Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Austro-Hungarian Empire

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.

 

 

Review of The Room by Jonas Karlsson (transl. Neil Smith)

It’s that time of year when Christmas revelry has given way to austerity, when budgets are strained and when the daily grind of work and commuting becomes very nearly unbearable. So much so that the last or last-but-one Monday in January is frequently (though controversially) cited as Blue or Suicide Monday, the most depressing day of the year.

THE ROOM cover (1)So what better time to read this short but deadly satire against cubicle life? It is a wickedly humorous analysis of the lows (and no highs) of office life, as encountered by rather strait-laced, deadly-earnest but initially naive protagonist Björn. His organisation, which goes by the rather sinister name of ‘The Authority’, looks favourably upon those employees who are positive, efficient, ambitious and meticulous. Björn feels he has all of these qualities, but none of his colleagues or bosses seem to agree. It’s only when he discovers a mysterious room at the end of their open-plan office, that he finds a congenial place for his finicky temperament, a place where he can get his best work done, where he can really shine. Unfortunately, none of his other colleagues can enter or even see the room. Suspicion, misunderstandings and office wrangling for power abound and fester. As readers, we are swept along with the torrent of acerbic, witty observations, always seeing a little beyond Björn’s blinders, but also acknowledging the justice and sheer fun of his observations. I love the way he pokes fun at corporate jargon.

I got an email from Karl the other day. It was a group email to the whole department. The introduction alone made me suspect trouble: We will be putting staffing issues under a microscope. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the language knows that you put things under ‘the’ microscope, with the definite article. (Sadly, this sort of sloppiness is becoming more and more common as text message and email are taking over.) I let it pass this time, but knew that I would have to act if it happened again.

We suspect he might not be a reliable narrator, but his colleagues’ reactions are inexcusable, veering towards bullying. Case in point: the incident with the ‘indoor shoes’, which the well-intentioned but weak boss Karl buys for Björn. This results in a murmur of discontent around the office. This passage illustrates perfectly the author’s minimalist style:

‘Well…’ Jens said from over in the corner. ‘I’d just like to know… how much those shoes cost?’

‘The shoes?’ Karl said, stretching to his full height.

Jens nodded, with a self-important expression on his face.

‘I mean, they weren’t free, were they?’

‘No,’ Karl said, picking up a pen, which he drummed idly against the edge of the desk. ‘I took the liberty of – ‘

Jens didn’t let Karl finish his sentence.

‘So how daft do you have to behave to get a pair like that?’ he went on, to scattered laughter.

The absurd situations described with a straight face remind me of Eugène Ionesco. We find in both authors the same feeling of alienation, that step back to examine the banal everyday things we take for granted… and seeing them afresh for the ridiculous and surreal experiences which they really are.  Another way to read ‘The Room’ is as a failure of imagination, the tendency of the mainstream to fear those who are ‘different’. It is clear that the office workers object to Björn’s behaviour not because it threatens them in any way, but because he refuses to conform and fit in, because he is not part of the herd.

This book falls into a long tradition of quiet but steadfast rebellion against the tyranny of work. In Balzac’s ‘The Physiology of the Employee’, we read about personal expenses of employees being thoroughly examined, benefits being cut, and my all-time favourite sentence about the door on which ‘the sign reads “Human Resources,” which really strictly means “Human Capital,” and in practice amounts to little more than “Slave” ‘. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is every bit as prickly, difficult and unknowable as Björn. ‘The Authority’ for which Björn works has echoes of Kafka’s faceless, relentless bureaucracy in ‘The Castle’ (and Kafka’s diaries are full of his exhaustion and revulsion for office work). More recently, Ricky Gervais as David Brent made us squirm in recognition with his mockumentary ‘The Office’.

For a taster of the book (read by the author with a wonderful sing-song Swedish inflection), try this:

 

https://soundcloud.com/vintagebookspodcast/the-room-by-jonas-karlsson-what-are-you-doing/s-IGmxT

And here is the prize-winning animation of the book’s theme by a group of students from Kingston University:

The book is published today by Vintage Books in the UK. Thank you to the publisher and to Netgalley for an advance copy of this essential reading for anyone who has ever despaired of corporate life.