Not Reading But Scrolling…

One week into my new job and daily commute into London and I can say two things with certainty: the job is really interesting and I will be surrounded by lovely people; and the railway service has deteriorated dramatically in the 15 years or so since I last had to commute regularly.

Perhaps a third certainty is that it will be difficult to not deplete my wallet when I have to pass by Waterstone’s Gower Street every day.

The reading time on my commute is a bonus, although it is not quite as long as I had envisaged. It is not uninterrupted time, as I have to change from train to Tube – and in the latter I am so squished, it is often impossible to find a bar to clutch on to and to take out a book. But even in the train, I have found myself using Wifi to check emails and Twitter rather than reading. If I were kind with myself, I would say it’s just to save time and not have to check on these things when I get home to my boys (and because I don’t check them during the day at work).

But the truth is somewhat more complex.

I wonder if all this frantic scrolling down the timeline for a joke, some wit, some precious gem of information is all about searching for something to fill a yearning abyss inside of me that I deny in my moments of strength and dare not measure in my moments of weakness.

Instead of abseiling down the abyss to explore further – too dangerous – or expressing its beautiful unknowability through poetry – too difficult, the chances of succeeding are too slender – I look away from it. I seek to distract myself, or look for someone else who might have expressed it for me. But I am far more likely to find that directly in books rather than mediated via social media. At its worst, I sometimes think Twitter is a lot of noise about art instead of that inner and outer quiet necessary for interacting with the art itself. [I almost said ‘communing with the art’, but that sounds terribly old-fashioned.]

What do you think? Do you feel that social media helps you avoid those complex, potentially unpleasant or dangerous thoughts?

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Friday Fun: Farmhouses Around the World

It’s harvest time, so my thoughts turn naturally to the farming communities. My farming ancestors would have felt right at home in some of these houses, and probably hopelessly intimidated by some of the others.

French peasant house, from mountains2coast.co.uk
Farmhouse from the Pays de Gex on the Franco-Swiss border. from gessiensafti.fr
Italian farm, now holiday villa, from homeaway.com
Traditional Japanese farm buildings, from meanwhileinjapan.jp
Wooden farmhouse in England, from lightlocations.co.uk
Traditional peasant cottage from Madeira, from Pinterest
German farmhouse from the Wolfegg Museum.
Farmhouse very similar to my grandmother’s old house, from Village Museum in Bucharest, Romania.
Another typical German farmhouse, from Schwaben, from Wolfegg Museum
And the Swiss of course top the chalet look! From Pinterest.
American farmhouse, from The Plan Collection.

 

An Afternoon with Herta Müller #TranslationThurs

Since starting work, it’s been difficult to find the energy to write any blog posts in the evening, but I wanted to share with you the wonderful event with Herta Müller, organised by the University of Swansea (see their storification about the event on Twitter) and held at the British Library on Sunday 17th of September, in conversation with American translator, playwright and theatre director Philip Boehm.

I had heard of Herta Müller before she won the Nobel Prize, but had only read small fragments of her work. Of course I was proud that she was the only Romanian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, but the truth is she writes in German, so I shouldn’t really claim her. Nevertheless, I became enamoured with her eloquence in the moving acceptance speech about the power of language. I have since explored her work and her themes of oppression, submission, guilt and inner revolt resonate very powerfully with me.

In person she is as passionate about language and writing and storytelling as you’d expect, but also much funnier than you might think, given her sombre topics. She is delightfully modest and thoughtful and politically engaged as well. It’s safe to say that I fell completely under her spell and have found my role model. [Interestingly enough, although the Romanian Cultural Institute was involved in sponsoring the event and many Romanians were present, she is not very popular in Romania because she is so critical of life there under the Communist regime – much like Thomas Bernhard is criticised in his home country for ‘washing Austria’s dirty linen in public’.]

She read from Atemschaukel (translated as The Hunger Angel), which is the story of the German minorities in Romania who were deported to Soviet work camps after WW2, because they had fought on the side of the Nazis. In practice, the people deported were often not the men who had been soldiers, but those who were too young or too old to have been conscripted, or women. Herta’s mother had been in such a camp for 5 years and she spoke movingly about how old and strange her mother seemed, and what a morbidly intense relationship she had with food (she would always eat hurriedly, in standing, for instance, and chide her daughter for not peeling the potatoes thinly enough and wasting food). However, the main inspiration for the book was Oskar Pastior, a poet who was also deported after the war and pretty much invented afresh the German to describe the horrors of what he had experienced there. After working intensely with Pastior in preparation for co-writing a book, she was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. For 18 months she could not bear to touch the notes – ‘sometimes literature is not enough’ she said wryly – but then she felt she owed it to him to tell his story and it became a way of expressing her grief.

