If This Be Nostalgia, I Am Guilty

I want to be once more on the land
when April brings a frosty surprise,
where even August can powder with snow.
September smiles indolent and clement, umbrellas are pointless.
Lime trees put on a show as they fall in our hair,
as we hide in their tunnels, as we skip class at school.
I want indigestion with memories both false and true.
I want clothes for all seasons,
and not just babies with fuzz-ripened skin.
Sharp-clawed darkness, the wolves howling from forests
that linger primordial near clean-ploughed fields.
I want you and I to be younger,
not necessarily a happy end.

I am linking this to Open Link Night at the dVerse Poets Pub, where the living is easy, the drinks are plentiful and the poetry is magnificent!

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The Bookish Naughty List

Who can resist such an alluring tag? I’ve seen Eleanor admit to it, Cleo tackle it but it was originally started before Christmas  by  Jenniely. I can sit on the sidelines no longer!

1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it?

Alas, far too frequently! Admittedly, this tends to happen more with the ones I haven’t requested. I do get around to reading them eventually… but sometimes it is long after the publication of the book, which makes the exercise slightly pointless. However, I always review ARCs that I’ve been sent to review for Crime Fiction Lover, Shiny New Books or other sites.

2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on NetGalley?

Does having exactly 60% feedback rating count? My eyes are often bigger than my tummy when it comes to requesting books, but I’ve also been having problems with my e-reader. Not one but two tablets which gave up the ghost, a Kindle I lost in a divorce and then a Kindle that disappeared – all within the last year and a half.

3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)?

Ha, of course! Actually, I’ve learnt not to promise anything on Goodreads. But I often promise things on my blog, to the point where I actually believe my own lies and search desperately for the full review of a book that I *know* I must have written somewhere…

4. Folded down the page of a book?

Are you mad? Why would you do that? I have millions of bookmarks and tiny highlighter post-its and, failing that, train tickets or envelopes to mark a certain spot.

5. Skim read a book?

Let’s just say that certain battle scenes from War and Peace or whaling lore from Moby Dick will forever remain a mystery for me…

6. DNF a book this year?

The year is young, so I think not, but I’ve become more willing to give up on a book rather than read it to the bitter end. I had about 5-6 of those last year. And the low number merely shows that I’ve become better at weeding out those books which are not likely to appeal.

7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it?

No. I always intend to read every book I buy – and I am more swayed by content than by beauty. Although if it is a favourite book in a gorgeous new edition, I might get it (Vintage Classics Jane Austen series, I’m looking at you!).

8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else?

Doesn’t everyone? Many, many times at the back of the class at school. Occasionally at work in my younger days, when I had less to do. So often while eating, cooking, babysitting, watching TV. I haven’t quite figured out how to do it while exercising (I’m not a big audiobook fan), but it would certainly make me exercise more if I could.

9. Accidentally spilled on a book?

Erm, I realised belatedly that cooking and eating while reading may lend itself to such excesses, yes…

10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal?

No, because I always underestimate my annual goals. 120 is one I feel comfortable with (I always tell myself I should read more slowly), but I invariably shoot well over it. Still, it should be quality over quantity.

11. Borrowed a book and not returned it?

No. And I hate people who have done that to me (usually because I moved countries or we lost touch or whatever).

12. Broke a book buying ban?

(All the time.) Next question, please.

13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about?

Sadly, yes. Particularly those books that I care most about, because I want to do them justice. I have to find a more efficient way of blogging.

14. Wrote in a book you were reading?

All the time in my earlier years, partly because my father always did (and still does). I quite like finding those underlined passages and comments now, but I tend to be a bit more careful with my books now. Hence the millions of post-its etc.

15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads?

I try not to, but there are some (particularly by foreign authors) that are not listed there. It makes me feel that I am not doing the counting properly – and not being justly rewarded for my effort!

I won’t tag anyone, but if you want to join in and confess to all your reading sins… Although I don’t think there are any sins that involve reading. Other than cherry-picking your sources to only match with your existing worldview.

 

 

It’s Been a Week and a Half!

Oh, I can pun with the best of them, can’t I? ‘Cos it’s been slightly longer than a week since my last summary, and also a very eventful week, ha ha!

