Wide-Eyed in Paris: The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy: The Dud Avocado, 1958.

Freshly out of college, American Sally Jay Gorce has the good fortune to have an understanding uncle who will pay for her to spend two years in Paris as long as she promises to tell him all about her adventures there. She has such a thirst for life (reminding me of Sylvia Plath’s letters home) that she freely partakes in everything that Paris has to offer: parties and drinks, art and artists, the odd spot of acting, and lovers galore. Ah, the joys of being able to gallivant about in foreign countries without having to work!

The plot, such as it is, is about Sally Jay navigating her way through a selection of potential or actual lovers, both in Paris and later in Biarritz: suave older married man Teddy, theatre director Larry Keevil who is a bit of an enigma to her, earnest painter Jim Breit, hearty Canadian Bax. She is too modern to complain or flinch, but she is half-aware that she is being taken advantage of, and underneath it remains all quite keen to be taken seriously.

I don’t think I can do a thorough review, but I do want to share some quotes, because above all, this book is very funny and wittily written. A lot of the one-line zingers reminded me of Dorothy Parker.

It’s amazing how right you can be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way?

I reflected wearily that it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.

This is how Sally Jay describes her boring American cousin John:

Presidential candidates, Senatorial investigations, juvenile delinquency – he held firm views on all of them, views which needless to say he was entirely willing to share with one and all, and if the thought ever struck him that there might possibly be people at the table who were uninformed or even just plain uninterested in these peculiarly American problems, it never slowed the steady flow nor quelled the mighty roar.

She does not spare Paris and the Parisians from her sharp tongue:

The French more than anyone – the French alone – have mastered the fine art of sweating out a drink. I’ve seen them time and again in that cafe, hat, coat, gloves and scarves to the eyebrows, sitting in attitudes of imminent departure – and sitting there all night, the same stemmed glass before them.

How I hated Paris! Paris was one big flea-bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough. There were tiny bugs working their way into the baskets of ferns on the wall and a million flies buzzing around my table. In fact, all those shrewd, flashing glances upon which the Parisian’s reputation as a wit is almost entirely based, are motivated by nothing more than his weary, steady need to keep on the bug-hunt.

You have to admire Sally Jay’s gutsiness, determination and innate optimism, but at times her chaotic life catches up with her and we get glimpses of a confused and vulnerable young girl, which makes her very endearing. Readers have compared her to Holly Golightly, but this is no ‘manic pixie girl’ invented by a male author, but the creation of a female author with plenty of wry asides for women of all ages.

If I could only figure out if it was Larry I was in love with, or just love, then I’d be all set, I told myself. It had certainly seemed to be Larry that morning, especially after that scene at the Dupont, but I was so sure of it then, why not now?

What happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again? What’s going to happen to me five years from now on, when I wake in the night (or can’t sleep in the first place…), take a deep breath to start all over again, and find that I’ve no breath left?

Sally Jay describes herself as a dud avocado – all shiny and exotic on the outside, but possibly not very nice on the inside, and I felt that this could apply both to her experiences of life in Europe, and also to the book itself. A lot of superficial charm and exuberance, but a little of it goes a long way. Perhaps that was precisely the point that the author was making – that these ‘stars in their eyes wannabe artists and expats’ are pretentious, unreliable and vacuous, puncturing the myth of 1920s Golden Age Paris?

Different time and different city, but not all that dissimilar from Other People’s Clothes – except that the main protagonist here is far more charming and amusing. The story itself felt not only meandering (and virtually plotless), but also slightly hollow. However, it’s really all about how the story gets told. I loved Sally Jay’s voice, resilience and humour. This is a perfect ‘mood booster’ kind of book.

Berlin: Down There on a Visit

Christopher Isherwood: Down There on a Visit, 1962.

We are all familiar with Isherwood’s depiction of 1930s Berlin, at least from the musical and film Cabaret if not from his stories in Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. One of my friends lives on the same street in Berlin where Isherwood lived for nearly 4 years, near Nollendorfplatz, and it is as popular now for its gay nightlife as it was in his time.

This novel, however, only refers tangentially to Berlin. It is in fact a collection of four novellas, each centring on a different period and character in the narrator’s life. Although the narrator is called Isherwood, we know from past experience that the material is only partially autobiographical. The author mashes up fact and fiction, and is prepared to make any changes to heighten the drama and the comic effect. Besides, as he points out, isn’t any memoir a highly selective account of impressions rather than facts?

The Christopher who sat in that taxi is, practially speaking, dead; he only remains reflected in the fading memories of us who knew him. I can’t revitalize him now. I can only reconstruct him from his remembered acts and words and from the writings he left us. He embarrasses me often, and so I’m tempted to sneer at him; but I will try not to. I’ll try not to apologize for him either.

