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!
This is part 2 of what was threatening to become The Neverending Story in my last post.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
Instead of just doing a reading and book buying wrap up of the week, I thought it might be fun to do a summary of all the cultural highlights. Which I have been fortunate enough to have plenty of, now that I am living near and working in London. So this will include any films, theatre, opera or ballet, book launches, talks or other events which I might have attended, as well as anything I might be aware of which is coming up for the following week, which might be of interest to others in the area. There’s got to be an upside to the downside of commuting (one day this week was particularly hellish, with my total commute taking over 4 hours – instead of 2.5 – in horrible conditions).
On Tuesday I got to see the witty, forthright and beautiful Leïla Slimani in action (and speaking English, much to my surprise!) at a Q&A and book signing at Waterstone’s Gower Street. With her journalistic background and feminist activist credentials, she had lots of opinions about current affairs and the #MeToo movement, but two things she said about her book Chanson Douce (translated as Lullaby in the UK and The Perfect Nanny in the US) particularly resonated with me: 1) how quick readers were to blame the mother Myriam for leaving her children with a stranger to go out and work when she didn’t need to, simply for her personal fulfilment and to go out for dinner with her husband; 2) how differently reviewers reacted to her book in France and in the UK/US. In France they commented mainly on her style and the narrative choices she made, while in the Anglo-Saxon community it is marketed as a thriller and is mainly about plot and unlikable characters. French literature is of course littered with unlikable characters, but so is classic English and American literature, so I don’t understand what this current emphasis is on sympathising with your protagonists. Besides, you can empathise and feel sorry for both Myriam and Louise (the nanny) in the book.
On Friday I saw a ballet double bill at the Coliseum. Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a very modern tale of depression and suicide (gorgeous Ivan Vasiliev as the young man and the wonderful, ever-young Tamara Rojo as the woman), followed by the very different, classical romantic ballet of La Sylphide, full of men in kilts and the long white tutus of the ghostly sylphides. It was delightful to see the Sylphide played by a junior soloist of the company, the very young, incredibly light and graceful Japanese dancer, Rina Kanehara. Afterwards, we had a wander around the West End to admire the light installations of the Lumiere Festival – although London proved it was not quite the 24 hour city it prides itself on being, with the lights switching off promptly at 22:30!
This week I’ve been reading the biography of Shirley Jackson, which has prompted some more purchases of her lesser-known novels Hangsaman and The Sundial. Of course I had to buy the English translation of Slimani’s novel to get it signed by her and I’ve already read it (review will be coming up shortly). And, since I never escape unscathed from a bookshop, I also stumbled across one of those photo-rich trilingual Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis editions about the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth. As the bookseller said, ‘You can’t go wrong with Bowie.’
In other reading: just finished Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes, set on the Isles of Scilly (review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover) and am currently reading Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist set in Rome (review coming up on Shiny New Books). I’m reading Marie Darrieussecq in both English and French and will be posting a review of her disappearing husband book, as well as Hawksmoor on this blog very soon.
On TV, I’ve only watched the mistitled Big Cats documentary (because it refers quite a bit to wildcats which are smaller than my own moggy – who was watching just as carefully as me and probably taking hunting lessons) and my beloved Engrenages series.
Last, but not least, the Winter Issue of Asymptote Journal is out, and it is an anniversary edition, as Asymptote celebrates its 7th birthday. Yes, it first launched in January 2011, before I even became absorbed by writing or moved to France. For this special edition, there are some big names (Ismail Kadare and Daniel Mendelsohn), as well as many new voices and languages, including translations from Montenegrin, Mè’phàà and Amharic. For those of you who like short samplers, there is also a special feature on international microfiction or flash fiction.
Coming up: I would really like to attend (but can’t) the Gower Street Waterstone’s Forgotten Fiction Book Club this coming Tuesday, which will be discussing one of the defining books of my adolescence: Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier. Two art events to catch this coming week (for those who can make it): last week of the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican and the Hayward Gallery at the South Bank finally reopens after refurbishment with a photography retrospective of the work of Andreas Gursky.