The Tidings of the Trees: #AsymptoteBookClub No. 7

The Asymptote Book Club selection for June is a slim volume by (East) German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. In the original German, this novella appeared in a collection together with other stories such as Old Rendering Plant, but Two Lines Press decided to publish the translations individually. It is also the first Book Club selection which is translated from a language that I read myself, so I was in two minds about it.

But what this book lacks in number of pages or in unknown language quality, it certainly makes up for in terms of depth, with a style that pushes you along to the finale. There is something to be said about allowing the wave of prose and ideas to crash over you in one sitting. I read it in one day, in three distinct gulps, but I also want to return to it and reread at leisure, to observe the nuances.

Although written in 1991-92, after the fall of the Wall, the book reminded me very much of literature written under the threat of censorship: you write about one thing, but in fact what you are really writing about is something completely different. The subject of the book is ostensibly a worker-writer Waller talking about his writer’s block, bemoaning the chopping down of the cherry trees in his home town and describing his childish stand-off with the garbage collectors. In fact, we could interpret this story in several different ways.

One would be the destruction of nature in the brown-coal industrial area of Germany where the author originally came from. Ash and dust seem to permeate every page of the book, threatening to engulf the town, the narrator, the reader. But the ash quickly turns into something else: historical ash, layer after layer, covering the world in the silence of complicity or self-censorship. For there is undoubtedly an overt political message to this book. A whole country and political system is being relegated to the rubbish heap, a whole population has had its thoughts infiltrated ‘by the ghastly substance of the ash, which is nothing but gray stuff, dry and thundery, hard and unfeeling and burned-out’.

Then there are the garbagemen, unknowable, sinister beings, although Waller tries a game of one-man-upship with them. But are they really sinister, or are they the equivalent of the Trümmerfrauen, those almost mythical women who sorted through the rubble after the Second World War and helped to rebuild it? In the meantime, of course, we know that the Trümmerfrauen image is a bit of a myth, that the rubble was in fact cleared by prisoners both during and after the war. To what extent are those mysterious garbagemen themselves prisoners, or are they the guards of the prison camp? Or are they the ones who get to sift through the past, perhaps even seek to preserve it, while governments erase history and people are only too eager to forget. But what is worth preserving – and who gets to decide it?

Hilbig in the beer garden in Leipzig., 1985. From the Wolfgang Hilbig Society website.

Hilbig describes perfectly the claustrophobic sense of stagnation of living in a country closed off from the outside world, a soundproof room,  and passages such as the one below resonated profoundly with me and explains the sense of ‘protection from the unknown’ that Communism also brought to many:

We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no real relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside… outside everything rushed to its doom.

A book which resurfaced many old memories through its half-hinting, half-deliberate metaphors, and perhaps explains the drive for joining the EU, so I shall add it to the #EU27Project. Hilbig was a vocal critic of the GDR regime, and only got to publish one book there before he was forced to move abroad in 1985. He has, however, won every German literature prize worth having since then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not a New Situation

For all those who have been paying attention to the debate about increasing diversity in publishing or Lionel Shriver’s fears that opening up to diverse content might also dilute that content somehow (and she is not the only one who feels the citadelle is under attack), for all those who were surprised by the fact that in 2018 people are still calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum… this is not a new thing by any means. This has been going on since the 1960s at the very least. Why hasn’t it progressed more? Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason has some suggestions.

Shunting ethnic and women’s studies into a minority ghetto was the easiest thing to do. The creation of intellectual ghettos expanded the number of faculty jobs and left the still overwhelmingly white male faculties free to teach history or American literature or sociology as they had always taught it – from a white male viewpoint. One of the dirty little secrets of many white liberal on college campuses for the past thirty years has been that they share Bloom’s contempt for multiculturalism but do not openly voice their disdain. Saul Bellow’s famous remark: ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ resonates throughout academia today. In the early nineties, there was grumbling in academia when Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved began to make its way into college English syllabuses with what was considered unseemly speed.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jacoby’s book is full of well-evidenced critical insights which apply not only to Americans, and which should make us question our own flawed ways of thinking.

Many Americans simply do not understand the distinction between the definitions of theory in everyday life and in science. For scientists, a theory is a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proofs and peer review… IN its everyday meaning, however, a theory is nothing more than a guess based on limited information or misinformation – and that is exactly how many Americans view a scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Jacoby starts her book in a humorous manner, commenting on the rise of ‘folks’ in public discourse. A few decades ago, the general American public was being addressed as ‘the people’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. But now it’s all about ‘folks’ to denote both exclusion (us folks vs. them terrorists for example) and inclusion (‘I’m down with the lads’ stance of politicians). She clearly attributes this to a dumbing down of culture and explores the multiple reasons behind this.