The first part of the book features Mr. Lancaster, who owns a shipping company, is a distant relative or acquaintance of the family and invites Isherwood to visit him in Germany (not in Berlin but in an unnamed port town, most likely Hamburg). This is a coming-of-age story, with the narrator having a grand old time in Germany, making friends with the young people working for Mr. Lancaster and being somewhat cruel to the ‘old man’, whom he considers a fuddy-duddy. Just listen to his straitlaced opinions about notorious Berlin!

Christopher – in the whole of The Thousand and One Nights, in the most shameless rituals of the Tantras, in the carvings on the Black Pagoda, in the Japanese brothel pictures, in the vilest perversions of the Oriental mind, you couldn’t find anything more nauseating than what goes on there, quite openly, every day. That city is doomed, more surely than Sodom ever was. Those people don’t even realize how low they have sunk.

All of which makes Christopher even more determined to make his way to Berlin as soon as possible, of course! And, is it just me, or is Mr. Lancaster surprisingly erudite about where to find ‘shameless imagery’? The author is so good at poking fun at every one of his characters, and even cultural differences, just about steering clear of lazy cliches. Although I have to admit I giggled at this stereotype about the German language below:

Someone had once explained to me the technique of storytelling in German; you reserve, if possible, the whole point of the story and pack it into the final verb at the end of the last sentence. When you reach this sentence, you pause dramatically, then you cast forth the heavy, clumsy, polysyllabic verb, like a dice thrower, upon the table.

The ‘real’ Christopher Isherwood round about the time he was in Berlin.

In the second story, it is 1933 and Christopher has been living in Berlin for some time with one of the friends he made in the earlier story. That friend, Waldemar, convinces him to join him on a trip to Greece where a friend of his is working for an eccentric Englishman who is building a villa on an uninhabited island. Now that the Nazis have come to power, Christopher recognises that it is time to move on, but not before evoking once more the thrill of Berlin for expats then and now.

When I first came to Berlin, I came quite irresponsibly, for a thrill. I was the naughty boy who had enjoyed himself that afternoon at the flat of Waldemar’s Braut, and wanted more. However, having thoroughly explored the Berlin night life and begun to get tired of it, I grew puritanical. I severely criticized those depraved foreigners who visited Berlin in search of pleasure. They were exploiting the starving German working class, I said, and turning them into prostitutes. My indignation was perfectly sincere, and even justified… But have I really changed underneath? Aren’t I as irresponsible as ever, running away from a situation like this?

The more I read about foreigners’ perceptions of Berlin, the clearer it is to me that they consider it an Eldorado rather than a real city, a place where they can run away, start afresh, be more truly themselves or at least try on new personas.

The mad Englishman on his island is Ambrose, who gives his name to the second novella, and whom the narrator knew vaguely at Cambridge. He is surrounded by a gaggle of hangers-on, including the snobbish Geoffrey. The English and the Germans represent the obnoxious type of expats who complain about the local people while exploiting them (the author has them explicitly referring to the locals as ‘niggers’ and it is clear that he didn’t approve of this term even back then). No wonder that their Greek ‘friends’ use the ‘weapons of the weak’ (foot-dragging, insolence, laziness) to get back at them.

Mordant wit about the British in the third part, where Waldemar tries to find refuge in England in 1938 but utterly fails to do so. Isherwood obviously encountered some prejudice in his homeland, which is why he moved as far away from it as he could, so he is particularly acerbic about the ‘warm welcome’ you are likely to find in England.

How compactly the English sit, confronting their visitors: here we are, take os or leave us – this is where you’ll do things in our way, not yours… They are indomitable, incorrigible, and so utterly self-satisfied that they no longer have to raise their voices or wave their arms when they address the lesser breeds. If you have any criticisms, they have one unanswerable answer: you can stay off our island.

I did not finish the book – the American section dragged on too long and is the least interesting. I may well return to it at some point, but it didn’t fit in that well with my expat theme this month. Despite its unevenness, I enjoyed the book and Isherwood’s sharp observations of human behaviour and vulnerability.

Friday Fun: Monastic Retreats

When I was in my early teens, I had a craving to become a nun. Not so much for reasons of faith, but because I kept thinking what fun it must be to have plenty of time to read, write, meditate and perhaps do a spot of gardening. Of course, in the meantime, I have realised that modern monastic communities do far more than that. And yet, when I see pictures such as these, I want to go on a retreat there for several weeks, if not months.

St Mary’s Monastery in Perth, Scotland, from TripAdvisor.
Metochi Monastery in Lesvos, Greece, has been rented out as a study centre for the University of Agder in Norway, from lesvos.com
The Swiss monastery of Kappel am Albis is a place where I once ran a training workshop over several days – the food was brilliant too! From Cityseeker.
The Chartreusian monasteries are among the strictest in the world – you are practically locked up in your cell – still, when the cell looks like this, I wouldn’t mind. Photo credit Nico Angleys on Twitter, from the Grand Chartreux Monastery.
The Abbaye de Lerin runs revision sessions for high school students preparing their Baccalaureate. It’s on an island near Cannes, so there is no escape. Photo credit: Jean-Jacques Giordan.
A very modern Benedictine monastery, Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire was built on the site of an old farm. From Mucknellabbey.org
Combining two of my favourite things: South Africa and Buddhism, this Buddhist retreat near Durban is a dream – and has accommodation ranging from the basic to the luxurious. Photo credit: Chantelle Flores, from Travelstart.co.za

Again Berlin: Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents

Kirsty Bell: The Undercurrents, Fitzcarraldo, 2022.

