At certain times of year, we just can’t wait for the light to show up and flood our homes and rooms. Time to come out of the cave!
I have always enjoyed befriending and talking to older ladies (older gentlemen too, although the relationship was occasionally tinged by complicated dynamics and disappointments). I suppose this comes from the excellent (although in one case far too brief) relationship I had with my grandmothers and my father’s eldest sister (from a big family, with my father being the youngest child, so she was more like a second mother to him). It’s easy to say that I had a better relationship with them than with my own mother (perhaps because I only saw them once or twice a year) as I was growing up, but they always felt much less conventional, with a more modern outlook than my mother.
I could not get enough of hearing the stories of women of their generation – their lives spanned most of the 20th century, so they experienced so many political, social, economic and technological changes. I felt I wanted to preserve and honour their memories, but they were also funny, wise and reassuring, providing me with so much food for thought and guidance on my own life. Perhaps this is what drove me towards studying social anthropology!
I like to think that the ladies in question also got something out of their friendship with me, that they occasionally caught a glimpse of the genuine love, interest and desire to amuse them lurking beyond my gauche manners and ignorant remarks. Of course, the downside of such friendships is that they are sadly all too brief, and that they leave you with a sense of regret that you didn’t listen more, meet more frequently, appreciate them more at the time.
Here is a small tribute to the very special ladies that lit up my life:
- In November/December 1983 I was in hospital with a very nearly ruptured appendix. I was underweight for my height and was given too much anaesthetic when they operated on me, so that complicated matters a little and I ended up having to spend roughly a week in hospital. During that time there were two other ladies on my ward, and we became a fun-loving trio, getting so rowdy with laughter at times, that the nurses would come in and shush us, for fear we might tear our stitches.
Margareta Steriade – poet and painter, born in 1897, she studied in Paris, as was fashionable at the time, and had her first public exhibitions in 1929. She was ver much involved in the artistic circles of the 1930s and, being of Jewish origin like Mihail Sebastian, became a great friend of his and designed the cover of his hugely controversial novel For Two Thousand Years (made even more controversial because he chose to publish it with the virulent anti-semitic preface signed by his hitherto mentor Nae Ionescu – an early example of naming and shaming with their own words). She was the one who told me about Lilith being Adam’s first wife, thereby introducing me both to feminism and to questioning of myths and traditions. I was very unhappy with my looks at the time, felt my nose was too ‘fat’, that I was too tall and gangly, but she made me feel beautiful, said I had the perfect oval face and asked me to model for her.
Mrs Angheliade – I don’t think I ever knew her first name, I just felt it was disrespectful to call her anything less than ‘Doamna’ (Mrs). She was a couple of years older than Mrs Steriade. Her husband was descended from a Greek family and was a highly regarded lawyer or judge in the 1930-40s. After the Communists came to power following the 1947 elections in Romania, her husband was perceived as a hated remnant of the old regime and was sent to a labour camp. She had been a lawyer herself, but was not allowed to practice in her profession after her husband’s arrest. Their home was nationalised, and for a while she had to do manual work on the factory assembly line, and was severely criticised at every weekly workers’ meeting because of her background. She was quite open in telling us about all this, as if she was past caring about what any Securitate might do to her.
2. Betty – this was my landlady when I moved to London and lived in Golders Green for the first year of my Ph.D. I’ve written about her before, how full of life, film knowledge and romantic notions she was. A big child with a booming laugh. I still miss her so much!
3. I met several inspiring ladies at the Geneva Writers Group in 2012 (by which point, I could no longer be described as Spring, by any stretch of the imagination, but these ladies were still way ahead of me in terms of lived experience and wisdom). Many of them were outstanding writers, and I always enjoyed listening to them share their work. Ginny, Sally, Kathy, Susan and Karen in particular stand out. Ginny was funny, lively, always one of the ringleaders when it came to organising Christmas parties, and her little dog was almost as much loved as she was. Sally was what I imagined Barbara Pym to have been: quiet, with a very English reserve at first glance, but a wicked sense of humour and a very observant eye. Kathy was such a true international that for a long time I thought she was from an entirely different country – she was so warm and caring that I’d have liked her to have been my mother. Susan Tiberghien I have talked about before (and reviewed): she was the founder of the Geneva Writers’ Group, a woman with formidable energy and generosity of spirit. And Karen was my wonderful mentor, artist, poet, in whose house in Provence I found so much creativity even at a very low point in my life.
