This post is probably going to annoy a lot of translators, academics, publishers and critics – so it’s just as well that not many of them read my blog. I’ve recently read two books which made me wonder if some people consider learning a new language or translating literary fiction to be an opportunity to show off.
Maybe I am not the right person to be criticising this approach, since I was fortunate enough to grow up trilingual and therefore never had to work hard at languages or think of them as something to boast about. I hasten to add that I will always, always admire people who make themselves vulnerable by learning a new language, and that I am endlessly grateful to translators for making so much wonderful work available to us readers. I can also spend hours or even days debating punctuation marks or a particular word when translating a text – a pleasure-challenge-despair that only other translators will understand, while normal people will say ‘Get over yourselves!’ However, at times, it feels like a performance sport: who can be most opaque, most complicated, most scholarly – and thus most ‘valuable’ as a language expert and translator? Under the guise of being most ‘congruent with the original’, I find tortuous language patterns and syntax in the English translations which occasionally might give me a small flavour of the original, but usually end up putting me off that particular author.
I am by no means a proponent of smoothing things so much for readers that they feel they are reading an English book (someone commented recently on my blog that they translated Reichsmark currency in Emil and the Detectives as pounds in a recent edition!!!). Yet overcomplicating things simply to show off your erudition also feels like a disservice to readers – and ultimately to the authors themselves. This tends to happen less with the major languages (French, German, Spanish), where you have professional translators who are extremely good at capturing the right tone. But publishers of translations from ‘small’ languages tend to prefer academics to do the translation – probably as a quality assurance tool – and the result can be deplorable.
Take for example Nostalgia by MirceaCărtărescu. It is one of his best and most accessible ‘novels’ if we can call it that (it is a loosely-linked set of novellas), but the translation by Julian Semilian feels heavy-handed and verbose. I am not saying that the author is not verbose in the original, but he is limber and lithe, playful with language, skipping through metaphors, slippery yet hypnotic – everything that Javier Marias is, but which is rendered so elegantly and easily into English by Margaret Jull Costa.
Meanwhile, Nostalgia is anything but effortless. Whole paragraphs seem lumbersome and clumsy, but there are certain phrases which simply sound wrong in English.
Suddenly the animation of the ‘stockholders’ – as I was to find out was the name given to those who bet on this game – abated.
I claim no merit for knowing him or that I can write about him.
For better than ten years’ time…
While I wrote these lines, my room, my tomb, has whirled so quickly through the black fog outside that I got sick.
Of course, there is an additional element to that confusion and I’ve ranted about it before. When you only get a few translated titles from Eastern Europe every year, publishers tend to prefer those that fit in with their preconceptions of what that should look like (and what they think readers expect): difficult, worthy, filled with trauma, mainly about the disaster of Communism (if you aim to sell more than a few copies) or post-modernistically dense (if you wish to appeal to a niche audience and get reviewed in academic journals). And yet Ottilie Mulzet’s translation of László Krasznahorkai (who is all of the above) seems capable of conveying the endless sentences and breathless narrator voice without making them too impenetrable and off-putting.
I look forward to reading Sean Cotter’s translation of Solenoid when it comes out and seeing what he makes of Cărtărescu’s later style (although I think it is a weaker work in the original). I would certainly recommend Cotter’s translation of Vol. 1 of the Blinding trilogy, if you want a better introduction to Cărtărescu’s work (I do have quite a lot of issues with the way he portrays women in his work though – very typical of Romanian male writers or perhaps Murakami Haruki). See what Tony Malone thought of that book.
If you feel I’ve been too harsh with Julian Semilian, I should say that on paper he seemed to be an excellent translator for this particular author: they are of roughly the same age, Semilian was born in Romania but soon moved to the States, where he had a successful career as a Hollywood film editor, and more recently as a writer and documentary filmmaker. He corresponded with the author during the translation process and I can imagine they became friends. But I couldn’t help feeling that Julian is not immersed in the Romanian language and culture, especially not in the way it has evolved since he left the country – it does not come as naturally as breathing to him, so he overthinks it. [Or maybe he is just too much of an academic now.]
