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Archive for the ‘German Literature Month’ Category

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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‘Cassandra’ is the second Christa Wolf novel that I decided to read for Christa Wolf week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. (You can find more information on Christa Wolf week in Caroline’s post here.)

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‘Cassandra’ is a retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan war. It is told from the perspective of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, who is also a prophet and prophesizes that things are not going to go well for Troy, but no one believes her. Things, of course, go as she predicts – that is what happens with good doomsday prophets. The story starts at the end of the war in which Cassandra has been captured with her children and other Trojan women and is taken to Mycenae by Agamemnon. Her future is uncertain but being a good doomsday prophet, she knows that it is not going to be good. As she narrates the story, she looks back to the time before the war started and tries to see how it all started. She describes her relationships with her father King Priam and her mother Queen Hecuba, with her many brothers – Hector, Troilus, Aisakos (these three are her favourites for different reasons), Helenus, Paris – and her sister Polyxena, her lover Aeneas, Aeneas’ father Anchises (one of my favourite characters in the book), the Greek priest Panthous, her stepmother and Aisakos’ mother Arisbe, her maid Marpessa and many other fascinating characters who form a part of her life. Later, when the war has started, she describes her relationships with the Amazons, particularly Penthesilea (another of my favourite characters from the book – in the description of her fight with Achilles in the battlefield when I read the lines – “A woman – greeting him with a sword! The fact that she forced him to take her seriously was her last triumph” – it gave me goosebumps) and Myrine (who is loyal to both Penthesilea and Cassandra till the end).

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Cassandra narrates the story from her perspective – that of a Trojan woman who is privileged because she is from the royal family, but who is also at many times ignored and treated not as an equal because she is a woman and she speaks the truth and gives logical arguments which men in the war council, including her father, find it hard to hear, because it is contradictory to their own narrative of the war. Cassandra also describes the status of the women of her own time and discovers to her surprise that sometimes women from poor families have more freedom than women from the royal household, because women from the royal household have to keep up with their appearances. At one point during the war, Cassandra joins a community of women from different walks of life (but none of them from the royal family) who get together and spend time in the evenings talking, singing, dancing, weaving and doing what they want to without being judged or without being compelled to do something else. Cassandra says this about that community –

 

“We did not see ourselves as an example. We were grateful that we were the ones granted the highest privilege there is : to slip a narrow strip of future into the grim present, which occupies all of time.”

 

I learnt many new things from Christa Wolf’s retelling of the Troy legend. For example, during schooldays when I first read the story, the way it was told was that Menelaus and Helen were happily married and Paris suddenly came on the scene and kidnapped Helen and so the Greeks went to war with the Trojans because of that. In that simplistic version of the story the Trojans were the bad guys and the Greeks were the good ones. Then I discovered that things were not so black and white. To my surprise, I discovered that Helen and Paris fell in love and Helen eloped with Paris. That was a twist to the story. Now the story got a big shade of grey. Christa Wolf’s version says that King Priam’s sister Hesione was the one who was originally abducted by the Greeks and one of the Greeks, Telemon, married her (and Hesione chose to stay with him and not come back) and when the Trojans asked the Greeks to send Hesione back, the Greeks laughed at them and that is how the whole Paris-abducting-Helen story started as revenge for the Hesione abduction. This adds another layer of murkiness to the whole story and we don’t know now who are the good guys and who are the bad ones – like in any real-life story, everyone is flawed and complex and there are only shades of grey. At one point Cassandra says –

 

Ten years of war. That was long enough to forget completely the question of how the war started. In the middle of a war you think of nothing but how it will end. And put off living. When large numbers of people do that, it creates a vacuum within us which the war flows in to fill. What I regret more than anything else is that, in the beginning, I too gave in to the feeling that for now I was living only provisionally; that true reality still lay ahead of me: I let life pass me by.

 

Another interesting thing that I learnt from the book was about Achilles. The popular description of Achilles is that he was a great hero. If you have read Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek legends (or for that matter anyone else’s) that is what you would be led to believe. But when we read Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’ that is not the impression we get. When we look at Achilles from Cassandra’s point of view, it is hard to like Achilles. Actually, it is hard not to hate him. He chases Cassandra’s brother Troilus into the temple and kills him in the temple (which is against the rules of war as a temple is  neutral ground and a sacred place). And, of course, there is that famous scene where he drags Hector’s body around and around in the battlefield. And the way he treats the Amazon Penthesilea’s body after he slays her. And the way he lusts after the Trojan princess Polyxena and demands her brother Hector to hand her over. And the way he treats Briseus, the fiancée of Troilus, after he takes her as a slave. He comes through as a brute and a barbarian. Did Homer and the other Greek minstrels get it wrong or am I seeing things wrong? I don’t know. Whatever the truth is, that guy Achilles – as far as I am concerned, he is blacklisted now.

