thorold gives crowns and pounds and guineas in Q1 21

Questa conversazione è stata continuata da thorold goes from April to Shantih in Q2 21.

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thorold gives crowns and pounds and guineas in Q1 21

1thorold
Modificato: Dic 29, 2020, 5:37am

Welcome to my first quarterly thread of 2021!



For those who don’t know me, I’m Mark, originally from the North of England, but I’ve been living in the Netherlands for most of my adult life. I retired from professional life a few years ago to spend more time with my books (and travelling, walking, and sailing: lets hope those activities become possible again soon!).

My reading interests are difficult to predict, but often guided to some extent by the quarterly themes of Reading Globally: this quarter we will be doing “small countries”.

This will be my sixth year in Club Read. My previous thread, Q4 2020, was here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/324906#

2thorold
Dic 27, 2020, 4:31am

When I was one-and-twenty
           I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
           But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
           But keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty,
           No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
           I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
           Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
           And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty,
           And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

A E Housman, “When I was one and twenty”

3thorold
Modificato: Dic 31, 2020, 7:44am

2020 Q4 stats:

I finished 59 books in Q4 (70 in Q1, 89 in Q2, 62 in Q3).

Author gender: M 43, F 16: 73% M ( Q1: 71% M; Q2: 69% M; Q3: 58% M)

Language: EN 40, NL 2, DE 5, FR 7, ES 4, IT 1 : 68% EN (Q1 54% EN; Q2 78% EN; Q3: 68% EN) — still more English than usual
Of the English books, 2 were translated from Swedish, 1 from Arabic, 5 from Russian

9 books (15%) were linked to the "Russians write revolutions" theme read (Q1: 28% "far right" theme; Q2 38% Southern Africa; Q3 24% travelling the TBR & 7% Southern Africa)

Publication dates from 1801 to 2020, mean 1975, median 1998; 13 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 0, physical books from the TBR 31, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 3, audiobooks 8, paid ebooks 9, other free/borrowed 8 — 53% from the TBR (Q1: 17% from the TBR, Q2: 61%; Q3: 63%)

47 unique first authors (1.26 books/author; Q1 1.11; Q2 1.15; Q3 1.31)

By gender: M 37, F 10 : 79% M (Q1 71% M ; Q2 71% M; Q3 64% M)
By main country: UK 17, US 5, NL 1, BE 1, FR 6, DE 1, AT 2, DDR 2, ES 1, SE 2, RU 4

TBR pile evolution:
22/12/2019 : 105 books (123090 book-days)
31/3/2020 : 110 books (129788 book-days) (Change: 14 read, 19 added)
30/6/2020 : 94 books (102188 book-days) (Change: 54 read, 48 added)
30/9/2020 : 94 books (89465 book-days) (Change: 39 read, 39 added)
31/12/2020: 90 books (79128 book-days) (Change: 31 read, 27 added)

The average days per book has gone down to 879, 25% down from 1172 at the end of 2019, so I've been at least moderately successful in tackling the oldies. (Although the 2019 figure is slightly misleading because it didn't include any Christmas books!)

The oldest books currently on the TBR, all from June 2011, are: The letters of J. R. Ackerley, Birds without wings and De gevarendriehoek
Next after that is The Kellys and the O'Kellys, which is nine months younger.

Maybe I should aim to read at least one of the three oldest in Q1 :-)

4thorold
Modificato: Dic 31, 2020, 8:12am

2020 Overview

Club Read members seem to be divided about 80 : 20 between those who reacted to the stresses and practical demands of the year by reading far less than usual, and those like me who found themselves doing little other than reading...

I read 280 books in 2020, substantially more than in 2018 and 2019, which were both full years of retirement as well. I didn't count pages, but I read a few thick tomes from the older part of the TBR, so that was probably well over average as well.



Author gender: F 89, M 190, other 1 (68% M)

Language: 189 (67%) English, 24 (9%) Dutch, 24 (9%) German, 22 (8%) French, 13 (5%) Spanish, 7 (3%) Italian, 1.5 Afrikaans
(I'm counting Poppie as half Afrikaans, because I switched between the two versions)

Translations: 18 of the English books were translations, of which 6 were from Russian and the rest distributed between 9 other languages, including 3 books translated from languages I could have read in the original. One of the German books was a translation from Korean.

Authors: 214 unique authors (1.31 books/author): 153 M; 60 F; 1 Other (71% M)

5Dilara86
Dic 27, 2020, 7:09am

As always, I'm looking forward to reading your reviews.

6thorold
Modificato: Dic 31, 2020, 11:05am

2020 Themes

Despite the quantity, there wasn't all that much overall plan to 2020. There were the four quarterly Reading Globally topics, of which the one that took up most time was Southern Africa over the summer months (44 books). I have to say a big thank-you there to my South African friends for opening their shelves to me!
The Q1 read on the rise of the far right accounted for about 20 books, and Russians write revolutions in Q4 for 9 books.

Otherwise, the only real extended projects were my (re-)read of A S Byatt's fiction (16 books) and Schiller's dramas (counted as 9 books, although it was really 2 vols of the complete works). In the first half of the year I also completed my Zolathon (6 books in 2020); overall time for the Zolathon was 30 months, which according to the Guinness people would have been a record if I'd been wearing a Santa Claus costume and waterskiing as I read.

2021 Plans

Again, I'm expecting Reading Globally to play a big part. The themes coming up in 2021 are:
— January to March: Notes from a Small Population: 40+ places with under 500,000 inhabitants
— April to June: Childhood: Books for or about children in different cultures around the world
— July to September: The Lusophone world: writing from countries where Portuguese is or was an important language
— October-December: Translation prize winners


I've already started on a Liechtenstein novel, and I've got a couple of Icelanders lined up as well...

Other possible themes:
— I want to do another author read-through, as I did for Byatt. Current thinking (could still change) is to start with Toni Morrison, and possibly keep Byatt's little sister in reserve, depending on how much progress I make.
— Some sort of big saga: I was thinking about getting on with Het bureau, but I've now got a 900-page chunk of Muñoz Molina sitting on the TBR shelf, so maybe that's first!
Focus on a poet: I'm thinking Coleridge, so it will probably end up being Heine
— Look out for mountains and possibly also for books-as-objects as non-fiction topics

7dchaikin
Dic 31, 2020, 5:22pm

Glad you stayed busy. Impressive year of reading. I'll try to keep up here this 2021. Happy New Year Mark.

8raton-liseur
Gen 1, 6:25am

>6 thorold: Lots of interesting themes! I'm sure following your thread will help lots ofus expand our reading horizons. Happy new litterary year!

9Dilara86
Gen 1, 10:20am

Happy New Year! Have you made your choices for your personal themes, or are you still mulling them over?

10thorold
Modificato: Gen 1, 10:40am

>5 Dilara86: >7 dchaikin: >8 raton-liseur: >9 Dilara86: Thanks, all!

A bit more data, just for fun.

Languages
Here's the language breakdown of the books I've marked as read since 2007, as well as the TBR pile. Nothing if not inconsistent !



Over the whole period, English accounts for 67%, German 12%, French 11%, Dutch 5%, Spanish 4%, Italian 1%

Standing time
I looked a bit more closely at how long books stay on the pile. If I take all books marked as read since I joined LT, then 40% are books I added to LT on the same day I read them, i.e. they were ebooks, library books, or bypassed the TBR pile in some other way.

If I look only at physical books (read or on the TBR, but not including pre-LT books), then around 6% were read on the day they were added, 34% were read within a month, and 62% within a year. About 90% were read within five years of arriving on the pile.
(Rising to 97% within ten years, but that's not very good data, since I've only been recording dates for 13 years.)

On my current TBR pile (90 books), 12% are less than one month old, 46% less than one year, and 87% less than 5 years.

So I don't need to feel too guilty about my current TBR pile!

Book liberation
I haven't kept track of exact dates, but I've added 73 books to my "Deaccessioned" collection since late 2019, meaning I've given them away to friends or released them into the wild through Little Free Libraries. Probably a bit more than one a week, so not keeping pace with books added, but at least helping to reduce the chaos on the shelves a little. My rule now is that I don't put anything new on the fiction shelves unless there's a space for it. If necessary I create a space by discarding something nearby that I really don't need any more. With non-fiction I'm a little more reluctant to prune...

11ELiz_M
Gen 1, 11:25am

>10 thorold: "With non-fiction I'm a little more reluctant to prune..."

Hunh. I'd be the opposite (not that I read much non-fiction), assuming that most non-fiction is outdated within a few years of publishing (in some areas more than others - sciences, social sciences, for example). But a well-written story is still (more often than not) a good story.

12thorold
Gen 1, 12:06pm

>11 ELiz_M: Yes, you’re probably right! I’ve got a lot on the non-fiction shelves that any institutional library would have junked years ago (in fact, quite a bit of it actually was junked by institutional libraries...).

I think what’s behind my prejudice is that there’s a far bigger proportion of stuff on my fiction shelves that’s easily available elsewhere. The sort of non-fiction I go in for tends to be very expensive if new, and hard to find if old, whereas a big chunk of the fiction I’ve got is available from the library or in other inexpensive and rapid ways. Also, when you want to refer to a non-fiction book it’s normally a matter of just looking something up, you want it to be there instantly at arm’s length. When you want to re-read a novel, tomorrow or next week is usually OK too.

13AlisonY
Gen 1, 12:53pm

Most interesting choice of themes for this year. I'm intrigued to see where you go with them.

14SassyLassy
Gen 1, 1:50pm

>11 ELiz_M: While I would mostly agree about science, there are all those diaries, letters, memoirs (although I suppose a case could be made for them being partly fiction), not to mention different points of view that can help clarify the development of thinking about a topic over time, particularly in history or philosophy.

"...a well-written story is still (more often than not) a good story." Right you are!

>12 thorold: As usual, I will be following your year closely. Noting that your reading year is sort of in the same proportion to mine as cat lives are to humans.

"...when you want to refer to a non-fiction book it’s normally a matter of just looking something up, you want it to be there instantly at arm’s length" and it's oh so frustrating when it's not

15dchaikin
Gen 1, 3:30pm

>10 thorold: the yellow bar looks like it's trending smaller to me.

>12 thorold: (And >11 ELiz_M: ) - interesting to read this. I'll note that non-fiction books, excluding those that are really works of art, aren't typically something I want to reread end-to-end. Your comment about being able to look something up strikes home here.

16AnnieMod
Gen 1, 6:05pm

That's a lot of statistics for that early in the year ;) Always fun seeing what you are reading and I suspect we will also bump into each other a lot over in Reading Globally (especially in Q4 when I am hosting the quarterly thread...) :)

Happy new year!

17thorold
Modificato: Gen 2, 4:33pm

First book of the year, and first for the "small countries" theme. Öhri's a Liechtensteiner who grew up in Ruggel and is president of the Liechtenstein writers' club, but now lives just over the border in Canton St Gallen. He's previously written a series of crime novels set in Bismarck's Berlin.

Liechtenstein - Roman einer Nation (2016) by Armin Öhri (Liechtenstein, 1978- )

  

This is one of those postmodern novels that is all about the adventures of a (fictional) writer with the same name as the author who is researching a book about a particular topic, and where you are kept guessing for a long time about what is going to turn out to be true and what fictional, rather like the things W G Sebald, Javier Cercas or Laurent Binet do. But with the additional twist that in this case the narrator is going through some kind of neurological illness as he's writing the book, so you're even less sure you can trust his experiences...

The narrator has been hired by a prominent Liechtenstein law firm to write a biography of the firm's founder, Wilhelm Anton Risch, conveniently born around 1920 to coincide with the re-launch of the sovereign state of Liechtenstein after the ruling family got kicked off their main estates in Czechoslovakia at the end of the First World War and had to move to the less cosy surroundings of their odd little land-holding in the upper Rhine valley. Risch experiences the disastrous floods of 1927, gets caught up in the fledgling Liechtenstein Nazi youth movement, has to go into exile after the abortive Putsch in March 1939, and serves in the German army during World War II. After the war he travels the world, spending time in the even smaller country of Nauru, then returns to Liechtenstein to practice law and manage trusts.

This gives Öhri plenty of scope to look at some of the less edifying aspects of Liechtenstein history in the 20th century, in particular the high incidence of selective memory loss among former Nazis (and their reluctance to let anyone write about national history), as well as a small selection of the most interesting financial scandals. Through Risch's daughter, he also finds space to tell us about the embarrassingly slow progress of the campaign to give women the vote — successful only after the third referendum, in 1984(!), when the proposition was passed by the narrowest of margins after a rare personal appeal to voters by the ruling prince. And the famous 2003 constitution, widely touted as the least democratic in Europe, which essentially gives the prince powers to do whatever he likes, regardless of voters or parliament.

But there are positive things as well: the pleasanter sides of living in a country where everyone knows everyone else's relatives. Öhri tells us a couple of times that the usual Liechtenstein enquiry to a stranger is "Wem Ghörst?" (Who are your folks?), and that the "Du" form is standard between Liechtensteiners. And the one reasonably positive story in Liechtenstein's history of international relations, when it was the only country in Western Europe to refuse Stalin's requests for forcible repatriation of Soviet citizens after World War II. A central episode in the early part of the book is the flight of the 500 men of General Smyslovsky's First Russian National Army, who had fought on the German side in the war, to seek asylum in Liechtenstein in May 1945. Öhri makes his character Risch a medical officer in Smyslovsky's force. It turns out that Öhri has a personal connection here: as a toddler he unwittingly photo-bombed the unveiling of a monument to the border-crossing of the Russians, and he reproduces the resulting charming snapshot of his younger self side-by-side with the general.

There's a strong Tintin flavour to the early career of Risch, at its most extreme when, aged 17, he is sent to Berlin as envoy of the Volksdeutsche youth movement in Liechtenstein, and he and his little dog are granted an audience with Hitler, but continuing with his journey across Russia and the Pacific (complete with shipwreck). It almost looks as though Öhri didn't notice he was doing this at first, then caught himself at it and decided to turn it into a joke against himself: his Russian chapter is called "Im Lande der Sowjets"!

Probably too many different things going on here to make a really strong novel, and all the characters apart from the country itself turn out to be rather elusive, but Öhri is a fluent and competent writer, and it reads like a good, page-turning crime thriller, postmodern flourishes notwithstanding.

18baswood
Gen 2, 4:48pm

Unsurprisingly you are the first to review or even own this book. I note you have got a couple of Icelandic novels coming up next can't be as unknown as the book from Liechtenstein. I do like the idea that most families know of each other in the country I can hear them saying ah the Ohri family they have a son who writes all the books.

19thorold
Gen 2, 5:14pm

>18 baswood: they have a son who writes all the books

Probably more along the lines of "...who wrote that unforgivable book implying that we're all old Nazis and/or complicit in money-laundering"

20ELiz_M
Gen 2, 10:39pm

>12 thorold: Fair enough. And I had to laugh at many of your nonfiction books being decommissioned library books. :)

21thorold
Modificato: Gen 3, 10:47am

Tying up loose ends, I realised that there was an audiobook I'd put aside three-quarters finished some weeks ago...

I've enjoyed several of Barnes's books, and I'm a Shostakovich fan, so this is one I've been curious to read since it come out.

The noise of time (2016) by Julian Barnes (UK, 1946- ) Audiobook, read by Daniel Philpott

  

Although it's framed as a biographical fiction about Shostakovich, that's almost a pretext: what Barnes is really interested in here is clearly the relationship between the creative artist and power. The artist may be a genius in his field, but he's still a human being, and not necessarily an exceptionally brave or reckless one. What does it do to him if he's confronted by threats and demands he doesn't have it in him to resist?

Shostakovich got a major ponck from Stalin after the opening of The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District: after that he slowly worked his way out of official disfavour by compromising left, right and centre (or by ironically pretending to compromise: no-one quite knows, although plenty of people are still arguing about it), until he found himself being drawn uncomfortably close to power in the Khrushchev era.

Barnes tries to imagine what it might have been like to be inside Shostakovich's mind at those points. He doesn't really have any more evidence for that than we do, however, and he ends up with a character who is endearingly human and is undergoing the same kinds of fears and doubts that we might, but who somehow doesn't seem to have whatever it is about him that makes Shostakovich Shostakovich. We never get a real sense of him as someone whose life is built around music. In fact there's very little music in the book: most of the time, all that we hear is how other people have reacted to Shostakovich's music.

Interesting, but the effort Barnes must have put into researching this somehow seems disproportionate to the result.

---

I saw that someone else who reviewed the book recently wrote "Secondo me Barnes di musica non capisce niente". Hard to disagree...(https://www.librarything.com/review/148916362)

22tonikat
Modificato: Gen 3, 11:12am

Lots of impressive numbers, both your analysis and of course your reading, no wonder i felt nowhere near your level of reading as you tick off title after title. And then there are the languages involved. Congratulations.

I think I may be finding my way clear to my commitment, but I'm not sure it will be anywhere near this.

I enjoyed reading of Shostakovich - I know a little of him but especially his observation on football teams under totalitarianism. It sounds like this is not the book to read more on.

23thorold
Gen 3, 4:41pm

>22 tonikat: Barnes brings in the football comment, of course!

It’s not a bad book, just disappointing if you’re looking for the composer. And to be fair, Barnes does end by telling readers who want a bio that they really ought to have been reading Shostakovich: a life remembered by Elizabeth Wilson.

24dchaikin
Gen 3, 4:44pm

>19 thorold: (on >17 thorold: ) Probably more along the lines of "...who wrote that unforgivable book implying that we're all old Nazis and/or complicit in money-laundering"

That was my take home from the review! : ) Seriously, had no idea. I'm intrigued this country even exists.

>21 thorold: entertained by the review you quoted. Does seem strange to write about what's going on in a musician's mind without addressing the music...even if you're just imagining it.

25LolaWalser
Gen 4, 2:12pm

Hello, hello!

Liechtenstein, Luxembourg--basically gated communities of the ultra-rich, surrounded by the merely very rich. How could fascism be absent... I do love the cover on this book though (my sole possession on the theme)

26thorold
Modificato: Gen 5, 5:34am

>25 LolaWalser: Fun! The cover photo of Öhri’s book is obviously meant as a parody of that style. He talks about Falz-Fein, too — apparently he was a Russian émigré who set up the first souvenir shop in Vaduz and generally founded the country’s tourist industry, inter alia bringing a German film company to Liechtenstein to film Paul Gallico’s Ludmila (Kinder der Berge, with Maximilian Schell).

27LolaWalser
Gen 4, 3:23pm

>26 thorold:

Ha! I guess that answers the question "does everyone in Liechtenstein know everyone else in Liechtenstein".

28thorold
Modificato: Gen 5, 5:34am

>27 LolaWalser: Yes, looks as though they probably do! I don't think Öhri quite manages to name all 40 000 of them in the space of 500 pages.

---

Something different again, a book from my Christmas pile tapping into my fondness for old sailing books. I hadn't heard of Ian Nicolson before, but he seems to have quite a stack of books on boatbuilding and sailing to his credit. He's a Scottish yacht-designer and -surveyor (the websites I checked all talk about him in the present tense, so I trust he's still with us: he must be in his early nineties by now).

The Ian Nicolson trilogy (1986, reprinted 2015) by Ian Nicolson (UK, ca. 1929 - )

  

(Author photo from Mylne Yachts)

This is a recent reprint of an omnibus edition of three of Nicolson's early, autobiographical books. It looks as though he must have revised the text slightly when they were put together in 1986, as there are little comments of a "that was then..." nature here and there, but for the most part they remain as originally written, reflecting the attitudes and practice of sixty years ago, very much before the age of the mass-produced white fibreglass bathtub.

Obviously the three books were never intended to be read together like this, as they all rather clumsily open with exactly the same literary trope, a short account of an exciting experience that has nothing to do with sailing, or with the rest of the book. Once is OK, twice is actually quite funny, but by the third time you're just thinking "this guy needs a competent editor!"

It is interesting to get Nicolson's viewpoint as a professional designer as well as an amateur sailor — he confesses at one point that he doesn't like the sea all that much, but he's fascinated by boats and how they behave and how to make them better. Of course, the downside of this is that he knows the people reading these books are potential clients: unlike most sailors he can't go around blaming the designer when something doesn't work as it should. Since sailing books run on accidents and emergencies, whenever something does go wrong he has to rely on weather, operator error, or undue haste to get the thing in the water at last.

The log of the Maken (published 1961), which opens with a dangerous high-speed drive to Dover in a pre-war Morgan three-wheeler, is an account of Nicolson's first long ocean cruise, in 1953-4, when he joined a couple of other young men to sail a 45-foot Norwegian ketch from Weymouth to Vancouver via the Panama Canal. As well as the sailing detail, it's interesting because of what it says about the world as it was then, still very much in the aftermath of World War II — when they call at the Canary Islands they get a string of requests from islanders and from German refugees who want to be smuggled to South America, for instance. By coincidence, it turns out that they arrive in the Caribbean at about the same time as Ann Davison on her solo Atlantic crossing (My ship is so small) — Nicolson mentions her, but they don't actually seem to have met.

Sea-Saint (1957) opens with the author skiing down a hill near Vancouver. He's been working in the design office of a Canadian shipyard for a while, and he's now ready to return to England. He hitch-hikes to the East coast in the space of a page and a half (calling on some friends in California on the way), and proceeds to look for a ship to take him home as crew from Nova Scotia. Nothing suitable seems to be on offer, but instead he finds a part-completed 30-foot wooden hull at a shipyard in Chester, south of Halifax, and works out that he's just about got enough money to have it finished and fitted out if he works on the job himself. The remainder of the book describes the process of construction of the St Elizabeth, the design decisions he made along the way, and his trip across the North Atlantic (solo, after a series of potential companions let him down at the last minute). Interesting to see how much his budget-driven minimalism overlaps with purists like Bernard Moitessier: for ocean cruising there's no point in burdening yourself with an engine or an anchor which you can't use anyway; electrics, fresh-water tanks and plumbed-in toilets are just extra things to go wrong, so they might as well be left out. Nova Scotia has canneries: he gets one of them to can a batch of tap-water for him! But there's also a lot about the pleasures of working with the Nova Scotia craftsmen at the yard, and the book gets a rather Arthur Ransome flavour when various local children start helping him on the job: they all get to ride along on the first day of his voyage, along the Nova Scotia coast.

