Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer – Germany #EU27Project

I waited a long time before I found a book worthy enough to represent Germany for the #EU27Project. I read and discarded Marc Elsberg’s Blackout, which I reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover, because it was too much of a Europe-wide cyber thriller (although perhaps for that very reason it would be a good candidate for any EU project). Mechtild Borrmann’s To Clear the Air has a strong sense of German small town location, but was just not interesting enough to warrant inclusion on this list. I hesitated about Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies because it had more of a Patricia Highsmith feel to it and was set in an unspecified location which reminded me of the South of France.

Ricarda Huch, around 1914.
Ricarda Huch, around 1914.

However, I am nothing if not inconsistent, and finally it was Ricarda Huch’s book which won my vote, even if it is set in pre-revolutionary Russia rather than in Germany. Huch’s voice is one which deserves to be heard in troubled times when ‘intellectual’ is in danger of becoming a term of abuse. Well educated and polymath in an age when it was difficult for women to get into higher education, she was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, plays and historical works, an expert on Italian, German and Russian history. Quite full of revolutionary ideas in her younger years (she wrote about Bakunin and anarchy, and the women’s movement among other things), she refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime and went into internal exile in 1933.

Her ability to empathise with both the status quo and the revolutionary spirit is what makes The Last Summer such a compelling read. It’s an epistolary novel and the immediacy of the different voices and points of view make this a complex multi-tonal choral work. Translated with panache by Jamie Bulloch, it feels as fresh as if it had been written only yesterday.

Following pronounced student unrest and protests at the beginning of the 20th century, the governor of St Petersburg has decided to close the state university. He receives death threats, even as he retreats with his family to his countryside residence over the summer. His worried wife hires a bodyguard, Lyu, without suspecting that he is in fact on the side of the revolutionary students and plans to assassinate the governor. Through the letters written by Lyu to his co-conspirator Konstantin, and the letters sent by other people in the house, we get to know all the members of the family: the childish only son, Velya, who tries to act cool and becomes increasingly critical of his father’s decision to close the university; the two blonde daughters – fiery Katya and gentle Jessika, who both fall under Lyu’s spell to some extent; anxious, protective mother and wife Lusinya; and the governor himself, Yegor, a rather typical benevolent yet authoritarian patriarch, who refuses to listen to any other points of view.

last_summer_web_0_220_330-1Although this short novel (easily read in a single sitting, as so many of Peirene’s books are designed to be read)  has a clear sense of time and place, it is also timeless. Neither side is spared: the  position of privilege, the rather patronising attitude towards the servants working for them, the often shallow understanding of politics by the ‘chattering’ classes are all exposed, but so is the deceitful way in which Lyu inveigles himself into the hearts and minds of the family, his stubborn insistence on the only ‘correct’ path (although, in a feverish moment, he seems to have a change of heart).

The central theme here is whether ideology should take precedence over humanity. This is indeed a dilemma which has vexed us most of the 20th century (and clearly continues to do so in the 21st). Should we stick to our principles, especially the political ones, or should we look at the human stories, make exceptions for individual cases, for getting to know people, for giving second chances? Is it necessary to take direct and violent action for one’s beliefs, especially if you have exhausted all the other peaceful options? Should we be allowed to change our minds if we begin to believe that the end does not justify the means?

The author shows us one course of action and the human cost of following one’s principles. It’s a book which provokes both an emotional and a cerebral reaction – I will certainly be thinking about it for a long time.

I really enjoyed the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which appeared just before I embarked upon this book.

Friday Fun: Villas to Get Away from It All

Sunny spells announced today after yesterday’s stormy weather, but more grey bleakness still to come. So of course I cannot help but wish I were far, far away from it all, in one of these luxurious villas. (Small aside: have you noticed how most celebrity homes and holiday villas featured in magazines are rather tacky and over-decorated? It wasn’t as easy as you might think to find something appealing… even when money is no object.)

It's the landscape which usually does it for me... Villa in Bali, from baliluxuryvillas.com
It’s the views which usually do it for me… Villa in Bali, from baliluxuryvillas.com
Fearless architecture also tempts me, villa in Camps Bay, South Africa. From paradizo.com.
Fearless architecture also tempts me, villa in Camps Bay, South Africa. From paradizo.com.
Another Balinese beauty, but this time the Zen qualities of the inner courtyard. From cuded.com
Another Balinese beauty, but this time the Zen qualities of the inner courtyard. From cuded.com
The swimming pool seems obligatory, even if you have the sea nearby, as in this villa in Seychelles, from cuded.com
Plenty of room to welcome your friends in a mass contemplation of the sea, as in this villa in Seychelles, from cuded.com
The swimming pool comes in handy if you want a quick dip without trekking all the way down to and up from the beach, as in this Mykonos villa. From 400 Holidays site.
The swimming pool comes in handy if you want a quick dip without trekking all the way down to and up from the beach, as in this Mykonos villa. From 400 Holidays site.
Villa in Chile integrated into the landscape, with a rooftop garden. From trendir.com
Villa in Chile integrated into the landscape, with a rooftop garden. From trendir.com

The final one is purely conceptual for the time being and might prove a little too much for my claustrophobic tendencies, but it’s the perfect desert island for someone.