This ‘immersion’ is precisely the subject of the second book that made me ponder on linguistic expertise recently: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. I read the bilingual version, with the Italian on the left-hand side and the English on the right, and was surprised to discover I could understand quite a bit of the Italian – which Italian speakers have told me is partly because the author starts out with quite simple, basic Italian, but that it gets more sophisticated as it goes along. I enjoyed this book and found the passages about growing up bilingual but with very different approaches to the two languages extremely relatable. However, it seemed more self-absorbed and far less interesting than Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, which is also about falling in love with a language and a culture.
I too have recently started learning Italian for no other reason other than that I love the language and the culture – but I did not feel that I was getting a full sense of the beauty, charm, history of the place and its people in this book. For something that has been labelled ‘a love story’, there was little attempt to capture just what made the object of one’s love so irresistible. I admired the hard work and determination in learning the language, and I could understand the temptation of starting afresh in a new language, the freedom of being allowed to be imperfect. But at times she does make things needlessly complicated and repetitive, and I feel like saying: ‘Get over yourself!’ Still, I was relieved to discover this was not Eat Pray Love with a lexicon attached. Despite its simplistic style (a style that is neither English nor Italian, I feel, but hovers somewhere in the middle), there are moments of true insight, beautifully expressed.
Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.
In conclusion, I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am glad that translators are gaining more visibility and sharing their thoughts on the challenges of moving between languages and cultures. I greatly enjoyed Daniel Hahn’s translation diary, for example, and found much food for thought there. I am pleased that language learning and translation are viewed as serious and praiseworthy undertakings. But, just like in ballet I admire something that seems effortless even though I know the huge amount of effort that goes into it, I prefer translations to feel as natural as leaves on a tree, not to poke my eyes out with their branches.
This became such an epic long post that I divided it into two. In the first part, I considered Teodoreanu’s literary legacy and the plot. In this part, I will discuss the characters and their relationships, make more comparisons to other family sagas, and mention Teodoreanu’s controversial literary style. I do sometimes wonder why I spend so many hours rereading, thinking and writing a blog post that at best a handful of people will read and comment on. It may not be the best use of my time, but if I did not believe in trying to spread the word for Romanian literature (and culture more generally) against all obstacles such as lack of funding, lack of translations, but above all lack of interest… I would have given up a long time ago. Nevertheless, I persevere because I think it is a worthy cause… Te Digna Sequere and all that!
Although Dan is the author’s alter ego and official main character, and we get to see many scenes through his eyes (in a close third person POV), it is clear that Olguța is the author’s (and everyone else’s) favourite. Teodoreanu fell in love with his creation and allowed himself to be carried away by her energy, exuberance and creativity. The author later admitted that he went for long walks in the countryside, weeping at the thought of killing her off, but that it was the only possible outcome. Almost like a comet that shines too brightly to last. She is one of the most appealing and memorable feminine characters in all of Romanian literature (and possibly beyond). I struggle to think of any comparable character, especially at the time this was written: imagine a Pippi Longstocking who grows up, a Maggie Tulliver who is not hemmed in by society. Perhaps Jo March or Colette’s Claudine come closest.
She is presented as a tomboy with jet-black hair, a demon full of mischief, yet also full of concern and loyalty for the people around her. She is quick-witted, well-read, interested in everything, sporty, rapidly picking up on people’s foibles and poking fun at them. This can come across as cruel on occasion, but she can also be far too trusting with the people she likes. Unlike with the Cazalets, there is no expectation that daughters are only there to marry and produce offspring. Olguța (always in the diminutive, as if she never quite grows up) is also remarkably free to get a good education and become whatever she wants to be – not sure if that was generally reflective of the upper middle classes in Romania at the time, or simply because of the highly cultured milieu that Teodoreanu was a part of. A couple of times the grown-ups around her lament the fact that she is not a boy, because she would have made an even greater lawyer than her father, so it’s clear that option, at least, is not quite open to her. She also rushes off to join the man she loves and they clearly spend a few happy days together ‘in sin’, without there being any huge outcry or disapproval either from the others in the book or the author himself – a very different state of affairs from Sally On the Rocks by Winifred Boggs, for example (I have just read a few reviews of that book). Clearly, the Romanians are closer to the French rather than the English in terms of ‘prudishness’ (or lack thereof).