Building the St Mary (1963) opens with a dangerous high-speed drive to Helensburgh in a Triumph sports car. The author clearly hasn't grown up much in the intervening years, he's still counting on speed (and strategically-placed mud) to prevent policemen from being able to make a note of his registration number. But it turns out that he's now married, a partner in a design practice in Glasgow with a charter business on the side, and he's in the process of building a successor to the St Elizabeth, which will be a 35-foot wooden ketch for use as a family cruiser. There's a similar blow-by-blow description of the design and construction process, again with a focus on practicality, low cost, and elimination of "gadgets". There's also a lot of very sixties whingeing about the reluctance of British suppliers actually to sell anything to anyone they haven't been dealing with for generations — or to deliver things once they have accepted an order. And some very colourful description of the complications of moving heavy objects around in small boatyards before the days when everyone had access to portable cranes and fork-lifts. The book ends with a description of the ship's maiden voyage, taking part in a Clyde Cruising Club race to Tobermory.

29rocketjk
Modificato: Gen 5, 8:54am

>11 ELiz_M: & >12 thorold: It's funny, but I never think of . . . "most non-fiction {being} outdated within a few years of publishing (in some areas more than others - sciences, social sciences, for example)," although I do see the point. I often read older non-fiction because I like getting the perspective about the topic that looking through the lens of the passing of time can give. (In other words, knowing what biographers/researchers thought and wrote about a particular topic in, say, the 1950s is of interest to me, even if I know that there have been more recent research and discoveries made since that time.)

Anyway, I'm really just saying hello and Happy New Year and looking forward to another year of your interesting reading and reviewing. Cheers!

30AnnieMod
Gen 5, 1:51pm

>11 ELiz_M:, >12 thorold:, >29 rocketjk:

While non-fiction may get outdated fast, it also gets referenced quite a lot in newer books - to the point where it actually makes sense to have the older book as well and read them in the order they came out. I had been reading a lot about pre-history in the last few years and that gets thrown on its head every time a new bone or a piece of shard is found, making the older books hopelessly outdated. And yet - any new author still references them - they are a shortcut to explain how radical the new discovery is.

31thorold
Gen 5, 4:07pm

>30 AnnieMod: >29 rocketjk:

Yes, there are all sorts of different cases. If you’re a practicing lawyer or doctor, you subscribe to the online edition of the relevant textbooks, you don’t refer to your copy from college twenty years ago. If you’re a curious bookworm, you can often get more fun out of the old version than the current one, as Jerry says. >28 thorold: would be another good example: only masochists with huge amounts of time and/or money build wooden sailing boats for themselves nowadays, but it’s fascinating to look over the shoulders of someone doing it sixty years ago and hear why they did what they did.

32thorold
Modificato: Gen 5, 4:20pm

>17 thorold: >25 LolaWalser: etc.

It doesn’t count for the “small nations” theme, of course, but reading about Liechtenstein made me want to watch The Mouse that roared again. Very silly, but rewarding: the fictitious Duchy of Grand Fenwick seems to be about half the land area of Nauru, and suffers from a limited gene-pool that makes about half the inhabitants look like Peter Sellers. And we get to see Jean Seberg romping around with a lot of men in chain-mail, just as she did in St Joan (See my 2020 thread), and there’s a moderately serious point about nuclear disarmament too, and a decrepit Southampton tugboat pretending to cross the Atlantic. Fun!

33LolaWalser
Gen 5, 5:54pm

>32 thorold:

I mix up that one and The mouse that went to the moon hopelessly but yes and yes to both. Although I first flash to Margaret Rutherford, slightly tipsy, in full regalia on a horse, weaving through the honorary guard.

34rocketjk
Gen 5, 6:02pm

>31 thorold: "If you’re a practicing lawyer or doctor, you subscribe to the online edition of the relevant textbooks, you don’t refer to your copy from college twenty years ago."

On a side note, when I owned my used bookstore, I'd often get folks who wanted to know if I would take their old nursing school or medical school textbooks from 20 years ago for store credit. Well, no. No, I wouldn't. Couldn't blame them for trying though, I guess.

35sallypursell
Gen 5, 7:18pm

Hi, thorold! Your reading stuns me, but I'll stop by off and on this year. Happy reading.

36thorold
Gen 6, 7:30am

>35 sallypursell: Hi! — Never forget that we're not on piecework here, it's enjoyment that counts, not quantity!

Two very short audiobooks that thrust themselves at me on Scribd. They make a nice bridge from Liechtenstein to Iceland, and just about covered my walk this morning between them:

Happísland: The short but not too brief tale of a Swiss spy in Iceland (2015) by Cédric H Roserens (Switzerland, 1974- )
Fantasviss: The Short but not too Brief Tale of an Icelandic Spy in Switzerland (2019) by Cédric H Roserens (Switzerland, 1974- )
both audiobooks, narrated by Angus Freathy

   

Roserens is a Swiss travel writer, originally from Martigny, who has lived in Iceland for some years. His books are self-published: he doesn't list a translator, so I assume he either writes them in English and French in parallel or translates them himself.

As the sub-titles imply, Happísland and Fantasviss are basically mirror-images of each other: in the first, the Swiss government, meeting secretly on the Rütli, has become concerned about Iceland overtaking it in an important "quality of life" index, and sends its top secret agent Hans-Üli Stauffacher to spend the year 2012 living undercover in Reykjavik. His monthly despatches to his controller (disguised as letters to his Mama) describe the weather and scenery, the strange things he is made to eat, and the advanced social security system; he tries to cope with the absence of cheese, public transport and vegetables, and he attends various local festivals.

In Fantasviss, it is a few years later, and Switzerland is creeping ahead again (after generous tax-advantages were granted by the federal government to the compiler of the "quality of life" index), so the Icelanders send out their top secret agent Sigurd Sig Sigurdsson ("Triple Sig") to check out the competition: he spends a month travelling around all twenty-six cantons (or, if you're pedantic, twenty cantons and six half-cantons) to discover the bizarre diversity of the Swiss, united only in their patriotic admiration of Roger Federer. He is puzzled by the scarcity of toponyms (most cantons seem to share a name with their main town and with the lake that it is on), by the complex inefficiencies of the health and education systems, the backwardness about women's rights, and so on, but impressed with the many interesting local dishes he gets to eat, the scenery, and the penknives. Asked to check up on the relevance of militarism to Switzerland's success, he learns that without soldiers the pubs would all be forced to close, and without army uniforms there would be no garment industry. He also discovers that the Swiss defeated the Burgundians in the fifteenth century by sneakily selling them penknives fitted with corkscrews...

The conclusion seems to be that the main advantage the Icelanders have over the Swiss is their low population density, whilst the Swiss profit from their more agreeable climate and their close links to the rest of Europe. We could probably have guessed that...

Entertaining, as far as it goes — they are only 45 minutes each on audio.

37rhian_of_oz
Gen 7, 8:38am

>36 thorold: These sound fun!

38LolaWalser
Gen 7, 4:20pm

Sad to hear about the lack of cheese and veggies in Iceland. I had this occasional fantasy about freaking my family out by moving there.

39thorold
Gen 7, 4:44pm

>38 LolaWalser: You could always live on skyr. Apart from that, it seems to be a choice between putrefied shark and sheep’s heads. (But that may be a tourist myth: characters in other books I’ve read about Iceland never eat at all, they appear to have adapted to a bio-ethanol diet.)

The other big problem seems to be a fictional-murder rate that is rapidly overtaking even notorious crime black-spots like Oxford, Ystad and Edinburgh. I suppose that would be a selling-point where freaking-out family members is concerned!

40thorold
Modificato: Gen 8, 5:08am

Back to the "better late than never" department...

This has been recommended to me by numerous people (on LT and elsewhere) over the years, but I somehow never got to it until it was picked as our book club's January read. It also fits in very nicely with the German novel Herkunft by Saša Stanišic, which I read last year, and which is in some ways a 21st century continuation of Andrić's book. I struck a deal with Santa, and a copy turned up in my pile at just the right moment.

The 1961 Nobelist Ivo Andrić grew up in Sarajevo and Višegrad in Bosnia, a member of the generation of young radicals who assassinated the Archduke in 1914 (Andrić was in jail at the time, imprisoned by the Austrians for membership of a revolutionary group). He served as a Yugoslav diplomat between the wars, and was ambassador in Berlin in 1939. He's often counted as Yugoslavia's most important literary figure.

Lovett Edwards was a Canadian-born British journalist who reported from the Balkans before and during World War II; the success of his 1959 translation of The bridge on the Drina is presumed to have been largely responsible for bringing Andrić to the attention of the Nobel committee.

The bridge on the Drina (1945; English 1959) by Ivo Andrić (Yugoslavia, 1892-1975), translated by Lovett F Edwards (Canada, UK, 1901-1984)

  

Andrić takes us through the history of Bosnia from the early 16th century, when janissaries took a ten-year-old boy from his parents in a village near Višegrad. He would grow up to become the Ottoman statesman Mehmet Pasha and commission, as his pious legacy, the building of a stone bridge and a han at the point where he had been carried over the Višegrad ferry. In a series of vignettes, some linked, some not, we are taken through to 1914, when young people of the author's own generation are facing the opportunities of modern education and communications, and the challenges of the new political situation in the Balkans.

Although Andrić tells us a lot about the big things that are going on in the region over those four hundred years, everything is shown through the eyes of the ordinary people — Moslems, Serbs, and Jews; later also Austrians, Hungarians and Galicians — who live in the small town of Višegrad and meet to gossip on the bridge. History is experienced as a series of more or less inexplicable external events that affect their lives, it never seems to be anything they can influence themselves. Gruesome descriptions of arbitrary executions and tragic tales of suicide are mixed up with comic tales of romance and commercial intrigue, or with the minor tragedies of ordinary people's lives. The dignified conservative we see questioning reckless innovation in one story reappears in later ones as the last eccentric stick-in-the-mud holding on to the old ways against all reason, and the bridge constantly reappears as the structure that gives the stories a common thread.

Fascinating, absorbing, and an unusual way of looking at history: despite the long span of years covered it never loses its very human, very local feel: Andrić manages to make all these diverse characters from different cultures and ages into people we feel we know, somehow.

41AlisonY
Gen 8, 7:25am

>40 thorold: Oooh, that sounds really interesting - a great way to better understand the recent Bosnian conflict but through fiction. Onto the heaving list it goes.

42LolaWalser
Modificato: Gen 8, 12:39pm

>41 AlisonY:

I would just caution against drawing too linear conclusions between the war and this book. It's somewhat like trying to understand the Black Lives Matter protests based on, let's say, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

>40 thorold:

Nice review. I'd add, as a point of interest that is in itself illuminating about Bosnia, that Andric was an ethnic Croat. You mention Serbs, but there are almost three times more Croats in Bosnia than Serbs (mostly in Herzegovina, which is the region Croatia would like to annex off Bosnia, but also scattered around, including in larger cities like Sarajevo). Moreover, Andric was a Croat who was pro-Yugoslav (like Tito and, by definition, all Croatian Communists--and a fair chunk of liberals), someone who worked for the creation of a union of South Slavs (what "Yugoslavia" means), and on its constitution, served it as a diplomat.

As a corollary of this political choice--in those times, when a Serbian king headed the Yugoslav state--this Bosnian Croat wrote mostly in Serbian ekavian. And then continued after the proclamation of the Republic. Not uniformly--in the novels and other fiction various characters in the original are speaking their own dialects, so there's a mix of ekavian and Bosnian and Croatian ijekavian, and the stories set in Bosnia frequently have abundant Turkish markers. He wasn't the only one, but like Tito's choice to speak Serbian in public, in homage to the most populous Yugoslav ethnicity and its wartime sacrifices, it was a politically important choice. (It also likely made Andric THE ideal candidate for a Nobel, rather than it going to--the most often mentioned alternative--Miroslav Krleža, who was pro-Yugoslav but wrote in Croatian.)

Speaking of language... I'm always glad when people manage to enjoy Andric in English, because the translation must of necessity shear off half the magic of his complex linguistic tapestry. Consider, just as one example, the title itself. Contrary to the utter void and banality of the English "The bridge on Drina", the original Na Drini ćuprija whirls one like a flying carpet into another realm, of poetry, medievalism, and Oriental legend. "Ćuprija" is a Slavic modification of the Turkish köprü, itself a modification of Greek γέφῡρα (gephyra). So this word from the get go situates us specifically in Bosnia, where Slavs transformed Asia Minor as they were themselves being transformed from Christians to Muslims. The English "bridge" would correctly translate the usual word for the construction,"most"--but, obviously, there is no corresponding English "ćuprija".

And the word order itself is another sign of the unusual, another portal to somewhere else. In ordinary speech the phrase would be structured like the English translation--"ćuprija na Drini". Inverting the order into "On the Drina the (a) bridge", in the original makes it seem like a beginning of a poem or a song. Combined with the unusual and practically forgotten Turcism, there is a feeling of melancholy about the title such as, perhaps, in English might be achieved by using balladic Old English or some such.

And if this much is true for the title alone, just imagine how much more happens to the text. There is a bardic quality to this book which, I'm afraid, simply can't survive any translation.

Mind you, Andric had many registers and far from being his "typical" work, this is one of the more unusual. There are many other novels and stories and poems of his in standard language (often Serbian, but also Croatian),

Oh dear, I apologise deeply for the length of this. Please let me know if you'd rather I took it to my thread and just left a link!

43SassyLassy
Gen 8, 1:28pm

>42 LolaWalser: Just finished this book on December 20th, in the same translation as >40 thorold:, so found your notes really useful, and a supplement to the introduction by William H McNeill and the translator's foreword, so thanks. I thought the translation worked well, but know that as with all translations it is only a taste of the real thing.

I was just trying to track a word back after finding a reference to "gopher wood", something that's unknown in the world of trees. However, there it is in the good old King James translation of Genesis, in reference to the material for Noah's ark. Wikipedia gives a reasonable explanation for the translation through various languages, all of which demonstrate your "linguistic tapestry". For the record, I'd come down on the side of kopher or pitched wood, if I was making a voyage like that!

44AnnieMod
Modificato: Gen 8, 1:37pm

>40 thorold: I am so glad that you liked the novel.

When I first read it (let's not count the years), I did not know the word saga in the context of a multi-generational novel and that fits here. I've been calling it a novel about a place and a peoples.

I grew up on another river, next to another bridge with a lot of history in another city that had been there since the dawn of times. Not very unusual on the Balkans really :) But it gave me the connection I needed to appreciate the novel early enough in life.

45SassyLassy
Gen 8, 1:44pm

>28 thorold: Love the sound of this trilogy, although I am perplexed by the notion of hitchhiking from Vancouver to Nova Scotia via California, even though it would have been a lot more fun than trying it through the prairies.

Chester is actually close to where I live. It is the home of the wonderful Chester Race Week, the biggest annual keel boat regatta in Canada, something beautiful to behold. There are still many boat yards up and down this shore, and I like the idea of your Arthur Ransome like kids, who are still to be found around here today.

Having said all that, a race down the Clyde to Tobermory would be something. You'd need that distillery at the end!

Did you know you can still configure your own Morgan (Plus Six)?

46thorold
Gen 8, 2:05pm

>42 LolaWalser: No, don’t apologise! It’s great to have that background here where I can find it again. It’s important information in itself, plus I’ve got a book-club session to get through in a group that includes a (colonial, half-) Croat and a Turk.

At least in the Edwards translation, there are very few direct mentions of Croats, and I think none of Roman Catholicism: Bosnian Moslems are mostly called “Turks” in the text (at least before 1878) and contrasted with Orthodox “Serbs”. Is that Edwards simplifying, or Andric keeping his head down somehow?

When I looked up Edwards I found some comments about how he had been a bit too enthusiastic about Englishing the idioms, making the book more accessible but less authentic. That sounds plausible.

I’d never really registered that there are so many different words for bridge in Europe: Germanic, Romance, Slavic and Greek all going back to quite different root-words. Presumably because it was technology everyone developed more or less independently, but only after the language groups split up.

47thorold
Gen 8, 2:29pm

>43 SassyLassy: Forget the gopher wood: the thing to go for in ark-building is bird’s-eye maple (but don’t pay more than three ‘a’pence a foot)...

>45 SassyLassy: I was wondering if Chester might be in your area. The boatyard family were called Stevens, if I remember right without digging the book out again. Did you see that Lovett Edwards was also born in Nova Scotia?

I see there’s even a modern version of the Morgan trike Nicholson had, but it looks a bit more substantial and a lot more expensive than the original. I’m happy to stay with my pedal-powered trike, which is also British and hand-built, but makes rather less noise.

48LolaWalser
Modificato: Gen 8, 4:50pm

>43 SassyLassy:, >44 AnnieMod:

Very cool to hear that you both liked it! Annie, I can see where it might resonate with Bulgarians.

>46 thorold:

Thanks for the indulgence. :)

Bosnian Moslems are mostly called “Turks” in the text (at least before 1878) and contrasted with Orthodox “Serbs”. Is that Edwards simplifying, or Andric keeping his head down somehow?

Calling Bosnian Muslims "Turks" is authentic. (Not current or currently "accurate" usage.) It would have indicated estrangement, people who have crossed over to the enemy's side, and thus pejorative, although less so than some other expressions, e.g. "poturica" (one-who-went-turk, approximately). I'm sure there are other words I'm not familiar with. :)

Unfortunately I don't have the book with me so wouldn't want to speculate too much on details... But I think it's safe to remark generally that he was basing the novel on actual history, so that presumably shaped the cast of characters and the milieu above all. Also, it spans centuries so there are shifts and changes in terms on who gets focussed on. IIRC, the most significant Croatian characters appear later in the story and are moderns (educated, Communist?) and if so faith as such wouldn't necessarily come up with them. And lets not forget the Jews!

Perhaps the main reason it might appear as a story of Muslims and Serbs in particular is that Mehmed-pasha Sokolovic, a pivotal figure in the novel, had been born a Serb, one of the thousands of Christian children taken from their families and raised in Turkey as janissaries. I've often sensed that Serbs feel this rape of identity, which probably befell some Croats and other peoples too, particularly strongly--but then, they were also physically entirely subsumed by the Ottomans and thus exposed to their rule in a greater and, by some indications, particularly merciless measure. Still, I think the fact that he became such a prominent, historical figure, is what makes it such a special and insuperable neuralgic point. Anonymous janissaries who came back to oppress and slaughter their own kin one could forget, but not him. The Ottoman trauma, then, is for the Serbs (I mean in Andric's tale) renewed in a way that is not true for other characters, especially if they come on the scene centuries later.

Of course, when it comes to the Ottoman misery Olympics, presumably the Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians etc. would all have solid competing entries.

49AnnieMod
Gen 8, 5:39pm

>48 LolaWalser: Oh, I had been recommending that novel for years - usually with a small note on "don't expect an easy read" :)

Most Serbian/Croatian authors resonate with Bulgarians - way too many shared experiences (history, languages, religion...) not to (Macedonians even more but that is a whole different conversation). One of my great-grandmothers spoke a dialect closer to Serbian than to literary Bulgarian (the languages are not that close in theory but there is enough language exchange and border shifting and crossing that there are dialects on both sides which are closed to the other language than to their own). The central/Slav Balkans are a very small place ;)

And there had been a few Bulgarians and Serbians who were taken as part of the janissaries quotas and ended up very high in the Ottoman administration.

Greeks and Armenians have similar experiences with the Ottomans (worse in some cases but generally different) - there were crucial differences that makes them a bit more distant. Plus there is a secondary problem with the Greeks in the region - when the Ottomans decided to start recognizing the native churches, they put both the Serbian and the Bulgarian ones under the Greek one (under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as opposed to independent churches) - which did not sit well with either - the Greek were seen as being as bad as the Ottomans (or worse)... including the people who were called pejorative terms based on the word Greek.

>46 thorold:, >48 LolaWalser:

Just to add to what Lola already mentioned - Turks is how they were and are all called when worse names were not used (these days the PC term in Bulgarian/Serbian Muslim but... let's just say that even newspapers rarely use that). Depending on when and where, it was more or less negative - regardless if it was people who moved into the country (so Turkish descent to start with) or people who changed their religion (so local people). In most times the latter were considered a bigger problem. It is also very easy to see where the whole Yugoslavian war got its beginning - and the Tito policy of mixing populations and moving whole villages between Christian/Serbian regions did not help much.

Bulgaria went through its own dark time back in the 70s/80s (almost ironically called Revival Process) when they tried to force the Turkish population to force-ably change to Bulgarian names (ending with the 1989 expulsion of ~350K people who refused - usually with no warning and no preparation). In a way we got lucky - by the time the wars erupted, things had calmed down, a lot of people had actually reversed their name changes (some of them half-reversed - got their original Turkish name but kept the Bulgarian endings on Middle and Last names, some completely reversed and some got pure Turkish names for the first time) and Bulgaria managed to keep its peace. But then unlike Yugoslavia, we never had the forced population movement on such a scale.

And now I went on a tangent... :)

50markon
Gen 8, 5:59pm

Quote an interesting discussion. I've had The bridge on the Drina on my list for awhile. This makes it more enticing.

51LolaWalser
Gen 8, 6:08pm

>49 AnnieMod:

But then unlike Yugoslavia, we never had the forced population movement on such a scale.

Not sure what and when you mean. I'm guessing some specifically Bulgarian historiography might be in play, like the one that makes out Macedonians are Bulgarians. Maybe best not to discuss further? :)

And, nothing "remote" about what happened to Armenians--I'm not sure that even the 4-5 centuries of Ottoman colonialism in the Balkans resulted in 1.5 million murdered people in each other group.

52AnnieMod
Gen 8, 6:29pm

>51 LolaWalser: Re: Armenians - that is why I said maybe worse but different. Neither I used the word remote anywhere. :) They had their own nightmare to deal with - probably the worst one under the Ottomans and Turkish rules. But it was a different one from what befell the middle of the peninsula.