Above all, I was fascinated by what Herta said about her place somewhere in-between languages (which I feel so acutely myself). ‘No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.’ She grew up with a local Swabian dialect, then learnt high German at school and only learnt Romanian at secondary school, but she was fascinated by the differences between the languages. Romanian to her feels very sensual, humorous, frivolous, excellent at heightening everyday language, without trivialising it. She could often empathise with the more interiorised world of the Romanian language. The lily of the valley is ‘May bells’ in German, but ‘little tears’ in Romanian, for instance. A falling star is something to wish upon in German, but the sign that someone has died in Romanian. A pheasant is a boastful, show-off, winner kind of person in German, but a loser in Romanian, because it is a highly visible bird which cannot fly well, so it’s the first one to get shot by hunters. As Herta said: ‘The Germans look at the superficial appearance of the bird, while the Romanian see the inner life of the pheasant.’ Her genuine love for the Romanian language moved me tremendously and it certainly helps to explain why her use of German in her writing is so innovative, poetic and unique.

 

 

All Appeared New and Strange at First…

Although perhaps not quite at the level of the end of this quote from metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne: ‘… inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful’.

Yes, I am pushing out my little sailing-boat to new, unexplored shores. New job, new timetable, new way of presenting my book haul and a meeting with one of my living heroines: Herta Müller.

I thought I might save some time if I present my book haul in a one-take video and upload that on You Tube. I’m not quite convinced yet that it will be a time-saver, but perhaps this will get faster as I become more familiar with the settings. I rather cringe, though, when I see and hear myself speaking. Plus, my anonymity is gone now!

Here is the link to the video. Let me know if you have any problems viewing it.

I’m off to catch the train to see Herta Müller at the British Library and will write more about it when I get back.

Friday Fun: Italian Villas on the Lakes

Northern Italy may not always have the best weather, but the region of the lakes surrounded by mountains has always been popular with the wealthy Milanese and the rich from other European countries as well. Nowadays it seems to be THE spot for weddings and honeymoons. I’m trying to prolong the summer and keep the tone light with some of my favourite villas on Lake Como. However, my thoughts are with my friend Ilaria living in Livorno in Tuscany, where they’ve had severe flooding this past week.

Villa on Lake Como from travelocafe.
Villa on Lake Como where Verdi was a guest, from Lombardia Beni Culturali.
Villa Maria and its magnificent greenhouse fell into ruin at some point, photo by Friedhelm Thomas.
It has now been restored to its former beauty, photo Nicola Guarisco.
The gardens of Villa d’Este, from villadeste.it
Villa Melzi, from Forbes.com
Villa Sola Cabiatia from tremezzolabissa.com

 

Rainforest Quadrille

Early one morning the rainforest stopped,

then echoed with grunted excitement

as the lion-tailed macaque cast his charm freely,

defying gravity as he clambered up branches,

baring each angle of his scarlet-bottomed pride,

shrieking about particle half-life and masses –

proof of his leaden infallibility.

A somewhat tangential interpretation of the Quadrille prompt over on dVerse Poets Pub: a quadrille is a poem with exactly 44 words, to include in this instance the concept or word ‘free’ or freedom.

WWWednesday: What Are You Reading? – 13 Sep 2017

WWW Wednesday is a 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 – for #EU27Project and because it is about Transylvania just before, during and after WW1. Bánffy was a politician as well as a writer born in Transylvania, and he is nostalgic but also scathing about the Hungarian aristocracy. It is a massive tome (and it’s just the first of a trilogy), so I think it should keep me quiet for months to come.

Laura Kaye: English Animals – one of those cultural exploration stories which I find so fascinating. A Slovakian woman gets a job as a sort of housekeeper in an English country house owned by an eccentric mismatched couple. Library book which I couldn’t resist getting. Even better: it’s in large print, so the pages just whizz by!

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley – what is it about these Latin Americans that they are so visceral and interesting and wild? An impossible to define novel about fear, dislocation, crimes, revenge and an increasingly global world. Experimental and yet immensely readable.

 

Recent:

Grazia Deledda: After the Divorce – I will write a proper review of this for #EU27Project, but it’s a sweeping picture of a Sardinian village, with all its poverty, gossip, violence and passion. There have been some complaints about the translation, but it sounds quite modern (perhaps too much so?) to me.

Terence Portelli (ed.): Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta – review to come for #EU27Project. Nice to read something from a culture and country that I know very little about.

Maggie Nelson: Bluets – is this poetry, essay, memoir? A bit of each? An investigation into the colour blue (my favourite) and the end of a relationship.

Future:

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk – the last novel of a wonderful writer, who will be much missed

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal – political thriller, was going to be part of my summer reading, but I never got around to it

I will be starting a new full-time job on Monday, which will involve daily commuting into London. Whether that adds to my reading time remains to be seen. I am afraid it may sadly eat into my writing and blogging time. However, I suspect that all those who follow me on Twitter will be hugely relieved that I will be spending less time on that platform!