Incidentally, I am only using the past tense because, sadly, my stay in Geneva ended five years ago. The ladies themselves are still delightful and active, and wonderful friends (even if I haven’t been great at keeping in touch).
4. Nordic walking group – As I get older, so the age gap between me and my older friends gets smaller. Nevertheless, I am the youngest of my Nordic walking group, even if some of them are only 10 years older than me. They have grown-up children, have been through all the worries engulfing me now, and have an endless reserve of anecdotes and good humour. They are also much fitter than me on the whole, it has to be said – so excellent role models on how to keep active and social in the years ahead.
Max Blecher published the short novel Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată in 1936 and in this post I will be referring to the Romanian language version of it via the Open Access library, as well as three English language translations: Adventures in Immediate Irreality by Michael Henry Heim, published by New Directions in 2015; Occurence in the Immediate Unreality by Alistair Ian Blyth, published University of Plymouth Press, 2009; Adventures in Immediate Unreality by Jeanie Han, dating from 2007, which is freely available online.
I discovered Romanian author Max Blecher a few years back with his best-known work Scarred Hearts, a shorter, funnier but also much more visceral version of The Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, because of his early death at the age of 28 from spinal tuberculosis, and being bedridden for the last ten years of his life, he only produced a small but memorable body of work over a very short period of time between 1930 and 1938. He was not at all well-known in Romania when I was growing up. He certainly was not as well known as his contemporaries Camil Petrescu, Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu or Mihail Sebastian, and was largely ignored even when his novels were reissued in 1970 during a brief cultural thaw in Communist Romania.
He is only now starting to be recognised for his unique modernist style in his home country, and perhaps this is only thanks to the reaction of readers in the West (he has been translated into French, German and English, among others), where he has been compared to Kafka, Robert Walser or Bruno Schulz. It still didn’t prevent his house in the town of Roman from being torn down in 2013, although there had been campaigns to preserve it as a museum.
This novel reads like a memoir, but it is an indefinable work, hovering somewhere between a prose poem, a memoir and a novel. In terms of subject matter, it reminds me a little of Barbellion‘s Diary, but it is less about day to day life, with less ego involved. This last may seem like a strange statement, since we have a first person narrator who gives us a detailed account of his childhood in a small provincial town, his encounters with women, his bodily sensations, his reaction to the small objects he picks up and the people he observes. And yet this is not the author worrying about his legacy, or how his contemporaries may perceive him. Instead, we have a devastatingly honest and detailed account of living with the spectre of death in front of you all the time. His reactions are very physical, immediate, powerful, occasionally excessive – it’s as though the narrator is trying to plunge himself into life, determined to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Or perhaps he is trying to determine which of the worlds he feels he inhabits is more real. The narrator has always hovered on the threshold between two worlds. As he tells us, he has suffered from early childhood from something he calls ‘crises’, which tend to occur in certain particular spaces in his home town, spaces he calls ‘cursed’. During these crises, which sound a bit like a fugue state, he feels his identity dissolve, he is no longer sure of what is real or not, and when he recovers from them, he has a profound sense of futility and disappointment with the world. At those times, he seems to suffer from an overabundance of clear sight and awareness, and it’s telling him that he is in the wrong place, that his real self and life are somewhere else. This is the rather poignant ending of the book (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim).
Now I am struggling with reality. I scream, I beg to be awoken, to awaken into another life, my true life… I know I am alive, but there is something missing, as there was in my nightmare.
I struggle. I scream. I flail. Who will awaken me?
That precise reality around me is dragging me down, trying to sink me. Who will awaken me?
It has always been like this. Always. Always.
It is very difficult to describe the book in any more detail, other than to say that, although it bears some resemblance to the stream of consciousness techniques developed by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, it is not just introverted musing. Instead, it is also a description of a town, a way of life, a family and a certain time period. It is full of anecdotes, full of scenes which take place against unusual backdrops: a waxwork museum, a cinema that goes up in flames, the props room at the local theatre, the August funfair, junk-filled attics, a sewing machine shop, all filtered through the consciousness of an over-sensitive child and then young man. I had the feeling I was watching a Jean Cocteau film (more specifically, Testament of Orpheus) while reading this, although it would be unfair to call the book surrealist, given how firmly it is anchored in the body.