The most important event was our trip to Ireland. I’ve only ever been to Dublin for business and have previously seen mainly the airport, St. Stephen’s Green and the inside of some banks. This time I visited a good friend of mine from school, who lives just outside Dublin, and she treated us like royalty. She took me and the kids on various day trips to places whose names I struggle to spell or remember: the port of Dún Laoghaire, Malahide Castle and gardens, Trinity College Library of course with the Book of Kells, the Wicklow mountains with their dark scrubland, Bray and Cabinteely, Dalkey and Howth. We were extremely lucky with the weather and the pictures tell the story much better than I could. You may well expect a Friday Fun post on this theme very soon! However, one highlight was seeing my friend’s children and mine discuss Irish history: as a footnote to British history or as a nation struggling to free itself. (Curriculum and biased interpretation in action!)

Before leaving for Ireland, we also went to see the Sondheim musical Assassins at the RADA with their final year students, a play about the best-known successful and unsuccessful assassination attempts against American presidents. Given the school shooting which followed shortly afterwards, the wit seems almost unbearably mordant in retrospect. If Sondheim is suggesting that the American dream is of ‘everyone having the right to be happy’, even if that happiness involves killing others, then yes, it becomes less funny.

Finally, on Monday 19th February, I found myself going ‘just a little bit viral’, as my boys would call it. WordPress have highlighted my feather haibun post as a Blog to Discover. So I have been getting far more than my usual share of visits and likes. Thank you to all for reading and sharing, here’s to hoping that you won’t be disappointed that my posts are usually far more prosaic. I also hope I will get to know some of you better!

Friday Fun: Houses of Famous Writer All Over the World

This week I am wandering around Europe with famous writers, while next week I plan to go a little further afield.

Haworth Parsonage, home of the Bronte sisters. From Visit Britain website.
Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived with his sister Dorothy. From World Nomad Journals.
Camus’ modest house in Lourmarin, bought with the proceeds of his Nobel Prize. From Pinterest.
Caragiale museum in Romania. From skytrip.ro
Romanian national poet Eminescu’s birthplace in Ipotesti. From Wikipedia.
Victor Hugo’s house in exile in Guernsey. From Visit Guernsey.
Philip Pullman’s garden shed, from Authors’ Houses.
Schiller’s house in Weimar, from deutschland.yakohl.com
Goethe’s garden shed in Weimar, from planetware.com

No. 2 #AsymptoteBookClub : Aranyak

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay: Aranyak (transl. Rimli Bhattacharya)

This is why I am grateful to have other sage people choose books for me on occasion: because they unearth things that I would never have come across on my own. Aranyak is one such gem of Bengali literature. Written in the 1930s, translated here for the first time in English, it talks of a lost world, the rapid sale of land for farming and consequent deforestation of large swathes of the Bihar forests in the north-east of India, neighbouring Nepal. The narrator contributes to what we would now consider an ecological devastation, but which at the time was considered completely appropriate.

The story is loosely autobiographical, a series of vignettes about the life of an earnest young man from Calcutta who works for a few years as an estate manager in Bihar. In a way, he is as much a victim of the greedy landowners as the poor farmers are: unable to find a job in the city, he takes this poorly compensated job in a remote location, suffers homesickness initially, is transformed by the people and the landscape, but then has to bear the guilt that he took part in its downfall. This is why the whole book is designed to be the confession of an old man looking back on his youth.

But those memories do not give me pleasure; they are filled with sorrow. By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature. I know too, that for this act the forest gods will never forgive me. I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens somewhat the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.

There is no real plot to the novel, merely a chronological description of events and characters. The narrator tries to give voice to the many people he meets, many of whom are so poor that he cannot believe what they are willing to do to survive. This is why the book feels more like the field notes of an anthropologist. And, just like an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century, he cannot resist adding himself to the narration, interpreting, casting judgement, expressing love and concern for the people he meets, but still considering them ‘subjects of enquiry’, with a paternalistic attitude. Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islanders (1922) and Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Azande (1937) fall firmly within this category. Yet the impotent sadness at the social injustice paves the way to the more self-conscious anthropological memoir of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955).

It is a fascinating book, full of vivid character studies and life stories, some of them desperately sad, some of them a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. The author warns us how important it is to understand the context within which these stories arise, to leave our own world behind:

These stories of Ganu that sounded so mysterious and so delicious in the environs of the lonely forest would certainly, I know, sound absurd and false if one were to listen to them in Calcutta. One may not listen to stories anywhere and everywhere. Nor are stories to be recounted carelessly. A story lover will know how much the pleasure of a story depends on the immediate environment of its telling and the receptivity of its listeners.

I also love the lyrical descriptions of nature (even though they are probably soaked in a nostalgic haze). The narrator gradually succumbs to the magical beauty of the landscape. In anthropological terms, he ‘goes native’ and may find it hard to ever return to his home town.