After the rather navel-gazing approaches to Berlin in the last three expat books I tackled, it was a relief to find this book much less of a memoir and much more of a psychogeography approach to Berlin, starting from the house on the Landwehrkanal that the author moved into a few years ago. There are many definitions of psychogeography, but the way I define it is how urban places make us feel and behave, and how we are linked to the past and present of a location (and possibly its future).

Bell and her family moved into the awkwardly shaped, rather eerie apartment building and were almost immediately beset by problems of flooding. Soon afterwards, her marriage broke down and she recognised that, like the flat, she had been hiding the cracks and faults from herself for far too long. However, thankfully, she is remarkably restrained in analysing her own marital experience and instead switches to other stories and other families, in particular the Salas who owned the building (and had a printing workshop there). As she investigates the building’s past and all of its owners, she moves out in ever wider circles and offers us a roughly chronological view of Berlin in the 19th and 20th centuries. At times, I wish she could have lingered longer on certain time periods (the end, about the post-unification city, felt particularly rushed), but it was an erudite and charming personal journey through time and place.

There is a heavy (and only occasionally heavy-handed) symbolism with the city being built on a swamp, on sandy soil which pulls things down below the water level. The city is in constant danger of being submerged, as are the bad memories associated with it

Sometimes things that were supposed to disappear rise to the surface again and overflow into visibility. Like the body of Rosa Luxemburg, thrown into the Landwehr Canal… Most things, however, sink without a trace. Does the swamp’s capacity for swallowing evidence and closing up again after every action also have a role to play in Berlin’s strangely amnesiac relation to its past?

The Rosa Luxemburg memorial at the place where her body was fished out of the canal. From structurae.net

I’ll be honest here: I visited Berlin during the years of division and found West Berlin garish and East Berlin grey, but neither of them depressed me as much as Prague during Communist times. That unsettled feeling, the bad vibes that the author is clearly very susceptible towards – I felt those far more in Prague than in Berlin (in the past and now), without any reason or rhyme.

Bell also addresses the pull that Berlin seems to have on the imagination of today’s global nomads, while also noticing the difference in reception that an American or North European expat might get compared to someone perceived to be a ‘refugee’ or an economic migrant.

When I arrived in Berlin in the early 2000s, one of the many so-called ‘cultural workers’ drawn from other parts of Europe and the US by its openness and affordability, I was struck by the casual discrimination still directed at the immigrant population, thrown into sharp relief by my own ostensibly immigrant status. But as a Northern European with fair hair and pale skin, I appear to belong… while English as my mother tongue affords me linguistic privilege. The legitimacy of my presence here has never been called into question.

In what is perhaps the only point of similarity to the previous three books about Berlin, the author describes that feeling of ‘coming late’ to the city that everyone seems to associate with living there.

Landing a good ten years after the city’s unifcation, I already felt belated. Artists, musicians, writers, film makers, actors, designers had been flocking here for years by then, inhabiting Berlin’s derelict apratments, setting up studios and turning any abandoned building into a bar, club or gallery. The sheer space was a palpable relief after the density and compression of life in New York City. There was a wildness here bordering at times on desolation.

Not that different from New York City in the early 1980s, as I seem to remember from any number of films, such as Desperately Seeking Susan!

Fortunately, there is not much in this vein throughout the book, and much more of a focus on town planning and local celebrities. The city seems to have gone through periods of visionary and ambitious town planning (of which the canal itself was a prime example) but also periods of complete chaos or lacklustre bureaucratic efforts. It remains a bit of an untameable beast of a city, with no clear centre – or multiple claims to be just that (some of them extremely ugly, such as Potsdamer Platz, others extravagantly pointless, such as the Humboldt Forum trying to imitate the past). Perhaps the author dwells a little too much on the negatives, instead of the successful examples (the Reichstag, the New National Gallery by Mies van der Rohe which has just reopened to the public, or the renovation of the Neues Museum).

Neue National Galerie, renovations carried out by David Chipperfield Architects.

Yet there is clearly much fondness too for the architecture and natural beauty of the city, despite the constant sense of unease that its history brings. I was somewhat bemused by her use of feng shui and family constellation psychotherapy to try to come to terms with her building. However, being very sensitive to the atmosphere of a place myself, I cannot laugh at this. And I am grateful to her for raising the profile of particularly (but not only) women with links to Berlin who are not all that familiar outside Germany: socialist Rosa Luxemburg, writer Gabriele Tergit, artist Hannah Höch, Fontane’s fictional Effi Briest, Christiane F. There were even two I had never heard of: Marie von Bunsen who ran a literary salon in the 1900s and 19th century author Gabriele Reuter.

