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I watched highlights of some old, classic Roland Garros matches, in preparation for this year’s event, which starts this weekend.

The first match I watched was the McEnroe-Lendl final from 1984. I’ve read a lot about this match, but this was the first time I was watching. McEnroe played serve-and-volley tennis and outplayed Lendl in the first two sets! Imagine! Serve-and-volley tennis being played at Roland Garros! Won’t happen today 😊 Then Lendl came back and won the next three sets, inspite of being a break down repeatedly and won his first grand slam. Lendl was probably the Rafael Nadal of his time and McEnroe was probably the Roger Federer. But this is not a perfect comparison, because Lendl’s game was beautiful to watch, and his backhand was almost like Federer’s – such a pleasure to watch. McEnroe’s serve-and-volley game and his net play were brilliant. I’ve heard old-timers say that McEnroe was outrageously talented and he showed what he could do with a serve-and-volley game on a clay court. Though I have to also say that I’ve watched recordings of Martina Navratilova’s matches, and her serving-and-volleying and netplay were even more brilliant than McEnroe’s. I was expecting the match to be tame and unimpressive, because it happened a long time back, and old matches look that way today, because we are used to the speed and the athleticism of today’s players. I once watched the highlights of a Borg-Lendl French Open final and it looked pretty lame. After that I decided not to watch old matches but just read about them. But surprisingly this McEnroe-Lendl match looked quite good, even today.

The next match I watched was the Graf-Seles final from 1992. It was very competitive and it went quite close in the third set. I didn’t know that Seles had a double-handed forehand! I’ve never seen a player with a double-handed forehand! She was the first player from the former Yugoslavia to win so many grand slams, and I’m wondering how much of an inspiration she must have been to Novak Djokovic and other contemporary players from the region. Seles had Graf’s number at that time, and if that tragic event hadn’t happened, she would have beaten Margaret Court’s record. Seles won 8 grand slams while she was a teenager! It must be a record even now, I think.

Looking forward to watching the Serena-Henin 2003 match highlights today evening. I still don’t know how Henin beat Serena with her single-handed backhand! None of the women play with a single-handed backhand now. Except for two exceptions. There is a British doubles player, whose name I can’t remember, who plays with a single-handed backhand. Then there is one of my favourite players, Viktorija Golubic, who plays with a single-handed backhand. Everytime Golubic plays in a grand slam, I watch the whole match. It doesn’t matter whether she wins or loses. When she unfurls her single-handed backhand, it is so beautiful that my heart leaps with delight. It is more beautiful than Federer’s single-handed backhand, more beautiful than even Richard Gasquet’s single-handed backhand, and definitely much more beautiful than Tsitsipas’ or Wawrinka’s single-handed backhand. I hope Golubic plays for many more years and delights her fans.

Tennis is not just about winning and losing – it is about beauty, it is about aesthetic pleasure, it is kinetic art. That is why we watch Federer, that is why we watch Barbora Krejcikova, that is why we watch Richard Gasquet, that is why we watch Viktorija Golubic, that is why we watch Dustin Brown, that is why we watch Hsieh Su-wei, and that is why we rave about Agnieszka Radwanska, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Miloslav Mecir, Pat Rafter, eventhough they have long since retired.

Can’t wait for the French Open to start now 😊 Are you looking forward to the French Open?

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Sometime back, one of the Russian teachers I follow online, shared a Russian song. It had beautiful lyrics, which were very Russian, and it sounded like a Pasternak poem. So I searched for the full lyrics and the song online. I discovered that it was sung by Nikolai Baskov and Taisiya Povaliy. The song was called ‘Ты далеко‘ (‘Ti Daliko’ = ‘You are far away’). I listened to the whole song and I loved it and couldn’t stop listening to it. I hadn’t listened to many Russian songs before. I can remember only three – two beautiful songs from the classic Russian movie ‘Irony of Fate‘ and the legendary song by Vitas called ‘Opera 2‘ in which he raises his voice to such a high pitch like an opera singer that we almost feel that glass is going to shatter. So after I listened to ‘Ты далеко’, I thought I’ll search for more songs by Nikolai Baskov and Taisiya Povaliy. What started as a simple search soon ended up as an unexpected immersion into a whole new exciting world of music. It was like someone opened a door inside a cupboard and on the other side was the whole universe of musical Narnia with its endless beauty. Everyday new Russian singers cropped up during my search who were more and more amazing.

