A Weekend with Kathleen Jamie

Such a pleasure and privilege to be back in Geneva this past weekend for a poetry workshop and masterclass with Kathleen Jamie, organised by the Geneva Writers Group!

I discovered Kathleen Jamie when I was reading Melissa Harrison and Amy Liptrot and wanted to know about more authors who wrote really thoughtful non-fiction about nature. Several of you, my dear readers and blogging friends, suggested Kathleen Jamie and I was captivated by her quiet yet very precise style. Then I discovered her poetry – and it became apparent to me why she was so observant of the world around her.

So, when I heard that Geneva Writers Group was inviting her over for a poetry masterclass, I was the first to apply. And it lived up to all of my expectations (as well as being a great opportunity to go back to my beloved mountains and lake, and see dear friends again).

In person, Kathleen Jamie is as quiet, modest, unshowy yet crystal-sharp as you would expect from her writing. The first day was for a large audience, so it was more of a classroom type environment (not her preferred way of working). However, we are a lively group, the very opposite of quiet, so we all joined in, even those who are not poets.

Nature poetry, Kathleen argued, is all about letting the animal or natural object be – it’s writing around nature rather than writing about it. It’s about the poet dumping the ego, the need to show off, the need to draw attention to oneself and one’s problems. I loved her wry humour: ‘Poets often go off on a silly flight of fancy but forget about the close, careful observation.’ Since this is exactly what I am aiming at now in my own poetry, to move from the confessional rant to a more measured, considered, slant approach, it was the right workshop at the right time.

We brought in an object from the natural world and tried to describe it in third person and in second person (relating to it) and observing the difference. We did close readings of nature poems with a whole range of approaches: from the very cool emotionally detached observation of a whale by Peter Reading to the personal commentary and use of a salmon as a metaphor in Ted Hughes, from the warm and intimate begging for forgiveness that Gillian Allnut addresses to a geranium to the awe-struck tribute to a cactus by James Wright.

The second day was a small group of ten and we sat and discussed the poems we had circulated beforehand. This was so valuable – Kathleen was tough but encouraging at the same time. She said it is not about editing or eliminating (even though she started folding the pages like origami to reduce the poems to the essential stanzas or lines), but rather about nurturing and bringing out the poem that is hiding sometimes inside our work. It’s like being a mother and helping the poems, like children, become what they want and need to be, rather than what we want them to become.

I learnt so much from listening to comments and reading everyone’s work. I’ll also be eternally grateful (and perhaps somewhat smug) that Kathleen liked the specific details and use of the senses in my poem. She also encouraged me to be brave about using foreign words, as she uses Scots in some of her poetry, while acknowledging that it can feel transgressive and fraught with the danger of being misunderstood.

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Friday Fun: Memories of Summer

It may be glum November weather, everyone’s least favourite time of year, but here are some verandas and terraces to remind you of summers past and that it will come again.

Adorable little veranda overlooking the river – the perfect weekend cottage. From Designinspiration.com
Connecting bridge between the two wings of your house. From Veranda Magazine.
The veranda as an extension of your living room in Portugal, from Architectural Digest.
Why can’t a treehouse have a veranda? From archinow.com
Idyllic floating veranda, although the mosquitoes might come to visit. From Country Living.
For the ambitious with endless pockets, from Instagram.

WWWednesday: What Are You Reading? 15 Nov 2017

I skipped last month, so am coming back to it this November, but WWW Wednesday is actually a weekly meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It’s open for anyone to join in and is a great way to share what you’ve been reading! All you have to do is answer three questions and share a link to your blog in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

A similar meme is run by Lipsyy Lost and Found where bloggers share This Week in Books #TWiB.