Floating villa with underwater level, from Daily Express.
Floating villa with underwater level, from Daily Express.

Alexa, What Is One Plus One?

Alexa, What Is One Plus One?

‘I think you know the answer to that one.’

 

Because I would not, could not stay calm

or reasonable, full of fact-based evidence…

Because instead of all the answers

I had questions of my own…

Because I stamped my feet at injustice

and cried noisily at films

(quietly into my pillow at night)…

Because he asked questions he already knew the answer to,

just to test and tease and lecture on

till touch has gone, unless it’s right swipe…

Because who wouldn’t rather be a hammer than a nail?

 

…he bought Alexa as a Christmas present for himself.

amazonecho

It’s Open Link Night over at dVerse Poets Pub and any form of poetry is welcome, so please do join in and have fun.

Feeling Grateful for Bookish People…

It’s events like these, Geneva Writers’ Group Meet the Agent and Publisher weekend , and people like these

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From left to right: Jo Unwin, Joelle Delbourgo, Kathy Bijleveld, Karen Sullivan, Eric Ruben, Christine Breede-Schechter and Susan Tiberghien.

who make me happy to be alive and talking about books. I have tweeted some of the pearls of wisdom these guests have shared with us under #GWGlit, but my favourite insight – manifesto, almost – comes from Joelle Delbourgo: ‘We are not just sellers of books, we are purveyors of culture.’ Thoughtful words and diversity of points of view are more important than ever nowadays, so a huge thanks to these wonderful people who keep the passion and the flame alive.

And. of course, the backdrop couldn’t have been lovelier. The place I called home for 7 of the past ten years does not disappoint.

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But there were some important lessons I learnt too as an organiser and writer:

  1. You have to be present yourself professionally as a writer, not just as a creative individual. That means respecting the publisher or agent’s time, following guidelines, meeting deadlines and keeping your appointments. It also means not changing your mind several times about what you are submitting and then expecting them to read the latest version overnight. It might mean not signing up for one-to-one feedback sessions in the first place if you think there is a chance you might not be able to attend, since there is a long waiting-list of participants who have been turned down because you took that place. I know life gets in the way at times, but would I dare to behave like that with my corporate clients? No. So why should I behave like that with literary people, just because I assume they are nicer and more forgiving on the whole?
  2. It isn’t easy to write a great first page, but it is far easier to write a great first page than to write a whole novel. And it really helps if you do have the whole novel to send to the agent when they get excited about your first page, otherwise the magic might be gone by the time you finally finish your manuscript… (this one reeks of bitter experience)
  3. We all secretly hope they will love our writing, recognise us for the geniuses which our families don’t think (or do think) we are, but in most cases there is still work to be done. Even if you get accepted by an agent or publisher, there is still work to be done. Don’t get so defensive that you refuse to listen to any advice or feedback that these busy, busy people are giving you with the best of intentions. Writing is a life-time job of learning and self-improvement. You have to be humble and willing to learn, even as we all admit that no single person has all the answers or God-given right to judge. We are unlikely to please all people all of the time, but when more than one person tells us we are over-writing or trying too hard to be literary, maybe we should listen.
  4. There is no point in complaining, sighing and fretting that it’s all about commercial interest nowadays. Of course it is, it always has been. Agents want to sell your oeuvre – otherwise they don’t make any money. The commissioning editor then needs to sell it to the marketing and finance team, the publisher then needs to sell it to the media and booksellers, the bookshops need to sell it to the readers. It is impossible to win literary prizes until you have jumped through a few of these hoops. You don’t have to write genre or sell hugely, but someone at some point in the process must have been ‘sold’ on your idea. Don’t make it too hard for them to pass on this vision – you are planting the seed of something which they and others can get excited about. We can have debates about just how diverse publishing is and how many mediocre books are getting published, while more worthy ones are sinking without a trace, but… that’s the game. Harsh but true: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, but don’t lament that cooking is all fast food these days. You can only change things from within.
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected...
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected…

Max Weber and Durkheim in an Age of Over-Sharing

The more the modern world surprises and worries me, the more I turn to the classics of sociology, who experienced their fair share of major social and cultural shifts. My two favourites are Max Weber with his stark warnings about politics and power and Emile Durkheim on anomie.

Max Weber
Max Weber

It was actually not Weber but Georg Simmel who coined the phrase ‘sterile excitation’ to describe what many of us feel at the moment: a tumult of anxiety and passionate feelings when watching the news, but feeling powerless to do much about it. However, Weber publicised the term and warned also of the dangers of so-called charismatic leaders who unleash a ‘following’ they cannot control. Gripped by a need to increase their ‘likes’ (as Weber would say nowadays, looking at social media), these leaders are willing to court controversy and deliberately incite hate-talk and violence from their followers (while denying any personal responsibility). These followers think they are romantic revolutionaries but they are in fact driven by the basest of motives (adventure, booty, power, spoils) and, after victory, usually degenerate into nothing more than looters of all descriptions, claims Weber. It’s this ‘adventure’ item which I see in the cult of celebrities nowadays: a fantasy that they are leading the life we would like to lead if only… Harmless when it’s merely wishful thinking and daydreaming, but it can be used for nefarious purposes too, just like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic gods were used to both inspire and divide German society in the 1930s.

emiledurkheimMeanwhile, Emile Durkheim talked about the tension in any human between individual needs and our social roles.