However, I have to admit that I struggled with the book at first. This is because I had bought a copy of it in translation from the University of Plymouth Press, a bulk buy of beautifully illustrated translations of modern or contemporary Romanian literature (which has ceased, because of lack of funding). I could not resist the high production values, and the British translator is a prolific translator from Romanian, of philosophers like Constantin Noica and Catalin Avramescu, as well as novelists like Filip Florian and Stelian Tanase. So when I resolved to read the book for the #1936Club, this is where I started. But I soon hit a wall: I found the style pompous, pretentious, needlessly complicated, which was not at all how I remembered Blecher from Scarred Hearts.
So I turned to the Romanian original. And indeed, in spite of the modernist style, the language is simple and everyday, perfectly comprehensible to the average Romanian, not at all high falutin. I’d noticed this discrepancy before when reading English translations of Romanian works – but, in the case of Cartarescu at least, I thought maybe that was a fair reflection of his own style. However, in the case of Mihail Sebastian or others, it felt like these translations (which are mostly by men, by the way, and I honestly don’t know if that makes a difference) are pointlessly over-egging the language and giving people the wrong impression about Romanian literature. One possible explanation could be that words of Latin origin are perfectly common in Romanian but sound more sophisticated and erudite in English. Still, there are plenty of perfectly acceptable non-Latin choices in English that could convey the meaning in a way closer to the Romanian intention and spirit.
I have said before that, when there is only a small amount being translated from a certain language, publishers and readers are prone to put labels on the literature of that country. For Romania this might be ‘abstract, difficult, philosophical, traumatic’, and anything that doesn’t fit into that stereotype won’t be considered. But that was in terms of content; I didn’t expect it to be the case also in terms of language. It’s not often, of course, that you have multiple translations of the same text from Romanian, but I have seen Max Easterman puzzling over two very different translations of Mihail Sebastian’s Women. In this case, I found three translations of Blecher’s text. I don’t know anything about the earliest translator, Jeanie Han, other than that she received funding to visit Romania and was mentored by Romanian professors there while translating this work. I do know, however, that Michael Henry Heim’s translation appeared posthumously. This award-winning multilingual translator (specialist in Slavic languages in particular) was terminally ill himself when he translated Blecher’s work. However, he felt such a strong affinity for this project that he learnt Romanian especially for it. However, I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by the back story when I decided that I preferred his version, which reads far less like a treatise in philosophy. Jeanie Han also comes closer to the more colloquial language of the original, while Alistair Ian Blyth sounds the most academic.
Even in the following passage, which is more objectively difficult even in the original Romanian, you can see that Heim’s version is the one that sounds most natural in English, although he has subtly altered the meaning in the first sentence. In the original, there is no hint that the narrator was waiting for the light to change before leaving the cinema. However, in the second version the translator has suddenly made it sound like the narrator was going to the cinema with a larger group, which seems highly unlikely in that context.
|2007 Version||2009 Version||2015 Version|
|In the summer I would go to the matinee early and come out when it began to get dark. The light outside was changed; the day, nearly over, was waning. I observed that in my absence an immense and essential event had taken place in the world like a kind of sad obligation to carry on the ceaseless work – night falling, for instance – regular, diaphanous and spectacular. Thus, I would once again enter into the middle of a certainty, which through its daily rigor seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatric effects and obliged every evening to produce a correct sunset, the people around me seemed like poor pitiful beings with their seriousness and their naive belief in what they did and what they felt.||In summer, we would go into the matinee early and leave in the evening, as night was falling. The light outside was altered; the remnants of the day had been extinguished. It was thus I ascertained that in my absence there had occurred in the world an event immense and essential, its sad obligation of always having to continue – by means of nightfall, for example – its repetitive, diaphanous and spectacular labour. In this way we would enter once more into the midst of a certitude that in its daily rigorousness seemed to me of an endless melancholy. In such a world, subject to the most theatrical effects and obligated every evening to perform a proper sunset, the people around me appeared like poor creatures to be commiserated for the seriousness with which they always busied themselves, the seriousness with which they believed so naively in whatever they did or felt.||In summer I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on – by growing dark, for example – its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naive belief in what they did and felt.|
There are many more such examples, but I will spare myself the delights of typing them all up in the WordPress blocks (and spare you the delights of ploughing through very similar texts). In my comparison of the translations of Genji, I was probably the only one who preferred Seidensticker’s translation for making things smoother and easier for the English reader. However, in that case, we had a style of language that was no longer in use in present-day Japan, so I can understand why other readers preferred the translations that were closer to the spirit of the original. In this case, however, Max Blecher’s Romanian is still instantly recognisable, only very occasionally using slightly outdated verb forms etc. We all still speak like that and write like that, and, even though we share with the other Romance languages a predilection for three or four syllable words, that does not make us any more thoughtful or highly literary than others!