For the population movement I was talking about Tito's policies on moving whole Muslim (Bosnian or otherwise) villages/families in Serbian territories and vice versa in an attempt to blend the population. That helped create the powder keg when Yugoslavia finally dissolved. For all its sins, Bulgaria never tried it on just that kind of scale (the 1989 atrocity being as bad as it was, it did not move people inside of the country) -- people and families were moved but not as extensively and definitely not for blending purposes (it was mostly for political reasons). But there we were never a federation-based republic stitched together from independent countries.

As for Bulgaria and Macedonia - Bulgaria was one of the first countries to acknowledge their independence when they declared it. Who is what on the Balkans and who had controlled what territory through the ages is... complicated. At certain times, the lands of what is now called North Macedonia had been owned and ruled by most of its current neighbors and the country's population shows that. :) But that is a different story.

53LolaWalser
Gen 8, 6:55pm

Neither I used the word remote anywhere.

Yes, sorry, I was abbreviating--I was responding to "there were crucial differences that makes them a bit more distant."

Tito's policies on moving whole Muslim (Bosnian or otherwise) villages/families in Serbian territories and vice versa in an attempt to blend the population.

Just to make sure what exactly we're talking about, could I have a reference for that (although we really shouldn't in Mark's thread!)

But there we were never a federation-based republic stitched together from independent countries.

Yugoslavia wasn't stitched together from independent countries. Only Serbia had been an independent country; other parts came out of the ruins of Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

Bulgaria, both as a monarchy and a Communist country later on, was Yugoslavia's enemy, so it's not surprising what kind of emphasis and interpretation have dominated your media etc.

At certain times, the lands of what is now called North Macedonia had been owned and ruled by most of its current neighbors and the country's population shows that. :)

At other times, there were no Bulgarians in the Balkans at all. :)

We are all but passing by...

54AnnieMod
Gen 8, 7:13pm

>53 LolaWalser: Countries/regions - call them whatever you want, Yugoslavia was still a construct. As are a lot of other countries in the world of course.

Assuming that one's opinion is based solely on their local media and sources is a bit... presumptive and insulting. :) That conversation veered way too away from Drina so let's table it for now before it gets heated... Apologies to Mark for trying to add some local context.

55LolaWalser
Gen 8, 8:23pm

>54 AnnieMod:

Yugoslavia was still a construct. As are a lot of other countries in the world of course.

As are all other countries everywhere. You know what else is a construct far scarier than a country like Yugoslavia? The notion of a homogeneous country without ethnic and religious minorities, especially in the Balkans. If Yugoslavia appears to you as somehow more "constructed" than some other, that's more due to the point of view taken than to some absolute truth.

If the UK fell apart tomorrow, everyone would go "well of course, THAT couldn't last". But as long as it doesn't fall apart, "oh, the Union is iron-clad".

Assuming that one's opinion is based solely on their local media and sources is a bit... presumptive and insulting.

Sorry. I'm a little insulted that you think my ex-country (for what little time I had it) was "a construct" in some pejorative sense. To millions of people it was a beloved homeland, and millions, my variegated family included, it suited like no other. Millions of people were in love with and proud of precisely the elements that perhaps you find constructed--that it was a federation with multiple official languages and faiths, with constitutionally guaranteed rights of the minorities to self-expression. That it was various and diverse, ranging from, as a popular song went, "the Vardar river to the Triglav mountain".

Yugoslavia was no USSR. The Yugoslav idea arose in the 19th century's Romantic nationalisms and served as a key to liberation to several related nations then yoked to various foreigners. The idea may never again see incorporation in a state, but if it doesn't, that will mean that the nations of Europe have found a way to exist and prosper without harming each other. Otherwise... it may come in handy yet.

56AnnieMod
Gen 8, 8:45pm

>55 LolaWalser: I'm a little insulted that you think my ex-country (for what little time I had it) was "a construct" in some pejorative sense.

I think you were expecting to see the pejorative sense for some reason so you saw it. None was intended or implied. USSR was a totally different animal in a lot of ways - which is why I never compared them. It was a comment on being a federation which made its internal processes different. And even USSR was beloved homeland to a lot of people technically but this is nor here nor there. :)

Yugoslavia, left to its own devices, probably could have pulled it off and survived the nineties and still be thriving. I stand behind my opinion that at the place and at the time it managed to get formed, it had no historical chance. I wish they did - the whole Eastern Europe would be much better off that way. But...

Both Bulgaria and Serbia had their revivals in the 19th century - tied with the ideals for "greater" states - and yes, they became instrumental in the region. Ours kinda went down the drain for various historical reasons (at least half of them self-inflicted). Serbia pulled it off for awhile.

History is messy and no matter what side of it you are on, there is always something left unsaid.

57LolaWalser
Gen 8, 9:40pm

I stand behind my opinion that at the place and at the time it managed to get formed, it had no historical chance.

Eh, what? Please don't say you're subscribing to the "Balkan ghosts" bollocks. Actually, it existed just fine 1918-1941, and then 1943-1991. Is there some specific historical rule about how long countries last? The problem isn't that Yugoslavia fell apart, but that ultra-right nationalist forces successfully imposed a war. The problem and the tragedy and the only crime is only the war. There were peaceful options for both continuing or dissolving the federation; the reasons they didn't prevail are complicated, but none that can be summed up as "it had no historical chance".

With respect--aren't you at least 10-15 years younger than me? Correct me if I'm wrong, but you probably never knew, let alone visited Yugoslavia as it was before the war. I didn't have much longer, having grown up abroad, only high school. Nevertheless--I was there, and I think I'm probably better positioned to know where what went wrong and why. I will stand behind my opinion that those who only learned of Yugoslavia from hostile accounts, be it from the Iron Curtain Stalinists or American neoliberals, have no historical chance of understanding what sort of country it was, and even less of appreciating it as it deserved.

58AnnieMod
Gen 8, 10:25pm

>57 LolaWalser: "Balkan ghosts"

Ha. No. Noone with 2 brain cells does. As I said - left on its own, the country would have worked it out - as a federation or not - but they never had the chance. The ultra-right did not grow in vacuum or managed to take over out of nowhere - they were the result of long running processes and influences.

And yes - I had been to Yugoslavia before the war. I had family in Yugoslavia before the wars. No, it was never my country (even if it was the country of some of my cousins) - but that does not make me ignorant. Or having opinions based on propaganda only. Even if I am from the apparently enemy state next door... (don't even get me started on that - the situation is a lot more nuanced - which I am sure you are perfectly aware of).

Not sure on ages - I am 40 this year, I tend to forget how old everyone else is. :)

Anyway -- we really veered all the way into the boonies. I am going to go read a book :)

59LolaWalser
Modificato: Gen 8, 11:26pm

>58 AnnieMod:

About eleven years younger than me, and a child when the Berlin Wall came down, and still a child when Yugoslavia fell apart, then. Nothing wrong with any of that, I wouldn't mind being younger than I am, at this point... :) But, clearly it's true we are not dealing with the same set of references for a whole host of reasons.

Mark, I'm sorry we have taken up so much of your thread (you have my contrite blessings to commandeer my thread whenever you feel like it--I'll accept everything from essays on locomotives to novel drafts as just punishment:)) But, if I've already sacrificed a lamb not my own, let me go one last time and get hung for a sheep.

In an attempt to round this conversation by bringing it back to Bosnia and Bosnians... I think this piece by Aleksandar Hemon (an ex-Yugoslav, ex-Bosnian--I don't know of what ethnicity/ies, who came as a refugee to the US in the 1990s) may be informative and illuminating on surprisingly much that came up here--yes, all the way from that bridge on the Drina. Not only was Bosnia seen as a microcosmic Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia was born--proclaimed--in Bosnia, in the wartime year of 1943, in the newly liberated little town with the impossibly cute name of... "Little Egg" (Jajce).

My mother and the failed experiment of Yugoslavia (The New Yorker, June 5, 2019)

It has become fashionable to hate the late Yugoslavia, or to diagnose it retroactively as a kind of Frankenstein assemblage of mismatched parts whose dissolution was thus inescapable and inevitably bloody. (...)

(That) would be wrong, just as are those who disparage Yugoslavia, for, in both cases, there is a history of conflicting traditions and tendencies, of struggles against the worst of the people’s instincts for a better polity and a kinder country. The bad guys won in Yugoslavia and ruined what they could, as soon as they could; the bad guys are doing pretty well in America, too. But nothing is inevitable until it happens. There is no such thing as historical destiny. Struggle is all. (...)

It’s hard today to comprehend the magnitude of the leap into a better life that someone like my mother made in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Back in 1946, in the wake of a cataclysm, the new regime instituted gender equality and mandatory and free education, so a peasant Bosnian girl, born in a house with a dirt floor, could go to school. Had she been born a generation before, she wouldn’t have gone to school. She would’ve worked the land with her parents until she got married, whereupon she would’ve popped out children into her middle age, unless she died giving birth or from sepsis after a homemade abortion, like one of Mama’s father’s sisters. Mama’s future was entangled with Yugoslavia’s, enabling her to leave behind the poverty that had lasted for centuries.

Yugoslavia provided a framework into which my mother fully grew, having departed, at the age of eleven, from her more or less nineteenth-century childhood. She built the country as she was building herself. (...)

With all that, life in Yugoslavia could never be reduced to its ideological practices and public rituals of indoctrination, even if they were essential to the culture. The progress and optimism that marked the decades after the Second World War were evident in the creation of the middle class, which consisted of the people exactly like my parents who, born in homes with dirt floors, ended up with college degrees and good jobs in big cities. They owned cars and weekend houses, spent summer vacations on the coast, and travelled out of the country without visas. They lived in rent-free apartments provided by state companies that provided employment through retirement. They took care of their elderly parents in the countryside, visiting often (but never enough) and returning home with the supplies of hearty peasant food, which they stored on their balconies and in the freezer chest bought with low-interest loans. Their children lived with them well into their twenties, even beyond, shamelessly. They planned to retire somewhere in nature—that is, to their weekend house. (...)

(Mama) was a citizen of the country that she built with her very hands, her Yugoslav identity a consequence of her life decisions, an outcome of her human, historical agency. Building the “homeland” was a practice, a daily operation, not a nostalgic one. She did not define homeland by the hundreds of years of unalterable history but by the efforts and dreams of people just like her, people whose siblings were wounded in the liberation war, who left home at the age of eleven to go to school, who earned blisters at youth work actions, who in college shared their room and food with four friends from exactly the same background, and who were the first ones in their family since the beginning of time to earn a university diploma and buy a television set on which they could watch themselves. (...)

Mama experienced the breakup of Yugoslavia as a dissolution of her homeland. What was destroyed was the framework within which her life—its very trajectory—had been self-legitimizing, where she never had to explain herself to anybody. But her family homestead had been within the geographical borders of Bosnia since time immemorial; except for the four college years, she never lived outside it until she migrated to Canada. Though Yugoslavia was a practice based on an idea, Bosnia and Sarajevo were the actual space where she lived, with smells and neighbors and a particular language. As long as Yugoslavia lasted, Bosnia fit into the idea and practice—it was the part of the country where the values of brotherhood and unity were practiced most sincerely and crucially. With the demise of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was left unprotected, and the complicated multicultural space was severely damaged. Mama had to leave it, and for good. ...

Though she appreciates Canada and her life there, the loss of Yugoslavia and Bosnia still casts a shadow across the frozen land.


60baswood
Modificato: Gen 9, 3:48am

>59 LolaWalser: Very interesting article and Hemon's view is one that I agree with. I travelled a little in Yugoslavia in the mid 1970's (even spent a few days in Bulgaria). I feared the worst when Tito went. Enjoyed reading the discussion. Can we learn from recent history? yes we can, but it does not seem to do us much good.

Mark? any political books coming up next?

61thorold
Gen 9, 4:48am

>60 baswood: Mark? any political books coming up next?

I wasn't planning on any, but there seems to be a giant rabbit hole opening up between the Adriatic and the Black Sea...

I think Annie and Lola should be made to submit their recommended Balkan history reading lists as a penance for starting what may well have been the shortest and most respectful Balkan war in history :-)

>59 LolaWalser: etc. That's interesting, and it seems to tie in with some of the things I picked up from Herkunft and earlier from Dubravka Ugrešić. Stanišic had parents who grew up in that idealistic nation-building atmosphere after the war, and married across a religious divide, and he says himself that he never had any other identity than "Yugo".

62AlisonY
Gen 9, 8:00am

>61 thorold: A surprising new role as Balkans diplomat this week!

63thorold
Modificato: Gen 9, 10:03am

>62 AlisonY: I'm nothing if not versatile!

A lovely, sunny day here today, I extended my walk this morning accordingly and ended up finishing another audiobook for the Small Countries theme. I enjoyed Auður's offbeat novel Butterflies in November a few years ago, when we were doing "Scandinavia"; this one is (marginally) more conventional in form:

The Greenhouse (2007) by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (Iceland, 1958- ), translated by Brian FitzGibbon Audiobook, narrated by Luke Daniels

  

The narrator, a man of 22 who has recently lost his mother and even more recently gained a daughter as a result of half a night spent with a woman he barely knows, has decided to pursue his very un-Icelandic passion for gardening by undertaking a project to restore the famous rose-garden belonging to a monastery in a remote village in an unspecified southern European country. He has a fairly adventurous journey to get there, including an appendectomy in the big city and a symbolically-overloaded night of eating game in a hunting-lodge in the middle of an endless forest, but when he eventually reaches the monastery, halfway through the book, he's happy to settle in to the quiet company of the monks and the physical work of restoring the garden. But then Anna turns up with their baby daughter, and he discovers the magic of fatherhood and even starts, belatedly, to fall in love with his co-parent.

There's a lot of good stuff here, gardening, cookery, watching a baby grow up, an entertaining wise old priest with a passion for arthouse movies, and some nicely managed offstage comedy in the phone-calls with the narrator's elderly father. And a lot of subtle culture-clash between Icelandic and Mediterranean ways of seeing the world. But set against all this straightforward realism are some slightly unsettling, but not too intrusive, non-realistic elements, which give the whole thing a slightly fairy-tale feel. As though there's some great mystical puzzle that's probably not going to be unravelled in the last chapter.

Interesting, but the baby gets away with stealing the show a little too much, as babies tend to.

The audiobook narration by Luke Daniels is peculiarly annoying, as he gives ludicrous silly voices to most of the older characters, including the narrator's dad, the priest Father Thomas, the butcher, and numerous others. A kind of squeaky Hollywood-Irish, which doesn't seem to have anything either Icelandic or Mediterranean to it.

64SassyLassy
Gen 9, 10:14am

>63 thorold: I read a book by her last year, Hotel Silence, and at times had the same feeling of fairy tale. Interestingly though, it has remained with me in the year since I read it. I wonder if hearing it on audio as you did with your title would have added to somewhat unreal feeling, and conversely, if you had read the print version, if this feeling would have been lessened.

65SassyLassy
Gen 9, 10:31am

In pursuing this Balkan experience fictionally, another Andrić book may be of interest: Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan. In his introduction, William Vollmann speaks of how the question continually arose for Andrić "What do you feel like, a Croat or a Serb?" to which his response was usually a variation of "I feel like a Yugoslav". While he wouldn't have that option today, Vollmann says that this book is a work of "brilliant evasion, in which most identities become bafflingly problematic". Omer Pasha, he says, was one who had to live between the two identities, and I would add, among the various other identities he had in the novel, most potently as a representative of Turkey.

66thorold
Gen 9, 10:32am

>64 SassyLassy: I don't know — I'm sure the narrator's choice of intonation and emphasis makes a difference, but I think there was a similar mix of realism and fairy tale in Butterflies in November, so I was probably looking out for it anyway. It's not quite magic realism, but it doesn't quite read on to the real world either.

67thorold
Gen 9, 10:35am

>65 SassyLassy: That sounds familiar: I've a feeling I read that introduction, but not the book that comes with it. It was probably one that had to be taken back to the library at the last minute...

68LolaWalser
Gen 9, 11:35am

>60 baswood:

Cool about the visit! Maybe some day you'll drop by again (seriously. If the plague doesn't get me, my brilliant career may see me brb-hosting on the Adriatic this time next year... :))

>61 thorold:

Ha, just count yourself lucky we didn't get any Serbs in. Oops, jinx.

>65 SassyLassy:, >67 thorold:

If you'll forgive linking to a different group (Reading Globally), Sassy's remark reminded me of Miljenko Jergovic's personal illustration of those complex "shifting" identities--maybe worth a comparison: https://www.librarything.com/topic/311773#6934856

>63 thorold:

Got me bulls-eye with "And a lot of subtle culture-clash between Icelandic and Mediterranean ways of seeing the world. ", of course. Now to see if I can find it in paper...

69thorold
Modificato: Gen 10, 6:34am

>68 LolaWalser: — I ended up reading through that Mitteleuropa thread again last night and realising how many books there were there I still want to follow up, including Antal Szerb's short stories, still on the TBR pile...

Meanwhile, another non-crime Icelandic novel that's been on the TBR since January 2018. An airport impulse-buy, it has a "Buy 1 Get 1 HALF PRICE" sticker on the front cover, and I'm pretty sure this was the "1 HALF PRICE" side of the equation.

Hallgrímur is a painter and the author of the wonderfully titled Hitman's guide to housecleaning.

101 Reykjavik (1996; English 2002) by Hallgrímur Helgason (Iceland, 1959- ) translated by Brian FitzGibbon

  

A few years ago I read the experimental sixties novel Tómas Jónsson: Bestseller, and assumed that the smelly, old, antisocial, self-proclaimed rapist and serial-killer Tómas must be as unpleasant as an Icelandic anti-hero could get. Well, that was before I met Hallgrímur's protagonist Hlynur Björn. He's thirty-three years old, still living with his mother, and has never done a day's work in his life. He gets up around four in the afternoon, and spends his time watching porn, hanging around in bars, lusting after women he hasn't slept with yet, and running away from those who have been weak and foolish enough to have had sex with him in the past. When drunk or on drugs he's liable to indulge in unplanned bad behaviour that make the sheet-burning, sexual assault and vomiting of the classic antiheroes of sixties Angry Young Men novels look like mere boorishness.

The only reason anyone would want to spend 350 pages in the company of this walking disaster area (and it's only the slimmest of reasons: this is a book you might well decide to toss aside when you reach page two and Hlynur is already masturbating all over it) is Hlynur's hilariously frank and funny narrative voice, which makes you keep reading, despite your common sense telling you this is only going to get worse, because he makes you want to find out how Hlynur gets out of this particular mess. Brian FitzGibbon has clearly done an amazing job translating Hallgrímur's complicated puns, code-switching, pop-culture references and mockery of Icelandic culture.

There is a plot of sorts, with nods to Hamlet, Gazon maudit and Independent people (amongst other things), and Hlynur is exposed to a whole string of powerful life-changing events, all of which miraculously fail to change his life in any obvious way. Indeed, as in Tómas Jónsson, we're never completely sure how much Hlynur has really experienced and how much has been a drug-induced hallucination.

A book in the worst possible taste, and not something I would ever have picked up if I'd known more about it, but still very funny and oddly compelling.

---

A very clever cover image, that needs to be opened up fully to see the joke: the photograph is by Peter Steuger.

70dchaikin
Gen 10, 1:51pm

Enjoying these review. Great review of Andric up there (>40 thorold:). I wonder if Helgason has first read his Nabokov, whose narrators seem to get more entertaining as they become darker. As for Ólafsdóttir, too bad about the reader.

71Nickelini
Modificato: Gen 10, 2:05pm

>36 thorold:

Happísland: The short but not too brief tale of a Swiss spy in Iceland (2015) by Cédric H Roserens (Switzerland, 1974- )
Fantasviss: The Short but not too Brief Tale of an Icelandic Spy in Switzerland (2019) by Cédric H Roserens (Switzerland, 1974- )


I NEED these! Thanks for pointing them out.

72LolaWalser
Gen 10, 3:59pm

>69 thorold:

Wow. Both of those sound like must-reads--like something Icelanders would read.

He's thirty-three years old, still living with his mother, and has never done a day's work in his life.

Heh. There's a sardonic/wistful/mocking Dalmatian saying, "bravura je živit bez lavura". Roughly translated... "good on him!"

Only I have nowhere near enough knowledge of anything Icelandish to appreciate the sendups...

Found and requested the Olafsdottir book, btw. Thanks, I think?! :)

73thorold
Gen 10, 5:02pm

>70 dchaikin: >72 LolaWalser: I'm sure we should be reading the sagas and Halldor Laxness, but modern novels in which "Holy Laxness!" becomes a Batman-style expression of surprise might be the next best thing... The send-ups in Tómas Jónsson are a bit more complicated than that, but it's still fairly obvious that they are send-ups, even when you only have sketchy knowledge of what's being sent up.

Not that Laxness always took himself very seriously: I read his late novel Under the glacier a while back, that was a very different sort of a book from Independent people, and pretty funny too.

Sjón is another recent Icelandic writer I want to read a bit more of now.

There does seem to be a kind of Nabokov thing going on in the background in 101 Reykjavik, but that's probably true of almost any clever first-person antihero novel since Lolita. I don't think Nabokov himself could have coped with a character as determinedly philistine as Hlynur, though.

74Dilara86
Gen 12, 11:15am

I'll add my name to the chorus of people who liked The Bridge on the Drina and found the subsequent conversation enlightening.

75thorold
Modificato: Gen 16, 6:05am

Back to my Christmas pile, again...

This is a short novel by a Spanish writer who is new to me. I had him on my Wishlist as someone to try, probably because he came up in recommendations somewhere, but I'd got him mixed up in my mind with Bolaño's early collaborator A. G. Porta, a quite different kind of writer whom I've also got on the list, so I was a bit puzzled at first...

(This has been translated into several other languages, but apparently not English)

La buena letra (1992, rev. 2000) by Rafael Chirbes (Spain, 1949-2015)

  

This innocent-looking novella sneaks up on you with an almost Balzac-like punch. It's a monologue, split up into very short chapters, addressed by Ana to her son, and looking back on her life since the end of the Civil War. At the heart of the story is Ana's difficult relationship with her sister-in-law Isabella and the psychological scars that the war has left on both of them, which Ana explores in depth as she digs back into her memories, but without ever generalising: everything is very local, domestic, even claustrophobic. Ana is strictly working-class; Isabella has been servant to a middle-class family and is socially-ambitious, as symbolised by her elegant handwriting ("b's and l's like the masts of sailing ships") and her habit of recording her thoughts in a diary, even when nothing has happened (the buena letra of the title can refer equally well to either handwriting or literature).