There are in each of us two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual

Contrary to most contemporary mantras of ‘be yourself’, ‘you owe it to yourself to develop to your full potential’, ‘follow your own path’ and so on, Durkheim actually thinks the social self contributes significantly to the development of an individual character:

Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions.

He warns against the dangers of excessive individualism:

Our purely individual side seeks satisfaction of all wants and desires. It knows no boundaries. The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs. Instead of asking “is this moral?” or “does my family approve?” the individual is more likely to ask “does this action meet my needs?”

It’s when the gap between individual and social needs becomes too unbridgeable, or when one deliberately decides that one has had ‘enough’ of society and will only follow individual desires, that ‘anomie’ sets in.

What strikes me when perusing social media nowadays is this desire to overcome ‘anomie’ by connecting online.

I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry...
I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry…

We are no longer afraid of sharing our most intimate moments or thoughts, sometimes carefully curated, it’s true, but sometimes deliberately self-flagellating, as if in a competition who can hit rock-bottom first. I’m not criticising others for it: I have done it myself. I used to keep a diary to wrestle with my thought processes and feelings, but now I frequently find myself musing out loud online. Perhaps I get more feedback and support from my online friends, with whom I interact nearly daily, rather than from my real-life friends, whom we don’t really get to see all that frequently. Sad but true!

This sharing of stories has enabled us to not feel alone with our anxieties, sorrows or troubles. Others have felt alone, have experienced depression or oppression, ill-health or bereavement, have advice or comfort for us. This is the positive side of the internet and I love it.

However (aside from the more obvious dangers of trolls and shouting at each other over an ever-widening abyss) the plethora of discourses has also resulted in a state of permanent sterile excitation. At least in my case it has. And it’s keeping me from producing worthwhile work, because I see the futility of it all…

If awareness of the situation is the first step towards improvement, may the next steps be close behind, please!

Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.
Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.

Friday Fun: Chateau Location Scouting

Some grand old manor houses look good by day or night, and here are some which would make a great backdrop for a film or a book. Any additional suggestions of appropriate films or books would be much appreciated.

Chateau owned by Catherine Deneuve, from Le Matin.
Chateau owned by Catherine Deneuve, from Le Matin. Suitable for Netherfield Park in French version of Pride and Prejudice?
Another beauty near Poitiers, from Le Figaro property section.
Another beauty near Poitiers, from Le Figaro property section. Cyrano de Bergerac might be hiding in one of those bushes.
Chateau near Rouen, from
Chateau near Rouen, from Selectimmovexin.com. I could see the Three Musketeers hiding here and bewitching the lady of the house on their way to new adventures.
Chateau d'Artigny. Wouldn't this be a great location for Gatsby's famous parties? in the Loire valley, from winerist.com
Chateau d’Artigny. Wouldn’t this be a great location for Gatsby’s famous parties? in the Loire valley, from winerist.com
Chateau in Provence, perfect for a Russian aristocrat forced into exile with all of the family jewels. From Maisonsavendre.fr
Chateau in Provence, perfect for a Russian aristocrat forced into exile with all of the family jewels. From Maisonsavendre.fr
If Tintin ever does decide to get married at Captain Haddock's chateau, this Chateau Buffemont would be it. From French Wedding Style.
If Tintin ever does decide to get married at Captain Haddock’s chateau, this Chateau Buffemont would be it. From French Wedding Style.
Finally, for thirsty pirates landing in the Bordeaux region, the cellars of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron might prove irresistable. From Wikimedia.com
Finally, for thirsty pirates landing in the Bordeaux region, the cellars of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron might prove irresistible. From Wikimedia.com

 

The Writer’s Eternal Promise

Tomorrow and Ever After

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Tomorrow I will sit demurely

wrestle words down to the ground

with a flicker of my lashes

flash of sopweed from the Bard.

 

Tomorrow my characters will come alive:

fight each other, bicker, woo.

Plotholes will hang their grimey faces,

poems stop barking at the moon.

 

Tomorrow I’ll use post-its in coloured gradations,

fill spreadsheets and schedules, submit with method.

Each sapling of wisdom, each stray pun I will corral

till the gravity of the day after arrives with a thud.

 

But maybe not just yet. I will be off to Geneva this coming weekend for the Meet the Agent event which I helped organise, then delivering some training to a UN organisation (my freelance work still seems very much in demand, even if no one wants my talents on a more permanent basis), also wrangling with the French tax office, who still don’t seem to have understood the messages I’ve been sending since August 2016. If I ever do finish my WIP, it will be dedicated to them for their ‘contribution’.