Upon rereading the book now, I notice that Olguța can be too much at times: too loud, too expressive, too critical, too opinionated. I wonder if that comes from years of living in the quieter, more repressed British society. I wonder if Italians, Spaniards and Greeks might not find her excessive at all, merely high-spirited. I was often compared to her in my youth, and was criticised for my exuberance when I first came to England, but I wish I’d kept more of her spirit in my later years. Would Olguța have mellowed as much as I did as she grew older and had a family? Would she have turned into her mother – who is a bit of a Moominmamma, although she has given up her career as a pianist to do so?
What is interesting is that, although we are often in close third person POV with the other characters, even some of the secondary ones, we are not all that often privy to Olguța’s private thoughts. We see her opening the package that was mistakenly sent to Monica but was intended for her brother’s lover in Bucharest, and we see her interrogating the servant about it, then jumping on the train to pay her brother a visit, rather than page after page of agonising over what it all means and what she should do next. Until the final volume, where she becomes more secretive and thoughtful and sad, we see Olguța constantly in action, like the whirlwind she seems to be in her household. The very last scene of the trilogy describes a gust of wind passing through the orchard and the rooms of the old manor house, and Monica and Dănuț instantly liken it to Olguța.
Meanwhile, Monica, the quieter, more feminine, more beautiful blonde heroine, is almost dull, if it weren’t for her profound feelings of friendship and loyalty, her quiet determination and sense of justice. She is the diplomat, forever trying to mediate between the two stormy Deleanu siblings. She is calm and kind, the resting point for the extravagantly generous and passionate Olguța. There is something of the blank slate about the characterisation of Monica – as if she represents the ideal woman or ‘the eternal feminine’, as one critic called her, whom everyone likes to imagine slightly differently. In my childhood, I thought of the two ‘sisters’ as Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. But one thing bugged me: Monica seems the perfect maternal figure, yet she is the one who goes on to study for a doctorate – would she have given all that up when she had children?
Dănuț quite frankly annoyed me even more upon this reread than he did in my youth (and he annoyed me a lot even back then). He is so self-absorbed, so hypersensitive and needy, so entitled in every way… and yet, as a child, you cannot help but feel ever so slightly sorry for him when his younger sister so easily outwits and mocks him. Later on in life, he learns his lessons and becomes a much better person. He is at his best with Monica by his side or in his heart, although by putting her on a pedestal of purity, he is also limiting her options should she ever choose to behave less than perfectly. He needs an Olguța to cut him down to size every now and then. He is the quintessential dreamy idealist who rushes too quickly into things, takes people at face value and is doomed to be disappointed many times before he learns. Yet he will be the one who conveys the spirit of Medeleni to future generations through his story-telling.
Mircea is also an idealist, but he does not have the sense of entitlement and privilege that Dan has. He is straitlaced and conscientious, hard-working, unsure of himself, very self-critical. He tends to chew his pencils nervously, which earns him the nickname Hardmuth (given to him, of course, by Olguța). He is more pragmatic than the Deleanus (perhaps because he loses his father quite early on and is not as wealthy) – in a way, he is the one most similar to the rest of us. He has been uplifted by his friendship with the talented, lively, almost too good to be true Deleanus, but he is the survivor, the one who has made peace with the inevitable disappointment of life and what it takes to advance on the career ladder.