Current:

Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted – yes, still going… To be honest, I only started reading it properly in November, as I let it slide after the first page or two in September. But I am enjoying the descriptions of the sumptuous parties and large families (with far too many names). For #EU27Project.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled – Rather enjoyed this one to begin with. A famous concert pianist arrives in a new town and promptly has everybody demanding things of him – it has all of that surreal quality of a dream (or a Kafka or Murakami Haruki story). But it just goes on for far too long. I am about halfway through and really wondering if I can be bothered to finish.

Recent:

Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen: The Wife Between Us – unsolicited ARC of a book to be published by Macmillan in Feb 2018. I just received it last Thursday and had no intention of reading it yet, but then I had a shouting match  civil altercation with my ex on the phone and was in the mood for some psychological drama where the husband is to blame for everything. I read it in two big gulps (helped by the fact that I was sick on Friday) and it’s what I would call ‘popcorn fiction’: very moreish, pleasing in the moment… but it doesn’t satiate you in the long run. Still, I can admire pacing, structure and twists even if I am not enamoured with the writing. The sleek New York lifestyle is a bit too far removed from my concerns.

Murder on Christmas Eve – anthology of previously published mysteries with a Christmassy twist, with well-known authors ranging from Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton and Michael Innes to more modern ones like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Full review to follow on CFL, but let me say here: I’m never quite sure who the target market is for these kind of books, as avid crime readers tend to prefer more in-depth mysteries, while the uplifting Christmassy story readers will be put off by the murders. Still, I suppose they make a handy gift if you don’t want to put too much thought into what someone likes to read. [In case anyone is asking, I would much prefer the new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson, which is due to come out in hardback just before Christmas.]

Next:

I’ll be moving on to two Alpine countries next, because it is that time of year when my thoughts turn to skiing and snow. Besides, it was high time I read in French again.

Thomas Willmann: Das finstere Tal (Dark Valley)– it was filmed in Austria and it sounds very Austrian to me, although it is set in Bavaria, I suspect, and the author is a German Piefke (Austrian derogatory term for Germans). For #GermanLitMonth too.

Max Lobe: La Trinité bantoue (The Bantu Trilogy)- the author was born in Cameroon and settled in Switzerland (Geneva) at the age of eighteen. This book describes the life of a young man Mwana who tries to find work in a country somewhere in central Europe, where his white cousins are trying to chase out the black sheep (allusion to a disturbing election campaign poster in Switzerland). When he tries to return home to Bantu-land, he realises his mother doesn’t recognise him anymore. I think this story of displacement (at either end) is perfect for me. Lobe hasn’t had his novels translated into English yet, but you can read a story of his in Words Without Borders.

 

Who’s Sorry Now? #GermanLitMonth

Zoran Drvenkar: Sorry

I’ve just spent ten minutes writing, erasing and rewriting the first sentence of this review. I still can’t quite make up my mind about this book. There were parts of it which appealed to me: the setting, a few (very few) of the characters (Tamara, Wolf and the lovely elderly couple living opposite them), some passages of great power, anger and insight. But there were downsides too: the graphic violence and descriptions of paedophilia, being in the head of a remorseless criminal, characters you could not really care for (even if you felt sorry for some of them), the deliberate confusion of points of view to make the story more exciting.

It all starts rather too slowly for what then descends into a race against time kind of thriller. We hear a little too much about how Kris lost his job and found his calling in apologising for others. We spend far too long in the company of Tamara and her sister, then watch her and Frauke shopping to cook dinner to cheer up their friend Kris. I’m not sure what we have to gain by getting to know the back story of Wolf’s doomed love affair with a junkie. The back stories of the four friends are too long and irrelevant for what the book turns out to be. The only back story which does count is that of the killer – and that is given to us in dribs and drabs – rightfully so, as it heightens the tension.

The premise of the book is really appealing: these four friends in their late 20s, who thought they’d have made a success of their lives in Berlin by now, decide to start their own company and offer apologies for companies or individuals who have wronged people (unfair dismissal, bullying, etc.). Soon they have a roaring business and a long waiting list. Apparently, people are willing to pay good sums of money to cleanse their conscience. But then they end up in a house to apologise to a woman whom they find murdered and hung on the wall (I told you it was graphic). The murderer (their client) threatens that he will harm their families if they don’t clean up the mess and send him proof of it. And that’s when things derail and they all start behaving irrationally, not to say foolishly.