Aside from my quibbles about the various translations, I would agree with Herta Müller, who described this novel as a masterpiece of sheer literary intensity. Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty. ‘Exasperating as it was, I was forced to admit that I lived in the world I saw around me; there was nothing else.’
I doubt this book could ever be turned into a film, but Blecher’s Scarred Hearts has been imaginatively adapted by Romanian director Radu Jude, interspersed with the author’s own words and the historical context of the 1930s.
I jumped the gun a little on the officieal #1936Club because I’m spending most of hte month in that time period. So I have already written about Don Juan Returns from War last week.
Yes, you might call this an excessive amount of forward thinking, but I am rather enjoying having a plan that gives me a theme and a purpose, but is flexible enough to allow for additional recreational reading of whatever takes my fancy.
I don’t seem to have read a lot of Arabic literature, so I will attempt to remedy that in May. I will ‘visit’ two countries very close to my heart, Egypt (my second-oldest friend from primary school comes from there) and Lebanon (one of my dearest Mum friends still has most of her family living there; incidentally, she is one of the most talented home cooks I know). For Egypt, I have The Book of Cairo from Comma Press; the book which I never got around to reading for the #1956Club Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz; and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany. For Lebanon, there is a bit of a common theme going on: I have Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game about two brothers who find themselves on opposing sides during the civil war; Elias Khoury’s White Masks is another take on the civil war, based upon a true event, the murder of a journalist; while Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller tells the story of a young man who has grown up in Germany returning to the country of his birth to search for his father.
June – Netgalley Blast
Horrendous how many books have been lurking there for years and years, even though they seemed irresistible at the time. And I really need to improve my feedback ratio (currently only 52%).
Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind – to continue a bit with the 1936 theme – although the book was published in 1922, Kraus himself died in 1936, and I have been waiting six years to read this one
Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days – has also been on my Kindle since 2015 – in honour of her being longlisted for the Women’s Prize with her latest book, I feel I owe it to her to read her first (I believe)
Valeria Luiselli: Lost Children Archive – this one has only been lurking on the virtual shelf for about two years
More recent ones too: Salena Godden: Mrs Death Misses Death; Lissa Evans: V for Victory; Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man; David Young: The Stasi Game; Joy Kluver: Last Seen; Minae Mizumura: An I Novel; Kotaro Isaka: Bullet Train (I just can’t seem able to stay away from those Japanese, right?)
Well, that all sounds like an ambitious plan and might end up spilling over into July and August as well. But it’s a nice combination of easy, quick reads and more challenging ones. After that… well, Women in Translation will no doubt loom large over the summer!
Well, that was enough of venturing outside into the sunshine. Now for a holiday, where all I have to do is sit in a super-comfortable armchair and read! These are the types of armchairs I have in mind.
Last month I read two memorable novels about the fraught relationship between parents and children. The first, Ioanna Karystiani’s Back to Delphi (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas), is about mothers and sons trying (and mostly failing) to understand and forgive each other. The second, Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman is at least partly about the damage forceful fathers can wreak on their daughters (although it is also about college cliques and not quite fitting in).
Back to Delphi is the more poetic title in English, but the Greek original is actually ‘Sacks’ and refers to the mental baggage we all carry with us. It is the story of Viv Koleva ‘fifty two years of weariness and seventy-eight kilos of sadness’, who is desperate to reconnect with her son Linus, who is on a brief furlough from prison, where he is serving a life sentence for rape and murder. She takes him on a trip to Delphi, out of a misguided conviction that seeing the beauty of Ancient Greek sculptures and architecture will give him a reason to live, somehow turn him into a better person.
– Archaeology requires and provides knowledge, imagination, inspiration, adventure, it obliges a mind to take a reprieve from reality, to not go moldy inside four walls, she said with zest…
Flashbacks show us Viv’s life as a young woman, how she abandoned her medical studies when she met Linus’ father and got pregnant, how she single-handedly started a successful retail business, while her husband sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy. When her husband dies prematurely, we understand how she pinned all her expectations on her son, how she wanted to offer him the best possible life. After her son’s crimes are discovered and he is sentenced, she is shunned by neigbours, friends and even family, because ‘in every crime, along with the accused, society also tried the mother.’ She has to move several times, pretend to be someone else, change her job. We start to sympathise with her and feel that the son’s monosyllabic utterances and sulking as they walk around Delphi are a bit exaggerated.