There are many interesting ideas in this book which explain some of those American traits which irritate foreign observers. The tendency towards fundamentalism and anti-rational discourse, partly as a result of no national curriculum and certain states setting their own ideological agenda in schools. She talks about the harsh life on the frontier which made people throughout American history prefer the harsher religions with more simplistic messages of struggle, sin and repentance (but then, why didn’t Australia develop in this way too?). She quotes from Bill Moyers, who is constantly under attack for his pro-science and pro-rationalist programmes on TV: ‘Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad, but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.’

In the land of politicized anti-rationalism, facts are whatever folks choose to believe.

It is a dense and somewhat depressing book to read – you’ll need to allow plenty of time for it. But let me end on this beautiful 1791 speech by Condorcet (French mathematician, liberal intellectual and revolutionary, who ended badly in the Jacobin bloodbath) about the purpose of public education for the individual, the community and contributing to the public good:

To afford all members of the human race the means of providing for their needs, of securing their welfare, of recognising and fulfilling their duties; to assure for everyone opportunities of perfecting their skill and rendering themselves capable of the social duties to which they have a right to be called; to develop to the utmost the talents with which nature has endowed them and, in so doing, to establish among all citizens a true equality and thus make real the political equality realised by law…

Why is it still so difficult to accept that and work towards it, nearly 230 years later?

 

Cultural Events Summary 20 May 2018

I hope you have all been enjoying the nice weather this week. I’ve been mostly stuck inside, as we’ve been busy at work with two conferences, a workshop, becoming GDPR compliant and budget forecasts. However, sunshine is always good for the soul, and especially at the weekend. And I’ve managed to sneak in a couple of cultural events too…

On Thursday I watched the film 120 BPM (beats per minute), runner-up at the Cannes Festival last year. Filmed as a sort of faux-documentary of life as an activist member of ACTUP Paris in the early 1990s, it captures that frenetic spirit of being young (but not only), fighting for your life as well as for justice, fighting Big Pharma, public ignorance and apathy, government failure to debate, inform or provide any coherent policies. It is also a love story and, inevitably, as with any story about AIDS, there is grieving. But this is no Philadelphia or Longtime Companion, unashamed tear-jerkers, with (usually not gay) actors fading away eloquently and elegantly. This is about anger and survival, doing anything you can to feel alive, about strategy and protest and disagreements within the group, but also about coming together, solidarity and changing the world. ‘Paris were frankly a bunch of complete maniacs’, a former ACTUP London member said, and I had to laugh as I tried to imagine those protest or virulent discussions transposed in a British environment. The two male leads are extremely charismatic: Arnaud Valois from Lyon and Nahuel Pérez Biscayart from Argentina (who, as far as I can tell, are both gay, which makes it all the more realistic) make that very serious struggle look like fun.

The real ACTUP Paris in 1995.

The film transported me back to 1989-1992 when I too was young and politically engaged, although in our case it was regime change and democracy that we were fighting for. In spite of the disillusionment or flaws or failures (and the pain of watching friends die), it was an exhilarating movement to be part of (both mine and ACTUP) – and this is perfectly captured in this film. It’s all too easy to say that the world has moved on since then regarding attitudes towards AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, but sadly, it hasn’t really progressed that much. The film is forbidden in several countries (where homosexuality is illegal) and in my own home country, alas, there was a church-organised protest when it was first screened.

A very different atmosphere on Friday when I attended an early morning viewing of the Rodin Exhibition at the British Museum. This beautifully curated, reasonably small show demonstrates that you don’t need to overwhelm museum-goers with information or exhibits if you stick to a narrow topic and present it well. Rodin was obsessed with ancient sculptures, and collected many of them himself, so it was refreshing to see to what extent they inspired his own work.  There were plenty of original plaster, bronze and marble examples of many of Rodin’s sculptures on loan from the Musée Rodin in Paris, as well as the Parthenon marbles that are already (controversially) in the British Museum.

Icarus’ sister.

I also got to hear that Lord Elgin originally wanted sculptor Antonio Canova to ‘renovate’ the Ancient Greek fragments and complete them. Luckily, Canova was wise enough to not meddle with the beauty of the original. Rodin himself was so taken by the incomplete statues, that he deliberately sculpted many of his own like that.

