Twenty-five years ago I went to Germany for fieldwork during my Ph.D. I was based in a small university town Marburg, and very soon I discovered there were two other Romanian girls studying there. One of them became a very good friend: we were both passionate about literature (both German and English) and were both in very new, very long-distance relationships that we weren’t entirely sure about. I had concerns about my boyfriend’s character, while she was more concerned about the age difference (she was three years older than him). We both ended up marrying our sweethearts: my fears were well founded, hers not at all.
Csaba was Romanian of Hungarian origin. He ended up embarking on business studies in Marburg himself, so as to be with my friend, although he spoke hardly any German at the time. He had been an elite athlete previously and we would go running in the woods together, and he also introduced me to Tai Chi. He was full of energy and humour, utterly devoted to my friend, sending her tapes with his voice whispering sweet nothings in her ear whenever they were apart.
They returned to Romania after their studies, had children about the same time as I did. I could think of no better people to ask to be godparents to my second son, even though I knew we were going to be hundreds of miles away.
Whenever we went to Romania, we visited them and our boys became good friends, despite the mix of five languages and cultures that they were experiencing between them.
Their older son graduated from secondary school this year, just like mine did, and planned to study medicine. They were justifiably proud of him, and trying to decide if he should study in Romania or Germany.
Early this morning, my friend sent me a message that Csaba died of Covid. It is hard to believe that a man like this, the heart and soul of every party, but also the most thoughtful and loving husband, father, godfather and friend, could just be snuffed out like that. All the adventures and visits and joint ventures we had planned… All the advice and serenity that his sons will never get a chance to experience… All the love and support that my friend is now left without…
I have no words. Other than: make the most of your life and your friendships.
My tour of depressing and untouristy locations continues with middle-school Japan in Mieko Kawakami’s merciless yet somehow endearing Heaven, which is also my 14th book in the #20BooksofSummer reading (I might still hit the target!).
Mieko Kawakami: Heaven, transl. Sam Bett and David Boyd.
After the full immersion in the female perspective in Breasts and Eggs, this shorter and earlier novel by Kawakami takes us into the heart and mind of a fourteen-year-old boy. The unnamed narrator is horrifically bullied at his school, probably because of his lazy eye, but does not dare to let any of the adults in his life know. The teachers don’t seem to want to have their eyes opened for fear of the school’s reputation suffering, while the boy believes his parents would blame him or think less of him for acquiescing to the bullying. (Incidentally, bullying is indeed a major problem in Japanese schools, and has led to many suicides or self-harming incidents. The love of conformity in Japanese society means that anyone who is a little different becomes a possible target.)
Be warned: some of the bullying scenes are extremely brutal, verging on the unbearable, although they are never voyeuristic or gratuitous. What makes it even more shocking is the almost throwaway descriptions of these scenes, which have become part of the daily routine. The ringleader Ninomiya is the good-looking golden boy who breezes through his schoolwork as well as athletics. His teachers cannot keep up with him, so no one ever believes he could be so vicious. Besides, he and his gang are careful to cover their tracks: they punch and kick without leaving visible marks, or enjoy the power of forcing humiliating rituals upon the narrator.
When we are told about the somewhat enigmatic new boy, Momose, who joined the class after elementary school and who is almost equally as beautiful and gifted as Ninomiya but much more nonchalant about things, we readers are tempted to hope and believe that he will become an ally. But this is not an American high school story of converting the wicked or finding redemption. Momose proves to be even more chilling. He does not enjoy the bullying or get a kick out of it, but he refuses to feel any concern or guilt about it. When the narrator tries to confront him, saying that he doesn’t have the right to hurt him or any other human being, this is what Momose says (I am collating several relevant passages into one quote, because this is a scene that continues over quite a few pages):
Well, first of, when you said that we’re the same, you were way off. See for yourself. I’m not cross-eyed, and I’m not you. You are cross-eyed, and you’re not me.
Second, that thing you just said, about how no one has the right to hurt anybody else… Nobody does anything because they have the right. They do what they want to do.
There’s no reason it has to be you. It could have been anyone. But you happened to be there, and we happened to all be in a certain mood, so things went the way they did.
I don’t care if things are so bad that you can’t sleep. That’s got nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make me feel anything. Nothing. Your problems have never crossed my mind… Don’t try and tell me something stupid like it’s my responsibility to think about your feelings.