The secondary characters, the ones who play a small part, or who come to the forefront in just one of the volumes, are equally well-rounded and believable. Even the ones that you fear might descend into cliché (the vapid coquette, the stuttering amiable classmate, the horny fourteen-year-old) reveal further and unexpected layers. The one character that fails to convince me is Vania, although Teodoreanu does his best to convince us of the uniquely charismatic qualities of this rugged giant. To my adolescent mind, there was something of the Sylvia Plath attraction to Ted Hughes to this relationship between Olguța and Vania and I dread to think how disappointing it might have been for them both in later life.
One striking difference between this family saga and the Cazalets is the way class is treated, although no doubt in both there is a whiff of nostalgia which those ‘below stairs’ might disperse if they were to write their memoirs. It’s interesting that La Medeleni opens in 1907, which was the year of the (ultimately unsuccessful and brutally suppressed) Peasants’ Revolt in Romania, which started in Moldova, where the book is set. The event is mentioned in passing – as one of the arguments for why Moldova is declining and Dănuț should move to study in Bucharest – but it certainly was a defining moment for Romanian intellectuals, when they clearly sided with the peasantry rather than the government. It led to further land reforms (and all sorts of bans on local organisations), but above all it contributed to the ‘idealisation’ of the rural lifestyle and the simple, good-hearted folk, as evidenced by the Sămănătorism movement (grouped around the literary and political review Sămănătorul ‘The Sower’, a paen to rural traditionalism, neoromanticism and nationalism).
The relationship between Moș Gheorghe and Olguța (and previously Moș Gheorghe and Alice, Olguța’s mother) has that ‘lifelong faithful servant’ feel to it, but he is also a grandfather replacement, someone who has time for the children in a way that their own parents don’t always have. He is more like the governess Miss Milliment in the Cazalet Chronicles, almost part of the family yet not quite (although he owns his own house and small bit of land), and it is heartbreaking that all of the money he has spent on expensive silks and embroidered cloths as a dowry for Olguța’s wedding – he is the traditionalist who wants to see her married, clearly – goes to waste, because they end up rotting in the wooden trunk he had lovingly prepared for her. He is one of the best-loved characters in La Medeleni, and appears again and again in different guises in Teodoreanu’s work.
Other servants are not treated as kindly, for example pretty young Sevastiţa seems to become a rite of passage for all the younger men in the Deleanu family. One other person does stand out though: the cook, ‘Baba (Old Woman)’, has added to her traditional repertoire and is highly regarded by the whole family but particularly beloved by Olguța. She is kicked out by Mrs Deleanu while Olguța is abroad, because she is frequently drunk, but then shows up at the last minute before the girls are due back, convinced that no one else can give them the culinary welcome they deserve. Love clearly goes through the stomach for Moldovans, no wonder the cook is important, and there are many lovely descriptions of the lengthy meals they enjoy:
Olguța and Monica had forgotten the dimensions and duration of a Romanian banquet. Compared to the meals in France, the Romanian ones are like sauntering around in a carriage, as opposed to the precision of a journey in a taxi. By the time you reach the last course – which, incidentally, in Romania and in Moldova in particular, is the last but one – the previous courses are nothing else but vague memories, lost somewhere beyond the horizon…’
The Deleanu family itself represents an interesting mix of classes. Iorgu Deleanu and his brother were certainly not from a poor family, but not from an excessively wealthy one either. They studied hard to enter prestigious professions – one became a lawyer, the other an engineer – and they are reliant on their jobs to earn money to support a family in the case of the former, or an extravagant lifestyle in the case of the latter. It is Mrs Alice Deleanu who is a descendant of the Moldovan aristocracy, who owns land and property – but the author never brings up a sense of class difference between the spouses. Teodoreanu can be indirectly quite critical about the landed gentry, as in the case of Ioana Palla, who seems to have nothing better to do than to interfere and manipulate people. There are poorer relatives in the countryside, which is how Puiu ends up in their household: the clever little boy who needs to live with the relatives in the big city so that he has a chance to go to a good school and fulfill his potential. This practice still holds true today in Romania, and even in the supposedly egalitarian Communist society – my parents hosted and sponsored countless sons and daughters of friends and relatives who came to Bucharest for private tuition or exams.