The Walking Man.

The links with literature were never far away. Not only was Rainer Maria Rilke briefly Rodin’s secretary, but I was not aware that Rodin had illustrated Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (one of my favourite volumes of poetry, especially back when I was in my teens). And that he intended to reproduce it in sculpture as well.

Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre…

A wonderful, calming way to start the day with art, not forgetting the quotes from Rodin about the sculptor’s ability to capture motion.

For next week, I have a very special recommendation for you: experience a piece of literature in an all-immersive annual event at Senate House on 23rd May. To celebrate 200 years since the first creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the School of Advanced Studies will present a Living Frankenstein evening, with pop-up activities, talks, films, performances and ghost stories. The full programme is here.

Finally, no weekly summary would be complete without a few books begged, borrowed, stolen or bought.

From the library I borrowed Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, the May read for the David Bowie Book Club. Written in 2007-8, it is sadly more timely than ever. I was also looking for some Richard Yates novels which I haven’t read yet, but found instead a very bulky biography by Blake Bailey A Tragic Honesty. Nicely cheery, then…

I also got Ali Smith’s Autumn, the so-called Brexit novel, and Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning. I’ve already finished the latter: this author is one of my favourite comfort reads, and Three Pines is where I would love to retire if only it existed. I also came across a strange little volume called Alberta Alone by Cora Sandel, an early Norwegian feminist compared to Colette and Jean Rhys.

Last but not least, Europa Editions are producing new editions of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy and have sent me the first volume, Total Chaos. Little do they know that it is one of my favourite French novels (or trilogies) ever and that I bribed a second-hand bookshop in Lyon to find me all three volumes in French. You can expect a close read of the book in French and in translation coming up soon. (Although my personal favourite is Chourmo, the second in the trilogy, coming out in August 2018.)

 

The Curse of Being a Second-Class Citizen

The frustration of EU citizens living in the UK is easy to understand. Many of them have made their lives here, have contributed with work and taxes for many decades, have raised families here and now feel pushed out. However, as Helen de Cruz points out in this article, it is part of a widespread (and now officially endorsed) xenophobia 

Unless, of course, you are very rich, in which case you can arrange a visa or naturalisation deal, not many questions asked about where your money comes from. But for those of us who are neither wealthy nor (some of us until quite recently) EU citizens, it will sound very familiar indeed. We have always been second-class citizens, even in the eyes of EU citizens living here. The Greeks and Spanish looked down with disdain on the newer EU countries, forgetting that when they joined the EU in the 1980s, the French and Germans looked down on them. And that’s just those of us who have the same colour skin and a shared European history. Can you imagine how they felt about those from different continents and with darker skins? As writer and academic Sunny Singh explains in this Twitter thread, it is disingenuous and requires some intellectual acrobatics to pretend that Brexit is not ‘really’ about hatred of pesky immigrants and foreigners. EU citizens are now experiencing this prejudice for themselves and it’s something that they are not used to – or at least, not since the 1950s/60s. But I cannot feel Schadenfreude. I was the second-class citizen who strove to give my children the opportunity to never have to feel inferior, so it makes me sad. And I also believe it’s a dangerous time to allow hateful rhetoric to create divisions between ‘desirable’ and ‘less desirable’ immigrants.

Lunar House, Croydon

It’s not that English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) people are not welcoming individually or in batches, but the UK administration as a whole has not made our lives easy at any step of the way. Think about the humiliations, queues, lack of understanding and incompetence you have sometimes encountered at the Job Centre and multiply it five-fold to get an approximate idea of the frustrations of getting your visa renewed at Lunar House in Croydon (a name that strikes fear in the heart of most of us immigrants or students). The amount of paperwork and official invitations and payments required to get your elderly parents to visit you (and no, they do not want free NHS treatment, as they think that Romanian doctors are vastly superior – or at least those of them still living in Romania, as many of them are working for the NHS). Same applies for other countries: I know many Greeks or Polish friends who go back ‘home’ to get their teeth fixed. Out of the 7 dentists at my local practice, 6 are from an immigrant background (India, South Africa, Vietnam and Greece, in case you are wondering). But you’d better be careful and not stay for too long outside the UK with your medical problems, otherwise you will not qualify for your indefinite leave to remain… Then, because the UK is not in Schengen, even if you have a one-year student visa here, you will still need visas to visit the rest of Europe, often having to prove that you are covered for travel and health insurance, that you have a certain amount per day of spending money, that you have an address where you intend to stay while visiting that country or maybe a letter from a company or conference organiser if you are there on business.