It is better for those who have to live within the strictures of domesticity never to catch sight of this beauty. In this bewitching guise, nature makes men abandon their homes, fills them with wanderlust… He who has heard the call of the wild and has once glimpsed the unveiled face of nature will find it impossible to settle down to to playing the householder.

I have to admit that I found the narrator’s open admiration for the humble, sweet women he meets in the forests a trifle creepy. It sounds like he was taking advantage of his halo as the powerful outsider, although he exalts their beauty and gentleness. The ‘angel in the house’ mentality of Victorian Britain shines through, even more potent because of the infantilisation of women and of this ethnic group, this less deserving ‘caste’ (although the narrator also mentions instances when he ignores the caste system):

I have noted that like the open and generous countryside – the forests, the clouds, the range of hills, free and untrammelled – Bhanmati was unencumbered, innocent and free in how she conducted herself. So were Manchi and the poet’s wife… The forests and hills had liberated their minds, expanded their vision with generosity; in like maner, their love was deep, generous and liberating. They could love greatly because of the greatness of their hearts… The dictates of refinement and the pressures of the civilized world had erased in her sisters the eternal woman that resided in Bhanmati.

Whether creepy admiration or not, you cannot doubt the narrator’s sincere love for life in the jungle, despite his initial reservations. In fact, one of the amusing passages in the book occurs when he stumbles across a group of Bengali tourists having a picnic in the jungle, woefully unprepared and blind to all the beauty around them.

By a stroke of rare fortune, they had landed in this extraordinary kingdom of nature, but they lacked vision to appreciate what they saw. In fact, they had come with the sole purpose of hunting, as though birds, rabbits and deer were all awaiting them by the roadside, waiting patiently to be shot.

The book ends rather abruptly with the narrator sitting under a tree fifteen years later and musing about what might have befallen the people he knew there in the meantime. I would have liked to hear about his difficulties in fitting back into the society he had left behind, the reverse culture shock, that sense of never quite belonging there anymore, because his eyes have been opened. But that is probably another story.

I think this is a book that we certainly have to read bearing in mind the attitudes, perspectives, policies and politics of the time. There are elements in it which will feel uncomfortable to a modern reader, but in many ways Bandyopadhyay was ahead of his time. It also raises many interesting questions about ‘fashions’ in nature writing and anthropology, about our espoused values vs. our behaviours in the present day. Yes, we are more ecologically aware, but vast areas of jungles are still lost every day in the name of economic progress. Yes, we claim to be less paternalistic about other cultures, but we still systematically represent them as ‘token exotic exceptions’ in popular culture. It must also have been fiendishly difficult to translate, to decide how much of the original names and expressions to leave in, one different culture talking about yet another different culture. You can find an interview with the translator on the Asymptote blog and you can read another review of the book on Ali’s blog.

Weekly Summary 11th Feb 2018 (Part 2)

This is part 2 of what was threatening to become The Neverending Story in my last post.

The spectre of Communism is haunting Europe…

First of all, an enormous thank you to Kaggsy who wrote about the Red Star over Russia exhibition on her blog and convinced me that I should go to see it. I was initially sceptical, because the Socialist Realist art that I had witnessed in Romania during the Communist era was truly awful, a feast of nauseating kitsch. This exhibition, however, drawn primarily from the collection of British graphic designer David King, focuses on early Soviet art, 1905-1955. This was a period when it was still all about creating a new society and demonstrating that through a new type of art. New fonts, new designs, experimental work and techniques were all employed to show the modernity and success of the Soviet venture. I thought I knew the history behind it reasonably well, but I discovered many new things at this exhibition, for instance the multilingual posters to capture hearts and minds in the Soviet republics. Thank you, curators everywhere, and it always pays to stay humble and learn more!

Was the Soviet artistic enterprise all a lie? Yes, quite a bit of it: success was military rather than economic and came at a great price. Many of the artists were imprisoned or purged by Stalin at a later date. Their designs were imitated at knock-off standards in the decades that followed and by the other Soviet satellite states, cheapening their impact. Yet many avant-garde artists clearly believed at the time that art and architecture could bring out about a more democratic approach to art, render it less elitist, create a new environment where everyone felt empowered to create. All admirable goals (sound familiar to what we are discussing nowadays?). Plus, many of the designs still look fresh and beautiful today – and especially poignant, when you consider the tainted history behind them.

Another part of the exhibition which was painful to see: the self-censorship and mutilation of photographs. Ordinary citizens who had photographs of the Soviet leaders would then cross or cut out those who had fallen out of favour, for fear that someone would examine these photos in their own homes and accuse them of colluding with the traitors. Romania in the 1980s may have had many flaws, but at least we did not have quite this level of terror and paranoia.