 

And Cassandra’s sister Polyxena – I always thought that she was a nice, gentle person and loved Achilles (from the way she is depicted in Roger Lancelyn Green’s ‘The Luck of Troy’). Well, Polyxena turns out to be a more complex character than that – she has a complex relationship with Cassandra, she has an affair with a man far below her station, she says that she will marry Achilles to give pain to everyone.

 

And Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter. The story says that he sacrificed her before the war started as other Greek leaders and the priest demanded it. What kind of man does that? (And if you like pop-culture, you probably know that Callie from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is Calliope Iphigenia Torres – that is two Greek names there)

 

And King Priam and Queen Hecuba. I always thought that they were minor characters in the original story, but in Wolf’s retelling they are complex, fully-fleshed out characters with strong opinions on everything.

 

The book’s depiction of the Greeks – well, if we believe that, it is hard to like the Greeks. Most of them are brutal, they don’t follow the rules of warfare or treat their prisoners with dignity, they don’t treat women and children well, they don’t even seem cultured. It is hard to believe that our modern world arose from the cultural and political legacy of the Ancient Greeks. Of course, things are never black and white – the Ancient Greek world also had Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, Hippocrates, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Aeschylus, Diogenes, Sophocles. Achilles is not the only Greek guy out there.

 

I don’t think I can do justice to ‘Cassandra’ in a short review. As you can imagine, I loved this beautiful book. It is epic, insightful and rich in the themes it covers – from the grand ones to the everyday ones –  and it is also the right size (two hundred pages) and so it is not so intimidating. Christa Wolf’s prose dazzles in every page – it is what we have to come to expect from the finest vintage German literature – there are beautiful sentences and passages in every page and I couldn’t stop highlighting. I can’t remember the last time I highlighted so many passages in a book. Which presents a big problem now, because I don’t know which passages to quote here, because there are so many beautiful ones. Here are some of my favourites.

 

Anchises

You could not help but look at his hands, which were almost always working a piece of wood, or atleast feeling it, while his eyes might suddenly listen to find out what quality or form was hidden in the wood. He never had a tree chopped down without first conferring with it at length; without first removing from it a seed or a twig which he could plant in the earth to ensure its continued existence. He knew everything there was to know about wood and trees. And the figures he carved when we sat around together, he then gave away like a prize; they became a sign by which we could recognize each other.

 

Faith

I could not say for how long I had been an unbeliever. If I had had some shock, an experience resembling conversion, I could remember. But faith ebbed away from me gradually, the way illnesses sometimes ebb away, and one day you tell yourself that you are well. The illness no longer finds any foothold in you. That is how it was with my faith. What foothold could it still have found in me? Two occur to me : first hope, then fear. Hope had left me. I still knew fear, but fear alone does not know the gods; they are very vain, they want to be loved too, and hopeless people do not love them.

 

Words and Pictures

If I grope my way back along the thread of my life which is rolled up inside me…here I am caught by the very word ‘girl’, and caught all the more by her form. By the beautiful image. I have always been caught by images more than by words. Probably that is strange, and incompatible with my vocation; but I can no longer pursue my vocation. The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.

 

Penthesilea

Penthesilea : The men are getting what they paid for.

Arisbe            : You call it getting what they paid for when they are reduced to the level of butchers?

Penthesilea : They are butchers. So they are doing what they enjoy.

Arisbe            : And what about us? What if we became butchers, too?

Penthesilea : Then we are doing what we have to do. But we don’t enjoy it.

Arisbe            : We should do what they do in order to show that we are different?

Penthesilea : Yes.

Oenone         : But one can’t live that way.

Penthesilea : Not live? You can die all right.

Hecuba          : Child, you want everything to come to a stop.

Penthesilea : That is what I want. Because I don’t know any other way to make the men stop.

 

I haven’t read the other two great retellings of the legends of the ancient world – Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Lavinia’ – and the more recent ‘Memoirs of a Bitch’ by Francesca Petrizzo (the story told from Helen’s perspective). But having read Christa Wolf’s masterful rendition of the classic tale, I think Atwood and Le Guin might have a tough act to follow.

 

‘Cassandra’ is one of my favourite books of the year, a book I will be reading again, probably more slowly and lingering over every sentence. My alltime favourite German novel is Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’. Christa Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’  is up there with it – probably a close second, but definitely in the same zone. It is no longer lonely at that top for Haushofer as she has company now and that makes me very happy.

 

Have you read Christa Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Francis Nenik’s ‘The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping’ for a while now. I won it as a giveaway during one of the earlier German Literature Months, and I can’t believe that I waited so long to pick it up. But I finally read it in one sitting and I am glad I did. It is also my second Katy Derbyshire translation – Yay!