I thought about whether I should write about this. I don’t  know anyone else who listened to Russian music. I don’t know whether anyone would be interested in this. I also felt that I had discovered something new and I wanted to keep it a secret. I wanted Russian music to be my thing. Why put something out in public when I can just enjoy it in private. Stephen Fry writes poems but doesn’t share them in public. He writes poems because he loves writing them. He doesn’t want strangers to see his poems and try to interpret their meaning. Sometimes when we put something which is dear to us out in public, it loses its beauty, its delicate fabric is disturbed. After all, Kahlil Gibran once said — “Travel and tell no one, live a true love story and tell no one, live happily and tell no one…” We should be able to do this, even in this era of social media. I thought about this long and hard. In the end, I decided to write about it. Because someone introduced me to Russian music. I didn’t discover it myself. So I felt that I should pass on the beauty of Russian music to others so that they can discover its pleasures. The clinching thing was this. One of my favourite singers, Vera Brezhneva, has 12.4 million followers on Instagram. She is not exactly unknown. She is a celebrity. So, here is my love letter to Russian music. Hope you like it. Hope you also treat it gently and kindly. I have given the links to every song I have mentioned so you can easily listen to them.

When people think about Russian music, atleast when non-Russians think about it, they typically think of classical music composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and classic singers who sing in the traditional style. I love the classics, but I discovered that today’s popular Russian music is not at all like that. It is cool, hip, young, fresh, stylish. It bursts with energy and it is a big ocean. I hope I can communicate some of that energy and style to you, through this post.

From top left : Irina Krug, Vera Brezhneva, Taisiya Povaliy, Dana Lahova, Albina Tokova, Alla Pugacheva, Nikolai Baskov, Vitas, Andrey Myagkov and Barbara Brylska in ‘Irony of Fate’

Irina Krug

I’ll start with one of my favourite singers, Irina Krug. I discovered Irina Krug pretty late on my journey into Russian music. The first song of hers that I listened to was a duet she sang with Edgar called ‘А Ты Меня Люби‘ (‘Aa Ti Menya Lubi’ = ‘And You Love Me’). It shows an old couple discovering a photograph of their younger days, making them remember how they first fell in love. When we look at the video, we realize that after all these years, after seeing off so many challenges together, the old couple are still in love, and their love is as fresh as when they first met. It is a beautiful song, and it pulls our heartstrings. The second Irina Krug song I loved was ‘Моя Королева‘ (‘Maya Koroleva’ = ‘My Queen’). It is a beautiful, moving song about love, loss and forgiveness. It moves me everytime I listen to it. ‘Моя Хорошая‘ (‘Maya Haroshaya’ = ‘My Dear / Darling’) is another beautiful song which is Irina Krug’s love letter to her mom. It is moving and poignant and it made me cry. One of my most favourite Irina Krug songs is ‘Бокал Бакарди‘ (‘Bakal Bakaardi’ = ‘A Glass of Bacardi’). It is my go-to song and I listen to it frequently and it always makes me happy listening  to it. It is odd, because the song is about love and longing, and it talks about a glass of Bacardi, but the song sounds happy when we listen to it. The live version of this song features a beautiful guitar solo by the guitarist, and everytime I listen to the song, I look forward to that guitar solo. ‘Ищи Не Ищи‘ (‘Ishi Ni Ishi’ = ‘Seek do not Seek’) is a song about a woman who is treated badly by her partner and what she does about it. The ending of the song is interesting in the video and we cheer for her. ‘Промежутки Любви‘ (‘Promezhudki Lubvi’ = ‘Intervals of Love’) is a beautiful love song. It is the kind of song that you listen to in the night, after dimming the lights, and sipping a glass of wine. ‘Две Странички‘ (‘Dvey Stranichki’ = ‘Two Pages’) is about a woman who writes her final two pages to her lover, and tells him that their time together  is over. One of the beautiful things about Irina Krug is that she sings at an even pace and pronounces every word, every syllable, every alphabet. Because of this, even if we don’t  understand  Russian, we can still enjoy the music of every word. Also, Russian, unlike English, has hard consonants. That is, there is no attempt at softening the hard consonants. So ‘r’ is pronounced properly as ‘r’. This creates music in the language, because we see the hard consonants alternating with soft consonants and vowels in a song, and it is beautiful to listen to. You can experience that beauty when Irina Krug is singing. Irina Krug’s favourite word seems to be ‘Слово’ (‘Slava’ = ‘Word’). It is there in nearly every song of hers. Her second favourite word seems to be ‘Письмо’ (‘Pisma’ = ‘Letter’). Many of her songs talk about writing a letter and it made me nostalgic about my letter writing days.