Just by way of contrast, here is an example of the disgusting cult of personality and bad art that I grew up in.

The Emma Press is a charming independent press based in Birmingham, publishing mainly poetry (and some short fiction and children’s books). They don’t often organise events in London, so I was delighted to hear that they were launching their latest anthology of Love Poetry at an unusual café Coffee Cakes and Kisses not far from where I work. The café is designed to look like a kitchen (a working kitchen, where people can watch food being prepared), so people pull up chairs or stand around to chat like at the best parties. It was perhaps a bit too small for the large number of people who did turn up to watch the readings by 20 of the 56 poets featured in the anthology. I heard of Emma Press through Jacqueline Saphra, whose poetry I have admired ever since I returned to poetry in 2012, and she was there too. But I also got to meet and listen to new-to-me poets like Kitty Coles, Rachel Plummer, Jack Houston, Lenni Sanders, Paul Haworth, Maya Pieris and Ben Norris. The Emma Press Anthology of Love is a beautiful work of art: beautifully produced and illustrated, with a colourful cover that belies the anything but saccharine poetry inside.

Unsurprisingly, with so many cultural events happening, I did get a bit carried away and bought quite a few books. I was quite proud of myself for not buying all the tempting Russian novelists or books about Russian history at the Tate Modern, but then I lost control at the other events. In addition to the ones I bought to be signed at the Emma Press launch and the Literally Swiss event, there were also a couple I borrowed from the library and one I got gifted. Anyway, here is a selection.

I won the beautiful edition of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan in a Twitter giveaway and it came with a matching tote bag. Both so beautiful and turquoise that my younger son, who is not usually impressed with my book post, exclaimed out loud and kept the bag for himself.

By coincidence my friend gave me a dystopian novel about the consequences of China’s one child policy ‘An Excess Male’ by Maggie Shen King, which I am even more eager to read after speaking to Xiaolu Guo on Friday night.

Unrelated to any cultural events, but espied a while ago in the Waterstones Gower Street, I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying my fifth different translation of The Tale of Genji, this time by Dennis Washburn. I am hoping it will bridge the gap between Seidensticker’s user-friendly translation and Tyler’s rather too literal one.

Finally, I had a good old rummage in the Senate House Library, based upon feedback from my older son’s Parents Evening. They are reading Jekyll and Hyde for GCSE and the teacher suggested that he read other Victorian novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. So I borrowed that for him, but of course I can never stop at just one. I thought that HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and Bram Stoker’s Dracula also described scientific experimentation and human monsters rather well, reflecting the darker side of the British Empire. A few years ago he would have run a mile from any book that I recommended to him, but now  I hope he will read them and want to discuss them with me.

Last but not least, I got James Baldwin because the February read for the David Bowie Book Club is James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time.

Next week or fortnight will be much quieter, although I will be taking my older son to a theatre performance at RADA – a great opportunity to see some of the nation’s future stars.

‘Ha! This is what you abandon me for?!’ Zoe is unimpressed with my book haul.

 

Weekly Wrap-Up 11th Feb 2018 (Part 1 – All Swiss)

The weekly wrap-up is a fortnightly wrap-up this time, because  didn’t do that much the previous week. I have more than made up for it this week, however, so brace yourselves, it’s going to be a long one! [In the end, I divided it up into 2 parts, as it was really long and also because I have lost some of my pictures.]

London is the city that keeps on giving in terms of cultural events and certainly reconciles me with the lack of winter sports and beauteous landscapes. I know it’s limiting to speak only of cultural events in the capital, but I can only speak of my own experience. Just like I mentioned Lyon. Morges and Montreux when I was living near Geneva, I can only give my very partial and biased view of events now that I am living just outside London.

Rosie Goldsmith welcoming Alain de Botton at Literally Swiss event.

I will start with the most recent event: a Swiss literary cabaret at a rather unusual venue that I had previously never heard of: The Tabernacle in Notting Hill. This converted church hall was the perfect backdrop for an evening that was actually a series of Q&As and readings featuring 7 authors with links to Switzerland, and hearkened back to the famous days of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich of the Dadaists. Absurdity was far from the agenda, however, although one of the big names invited, Deborah Levy (who did mention the Dadaists and Tristan Tzara), read out a story about a girl who believed she had swallowed a glass piano. Levy’s link to Switzerland was perhaps the most tenuous, as she has never visited the country but has set some of her stories there.