Chirbes lets us do any generalising ourselves: he wants us to see that time doesn't necessarily heal wounds, that injustices have a way of growing and deepening, and that when death intervenes it does so cruelly and irreversibly, not poetically.

Chirbes explains in an introductory note to the 2000 edition that he has removed a final chapter included in the original version that provided some sort of resolution to the story. With hindsight, he sees this as mere "voluntarismo literario", the author imposing his will on the text for the sake of convention. Presumably there's a bit more going on here as well: the external circumstances of the author's early life seem to match those of the story quite closely, so there is likely to be at least an element of his own mother's story in the character of Ana.

A lovely study of a working-class woman of the generation whose husbands fought in the Civil War, but quite an emotionally demanding read.

76Dilara86
Gen 16, 8:48am

>75 thorold: Another title for my wishlist!

77Nickelini
Gen 16, 2:36pm

>36 thorold: & >71 Nickelini:

I told you I needed Happisland and Fantasviss - I ordered them from Amazon and they just arrived. Together they are 62 small pages, so I'll probably read them today. I desperately need something fun and light, and these look perfect. Thanks so much for pointing them out - I don't know how I'd ever have discovered them otherwise

78thorold
Gen 16, 4:16pm

>77 Nickelini: Great, hope it’s not too brief a pleasure!
I think I found them whilst searching for “Iceland” in audiobooks on Scribd.

>75 thorold: >76 Dilara86: I’m almost tempted to go further down the rabbit-hole of books where the author changed the ending at some point. I vaguely remember something like that with Tess and Great expectations, and I’m sure there are other famous cases. But perhaps better not. Enough distractions already!

79thorold
Modificato: Gen 17, 6:55am

...and I finished another audiobook yesterday. This one looked indirectly relevant to the "small countries" theme. It also picks up things I wanted to explore further from The lost art of finding our way, which I read in 2017 (although it might have made more sense to start with the historical overview in Thompson and then read Huth for technical detail).

Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific (2019) by Christina Thompson (USA, Australia, 1959- ) audiobook, narrated by Susan Lyons

  

The Pacific is very big, as everyone who has had anything to do with it will tell you, and the islands in it are for the most part very small and a long way apart. Yet when the first European sailors reached Polynesia in the 16th century, they found people living on just about all of those tiny specks of land. What's more, those people all seemed to speak closely-related languages and share many of the same domestic animals, food-plants and cultural traditions, and in many cases they had obviously been settled where they were for a long time.

Thus, Western science was confronted with the famous "puzzle of Polynesia" — how did "primitive" people, without access to metal tools, nails, compasses, sextants and Admiralty charts, manage to migrate effectively across such vast areas of ocean? And where did they start?

Thompson's approach in this book is not so much to resolve that puzzle but rather to tease out the history of the interaction between Polynesian peoples and western scientists, looking at it as far as possible from both sides, and focussing as much on the long tradition of false preconceptions and intercultural misunderstandings as on the occasional isolated outbreaks of serious research and willingness to listen to each other that eventually made it possible for the two cultures to gain some kind of mutual understanding. I was particularly struck by her observation that a major stumbling-block for western scientists was the blind assumption that Polynesian cultures, being "primitive", were necessarily static: in many cases a famous "mystery" stopped being mysterious as soon as you allowed for the possibility that the way of life of a community had changed over the centuries to adapt to changes in its environment.

Obviously, it's not really possible to present a completely balanced view when one of the two parties in the discussion has all the written records, but Thompson does what she can with the handful of Polynesian thinkers who did leave some trace, like the Tahitian navigator Tupaia who sailed with Cook and Banks, and the early 20th century Maori ethnologist Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H Buck).

The book is pitched at general readers, and whilst making us look critically at some of the things we remember from our schoolbooks (and all of the things we remember from Thor Heyerdahl) it also seems to give a useful broad overview of the main topics involved and how they fit together in time and space, without going into very much detail about any particular place or particular technical or cultural aspect of Polynesian life.

80LolaWalser
Gen 17, 11:55am

in many cases a famous "mystery" stopped being mysterious as soon as you allowed for the possibility that the way of life of a community had changed over the centuries to adapt to changes in its environment.

This sort of thing is so infuriating--so infuriatingly stupid--and yet it's in every nook and cranny of everything we may call scientia (traditional systematised knowledge, not modern science). Because I a priori "know" X about Y, Y can never have thought, done etc. Z. Throw in a few holy books and eternal truths for good measure and the road to Stupid, Central is assured.

Heyerdahl, now, will always be a hero to me... :)

81markon
Gen 17, 12:35pm

Great, now I've got both Huth & Thompson on my list. Thompson was already there.

82thorold
Gen 18, 12:40pm

>80 LolaWalser: everything we may call scientia — Yes, that was the way Thompson was using "science". And she doesn't question Heyerdahl's courage and determination, or the idea of experimental archaeology, just the obvious wrong-headedness of the idea he set out to prove. (I loved the Heyerdahl book when I read it in my teens: I don't suppose it's possible to read something like that and not convince yourself at least briefly that when you grow up you will dedicate your life to adventure on the Pacific Ocean...)

I remembered I had something else Pacific-related on the TBR pile, where it's been for about four years — although I actually ended up listening to this as an audiobook from the library, read by the author:

De thuiskomst (2005) by Anna Enquist (Netherlands, 1945- )

  

On the face of it, this is an historical novel about the life of Captain Cook, told from the point of view of his stay-at-home wife, Elizabeth Batts. But it soon becomes clear that it's something rather different from that: it's a novel about what might be going on inside the head of a woman who has to appear strong and competent to the outside world, whist coping on her own with all the challenges that life throws at her: running the house, the births and deaths of children, their schooling and careers, looking after cousins, nephews, servants, dealing with the long absences and unpredictable returns of her husband, negotiating with the Admiralty in his absence, and so on.

Elizabeth outlives her husband and all of her children and dependents, so she has a lot of grief to deal with in her long life, an aspect Enquist is particularly interested in, both with her psychologist's hat on and personally. This was written shortly after the death of her own daughter. Occasionally her analysis feels anachronistically clinical — as when Elizabeth and the Captain have a long discussion in bed about survivor's guilt — but this isn't a book that stands or falls on its historical accuracy, it's a powerful, imaginative reconstruction of the mind of a woman who happens to have lived two and a half centuries ago.

Perhaps not Enquist's best book, but still a very strong, original novel.

---

I was sure I'd seen an English translation of this, but I can't find any trace of it. German, Spanish, French and numerous others are available, though. Maybe publishers were nervous about commissioning a translation of a foreign book with a very English subject.

83thorold
Modificato: Gen 20, 4:28am

Last year, I launched into a "whole career" readthrough of A S Byatt's fiction, without any real plan: it was a very interesting exercise, making me read a couple of books I'd missed earlier, and showing me recurring themes and patterns I'd never noticed when reading the books as I happened to come across them.

I mentioned in the Questions thread at the end of the year that I was thinking of doing something similar for another writer in 2021, and of course I soon had a lot of helpful suggestions! Out of that, the one who appealed to me most was Toni Morrison. Like Byatt, she's someone I've read quite a lot of, but by no means everything, and whom I've not read for some time. I first came across her in the nineties, when Song of Solomon was a set text for a course I was taking. It appealed to me more than I expected it to, and I read three or four more of her novels around that time, but I haven't really been back very much.

It doesn't really need saying that she was the 1993 Nobelist, and was considered globally as one of the most important US writers of the late 20th century.

I think this, Morrison's first novel, is actually the one I read most recently. I posted a review of it in February 2012:

The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison (USA, 1931-2019)

  

Excerpt from my comments in 2012:
Even without Morrison's deprecatory afterword, I think this is a book you can't read without getting the idea that it is a first novel written in the 1960s. The author is so obviously feeling towards a way of expressing what she feels about race, gender, and the preconceptions people have about them. Different ways of telling the story are being tried out against each other, there are different, almost conflicting, styles and systems of images in play. It's a workshop, but with hindsight, knowing the vast influence Morrison has had since, you feel privileged to be looking over her shoulder as she builds something.

A slightly awkward feature is the way she links every bad action by one of the black characters to some specific injustice committed by a white person, as though the black characters have no free agency or responsibility themselves, but are doomed to go on raping their daughters, massacring their pets, and beating their wives whether they like it or not, until the whites choose to let them stop. I'm sure that wasn't what Morrison intended to convey.

On re-reading, I would want to nuance that a bit: the way Morrison brings to life her working-class childhood in Lorain, Ohio in the 1940s is really magnificently vivid. The characters, when they speak for themselves, are very much alive, very much not the mere sociological types the grown-up voice of the academic narrator seems to be trying to reduce them to. Despite themselves, we can't help coming out of the book touched by the stories of Pecola and her parents Pauline and Cholly. So, if it is "an obvious first novel", it's an obvious first novel by a writer of genius. She perhaps has trouble getting the form to do the new things she's asking it to do, but her hand is 100% sure when it comes to representing people.

I think the real problem of the book is that Morrison is trying to link two different problems. The objective causes of Pecola's downfall are her rape by her father and the subsequent victim-blaming failure to support her by her mother and the rest of the community. We can't consider her as an agent in either of these disasters, so the question of her own self-hatred, the desire for blue eyes that is at the symbolic heart of the novel, actually turns out to be a poignant irrelevancy.

84AlisonY
Gen 19, 6:55am

>83 thorold: Interesting your different perspective on this with your second read. I think my main two bug bears were that I felt some of the heart of the story got lost in the way she chose to structure the novel, and also that the prose felt over-written. Well written, yes, but still over-embellished in places.

85dchaikin
Gen 19, 1:31pm

>83 thorold: I love your thread but it just got a 100 times more interesting to me. Looking forward to your walk through of Morrison. Also - this is a terrific review. Appreciate the “nuance” in the update

>79 thorold: Sea People meanwhile is just dangerously appealing. A book I don’t need that suddenly I really really want to read.

Enjoyed all these last four reviews.

86thorold
Gen 20, 4:24am

>84 AlisonY: I didn't really feel it was overwritten, but perhaps I might have on a different day. There is a very strong contrast between the "professor voice" of the third-person narrator and the more "natural" voice of the first-person/free-indirect parts, I can see how that might feel overdone. The ironic chapter-headings out of the primary school reader come over as a bit sophomoric, too.

Morrison was both a professor and an experienced publisher's editor at the time she wrote it, and presumably intimately familiar with every kind of African and African-American writing, so it couldn't help having a strong flavour of "academic exercise," but it's still a very personal book, and that struck me as what matters most to the reader.

Your recent review was one of the things that nudged me towards looking back at Morrison. I did wonder as well whether we would have read the book differently without her Afterword — it's hard to say you loved a book when the author herself is busy finding fault with it.

>85 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan!

87thorold
Modificato: Gen 20, 5:10am

I pulled this off the TBR shelf mostly because it was obviously going to be a quick read, but realised as soon as I got into it that it was also a very apt book to read in the run-up to Burns Night!

Scottish working-class novelist Jessie Kesson had a famously tough life. Her childhood, fictionalised in her famous first novel The white bird passes (which I read a couple of years ago), was spent mostly in orphanages, and she worked as a domestic servant and a farm labourer before moving to England in the 1950s and taking up writing. In later life she worked (amongst other things) as a social worker in London, and wrote mostly radio plays. This is her second novel:

Glitter of mica (1963) by Jessie Kesson (UK, 1916-1994)

  

A short, elegant rural tragedy, set in the 1950s in a farming community somewhere in the north of Scotland (around Aberdeen?), pivoting on the long-standing rivalry between Hugh Riddel, a steady, reliable agricultural worker, employed as dairyman on a large farm, and his sometime schoolfellow Charlie Anson, who has ambitions to get into local politics and has been seen hanging around Hugh's daughter. When Hugh is invited to give the "Immortal memory" toast at the Burns Supper and the text of his address gets into the local papers, Anson is burning with jealousy, and trouble seems inevitable.

Kesson takes an odd approach to structuring the story (not dissimilar from that of The bluest eye!), where we start in the aftermath of the trouble and then loop away into the back-stories of characters indirectly involved in it — Hugh's cattleman father; Sue Tatt the shameless village "woman of shame" (based on Kesson's mother?); the Vicar; Hugh's social-worker daughter Helen (Kesson herself?); the gossiping Greek chorus of farmworkers in the dairy — and she tells us a lot about conditions of employment in agriculture, the social structure of villages, the misguided way youth work is organised, the eccentricities of Scottish local buses, and so on. We keep feeling that we are losing our grip on the story just at the point when she swoops back to where she was meant to be and we suddenly see how relevant it all was. In the background throughout is the figure of Robert Burns, as a farmer and as a lover, his experiences contrasting with and sometimes paralleling the lives of the modern farmworkers. But there's also the important symbolic presence of a hill with a Pictish horse on it, and of a modern mental hospital: neither ever quite enters into the story, but they are both clearly essential somehow.

I also loved the way Kesson quite naturally and undemonstratively reaches for a Scots word whenever that expresses what she wants to say better than standard English could. She doesn't write in dialect, but she ends up with English prose that feels unmistakably Scots.

Wonderful stuff, it seems to pack something like the breadth and scope of a Thomas Hardy novel into 150 pages...

88Dilara86
Gen 20, 5:30am

>87 thorold: I should just stop reading your thread: too many book bullets!

89raton-liseur
Modificato: Gen 22, 9:33am

>82 thorold: I have read this book some years back and still remembers it as a very good read. It's the only book by Anna Enquist that I have read.
Your review reflects what I had thought of it at the time. I'm happy you enjoyed it as well.

>83 thorold: Interesting review on Toni Morrison, especially as I am considering giving her another try.

>87 thorold: and >88 Dilara86: This one is interesting, too! I share Dilara's concerns with your thread!

90thorold
Modificato: Gen 22, 10:17am

Another audiobook from the library. As so often happens, I came across this whilst looking for a quite different book; it caught my eye because — well, because you can never have too much Bach, I suppose...

I read John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the castle of heaven a couple of years ago, I was curious to see how different 't Hart's approach would be.

Johann Sebastian Bach (2018) by Maarten 't Hart (Netherlands, 1944- ) audiobook narrated by Wilbert Gieske, musical interludes by Ton Koopman

  

As well as being a research biologist, a prolific novelist, and someone who always seems to have enjoyed being a little bit provocative, Maarten 't Hart is also well-known as a writer on classical music topics, and as an amateur musician. By his own account he seems to have spent most of his teenage years in the organ-loft of the Grote Kerk in Maassluis.

This is a much expanded and revised reworking of the little Bach-guide 't Hart originally wrote in 2000 for a special promotion by a Dutch chain-store, which eventually printed 120 000 copies of it. It's more a collection of linked essays than a systematic "life and works", and it's pitched somewhere between a personal account of the pleasure of playing and listening to Bach's music and a guide for those proposing to venture into the vast jungle of secondary literature on Bach.

One of 't Hart's main points throughout the book is to remind us how very little information there is in the historical record about Bach's life, and how unrepresentative that evidence may well be. Just because the only documents that survive deal with conflicts, we don't have the right to conclude that Bach was "difficult" or "combative" — he may well have been, but there's no real evidence. Similarly, 't Hart refuses to draw any conclusions about Bach's religious beliefs, although he points us to the writers who've set out the arguments for and against the "5th evangelist" categorisation.

There's a hilarious section where he looks at the ways a dozen or so different biographers have described the famous incident of the recalcitrant bassoonist Geyersbach, which is important only because it is the first record we have of a word actually spoken by Bach (the slightly opaque insult "Zippelfagottist"). Everyone deals with it, but no two accounts agree with each other on what happened, and all seem to add something to, or misunderstand, the few pages in the Arnstadt municipal archives that deal with the matter. And there are also two chapters of richly annotated and critical bibliography listing all the main sources on Bach, before and after 2000 (the first time I've enjoyed listening to a bibliography in an audiobook!).

On the works, 't Hart focusses most on the cantatas and on the Wohltemperiertes Klavier ("The 48") and the Goldberg Variations, where we get a detailed discussion of the state of play on textual and historical questions, followed by a wonderful short, pithy account of each piece in order. On the organ music and the concertos there are similar, but slightly less comprehensive discussions, whilst the remaining works get treated more briefly. It's noteworthy that 't Hart writes about the keyboard works from the point of view of a performer, giving due credit to other keyboard players who have done that, like Peter Williams; on the choral works he writes as a listener, telling us that — unlike earlier writers like Albert Schweitzer — he's not competent to judge a complex choral work from the score alone. He's constantly sniping at Koopman, Eliot Gardiner and Suzuki because he disagrees with their fast tempi, but he clearly appreciates very much the effort they have put into getting all the surviving cantatas performed and recorded. (The audiobook comes with a few arias and choruses from Koopman's cantata cycle in between the chapters; I think the paper book comes with a CD.)

The B-minor Mass doesn't get a separate section, on the basis that it's all recycled from cantatas anyway. On the Matthäus he confines himself to a short discussion of composition history, and goes on to tell the reader — reasonably enough — that since they are interested enough to be reading this book, they obviously already know it as well as he does. (For a Dutch music-lover, it would be inconceivable not to perform or listen to the Matthäus at least once a year.)

Probably not a book to read unless you already have at least a little bit of knowledge about Bach's life and works, but I enjoyed 't Hart's enthusiasm for his subject and it made a few interesting points, and got me to listen to some cantatas...

91thorold
Modificato: Gen 22, 10:36am

>89 raton-liseur: Thanks! In the light of >90 thorold:, I have to say "go and read Enquist's Contrapunt!"

One of my fellow book-clubbers has already been round to borrow the Kesson book off me!

92raton-liseur
Gen 23, 5:28am

>91 thorold: I'll look at your recommandation for another Enquist's reading. Thanks!
By the way, regarding Kesson, I forgot to ask: you refer to "English prose that feels unmistakably Scots". I'm curious, what is unmistakably Scots?
And for Kesson, would you recommand reading them in chronological order, or is it okay starting with Glitter of mica (the hidden geologist in me loves this title!).

93thorold
Gen 23, 6:08am

>92 raton-liseur: Kesson: The two books are quite independent in terms of story and setting (in style too), it doesn't matter which you read first. There are more of her novels I haven't read, too.

I can't really explain the "Scots prose" without examples, and the book has gone out of the door now...
A lot of it is simply down to using words that don't quite have a 1:1 equivalent in standard English, like the prepositions "outwith" and "anent", for instance, so that you end up with a sentence structure that just "feels" Scottish. You'll certainly find words there that are unfamiliar, but you can usually work out what they mean from the context.

---

Back to "Small countries":

One of the things that ran through my mind when the topic was first proposed was that it would be a motivation to read some more William Heinesen. When we did Scandinavia I read The lost musicians and The good hope, both of which I enjoyed very much. The good hope is Heinesen's masterpiece, a powerful historical novel about the colonial oppression of the islands under a corrupt governor in the 17th century, and that's the book you should read if you want to know about the history of the islands.

Heinesen grew up in a middle-class shipowning family in Tórshavn, studied in Copenhagen and worked there as a journalist for a while before returning to the islands to help run the family business. He was a poet and visual artist as well as a novelist of international standing. Because of his background and education, he wrote in Danish, rather than Faroese, which was not taught in schools in his day and was only just in the process of being revived as a written language. When there were rumours that he was in line to win the Nobel, towards the end of his life, he announced that he didn't want to be considered for the prize because the first Faroese winner should be someone who wrote in Faroese.

Glyn Jones was professor of Scandinavian languages at UEA and a long-standing friend of Heinesen: his 1980 translation of The black cauldron seems to have been largely responsible for establishing Heinesen's reputation in the English-speaking world.

The Tower at the Edge of the World: A Poetic Mosaic Novel about My Earliest Youth (1976) by William Heinesen‬ (Faroes, 1900-1991) translated by W Glyn Jones (UK, 1928-2014)

  

Heinesen's last novel is an autobiographical look back from the perspective of old age at how a child experiences the process of discovering the world it lives in.

The narrator, Amaldus, in 1976, looks down from his metaphorical tower at the (chronological) end of his own world at the child-Amaldus living in the early years of the 20th century on a little rocky patch of land in the sea, a world that clearly stretches no further than the lighthouse at the tip of the island. But the years pass, he learns that there is a bigger world out there, places his father's ships sail to, and indeed that he is living on a round ball, spinning through space, that can project its shadow onto the Moon.

He is also, as children are, brought face to face with the realities of birth and death, with the inscrutable complexities of adult relationships, with the mysteries of religion, folklore, and witchcraft; with the complicated feelings he has for his friends, the clever and subversive girl Merrit and the would-be juvenile delinquent Hannibal, and so on.

But this isn't just an "end of innocence" novel, it's more complicated than that. Heinesen plays with biblical metaphors, weather-imagery, and all kinds of other structural and poetic devices, he brings his older narrator-self in and out of the story. And, as ever, there is a lot about the human need for beauty and the arts, and the damage that happens when that need is frustrated.

In the background to start with, but gradually taking over at the centre of the plot, there's another version of the story of The lost musicians, in this case driven by the ambition of Amaldus's hard, "practical", sea-captain/capitalist father to gain full control of the family business from his "feckless idiot" brother-in-law, Amaldus's uncle Hans. Hans prefers to spend his time drinking and making music with three close friends, when he isn't chasing girls or sailing his pleasure-yacht. Of course, there are tragic consequences to the father's intervention, but it's strange to see how strong the parallels are between the crazed Evangelical bank-manager in the earlier book and the ultra-sane, sceptical captain in this one.

Another lovely little book, and it makes me want to leap onto a ship and head for the North Atlantic!

(I don't know why Heinesen picked the unusual name Amaldus for his fictional self: in the text he's simply said to have been named after his grandfather who built up the shipping business. I wonder if it is meant as a tribute to the Norwegian naturalist painter Amaldus Nielsen?)