Irina Krug has been singing for a while, and so she has a huge list of hits. The above are some of my favourites. You can find more of her songs and collections on YouTube.

Vera Brezhneva

The second singer I want to write about is another of my favourites, Vera Brezhneva. I discovered Vera Brezhneva’s music very recently. Vera Brezhneva is Ukrainian, but sings a lot in Russian. The first song of hers that I listened to was a live concert recording of ‘Тихо‘ (‘Theeha’ = ‘Quiet’). In the video, we see a woman who looks like the last woman on earth, and her heart expresses a deep longing, and she seems to ruminate on what was and what might have been. The song plucked my heartstrings from the first note, and gave me a deep ache, the kind of heartache you want to wallow in, the kind of heartache you don’t want to go away. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this amazing singer before. It was like she had sprung out of nowhere with a magical song. Of course, this is all my imagination, because Vera Brezhneva is a proper A-list celebrity. It is just that I know nothing, like Jon Snow. The second Vera Brezhneva song I listened to was ‘Хорошие Новости‘ (‘Haroshie Novosti’ = ‘Good News’). It is about a woman who tells her lover that she doesn’t need his gifts and his promises, but she just needs him to be with her. This song encapsulates everything that Vera Brezhneva is about. Vera Brezhneva is different, in one significant way, from other Russian / Ukrainian singers I’ve listened to. Most Russian / Ukrainian singers I have listened to, just sing a song. They don’t dance or sway to the music. When there is a gap between two passages of singing, when the musicians take over, they just stand on the stage and wait. Occasionally, they walk around the stage and engage with the audience, waving their hand, thanking them, asking them to join in by clapping. If there is dancing on stage, it is done by dancers who are there for that reason. Vera Brezhneva is an exception to this. She sizzles with energy, she expresses herself on stage, and she dances and sways to the music. She eggs the musicians on, she eggs the audience on. The cool style and the casual effortless elegance that Vera Brezhneva brings on stage is unmatched and her energy and enthusiasm is infectious. When you listen to Vera Brezhneva exhorting the audience while singing ‘Хорошие Новости’, you are possessed by an energy you didn’t realize you had, and you want to get up and dance to the music. The song grabs you in the first few seconds and doesn’t let go till the end. There is a studio recording of that song, in which Vera Brezhneva sings the song, while sitting on a chair, and even then she is not able to sit still, as she is bursting with energy, and she can’t stop swaying to the music. It is a joy watching her perform. ‘Хорошие Новости’ is my go-to song when I am feeling down, because just ten seconds into it, the song lifts my spirits up. It is amazing how a happy singer and a song bursting with energy, can lift our spirits up. ‘Ты Мой Человек‘ (‘Ti Moi Chelavyek’ = ‘You are My Person’) is another of my favourites. There is a studio live performance of the song, and though the space is constrained with cables running around, Vera Brezhneva is bursting with energy, and she finds a way of expressing herself on the stage. Vera Brezhneva is one of my favourite discoveries.