As you can tell, I absolutely loved this book, and it will certainly accompany me when I move to Berlin. I loved the detailed research and sensitive depiction of historical moments and their impact upon the author. If I had written the book, I would have included more living native Berliners, rather than just the historical dead ones, but this is not an anthropological study. I’ll close with a beautiful quote from author Franz Hessel, who spent all of his life in Berlin and famously described his passion for walking through it:

… the atmosphere in this area, which combines a whiff of park, city and water, displays a subtle wealth of colours seldom found in Berlin’s greyish contours. For anyone who spent their childhood in Berlin, no sunrise over the mountains or sunset at the lake can outshine the sweet dawns and dusks over the canal’s spring and autumn foliage.

Berlin – Hiroshima footbridge / Landwehrkanal, photo credit: Alexander Voss.

Louise Bourgeois: More than Spiderwoman

The French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is widely known for her gigantic spider sculptures, like the one at the Tate Modern in London, but she is so much more than that. I had never seen much of her art in person before, and since the exhibition of her late work The Woven Child at the Hayward Gallery will be closing on the 15th May, I made it a point to go there last week to see it.

Of course, spiders were involved. This work combines her use of cages/enclosed spaces in her later work and her love of spiders. She associated spiders with her mother: hard-working, patient, creative, resilient. Her family had a tapestry restoration business, and you can see fragments of tapestry scattered around the edges of the cage.

I am not necessarily a huge fan of installation art, but there is something so visceral and moving about Bourgeois’ work that you feel you want to immerse yourself in it. Certainly step into her cages or cells, touch those floating bits of gauze, lace and other silk, which feel so vulnerable.

Another spider/mother sitting on an embroidered chair, in a cell. To me it represents hard-working women and mothers everywhere, being constrained in the domestic sphere, whether they choose it or not.
Many of the nightdresses and underwear were either the artist’s own (like shedding her skin, she described it) or her mother’s.

The contrast between the formal little black dress and the disarmingly innocent and fragile underclothes.

It is impossible not to be struck by the symbolism of the work. Some of it was too disturbing, too powerful for me to want to take a picture to share with others: couples embracing where the woman had a maimed limb, bodies hanging in various stages of distress… I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising. But others were more benign and profoundly moving.

The Good Mother. The imagery of unspooling (which appears quite frequently in her work), lactating and being tied down would have made me cry when my children were very young.
The woman toppled over. The curvaceous woman reminded me of Niki de Sainte Phalle’s Nanas. Niki was another French-American woman artist, only a little younger than Bourgeois. Unlike the smooth, colourful papier-mache Nanas, Bourgeois has created Frankenstein women, by sewing together pieces of sometimes rough, sometimes smooth fabric

Then there were the fabric heads with gaping mouths and flattened features – like a zombie army. So many ways to interpret this!

Pretty but vacuous?
Not just two-faced – this one had four faces – dark and light, demonic and innocent.

There were ‘prettier’, less visceral works on display too, full of literary allusions or nostalgia for long-gone places.

Bourgeois repurposed old teatowels or handkerchiefs to create this mood board for Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, a novel about the few choices open to women at the time, and a journey from innocence to bitterness, illusion to disenchantment.
Ode a la Bievre, a series of fabric drawings in memory of the river Bievre. The family moved next to the river when she was a child, and she reminisces about the family’s beautiful garden and exploring the river (which contained tannin, an important ingredient for dyeing fabric). The last panel says that when she returned with her children to show them the river, it had disappeared (been filled in) and ‘only the trees planted by my father along its edge remained as witness.’

LATE ADDITION: I’ve just been made aware that there is a video of someone much more eloquent than me who can talk you through this wonderful exhibition, namely Deborah Levy.

#6Degrees of Separation: May 2022

What a pleasure it is to let the mind wander this weekend to form bookish associations in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with an Australian classic (has it really been that long?): True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I read it when it first came out and I remember I found it pretty hard going (the vernacular, the lack of punctuation, the toxic masculinity and violence), but it would be too easy to make my first link another novel I struggled with (there are too many!). So instead, I will refer to the fact that it took a long time – nearly twenty years – for the book to be adapted for film (I haven’t watched the film yet but hear it’s quite impressive). So what other book took ages before it was adapted?

Well, there is a notorious one, which is still under development and seems to have been for the past 2-3 years, although it is labelled a TV mini-series: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which was published in the same year as Peter Carey’s novel above. So twenty-two years and counting…

A simple connection for the next one – the word ‘clay’ in the title – and the long-awaited novel Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. After the huge international success of his Book Thief, everyone was waiting with bated breath for his next move… and it took him nearly 12 years to complete it. In an interview, he said something like: ‘I’m a completely different person than the person who wrote The Book Thief but also a different person to the one who started Bridge of Clay 8-9 years ago … If I don’t get it done soon, I’ll probably have to set it aside.’ Wise words of advice to me as a budding novelist, I think!