The others had fascinating things to say about Switzerland (yes, they all loved the landscape – can you blame them?), the Swiss, Europe in general, the rest of the world and literature. Pedro Lenz, whom I had met in Morges, writes in the Swiss German dialect, which has been rendered into Glaswegian for English-speaking audiences. I understand virtually nothing of either of the two readings (he performed the original and made it sound like anything but German, while someone else read the translation). Fascinating, because he had to make up his own rules, as Swiss German has only recently started to exist as a written language.

Peter Stamm was my main reason for going there. He was there with his two unimpressed teenage sons, and got a bit miffed when asked what makes him a Swiss writer. He pointed out that he considers his writing to be literature rather than particularly Swiss literature. He also got a big laugh when he read an essay about football nationalism and how the Swiss embrace the European ideals and project to a certain extent. He then paused and said: ‘I know this is a tricky subject here.’

Monique Schwitter was another outstanding performer of a passage about a writer having to give a 7 minute reading, as she is both an actress and a writer. She has been living in Hamburg for many years now, couldn’t wait to leave boring little Switzerland when she was younger, but is now thinking of going back, because she misses walking uphill and downhill. She had the best quote of the evening, from Robert Walser about the Swiss mentality: ‘He takes his heart out of the pocket, examines it, tucks it away again and walks on.’

Nicolas Verdan was the only author from the French-speaking part of Switzerland – I was familiar with his journalistic work, but didn’t know that he was partly Greek and that his crime novel is set in Greece and tackles the refugee crisis there. He made a very pertinent point: how much harder it is for Swiss French writers to get published in the ‘big city’ (i.e. Paris) and be taken seriously, than for Swiss German writers to get published in Germany.

Rather unflattering picture of Alain de Botton. It was dark and my phone is a bit rubbish, what can I say?

I only recently discovered that Alain de Botton is of Swiss origin. Despite sounding quintessentially English, he grew up as a French speaker in Zurich. Obviously from a privileged background, with well educated, very cerebral parents, who sent him off aged 8 to attend a boarding school in England. He spoke very movingly about how he misses Switzerland very much like an eight-year-old might miss a place: the food, tastes, smells (which explains perhaps my over-fondness for Viennese cuisine). He also spoke of his beloved nanny, whom he still visits every year in her remote valley, and how he has always tried to write philosophy that would be accessible to her as well.

The biggest surprise in this utterly delightful evening (with free-flowing snacks and Swiss wine, courtesy of the Swiss Embassy) was Xiaolu Guo , a Chinese-British filmmaker and writer who has had writers’ residences in Switzerland and is now teaching at the University of Berne. She talked so candidly about the differences between the UK and Switzerland – ‘I’m not allowed to say that Switzerland is boring, I’ve learnt to say it is peaceful’ and how she was welcomed as a guest in Switzerland (a visiting author), while in the UK she was a poor migrant. She described how she only encountered the fictional Heidi a couple of years ago and didn’t believe in nostalgia and fairy-tales, because she was raised with good old tradition-shaking Communist values and Soviet-style stories of children vanquishing dragons. I was there with a Russian friend and the three of us had a little chat while she signed my book. Russian, Romanian and Chinese women all have so much in common because of our history and we talked about bringing up children of a different culture, who will never understand the totalitarian world and clash of ideologies that we grew up in. (Thank goodness for that!)

Heidi Happy performing at Paleo Festival in Nyon.

The perfectly named Heidi Happy was performing music at the start of the evening, although she wasn’t getting as much attention as she deserved. I happened to sit next to and make friends with a fun-loving and charming Anglo-Australian couple, Jayne and Jim, with whom I hope to keep in touch. I saw several blogger/publishing friends, although sadly I didn’t get to see the translators I was eager to speak to, such as Jamie Bulloch. I think translators deserve to be feted as superstars just as much as the authors!

Of course I had to buy Xiaolu’s memoir of growing up in China and then moving west Once Upon a Time in the East, Peter Stamm’s Ungefähre Landschaft  (a novel not yet translated into English and set in Norway rather than Switzerland) and Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love and get them signed. I probably would have bought Monique Schwitter and Verdan as well, except that they were only available in English translation and I prefer reading them in the original if I can. (Which may seem to be contradicting the sentiment in the previous paragraph, but not at all. I just love practising my German and French.) Last, but not least, there was also a generous gift of an advance copy of one of the Swiss authors who was not there, Martin Suter’s Elefant, translated by the afore-mentioned Jamie Bulloch, due to come out in May.