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: Local Villages

I’m already suffering from homesickness before I’ve even left this region. I am aware just how lucky I’ve been to be able to call this ‘my local area’ for the past 5 years. Here are some reasons why…

Reason 1: the lake surrounded by mountains
Reason 1: the lake surrounded by mountains
Reason 2: the vineyards
Reason 2: the vineyards
Reason: the jumble of waterfront houses
Reason 3: the jumble of waterfront houses
Reason 4: no high fences
Reason 4: no high fences
Reason 5: Plenty of gracious manor houses
Reason 5: Plenty of gracious, not too grand manor houses
Reason 6: Mont Blanc dominating the horizon no matter where you are
Reason 6: Mont Blanc dominating the horizon no matter where you are
Reason 7: Borders have become a thing of the past...
Reason 7: Borders have become a thing of the past…
Reason 9: Full moon is made even more dramatic by the backdrop of mountains
Reason 8: Full moon is made even more dramatic by the backdrop of mountains
Reason 9: Neighbours with far better gardens than ours
Reason 9: Neighbours with far better gardens than ours
Reason 10: If you get bored with the Alps, you swivel round and admire the Jura
Reason 10: If you get bored with the Alps, you swivel round and admire the Jura

And, if you need one bonus reason, having cake and tea by the lakeside (or a glass of local wine):

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Friday Fun: Get Your Quotes Where You Can!

papillonsfetesThe Revillon chocolates in papillote form are the chocolates of choice for a festive meal during the Christmas/New Years festivities in our part of France. There are many variations now on the original mix of dark and milk chocolates, but what they all have in common is that they are the French equivalent to the British Christmas crackers or the Chinese fortune cookie: you find a joke (in the children’s versions) or a quote wrapped neatly around every chocolate.

 

Here are the three quotes or aphorisms which particularly attracted me this year, my ‘motto’ for 2015, if you will, coupled with some of my favourite images of the place where I currently live.

Rester, c’est exister; mais voyager, c’est vivre. (Gustave Nadaud)

[To stay is to exist but to travel is to live. – Nadaud was a 19th century French songwriter, who died in poverty]

Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc.
Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc.

Lire, c’est voyager: voyager, c’est lire. (Victor Hugo)

[To read is to travel; to travel is to read.]

Jardin des Cinq Sens, Yvoire.
Jardin des Cinq Sens, Yvoire.

Ecrire, c’est une façon de parler sans être interrompu. (Jules Renard)

[Writing is a way of talking without getting interrupted. – Jules Renard was a 19th century French writer renowned for his witty epigrams – a slightly more earnest Oscar Wilde.]

Botanical Gardens, Geneva.
Botanical Gardens, Geneva.

Friday Fun: A Walk in the French/Swiss Countryside

I live in a rural area on the Franco-Swiss border, but the proximity to Geneva makes it a popular place to live, so there are always building works going on. Given the nice weather today (we have not been blessed with much sunshine this summer), I thought I’d take a walk through some traditional local villages. And document it with pictures, before they completely disappear under the weight of new blocks of flats.

Today’s walk started and ended in Grilly, a village bearing the name of a medieval lord de Grailly, who owned approximately a thousand hectares of land straddling the Versoix river (which nowadays forms the border between France and Switzerland) and controlled the trade route between Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains.

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Sunflowers with the Jura mountains in the background

 

If you turn to face the other way, you get this view over the Alps.
If you turn to face the other way, you get this view over the Alps.
Border stone: now marking the border between the cantons of Geneva and Vaud. Formerly marking the border between France and Switzerland (dates from 1808)
Border stone: now marking the border between the cantons of Geneva and Vaud. Formerly marking the border between France and Switzerland (dates from 1808)
Bridge of Grilly over the river Versoix, marking the Swiss-French border. Madame de Stael fled on this path from France to her family property in Coppet in 1792.
Bridge of Grilly over the river Versoix, marking the Swiss-French border. Madame de Stael fled on this path – formerly the trade route between the lake and the mountains – from France to her family property in Coppet in 1792.
Farmhouse in Chavanne des Bois, Switzerland.
Farmhouse in Chavanne des Bois, Switzerland.
Chateau de Chavanne - in fact, a large manor house with adjacent farms. I bought a bag of plums from the farm shop here to eat along the way.
Chateau de Chavanne – in fact, a large manor house with adjacent farms. I bought a bag of plums from the farm shop here to eat along the way.
Opposite this charming old house and garden in Sauverny (France)...
Opposite this charming old house and garden in Sauverny (France)…
...you'll find the inevitable new development.
…you’ll find the inevitable new development.
The path from the mill in Sauverny to the village of Grilly, bordered by oak trees and corn.
The path from the mill in Sauverny to the village of Grilly, bordered by oak trees and corn.
Village houses in Grilly, France.
Village houses in Grilly, France.
A refurbished barn in Grilly. What do you think: very covetable or a modernisation too far?
A refurbished barn in Grilly. What do you think: very covetable or a modernisation too far?

 

Running Home

P1010699The mountains are closing in today.

On a clear day, just after a drop in temperature, they open up as endless as your life seems in childhood. On a day like this, when clouds display a full arsenal of grays, when rain is announced every few minutes, the mountains seem closer.  Too close.  They press against you, crush you, lock you in. You begin to understand the danger of the Alps. Ominous is a word created for that brief silence before the storm breaks.

So you start running. Mud, pebbles, asphalt: the terrain varies and so do your steps. What you cannot get used to is the running between borders.  After a lifetime of being punished for your nationality, of not being allowed in or out of countries, it is such a thrill to be able to weave your way in and out of France and Switzerland. A grey, moss-covered border stone dating from the 1870s is your only witness.

You moved to the area unwillingly the first time round. You had to give up a good job, family and friends, a good-sized house in the process of being slowly renovated, the language of your comfort. The children were fully dependent on you that first time, each day was a struggle with unfamiliarity. You couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’.

MountainsBut home had moved on, as had you. You found yourself struggling to fit in. You were still the alien, perhaps even more so with your new-found love for croissants and small coffees. You missed the extreme landscapes, the seasons. You remembered breathing in air so fresh that it rushed straight to your lungs in unadulterated delight.

Life has a way of playing with your emotions. Just when you are settled in again, when you have arranged your memories in a neatly labelled box to be put up in the attic, it is time to resurrect them.  You are going back to the space on the border for a second time. But this time it’s all different again. The children are older, your French is better. You continue working, but you are determined to make each minute in this wonderful location count. You are not going to leave this area again, regretting all that you didn’t do and see.

Home is a word you have bandied about far too often in your existence. You’ve believed you were at home in many places, with many people, but have you ever fully understood it? 

GrapesCould this be home now? You hardly dare to hope.

Yet there is a lilt in your peasant soul as you run through the fields, worrying about the harvest. 

The peaks and valleys, now green and pleasant, now eerily bare, mirror your own innerscapes. You surprise yourself with the sudden onset of storms, but you recognise a twin spirit.

If you weren’t so marked by years of taunting, you might almost think you are communing with nature.

Whether this is home or not, this is the best of you. Use this time wisely. Write it all down.