Tag Archives: Pushkin Press

A child of heaven, of hell perchance, Devil and god of arrogance.

Yevgeny Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Anthony Briggs

Back in 2012 I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Tom Beck translation of Eugene Onegin. Fast forward a few years and Pushkin Press have published a new translation interestingly titled Yevgeny Onegin. Onegin (with any first name) is notoriously difficult to translate so I thought I’d return to it and see how the two translations differed.

Before I get into that a quick word: Briggs quotes early 20th Century Russian literary historian Prince Mirsky as saying that the poetry in Onegin flows and bubbles “like champagne in sunshine”. I can’t speak to how faithful Briggs is to the original Russian – I can’t read that after all – but I can say that Briggs’ translation definitely has that sunlit champagne quality and was an absolute pleasure to read.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover? I absolutely love it.

Before I get into the translation itself it’s worth spending a moment on one of the best translator’s introductions I’ve read. Briggs explains in clear non-technical language the type of poem Pushkin is writing here – the 14 line sonnet. He then sets out the differences between what are typically called English sonnets and Italian sonnets (a question of how rhymes are paired rather than nationality).

The Italian sonnet clusters its lines in two sets of four rhymes then two sets of three rhymes. The English sonnet clusters them instead in three sets of four rhymes with a final set of two rhymes (which tend to either dramatically complete the first twelve sets of rhymes or subvert them).

Pushkin uses both forms (and other sub-forms) in Onegin which is apparently quite unusual. In most poems that use the sonnet form you can tell where you are and what’s coming by the clustering of the rhymes. In Pushkin, because the form varies, by the time you get to the mid-point you don’t know whether this particular stanza follows the English sonnet form or the Italian which means you are intentionally disorientated and often can’t resolve the individual stanza until you finish it.

Briggs explains that this flexibility of form is part of why the poem never becomes tedious to read – it’s constantly changing and refreshing itself. I found this absolutely fascinating and it really helped me understand what was happening structurally within the poem as I read it.

Briggs also touches on a particular difficulty in translation from Russian to English (which generally by his account isn’t all that hard). This is what’s known as masculine and feminine rhymes.

Masculine rhymes end in a single stressed syllable – the cat sat on the hat. Feminine Rhymes follow a stressed syllable with an unstressed one – and that’s harder to give an example of because it’s common in Russian but rare in English. In fact, it’s so rare that all the examples tend to be extremely obvious. As Briggs points out if you hear “languish” the rhyme is very likely to be “anguish”; if you hear “creature” then “feature” is likely to follow.

What all this means is that when translating from Russian in most cases where the Russian uses a feminine rhyme there won’t be a direct English equivalent. When there is it will likely be tediously obvious and therefore dull (Briggs notes “hoping/moping” and “related/dated”). This issue is very present in Onegin, which uses alternate feminine rhymes. The result is the translator needs to be creative making use where possible of part-rhymes and words that sound or feel similar  even if they don’t actually strictly rhyme.

The introduction is a good few pages long and it’s packed with this kind of interesting and useful information. I have no technical background in poetry but even so I found it very easy to follow. Briggs is never patronising but instead writes for the benefit of the intelligent lay reader. Frankly, even if you don’t like his translation the book’s worth buying for the intro alone.

I should though probably now turn to the translation. I’m initially going to quote the very first stanza from each translation, after which I’ll quote several stanzas from my Tom Beck review and after each I’ll again set out the Briggs’ equivalent. Here goes:

Tom Becks:

1
“My uncle’s acted very wisely,
to seek his best when he’s so sick;
his family’s reacted nicely
and he’s most happy with his trick.
He’s set the world a good example,
which others really ought to sample,
but it’s a bore when night and day
the sick man forces you to stay!
To keep him sweet, as if he’s dying,
give him his daily medicine
and make quite sure that it goes in,
adjust the pillows while one’s sighing:
‘Don’t even think of getting well,
The devil take you, go to hell!’”

And here, by contrast, is the Briggs:

1
“Uncle, a man of purest probity,
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody,
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking ‘Ooh!
When will the devil come for you?’”