Given these kind of reactions, it’s not surprising that the narrator at first doesn’t quite dare to believe in the timid hand of friendship being extended to him by Kojima, a girl in the class who is also being bullied for being dirty and smelly (her nickname is ‘Hazmat’). They write each other messages and meet in person outside school, bonding over their common suffering, but never really discussing it in detail. Instead, they try to bring a little bit of joy in their lives – and even manage a day trip to a museum during the summer holidays, where Kojima describes her favourite bit of escapism, a painting she calls ‘Heaven’. The description of this burgeoning friendship is delicately done, with a lot of sympathy for youthful awkwardness, but this is no saccharine love story.
When school starts again, things go back to the unbearable and dysfunctional normal. Just as you start to fume as a reader about their passivity, you realise that Kojima deliberately chooses to appear poverty-stricken and dirty, because it creates a bond with her father, whom her mother abandoned to marry a rich man. While the narrator is often ashamed that he allows the bullying to continue, Kojima turns the negative into a positive. She has created an entire ideology about their suffering, a martyrdom mentality that is oddly reminiscent of early Christianity:
That’s not why we let them do this… It’s not because we’re weak. We’re not just following orders or whatever… We know exactly what’s going on. We see it and we let it happen. I don’t think that’s weakness at all. It’s more like strength.
Kawakami is so good at capturing the voices of her youthful protagonists, making them urgent and compelling, that at first you completely buy into this desperate attempt to explain and justify what is happening to them. Yet, towards the end of the book, things take an ominous turn. The narrator discovers that his eye problem could be corrected with a relatively simple and cheap surgical procedure, but when he tells Kojima, she is profoundly disappointed in him for ‘abandoning’ their principles and what she perceives to be their just cause:
Even if something happens to us, even if we die and never have to deal with them again, the same thing will happen to someone, somewhere… The weak always go through this… Because the strong never go away. That’s why you want to pretend to be like them, isn’t it? You want to join them.
This is a nuanced and at times unexpected exploration of bullying, of moral strength and weakness. There is the secondary issue about missing or self-absorbed parents. The narrator’s father is largely absent (and a bit of a selfish patriarch when he is around). Although his stepmother is the only one who seems to listen to him, his relationship with her is stilted, as if he resents her own passivity in front of his father. He wonders what his own mother (who died when he was very young, and from whom he has inherited the strabism) would have been like. Meanwhile, Kojima cannot forgive her mother for the way she disdains her former husband, Kojima’s father. It is easy to see that, although the subject of the book is bullying in school, it could easily be extrapolated to the adult world.
One striking feature of the story is how it changes stylistically. In the beginning, the language is very plain and declarative: simple sentences, describing routine actions in a detached, matter-of-fact style. The author keeps reverting back to this style when she describes the more extreme behaviours of the classmates or the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, as if to make those scenes more bearable through the restrained choice of words. When the friendship blossoms between the young people and they start writing longer notes to each other, the style grows more descriptive, at times lyrical, at times painfully graphic, coltish just like the adolescents themselves. Finally, towards the end of the book, the language becomes much more impassioned, with the narrator engaging in a constant interior monologue (or imaginary dialogue with those around him), and his surroundings (the weather, the park) are coloured by his emotions.
There are glimmers of hope and beauty in this stifling world, and the book ends on a determined upbeat note.
Everything was beautiful. At the end of the street, a street I had walked down more times than I could count, I saw the other side for the first time, glowing white, I understood it. Through my tears, I saw the world come into focus. The world had depth now.. I opened my eyes as wide as I could, fighting to see it all…
But is the narrator’s determination justified, or is he doomed to be disappointed once more? The book ends on an ambiguous, and absolutely perfect final sentence.
This is a less ambitious and therefore much more coherent and well-structured story than Breasts and Eggs, but what is clear from reading two of her books so far (and hoping that there will be more of them to come in translation) is that Kawakami is an author to watch, who can move effortlessly between registers and styles, and develop convincing characters of all ages and genders.
I have always enjoyed befriending and talking to older ladies (older gentlemen too, although the relationship was occasionally tinged by complicated dynamics and disappointments). I suppose this comes from the excellent (although in one case far too brief) relationship I had with my grandmothers and my father’s eldest sister (from a big family, with my father being the youngest child, so she was more like a second mother to him). It’s easy to say that I had a better relationship with them than with my own mother (perhaps because I only saw them once or twice a year) as I was growing up, but they always felt much less conventional, with a more modern outlook than my mother.
I could not get enough of hearing the stories of women of their generation – their lives spanned most of the 20th century, so they experienced so many political, social, economic and technological changes. I felt I wanted to preserve and honour their memories, but they were also funny, wise and reassuring, providing me with so much food for thought and guidance on my own life. Perhaps this is what drove me towards studying social anthropology!