However, about halfway through the book, we are suddenly plunged into the son’s point of view, and at first it feels like a violent shock to the system. However, if you can read past the first few paragraphs, you start to understand how Linus grew up the way he did, how his parents always wanted him to be quiet, never really listened to him or responded to his needs. They were too self-absorbed in their business, their difficult relationship, their hard lives. His godmother, supposedly his mother’s best friend, filled him with fear and loathing. He felt abandoned, orphaned in every sense of the word. In his teens, he is awash with self-loathing and depression, and recognises some of those impulses in his mother, although that doesn’t make him understand or forgive her.
Linus was certain that from time to time, Viv was stewing in the same dark juice, turning her back on opportunities, organizing defeats, practicing her talent for frustration and long-term despondency. Mother and son filled with energy for misery. If only he had one… two… three siblings to help carry the heavy nothingness and the abundant loneliness, more kids should mean smaller portions of orphanhood for each.
The crimes Linus commits are horrific and it is painful to watch how torn his mother is between disgust and guilt as she starts to suspect he is the one committing them. Yet, as we move back to Delphi in the present-day, you cannot help but wish, as a reader, that the two of them will somehow be able to communicate with each other for the first time. However, this is not a Hollywood movie and the journey there is extremely bumpy, with no certainty of arrival. The recognition of past mistakes is a very painful, though necessary first step, but it’s only a small step to rebuilding trust, finding the ability to love and forgive.
… she reconsidered the spoiled part. The truth was her hands didn’t often touch her child, not when he was young and not when he grew up and her lips didn’t kiss his hair much and her eyes didn’t enfold him tenderly and her voice didn’t come out in stories and gentle words. The spoiling was done via her wallet and the deep fryer, a generous allowance and lots of french fries, till he finished high school the deep fryer was working overtime.
This was an extremely difficult book to read as a mother in general, and as a mother of boys in particular, because no matter how well you think you are communicating, no matter how close you think you are, there is still something about the young man in front of you that remains unknowable and slightly frightening. And you know that society places the onus far more on you than on any father figure for the way you raised your child. Any of their flaws and inexplicable impulses are a reflection on you; psychoanalysts and the press, as well as public opinion, will put you on trial. Aside from the particular circumstances between this mother and son couple, the novel also shows the ways in which completely honesty, transparency and understanding is impossible even between those we consider closest – and that perhaps it is even undesirable or unbearable to share every single thought.
Every story has blanks, some are common to all the participants in its plot. Each one, though, has a few that only he has noticed, that don’t add up for him alone no matter how he tries, if he does, which he probably doesn’t. In certain cases, some are well served by such blanks, gray zones which they guard by tooth and claw, terrifed at the possibility that, if they were to be filled, the truth might be intolerable.
Ultimately, perhaps it’s these lies of omission, and the spaces they allow for our own interpretation of events, that enable us to survive and thrive in relationships at all.
Hangsaman proves to be an unexpected companion piece to the troubled male Greek teenager. It is the story of a female American teenager, Natalie Waite, who at first sight seems to be the bright, obedient daughter who mostly humours but frequently despises her stay-at-home, downtrodden mother with her anxious impulses, while simultaneously admiring and sparring intellectually with her demanding writer father. When she goes to college, she proves herself to be too independent of thought and behaviour to really fit in, she is repelled by the hypocrisy she finds at every step, and descends into a deep well of darkness, loneliness and despair.
Such is the elegance and wit of Shirley Jackson’s style that the readers understand long before Natalie realises herself that her father is a manipulative, dictatorial man who takes out his fears of his own mediocrity on his daughter. The letters he writes to her in college are both funny and infuriating. Every scene between father and daughter is filled with real menace – this is deliberate misunderstanding rather than unconscious one. When she finally admits to him that things are not going well, that she needs help, this is his response:
‘I should hate to deprive you prematurely of the glories of the suicidal frame of mind, since I am fairly certain that depriving yourself of the ability to feel this way would be more cruel than any sort of physical torture you might inflict upon yourself, so that I can use “suicidal” as a descriptive adjective without really feeling that it implies any action.’