Bridge of Clay features five brothers in Australia, but the most famous ‘band of brothers’ are the Dostoevsky’s Karamazovs in Tsarist Russia. Pleasure and duty, rationality and faith, free will versus fate, everything is up for discussion in this story of family ties gone very wrong. It also features a lengthy trial scene, and this is the link to my next book.

In L’Étranger by Albert Camus we have a courtroom scene where the accused Meursault refuses to conform to expectations, justify his actions or show remorse. A cold, clinical look at crime and punishment which is in marked contrast to Dostoevsky – Meursault is a man alienated from society and from himself.

Of course, I cannot mention the Camus novel without thinking of the very powerful response to it, the much more recent Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen in 2015), a retelling of the story from the point of view of the brother of the Arab victim who didn’t even have a name in the Camus novel.

This retelling of a famous story from the point of view of what one might call a ‘secondary character’ is what brings me to the final link in this chain: the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is probably one of my favourite examples of witty, sophisticated and successful retellings of a classic (in this case, Hamlet). I don’t think I’ve ever read the script, but I’ve seen it performed several times and always come away with something new to marvel at.

I’ve just realised that my chain has been all male writers this month – and I wonder if my subconscious reverted to this because of the outlaw and masculinity issues arising from the starting point book. Next month the starting point is another Australian writer, but a woman, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which sounds much more like my kind of thing and which I might even read by June.

Friday Fun: Painters in Curtea de Argeş

One final blog post about my trip to Romania, but you will be relieved to hear that this time you will not have to rely on my puny photographic skills. Instead, I would like to introduce you to some painters associated with the little town of Curtea de Argeş. I was surprised to discover there were far more than I had expected, when I went to visit the local museum. Alongside painters who were either born or made their home here, this part of the country seems to have been a popular source of inspiration for well-known painters living in Bucharest. Not to mention, of course, the medieval church frescoes.

Starting with the oldest: 14th century altarpiece in the church at the Royal Court (Biserica Domneasca). From Trecator.ro
Interior of the Curtea de Arges monastery (frescos dating from the 16th century but renovated in 2010). From transfagarasantravel.ro
The famous ‘family portrait’ of Neagoe Basarab, who ordered the monastery to be built.
Iosif Iser: Peasant Family in Arges, 1918, from Universulargesean.ro
The artist who restored many of the church frescos in Arges, Dumitru Norocea. His house (painted here by himself) now houses a collection of art and ethnography. From Am Fost Acolo blog.
Ion Theodorescu-Sion: Street in Curtea de Arges, 1922, from Pictura Zilei, ziuaconstanta.ro
Porch in Arges by Rudolf Schweitzer-Cumpăna, 1927, on WikiArt.
Emil Ivanescu Millan was renowned in the 1930s as a painter of church frescoes. From adevarul.ro
After the Second World War, Ivanescu-Millan settled in Curtea de Arges and painted landscapes and portraits, from adevarul.ro
Nicolae Darascu: Landscape from Arges, 1950s. From WikiArt.
Not in Curtea de Arges itself, but at the Cotmeana Monastery nearby, this rather fine depiction of hell. From povestidecalatorie.ro.

Expats in Berlin

This month my reading will be focused very much on (mainly but not exclusively Anglo) expats. I don’t know if it’s my own plans for eventually moving to Berlin that have made the subject particularly pertinent and visible, or if it’s a publishing trend, but quite a few recent books seem to be dedicated to life in Berlin. The city that no one wanted to move to before 1990 and which then became super-trendy (and increasingly expensive). It’s the trendiness, a young person’s view of Berlin, that I found in the first three books I read: they talk about relatively recent periods in the town’s history rather than the more edgy grunge and squatter heaven of the early 1990s. None of these books struck me as being truly preoccupied or interested in the city itself – instead, these people were looking for their own selves or for connection or love or to fuel their addictions. They all made me feel tired and old.

Oscar Coop-Phane: Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller, Arcadia, 2015.

Three young men, each with a complicated back story (and the first part of the book dwells perhaps a little too much on their back stories before it brings them all together in Berlin), find themselves couch-surfing and partaking in the crazy 24 hours drinks, drugs, sex and club culture of 2000s Berlin. Tobias is originally German but has spent most of his life outside his country of birth; abused by a family member in his childhood, he has now turned to prostitution and fleeting affairs until he discovers he has AIDS. Armand rebels against his bourgeois family by becoming an artist, and leaves Paris for Berlin when the great love of his life doesn’t quite turn out the way he envisaged it. Franz thought he could pull himself up by his bootstraps by excelling at his studies, but discovers he will always be looked down upon by high-class Germans, so he starts dealing drugs instead. I wasn’t entirely convinced we needed three main characters in this quite short novel (170 small pages) – their experiences and voices did not seem that differentiated.