What immediately strikes me there is that it’s evident that Beck has prioritised flow (as he says in his own introduction – he’s a musician by training and wanted to preserve the musicality of the verse). Briggs here is trickier. See for example his pairing of probity” with “nobody” or (and I think this is rather clever) “histrionics” with “tonics”.

In places the choices change the meaning. In Beck the uncle has acted wisely, which isn’t really a comment on his character but rather on his actions. In Briggs by contrast the uncle is a man of utmost probity. Similarly, in the Beck the uncle is pleased with himself at being tended by his family suggesting a certain manipulativeness on his part whereas in Briggs the use of “masterstroke” makes the line more of an ironic comment by the narrator on the situation.

As to which meaning Pushkin intended I’ve no idea but I think it’s already possible to see how each translator pursues their different goals in the translation. I don’t think Briggs’ “ooh” quite comes off, but I also don’t think it’s fair to pick on the occasional jarring rhyme (and if I wanted to I could do it quite easily do it to Beck too).

Let’s continue. Here’s stanzas three and four from the Beck:

3
Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.

4
When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

And here from the Briggs:

3
With worthy service now behind him,
His father lived from debt to debt.
Three balls a year soon undermined him,
He was as poor as you can get.
Fate saved the boy, who was aware of
Madame, and being taken care of,
And her replacement, a Monsieur.
The child was frisky, though demure.
Monsieur l’Abbé, a Catholic father,
Not keen to weigh Yevgeny down,
Taught him by acting like a clown.
Morals seemed irksome; he would rather
Chide him for the odd naughty lark,
And walk him in the Summer Park.

4
Rebellious youth came in due season –
A season full of hopeful dreams
And gentle sadness – ample reason
To give Monsieur the sack, it seems.
Onegin now, devil-may-care-style,
Copied the very latest hairstyle
And came out like a London fop
To see society, Tip-top
In spoken French (no less proficient
In speech and writing), he could dance,
And with the utmost nonchalance
Perform a bow, which was sufficient
To show him in a pleasing light
As a nice lad, and very bright.

I actually think the Beck is rather good there. I like the references to Letsky Park and to the Mazurka (though again I’ve no idea if either is in the original) and again he clearly achieves the musicality he sets out for. Briggs I suspect wouldn’t be enamoured of rhymes like “lad” and “bad” but “dressed” and “best” is exactly the kind of paraphrasing that Briggs is fond of.

Briggs’ language is again I think intentionally tricksier and riskier. It’s the champagne effect. I love “devil-may-care-style” being rhymed with “hairstyle” which is inspired and I think his first three lines from stanza 4 (“Rebellious” to “reason”) are much more poetic than Beck’s equivalent first two rhymes in the same (“when” to doubt,”). Briggs takes three lines here to capture what Beck manages in two but I think to better effect and both ultimately maintain the overall fourteen line structure.

Moving on, this is from the Beck:

37
Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

And here from the Briggs:

37
No. While still young he lost all feeling,
Finding the noisy world a bore
And lovely girls not so appealing,
Not so obsessive as before.
Betrayals left him sad and weary,
Both friends an friendship he found dreary.
You cannot keep on sluicing steaks
Or Strasburg pie with what it takes –
The best champagne! And it gets harder
To please the diners with bons mots
When headaches leave you feeling low.
Yevgeny, once a man of ardour,
Acknowledged that his love was dead
For conflict, sabres and the lead.

Briggs makes nice use of French here both reminding us of Onegin’s class and at the same time rhyming “mots” with “low” which I rather like. Becks I think has a more modern feel with rhymes such as “fun” and “gun” while Briggs’ “ardour” through to “lead” feels more period to me. It’s also worth noting here how Briggs rhymes “ardour” with “harder” which I think in context he gets away with.

One final example. Here’s the Beck:

56
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

And here’s the Briggs’ equivalent:

56
O rural idyll, love and flowers!
O fields to you I yield my soul…
I mark what differences are ours,
What separates us on the whole,
So that no reader, no wild joker,
No literary libel-broker
Can publish somewhere by design
Onegin’s features as for mine,
And then repeat the claim (outrageous!)
That here my portrait has been daubed
Like Byron’s, proudly self-absorbed,
As if one could not fill these pages
By painting someone other than
One’s own self as the leading man.