‘Metaforel (Metaphorkins)’ is the way Olguța teases her brother, and this is indeed what some literary critics at the time called Teodoreanu himself. Influenced by French symbolism and prose poetry, by the rural idyllism of Sămănătorism and the Moldovan love of storytelling (the Moldovans are best understood as South-East European Irish, who are either born poets or have kissed the Blarney Stone), and trying to capture a vanished way of life, it was perhaps inevitable that the literary style of La Medeleni can feel too rich, too ornate at times, and give you indigestion.
Despite the critics’ derision of what they called the ‘medelenisation of literature’, Teodoreanu achieves a balancing act that few of his interwar generation managed – the balance between the more traditionalist, patriarchal, Oriental-Balkanic style of storytelling and the modernist Western style. At his best, he can be extremely evocative and there are countless memorable scenes, appealing to all the senses, bursting with colour and movement.
The problem is that the book tries to be too many things at once. It is a family saga as well as a Bildungsroman, it is also an opportunity for the author to air his opinions about literature, art and music, or the shortcomings of politics and the justice system. There are far too many tangential topics thrown in, which have little bearing on the main story or even in conferring depth upon certain characters, such as the first case Dan has to defend as a lawyer (a controversial case of incest). It might be interesting (if uncomfortable from a contemporary woman’s perspective), but it just goes on for far too long. Same with the endless excerpts of ‘prose poetry’ from Dan’s notebooks. Stop, we get it, no need to insist…
This is one of the reasons why this trilogy will never get translated in its entirety (I’ve heard rumours that someone is attempting a translation into French at the moment, but nothing concrete yet). There is far too much that needs to be cut out, given a thorough edit, to appeal to modern readers. All of the literary discussion that was cutting edge at the time now sounds terribly dated. Unlike the Banffy trilogy, where the author was writing with the wisdom of hindsight of twenty or more years, or the Cazalet Chronicles, where the author has had to adapt to the sensitivities of society fifty years after the events described in the book, Teodoreanu’s world was one that he was still very much part of, even though it was beginning to disappear.
Nevertheless, as a portrait of a family and society, and as a description of a (rather privileged) country childhood, I think La Medeleni still bears up well. It may not have the social depth of the Transylvanian trilogy, or the appeal of the familiarity (for the British reader) of the Cazalet Chronicles, it may not cover as much ground as the Buddenbrooks, nor as dramatic a political period as Lampedusa’s The Leopard, but it is the closest that we come to any of these in Romanian literature.
HOLD THE PRESS for some just-in glorious news! The first volume has just been translated into English and is available from Histria Press. Huge thanks to Other Words Books, who did some exploration and found this momentous item of news and let me know about it!
I was offline while visiting the city of my childhood, Vienna, and introducing my own children to the delights of Wiener Schnitzel (received with enthusiasm), Sachertorte (even more enthusiasm) and Apfelstrudel (less so). There were fewer old classmates at the school anniversary than I expected, but it was nevertheless exciting to be back. Missed flight on the way out, additional expenses, lack of internet access, endless construction sites and tired feet (which led to complaining children) did not dampen my ardour. I’ve written about my love for Vienna before, which even extends to its crime fiction.
And yet… I was reminded how difficult it is to recreate the city that once meant so much to you. That city is lost forever, no matter how hard you try to fit the sparkling fragments together. Here is something I wrote a while back about it.
I started musing how my whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them. I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine. When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind. With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave. Does anybody else feel like that?
It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent. I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time. But the experience is unrepeatable. Even if I go back with the best of good intentions to that country, it will never feel the same again. If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely. Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more. It will certainly never again feel like home.