Queues at Lunar House

And of course there are some people (including politicians, who really should know better but cannot resist pandering to the voters) who are blaming immigrants for all of the things which don’t work in their society. There are quite blatant personal attacks in the media and on the street, but even if you haven’t experienced them personally, there is plenty to give you pause for thought. I conducted a sociological experiment during my training courses with a large UK company: in half of the (completely identical) courses I stated I was Romanian, in the other half I emphasised my Britishness. Guess which courses got higher scores in the feedback forms? Then there are the ever-so-subtle, sometimes unintentional questions which give you an insight into a deeply entrenched way of thinking:

‘What a pretty name? What does it mean?’ – why, does Jane or Sheryl mean anything

‘But where are you really from?’ – just because you were born in Watford doesn’t mean you really belong there

‘I thought I detected a trace of an accent there…’ – although they didn’t at all, not until you told them that you were an immigrant

‘What was that language you were speaking with your child?’ – and how dare you speak it in front of us

‘I’d never have thought you were ___, you don’t look/sound/behave like your other compatriots’ – how many of them have you met and got to know

‘No, of course we were not referring to you, you are all right, but all those other ___ should go off home’ – you’re the exception which confirms the rule. but woe betide if you don’t behave!

‘So are you thinking of leaving the country now after Brexit, don’t you feel you are too cosmopolitan for life here?’ – perhaps you should be, you are too exotic and don’t belong

Soon it will be the turn of the British citizens to feel second-class in Europe. My father was a negotiator during the accession of Romania to the EU and he would tell you how hard it is to fight against the combined interests of so many countries. After protecting the interests of Spanish textile industry, Greek fruit farmers, French and British farmers, Swedish and Finnish timber industry, steelworkers everywhere in the EU, there was not much left for Romania to trade. Most of its industries and businesses have been acquired by international owners and so most of the earnings go out of the country. And yet Romanians are still in favour of the EU – because they recognise that the alternative would be worse.

There is a strong likelihood that Ireland or Malta will mop up any of the English-speaking, low-taxation-loving US companies for their European headquarters. If the British negotiators don’t get their act together soon, they will be severely depleted by the EU team – and so a vicious circle of blaming and hatred will start up again.  I’m not sure that the UK can compete with labour in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, which is still cheaper (and more productive), although giving up on any laws to protect workers’ rights might help.

I’ve become used to being a second-class citizen everywhere I go, even in Romania (because I have spent too much time abroad and speak with a slight foreign accent).  I am less happy that my children might be viewed as second-class citizens too (their Greek name over here, their British passport over in France or Germany). My sons prefer the English language but can speak three others, they support the German and French football teams, love the Greek sea and the Romanian mountains, want to study in France or Switzerland maybe… What we feel is European and we had been hoping that these meaningless nationalistic affiliations would disappear and we could feel loyalty to our local communities and the larger Europe instead.

I am not a political poet, but…

Fair is Fair

I cannot stomach another appraisal in the garb of friendly chat
upstairs at Starbucks
dissecting goals and stretching targets
just beyond the realm of fairytale achievement.

Business drivers and objectives, abstract terms and jargon
jostle for dominion
while a plague falls upon both your houses, tiled with greed.
Slurp your coffee in a bowl of soup,
enough calories to feed a family of four.

Check your privilege like a raincoat at the door.
Please isolate one or two areas for improvement –
oh, I don’t know, pay taxes maybe?
Fairtrade jazz too bland and quiet to offend
as I sip my hot beverage
and bemoan the drop in my shares.

REUTERS/Will Burgess
REUTERS/Will Burgess

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten (Flights of Love)

My second review for German Literature Month, expertly organised and hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. Another prize winning author, best known for his novel ‘The Reader’, this former law professor and judge is constantly preoccupied with the ‘burden of being German’.

In this short story collection, the more obvious immediate subject is love – in all its forms and nuances. It’s about taking flight and finding refuge in love (or in our idealised view of it) or about love that has flown away after many years of marriage. It’s about suppressed yearning and regrets for things not done, about the comfort of habits and rituals, and about the consequences of attempting to make the grand gesture. The protagonists are all men, of different ages, but virtually all slightly confused loners, no matter what outward trappings of success they might have. The author seems to build up towards a surprise ending in each story – yet the surprise is often not quite as dramatic as we might expect. Perhaps the surprise is that life goes on even after we try to change it.