I chose this stanza in the original so that I could talk about the links with Byron rather than because of any intrinsic interest to it. Even so it still makes a useful comparator. Again the translation choices impact the meaning slightly: Beck’s Onegin yields his soul to idleness while Briggs’ to the fields. Similar, particularly in context, but not quite the same.

Beck’s choice of “poems all about ourselves” is I think a little pedestrian, which I don’t think is true of Brigg’s “own self as the leading man.” Again though what shines through is the difference in intent. Becks flows well and has a clear rhythm. Briggs is more playful (note for example his “wild joker” with “literary libel-broker”).

What comes out of all this for me is a very clear pattern and a sense of very intentional translations (as of course they should be). Faced with the choice Becks goes most every time for flow and rhythm while Briggs is much fonder of linguistic tricks and little surprises for the reader.

I’m not qualified to talk to better here and I don’t think anyway which is better is an interesting question. As I said at the start of this piece I thoroughly enjoyed the Beck when I read it – so much so that I read a separate translation which is a tribute to the first (it kindled my enthusiasm). Reading his stanzas here afresh I’m reminded quite how good so much of it is. The Briggs’ delighted me. I loved the playfulness and cleverness of it.

Briggs sometimes comes unstuck. At one point he rhymes “intractable young beauties” with “Implacable non-venal cuties” which particularly stood out. That’s unavoidable though because he’s taking greater risks with his rhyme-choices and trying to capture that sense of “champagne in sunshine”. I think he succeeds.

One final remark and that’s on the title of the poem itself. Briggs notes that Yevgeny is more Russian than the commonly used Eugene which is plainly true. However, more importantly he notes that Yevgeny Onegin is a little poem in itself: yev-gen-y/o-ne-gin. Eugene Onegin just ain’t got the same swing.

I may at some future point read the Penguin Classics’ Stanley Mitchell translation. Briggs in his introduction talks a little about other translations but is at pains not to single any out for criticism, save to a small extent the Mitchell which he does raise points on. It may sound odd but I think that’s a form of compliment: Briggs clearly feels the Mitchell can stand up for itself. If I do I’ll post another comparison though I warn you now that’ll make it fifty per cent. as long again as this one…

Oh, and just in case anyone wants to know which translation I recommend you read that’s easy: both of them of course!

Other reviews

Honestly I have no idea so please feel free to leave links in the comments. Interestingly, Nick Lezard of the Guardian has also reviewed both these translations. His Beck is here and his Briggs here.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian Literature, Superfluous Man

Reality outwaits us all.

Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard and translated by David Bellos

Albert has been away from home for six years. He returns just before Christmas to an empty apartment unchanged since his mother’s death some four years past. Albert is alone and lonely.

He heads out onto the crowded streets of his Paris suburb and goes to a grand restaurant his mother always dreamed of eating in but never dared to. Now he’ll eat in it without her. Along the way he buys “a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust” with a tiny velvet bird inside. He has no tree to decorate, but the tiny ornament is a reminder of the past he’s lost.

birdinacage

The restaurant is grand and traditional and packed with families and Christmas shoppers. Dard describes it rather well, including how it doesn’t even smell like an ordinary restaurant:

Chiclet’s smelled of absinthe and snails, and of old wood too.

I loved that little snippet of description. Near Albert’s table is a woman with a small child. He can’t help but observe them:

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed. The little girl didn’t have her eyes, or her hair, or her nose, but in spite of that she still managed to look like her mother.

We don’t yet know who Anna was. The woman flirts lightly with Albert, but eventually their meals come to their end and the woman leaves with the girl. Albert leaves too:

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

Of course, Albert, of course. He follows them to a nearby cinema. They buy a ticket; so does he. The usherette thinks they’re together and sits him next to the woman.

I could feel the human warmth of the woman, and it overwhelmed me. The perfume of her overcoat shattered me.