‘You’re trying to make me say that I want to kill myself,’ Natalie said.
‘You need hardly say anything quite so meaningless… and I would vastly prefer that you confine your statements to pure descriptions of fact. I think better of your vanity, Natalie, than to believe that two months out of seventeen years could destroy you.
Unsurprisingly, Natalie returns to college even more unsure of herself, feeling her identity and her grip on reality slowly slipping away. She does make one friend, Tony, who proves to be as much of an outsider as herself, a sort of alter ego (and quite possibly an imaginary friend, Jackson never likes to make things too clearcut in her writing). Tony has an almost hypnotic effect on Natalie and dares her to go beyond what she ever imagined possible:
…they want to pull us back, and start us all over again just like them and doing the things they want to do and acting the way they want to act and saying and thinking and wanting all the things they live with every day. And… I know a place where we can go and no one can trouble us.
The crimes that take place in Hangsaman are, unlike the ones in Back to Delphi, more crimes of the mind. We are never really sure if they take place or not, but the sense of rising danger is more frightening than anything I read in the more explicit Greek novel. I found myself almost forgetting to breathe for whole scenes at a time. There is, in particular, one passage in which Natalie describes how she might pick up and pull apart the neat little houses she sees scattered around the college campus which sounds like it could have provided the backdrop or inspiration for the lyrics of Blondie’s Rapture. I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.
P.S. I think the new Penguin Modern Classics covers for Shirley Jackson’s books are little bit bland, but some of the earlier covers were very pulpy. Simon at Stuck in a Book has written a whole blog post about Shirley Jackson covers, which I highly recommend.
Ödön von Horváth: Don Juan Comes Back from the War (transl. Christopher Hampton) and Figaro Gets Divorced (transl. Ian Huish), Oberon Books.
Who better to provide the bridge between my Plays in March reading project and my dedication to the year 1936 in April than one of my old loves, a true representative of the diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Ödön von Horváth? Born in Croatia, descended from a Hungarian family, educated in Slovakia and Vienna, adopting German as his preferred language for writing, Horváth was also one of the first writers to warn about the rising tide of Fascism. Needless to say, by 1936 he was banned in Germany and was pretty much a refugee himself, so both of these plays (Don Juan Come Back from the War was written in 1936, Figaro Gets Divorced in the following year) depict realities well-known to him, as well as notorious fictional heroes.
What I didn’t know was that the playwright was himself a bit of a ladies’ man and that he was in equal parts fascinated and repelled by the figure of Don Juan, and thought of writing something about him for more than a decade. Given the unforgiving way in which he portrays men who trample on women’s feelings generally (I’m thinking also of Tales of the Vienna Woods), he was not proud of his conquests.
In this play, Don Juan the inveterate womaniser and anti-hero returns from something very much resembling the First World War in a gloomy, despairing frame of mind. He has realised the banality and futility of his existence and is hell-bent on finding the one he believes to be the only true love of his life (even though he cannot remember what she looks like). However, she died during the war, and he is not as much of a changed man as he would like to think he is. He becomes once more embroiled in all sorts of intrigues with women, he is practically the victim of female intrigue and of his own desire to find perfection. There is just one man – Don Juan himself – and 35 women in the play (although the 35 are played by a much smaller number of actresses, because they all represent variations on the same type), of all ages and backgrounds. Set against a background of German and Austrian defeat in the First World War, this is very much a play about loss of innocence and hope, of a man (and a country) hurtling towards the inevitable.
I thought this play was slight, too superficial, compared to some of his other ones, and this may be because Don Juan just never comes across as a truly thoughtful or reformed character. By contrast, Figaro Gets Divorced was far more interesting. The Count and Countess Almaviva are on the run from a revolution with their servants Figaro and Susanna (Horváth is clear that this is not specifically the 1789 French Revolution, but any revolution); they have crossed the border, they are now exiles fighting bureaucracy, struggling to survive financially. Suddenly, none of the old rules apply anymore. The Count has to sell his jewellery for far less than its value (the market is flooded with ‘refugee diamonds’). He can no longer stomach Figaro’s forthright advice:
A person who wants to be considered part of my retinue should not always be telling me his opinion, even if it is the right one, he should rather lie to me, unconditionally agreeing with everything I say…
So Figaro and Susanne leave their masters and open up a hairdressing salon in the small village of Grosshadersdorf. However, they are still viewed with suspicion as ‘refugees’ and soon become the victims of vicious gossip: ‘I’ve been saying for ages that these foreigners should never have been allowed in, they’re corrupting our whole moral climate!’