With graphic descriptions of drug-taking and of homosexual and heterosexual encounters in grimy toilets, it is very much a ‘hedonism as a desperate cry for escape from one’s own trauma’ sort of book – and at times it almost succeeds in convincing me of this. The chapters alternate between the three men, who finally meet up and become friends – or at least, fellow consumers of the Berlin nightlife circa 1998-2008. You might almost describe this as Trainspotting with a more glamorous backdrop. There are some acute observations about Berlin (the author lived there for some time), but perhaps not nearly enough to give me a strong sense of place.

What saves the book from just being a blow-by-blow account (pun intended) of random encounters and excessive clubbing are the moments of reflection. Armand keeps a notebook, and we are often privy to Tobias’ innermost thoughts. Every now and then we get some passages about the city itself, which might be the author intervening or could be written by one of the characters – these passages were my favourite to read:

The streets are wide and people walk around, as though nothing could happen to them, as if here more than elsewhere people take time to live. People are a bit skint but they get by. The soups are good. People smoke in the cafes since it would be crazy not to. They work away on a laptop at some obsession. You sense Europe is around you, all its languages mixing and answering each other.

This contrasts a bit with Tobias’ first impressions of the city when he arrives fresh from Paris:

The sky’s so grey here. No sun or clouds. And buildings, so shiny and low! It’s a far cry from Baron Haussmann’s embellishments. Everything looks like it has a use. It’s sad all the same, a city where everything is useful. What about poetry, where do they put that? Maybe they have little parking lots for sonnets and hangars and factories for ballads.

I particularly enjoyed the description of winter in Berlin:

For several weeks, the street has lost its old appeal. Its heart is frozen, its surface covered in snow… No one panics; people here are used to putting on boots, taking a shovel to clear their doorways. It’s as though a parallel life is activated: bikes and tables outside cafes are put away, hats and tights are taken out, daylight becomes unfamiliar, there are invitations to people’s flats for soup or a cup of tea.

But there simply weren’t quite enough of those passages. Instead, we witness the car crash of people sabotaging their own lives.

Calla Henkel: Other People’s Clothes, Sceptre, 2021.

The queue to get into the legendary Berghain Club in Berlin, which features in all three books. Often dubbed the most exclusive or notorious of techno clubs, with parties continuing non-stop from Friday night until Monday morning.

Calla Henkel is an American writer and playwright/director living in Berlin and in her debut novel she shows us the hedonistic side of Berlin from the point of view of two American students on their year abroad. Rather than a ‘running away from’, this is a novel of ‘running towards’. Zoe and Hailey are art students in New York, who are keen to reinvent themselves, desperate to be hip and memorable in a city that doesn’t seem to be that welcoming to them. Their art classes are virtually non-existent, but they manage to find a sublet in a grand old building where nothing seems to work properly. So they spend their days trying to track down the cool crowd and their nights being refused entry to Berghain.

Drug-taking, drinking, bulimia and sexual encounters are abundantly described, but there is an added twist to keep the story from becoming a wearisome episodic account. They suspect that their landlady, a prolific novelist, is spying on them to write a novel about them, so they decide to put on a show for her – give her something to write about. Set in 2008/9, the novel is full of references to the Amanda Knox case, with one of the main characters following it quite obsessively, so it’s no surprise when the novel takes a darker turn… but perhaps a little too late for my patience.

While the dialogue is often very funny and compelling, it feels to me like the author is trying to squeeze too many strands into this novel, or else couldn’t quite figure out what, if any, genre it was supposed to fit. It has it all: social media feeding frenzy, life as art, female friendships, envy and jealousy, gay and straight relationships, partying lifestyle, obsession with celebrity, being a babysitter in a wealthy family, plus the chilling feeling of being spied upon. If the men in Coop-Phane’s novel filled me in equal measure with disgust and pity, these girls annoyed me with their self-absorption, their spoilt and pretentious attitudes. Yet in both cases, I was pained to see how disinterested they were in getting to know the life of real, everyday Berliners outside their drug-taking or artistic bubble.

Which makes me wonder if the backdrop of Berlin was essential – it felt like this story could have taken place in any other big city with a lively nightlife. Occasionally, however, there is a rather more vivid description to convey the atmosphere:

The dance floor was filled with languages and English accented in French, Italian and others I couldn’t place, everyone expertly stepping to electronic music in quick sharp movements, all dressed in layers of black… A Venezuelan girl starting a gallery. A Croatian dancer making work-out tapes with artists. A spiky-haired guy in a black hoodie talking about Marx… It reminded me of the bar in Star War, all those outer-space creatures from planets I had heard of grinding on each other and smoking cigarettes.

Amy Liptrot: The Instant, Canongate, 2022.

At least this book has no aspirations to be fictional, but is a memoir of the year that the author moved to Berlin. After ten years of living in London and descending into alcoholism and drug-taking, Liptrot had reconnected with nature and herself in Orkney in her much-lauded first book The Outrun. However, after a while the island isolation becomes too much for her and she goes to Berlin on a whim, without speaking the language or a job or place to stay.