94thorold
Gen 23, 11:29am

One of the odd things I’m realising about audiobooks is how distracting a very minor quirk of the narrator’s reading style can be, probably something you wouldn’t even notice if you were talking to them face to face.

I loved hearing Anna Enquist reading her own book and adding a lot of interest to it because she’s so aware of the rhythms that are there in her prose (>82 thorold:), but I lost track every time she failed to pronounce the English given name “Hugh” (not surprising, as it involves sounds that just aren’t there in Dutch). Wilbert Gieske (>90 thorold:) did a great job with all the 17th century German and obscure musical terms in the Bach book, but for some reason always pronounced “gigue” (a French baroque dance form, present in many Bach pieces) as if it were the Dutch word “giek” (boom of a sailing ship), when it’s normally pronounced in the French way (“zheeg-uh”) both in English and Dutch.
And now I’ve started a new audiobook where the narrator has apparently decided that Pilgrim’s progress is by a Chinese writer called Bun Yan...

95LolaWalser
Gen 23, 11:44am

I just hope my eyes don't go before the rest of me, because I simply can't do with audiobooks... I marvel at people who retain anything from that. But, as usual, I just remembered an exception--Christopher Plummer reading the Alice books. Only that hardly counts, does it? seeing I practically know them by heart...

Noting the Heinesen.

96rocketjk
Gen 23, 11:49am

>95 LolaWalser: "I just hope my eyes don't go before the rest of me, because I simply can't do with audiobooks... I marvel at people who retain anything from that."

I'm with you on this, entirely. Happily, there's enough storytelling in Duke Ellington suites and John Coltrane solos to keep me going if need be!

97LolaWalser
Gen 23, 11:55am

>96 rocketjk:

True that! Losing music would definitely be the last nail in the coffin. As long as the fat lady sings... :)

98SassyLassy
Gen 23, 12:03pm

>87 thorold: I also loved the way Kesson quite naturally and undemonstratively reaches for a Scots word whenever that expresses what she wants to say better than standard English could.
it seems to pack something like the breadth and scope of a Thomas Hardy novel into 150 pages...


Wonderful descriptions of Kesson's writing

>95 LolaWalser: I simply can't do with audiobooks... With you there, although the idea of Christopher Plummer and the Cheshire Cat somewhat intrigues.

99thorold
Gen 23, 2:08pm

>95 LolaWalser: - >98 SassyLassy: I’d hate to be without paper books too, but I do find audiobooks a nice add-on for less important reading, at times when I wouldn’t otherwise be able to read (e.g. while exercising or doing manual tasks like ironing). And I’m continually astonished at how well the brain seems to be able to take in information in audio form, even while you’re doing something else. But of course audio is the basic form of storytelling, so it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that we’re programmed to accept it.

Plummer reading Alice would be good. I think the best audiobook production I’ve listened to in the last couple of years was Lost children archive, which came across almost as though it had been designed for audio and the paper version was an afterthought.

100LolaWalser
Gen 23, 3:13pm

>99 thorold:

audio is the basic form of storytelling, so it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that we’re programmed to accept it.

I know what you mean, but strictly speaking, we're "programmed" only to hear (and see). This is one of those counter-intuitive things about evolution the way it's thought of popularly... the genetics underlying behaviour rarely have a simple and direct one-to-one relationship with it. The question, of course, is how early the type of communication we'd recognise as "storytelling" emerged, whether it was early enough to have influenced the evolution of the brain. Best I should stay away from this hobbyhorse, though... :)

>98 SassyLassy:

I have it on tape, that's how old it is, and it's greatly enjoyable.

And I just remembered I have several Shakespeare's plays on CD--but that's another exception, I think...

101kac522
Modificato: Gen 23, 9:45pm

>94 thorold: I'm also pretty picky about audiobook narrators. There are only a few that I can tolerate. Also, I usually listen to audiobooks for memoirs (especially when read by the author) and re-reads of classic favorites. For the latter, since I already know the plot and characters, I can focus on and enjoy the language, foreshadowing, and other finer points that I've missed on a paper book reading, where I've raced through to find out "what happens."

And some books were meant to be read aloud--thinking Jane Austen here, who read her books aloud to her family as she was writing them. Also books with lots of dialect that's difficult to read in print, but all comes clear when a good narrator reads in dialect.

102raton-liseur
Modificato: Gen 24, 6:39am

>93 thorold: Thanks for this review. An author I did not know, and that I might have to look for soonish. Your thread is dangerous (but I already said that)!

ETA: Heck, none of his work seems available in French, I might have to wait quite some time and keep my eyes open in second-hand bookshops!

103thorold
Gen 24, 9:40am

>100 LolaWalser: strictly speaking, we're "programmed" only to hear (and see) — fair enough, I shouldn't have said "programmed", I've read enough Dawkins to know he would have rapped me on the fingers for that too. What I meant to say was that it's the form in which most of us first learn to take in stories.

>102 raton-liseur: Ouch, I just had a look, there really isn't much available currently in any languages other than Danish or English. The French Wikipedia lists a lot of translations, including half a dozen in French, but they don't look to have been reprinted for a long time.

I'm tempted to have a go at some of the short stories in Danish, just to see how little I can understand...

---

This is a book I've had on the go for the last ten days or so. I picked it up after it got some publicity by winning a prize last year: it's been through four printings in twelve months, so I'm obviously not the only one.

Professor van der Sijs teaches at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, but for many years she was also attached to the Meertens Institute, the real-life prototype of J J Voskuil's "Bureau", so this will give me a nice segue back into his mega-novel if and when I get around to reading Part Two...

15 eeuwen Nederlandse taal (2019) by Nicoline van der Sijs (Netherlands, 1955- )

  

Does what it says on the tin: van der Sijs gives us a compact survey of the development of the Dutch language from its origins in the Germanic languages of the early medieval period (in fact we get a bonus chapter linking Old Germanic back to Proto-Indo-European) right through to the age of WhatsApp and hip-hop. The book is pitched at the general reader, to the extent that she avoids the use of frightening scholarly devices like footnotes and the IPA, but in other respects it takes no prisoners: it's a 250-page linguistic bootcamp without coffee breaks, and if you nod off you have no alternative to going back a few pages and trying again.

But it's well worth it! There is an amazing amount of detail packed into this relatively short book. Nothing is presented without clear examples, there is enough context and social/historical background to keep us aware of where we are, but she doesn't waste space telling us things we already know. We get to see how the language has been shaped by the needs of the people who spoke it and by the influences they came under, how the standard language emerged from the numerous regional varieties, and how much regional variation there still is.

In modern times, it's interesting to see how the relatively small geographical and political space occupied by Dutch encouraged "experts" to treat the language as something that could be shaped in to ideal forms at will, and how that resulted in a big gulf between the written and spoken languages in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century that was rectified to some extent, the grammarians started to concede that they might have been wrong about things like the four (sometimes even six!) noun-cases and three grammatical genders they claimed should exist. The more lively question then became the relationship between Dutch as used in The Netherlands and Dutch as used in Belgium — theoretically described by a common set of standards but actually varying considerably in both spoken and written forms.

Van der Sijs is clearly the type of linguist who is more interested in which words people actually use and where they get them from than she is in "purity" or "consistency" of the language, and she has fun in her final chapter contradicting linguistic pessimists by demonstrating how rich and varied the language used in rap and social media actually is, and how the percentage of foreign loan-words actually used in Dutch texts hasn't changed very much since the 17th century. French may be on the decrease as an influence and English on the increase, but there's no sign that Dutch is being "swamped".

My only, very minor, quibble with the book is the way the detailed captions for all the language-distribution maps in the text are hidden away in the end-matter, so that you can't immediately tell — for instance — whether you are looking at modern or historic data. This is exacerbated by the way all the maps have been copied onto a standard outline map showing modern coastlines and provincial boundaries.

104markon
Gen 24, 5:39pm

>87 thorold: Glitter of mica sounds intriguing. Don't know how avaland it may be here. . .

>95 LolaWalser: I share this fear of my sight going. I listen to audiobooks, but they're a small subset of what I read.

105dchaikin
Gen 26, 10:36pm

>103 thorold: this is a fascinating review (and, of course, your review is about as deep as I can get into this. So I appreciate it too.). Thinking about the copy of The Story of English I have around here somewhere.

106thorold
Modificato: Gen 29, 6:24am

>104 markon: I just re-read your comment and realised you'd turned our esteemed admin Lois into an adjective. The ways of Freud are deep and subtle, and predictive text is even worse than the subconscious for creating unnecessary confusion... :-)

>105 dchaikin: I was struck by how many parallels there are between the ways English and Dutch have developed. You know in theory that all languages go through the same kinds of processes over time, but it doesn't really sink in until you see it in action like that.

Back to one of my occasional dips into the literature of the former German Democratic Republic. Some months ago I read Das Windhahn-Syndrom, a 1983 view of the DDR as seen by the generation that grew up under socialism; this time it's another novel from the same year by a member of the previous generation. It was spiphany who tipped me off about the reissue of both of these books.

Die Weltzeituhr: Roman einer Epoche (1983/1985, uncensored text 2017) by Eberhard Hilscher (DDR, 1927-2005)

  

Eberhard Hilscher grew up in Schwiebus (now Świebodzin), about 150 km east of Berlin. He was known mostly as the author of a string of literary biographies and critical studies of figures like Thomas Mann, Arnold Zweig and Gerhard Hauptmann; he also wrote some successful collections of historical sketches in the tradition of Stefan Zweig's Sternstunden. In the course of this work he exchanged correspondence with a large selection of celebrated geniuses around the world. His more experimental fiction, however, didn't fit into the official mould of the DDR and seems to have been little read, except by the Stasi.

Weltzeituhr, Hilscher's main original work of fiction, appeared in a heavily-censored version in the DDR in 1983 and an only slightly less chopped-about version in the West in 1985. This belated reconstruction of the text as Hilscher originally intended it, brought out by Mitteldeutscher Verlag in Halle in 2017, seems to have been made largely on the initiative of his widow.

The novel follows the career of its hero, Guido Möglich (a name we're meant to decode as "possible guide"), from his birth on the 29th of February, 1928, through his childhood in the provincial town of Paradies during the Weimar Republic and Third Reich, his military service as a teenager in the occupying army in Denmark, and his return to Berlin to work as a rubble-clearer, black-market trader, and eventually proprietor of a bookshop in the Friedrichstraße, up to his mysterious disappearance in 1962. The straightforward narrative chapters about Guido's life are alternated with annual chronicles of selected news stories from around the world and with letters between Guido and his schoolfriend Jab, who settles into the life of a market-gardener in the West. Apparently at random, we also get interpolated vignettes of geniuses in action — Albert Schweitzer in Congo; Bohr and Einstein in Copenhagen and Manhattan; August Piccard in his balloon and Jacques Piccard in his bathyscaphe; Picasso in Paris; Tenzing and Hillary on Everest; Thomas Mann in California; Brecht in Berlin, etc. Some of the geniuses appear under their own names, others anonymously or under more-or-less transparent disguises.

The resulting narrative chaos is mitigated by a forceful imposition of chronological discipline. With a handful of telling exceptions, like Kierkegaard popping up on a visit to Berlin ninety years after his death, or a mention of the World-clock on the Alexanderplatz some twenty years before it was erected, everything appears organised very strictly by year, so we get a kind of multi-dimensional view of world history, with a focus on Germany, as though we were looking at the world-clock.

Rather like Oskar in the Tin drum, Guido is a gifted figure damaged by the times he is living in. He's beautiful, clever, and endowed with apparently limitless sexual energy and technique, able to see through political hypocrisy and bullshit at a glance, but totally lacking in human empathy. He leads us through the disasters of the rise of Hitler and the war, the optimistic creation of the new Workers' and Peasants' State, the realisation in June 1953 that the government had lost touch with the people and with socialism, re-militarisation and the Cold War, and finally the ultimate disaster that seals the fate of the DDR — and destroys Guido's only chance of redemption-through-love — the Berlin Wall.

An interesting quirk is the way Hilscher introduces dolphin-symbolism repeatedly as we go through the story (the spermatozoon on the first page of the book is already making a "dolphin-like" progress towards its destination). Dolphins stand in a very Douglas Adams way for rational, peaceful, playful existence without weapons or frontiers. Hilscher apparently put a lot of time and effort into researching dolphins when he was writing the book, even getting permission to swim with the dolphins in Duisburg Zoo on a rare trip to the West. It does make you wonder whether the H2G2 obsession might already have reached East Berlin by 1980. Probably not, but you never know!

It's an enjoyable read. There's a lot of entertaining detail and some clever satire (Walter Ulbricht appearing in a dream disguised as a wall-building emperor of China), and there are some telling insights along the way, but this isn't a book you could really class as a "lost" counterpart to The Tin Drum, or a continuation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. It's too big and shaggy, the targets it attacks are too broad (Hitler and Stalin and the closed DDR state and militarism and nuclear weapons and blind scientific progress...). It's probably more relevant to see it as in the tradition of Simplicissimus or — as Volker Oesterreicher suggests in his afterword to this edition — Tristram Shandy.

---


(The World-clock on the Alex shortly after it was erected in 1969 — Bundesarchiv via Wikipedia)

107spiphany
Modificato: Gen 29, 9:29am

>106 thorold: Thanks for coming back and reporting! I'm glad you enjoyed Die Weltzeituhr. It's always a bit of a risk suggesting books I haven't actually read -- I can't guarantee that they're not completely dreadful, however interesting they may sound.

You might be interested in another now largely forgotten DDR author whose writing got him into difficulties with the state: Erich Loest. I've just finished his Völkerschlachtdenkmal (likewise discovered as part of my continuing exploration of the back catalog of the Mitteldeutscher Verlag). Talking of the Tin Drum, this reminded me in some ways of Grass's Danzig Trilogy. It lacks the showiness of Grass's writing, but there's a similarly eccentric and slightly obsessive narrator and subversive, wryly ironic attitude towards history. It's also an elegy to a lost homeland -- Loest's beloved Leipzig, which he left in the early 1980s, shortly before the book was published -- and, at the end, a bitter condemnation of the DDR state.

108thorold
Gen 30, 5:16am

>107 spiphany: Thanks, keep them coming! I'm going to try to read Spur der Steine at last before piling up any more, but I've made a note of Loest. Having seen a couple of films about Bach lately and read the Maarten 't Hart book (>90 thorold:), I really want to go and have a proper look around Leipzig when that's possible again...

Back to the next instalment in my Morrisonade:

Sula (1973) by Toni Morrison (USA, 1931-2019)

  

Morrison's second novel is another short, deceptively slight-looking book, set in a small black community on the fringes of an Ohio town in the inter-war years. It's not explicitly a political story, the plot is about a friendship between two women, but Morrison makes it pretty clear that everything that happens in the story is influenced and constrained by the nature of relations between white and black, male and female in that time and place. Even the settlement itself grew up where it is because the land there wasn't valuable enough to be wanted by white farmers; in a pair of frame chapters from a 1960s viewpoint, the narrator tells us that the settlement has since disappeared, not because of racial integration but because hilly land became attractive for suburban houses and golf courses and the black families couldn't afford to stay.

Morrison sets up the contrast between two matriarchal clans, on the one hand the Wrights, driven by the need for respectability and by Helene Wright's shame about her southern mixed-race background, and on the other the Peaces, anarchistic women who see themselves as having nothing to lose and no reason to keep to anyone else's rules. Nel Wright and Sula Peace become friends across this social divide as small children, and maintain the warm, close friendship through a number of grotesque incidents right into adulthood, until they are finally forced to recognise the depth of the ethical gap between them when Sula does something she sees as trivial and Nel as fundamental.

Morrison steers away here from the kind of stylistic flourishes that got her into trouble with critics in The bluest eye, but she goes for narrative excesses instead: there are magic-realist elements where the external world is reacting in strange ways to the actions of the characters, and many of the darker human incidents in the plot have a non-realistic, fairy-tale flavour to them, especially the climactic scene where the inhabitants of the township are led Pied-Piper style to their collective doom. She seems to be flexing her muscles and telling the critics: "Just because I'm an African-American woman, that doesn't mean I've got to restrict myself to writing social-realistic political fiction." But there's also perhaps a sense that the situation of black people in America is something that isn't adequately to be described within the confines of realistic fiction: we need this element of fairy-tale to make sense of the recent past and start to understand how it continues to affect our relations in the present.

109spiphany
Gen 30, 5:58am

>108 thorold:
If you do make it to Leipzig at some point, feel free to drop me a line and we can meet up for coffee or something. The Völkerschlachtdenkmal itself is interesting -- a weirdly anachronistic colossus memorializing a war in which the Saxonians fought on the wrong side. (I'll pass on ascending it, though: it turns out I'm a bit claustropobic and those windowless winding stairways through the middle of a block of concrete were unpleasantly oppressive.)

You're reminding me that I need to reacquaint myself with Toni Morrison. I think Sula is the only title of hers that I've read, back in high school...

110AlisonY
Gen 31, 6:57am

>108 thorold: You're selling Sula to me, especially as she note she veers away from the excessive stylistic flourishes which grated on me in The Bluest Eye. Maybe by Sula she felt she didn't need to prove her academic prowess as much?

111thorold
Modificato: Feb 2, 9:43am

>109 spiphany: Thanks, I'll let you know! I've got the Loest on order now, I needed another book to get over the free postage threshold on a parcel from Germany.

>109 spiphany: >110 AlisonY: I certainly enjoyed Sula, it will be interesting to see how it fits in as I go on with her later books.

Back to a loooooooooooooong Dutch novel I read the first part of last year. This is the second of seven parts:

Vuile handen: Het Bureau 2 (1996) by J J Voskuil (Netherlands, 1926-2008)

  

This second part of the saga takes the career of reluctant ethnologist Maarten Koning forward through the years 1965-1972. Despite his continuing doubts about the scientific validity of the work they are doing and his repugnance at the idea of being a career civil servant, Maarten, approaching forty, is now the head of a growing team catalogueing data about popular culture and de facto deputy director of the Office, which is itself growing and has to move into a larger building; he's also becoming an established figure on the European academic committee- and conference- circuit, and a leading expert on the distribution of different types of threshing-flails.

Amsterdam is changing too, Maarten's colleagues are increasingly moving out to new suburbs and buying cars. Maarten and Nicolien cling on to their provisional, studenty existence for a long time, but eventually they too move out of their little flat in the working-class Jordaan into a grown-up apartment (but they do stay in the city). In the background are all the unrest and demonstrations of the late sixties, but they only have a very marginal effect on the story. Maarten does take a firm political stand when the question of "scientific cooperation" with a South African cultural organisation is raised, and he and Nicolien join a Vietnam-War protest march, but that's as far as it goes.

As in Part 1, what really interests Voskuil is the odd way human relations operate in a workplace setting, putting people into very intimate contact with a small fragment of each other's lives. His episodic narrative style gives the same prominence to disputes about coathooks and shelf-space as it does to weddings and funerals, and he's forever reminding us that scientific committees spend as much time debating changes to their membership, grammatical errors in the Minutes, or the location of the next meeting as they do talking about actual science, and that those topics are often the most interesting and controversial.

Arguably, there isn't much real development in this second part, Voskuil seems to have established his terms of engagement in the first part. But there's so much in the detailed observation to enjoy and (if you've ever been involved in any kind of office politics) to recognise and laugh at. Voskuil writes about stuff other novelists mostly don't find interesting, and he ignores a lot of the things they do write about. He needs his large canvas to show the random and fragmented nature of life — there's one incident in this book where Maarten gets a follow-up to a letter sent thirteen years ago in part one; the matter in question is still unresolved at the end of part two, and we don't know yet whether it's going to be of any importance.

112baswood
Feb 2, 5:43am

>111 thorold: His episodic narrative style gives the same prominence to disputes about coathooks and shelf-space as it does to weddings and funerals, and reminding us that scientific committees spend as much time debating changes to their membership, grammatical errors in the Minutes, or the location of the next meeting

I can relate to that being an ex public servant - poor Maarten

113thorold
Feb 2, 9:43am

>112 baswood: Yes, I suspect all bureaucracies behave in the same way up to a certain point, whatever it is they are meant to be doing. Our meetings were exactly like that too. And I can relate to your comment in the other thread about always being made secretary :-)

Something that struck me in the book was that as recently as the early seventies a bunch of social scientists from different European countries could get together and still take it for granted that the meeting should be conducted in German. Maarten's awkward Dutch-flavoured German at those meetings is a running joke throughout the book. I wonder when conferences started switching to English? It must have been soon after that.

114thorold
Feb 5, 4:28am

Hall Caine is someone I've been vaguely aware of for a long time — he was a huge best-selling author in his day, wiping the floor with insignificant contemporaries like Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad and even giving Arnold Bennett some stiff competition. He's also one of the very few famous people of Manx origin (together with Sir Frank Kermode, Fletcher Christian and the Bee Gees), and I've always had a nostalgic affection for the place, where I spent a few childhood holidays.

The "small countries" theme gives me a pretext to give him a go, with one of his most famous books, which sold half a million copies after serial publication, and was made into several plays and adapted as Hitchcock's last silent film:

The Manxman (1894) by Hall Caine (UK, IoM, 1853-1931) (read as Gutenberg ebook)

  

This long, shaggy Victorian novel centres on a classic love-triangle plot: the cousins Philip and Peter, poor relatives of a distinguished Manx landowning family, are boyhood friends. Charitable relatives fix up for Philip to go to school and train for the Manx bar, doors that are closed to the illegitimate Pete; he grows up to become a semi-literate fisherman. But the boys remain close, and when Pete decides to join the Kimberley diamond rush to try to earn enough to satisfy the father of his intended bride, Kate, he charges Philip with the responsibility of looking after her until he gets back.

The inevitable happens, ambitious Kate falls for the dashing young law student, and when false news of Pete's death arrives the two of them take an ill-advised roll in the hay after the Melliah (harvest dinner). Pete turns up alive shortly afterwards, and Kate finds herself pressured into going through with the planned marriage after all. Needless to say, there is no good way out of this situation, and things rapidly get worse...

