Portraits of women reading is perhaps one of the loveliest examples of ‘memes’ in art history, particularly in the 19th century and particularly in France. Was it the rise of the middle classes and of leisure time? Were the men boasting that their wives and daughters were well looked after, well-educated and could therefore spend time on that frivolous pursuit of reading novels? Or was it that there is a certain stillness in the act of reading which men as doers felt that they could not or would not choose to quite live up to? Or was it simply a respectable form of voyeurism for rich men/art collectors? Whatever the reason for it, it has left behind some beautiful paintings (all in the public domain, as far as I know, but please correct me if I am wrong).
I believe in separating your working and sleeping space, but I’ve heard of plenty of writers and readers who feel at their most comfortable (or most inspired) in their bedrooms. And what about if you have no other space for writing? So here are some elegant solutions to this quandary. Which don’t involve lying propped up on cushions in bed (although that is perfect for reading).
While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?
We’re at the lower centre-left bookshelves now (I always go bottom to top, for some reason) and this is where my literature in German resides, as well as my Nordics. I have a lot of Scandinoir, obviously, including the entire collection of the Martin Beck novels, which is one of my favourite crime fiction series ever. I also have a lot of Tove Jansson and live for the day when everyone will appreciate her as much as I do. But I have written about these before, so my choices are slightly more obscure now. And when I looked more closely, I realised they all represented different parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Elias Canetti: Die gerettete Zunge
Translated into English as ‘The Tongue Set Free’, this is a memoir of Canetti’s peripatetic childhood and youth in Vienna, Zürich, England and Bulgaria. A book with multicultural references and influences which will resonate with any ‘Third Culture Kid’, it is also an insight into the life of a well-educated Jew in the early 20th century in Central Europe. This book tells me more about being European than many contemporary writers. We are all creatures of many different facets, where worlds collide and merge.
What gives a man worth is that he incorporates everything he has experienced. This includes the countries where he has lived, the people whose voices he has heard. It also takes in his origins, if he can find out something about them… not only one’s private experience but everything concerning the time and place of one’s beginnings.
Brigitte Hamann: The Reluctant Empress
This is the English translation of what is generally considered the definitive biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi), the romantic, unhappy, complex figure who has been adulated and booed at, and who found her death on the shores of Lake Geneva. The author was a well-respected German historian who lived in Vienna for most of her life, and her books are not only well-informed and meticulously researched, but also fun and readable. She also happened to be the mother of my earliest childhood friend, and I spent many happy days at her home when I was a wee mite. Her book Hitler’s Vienna, proving that Hitler’s anti-semitism and ideology of hatred was nourished by the Austrian capital just before the First World War, proved controversial of course in Austria. She passed away last year.
Franz Kafka: Tagebücher (Diaries) – 1910-1923
OK, I admit, Kafka is anything but obscure, but he was one of my major literary influences as I was growing up. In this volume, Max Brod gathered together pretty much all of the fragments of notebooks which Kafka had bequeathed to him, and they are the ultimate inspiration for anyone who is struggling to be a writer. He scribbles about everything – self-hatred, moaning about his friends, complaining about his work, about the world, how hard it is to write – but he also writes about his dreams and fragments of fiction and ideas for stories. I may admire his finished work more, but it’s above all this diary (and Virginia Woolf’s) which made me a writer.
Well, it’s been a very quiet and uneventful fortnight… just kidding, of course! I probably got too loud and obnoxious for those who are not politically inclined, including on Twitter, but I am over it now.
What fun we had with the General Election here in the UK on the 8th of June! Faced with such a bad campaign from my own MP (known as Prime Minister Theresa May to others), I was tempted to think she didn’t want the job. Except she obviously does, because she is clinging to it by the skin of her teeth, with an alarming alliance which could start up all sorts of nasty processes again in Northern Ireland. A new election before the end of this year seems likely – hugely fatiguing for everybody, especially the voters. You begin to see the attraction of military coups, don’t you, as people start muttering about how much they crave stability…
But this is not a political blog, and on a personal level it has been a fairly quiet and contented time: half-term holidays, a birthday party for my youngest, meeting up with old friends, impromptu flower arrangements. I managed to rescue a few peonies before the storm flattened them and blew away most of their petals. I am becoming most definitely middle-aged…
Book Haul and Writing Update
Aside from the small pile of books I managed to accumulate during my trip to London, I also ordered a few second-hand books from various sources, based upon the recommendations of my fellow bloggers and Tweeters. This is where I get all of my book-buying impulses nowadays!
Roberto Bolano’s quasi-crime novel was praised by one of my fellow Crime Fiction Lover reviewers Phil Rafferty as being one of the books which got him hooked on crime. Yuri Herrera has been reviewed by Tony Malone and Stu Jallen; also, it’s about migration, so that’s three favourites right there… The British Library Crime Classics often throws up interesting little gems and this particular title Family Matters was recently reviewed by Guy Savage. Finally, I succumbed to Miles Franklin’s books following Kim Forrester‘s spirited recommendations of books on Twitter, with a particular emphasis on Australian fiction, which I have read all too little.
I can now tell you about my writing prize for poetry, although I am none the wiser if it was 2nd or 3rd (I do know it wasn’t 1st). It was the Geneva Writers Group Literary Prize, now in its fifth year. This year the judges were Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books for Fiction, Nick Barlay for Non-Fiction and Naomi Shihab Nye for Poetry. And that is the reason I am so super-excited to have won anything at all, since Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favourite contemporary poets and also the person who single-handedly inspired me to go back to writing poetry in 2012, after a couple of decades of neglect.