I didn’t choose Berlin for a particular reason… You are free to invent your identity in a new city. I want to act like I’m still in my twenties, maybe get a nose-piercing and an undercut, start beng polyamorous, making scultpures. I’m attracted to what I think of as Berlin style: Cabaret-via-Cold War, bicycles, minimal techno, black clothes.

Ah, there come the clichés again! The elements which resurface in both of the books above. Liptrot too goes to Berghain, but she writes about it with more lyricism than the others. She compares it to diving into the sea.

Entering that place is like entering a huge echoing cliff cave and, once my eyes have adjusted to the dark, finding it full of rock doves and black cormorants, on shadowy ledges, darting past. I’ve found a complete ecosystem. Five hundred people or more, a bloom of jellyfish, are drifting with the tide of music… I am reminded of the exquisite illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, the German naturalist and philosopher who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, made detailed studies of sea life, including technical drawings of jellyfish and anemones, beautiful and weird.

You might think that she would fall once more prey to her demons in this partying city, but Liptrot is in her thirties rather than her twenties. Although she longs to find love, she is still fascinated with the natural world around her. Even in the big city, she finds (or rather, hears about but doesn’t see) raccoons, and goes birdwatching. She manages to be poetic about traffic islands. And, for a few short months, she does find love – or so she thinks. And when she discovers it wasn’t quite what she hoped for, she is disarmingly frank about the vulnerable aftermath.

Yet once again I find that odd lack of curiosity about the ‘natives’ of the place where she has chosen to spend a year – even though her boyfriend is German. Many of the activities she pursues in Berlin are either solitary ones: going to swimming pools, walking, trying an immersion tank; or else sticking to the English-speaking foreign community. Even museums: it’s only in the last few weeks of living in the city, that she actually visits any museums – obviously, I don’t expect everyone to want to explore the same things about a foreign city that I do, but it did strike me as odd. Yet the author seems to be quite aware of the privileges of the ‘digital nomad’ anywhere or nowhere culture.

There is growth of this ‘sublet’ or ‘freelance’ culture: people always keeping their options open, skimming the surface of other countries, digitally fragmented, never committing… Move between the cool districts of international cities and the currency and time zone change but the people are the same. The only language you learn is how to ask for a coffee and the Wi-Fi password.

Berlin’s Landwehrkanal hints at a more peaceful way of life. A.Savin, WikiCommons.

If I had no prior knowledge of Berlin and read just these three books, it might put me off moving to that city. I would consider myself too old and uncool. But I have friends who have grown up there while the city was divided, or who moved there in 1995 and raised a family there, so I know it can look and feel very different too. I have just embarked upon a more thoughtful memoir of living in Berlin, which looks at the layers of Berlin (both geological and historical ones) – and that is much more my speed (pun intended). More about that in my next review.

Surrealism from Estonia and Romania

Kristiina Ehin: Walker on Water, trans. Ilmar Lehtpere, Unnamed Press, 2014.

There is not much literature from Estonia available in translation, unfortunately, so when the London Reads the World Book Club was looking for an Estonian book for May, we only managed to find two, of which one was out of print. However, I think we chose well, since Kristiina Ehin is contemporary and comes highly recommended by Estonian readers. She is a poet, translator, singer and songwriter, and this preference for the brief form shows clearly in this collection of very short stories – linked flash fiction – or novella-in-flash, I suppose you could call it. She also has an interest (and M.A.) in folklore, and this too is obvious in her work. Well-worn tropes are inverted; the plain storytelling style becomes playful or deadpan; an intimate chat between friends around a campfire veers off into the fantastical and impossible.

The title story ‘Walker on Water’ is a typical example of this. It starts off fairly innocuously with the narrator stating that she had to see off the female competition to win over the man who became her husband. ‘There’s nothing more exciting than desiring a man who doesn’t even notice you.’

However, once this prize morsel has been won, you need to be able to keep him and the narrator describes how she starts to indulge in her favourite pastime, walking on water, which she compares to marriage itself: ‘It’s a game with little danger when everything is just starting out and the little waves lick your shoreline with pleasure.’ But is it enough to keep afloat on the water when your intelligent and educated husband literally opens the hatch at the back of his head when he comes back from work and takes his brains out?

There were so many instances of droll humour or satirical asides, which remind me of Finnish authors I have read previously. In Ehin’s case, these revolve around the often absurd lengths to which people will go in their relationships with the other sex: the woman whose husbands were all called Jaan and all have their arms bitten off, the narrator who hires a Love Organizer to keep her love from freezing at the edges but ends up having to do everything herself, a Surrealist’s Daughter who turns into a dragon and ultimately has two pairs of three-headed twins… On and on it goes, from one absurd story to the next, from one metaphor taken to extremes to another hyperbole, usually with a feminist twist that brought a wry smile to my face.

I wasn’t quite sure that I understood all of the metaphors or cultural references, but I did enjoy the retelling of Snow White from the point of view of the apple painted by a Princely Paintbrush, or the collection of the (possibly?) souls of former husbands portrayed as dried apricots, or the Sheherezade style of storytelling, blending myths and family tales, in ‘Lena of the Drifting Isle’.