I like to think that the ladies in question also got something out of their friendship with me, that they occasionally caught a glimpse of the genuine love, interest and desire to amuse them lurking beyond my gauche manners and ignorant remarks. Of course, the downside of such friendships is that they are sadly all too brief, and that they leave you with a sense of regret that you didn’t listen more, meet more frequently, appreciate them more at the time.
Here is a small tribute to the very special ladies that lit up my life:
In November/December 1983 I was in hospital with a very nearly ruptured appendix. I was underweight for my height and was given too much anaesthetic when they operated on me, so that complicated matters a little and I ended up having to spend roughly a week in hospital. During that time there were two other ladies on my ward, and we became a fun-loving trio, getting so rowdy with laughter at times, that the nurses would come in and shush us, for fear we might tear our stitches.
Margareta Steriade – poet and painter, born in 1897, she studied in Paris, as was fashionable at the time, and had her first public exhibitions in 1929. She was ver much involved in the artistic circles of the 1930s and, being of Jewish origin like Mihail Sebastian, became a great friend of his and designed the cover of his hugely controversial novel For Two Thousand Years (made even more controversial because he chose to publish it with the virulent anti-semitic preface signed by his hitherto mentor Nae Ionescu – an early example of naming and shaming with their own words). She was the one who told me about Lilith being Adam’s first wife, thereby introducing me both to feminism and to questioning of myths and traditions. I was very unhappy with my looks at the time, felt my nose was too ‘fat’, that I was too tall and gangly, but she made me feel beautiful, said I had the perfect oval face and asked me to model for her.
Mrs Angheliade – I don’t think I ever knew her first name, I just felt it was disrespectful to call her anything less than ‘Doamna’ (Mrs). She was a couple of years older than Mrs Steriade. Her husband was descended from a Greek family and was a highly regarded lawyer or judge in the 1930-40s. After the Communists came to power following the 1947 elections in Romania, her husband was perceived as a hated remnant of the old regime and was sent to a labour camp. She had been a lawyer herself, but was not allowed to practice in her profession after her husband’s arrest. Their home was nationalised, and for a while she had to do manual work on the factory assembly line, and was severely criticised at every weekly workers’ meeting because of her background. She was quite open in telling us about all this, as if she was past caring about what any Securitate might do to her.
2. Betty – this was my landlady when I moved to London and lived in Golders Green for the first year of my Ph.D. I’ve written about her before, how full of life, film knowledge and romantic notions she was. A big child with a booming laugh. I still miss her so much!
3. I met several inspiring ladies at the Geneva Writers Group in 2012 (by which point, I could no longer be described as Spring, by any stretch of the imagination, but these ladies were still way ahead of me in terms of lived experience and wisdom). Many of them were outstanding writers, and I always enjoyed listening to them share their work. Ginny, Sally, Kathy, Susan and Karen in particular stand out. Ginny was funny, lively, always one of the ringleaders when it came to organising Christmas parties, and her little dog was almost as much loved as she was. Sally was what I imagined Barbara Pym to have been: quiet, with a very English reserve at first glance, but a wicked sense of humour and a very observant eye. Kathy was such a true international that for a long time I thought she was from an entirely different country – she was so warm and caring that I’d have liked her to have been my mother. Susan Tiberghien I have talked about before (and reviewed): she was the founder of the Geneva Writers’ Group, a woman with formidable energy and generosity of spirit. And Karen was my wonderful mentor, artist, poet, in whose house in Provence I found so much creativity even at a very low point in my life.
Incidentally, I am only using the past tense because, sadly, my stay in Geneva ended five years ago. The ladies themselves are still delightful and active, and wonderful friends (even if I haven’t been great at keeping in touch).
4. Nordic walking group – As I get older, so the age gap between me and my older friends gets smaller. Nevertheless, I am the youngest of my Nordic walking group, even if some of them are only 10 years older than me. They have grown-up children, have been through all the worries engulfing me now, and have an endless reserve of anecdotes and good humour. They are also much fitter than me on the whole, it has to be said – so excellent role models on how to keep active and social in the years ahead.
I know I always pick on Facebook, but I really don’t like the showing-offiness of that platform. I haven’t completely abandoned it, because it did help me to reconnect with some long-lost school friends, but I visit it as little as possible.
Afright from a nightmare where my mother once more
waxes satirical about my weight,
I shake off the sludge of family binds and turn
to my friends in the blue glow of pre-dawn screens.