I started reading this book with the hope that I would find that Caine had been unfairly neglected, as happens to so many hugely popular authors after their deaths. But, whilst it's easy to see why he was so successful, it's also hard to make a case for reviving him, at least on the evidence of this book.

He's a wonderfully fluent, easy-to-read writer, his prose doesn't have any of that late-Victorian stiffness or Edwardian archness that often plagues books from the turn of the century. And he has an obvious gift for lively, funny, original dialogue: the Manx dialect and syntax are never allowed to get in the way of intelligibility. The book is full of quaint local colour, from rustic inns and agricultural customs to the pageantry of Tynwald Day (Caine is credited with founding the Manx tourist industry), and there are plenty of comic incidents, many of them centering around Kate's father, Caesar, who somehow manages to combine the roles of miller, publican and evangelical preacher.

On the other hand, Caine never refuses an opportunity to throw in a melodramatic incident or a moralistic cliché. The timeline makes no sense at all: Philip goes through his entire career from pupillage to being a respected senior judge in the time it takes his putative daughter to get from conception to first steps. The characters consistently act in ways that are — at best — implausible in psychological and narrative terms, and Caine is clearly not the kind of writer to fuss himself about piddling little details like calendars, wind-and-tide, legal procedures, inheritance customs, etc. The closing scene, while spectacular, is one that would have a hard time being taken seriously even on the stage of an opera house. In a novel it comes over as pure fantasy: this is not the Manx Tess so much as the Manx Iolanthe...

115AlisonY
Feb 5, 4:52am

>114 thorold: Shame - I was poised to add this to my wish list, but given your summary I think I'll pass. Great review, though - he's not an author I'd heard of before.

116thorold
Feb 5, 5:06am

>115 AlisonY: Yes, there are probably better ways to invest your time! Still, it was interesting to try him at last. And the Manx cultural detail was fun.

117baswood
Feb 5, 8:52am

Ah its good to try old things

118LolaWalser
Feb 5, 11:01am

>114 thorold:

Hitchcock shot a silent based on that. I think it's the only one of his movies about which I can remember nothing at all. I think it was actually shot on the Isle of Man (but don't quote me on that...)

119thorold
Modificato: Feb 5, 11:21am

>118 LolaWalser: I’ve got it lined up for tonight, all being well...

120LolaWalser
Feb 5, 1:02pm

>119 thorold:

Admirable thoroughness! Hmm, it does have a peculiarly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes... Heh--this should amuse you--Wikipedia:

The Manxman began filming on the Isle of Man, but Hitchcock eventually relocated production to Polperro, Cornwall due to frequent creative interference from author Hall Caine, who lived on the Isle of Man.

Love the image of Hitch getting pestered off the island by the author...

121rocketjk
Feb 5, 1:22pm

>119 thorold: & >120 LolaWalser: Total side issue, but my favorite movie filmed on the Isle of Man is Waking Ned Devine, which is also one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.

122thorold
Feb 5, 3:47pm

>121 rocketjk: Noted!

>120 LolaWalser:
I can see why Caine was nervous about it: Hitchcock took the book apart and threw out most of what Caine must have thought were his best effects. Much tighter, more focussed than the book, and feels more true to the characters, but it loses a lot of that Manx atmosphere (also because it’s done in 1920s costume). Carl Brisson is lovely as Pete, and Anny Ondra as Kate, but British stage actor Malcolm Keen as the lawyer Philip looks twenty years older than Brisson (he wasn’t) and seems carved out of a lump of wood.

There’s quite a Jules-et-Jim atmosphere, Brisson hugs Keen at least as often as he hugs Ondra...

The big court scene is very Hitchcock, a long, long moment of suspense when they are all looking at each other waiting to see who’s going to speak first and blow up the plot.

123LolaWalser
Feb 5, 3:59pm

>121 rocketjk:

Title is familiar, but I haven't seen it. Intrigued now.

>122 thorold:

I wonder how many people on the planet currently can boast of having read the book AND seen the movie. You could easily be in a select expert group of one. :)

124thorold
Feb 5, 5:01pm

>123 LolaWalser: You could easily be in a select expert group of one. :)

Fun to think so, but I doubt it. The world’s a big place, and there must be a lot of Hitchcock buffs out there.

125rocketjk
Modificato: Feb 5, 6:40pm

Waking Ned Devine is a comedy that takes place in a small Irish seaside village (though filmed, as noted, on the Isle of Man) about what happens when somebody (at first, nobody knows who) in the town wins the national lottery. It is a very gentle yet sly comedy, lots of lovely characters, very little slapstick. How do you like the idea of a comedy that centers around the strength of friendship in a non-cynical way? I would post a link to the trailer but the trailer gives away just a touch too much of the early plot.

126markon
Modificato: Feb 5, 8:28pm

>125 rocketjk: I strongly second Jerry's recommendation of Waking Ned Divine!

>111 thorold: Het bureau sounds intriguing.

127dianeham
Modificato: Feb 6, 2:40am

My Irish grandfather had Manx cats.

Waking Ted Divine reminded me of Whiskey Galore.

128thorold
Feb 6, 5:32am

I'm getting curious about Waking Ned Divine now too...

>126 markon: Het Bureau is very interesting, but (perhaps understandably) there's no sign of any translations except into German.

Back to my pile of Christmas books, and another follow-up to the Zolathon I completed last summer:

Zola and the Victorians : censorship in the age of hypocrisy (2015) by Eileen Horne (USA, UK)

  

(Author photo: C&W agency https://cwagency.co.uk/client/eileen-horne)

This felt like a terrible wasted opportunity. The reception of Zola's work in English in his lifetime is an interesting topic, and Eileen Horne clearly did an enormous amount of research for it. Moreover, she's a big Zola fan who has worked on at least two Zola dramatisations in her career as a TV producer. But for some reason she chose to write up her project as a series of dramatised scenes in the style of a bad TV documentary, attributing all kinds of words, thoughts and gestures to the members of the Zola and Vizetelly families, their supporters and their enemies. As a result it's almost impossible to tell what she has invented and what comes out of the many historical sources she obviously used.

This simply doesn't make any sense: she's writing for an audience of people who are either in the process of reading twenty massive French nineteenth century novels or have already done so. We are not schoolchildren or casual museum visitors who are likely to shy away at the sight of a naked footnote: what we want from her is to be told what is known about the subject and where it's known from. She could have written a simple historical monograph with half the effort and it would have been many times more useful to readers.

It's not even as though it's an exciting, dramatic story: time and time again, (non-)events and Horne's historical conscience conspire to prevent satisfying drama. Henry Vizetelly pleaded guilty on the two occasions when he was prosecuted for obscenity, so there are no exciting Lady Chatterley-style legal arguments about the relationship of "obscenity" to literary merit and moral purpose. Even on the occasion when Frank Harris is sitting next to Vizetelly's spinster daughter Anne in the public gallery at the Old Bailey, Horne has nothing to report beyond a bit of thigh-contact. If it had been Harris himself telling the story, he would have found a way to claim that he achieved sexual congress with her under the nose of the judge...

If you can't get hold of Angus Wilson's little Zola-book from seventy years ago, it's probably worth buying this for the excellent introductory essay about translation, social prejudice and censorship by David Bellos and for Horne's bibliography and her admirably concise reading guide to the Rougon-Macquart novels. But you can safely skip the bit in the middle.

129thorold
Feb 7, 11:34am

Another from the Christmas pile, this was the result of a bit of (very) creative interpretation of the suggestions I put in my SantaThing entry. A bold choice, and I'm still puzzling as to how my secret Santa got there — this is the only copy of this book on LT so far, and it's not exactly mainstream, even in Spain. But it ticks quite a few boxes for me, and it turned out to be both interesting and fun to read.

Mi vida en la amazonía : andanzas de un músico vasco en la selva peruana (2011) by Julen Ezkurra (Spain, 1930- )

  

This memoir by the Basque choral composer and music professor Julen Ezkurra does pretty much what the title suggests, plus a little bit more.

He describes how, as a young Augustinian in 1954, he volunteered to go as a "missionary" to the Americas, and was assigned to teach in a secondary school in the Peruvian town of Iquitos, in the Amazon rainforest. Looking back, he feels that his main motivation was to get out of the depressing atmosphere of postwar Spain, but notes with a little bit of chagrin that his posting was almost certainly subsidised by the CIA, who saw Spanish Catholics as a bastion against communism in Latin America. Of course, the actual effect was the opposite: Peru exposed him to a breadth of opinions he would never have encountered back home, including the opportunity to make friends with Republican exiles.

During his ten-year stay in Iquitos, Ezkurra took the opportunity to travel up-river (with his accordion) to meet indigenous people and learn about their situation: he describes in detail the first such trip he took, and includes many photographs from that and other trips.

He also had a kind of conversion experience, when he came to the conclusion that, given his skills, the most effective way for him to open up people's lives to new opportunities was to devote himself to teaching music, something that had only been a very minor part of his training up to that point. He studied Peruvian musical history, especially the Inca tradition, ran various choirs, and was instrumental in getting a music school set up in Iquitos, primarily to train young teachers to use music in their lessons. When the school opened, he was appointed as its first head. (He mentions — in passing — that he was also head of the secondary school.)

After ten years in Peru he had the opportunity of a sabbatical, and went to study composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and Gregorian chant in Rome. The intention was to return to Peru after these advanced studies, but some kind of dispute with his religious superiors in Madrid intervened. He doesn't go into this in detail, but from a few hints in the text it sounds as though he might have been the victim of cutbacks in the musical establishment of the church after Vatican II. In any case, he spent the rest of his career in secular posts in the universities of Valladolid and Bilbao.

The book comes with Ezkurra's potted guide to Peruvian music and its main influences (Inca, Spanish/Creole and African), and a CD with (amateur) recordings of several of his Peruvian-inspired choral compositions.

This is a very lively, modest and charming book: it really makes Ezkurra seem like someone it would be a pleasure to get to know. Assuming he's not exaggerating in his anecdotes, he seems to have the gift of getting on with all sorts of people, from indigenous healers and story-tellers to Peruvian admirals, communist exiles, and the famous chanteuse Chabuca Granda. Not to mention Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Duruflé! He also describes having dinner with a group of German "tourists" at an estancia in the forest, who were later identified to him as Martin Bormann and friends. But on that occasion he takes cover behind his ignorance of the German language...

It's also very interesting to learn something about Peruvian music and see his (pessimistic) view of the many things that are threatening the survival of the rainforest and its people today.

130Dilara86
Feb 7, 12:57pm

>129 thorold: Fascinating!

I see the Netherlands are being hit by snowstorms. I hope it's not too disrupting...

131dchaikin
Feb 7, 12:58pm

>106 thorold: Die Weltzeituhr - Are there echoes of dante? - maybe in reverse, since Guido starts in Paradies (Paradise in German)

Waking Ned Divine is what I would consider a light fun movie. Re-watchable, partially famous for a naked old guy on a motorcycle. Musical accompaniment is worth paying attention to. Had no idea it was filmed on the Isle of Man.

>129 thorold: Sounds like a unique window into Peru (place and time) there.

132thorold
Modificato: Feb 7, 2:12pm

>130 Dilara86: I suppose one of the good things about being in lockdown is that you have no plans to be disrupted by bad weather! Had to do some shovelling with the neighbours this morning though.

>131 dchaikin: That’s an interesting thought, I don’t really know enough about Dante to guess, but it’s certainly possible, if you read the organisation into time-slices as a parallel to Dante’s circles. That might account for all the side-stories about the great and the good. On the other hand, there are also some well-known stories that start in Paradise and rapidly get worse...

The Ezkurra book has a lot of interesting bits and pieces in it: there’s also a lot about the terrible things that happened to the indigenous people during the time of the rubber boom before WWI, which hooks up with another book I read a little while ago, L’exposition coloniale by Erik Orsenna. It even turns out that there’s a building in Iquitos that was formerly the Belgian pavilion at the Exposition.

133thorold
Feb 11, 8:42am

Back to the Morrisonade! This is her third novel, and it was the book that first introduced me to her writing, when it was a set text for a course I took in the early nineties. I think this may well be my first re-read of it since then.

Song of Solomon (1977) by Toni Morrison (USA, 1931-2019)

  

Morrison's third novel is a little bit more ambitious than the first two in the amount of time and space it covers; it's also unlike the first two in using a male central character — a choice prompted by the recent death of the author's father — although, as you would expect, it's still full of strong female characters.

But in other ways we are very much still in the world of the earlier novels. The core setting for at least the first part is the black community of a small industrial town on the Great Lakes around 1940; the story is framed by two families, one that defines itself by "respectability" and its social and economic success compared to other families in the black community and the other that consists of three generations of strong, independent women without men, who seem to care nothing for other people's rules and conventions.

At the centre of the story is Milkman. He's officially called Macon Dead, like his father and grandfather — who originally got the name when a drunken official registering freed slaves filled in a form in the wrong order — but universally known by the nickname that reflects his mother's attempt to delay his growing up as long as possible. We follow his progress from being the spoilt son of a successful local businessman to a kind of self-realisation through the perils and humiliations of a journey back into his family's past in the South. With plenty of the kind of grotesque, paradoxical and borderline magic-realist elements you would expect in a Morrison novel, he learns that you can't be a fully-developed human being until you understand some important things about who you are and where you come from and what it means to love and be loved.

Reading this directly after the first two, it felt a little bit drier, more detached in its style: there is a lot of suffering and injustice, some brutal murders and even more abrupt and tragic pieces of self-destruction, but they are just that little bit further away from us as readers than they were in Sula and The bluest eye. It's hard to say whether that makes it more or less effective as a novel, though: it's simply a different approach.

134kidzdoc
Feb 11, 9:08am

Great review of Song of Solomon, Mark. I'm shamefully overdue for reading Morrison, having only read Beloved for the first time last year; I'll rectify that in the near future.

135rocketjk
Feb 11, 11:59am

I've read several of Morrison's novels and Song of Solomon was my favorite of them. Haven't read it for a long time, though. I don't do a lot of rereading, but this book would be on my short list.

136dchaikin
Feb 11, 6:29pm

>133 thorold: interesting Mark. I’m trying to get a sense of whether you liked it. :) I suspect you might have preferred Sula. The realism and surrealism, racism, sexism, religious stuff, the anger and playfulness - it made this my favorite Morrison novel in hindsight. (Although maybe not while reading it.)

137AlisonY
Feb 12, 3:18am

>133 thorold: Good to read this, as you know I keep wavering about other Morrison novels. The fact that you mention it feels a little detached rings some alarm bells in my head, though, as I already felt detached from The Bluest Eye characters, although I know you preferred it second time around.

138thorold
Feb 20, 9:12am

I'm getting bogged down in a couple of long books at the moment. To get a bit of momentum again, I took advantage of a suggestion from someone in our book-club to read this recent collection of short stories by Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez. I only found out about him fairly recently, but I've read two of his novels in the last couple of years. The English translation of this one came out about six months ago.

Canciones para el incendio (2019; Songs for the flames) by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia, 1973- )

  

As you would expect, Vásquez keeps coming back in these stories to Colombia's violent history and the traces it leaves on people's lives. The title story, which is also the longest in the collection, is a kind of bonus chapter to La forma de las ruinas, a story he came across after finishing that book, of a radical young woman journalist whose family were friends of the murdered politician Rafael Uribe Uribe. In other stories he picks up on Colombians who fought in the Korean War, on a group of boys in a suburban Bogota neighbourhood whose values are turned upside-down by the violence around them, on a politician's personal assistant hurt in an accident, or on a Colombian investment consultant who tries and fails to run away to a new life.

There often seems to be an element of questioning the authority of the narrator(s) — the person telling us the story is involved in some way, and has often betrayed or misled other characters in the story. Even when the scene moves outside Colombia, it is the failings of the narrator that we focus on, both in "Aeropuerto" where the author gets a day's work as an extra in Polanski's The ninth gate and ends up distracted by thoughts of the Sharon Tate murder and learning little or nothing about the legendary director from his first-hand experience, and in "El ultimo corrido," where he is a journalist attached to a Mexican band on tour and almost fails to dig out the really important story about the band.

The subjects of these stories may be fairly uniformly depressing, but Vásquez is a lively, concise writer, good at drawing the reader in to the world he is writing about, and you come out with the feeling that you now understand a lot more about Latin America, particularly about Colombia, than he has actually told you.

139thorold
Feb 20, 11:41am

>138 thorold: ... PS, I checked, there is indeed someone who could be Vásquez in the crowd just behind Johnny Depp in the brief airport scene in Polanski's The ninth gate:

140thorold
Modificato: Feb 22, 12:08pm

This is an audiobook I've had on the go for about three weeks — a book I've been mildly curious about since someone lent me a copy, with a pile of other books, about 15 years ago. At that time I never got further than skimming the introduction before I had to return it. With hindsight, I should have left it at that and ignored the remaining 700 or so pages...

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004) by Christopher Booker (UK, 1937-2019) Audiobook, read by Liam Gerrard

  

Christopher Booker is mostly famous for being one of the founders of the satirical magazine Private Eye, which he edited for a couple of years, and for his long and irritating career as a satirical columnist on the Telegraph, gleefully attacking anything and everything that he happened to disapprove of that day, from environmentalism to mini-skirts. The obituary in the Guardian quotes George Monbiot as describing Booker — obviously with reference to his tedious campaign of climate-change scepticism — as "simply a device to waste as much of other people’s time as possible … a computer programme randomly generating nonsense."

This Casaubon-like project to provide the Key to All Narratologies is very much in the Booker tradition, full of more or less random attacks on movements and writers he disapproves of, such as Romantics, Americans, women, Joyce, Lawrence, and anyone younger than Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. He also tosses out the predictable drive-by attacks on miniskirts, Beatles, feminism, Angry Young Men, and most politicians other than Thatcher, Eisenhower and Churchill. He even manages to be caustic about the satirists of the 1950s, apparently forgetting his own participation in TWTWTW and the Eye!

But of course that's not the main point, what we're here for is to be told "why we tell stories". And the answer to that turns out to be surprisingly simple, indeed it's probably the answer we would have come up with ourselves before reading the book: stories serve as paradigms for human life, teaching us things about the world and our human nature. Booker fleshes it out with Jungian archetypes and a lot of stuff about the struggle to get the Unified Self out of the clutches of the Ego, but that's what it boils down to. Classical stories move towards a resolution in which the protagonist gets the "masculine" and "feminine" sides of their personality into proper proportion (happy ending) or are destroyed after failing to (tragedy). Stories that don't fit into this model (all the most important works of 20th century literature) are flawed and unsatisfactory. So there.

So, a flawed, blinkered and rather pointless project, but it's still often quite a rewarding book to read, if you filter out Booker's professional contrarianism and just enjoy the steady torrent of plot-summaries running over you. Whatever major work of world literature you are looking for, somewhere or other in this book you will find a convenient thumbnail sketch of its storyline. And the same goes for quite a lot of cinema, visual art, folk tradition, world history, and the myths of the great religions of the world. This is something where Booker's journalistic training really comes in handy: the summaries are lively, short, reasonably accurate, and to the point.

There were a few chapters in the book where he really grabbed my attention, like the very clear historical analysis of the development of comedy from Aristophanes to Beaumarchais. But elsewhere he does ramble and repeat himself rather.

You have to admire Liam Gerrard's courage in taking on the audio narration of this elephant of a book, and getting all the way to the end without major mishap. I assume that his cheerful insistence that every foreign word or name in the book be pronounced as though it were English (Prowst, Dissard, etc.) is an act of subversion, although Booker might well have approved of that approach. As a listener you do have to remain quite alert to avoid getting mixed up between what he turns into Die, Fledermaus! and The Mousetrap, or between I, Vitelloni and I, Claudius...

141Dilara86
Feb 22, 1:08pm

>140 thorold: What a lovely human being! /s I'm not sure I would have read to the end, despite the good bits...

142AlisonY
Feb 22, 1:10pm

>140 thorold: Sounds like you took one for the team there, Mark, although a shame - the idea of it's very interesting.

143LolaWalser
Feb 22, 1:15pm

Huh. Not sure what would have remained after I applied the filters... :)

144thorold
Feb 22, 4:34pm

>141 Dilara86: - >143 LolaWalser: I’m just afraid that all that tuning-out practice might have impaired my ability to focus on audiobooks for good. The next one will need more careful selection.

145bragan
Feb 25, 11:48am

>140 thorold: Oh, god. I have had this book sitting on my shelf for years, staring accusingly at me for not having read it yet, and I keep telling myself I will get to it sometime soon, I promise. I am now starting to think I should just stop promising and chuck it.

146LolaWalser
Mar 5, 1:12pm

Are you having fun somewhere that is not here? :)

147thorold
Mar 5, 5:07pm

>146 LolaWalser: Stuck on a building-site in Halle with another 450 pages to go...

(Actually it’s been great weather for being out of doors, and I’ve let myself get distracted from reading for a few days by various computer-related black holes. I’ll be back shortly!)

148thorold
Mar 7, 12:36pm

Dreams of reducing the TBR took a step further away today — a friend contacted me to say he was clearing out a stack of German books, so of course I fished out the ones that looked at least mildly interesting and weren't obvious duplicates. So 19 books got added to the pile in one go.

But it was very kind of him to think about me :-)

149SassyLassy
Mar 7, 2:49pm

>148 thorold: The best kind of friend

150thorold
Mar 8, 12:22pm

...and I've finished another audiobook, after that long (for me) dry spell. Back to Iceland (cf. >69 thorold:), with a book whose title couldn't help sticking in my mind once I'd seen it:

The hitman's guide to housecleaning (2008) by Hallgrímur Helgason (Iceland, 1959- ) Audiobook read by Luke Daniels

  

This is one that Christopher Booker (>140 thorold:) would have no difficulty classifying, a variant of a classic formula very popular in Hollywood: the bad guy on the run arrives in a small, peaceful community, and, supported by the Love of a Good Woman and the good advice of wise Father and Mother figures, builds a new life for himself as an honest citizen. But he still has one last, decisive confrontation with the ghosts of his past to deal with before the film ends.