I was very lucky a few years ago to return for a couple of months to Vienna in almost exactly the same conditions I had lived there before during my childhood. I stayed with a friend who had known me since I was three, she lived just a few streets down from where I had grown up. Vienna itself is a city that changes subtly rather than rapidly, so I found myself remembering even the tram routes and little shops. I met up with old friends and slipped easily into dialect. And yet… I am not that same person, I am not the same age, I do not have that same attitude and innocence. Vienna was lovely, welcoming, filled with nostalgia for me… All the externals were right, but it was no longer home.
People do ask me: ‘Don’t you feel bad about having no place to call home?’ and I often laugh it off, saying: ‘But I feel at home anywhere!’ And I certainly do believe that and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to call so many beautiful places home. (Also, any place that is home becomes beautiful, even if it didn’t look so promising to start off with.)
But sometimes I do wonder if, by leaving little chunks of my heart in so many different places, I will end up in smithereens. And why I couldn’t spend more time in those places where I have been happiest.
What place do you call home? Do you feel you can repeat your experience of living in a certain place, or is it best to just wallow in unfulfilled nostalgia?
I want to be once more on the land
when April brings a frosty surprise,
where even August can powder with snow.
September smiles indolent and clement, umbrellas are pointless.
Lime trees put on a show as they fall in our hair,
as we hide in their tunnels, as we skip class at school.
I want indigestion with memories both false and true.
I want clothes for all seasons,
and not just babies with fuzz-ripened skin.
Sharp-clawed darkness, the wolves howling from forests
that linger primordial near clean-ploughed fields.
I want you and I to be younger,
not necessarily a happy end.
I am linking this to Open Link Night at the dVerse Poets Pub, where the living is easy, the drinks are plentiful and the poetry is magnificent!
by the grey rain streaks echoed on my kitten’s fur
as she sits all pensive on the window sill.
All I notice are water-stained window panes.
My brain fries synapses and skips seven beats.
She darts forth on sure-footed pads through the snow
like a lynx in the mountains I no longer have before me
to make up for the fault in my wiring.
I missed the deadline on dVerse Poets for the poetic prompt on anthropomorphism of beloved pets, but I am not sure that this poem would have been quite suitable for it anyway. So I am linking it instead to Open Link Night. Join me there for some poetic fun during this month of poetry celebration!
It seems that everyone and their dog has been to see La La Land this past weekend and I was no exception. Oh, yes, I succumb to herd instinct just as well as anyone, although the Golden Globe wins very nearly put me off (I perversely don’t like films that make a clean sweep of things). But I wanted to make up my own mind and I rather like musicals: West Side Story, An American in Paris and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg are among my favourite films ever.
So here’s my verdict (spoilers ahead, so don’t read now if you are planning on seeing it): sweet and very nostalgic, a piece of escapism for hard times, but a bit too self-congratulatory for my taste. And by that, I don’t mean the endless film references, which I quite enjoyed.
First of all, the good bits. The music was very enjoyable, even though I would describe the singing of the male and female leads as brave rather than impressive. Even the white mansplaining of jazz did not disturb me as much as it did other viewers, because I am all about promoting the love of jazz in whatever form. Admittedly, I would agree with the character played by John Legend, who says the best way to keep jazz alive is not to enshrine it in a museum, but to keep on experimenting with it and updating it. The love story had both a floaty-happy feel to it, but was not overly sentimental, there was a hint of realism (and of the screwball comedies of the 1930s).
However, what irritated me was the supposed highlight of the film, when Mia auditions for the role of her life, to be filmed in Paris. She talks/sings about following your dream, being creative and different, trying your best – and this is Hollywood at its most cloying self-delusional state. This is Hollywood as it would like to believe it is: pushing the boundaries, open to new things. They think they want the eccentrics and misfits and true originals, when in fact most of the time they are focused on the box office results and keep remaking old successes (Beauty and the Beast, Ghostbusters) or sequel after sequel of tried and tested favourites, like X-Men 234 or Fast and Furious 32 or whatever number they’ve reached.