Old villas on the Wannsee in Berlin, the setting for much of the book.

The motivations are often puerile and random, and there is something of the grotesque about certain situations (the repeated attempts at burying the body, for example, has a farcical quality reminiscent of frenetic silent comedies). Then the tone changes and there is real menace or darkness, as well as frequent moments of sadness and despair. The tone veers too wildly from one to the next, it feels like the author is not quite in control of the narrative voice. Which, of course, isn’t helped by the fact that it also swoops from first to second to third person. Add to that the final bit of clever clogs-iness: the ‘before’ and ‘after’ timeline and lots of foreshadowing and commentary by an omniscient narrator – and you will find me well and truly irked!

So, overall, although it was fun (in a gruesome, reading-through-your-fingers kind of way), it was not the most memorable of reading experiences for #GermanLitMonth. I have bought his second novel Du (You) though, which is written entirely in the second person, because I have every confidence in the opinions of FictionFan and Margot Kinberg.

 

Elfriede Jelinek: In den Alpen #GermanLitMonth

Like her contemporary Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek is both revered and hated in almost equal measure in her homeland Austria. She is a Nobel Prize winning author, a beautiful writer and unafraid to experiment and tackle challenging themes, but she is also a sharp critic of the hypocrisy in Austrian society, its xenophobia and its unquestioning acceptance of Catholic authoritarianism. So an inconvenient thorn in the side of the establishment and the reputation of Austrian ‘Gemütlichkeit’ (warm, friendly, cheery mood). As recent election results show, her critique is entirely justified and the dark side of the Austrian soul is never too far from its more hospitable and charming surface.

In her volume consisting of three plays In den Alpen (In the Alps), Jelinek digs out the mountain of bones and darkness upon which resides that idyllic Alpine landscape her home country prides itself on. Not for nothing do the Austrians regularly refer to their country as the Alpenrepublik (a term which could apply to Switzerland too, but the Swiss like to think of themselves as a confederation).

Kaprun dam and mountain railway are part of the famous Salzkammergut tourist region in Austria. The first play entitled In the Alps looks at Kaprun as the scene of one of the greatest mountain disasters ever in Austria – in Nov 2000 155 people lost their lives in the railway tunnel when it caught fire, most of the victims being skiers and tourists going to visit the glacier. This play shows the contrast and eternal fight between technology and the environment, mass tourism and a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in nature. (See recent articles about not being able to see the lonesome beauty of Iceland or Peru because of the crowds of tourists). On the other hand, Jelinek also refers to the fact that Jews were excluded from the mountain-tourism associations in the early 20th century – as if they would taint the purity of the clean crisp mountain air. There is also the unspoken contrast between the pure Heimat (homeland) of the Alps, contrasting with the decadence of Vienna (full of Jews), a dichotomy which clearly influenced young Hitler as he was growing up.

The other longer play Das Werk (The Work) is about building the huge dam and power station, started in the 1920s and finished in the late 1950s with Marshall Plan funding. Before that, it had a bit of an inglorious past, with internment camp labour under the Nazis and later Russian POWs, many of whom died in avalanches and because of negligence in safety procedures. These two plays examine egos, ambition, exclusion and exploitation, natural and man-made catastrophes and the small, patient work of rebuilding. They are perhaps easier to read rather than to see performed: there is little action or dialogue – rather, it is more like a collection of long oratorios or tirades against industrial, political and military powers.

The plays have been performed in German (the first was premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele, the second at the Burgtheater in Vienna) but have not been translated into English. I found the volume by accident on the open shelves in the German studies reading room at the Senate House library (and read it there during my lunch breaks). An unplanned but lucky German literature month find!