Hallgrímur is clearly interested in this idea mainly by the scope it gives him for looking at Iceland through the eyes of someone as incongruous as possible to Icelandic society, the New York-based Croatian Mafia hitman Tomislav Boksic, alias Toxic, formed by the unspeakable atrocities he took part in as a youngster during the Balkan wars and proud of his professional, detached and efficient approach to murder. He's on the run from the Feds after his 67th hit went wrong, and has somehow ended up in Reykjavik assuming the identity of a televangelist from Virginia.

Needless to say, Hallgrímur — who wrote the book in English first, then translated it into Icelandic — has endless fun letting Tomislav narrate in exaggerated, pastiche Raymond Chandler noir language, in the most impeccably bad taste. In the audiobook, the corny cod-Balkan accent Luke Daniels uses for Tomislav feels exactly right, and enhances the effect. Inevitably, Tomislav also has his own Balkan slant on Hlynur Björn's most tasteless running joke (cf. 101 Reykjavik) — he gives every woman he sees a score based on the number of nights it would take before he started dreaming about her, if he were stuck in an army camp where she was the only woman.

Tomislav seems so extremely divorced from any kind of moral universe we could identify with that at first it's like looking at Iceland through the eyes of a Martian, but of course Hallgrímur gradually humanises him as we go on through the story, trying to get us to the point where we start asking ourselves whether we would have turned out any differently from him if we'd been plunged into the middle of a civil war in our teens. Perhaps fortunately, he doesn't quite take us along with him that far, but Tomislav does turn out to be a long way from being the cardboard cutout he seems in the opening pages of the book. The other characters also quietly subvert the stereotypes the plot seems to be asking for: Tomislav's ice-princess/anima, Gunnhildur, has all sorts of important character flaws, including the inability to keep her apartment tidy that gives Hallgrímur the hook for his title; the older generation of Icelandic Evangelicals who offer Tomislav salvation all turn out to be very damaged people themselves, but not necessarily the worse for that.

And, what's more, the book contains at least two important life-lessons for anyone intending to visit Iceland: (i) don't even think of keeping your shoes on indoors, unless they cost more than 200 dollars; and (ii) if the doorbell rings during Eurovision you probably shouldn't answer it.

151raton-liseur
Mar 9, 2:13am

>150 thorold: The ending of your review made me laugh! I'll try to remember such valid advices!

152thorold
Modificato: Mar 11, 5:42am

This is our current Book-Club book, so I may come back to it after we've discussed it. It was a book-bullet from someone in CR a while back, I think it must have been MarthaJeanne. For the moment there isn't an English translation, but it has been translated into most other languages, and Colombani's previous novel La Tresse (The Braid) was a big international success, so I expect there's an English version coming.

Les victorieuses (2019) by Laetitia Colombani (France, 1975- )

  

If you thought the nineteenth-century evangelical social-problem novel had died with Charles Kingsley and Harriett Beecher Stowe, you would be wrong: it turns out that it's alive and well and flourishing in — of all unlikely spots — 21st century Paris!

Solène is forced to re-examine her life as a self-centred, careerist lawyer when the suicide of one of her clients provokes a nervous breakdown. She — rather reluctantly — follows the advice of her therapist and signs on to do some voluntary work, and finds herself assigned to writing letters for the residents of a women's hostel, the Salvation Army's Palais de la Femme. She meets a succession of the residents, who tell her their stories: each of them conveniently turns out to be an exemplar of a different social problem that we should know about (domestic violence, FGM, drugs, alcohol, long-term homelessness, prostitution, unemployment, mental health issues, and so on). And of course she feels an unexpected connection with their lives, is plunged into further depression when one of the women proves to be beyond the point where she can accept anyone's help, but then recovers when she finds herself in a position to engage personally with a young woman in trouble. And just in case we were wondering whether the total lack of irony in this story was itself deliberately ironic in some way, it all ends with a truly Dickensian Christmas lunch. No, really!

So it's not a very good novel. In fact it's a terrible novel, and it would perhaps never have got published if the author wasn't an actress who already had an undoubted bestseller to her credit. But I still found it very interesting, and I'm glad I came across it. The story of the Palais de la Femme and its residents is fascinating, and if the author had done what anyone else would have done with her research material and published it as a series of feature articles in a magazine, I would probably never have seen it. (There's also a bit of pre-WWI cycling, which I always appreciate in a novel!)

And the message of the book, corny though it is, is an important one: we can't solve most social problems by sitting around talking about how they should be solved structurally and who would be the most competent people to do it; the people who really make a difference in the world are the ones who leap in, Salvation-Army-style, when they see that something is wrong, and do what they can to fix it in a way that makes a real difference for the individuals who are suffering. Whether or not they have any realistic hope of solving the problem. In her epigraph, Colombani quotes the famous closing lines of William Booth's 1912 address in the Royal Albert Hall:
While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight, I’ll fight to the very end!



Palais de la Femme, Paris (Old postcard, via Wikipedia)

153raton-liseur
Mar 11, 6:31am

>152 thorold: I strongly disliked La Tresse so won't read this one, but it's nice that you found it worth reading despite its flaws. The same might be true for La Tresse but I am not as forgiving as you are.

154LolaWalser
Mar 11, 9:31pm

This just showed up in my YouTube list:

Ausflug ins Gestern: Eisenbahn-Nostalgie (8:50 minutes, Austrian)

I wonder what replaced it... a bus? Probably nothing...

155thorold
Modificato: Mar 12, 2:16am

>154 LolaWalser: Thanks, that was fun!

The Kohlgrube - Breitenschützing coal line seems to be mildly famous, since it was opened very early by Austrian standards, in 1854. And built to an anomalous track gauge of 1104 mm, the same as the underground lines in the mine.

Operation of a public passenger service by gravity is pretty unusual, too. A quick Google didn’t reveal anything about that, I suspect that it might have been strictly unofficial and notionally just for employees of the mine. The Ffestiniog Railway (another famous early narrow-gauge line, in Wales) used gravity for mineral trains and they were unofficially used by quarrymen, but public passenger trains were always locomotive-hauled.

It looks as though there’s no public transport connection along that route nowadays. Kohlgrube (now tiny, then still full of Bohemian miners) has a bus service several times a day, but it runs north-south, not east towards Breitenschützing. Bits of the old mines have been turned into museums and the coal-breaker houses an arts centre.

Fun to see that “Blumenpflücken während der Fahrt verboten” was already such an obligatory cliché of local railway lore in the German-speaking world by that time that they didn’t even bother to explain what they were doing when they staged it for the film. (It’s probably completely apocryphal, invented by some humorist in the fifties, but there are claims that such signs really existed on the Heidekrautbahn near Berlin.)

BTW: If you really want to go down a rabbit-hole of old railway reports, the long-running SWR series “Eisenbahnromantik” has put up hundreds of old episodes on its YouTube channel.)

156LolaWalser
Mar 12, 12:17pm

Heh, well it was a tad unexpected on that channel... See, I knew it--poor Kohlgrubians and Breitenschützingers have no choice now but to walk or, ugh, drive 11 km when they feel like visiting...

I was amused by the pedantical (and repeated!) "Lokomotivführer ohne Lokomotive". Like a Zen paradox.

Those pipes the old men were smoking were also something...

157thorold
Mar 13, 5:25am

>156 LolaWalser: Yes, with all those pipes they really didn't need a steam loco as well!

This is a book that was a present from my biologist nephew: it seems to be something of a word-of-mouth phenomenon among biologists, but obviously hasn't made all the much impact in the wider world yet. I'd never come across it, and there are only 26 copies on LT. It deserves to be better known!

Notebooks from New Guinea : reflections on life, nature, and science from the depths of the rainforest (2009) by Vojtech Novotny (Czech Republic, 1964- ), translated from Czech by David Short (UK, 1943- ), illustrations by Benson Avea Bego (PNG, 1964- )

  

This unassuming little book turns out to be one of the most charming travel books I've read for ages: it's a delightfully whimsical and rather random set of short (column-length) pieces on the perils and rewards of living in Papua New Guinea and doing scientific research there, from the point of view of a Czech entomologist who runs a research station "on the shores of the Bismarck Sea".

After some ten years in the country, he writes about the oddities of New Guinea society not in a dry, anthropological kind of way, but in the kind of affectionate terms you might find in a similar book written to advise Czech expats of the perils of life in Belgium, say, or Denmark. He's obviously spent a lot of time working together with New Guineans on his research projects (and theirs: he evidently makes a point of encouraging his local assistants to spread their wings independently as research scientists, whether or not they happen to have university educations). Whenever he tells us about some particularly odd or alarming aspect of New Guinean behaviour, he's always able to turn it round wittily, and suggest to us how odd our own way of looking at the world must seem to someone from a village in the remote highlands.

Even when he gets to the discussion of cargo-cults, he can't resist proposing that the behaviour of someone sitting in a home-made control-tower with coconut shells clamped to his ears, waiting for a plane full of luxury goods to materialise, is every bit as rational as that of his communist-era academic colleagues who sit in their offices going through the empty forms of scientific practice and publishing papers in pretend-journals, expecting "significant discoveries" to materialise in front of them...

In between all the quaintness, there's a lot of solid insight to take hold of as well, in particular his thoughts on the difficult relationship between development and conservation. As an entomologist he has a rather more precise idea than most of us of how crucial tropical forests are, but he has also plenty of experience of how unrealistic — and unfair — it is to expect people to go on living a squalid subsistence lifestyle "in harmony with nature" once they have been in contact with the rest of the world and understand that they have choices. And he also has a pretty good idea of how hard it is for sustainable development initiatives to generate decent incomes for people in really remote areas. Eco-tourism has become a new form of cargo-cult, apparently, with villagers in places several days' trek away from the nearest road or airfield optimistically building tourist "hotels" and expecting that they will magically fill with guests.

Malaria — the classic hazard of life in the tropics — is a running theme throughout the book, both for the dreadful toll it takes of local people and for its repeated, unpredictable assaults on peripatetic scientists (inevitably either in a village far from medical services, or back home where it's difficult to find a tropical diseases specialist).

The lively drawings by Benson Avea Bego, wittily mixing the styles of traditional body-decoration and scientific illustration, really add to the charm of the book.

158kidzdoc
Mar 13, 6:24am

Great review of Notebooks from New Guinea, Mark. That sounds like a fascinating read.

159Nickelini
Mar 13, 10:31am

>157 thorold: sounds great. I’ll be hunting down this one because I spent 2 month in Papua New Guinea in the 80s.

160raton-liseur
Mar 13, 10:59am

>157 thorold: Sounds like a delightful read! In some ways, it made me think about Nigel Barley with The Innocent Anthropologist and other similar books.

161tonikat
Mar 13, 11:46am

>140 thorold: thanks ofr that summary - a book with such an annoying title I've never looked at it, partly informed by having been assured by someone that 'knew' a long time ago that there were only so many storylines, you almost make me curious, though I always feel guilty reading storylines summarised for me without having read them myself, and vulnerable to thereby agreeing to something I wouldn't if I had read it.

>157 thorold: sounds very interesting having read Wild by Jay Griffiths with its very sympathetic section on Western Papua and the plight of its indigenous people.

162thorold
Mar 13, 2:41pm

>158 kidzdoc: - >161 tonikat: OUP will have to rush out another reprint if this goes on :-). I hope I’m not overselling it, but there was something about the mix of scientific clear sight and real affection for the place and people that clicked with me.

>161 tonikat: I wouldn’t advise it, I suspect you would find Booker even more irritating than I did. Do you think you could cope with a notoriously reactionary journalist lecturing you on Jung...?

163tonikat
Mar 13, 4:12pm

>162 thorold: that is a good point, though sometimes it is good to be tested, maybe.

164markon
Modificato: Mar 14, 2:04pm

>157 thorold: I also think Notebooks from New Guinea sounds fun and interesting.

165lisapeet
Mar 15, 8:00am

>157 thorold: I like the sound of that too. Have you read anything by Redmond O'Hanlon? He has a reputation as a kind of gonzo naturalist, but his books are also informative and fun. I particularly liked No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo. Which has nothing to do with New Guinea, I know, and Novotny doesn't look like he's going to be swilling mind-altering substances with his subjects anytime soon, but the one made me think of the other.

166thorold
Mar 15, 11:04am

>165 lisapeet: No, I've seen his books around but never actually tried him. Hmm. His Trawler book would perhaps go well with my BS Johnson expedition from last year... Taking note of him, together with Jay Griffiths and Nigel Barley. The reading-list gets longer!

The last two or three books I read have been a kind of avoidance strategy to disguise the way I ground to a temporary halt halfway through Spur der Steine. But things are starting to get a bit silly when you run away from a 900-page DDR novel into a 300-page piece of academic non-fiction about ... yes, the DDR.

Friedensstaat, Leseland, Sportnation? : DDR-Legenden auf dem Prüfstand (2009), edited by Thomas Großbölting (Germany, 1969- )

  

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ideas of what the DDR was like were still just as divided as they had been during the existence of the East German state between 1949 and 1990. There's the "official", "Western", narrative of the SED-dictatorship, the oppressive state with its associated crew of guilty perpetrators and their mass of innocent victims, rescued from a terrible fate by their noble friends in the West; there's also a rival, self-justifying narrative of "it wasn't all bad" from Ossies who didn't necessarily appreciate being rescued from their dull but safe socialist environment into a new capitalist paradise of poverty, asset-stripping and unemployment, and there is also the subtle temptation of Ostalgie, an uncritical cult of the cultural products of the vanished state.

Professor Großbölting — who had previously worked as a historian at the Stasi Documentation Centre, the BStU — put together this symposium of essays by an assortment of specialist historians and sociologists exploring some of the most prominent or persistent myths about the DDR. Was it really — as the title asks — a state dedicated to world peace, a nation of readers, or of athletes? Did it have a magnificent social-care system, high-quality education, a progressive attitude to the role of women in society and a first-class army? Or a bankrupt economy and the most all-pervasive secret police outside Switzerland?

Well, I don't suppose anyone will be surprised at the conclusions, which range from "no" to "yes, but...". The Workers' and Peasants' State had neither the economic nor the geopolitical clout to live up to its stated aims, trapped as it was by military domination from the Soviet Union on the one side and the presence of the successful, dynamic Federal Republic on the other. Even if that hadn't been the case, it was stuck with a set of political leaders who had been trained under Stalin and became increasingly sclerotic — and impossible to update — as time went on. The economy was initially ravaged by Soviet "reparations" and continued to be constrained by restrictions on trade that forced it to make locally what could more efficiently have been bought in; the renowned social system had huge gaps, especially in areas like pensions; the "emancipation" of women was successful in getting them into the workforce, but made no real attempt to change roles and attitudes beyond that; the education system suffered from an undue focus on ideology rather than ability, and was latterly very underfunded; East German internationalism was undermined at home by suspicion of outsiders and abroad by the successful West German campaign to prevent international recognition of the DDR; East Germany did astonishingly well at harvesting Olympic medals, but this was based partly on a cynical concentration on those disciplines ("Sport I") where individuals could win many medals and partly on a powerful diet of anabolic steroids; DDR citizens might have read more books per head than anyone else outside the Soviet Union, but that was only because there was nothing else to do: they stopped doing so as soon as the wall came down(*). And so on.

When it comes to his own specialist topic, the "Stasi-state", Großbölting nuances things the other way. Obviously, it is undeniable that the scale and sheer nastiness of the Stasi's activities had a huge influence on the way the DDR is perceived, but he asks us to reflect on to what extent the notion of the Stasi-state and the constant stream of revelations about the contents of Stasi files after the Wende was deliberately encouraged by people in power who had less spectacular misdeeds to hide. He points out that we really need to know more about how it all fitted into ordinary life. One interesting throwaway comment in his essay contrasts the Gestapo during the Nazi period, which received so many voluntary tips and denunciations from the German public that it wasn't able to follow more than a fraction of them up, with the Stasi, which had to go out and actively recruit the members of its vast network of "informal associates" and to use all the ingenuity and coercive methods at its disposal to get useful information out of them.

No great revelations, but some interesting detail, which certainly filled in a lot of little gaps in my knowledge.

---
(*) Großbölting commissioned independent publisher Christoph Links to write the essay on "reading in the DDR". In the proper socialist tradition, there obviously had to be a quid pro quo, so guess who published the book...

167baswood
Mar 15, 5:54pm

Interesting to read about your fascination with the DDR, which will be consigned to history as a failed state.

168spiphany
Modificato: Mar 16, 1:07pm

>167 baswood: "failed state" seems a bit strong to me. The fact that East Germany no longer exists as an independent state isn't merely due to the (very real) problems of the socialist state, but also historical contingency -- i.e., the division of Germany after WWII and the possibility of reunification that opened up following the Peaceful Revolution. It wasn't the case that East Germany collapsed and West Germany swept in and rescued it. It's true that many things weren't functioning effectively, but it's also the case that in the months before reunification, East Germans had managed to push through reform from within and had set up structures for restoring democracy in their country, and who knows how it might have developed if reunification hadn't happened.

Reunification was in many ways a tremendous missed opportunity. It ended up being what some have called a "colonization" of East Germany by West Germany -- rather than creating a new state with a new constitution to which both states contributed as equal partners, the laws and governmental structures of West Germany were simply extended to what are still referred to as the "new" German states.

(This soap-box brought to you by an American who was in kindergarten when the Wall fell, but has spent most of the last decade in Germany, and the last four years in former East Germany. Thirty years after reunification, there's still a palpable East-West difference, and arguably many of the problems in the former East aren't merely a legacy of the socialist period, but also of the way reunification was handled. It seems I have feelings about this.)

Apart from this, though, I think another reason why many people continue to be intrigued by countries like East Germany or the USSR is simply that, for all their failings, they're also examples of extremely ambitious efforts to create a new and better society based on something other than capitalism and an exploitative class system. The fact that this idealistic vision existed alongside an oppressive authoritarian regime is one of the contradictions that makes it so fascinating.

169LolaWalser
Mar 16, 4:33pm

>168 spiphany:

Brilliant post.

170thorold
Mar 16, 6:57pm

>169 LolaWalser: >168 spiphany: Definitely! Especially the last paragraph of spiphany’s post seems to sum up the biggest reason to keep coming back to DDR writers.

171thorold
Modificato: Mar 24, 6:58am

All worthwhile building projects come in overdue and over budget. But they do come in, eventually. After about six weeks and five diversion-books, I'm 941 pages and 0.84 kg of book further on, and Erik Neutsch and his lads are departing in an odour of wet paint, muddy footprints and stale cigarette smoke...

This is another from my pile of DDR-classics, a book and a film we've talked about a number of times before in this and other threads. (I haven't watched the Frank Beyer film yet, I wanted to read the book first, but the DVD is now on its way, so I'll get to that soon.)

This was also the first book I've read in the very nice "DDR-Bibliothek" hardback edition produced in the 90s by the Leipzig publishers Faber & Faber (who don't appear to have any connection to the London publishers of the same name, as far as I can tell...). Not a work of art in the Folio Society way, but a very pleasant, usable, durable format, the sort of book that makes you wonder why you ever bother with cheap and nasty paperbacks...

Spur der Steine (1964) by Erik Neutsch (DDR, 1931-2013)

  

(Author photo Bundesarchiv via Wikipedia; Neutsch is in the centre between Dieter Noll and Jürgen Kuczynski)

This is another of the classic novels of the DDR, together with books like Christa Wolf's Der geteilte Himmel, Erwin Strittmatter's Ole Bienkopp and Herman Koch's Die Aula, that all appeared during the slight cultural thaw of the early 1960s, when it almost looked as though the Republic was opening itself up to new ideas and constructive criticism. Werner Bräunig's mining epic Rummelplatz would certainly have been on that list too, but he was just too late and got trapped in the mechanism when the ideological shutters came clanging down again in 1966. Spur der Steine itself is an interesting border case: the book appeared in 1964 and became an instant success, winning various awards and rapidly finding its way onto school reading lists, but Frank Beyer's film adaptation two years later was banned immediately after its premier and couldn't be shown again in East Germany until 1990.

It's not immediately obvious why this is such a long book (940 pages): the action is mostly confined to the building site of a chemical plant near Halle an der Saale and to the period between July 1959 and May 1961, and there is a fairly tight focus on a small group of three main characters. Hannes Balla is a carpenter, the foreman ("Brigadier" in DDR terms) of a rumbustious and anarchic, but very productive, itinerant gang of builders; Katrin Klee is a new engineering graduate who has put aside her ambition to go on and study architecture because she has been told by the Party that qualified engineers are urgently needed in industrial construction; Werner Horrath is the Party secretary on the site, a convinced and dedicated communist but unhappy in his marriage and glad of the breathing-space that his transfer from Rostock to Halle has created.

The story develops the personal relationships of Balla, Kati and Horrath in parallel with the progress of the construction on the site. Ideas for improving the construction process collide with the inertia of top-down planning, the timidity or self-interest of minor officials, and general incompetence, and all three characters come into situations where they need to stand up for their ideas, something that is most shocking for Balla, who has always lived in the delusion that he doesn't have any. Horrath and Kati find themselves drawn into a sexual relationship and — contrary to their natures — forced to lie about it, even when Kati becomes pregnant.

You can read it as a book about the challenges and opportunities of building a new kind of society, and the difficult ways in which those sometimes collide with personal lives, but it's also about the difficulties of running large, complex projects in any kind of society, the collisions of technology with targets and people and weather and the calendar and far-off administrations, and lots of other things. Neutsch was a journalist who followed the work on the chemical plants closely, so there's a lot of real-world data to fit into the book, and there are also a host of sub-plots, in particular about Balla's parents, "new peasants" granted a small farm of their own after the war and now facing pressure to collectivise, about the incompetent site-manager Trutmann, about Kati's father, a trade-unionist and concentration-camp survivor before the war who is now a senior journalist (but has still never noticed that he's not the only person called Paul Klee...), about the painter Voss, whose expressionist collage techniques are about as popular with the current regime as they were with the previous one, and many others.