The couple splits up and Figaro heads back to his homeland, where he joins the revolutionaries, who display all the extreme behaviour, brainwashing and rewriting of the past that we might expect after seeing the Soviets and so many other revolutionaries bring in new social rules. Figaro is at first viewed with suspicion for following his master into exile, but he soon wins the crowd over with his customary quick-wittedness and persuasive skills, as we are used in seeing from Beaumarchais, Rossini and Mozart. Yet beneath the black humour, there is a profound disillusionment with the world, a mere survival instinct coming to the fore.
No man is more hated nor more despised in this world than an honest man with a brain. There’s only one way out. You have to make a decision: honesty or intelligence. If you choose honesty, you have to make sacrifices. If you choose intelligence then others make the sacrifices.
Who was our good Count anyway? A man of substance who imagined he had a brain of substance!… Birth, wealth, class and rank made him proud. And what had he done, our good Count, to earn so many advantages? He took the bother to be born and that was the only work he ever did in his life, the rest of it he frittered, fopped and fiddled away.
And yet, when the Count too returns to his former domain and is promptly arrested and sentenced to death, Figaro is the one who stops the over-zealous young boys from attacking him. When they cry out that he is a criminal and should be shot at once, Figaro reminds them:
…if you should meet Count Almaviva then you greet him respectfully… because he is an old man and you are snotty little kids, and if he has committed any crime then he certainly won’t be waiting for you to pass sentence… Be careful, perhaps when you get old, they’ll be saying every orphan’s a criminal and there will only be counts left and the counts’ll lock up all orphans and shoot them…
What could account for the change of heart? Figaro, very much like Horváth himself, comes to distrust all revolutions, or any ideology that sets itself up above common decency and humanity. In the brief preface to the play, he says the following:
Humanity is not accompanied by any storms, it is only a weak light in the darkness. Let us hope all the same that no storm, however great, is able to extinguish it.
If I ever get asked about ideal dinner party guests, I would certainly include Ödön von Horváth and Mihail Sebastian. As far as I am aware, they did not know each other, although they lived at roughly the same time and were both playwrights (and both died in freak accidents) – but I like to imagine they’d have got on splendidly.
Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.
I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.
The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.
I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.
However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.
I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.
Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.
Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?
We’ve spent a lot of time in home libraries, cosy reading nooks, even under the stairs over the past few weeks. So it’s high time we looked at inspiring contemporary architectures (hopefully well insulated and far away from peeking eyes) set in amazing landscapes. Welcome to spring, Easter, and nature’s rebirth!
There have probably been far too many ‘one year on from the start of lockdown’ thought pieces all over the internet and in print, so what more can I add to this? But it has been a year unlike any other, so I feel I want to commemorate it in some way. Not that telling a thrice-told tale ever stopped a writer from sharing their own personal views… However, it ended up being a lot more complicated than I expected.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I started off with a bit of stock-taking and thanking my lucky stars that I still have a house, a job, my health, healthy children, fragile but nevertheless resilient parents even if they are quite a distance away. Of course, there are the worries that would probably have been present at this point in my life with or without Covid: money worries, trying to do three jobs at once, or the nagging concern that my boys, who used to share every random thought with me, are now barely communicating. (But maybe I should just enjoy the silence and read more?) There are worries that are Covid related – my parents still not vaccinated, an ex who thinks taking the boys to theme parks in the United States this summer is perfectly normal behaviour etc.
However, this year has above all made me lose faith in politicians of any country. In the UK, I’ve had a bad opinion of the Tory government for many, many years: I believed them to be self-interested and malevolent towards anyone ‘not like them’. However, this past year has demonstrated that they are also incompetent, corrupt and dictatorial in a way that I wouldn’t have believed possible in a mature democracy. People too have proved disappointing: inspiring stories of selflessness and community spirit in the first lockdown have degenerated as the situation has dragged on. It’s easy to be a hero in one brief moment of emergency – it’s hard to be consistent about being brave, helpful and thoughtful in the long-term, especially when you see so many people around you behaving badly. Clearly, the much-maligned ‘Balkanisation’ is a frame of mind that is easily accessible to anyone, regardless of geography.
How Much of a Shift?