Taisiya Povaliy

The next singer I want to write about is Taisiya Povaliy. She is Ukrainian but sings a lot in Russian. Taisiya Povaliy and Nikolai Baskov is where my present music journey started and so I have a soft corner for them both. Taisiya Povaliy has sung a lot of duets, though she has sung many singles too. Around ten years back, she and Nikolai Baskov made a whole album of duets, which had that legendary song ‘Ты далеко‘ (‘Ti Daliko’ = ‘You are far away’). Another favourite duet of mine sung by these two is ‘Отпусти Меня‘ (‘Atpusti Menya’ = ‘Let Me Go’), which is a beautiful, soft, love song. Out of her singles one of my favourites is ‘Я Буду Твоя‘ (‘Ya Budhu Twaya’ = ‘I Will Be Yours’). The music for this was composed by the young Ukrainian composer Victoria Kokhana and it is beautiful. Another favourite single of mine is ‘Вкус Огня‘ (‘Vkus Agnya’ = ‘Taste of Fire’). When Taisiya Povaliy raises her voice while singing the lines ‘И солнца мало, и луны’ (‘And the sun is not enough and the moon’), I always get goosebumps. Taisiya Povaliy is one of the greats.

Dana Lahova

Recently I discovered one of the Russian singers from the younger generation, Dana Lahova. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and it is hard to find information on her. She seems to have Circassian roots, but I am not able to confirm that. Dana Lahova has a particular style, and because of that, all her songs sound very similar. They are calm, serene, soothing, the kind of song you will put on when you go on a long drive in the night. My favourite song of hers is ‘Вспоминаю Я Тебя‘ (‘Vspominayu Ya Tebya’ = ‘I Remember You’). I also loved her most famous song, ‘Знаю, Знаю, Знаю‘ (‘Znayu, Znayu, Znayu’ = ‘I Know, I Know, I Know’).

Albina Tokova

Albina Tokova is another new young singer that I discovered. My favourite song of hers is ‘За Горизонтом‘ (‘Za Garizontom’ = ‘Over the Horizon’). Albina Tokova has an amazing voice range, and the pyrotechnics she does with her voice are a pleasure to listen to. The song evokes the big things, the horizon, probably the Russian Steppe.

Alla Pugacheva

While exploring contemporary Russian music, I stumbled upon the great Alla Pugacheva. She was one of the greats and she sang mostly in the ’70s and the ’80s. Every Alla Pugacheva concert those days was an event. Her partnership with composer Raimonds Pauls was legendary. One of my favourite songs performed by these two is ‘Маэтро’ (‘Maestro’). The piano solo during different parts of the song by Raimonds Pauls is exquisite. It gives me goosebumps everytime I listen to it. Another song performed by these two that I loved is ‘Миллион Алых Роз‘ (‘Million Alih Roz’ = ‘Million Red / Scarlet Roses’).

Irony of Fate

I need to talk about how it all started. The first ever Russian song I heard was from the movie ‘Irony of Fate’. The lyrics of the songs in the movie were all poems by great poets like Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva and so they are very beautiful. One of my favourite songs from the movie is ‘Если У Вас Нету Тёти‘ (‘Esli Oo Vaz Nyetu Chochi’ = ‘If You Don’t Have an Aunt’). It is a deeply philosophical song and is also funny at the same time. I used to listen to it all the time. Another favourite from the movie is ‘Я Спросил У Ясеня‘ (‘Ya Spracil U Ya Sinya’ = ‘I Asked the Ash Tree’). It is a very moving song and very Russian. I used to sing it all the time.