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‘The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping’ has two parts. The first part follows the lives of two poets – Nicholas Moore who is English and Ivan Blatny who is Czech. The story happens during the Cold War era. Moore and Blatny lead very similar lives though they are from very different countries – they are born at around the same time, get their poetry published around the same time, are ignored by the literary establishment after a while and are forgotten as the years pass. There is one difference though. Blatny, during his famous years as a poet, comes to England with a Czech delegation of literary artists, absconds from his delegation and seeks asylum and settles down in England. He is not happy being in exile though and ends up being in a psychiatric hospital most of the time. The parallel stories of these two poets are told in an interesting way – when a particular event of one poet’s life is described the narrative moves to describing the life of the other poet. This is a bit disconcerting in the beginning, but because the two poets have had similar lives, the narrative flows smoothly after a while, and we no longer bother to check who is who or what happens next in the earlier story.

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The second part of the book – the bigger part – is a collection of letters between Moore and Blatny. When we reach this part, we are surprised that the two corresponded. We want to find out what they wrote to each other and what they discussed about. Did they discuss about their similar lives? Did they discuss poetry? Did they meet? Well, you have to read the book to find out.

When I reached the last pages of Francis Nenik’s book, I didn’t want it to end – which is always a great sign. I wished that instead of being such a short book – it is around sixty pages long (it is part of a short story collection in the original German) – I wish it had been a longer novel. There could have been more events in the two poets’ lives – backstories, poetry discussions, friends, love interests, their relationship with their benefactors – and there could have been more letters between them. I wish it had been like A.S.Byatt’s ‘Possession’. But Nenik decides to keep it short and sweet and leaves us yearning for more. I felt sad when I finished reading the book.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

Money, the lack of which grants writing full authenticity in the mind of many a critic but leaves nothing more than a hole in the writer’s stomach…

And finally the apocalypse returns to his life, butting in like an unwanted guest who had simply gone for a quick pee between revelations. But God, who’s nothing but a dog backwards, taught him to carry on.

He sits there and enjoys what he sees; thirty-one translations of a single poem, the proof of the untranslatability of poetry turned sheer on its head, thirty-one versions that are neither originals nor forgeries and not even both, which does not trouble their creator to any great extent…

Have you read Nenik’s book? What do you think?

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I wanted to read a Christa Wolf novel for Christa Wolf week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. I decided to get started with ‘August’ because it was easily available and not very long. (You can find more information on Christa Wolf week in Caroline’s post.) This is also my first Katy Derbyshire translation and so I couldn’t wait to read it.

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August is a driver of a tourist bus. He takes tourists to Prague, Dresden and back to Berlin. While driving the bus and while taking breaks while the tourists are out, he remembers his past – when he was a young boy after the war, and he had lost his parents (he doesn’t know whether they have died or they are missing) and he has consumption and so is housed in a manor house turned into a hospital with other children and grownups who are suffering from the same condition. There he meets Lilo, an older girl, whom he adores. He remembers the old time with Lilo and other children at the hospital, his friendship, his love, his jealousy, his happy times and sad. He also remembers a time from later in life when he has become a grownup, when he meets and marries Trude and the happy and contented married life they had. The book flits between these three time periods back and forth, while August is driving back the tourist bus from Prague to Berlin. The story ends with his reaching Berlin, leaving the bus, driving his car and reaching his own house.

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I loved ‘August’. It is seventy four pages long and so can be probably called a novella. But even these seventy four pages are not really that – in all the pages, the text is printed only in the lower half. So it is really closer to thirty-seven pages – a long short story probably. The blurb says that Christa Wolf wrote it in one sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband. That might account for the shortness of it. Christa Wolf’s prose flows beautifully like a river throughout the book – it is beautiful but not demanding. I wondered whether all her books are like this and so I checked out another of her books ‘Cassandra’. The style there was very different – beautiful but demanding prose. I found that interesting. I loved the way the story of ‘August’ was told – during a bus trip with flashbacks. I loved the way Wolf describes August’s flashbacks –

He realizes he can flick through these old stories like through a picture book, nothing forgotten, no pictures faded. Whenever he wants, he can see it all in his mind’s eye – the inside of the castle, the broad curved staircase, every single room, the way the beds were arranged on the ward where Lilo was.

‘August’ has beautiful passages, happy and sad moments and a nice story told in beautiful prose. I can’t wait to read more Christa Wolf.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

August keeps his cool. He never gets impatient. You have the patience of an angel, Trude used to tell him. He never loses his temper. His workmates appreciate that. Sometimes, he knows, they think he’s a bit boring. Come on, say something for a change, they used to nudge him in the beginning when they sat together in their lunch break. But what did he have to say? He had no reason to complain about his wife. No separation to report on. No arguments with his children to moan about. They didn’t have any children. It had simply turned out that way. There’d been no need to talk to Trude about it first. They wanted for nothing. And when Trude died two years ago he certainly couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

It’s not good coming home to an empty flat. You get used to it, they’d said when Trude died. August hasn’t got used to it. Every time it’s an effort, opening the front door when he comes back from work. Every time he’s afraid of the silence that will envelop him, something no radio and no television can dispel.