 

Friday Fun: Getting Cosy in Home Libraries

November and it’s time to roast chestnuts over the fire, cuddle up with a soft blanket and a pliant animal, and read in perfect surrounding such as these.

All this needs is a fireplace. From Vogue.
If you’ve got high ceilings, flaunt them! Dluximages.photoshelter.com
More modest, but still double decker. From Flickr.
One home library to rule them all by wood… By Morgante-Wison for Elle Decor.
Steps leading up to a library… which needs a few more books on the shelves. From paloma81.blogspot.com
For the royalty amongst you… From Bluepueblo.com
Finally, one with a roaring fire! From Pinterest.

 

Carlos Fuentes and Vampires #TranslationThurs

I read this book in time for Halloween but didn’t have time to post a review on that day, so I am attaching it to Translation Thursday instead.

Carlos Fuentes: Vlad, transl. by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes was a versatile and politically engaged writer. During his long career he published ambitious historical sagas such as Terra Nostra, experimental curiosities such as Christopher Unborn, psychological drama The Death of Artemio Cruz and so much more. He is difficult to pin down, except to say that he started off the boom in Latin American literature which happened in the 1960s/70s (coinciding with a boom in its musical popularity – think of bossa nova, conga, salsa etc.) and culminated in the Nobel Prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982.

Sadly, the novella Vlad, the last book that Fuentes published before his death in 2012, is not one of his masterpieces. I picked it up at random from the shelves because it relates to the myth of vampires and the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş, a ruler of Wallachia in the 15th century.

It is the first person narration (largely) of Yves Navarro, a partner at a Mexico City law firm who seems to have it all: the career, the house, the adoring wife, the cute daughter, and a politically influential employer, Don Zurinaga. The latter asks Navarro to help an old friend from the Sorbonne purchase a home so he can settle into their country. It seems like a simple enough request, and it just so happens that Yves’ wife, Asunción, is a real estate agent. True, the client Count Vladimir Radu (‘call me Vlad’) has a few eccentric requests: the house has to back onto a ravine, a tunnel has to lead from the house to said ravine, and all the windows are to be blacked out. After weeks of dealing his client remotely, Navarro finally gets to meet him in person – and soon discovers he is a vampire. And that it might not be a coincidence that he was picked to handle Vlad’s affairs.

So the set-up seems promising, but it would be fair to say that it’s not quite what I expected: a satire of Mexico City and life within it. There are brief elements of social critique scattered throughout the book – traffic coming to a gridlock, the difference between richer and poorer neighbourhoods, estate agents used to the most eccentric demands from wealthy clients, the fact that Vlad has found an almost endless supply of fresh blood without too many questions being asked by the police in such a populous city. Yet all these strands do not combine successfully to form a coherent and rich satirical vein (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). It’s neither funny enough, nor quite frightening enough.

Of course, what annoyed me most was the cod history of Vlad Ţepeş, taken from historical sources of dubious and biased origin. Many of the accounts of him at the time were written by Wallachia’s enemies, therefore he was portrayed as a monster, while in Romanian folk tales and history he is remembered as a positive, just, progressive figure. All of the regurgitation of Vlad’s supposed past was unnecessary for what Fuentes was trying to achieve – if I can even understand what he was trying to achieve.

Otherwise, the story offers a strange, surreal experience, with a knowing nod to horror films or literature: Dracula, obviously;  the little girls turning vicious – Stephen King’s twins; the idealised wife/woman/muse being used then abandoned – Master & Margarita; dead child – many classic ghost stories and folk ballads. I also found it quite off-putting for the graphic descriptions not so much of physical attacks, but of the accoutrements of vampirism: eating offal in Vlad’s house, the drainage system for blood flow etc.

So not a huge success from my point of view. But what about you? Have you read it? What did you think of it? Or perhaps you have read other books by Fuentes and enjoyed them?