Vitas and Opera 2

One last song I want to write about is ‘Opera 2’ by Vitas. You can find the original video here, and the live version here. The original video actually shows glasses shattering 😊 The live version is amazing, because I don’t know how he was able to raise his voice like that, concert after concert. Nikolai Baskov who is a trained opera singer and proper tenor, I don’t think even he can sing like this. There is something primal about Vitas’ scream, and it touches some deep, unknown part of our heart and gives us goosebumps. These days Vitas doesn’t sing songs like this. He sings romantic songs. It made me smile when I discovered that 😊

Songs of the heart

In my native language Tamil, in ancient classical literature, there are two poetry collections. One of them is about the inner life, the feelings of the heart. The second one is about the outer life, about the real world out there. All the Russian songs I discovered seem to be about the inner life, about the matters of the heart. I wonder whether all contemporary Russian songs are like this, or I have just ventured into the musical territory which has songs like this. This is something interesting to think about.

Listening guide

Now, if you are a native Russian speaker or you are fluent in Russian, you might have already listened to most of these songs. Listening to them is child’s play for you, because the language is not a barrier. If you are like me, and you have learnt Russian for a while, but are not fluent in it, and you are able to catch parts of a song and guess or imagine the meaning of the rest of the song, listening to this collection will be fun for you. But if you don’t know a word of Russian (except for ‘До свидания’ (‘Do Svidaniya’ = ‘Goodbye’) – everyone knows that), then you may not understand the lyrics. But you will definitely be able to sense the mood of the song, you’ll be able to tell whether it is a happy or a sad song, and which parts of it move you. It is like listening to a Spanish song or a French song or Italian opera, which some of us do, without knowing the language. If you are still not convinced, I’ll ask you a question. Have you listened to Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’? Do you like it? It is one of my favourite songs. Probably top two out of all of Michael Jackson’s. I have been listening to it since I was a kid. I don’t know a single word of the lyrics. Even if you try, you can’t figure it out from Jackson’s singing. One of my friends once told me that the main line of the song was “Annie, are you okay?” I laughed when I heard that, because there doesn’t seem to be “Annie, are you okay” in the song. Unless we read the lyrics, we can’t figure it out. So, if we can listen to ‘Smooth Criminal’ and enjoy it, without understanding a word of it, I think we should be able to listen to these Russian songs. I hope you enjoy listening to them.

So, that’s it. What I have written about is just a drop in the ocean. Russian popular music is a huge ocean which never stops giving. You might discover ten new singers who are amazing whom I’ve never heard of. I keep discovering new singers everyday. It is amazing that all these singers are popular in Russia and its neighbouring countries, but most of them are virtually unknown outside the region. It seems to be the region’s best kept secret. They deserve to be more well-known because they make beautiful music. I hope you listen to some of these songs and enjoy them, and I hope it inspires you to explore more Russian music and enjoy its pleasures. Happy listening!

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I discovered Arno Schmidt’sBottom’s Dream‘ a few years back when the English translation came out. Someone in Twitter, probably the publishers, wrote about it. It looked like a chunkster and it was translated by one of my favourite translators John E. Woods – I loved his translations of Patrick Süskind’sPerfume‘ and ‘The Pigeon‘ – and so I decided to get it.

When the postal courier arrived, I was surprised, because he carried the package on his shoulder! It was huge! When I took it from him, I nearly dropped it! It was that heavy! I discovered later that it weighed around six kilos (if you are into pounds, it is a little more than thirteen pounds). It was bigger than any other book I had in my collection – ‘War and Peace‘ and ‘Les Miserables‘ paled in comparison. It was so huge and massive that its immensity was intimidating. It was also the heaviest. It was next to impossible to hold it in your hand and read. It has to be kept on a table or a special book holder if one wanted to read it. It was also the most expensive single-volume novel that I had got till that time – it cost me the equivalent of fifty dollars. (It trades on Amazon at 855 dollars now, so not a bad investment 😁)

More facts emerged later. I discovered that only 2000 copies of the book were published, 1000 for the American market and 1000 for the rest of the world. I was able to get hold of one of the rest-of-the-world copies. There is no Kindle edition – the estate of Arno Schmidt refused to approve that. It was published by Dalkey Archive, who have been publishing beautiful works by lesser known authors for the past forty years. The publishers and the writer’s estate seem to have adopted a publishing philosophy from an earlier century – publish limited copies of the book, and that’s it. The book is out-of-print now and I hope existing copies cost a fortune when I get old – I hope to get rich with this.