Also, if the message of the film was that you can’t have it all: the outstanding career, fame, success and the soulmate of your dreams, it nevertheless reiterated the idea of ‘follow your passion’, ‘don’t give up’, ‘you can excel at some thing’. But what about those of us who have only average talents, who end up with middling lives, a so-so relationship, a family they sometimes love to pieces but occasionally resent, a career that doesn’t live up to expectations but pays most of the bills, perhaps express some of their talent as hobbies at weekends? About 85% of people (rough estimate) end up like that (and that’s the best case scenario, for others will struggle to make ends meet or develop any talents at all). Well, I suppose life would become unbearable if we didn’t believe ourselves capable of moving outside that 85%? And if we are already resigned to it, then we probably head off to see La La Land and other cosy nostalgic fare with occasional flashes of inspiration. A mug of tea which reminds us of the ballerina or astronaut or Nobel Prize Winner we knew we were going to become.
Nostalgia, of course, does well in times of uncertainty and anxiety about world events. Comfort reading and comfort viewing will thrive in the era of melancholy that ‘nothing is as good as it used to be’, combined with the ‘Weltschmerz’ of directionless panic, the sensation of trying to build on quicksand and having doors slammed in your face. So I don’t blame La La Land for playing the nostalgia card.
But perhaps it’s worth remembering that nostalgia was a term coined in the late 17th century by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, to refer to the seeming depression displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting far away from home. It was more than homesickness, and returning home did not always cure them – sometimes it even killed them. As any expat returning ‘home’ knows: home has moved on. Nostalgia is not the longing for a specific place, but for a different time, an idealised time which most likely never existed, when things were simpler, choices more clear-cut.
The alternative dream of Sebastian and Mia in La La Land remains beautiful and precious because it was never given a chance. In reality, it may well have descended into incompatible aspirations, rancour and petty arguments. I had my own Sebastian in high school, the only person who ever held me to account over my writing ambitions and who believed I had the talent. I used to wonder how much we might have achieved together, but the truth is…
Life and the relentless day-to-day of it makes mincemeat of us all. Uncertainty and mess is all that we’ve got. The desire for rest and order and beauty is our only weapon against it. Call it nostalgia, if you will.
Sacha Black has a ‘Writespiration‘ this week themed around a nostalgia that hurts in less than 200 words. I’ll give you first the flash fiction, then the back story.
When you are thirteen, your cousin’s best friend is the knight from fairy tales: tall, dark, handsome, blue-eyed. How could he walk, talk, breathe amongst us mere mortals? And yet he looked at you, kissed you, so you wrote to each other for two years. You lived for your brief meetings. No cross word ever passed between you.
You parted as good friends, moved on to other lives, other people, marriage, children, divorce, remarriage. You studied and worked in different countries, met again on LinkedIn. Grey hair, little paunch, wrinkles – and that’s just the flattering pictures. Older yet not much wiser, you knew he had been The One, but you were both too young to understand or to need each other all those years ago. No going back, no proof of discontent with your present life, but you wanted to let him know how you felt about him back then.
You let him in through a gap in your armour. You held out the shivering pulp of raw heart. You try to be fair, not see disgust or hasty retreat where none was intended. But the silence was thunderous.
He was my cousin’s neighbour and best friend. He was like something out of fairy-tales: tall, dark and handsome, with the most amazing blue eyes. I couldn’t believe someone as beautiful as that could walk and talk and do all the normal (i.e. silly) things that my cousin and I were doing.
Whenever I passed through the town where my aunt and uncle lived, we would go out in a large group of friends for walks, go rowing on the lake, get lost in the forest, linger through cemeteries. The usual teenager stuff. We laughed, we talked, and I dared not hope that he would ever think of me as more than Bobby’s little cousin.
And then one day our fingers brushed against each other. A silence fell between the two of us, as our hands found each other. The others continued to walk and joke, but we felt set apart. Our eyes were drinking each other in.
