the translations and see which translation works for me. While deciding which one to read, I look at things like which translation feels faithful to the original and which translation reads better. I also look at things like, has the translator kept the implied meaning of the original sentence or has he / she tried explaining / clarifying the meaning in the translated sentence. Sometimes these things are contradictory – for example, the faithful translation may not read well while the translation which reads well may not be faithful. Then the choices become more interesting. In the present case, I read the first sentence of both the translations. They went like this.

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. (Stanley Corngold translation)

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. (Michael Hofmann translation)

There are minor variations in the two translations and one can argue one way or another. For me, the most important difference was how the word ‘vermin‘ has been replaced by ‘cockroach‘ in Hofmann’s translation. That is a big change. The word that Kafka uses in the German original is ‘Ungeziefer‘. Readers, critics, commentators and Kafka scholars have debated for years what exactly Kafka meant by that word. It has been translated as ‘vermin‘ and ‘bug‘ and ‘insect‘ at different times and sometimes even ‘cockroach‘. But the general consensus has been that Kafka didn’t really specify the exact nature of the insect. As one commentator says – “The German word ‘Ungeziefer‘, like its English equivalent ‘vermin’, is a generic term, a collective noun denoting all sorts of undesirable insects. Kafka never divulges the kind of insect into which Gregor has been transformed, nor does he specify it’s firm and size.” So, that is 1-0 for Corngold over Hofmann. After thinking about this, I read a few random passages and Corngold’s translation leapt up to me everytime. I also have a soft corner for old-fashioned academic translators – translators who are professors of literature who occasionally translate a book. They are a dying breed now because many of the contemporary translators are professional full-time translators and not academics. All these factors made me choose the Corngold translation over the Hofmann one.

The Stanley Corngold translation (left) and the Michael Hofmann translation (right)

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Now about the book itself. The story is about Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who gets up one day morning and discovers that he has turned into a monstrous insect. He thinks it is a dream, but it is real. He thinks he can sleep it off, but nothing happens. His family starts knocking at his door asking him why he has still not gone to work. His boss comes visiting at some point to find out what is happening. Through all this Samsa tries to keep his sanity intact by trying to think of mundane things like how he can catch the next train to work. At some point, after a lot of difficulty (it is hard to get up if one is an insect and lying on one’s back), he gets up and somehow opens the door and reveals himself to his family. They are stunned and then repulsed by his new appearance. What happens after that – how his family handles Gregor’s new situation, does Gregor’s mind continue to be human or does it undergo a transformation, does Gregor ever turn back into a human being – is told in the rest of the story.

Many people more intelligent and smarter than me have written about what Kafka’s story means. I am not going to add my mundane thoughts to that. I want to say one thing though. In the story Gregor Samsa is a hard-working everyday person whom people take for granted. Nobody cares about what he wants. When this kind of person undergoes a major transformation and is no longer useful to his family or to his firm or to society – what happens to him is what Kafka has imagined. It is heartbreaking to read. The cynic in me says – “If you are a cog in the wheel, be careful, because people you care for, who you think are important, will abandon you, if you are no longer useful.” It is a sobering thought.

When I started reading the book, I thought that it would be a 100-page novella. It turned out to be a 50-page book. But added to those 50 pages were 150 pages of critical essays, notes and commentary! I have never read a book before in which the critical commentary was longer than the book! I read all of the commentary. Many of them talked about alienation as a theme in Kafka’s book and many of them also analysed the book from a psychoanalytical Freudian perspective. Some of them also talked about how the book was a metaphor for Kafka’s own relationship with his father. Most of it was hard to read and went over my head.

So, what do I think of Kafka’s book? I wouldn’t say that it was one of my favourites. But it must have definitely been one of the most unusual books when it came out. It definitely inspired many copycats. It is regarded as one of great literary works of the twentieth century. It was not always easy going for me, but I am glad I read it.

Have you read Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis‘? What do you think about it?

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