A complicated, messy kind of book, which resists a lot of the obvious pitfalls (including the narrative pressure to close the triangle plot neatly) but of course creates a lot of other difficulties for itself along the way. Kati finally breaks off with Horrath when she realises that he's not shown the slightest interest in her baby after she returned to the site from her brief maternity leave, but Neutsch doesn't do much better. He clearly has no idea how to represent a professional engineer who is also a young mother, so he simply leaves the fact of her motherhood out of the equation. When she and Balla go on a four week study trip to the Soviet Union, she's allowed to think about her child precisely once, as she briefly reflects after the first week that she ought to send a postcard to her mother who is looking after him.

I'm glad I read it, it's clearly an essential document of a moment in history, and it's full of interesting stuff about construction(!), but as a novel it's a bit mixed.

172spiphany
Mar 24, 12:13pm

>171 thorold: Apart from the haptic pleasures of a nice hardback, the format seems like a particularly sensible choice for a book of 900+ pages!

I'm guessing it's probably also a considerable improvement on the original printing -- one thing I've discovered is that, while books published in East Germany are a treasure trove of all sorts of cool literary discoveries (plentiful translations of writing from countries often neglected in English), the quality of paper and binding is often not great. It tends to somewhat diminish one's reading pleasure if you're afraid the book will fall apart in your hands...

Interesting observation about Neutsch's difficulties portraying a woman who is both a mother and has a career. Maron's Flugasche comes to mind here. (I found it refreshing that Maron's protagonist is not defined primarily in terms of her motherhood, but on another level it is odd how unimportant her son seems to be to the narrative.)

173thorold
Mar 25, 7:16pm

>172 spiphany: Yes, 900-page paperbacks in particular are usually horrible things, likely to sink on their first voyage. One of those held together with 1960s East German glue would be a true nightmare...

I still haven't read Flugasche, I really ought to get to it soon, but there's suddenly a huge amount of German stuff on the TBR, so it will be a while.

This was another relatively quick read. I think it was a kind of impulse-buy a few months ago to make it worthwhile paying postage for a packet from Berlin. After academic history in >166 thorold: and fiction tied into German history in >171 thorold:, this is something more like popular narrative history. Although on the serious side of that.

Christian Bommarius is a journalist who has written about legal and constitutional affairs for several major German newspapers.

1949: das lange deutsche Jahr (2018) by Christian Bommarius (Germany, 1958- )

  

(Author photo: Wikipedia)

This was obviously written to tie in with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the German Federal Republic. Historians like to deal in periods like "the long 18th century" and Bommarius has borrowed that convention to make his "long German year" start in July 1948 and end in December 1949 (that's 18 months in old money).

The idea of the book is less to describe the "big events" than to give us the context in which they were happening, to tell us what Germany was like and how Germans were thinking and acting, month by month, as their country went through the metamorphosis from four occupied zones (and four sectors of Berlin) to two republics. Both still occupied by foreign troops, but at least on their way to becoming something like independent states.

Bommarius does this with a mixture of news stories, private diaries, and summaries of important films, novels, essays and so on. In particular, he wants his readers to see that there was never any kind of magic transition from defeated Nazi dictatorship to modern liberal democracy, and indeed that from the point of view of 1948-1949, there was little reason to suppose that Germans were ready for democracy or would know what to do with it if they saw it. Denazification was an impossible dream: society was too dependent on people in professions where adherence to Nazi policies had been essential for survival (judges, teachers, police, etc.), most young people had been through the Nazi school system, and the few people who had actively resisted or gone into exile found that they had a hard time reintegrating (many, like Thomas Mann, didn't even want to return).

Right-wing parties were on the rise, exploiting resentment against refugees and against the occupying powers, the powers themselves were more focussed on the US/Soviet conflict than on Germany (except as a military base) and if there was a miracle it was that the Bonn constitutional commission came up with something that turned out to be workable, robust and even more-or-less democratic. Bommarius suggests that this came from the lucky accident that the job of drawing up a constitution was given to a group of very unrepresentative experts, who included several key provisions that most Germans of the time would have considered unnecessary and excessive, like the abolition of the death penalty and the guarantee of equal rights for women and men. Adenauer's reputation these days isn't what it used to be, but Bommarius obviously has a lot of respect for his role in chairing the commission. Elisabeth Selbert, who lobbied for the women's rights clause, is clearly also one of his heroes.

A very interesting way of looking closely at a particular moment in history. Obviously also meant as a polemical book, to give 21st century Germans a wake-up call and remind them why it matters that they have a liberal democracy based on core principles like respect for human dignity, and why they shouldn't fall for the rhetoric of the new generation of right-wing politicians.

174rocketjk
Mar 25, 9:18pm

>173 thorold: Wow, fascinating. Is that book available in English translation? I check via Google and didn't see an English version.

175thorold
Mar 26, 1:44am

>174 rocketjk: No, doesn’t look like it. Probably too specific, too much about people only Germans would have heard of.

I haven’t read much non-fiction in English about the post-war period in Germany at all, except for bits and pieces of memoirs from people who served in the occupying forces. Klaus Mann’s The turning point is a good example of that, but you probably know that already. What Bommarius writes about how deeply engrained the legacy of Nazism was in society made me think of Ian Kershaw, but I don’t think he wrote anything specifically about that post-1945 period.

176spiphany
Mar 26, 3:48am

>174 rocketjk:, >175 thorold:
I'd guess the recentness of the book is another big reason it isn't available in translation. It's sometimes a bit difficult to predict what gets translated and what doesn't, and I suspect that when obscure stuff unexpectedly gets translated, this may sometimes be simply because someone in a German department somewhere is working on the topic and takes it on as a project. There's also a German programme specifically dedicated to funding translations of significant new titles in the humanities and social sciences as a way of extending the international reach of work by German scholars.

In one of my courses on post-war German literature we read Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich's The Inability to Mourn, which was published in the 1960s. It's a somewhat different take on the subject (the Mitscherlichs were psychologists), but it touches on some of these issues (why Germans seemed to be unable to take responsibility for their part in Nazi war crimes, etc.).

The other title I thought of here is Ursula Krechel's Landgericht (short English discussion here), which offers a look at both the social and legal landscape in the post-war period, but I see it hasn't been translated into English.

I haven't read any of Walter Kempowski's work, but his publications documenting the experiences of ordinary Germans during and after the war are surely relevant, and I know at least some of it is available in English. And of course Heinrich Böll has a lot to say about post-war Germany...

177thorold
Mar 26, 4:25am

>176 spiphany: Yes, of course, Kempowski is the obvious name there. I wondered about him and the Echolot project when Bommarius started quoting people’s diaries, but I see now he doesn’t appear in the bibliography at all.

Obviously there must be a standard English-language history of post-1945 Germany around somewhere, I’ve just never bothered to look for it.

178rocketjk
Modificato: Mar 26, 12:11pm

>175 thorold: & >176 spiphany:

No, I had not heard of Mann's The Turning Point, so thanks for that. I will look for it. I have read All for Nothing by Kempowski, but that is a work of fiction, or course. I would be very interested in reading non-fiction by him on the period. Also Boll. It's been a long while since I read Group Portrait with Lady. My memory of it was that it is an extended allegory about German society during and after the war, but I'm hardly sure of my ground there.

The only book on my shelves I find even closely associated with the subject is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum. Clearly not a German perspective, and I have no idea how well her work is regarded within Germany.

179thorold
Modificato: Mar 27, 4:43am



So, my sixties DEFA-funpack arrived yesterday afternoon, and I watched Spur der Steine. It turned out to be a pretty good film, even though they inevitably had to cut out huge amounts of the storyline. Once or twice it did make me wonder how much of the story you would be able to follow if you hadn't read the book: some of the technical and organisational problems they had to overcome on the site were presented in such a condensed way that they became almost invisible. I think the biggest loss was the parallel story of Balla's parents and their farm, though: it's almost a full novel in itself, so not surprising that it had to go, but it leaves the process of Balla's maturing into a responsible adult rather up in the air.

Manfred Krug was great as Balla, if maybe a bit too clean-cut, and Krystyna Stypułkowska and Eberhard Esch fitted well for the other main parts. Even if the compression of the story meant that we saw as little of Kati actually working as of her being a mother... Always difficult for that sort of job: you can show a carpenter hitting something with a hammer, or a manager telling someone what to do, but for engineers the best you can usually do is get them to walk around with a clipboard and a hard hat. Character-actor Walter Jupé was an odd choice for the part of the innovative engineer Hesselbart, and he turns the part into something quite different from what Neutsch wrote — not a youthful optimist but a cynical old genius who has learnt that no-one listens to him, the stupid always win in the end — but it works, and feels very convincing.

Beyer obviously took the carpenters' characteristic work-clothes, with their wide-brimmed hats, waistcoats and tool-belts, as an excuse to borrow visual imagery from Westerns: the scene where they hijack the dumper trucks is straight out of Stagecoach or High Noon, and the scene where Balla tries to chat up Kati through the window of her hut made me think Calamity Jane, for instance.

I couldn't help picking up an echo of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as well: Balla starts out as the Jimmy Nail character and turns into Tim Healy in the course of the film, whilst the part of Horrath was obviously written with Kevin Whateley in mind...! (The first series of AWP was made in the early eighties, so it's extremely unlikely that its makers would ever have seen or heard of SdS in reality: obviously people in different times and places end up telling the same stories about construction workers.)

The DVD only comes with one extra, an interview (recorded in 2000) with Joachim Mückenberger who was the head of the DEFA studios at the time the film was made, talking about the experience of the 1965 party congress where Ulbricht launched his attack on culture, which eventually led to eleven films being banned and Mückenberger and many of his colleagues losing their jobs. He comments wryly that his new job, organising youth festivals, turned out to be more fun than running a film studio. He doesn't say much abut the film itself. One of the most interesting things was his throwaway hint that DEFA always had to keep a supply of projects for innocuous children's films in the cupboard so that they could carry on working whenever trouble blew up.

180thorold
Mar 27, 6:25am

I came across this nice profile of Krystyna Stypułkowska in the Frankfurter Rundschau from ten years ago: turns out that she's really a professional linguist who ended up working for the State Department in Arlington VA, and was only ever an actor in passing, because Andrzej Wajda happened to spot her and offered her a role, and then Frank Beyer saw her in the Wajda film and thought she would be perfect for Kati.

https://www.fr.de/panorama/kennt-krystyna-stypulkowska-11374428.html (in German)

181LolaWalser
Mar 27, 6:54pm

>179 thorold:

So cool you got to see that. The Western imagery was a fun homage; I was surprised that the hats were apparently traditional, but then again, I suppose the basic idea of a wide-brimmed hat for outdoor work made sense in multiple diverse cultures.

That's quite an armful of earnest, high-minded DDR movies you got there... Maybe intersperse them with some Western decadence? :)

In contrast, I'm beginning to get some idea of the extent of the "lowbrow" entertainment in the form of Krimis--they were as addicted to those as the Western counterparts. (Someone on YouTube just re/posted a lot of this stuff, it's where I got the DEFA bug a couple of years ago. Crossing fingers he doesn't get booted again too quickly...)

>180 thorold:

The extra on Kanopy was different to yours and consisted of an interview with her. Funny they bothered getting a foreigner they had to dub, I suppose it must've counted to building up the German-Polish relationship.

182thorold
Mar 28, 5:04am

>181 LolaWalser: Don't worry, I'm still working my way through Agnès Varda's oeuvre on MUBI, plenty of decadence and frivolity there. Hard to imagine Joachim Mückenberger persuading his office staff to dress up in bathing costumes and move their desks to a temporary beach in the street outside...

There's plenty more German stuff to come, the TBR is currently groaning with it, but I don't want to end Q1 on an all-German note. Here's the next instalment in my Morrisonade (last seen at >133 thorold: above). This is one I hadn't read before:

Tar baby (1981) by Toni Morrison (USA, 1931-2019)

  

It's a little disconcerting to open this book and discover that we've been whisked away from Morrison's normal core territory of small industrial communities on the Great Lakes into the house of a wealthy white American on a "private island" in the Caribbean. But of course it soon turns out that notwithstanding the exotic scenery, we are still very much in Morrison's old territory of the interaction of race, class and gender in American society.

The retired confectioner Valerian Street uses the security of his position of wealth to play with the lives of his working-class wife Margaret, his black servants Sydney and Ondine, and various islanders whose real names he doesn't even bother to learn. There is also the superb Jadine, an orphaned niece of Sydney and Ondine whom Valerian has quixotically sponsored through an expensive education, now a model with the fashion worlds of Paris and New York opening up before her. And now there is a random black seaman, Son, who turns up at the house to steal food and is invited in by Valerian just to stir things up and see what will happen, like the rabbit in the traditional story Morrison refers to in the title.

Of course, Son falls heavily for Jadine, who has never seen anything quite like him and is simultaneously fascinated and disgusted. Son's past life in the South enters into things, as does the real background to Valerian's difficult relationship with his own (offstage) son, and there is a constant background rumbling from the ghosts of the island, obviously all tied in with the history of slavery (it's not an accident that Valerian is a confectioner) and the oppression of women.

I enjoyed this, there are some fantastic passages of description and dialogue, but I didn't get as much out of it as Song of Solomon, it felt a bit too much like routine reworking of fairly predictable themes. Perhaps Morrison didn't do quite as much as she might have to capture the special Caribbean character of the setting: it mostly just felt like an exotic showcase for mainland American stories.

183thorold
Modificato: Mar 28, 5:29am

>181 LolaWalser: The hat is apparently a traditional assertion of the travelling carpenter's independence as well as being practical workwear. And there are all sorts of other symbolic details, down to the earring and the number of buttons on the jacket and waistcoat. Another of those traditions that got fossilised some time in the 19th century.

See Wikipedia under "Kluft", or here: https://www.holzbau-deutschland.de/mit_holz_bauen/tradition_im_zimmererhandwerk/

184thorold
Mar 28, 12:36pm

I thought it was about time for a lightweight crime novel. One by a writer new to me turned up in the pile of German books my friend left here three weeks ago. For a change, there is an English translation of this available:

Auferstehung der Toten (1996; Resurrection) by Wolf Haas (Austria, 1960- )

  

Two elderly Americans have been murdered on a ski-lift near the small Austrian resort of Zell. It's now nine months later, we're in the middle of a September heatwave, and neither the police nor ex-police-officer Brenner, who is investigating on behalf of an insurance company, have got anywhere with the case. But then, recovering from a migraine attack on the sidelines of a summer ice stock match, Brenner gets into conversation with someone who does actually seem to know something about the murders.

A nice, lively little village mystery, with the appropriate amount of rural quaintness (rustic traditions, eccentric characters, small-world coincidences, incest, buried scandals from fifty years ago, you know how it works...) and an entertainingly infuriating narrator who always seems to be wandering off the point and telling you about something else just when the story seems to be getting most interesting. A first novel, still with a few rough edges, but great fun, and someone I mean to come back to.

185Nickelini
Mar 28, 2:33pm

>184 thorold:

Oh, I'll look into this one. I'm always up for a translated book that isn't literary.

186thorold
Modificato: Mar 28, 4:54pm

>179 thorold: >181 LolaWalser: That's quite an armful of earnest, high-minded DDR movies you got there

I watched Karbid und Sauerampfer (1963) tonight. High-minded, perhaps, but definitely not earnest: it’s a jolly comedy about a vegetarian mechanic (Erwin Geschonneck) who has to transport seven barrels of carbide, essential for reconstruction, from Wittenberge to Dresden (about 250km) in the chaos of late 1945. Of course there’s no transport available, so he has to improvise. The lovely Marita Böhme plays the farm-girl who gives him a lift and a bed for the night on day one of his journey; by the time he gets to Dresden with the barrels she’s already written to say she’s expecting a baby, so there’s nothing for it but to set off back to Wittenberge again...

Interesting to see that it was okay in 1963 to make at least mild fun of the Russians, who arrest Kalle a couple of times and have to be bought off with part of the carbide. Of course, the Americans patrolling the other side of the Elbe get much rougher treatment, to ensure no-one gets any wrong ideas.

187LolaWalser
Mar 28, 10:45pm

>186 thorold:

I saw that among the first films a few years ago but don't remember much about the story, just scenes. Geschonneck was an excellent actor.

By the way, if streaming makes sense for your internet, you may care to check out the offerings up on the official channel DEFA has on YouTube--not all films are available to us in North America but I imagine they are in Europe:

DEFA Filmwelt

Der Rat der Götter is excellent and a very important film. I managed to see Die Beunruhigung before they blocked it; also excellent. I have Eolomea and Im Staub der Sterne on DVD, if you like science fiction, also recommended. 1-2-3 Corona is fascinating, it was shot in the postwar rubble. I Saw Freies Land too but don't have much recollection--German refugees on the move after the war I think.

Incidentally, for whatever reason more uploads are visible if you click on "Playlists" than "Videos".

188thorold
Mar 31, 6:29am

>187 LolaWalser: Thanks, I hadn't spotted that channel. Looks interesting!

Another one from the incoming pile of German books: I've read several other books by Katja Lange-Müller, but hadn't got around to this novel, which seems to be her best-known.

Lange-Müller had the unusual experience of growing up in the DDR with a get-out-of-jail-free card in her pocket — her mother was the important politician Inge Lange — so of course she spent much of her youth testing the limits of that (at one point it got her sent off to do an internship in Mongolia...), but she seems to have retained enough of a sense of irony to do witty and unexpected things with the resulting "bad girl" persona in her literary work.

Böse Schafe (2007) by Katja Lange-Müller (Germany, 1951- )

  

This is a first-person retrospective account of a love-story, in the voice of the author's alter ego Soja (in her communist mother's mind, the name of a fallen heroine of the Soviet workers' struggle; to every other German the name of a bean). Settled in the unfashionable West Berlin neighbourhood of Moabit after being allowed to leave the DDR in 1986, Soja falls heavily for a man she's met in the street, Harry. It's only after they've been together for a few weeks that he tells her that he's on parole after serving a long jail sentence, and has been a heroin addict. Soja and her radical lefty friends rally round to support Harry through a mandatory rehabilitation programme, although their enthusiasm for that effort wanes when Harry's case-worker warns them that he is HIV-positive.

It ends as we would expect, of course: Soja sticks by Harry until the end, and doesn't always get much thanks for her efforts. But this isn't a book you read for the storyline; it's all about Soja's wry retrospective digging into her own motivation and reexamining it in the light of Harry's view of things, as written down in a notebook she discovered among his things long after the event. And the background of Berlin around the time of the fall of the Wall. There's a telling scene towards the end of the book where Harry, watching TV in his AIDS hospice, sees Erich Honecker being led off to jail on the TV news and feels sympathy for him: he knows exactly what the renewed prospect of prison feels like when you've already served ten years (as Honecker did under the Nazis).

---

Fun how the cover designer picked up the idea of the battered notebook page almost convincingly; just a shame that they messed it up by applying the pattern of lines over the top of the "rip" in the page. A classic Photoshop fail!

189thorold
Modificato: Mar 31, 3:15pm

...and before the end of Q1, here's another short one from the same pile.

Kurt Tucholsky was one of the best-known journalists of Weimar Germany, a tireless critic of everything and anything that was wrong with the country. By coincidence, he turns out to have been born in Katja Lange-Müller's beloved Berlin-Moabit...

Schloß Gripsholm eine Sommergeschichte (1931; Gripsholm Castle) by Kurt Tucholsky (Germany, 1890-1935)

  

Although Tucholsky is mostly remembered as a satirist, it seems to be this (mostly-) harmless lightweight summer holiday novella that is far and away his best-known book nowadays, something that probably has a lot to do with the machinations of those who put together reading lists for modern-languages courses, and a little more with our universal preference for comic fiction over hard facts.

Tucholsky plays on this contradiction himself, introducing the story with a (presumably fictitious) correspondence between the author and his publisher, Ernst Rowohlt, who points to the difficulty of selling political books in these troubled times and asks Tucholsky for something light and ironic between coloured boards, preferably a love story. Tucholsky responds by saying he doesn't do love stories, but he is just about to go on holiday, so he'll see what he can come up with. But he doesn't see how he can do anything at all if Rowohlt insists on keeping up that ridiculous 15% allowance for free copies that appears in paragraph 9 of his standard contract...

The story itself is a rambling, cheerful account of the narrator's holiday trip to Sweden with his girlfriend Lydia, during which they stay for some weeks in an apartment in a side-wing of Gripsholm Castle (inspired by a real holiday Tucholsky and Lisa Matthias took in 1927). There's no plot to speak of: one of the narrator's friends turns up for a few days, one of Lydia's friends arrives a bit later, they hatch a half-baked plot to liberate a little German girl who is having a miserable time in a holiday home run by the tyrannical Frau Adriani. And that's about it, the rest is, after all, something like a jokey love story, describing the way two people who like each other but haven't quite got to the point of living together cope with the enforced intimacy of being alone together in a foreign country. It's clearly a success, but both seem to feel by the end of the book that it will be nice to return to something less intensive when they get back to Berlin.

---

A really bizarre choice of cover art: whose idea was it to put a picture of an unmistakably Scottish castle on the cover of a book set in and around a very distinctive, well-known Swedish castle that looks completely different?

CC BY-SA 4.0, Länk

190markon
Mar 31, 9:06pm

>188 thorold: Looks like an interesting story, especially with the fall of the Berlin Wall in the background..

>189 thorold: Good catch on the cover!

191thorold
Apr 2, 10:41am

The Q2 thread is now up, on https://www.librarything.com/topic/331117 — starting with more Tucholsky.

192WelshBookworm
Giu 21, 4:59pm

>114 thorold: Re: The Manxman
I know I'm way behind on catching up on threads, but I had to comment on this one. I may need to read the Manxman. I used to lead a Welsh performing dance group, and we also branched out into Manx and Cornish dances. One year we worked up a whole program that we performed at the National Manx Convention when it was held in the Twin Cities. One of the first dances we learned was Y Mheillea, which of course is a harvest dance. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Yy5bVjGhas
There were words that went along with it (in Manx, of course...)

193thorold
Giu 22, 3:18am

>192 WelshBookworm: I suspect the step from Hall Caine to authentic Manx culture is rather like that from the brothers Gibb to the dancing in that video, but he's obviously very important if you're interested in the history of how the island was perceived by outsiders.
Questa conversazione è stata continuata da thorold goes from April to Shantih in Q2 21.