The book is produced in a classic German (or rather European) style. That is there is no introduction, no analysis of the book or its place in literary history. The book proper starts on the first page. There are no distractions. No potted biography of the author, no description of the translator, nothing. It is you and the book, 1500 pages of it, and nothing in between. The translator seems to have taken pity on the readers and so has sneaked in a one-and-half page afterword in the end, which doesn’t say much. There is a short description on the back of the slipcase through which we discover that the book is about Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, the art of translating. Otherwise we can’t fathom anything about the book.

I know only three other people who have got the book – Melissa from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter’, Tony from ‘Messenger’s Booker (and more)’ and one more friend from Twitter. Only Tony has read a significant part of the book, I think. You can find his first post on the book here. Tony’s posts are encyclopaedic and an education to read. I don’t think there is anyone who has read the book fully. I see many readers have reviewed the book on Amazon. But I doubt whether any of these readers have read the book fully. Anyone can write a review of any book. I am very good at it – I can write a review of any book I haven’t read. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I will believe it only when I see it.

I thought for this year’s edition of ‘German Literature Month‘, I’ll read a few pages of ‘Bottom’s Dream‘. I thought that would be a great way of celebrating this 10th edition of GLM. I read the first three pages. I couldn’t understand anything. Only a vague inkling of what it was about. But it was nice to read the first three pages. I am sharing them here. Go ahead, do read them. And tell me whether you can understand what they say.

This is my last post for the 10th year celebrations of ‘German Literature Month‘ hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’. I couldn’t read much this year, but I had fun participating and sharing thoughts on my favourite German writers and poems and attempting to read Arno Schmidt’s magnum opus. Thanks so much to Caroline and Lizzy for hosting GLM. It is my favourite reading event of the year and I can’t wait for next year’s GLM already.

Have you tried reading Arno Schmidt’s book? What do you think about it? Did you participate in German Literature Month this year? Which were your favourite reads?

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After reading Colette’sChéri‘, I decided to read her first book in the Claudine series, ‘Claudine at School‘. I read this for ‘Women in Translation Month‘.

Claudine is a fifteen year old girl. She lives in a village and is in high school. She is the narrator of the story. In the story Claudine tells us about her adventures in school, her friends, her teacher, her love for nature, events that happen in her school and how it impacts her and her friends, her love for her dad, her love for books – these and other things are narrated in the book.

When I first heard of Claudine’s story, I thought it would be the story of a girl at school and the adventures and fun she has. I thought it would be Colette’s French version of a Judy Blume book. Part of the book is that, but there is more to the book than that. Claudine falls in love with her teacher, but her headmistress is also in love with her teacher, and there is a three-way lesbian love story there. It is amazing because Colette wrote this book in 1900, and I don’t know anyone else who wrote a lesbian love story in 1900. Even if there was, things would have been described in vague language, so that it could be open to different interpretations. Colette will have none of that nonsense and she describes things as they are. Colette was brave and she was a pioneer. After reading more of her work, I am able to understand why she has been revered by readers and writers of her time and since.