I’m having great fun digging up some of the more obscure times from my bookshelves – it amuses my geekish nature and brings back fond memories. Over the past fortnight, I’ve looked at my Japanese collection and my small collection of hardcover books.
Two blog posts which I try to include on a monthly basis are my May Reading Summary and Six Degrees of Separation meme. This time the latter started with a book I hadn’t read, Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, so it required some acrobatics to find suitable links.
The blog post that got the most attention this past fortnight was my personal reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent TV adaptation. I was amazed, flattered and humbled by just how many people read it, talked about it, tweeted about it, including many people who had never visited my site before. Thank you all! It completely smashed my previously modest blogging stats. I seldom get more than just over 100 visits per day (on a good day), but the day I posted that I got 776 and the blog post was viewed nearly 1000 times.
Keeping it a politics-free zone today, although Schadenfreude and ‘The future belongs to young people’ does come to mind…
There is a very ugly term for these scrumplicious creations: ‘she-sheds’ – insulting to both women (as if only men have the right to own sheds) and to men (as if only women have the right to have pretty things). I keep measuring my garden to check if I do have space after all for a shed or two, especially if they look anything like these…
There’s been a bit of a trend over the past few years for tiny homes, which offer a more affordable type of accommodation, in many cases a home which can be moved but is much more beautiful than a bog-standard caravan. While I might hesitate about living in some of these all year round, they would make a perfect writing bolthole when I am feeling inspired. Especially if they are internet free.
Back in the days when I used to work in London, my office was on Piccadilly, so I used to pop into the exhibitions at the Royal Academy quite frequently. This time I had to plan and travel to see the America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s exhibition (as seen by Emma in Paris and associated with books of the time), which closes on the 4th of June, but I’m glad I did.
First, let me start by saying that it is rather small – only three rooms, making it at £12 entry fee for the exhibition – a high price/per room ratio. I have seen many more artists at the wonderful Phillips Collection in Washington DC. However, if you do not have access to American paintings, it is a good starting point, with a very informative guide in each room.
The exhibition was very popular and full of people of all ages, and I wonder if it is because the 1930s have such a resonance for us nowadays. Certainly I could detect many parallels:
a long drawn out economic depression and the decline of industry
admiring the dynamism of city life while bemoaning the loneliness it engenders
nostalgia for a glorious past and the ‘simpler’ country life
but, above all, unsettling visions of dystopia
Art born out of crisis and insecurity, art (and a nation) searching for its identity: it bears out the belief that art can remain after those troubled times have gone, and can offer a far better insight into all its fears and hopes, dreams and nightmares, than mere historical description can ever hope to capture.
I then had a lovely, protracted lunch with two friends from primary school. We’d not met in 30+ years, but were not short of topics to discuss even after we’d gone through all the ‘remember that horrible teacher?’, ‘remember when that wonderful teacher took us to the ballet?’, ‘remember what ghastly clothes we wore in that class picture?’ etc. etc. It turned out that our lives featured some great parallels (we all went to Cambridge, for instance, although at slightly different times, we all travelled widely and ended up doing something very different from what we originally studied), but above all, we all had a very international, open, tolerant outlook. Which goes to show that exposing children to different cultures when they are very young is the only way to foster diversity, genuine curiosity and willingness to understand.
Two more brief observations about my day in London.
The Romanian Consulate was absolutely heaving with people renewing their passports and preparing to go home or in another EU country. I’ve applied for mine now but the earliest appointment I could get for passports for my children would be end of August. Hmmm, I wonder why everyone is in such a rush to have a Plan B?
Arranging to meet friends at Waterstones Piccadilly is a dangerous sport. Especially if you are slightly early. This is what happened.
Three Romanian writers (one wrote in German, one mainly in French and one in Romanian), an Italian and an Englishman with international connections. The 1930s theme of menace continues too, not just with Isherwood, but also with Benjamin Fondane, who died in a concentration camp in 1944, Paul Celan’s parents died in labour camps during WW2, and Tabucchi’s book is set in Lisbon in 1938m in the grip of Portugal’s fascist dictatorship.
I already read Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood last night. It’s a charming, if slight story about the time Isherwood was a script consultant for a film directed by an Austrian. Sadly, it does not take place in Vienna, but it describes a period of civil war in Vienna in February 1934, following the protests of socialist workers against Chancellor Dollfuss’ plan to create a one-party state, and huge uncertainty which led to an attempted coup by the Nazis and Dollfuss’ assassination in July 1934. An excellent indictment of British lack of interest in ‘Continental’ affairs at that time, particularly in this passage where an insensitive journalist asks the film director what he thinks of events in Austria and is surprised by the counter-attack of ‘Well, what do you think about it?’:
‘After all, Mr Bergmann… you must remember, it isn’t our affair. I mean, you really can’t expect people in England to care…’
Bergmann’s fist hit the table, so that the knives and forks rang. He turned scarlet in the face. He shouted, ‘I expect everybody to care! Everybody who is not a coward, a moron, a piece of dirt! I expect this whole damned island to care! I will tell you something: if they do not care, they will be made to care. The whole lot of you. You will be bombed and slaughtered and conquered. And do you know what I shall do? I shall sit by and smoke my cigar and laugh. And I shall say, “Yes, it’s terrible; and I do not give a damn. Not one damn.”‘
Patterson at last was looking a bit scared.
‘Don’t get me wrong, Mr Bergmann,’ he said hastily, ‘I quite agree with you… We don’t think enough of the other fellow and that’s a fact… Well, I must be toddling along. Glad to have seen you. We must have a talk, some day…’
Well, as you can see, even a day of leisure and admin in London ends up political at these times. I’m off to water the flowers, breathe in deeply and meditate.