I found ‘Girl and Lizard’ a bit creepy, about a man’s obsession with a family painting, which inhibits his ability to have normal relationships with other women. ‘Sugar Peas’ and ‘The Other’ are about affairs and keeping secrets, with twists which show us that nothing is simply black-and-white when it comes to marriages or extramarital relationships. ‘The Son’ is about a German professor sent to a country in the grips of a civil war as an international observer – and how he rediscovers his human empathy and his love for his son. ‘The Woman at the Gas Station’ is the most successful story in terms of capturing that universal human longing for the unattainable, the wondering ‘what if…’, the anxiety about missed opportunities in life, the attempt to rekindle a love grown cold.

Kann man sich in den anderen ein zweites Mal verlieben? Kennt man den anderen beim zweiten Mal nicht viel zu gut? Setzt Verlieben nicht voraus, daß man den anderen noch nicht kennt, daß er noch weiße Flecken hat, auf die man eigene Wünsche projizieiren kann?… Oder gibt es Liebe ohne Projektion?

Can you fall in love with the same person twice? Don’t you know the other person far too well the second time round? Doesn’t falling in love assume that you don’t quite know the other, that there are blank spots in which you can project your own dreams?… Or is there such a thing as love without projection? (my translation)

LiebesfluchtenYet my favourite two stories are more overtly political: they are about the clash of two cultures, two ideologies, as well as two people in love (or friendship). In ‘A Little Fling’ (ironic title – ‘Der Seitensprung’ in the original is slightly more neutral), it’s about the friendship between a West German man and an East German family, the betrayals on both sides – personal, political – and the question whether we can maintain a relationship even after we become aware of the betrayals. Can we still live with someone when we know them all too well, know even the worst that they are capable of?

Alle Ost-West-Geschichten waren Liebesgeschichten, mit den entsprechenden Erwartungen und Enttäuschungen. Sie lebten von der Neugier darauf, was am anderen fremd war, von dem, was er hatte und man selbst nicht… Wieviel gab es davon! Genug, um aus dem Winter, als die Mauer fiel, einen Frühling ost-west-deutscher Liebesneugier zu machen. Aber dann war, was fremd und anders und weit weg war, auf einmal nah, gewöhnlich und lästig…

All East-West stories were love stories, with the same expectations and disappointments. They thrived on the curiosity about what made the other different, what they had that we did not have… So many such stories! Enough, to make a spring of east-west German love-hunger out of wintry landscape of the Fall of the Wall. But then everything that was foreign, different and distant became, all of a sudden, close, common and annoying… (my translation)

‘The Circumcision’ shows a young German man trying to come to grips with his cultural heritage when he falls in love with an American Jew. In several interesting dialogues between the couple and their friends and relative, we discover how deep-rooted prejudices can be. The man, Andi, riles against his girlfriend’s declaration that she loves him ‘in spite of him being German’. He reproaches her family for not being at all genuinely curious about him: ‘You meet me above all with prejudice. You know everything about the Germans, ergo, you know everything there is to know about me.’ And ultimately, self-censorship creeps into their relationship – so many subjects they dare not discuss openly, so many trigger points they have to be careful to avoid, so many opinions they dare not voice.

Bernhard_Schlink
From http://www.daad.de

Schlink is a very different writer from Alois Hotschnig, and not just in subject matter. His stories very much anchored in reality, there are only flights of fancy in his stories, not flights into surrealistic landscapes. He is also much less ‘slant’ in style: he tackles subjects head-on, he introduces quite explicit (sometimes unrealistically so) dialogue and does not shy away from underlining a point, to make sure the reader gets the message. He is a writer of ideas, one to provoke discussions at book clubs or to cause one to ruminate about one’s own life, rather than one to admire stylistically or to seek to emulate. I can’t say I was uniformly delighted by all of these stories, but I rather admire the fact that there is no neat ending to most of the stories. For such an emphatic writer, it must have been hard to abstain from tying up all the loose ends.

 

 

Political? Again!

We flush, wipe clean, repeat again.

Good worthy citizens, our voices boom with cheer.

Sweet righteousness,

Ensemble cast, assembled voices.

We order nicely yet succinct,

No extra words surge past our lips.

Incurious, you let drop wrong name.

But no apologies are necessary.

In an avalanche no single snowflake bears the burden

Of responsibility.