Have you read Christa Wolf’s ‘August’? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read a Schiller play for Schiller Week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. I had read Schiller’s masterpiece ‘The Robbers’ last year. When I asked Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life, who is hosting Schiller Week, on which other Schiller play she would recommend, she suggested ‘Mary Stuart’. I finished reading it in a couple of sittings. Here is what I think.

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Before I get into what I think about ‘Mary Stuart’, here are a couple of links. Lizzy wrote a wonderful introduction to Schiller and his work. She also wrote a wonderful review of his play ‘The Robbers’. (My own review of ‘The Robbers’ is here.) You can also find Lizzy’s post on Nonfiction resources on Schiller here.

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‘Mary Stuart’ is about Mary, Queen of Scots. I have always had a soft corner for Queen Mary and for Bonnie Prince Charlie and so was excited to read this play. Schiller’s play covers the final days of Mary, after she is imprisoned in the castle of Fotheringay by Queen Elizabeth. The case against her has been heard by the court, she is not allowed a lawyer but is asked to defend herself and the verdict is awaited. The Queen’s people come daily into her apartments, conduct searches and take away any valuables she might have, as they suspect that Mary might use that for paying her trusted friends who are engaged in further plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Mary is alone and depressed and feels that the world has forsaken her. She is accompanied by her loyal nurse Hannah Kennedy. The story unfolds from here. The court gives its verdict. Mary is pronounced guilty of acting against Queen Elizabeth. Only the sentence is awaited. It could be either life imprisonment or death. Mary and Elizabeth, eventhough they are related, have never met. Mary wants to meet the Queen. She writes a letter and gives it to her caretaker, Sir Amias Paulet, asking him to give it to the Queen. Meanwhile the Queen’s advisor, Lord Burleigh, presses the Queen to finalize the sentence against Mary. He says that as long as Queen Mary is alive, Elizabeth can never feel safe. And Mary’s friends will continue plotting to put her in the throne of England. As he puts it – “Her life is death to thee, her death thy life.”  Other advisors of Queen Elizabeth feel differently though. They feel that the Queen should show her big heart and pardon Mary. While this stuff is going on, we discover that Mary has friends in unexpected quarters. Lord Burleigh’s suspicions soon turn out to be true – even Elizabeth’s inner circle is not trustworthy.

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So what happens next? Does Mary get the chance to meet Elizabeth? If she does, how does the conversation go? What does Elizabeth decide? And what do Mary’s friends do? Are they able to save her and dethrone Elizabeth? Well, we know what happened in history – Mary died and Elizabeth turned out to be one of the great queens of England. Schiller’s play shows his version of what happened.

I liked ‘Mary Stuart’ very much. It helps if one knows the history of the time – one can appreciate Schiller’s play better – but even if your knowledge of history is sketchy like mine, this play is still wonderful to read. I loved the depiction of the two queens, Mary and Elizabeth and how they struggle with the two opposing parts of their personalities, one part which urges them to hate each other while the other urges them to be nice to each other. There are a few surprises in the story – we don’t know who can be trusted and who can’t – Mary finds friends in unexpected places while Elizabeth finds traitors in her inner circle and there is one Janus-faced character, who is good and bad in equal measure.

I don’t know whether it was Schiller’s original prose in German or whether it was Joseph Mellish’s translation, but the prose felt almost Shakespearean. It was a pleasure to read. For example, these lines :

This made me think of that line from ‘King Lear’ ‘Sorrow doesn’t come single, but in battalions’.

MORTIMER.

   Oh, no, my gracious queen;—they stop not there:

   Oppression will not be content to do

   Its work by halves:

And this one made me think – ‘What sinister form her sister’s love can take.’

MARY.

   I never lift the goblet to my lips     

   Without an inward shuddering, lest the draught

   May have been mingled by my sister’s love.

This one made me think.

MORTIMER.

              But can appearances

   Disturb your conscience where the cause is just?

 

ELIZABETH.

   You are unpractised in the world, sir knight;

   What we appear, is subject to the judgment

   Of all mankind, and what we are, of no man.

And this one made me smile.

LEICESTER.

   I see you, sir, exhibit at this court

   Two different aspects; one of them must be

   A borrowed one; but which of them is real?

I have read two of Schiller’s plays now and liked both of them. I can’t wait to read a third one soon.

Have you read Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’? What do you think about it?

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