Claudine is a charming narrator and from the first lines – “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there” – she grabs our attention and never lets go. Claudine’s voice is somewhere between that of a child and a grown-up and she describes the hypocrisies of the grown-up world as she sees it. There are no bad characters in the book, atleast I didn’t feel there were any. There were just imperfect human beings with flaws, and Claudine describes them perceptively through her fifteen year old voice. There are people she likes and people she doesn’t like, and she herself is not nice sometimes, but she doesn’t shy away from describing things as she sees them. One of the things I loved about the book is the way it beautifully describes the real world of children and teenagers – how they are nasty and fight one day and exhibit kindness towards each other the next, sometimes even in the next moment. Claudine keeps treating with contempt, one of the girls in the class who likes her, but fights for her when she is in trouble, and helps her when she needs that. Reading that took me back to my schooldays. My favourite part of the book is the one in which Claudine tells us what happens when she and her classmates go to write their final exams. Claudine takes on one of the tough professors during the oral exam and she has her own opinion on history based on her wide reading and he disagrees with her strongly, though he respects her for holding on to her opinion and standing up to him. At one point when Claudine’s headmistress tries to intervene and cool things down he says – “Let her alone, Mademoiselle, there’s no harm done. I hold to my own opinions, but I’m all in favour of others holding to theirs. This young person has false ideas and bad reading-habits, but she is not lacking in personality – one sees so many dull ones.” I smiled when I read that 🙂

The book has an introduction in which Colette describes how she wrote the book – her husband asked her to write the book and then published it in his name. It was one more case where the husband took credit for the wife’s work, and it makes us angry when we read it, and we are glad to read how Colette came out of that situation and how the books were later published in her own name.

I loved ‘Claudine at School‘. It was almost as if Colette’s was speaking in Claudine’s voice. I don’t know how much of the book is autobiographical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. Claudine is one of the great charming heroines and one of my favourites. She made me remember Ronja and Pippi, Astrid Lindgren’s great heroines. I can’t wait to read the second part of the series now, ‘Claudine in Paris‘.

Have you read ‘Claudine at School‘ or other books in the Claudine series? What do you think about this book?

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Julius Winsome‘ by Gerard Donovan was highly recommended to me by a couple of friends from my book club. I hadn’t heard of Gerard Donovan before and was excited to explore a new writer.

The story told in ‘Julius Winsome‘ is narrated by the title character. He lives in a cabin, in the middle of the woods in Maine. The nearest neighbours are a few miles away. The nearest town is also a few miles away. Julius lives with his dog Hobbes. Julius hasn’t gone to college, but is very well read, because his father inspired a love for literature in him. His father also left him with 3282 books. All the walls in Julius’ home are lined with bookshelves filled with books. 3282 books. One evening, at the end of October, Julius is sitting in front of the wood stove, in which the logs are crackling producing a beautiful sound and generating a pleasant warmth. He is reading a collection of short stories by Chekhov, while sipping a hot cup of tea. (I read those lines in the book atleast ten times. Such a perfect first scene. Sitting in front of the fire, in the fall, reading a book, sipping a cup of tea, with a dog at his feet – what can be better? Wait, where is the dog?) Julius suddenly discovers that his dog Hobbes is missing. He calls for Hobbes, but doesn’t hear any answer. He tries after a while, but still no answer. Sometime before he had heard a gunshot, but this is the time of the year, when there are hunters in the forest and so one hears gunshots. And so Julius had ignored it. But now he is worried. After a while, he becomes restless and goes out in the cold and searches for his dog. He finds Hobbes, some distance away, on the ground, shot by a gun, but still alive. Julius takes his truck, and rushes to the veterinarian. The doctor tries his best but it is too late. Hobbes has lost a lot of blood. He looks at Julius for the last time and then stops breathing. Julius brings him back home and buries him nearby. Julius feels very sad. As he describes it himself :

“By the time I was back in the cabin and stirring the fire, I missed him for the first time, missed him with a hammerstrike against the heart, the awful moment when you know what gone really means. It means no one sees how you live, what you do.
And along with the sadness, something else crept in the door, a trace of something else, I mean. It must have come from the woodpile or ran in from the woods, because I’d not felt anything like it before.”

That thing which creeps into his house along with the sadness, it darkens his heart, makes him thirst for revenge. What happens after that, what Julius does about it, is he able to find who killed Hobbes, is he able to take his revenge – these form the rest of the story.