This year is more than a ‘pause button’ or an ‘inconvenience’ or even a ‘global tragedy’. It is a paradigm shift – for me personally, and perhaps for many others, although I hardly dare to hope it will be so for society in general. There is much talk of ‘a new normal’ rather than a ‘return to normal’, but I hardly dare to allow myself to hope for it
The reason for my scepticism? Because I have had the misfortune of living in interesting times and experiencing paradigm shifts before. And while it’s true that in every single case things changed, often dramatically, I am not entirely convinced that societies as a whole or even social groups within them are able to fully reflect and digest these shifts and learn their lessons from them.
The first major shift was the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. For me personally that meant losing my fear of speaking up. I would never pretend again, never censor my thoughts and feelings, I would stand up for what I believe in – without hurting others or being thoughtless about their needs. I would never uncritically accept what ‘the state says’ and would check for facts and evidence, weigh things carefully and listen to diverse points of view. But that was my personal victory. My country lagged behind.
A period of wild capitalism followed in Romania in the 1990s, yet it was always coupled with the sort of populism that was not any prettier for being left-wing. Those of us coming from Eastern Europe have always been puzzled about the distinctions between right and left wing – our left was right-wing and retrograde, our right-wing seemed liberal for a while but was probably far too enamoured of anyone from the West and accepted capitalism too uncritically. The extremes seemed to be plastered all over the media, especially in the dozens of TV stations that everyone seemed to be setting up in their front room, but at least they didn’t become the mainstream or majoritarian government in Romania, unlike in some of our neighbouring countries.
Then I watched the Romanian documentary ‘Collective’ on BBC4 (nominated for Best Foreign Feature at the Oscars) about the scandal following the fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, and the high number of burn victims who died subsequently in hospital because of diluted disinfectants, incompetent management incapable of admitting their mistakes, corruption and cronyism at all levels. Although this all happened 5 years ago, the parallels to the current mishandling of the pandemic in many countries are too striking.
One scene in particular might have been written for me. The young, somewhat naive and idealistic interim Minister of Health tries to be the new broom, sweeping away the dysfunctional way of doing things… and is subsequently accused of lack of patriotism by the populist Social Democratic Party (descended from the former Communist Party). His father asks him: ‘Why don’t you just pack it all in and go back to your job in Vienna?’ That sentence struck a dagger to my heart: because that was in fact my choice 20+ years ago.
I tried to change things back home, I failed, repeated it a couple of times. Then I began to realise that I might be wasting decades of my life struggling for a societal change which might never come about. So I gave up and ran away. I still have moments of feeling guilty about it, although I notice that those friends who did stay on ended up accommodating themselves to society rather than trying to change it anymore. It is so hard to change things when others are comfortable with the old way of doing things.
I thought I was moving to a country where I could make a difference, through my vote, my community service, my expertise and so on. While I started doubting all of this in 2016, this past year has orphaned me of any illusions or country I can call home. I cannot run away as easily anymore as I could in my twenties, for both family reasons and boring practical ones.
So, What Changes?
It may be challenging to change the world on my own, or even my small corner of it. But, at the risk of sounding like hundreds of self-help books, I can change my attitude towards things.
- I can stop putting up with people spouting nonsense or hateful bigotry or conspiracy theories, because I am too polite or too scared of conflict or have simply resigned myself that they will never change their minds.
- I can make the most of the last few months I have with my older son – and the two years I have with my younger one – without the pressure of ‘entertainment’, but simply talking, getting to know each other all over again instead of assuming that what was true several years ago still describes them well.
- I can focus on ‘my legacy’ – a grand word to describe what I really want to achieve before I die. Do I want to be remembered as the reliable, good value for money (i.e. cheap) employee who tried never to let anyone down but nevertheless still failed to please everyone all of the time? Or would I rather be a translator, poet and novelist, who has also shared her love for books and authors who deserve to be better known?
- The greatest joy in my life (other than nature and the arts) has come from friends. This year has made me realise how fragile we all are, how we never know when our time to meet friends might be cut short. I have always kept an open house for friends to visit – but in future I will also make the most of any opportunity to visit them and keep in touch more frequently.
Final thoughts on this very long personal ramble: I’ve illustrated this post with pictures from this morning’s walk in Marlow, as a reminder of what I love about England in spring. Will I be accused of lack of patriotism if I say that I have five countries in the innermost chamber of my heart: Romania, Austria, Britain, France, Japan? I think there is room enough in there for them all.