We never lived in the same town, so for a couple of years after that we lived on letters and phone calls. There was one public phone at the post office in the village where he went to boarding school and he was only allowed to use it once a week. I would try to plan my weekends around that call, never quite knowing at what time it would come.
But life went on and others entered our lives. We parted as good friends. We both married young, divorced, formed new relationships, had children. We found each other again online, with careers taking us all over the world, with a few extra kilos and greying hair.
The moment has passed. Our courage and idealism have withered, even if a small seed beneath remains unchanged. There is no use asking: ‘What if…?’ We were too young then to know that we had already found the perfect partner all those years ago.
So we beat on, boats against the current….
This was one of the very first stories I wrote for Cowbird on the 14th of February, 2012 for the Valentine’s Day collection. The theme was ‘First Love’. I felt the story would be incomplete if the above-mentioned first love did not get a chance to read it. We had recently got in touch again after decades of not hearing much about each other (he had found me on Linked In). We had parted on good terms, we had moved on, had rich and fulfilling lives, so there was nothing desperate or stalkerish about my email to him with the link to the story.
I just wanted him to know how much he had meant to me at the time. Because I was too young and foolish back then to express it.
It’s been four years since I sent that email. I have not heard from him at all since. Not on Linked In or email or anything else.
I know emails can get stuck in spam folders or deleted. People can get busy or forgetful. The heartbreak is minor, negligible, easy to laugh at wryly, easy to explain away. It was, after all, so long ago. Spring has come and new life is budding forth. I am full of energy and plans, I do not look back.
But beyond all the excuses and shrugs… there is a younger, more tremulous heart within this hardened crust which does now have scars. And the memory of that first love is no longer quite so serene.
Easter is the biggest annual celebration in the Greek Orthodox church, so at this time of year I tend to get rather homesick. I failed to find the right kind of dye (traditionally, it should be red) for my Easter eggs this year, so I’ll have to make do with these beautiful images from home. Happy Easter to all of you who are celebrating this weekend!
I went to London recently and walked through the Barbican Centre on a balmy evening. All of a sudden, I remembered the first time I had come here, when I was still new to England and to Western ways of being.
Was it November or February?
We were down from Cambridge for the day.
Nights fell early, that I do know.
A few lost flakes of snow found us embracing on terraces
as we meandered through endless walkways.
Twenty years and we still haven’t found the play or entrance to the theatre.
How we giggled as yet another dead end loomed,
never thinking that soon
we would face our own
blocked corridors, no-exit wounds.
We practiced our dancing by the lakeside, exulting
in winter dearth of its fountains
no parallels no metaphors
to make our ballroom steps falter.
Twenty years and yet
your hand feels warm
wrapped around mine, safety illusory.
Today the fountains are trumpeting water and sound
to fill hearts with peace, minds with Zen chanting.
There are still summer cadences to this September lull.
My life? Oh, turned out fair to middling,
not as deeply blissful as I once glimpsed
through our entwined limbs on narrow college bed.
So why do I stop to ripple out, retreat,
why allow my heart to drum out aching beats?
You see, I was hoping
that you too might never have felt such joy since,
such lust-laden satiety.
But now I think it likely
you have, and more than once,
it’s just me
who lingers on borders of might have beens
slurping in nostalgia along with daily bread
destined to mourn not be mourned over
remember rather than be memorable.
When they open me after death
and find the wizened heart of walnut size,
they will see your name folded in tightly
source of all the dry rot
killing belief in mumbo-jumbo of twin souls.
Once, when I was twenty, I was not brave enough
to defy conventions
and go out to meet my turquoise-fired lover.
And I’ve been paying ever since.
[This is very much work in progress, only a rough initial draft of the poem. But the impression of the setting was so immediate, so vivid that it made me cry and I felt compelled to share, especially since we were asked to revisit something painful at dVerse Poets today. I’m off to read what others have written about, why don’t you join me?]