Julius Winsome‘ is a beautiful study of loneliness, of solitude. It belongs in the category of the great introvert novels – like Patrick Süskind’sThe Pigeon‘ and ‘Perfume‘ and J.K.Huysmans‘ ‘Downstream‘ and ‘Against Nature‘, Robert Seethaler’sA Whole Life‘, Denis Thériault’sThe Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman‘ and Alexis M. Smith’sGlaciers‘. It describes what happens when an introvert sits in his cabin, sipping tea, reading his favourite book, and minding his own business, and the outside world suddenly enters his life, explodes into his life, changing it upside down. What happens is surprising and even amazing, and sometimes we may not even approve of what is happening, but if one is an introvert (not the introvert who claims to be one, but spends most evenings and weekends with friends and other people and has a busy social life, but the one who is the real deal, the introvert who spends a Saturday evening reading a book rather than catching up with friends, who watches movies alone because she / he hates other people when they talk during a movie, who hates talking on the phone but prefers texting, that kind of introvert), one can understand why things are happening the way they do. Gerard Donovan clearly loves Shakespeare and he passes on that love to the narrator whose account is filled with Shakespearean words and we find interesting scenes in which two people are pointing a gun at each other and the narrator quotes Shakespeare and the person on the opposite side says ‘What???‘ 🙂 I loved those scenes. It made me remember a Tamil movie called ‘Anniyan‘ in which the main character quotes Sanskrit shlokas to the bad guys and their faces widen with a bewildered look. After the initial cozy start and the subsequent tragedy, the story acquires the pace of a thriller and we want to turn the page to find out what happens next. It was interesting to see the story transforming in shape and become something new and different but which has deep roots in its past. Gerard Donovan’s prose is spare and beautiful and the narrative is interspersed with beautiful sentences and passages. The story has an interesting ending, something that I didn’t expect.

I loved ‘Julius Winsome‘. It is a beautiful story of solitude, love, friendship, loss, revenge, war, violence, redemption. It is also a beautiful story about the friendship between humans and dogs and a beautiful story about the love for literature and Shakespeare. I can’t wait to read more books by Gerard Donovan.

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

“My father was so sparing in his words you had to add water to them before they swelled into a sentence you could understand.”

“If a man whispers something to you in German, and you don’t speak the language, you won’t understand a word of it : he could be talking philosophy or cursing your parents. If he shouts the same thing or different German words at you, you still won’t understand a thing. When a dog lifts his head and howls while keeping his eyes on you, slightly from the side, it means he’s playful but knows that you’re putting one over him. If he puts his head back and barks at you full on, down from the stomach, he wants to play. If he growls from the stomach when you grab him and looks sideways at you, it’s pure affection, but if he growls straight ahead and shallow from the teeth, it’s a one-second warning. If you don’t understand his language, it’s all noise. Those men abroad in the woods did not, I think, understand my Shakespeare, though every word of it was English and I spoke carefully. I may as well have been barking at them. Time makes dogs of us.”

Have you read ‘Julius Winsome‘? 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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Book giveaway!

Veteran book blogger Emily has moved to her new internet home at WordPress. Emily writes fascinating posts on books, reading and baking. You can find her new blog at : http://www.booksuniverseeverything.com/.

To celebrate her move, Emily is hosting a book giveaway. You can find more details about it at : http://www.booksuniverseeverything.com/2009/11/08/new-home-a-book-giveaway/.

To participate in Emily’s book giveaway, you have to become a fan of Books the Universe & Everything in Facebook, write a post in your blog about the book giveaway or tweet about it and put a comment in Emily’s post giving the link to your post / tweet. You can find more details about it at the above link. All the best!

With respect to myself, I hope I am lucky and win a book 🙂

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My first blog posting

Welcome to my blog.

I have been thinking of putting some of my thoughts and essays and book reviews in a blog. Because of the procrastinating devil I am, it has taken me quite a bit of time to do it. Finally today, all the stars got aligned and I have managed to get things going and here is my first posting 🙂

In my blog, you will find book reviews, my thoughts on different topics and other interesting stuff. Hope you enjoy reading it.

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