That’s the way we do it now: no calling, no comfort
Last night I dreamt that I had met up with an old friend of mine, whom I haven’t seen in ten years or so. I see her occasional updates on Facebook, but I don’t know much about her anymore or how her life has turned out. It’s important to make that clear, that what follows has little bearing to reality.
In my dream, she was turning cartwheels in a nature reserve somewhere in Valais. [How do I know it was there? Well, some lovely St. Bernard puppies were playing with her in the field.] When I remarked how happy and content she seemed, she turned to me quite seriously and said: ‘Don’t judge by appearances. You have no idea. I have to take strong painkillers for my back pain, follow my husband around to all sorts of different countries and I’ll be a franchisee, for heaven’s sake!’
So then I became all competitive and shouted at her: ‘Call that trouble? You should try being me, unemployed, divorced, got a rejection every single day last week – no rest even at the weekend – plus I’m not sure I can keep a roof over my head?’ [N.B. This is an exaggeration as well.]
The woman who was feeding the St. Bernards and cleaning out their litter boxes [yes, I know that’s for cats, not dogs, but in dreams nothing quite makes sense, does it?] turned and said: ‘You should try being my sister: her husband was killed for protesting against the dictator, her child has cystic fibrosis and can’t get treatment in their country, and she has been waiting for two years to get vetted but is now rejected by the US and has spent all her money on the application process.’
I don’t remember if the puppies then licked all of our faces to make us feel better, but I awoke soon after and started wondering what my friend was up to and why we had lost touch (our email addresses kept changing is one reason). Meanwhile, the barrage of world news is relentless, while my mother’s idea of support and encouragement is to phone me regularly to tell me how overweight I am and how discriminated women over 50 are when looking for a job (I am not yet 50), while my father gets me in a panic about the political situation in Romania. Private and public depression and stagnation intermingle, or, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, so much more eloquently than me:
One of the essential aspects of depression is the sense that you will always be mired in this misery, that nothing can or will change. There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.
So how do you keep going under the circumstances? With some great books and beautiful quotes, of course. (Motivational wallpapers not included, but here are some pictures which cheer me up.)
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgement. (JFK)
So much world all at once –
How it rustles and bustles.
The joy of writing:
The power of preserving
Revenge of a mortal hand. (Wisława Szymborska)
Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art. (Andy Warhol)
Poetry changes the poet and, if you do your job rightly, it changes the reader. What’s being composed is me. (Gwyneth Lewis)
Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope. (Martin Luther King)
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. (Helen Keller)
A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. (B.F. Skinner)
It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It is also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse one. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. (Rebecca Solnit)
As far as I can see from here almost everyone I know is trying to do the impossible every day. All mothers, all writers, all artists of every kind, every human being who has work to do and still wants to stay human and to be responsive to another human being’s needs, joys and sorrows. There is never enough time and that’s the rub… creation depends as much on laziness as on hard work. (May Sarton)
When I first moved to London, I was shocked at the state of student accommodation (at least for my college). However, I was very lucky to find a spacious room with a bay window in the beautiful neighbourhood of Golders Green. I lived in the house with my landlady Betty, who was then in her 70s, but whose love of life, humour and vivacity placed her somewhere in her 20s, very close to my age.
Betty told me so much about her life, her family, about being Jewish, about war-time in Britain. We shared a deep love for films and music, for literature and for laughter. She gave me so much companionship that I never felt lonely in a big city and foreign country for a minute, even though I was going through some personal turmoil at the time. She gave me so much and all she asked in return was that I keep my non-kosher food on a separate shelf in the fridge from hers.
I only lived in her house for 8 months or so, before I set off to do my fieldwork abroad, but we remained friends. I introduced her to my future husband, then to my children. I kept moving around and kept inviting her to my new homes, but she was getting more and more reluctant to travel. We kept in touch sporadically via phone and birthday cards or Christmas and Hannukah. She was not on email, of course, and I gradually lost the habit of letter-writing. Fortunately, I did go to visit her in 2011, just before relocating to France.
This weekend I received a small card in response to the Christmas/Hannukah card that I had sent to Betty in December. It was from her sister, Sybil, to say that Betty had died peacefully in her house in Golders Green in the summer.
I find myself writing through tears. Tears of sorrow for the loss of one of life’s great originals. But also tears of guilt that I have been so bad at keeping in touch, that it took me so many months to find out about the death of a friend. Ah, yes, the usual excuses apply – the distance, the busy-ness, the cost of international phone calls – all those easy little white lies that slither off our tongue like maggots.
But when it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than your friends, than the people you love. Make time for them. Because some day it might be too late.
Bless you, Betty, and thank you. It has been such a privilege to know you. RIP.