Urmuz: Pagini Bizare (Bizarre Pages), MondoRo Press, 2013.

Urmuz is the pen name of one of the most unusual yet influential writers Romania has ever had. Born Ionescu Demetrescu-Buzău in 1883 in Curtea de Arges, he spent most of his schoolyears in Bucharest, studied law and became a county court judge and, after the war (in which he fought largely in Moldova), he became a registrar at the High Court in Bucharest. He started writing his proto-Dadaist pre-surrealist stories around 1913, but didn’t publish anything until1922. Hypersensitive to most things, leading the life of a recluse, he ended his life with a gunshot and was found behind the famous buffet (now restaurant) on Kiseleff Boulevard on the 23rd of November 1923.

Vintage postcard of the buffet.

His contemporaries were shocked by his apparently motiveless death, and the poet Tudor Arghezi (the first to recognise his talent and offer to publish him) always reproached himself afterwards for not being closer to him and preventing this tragedy. Yet, despite his brief literary career and the meagre output (he left behind at most fifty pages of writing), he had a huge influence on the Romanian literature that followed. While some compare him to the tragic absurdity of Kafka, others emphasise his comic tour de force a la Lewis Carroll or his links to folklore, but to me he is far more clearly linked to Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists, and produced a whole vein of direct descendants in Romanian literature like Eugen Ionescu, Leonid Dimov, Mircea Cartarescu.

In the preface, one of the leading literary critics of Romanian literature, Nicolae Manolescu, says: ‘Can you imagine the reaction of readers in 1922 – used to epic novels like Ion – when they were confronted with the opening lines of the mini-novel The Funnel and Stamate?’ Indeed, a startling contrast to everything else that was being written at the time.

A well-ventilated apartment, made up of three main rooms, not forgetting a terrace with a glass partition and a doorbell.

A table with no legs in the middle of the room, based on intense calculations and probability, upon which there is a vase containing the eternal essence of the ‘thing in itself’, a clove of garlic, a figurine of a (Transylvanian) priest holding a grammar book and 20 pennies change… The rest is unimportant.

However, you should be aware that this room, forever darkened, has no doors or windows and only communicates with the outside world via a tube, through which you occasionally see smoke or, at night, the seven hemispheres of Ptolemy, or, during the day, two humans descending from the apes alongside a finite row of dried okra, reflecting the endless and useless Auto-Cosmos…

The Dadaists were also playing around with language and concepts at that time, but they had the additional benefit of combining their poetry with decoupage and other artistic methods, making their poems very visual (you can see an example by Tristan Tzara here). Urmuz has to bring all of the playfulness and experimentation, the sense of joy and freedom, but also the futility, into his prose using nothing but words.

There is, however, one poem by Urmuz that schoolchildren have always loved – a mock-fable nonsense rhyme, which reminds me of Edward Lear or Dr Seuss, and is delicious to roll about on the tongue, although hell to translate.

If I have whetted your appetite for this highly unusual writer, you can find an online translation of two of his stories here, while Dalkey Archive is bringing out his collected prose in 2024. Once again, Alistair Ian Blyth has got there before me with the translation! 😦 However, I think I might go ahead and translate one of his pieces anyway (maybe The Fuchsiad), just for fun and practice and the sheer love of it.

Friday Fun: City vs. Country

There are contrasts between the urban and rural in any country, but I sometimes think that Romania is an extreme example of that. No wonder I am dazed when I go back there for any period of time!

The Museum of Romanian Literature is housed in a former noble townhouse in Bucharest.
My grandmother’s house has been repainted, the vine replanted, but you can still see the porch where we used to sleep in summer, because it was too hot indoors.
Architectural detail on Calea Victoriei, Bucharest.
Interior delight at my grandmother’s house in the countryside. We loved the stove, which was used both for cooking and for heating in winter. The ubiquitous Abduction from the Seraglio wall hanging (barely glimpsed on the left) was less popular with us children…
Charming room over the carriage entrance at a grand house in Bucharest.
Although my grandparents’ house had two rooms, one was kept pristine ‘The Good Room’ for guests, while the parents and seven children all crowded in two beds in this room. My father, the youngest of seven children, says that they slept horizontally across the bed, with their feet either dangling or propped up on chairs.
The best restaurant in Bucharest at the moment, or so I hear.
During the summer months, my grandmother used this summer kitchen next to the main house, with a vegetable and herb garden right next to it, and grapevines hanging over a trellis (no longer there) while we played cards at the table – and occasionally helped her.
The Bucharest villa of pianist Dinu Lipatti, lit up in Ukrainian colours.
One of the three cemeteries where family members lie buried in the countryside.
There isn’t much love for modernist architecture, but this 1930s building designed for a ministry deserves to be renovated.
Museum of Art Collections was one of my favourite places to visit while at school, with frequent talks about art and culture from other countries.