He’s not sure if she’s inviting his attention or simply indifferent, but he ends up going home with her. After that, things get complicated.

Bird in a Cage is a little gem of a novel. It’s 120 pages just and brilliantly judged. By going to that restaurant, buying that little bird in a cage, Albert has walked into a situation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clouzot film and I ate the whole book up in practically one sitting.

It’s actually difficult to say a lot more without spoiling this. I’ve not really touched on the plot and I’d strongly recommend against reading any kind of synopsis. This is a book where you want to be as lost as Albert and where you want to discover alongside him what’s really going on.

Bird has melancholy, regret, passion and murder. It’s very much a psychological piece as Albert finds himself trapped between the horror of an incomprehensible nightmare inside the woman’s flat and the dream of some desperately needed human connection in the form of the woman herself. It is very, very good and exactly the kind of book I look to Pushkin for.

There are some stylistic issues. Dard massively overuses exclamation marks and really doesn’t need to since his plot is dramatic enough without them. There was a point where I started to find that slightly jarring, but then the intensity of the story kicked in and I stopped noticing quite so much. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one and certainly not one that would make me hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with a taste for psychological noir fiction.

I’m conscious this is a particularly short review, but far better here to say too little than too much. I’ve already bought Pushkin’s second Dard, The Wicked Go to Hell, and I look forward to more. Dard was one of these insanely prolific writers (over 300 novels according to Wikipedia) so he should keep Pushkin busy for a while yet.

Other reviews

Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here and inspired me to read it. Thanks, as so often before, are due accordingly.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Dard, Frédéric, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

language is our only home

Summer before the dark, by Volker Weidermann and translated by Carol Brown Laneway; Messages from a Lost World, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Will Stone

Pushkin Press have done marvels in restoring an entire generation of lost voices to contemporary English-language readers: Antal Szerb, Ernst Weiss, Arthur Schnitzler, Leo Perutz, Joseph Roth and of course their greatest rediscovery Stefan Zweig.

I say lost voices, but really these are voices which were deliberately silenced. It’s no coincidence that most of them are cut-off in the late 1930s to early 1940s. The Nazis sought to intimidate and destroy all art and culture that wasn’t in service of their own horrific goals. For a while they succeeded, and it’s a tragedy that so few of these writers survived to see how brief that success was and how total the Nazi’s ultimate defeat.

In his Summer Before the Dark, Volker Weidermann takes us to a moment of peace before the coming destruction: 1936 Ostend where a group of émigré writers briefly gathered. Pushkin have simultaneously published Messages from a Lost World, a collection of essays by Stefan Zweig written from the dawn of the first world war to the depths of the second.

SummerBefore ZweigMessages

I’m reviewing these together partly as Pushkin Press published them together and partly because they are such natural companion pieces. Both, as you’d expect from Pushkin, are physically lovely: well made hardbacks with high quality paper and well judged cover designs. They’d make the perfect gift for a melancholic relative…

Summer takes the reader to Ostend in 1936. It’s a rather Proustian middle-class Belgian seaside resort of the sort common before mass cheap airfare existed. The rise of the Nazis has already displaced a great many German language writers with Zweig one of the last to find himself unable to publish in his native tongue.

Over one summer Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Irmgard Keun, Arthur Koestler and many more find themselves briefly together enjoying the cafes and the culture that have always formed the backdrop to their lives. It’s civilised Europe in miniature.

Weidermann skilfully evokes both time and place. It’s easy to picture the writers having passionate arguments about how best to intervene in Franco’s Spain (Koestler is despatched as a sort of amateur-spy) while crafting new manuscripts and falling into new relationships.

The book opens with a previous visit by Zweig to Ostend in 1914. Back then he couldn’t believe war would actually happen and delayed departure, incredulous at the idea that anyone would move beyond posturing to actual conflict. On the last train back he saw cannons being moved to the front – a physical rebuttal of his belief that common interest would outweigh nationalist folly.

In 1936 Roth is again striving for optimism, though it seems to be getting harder. Zweig at this point is a literary superstar. He’s rich and his books are hugely popular and widely translated. Ostend is a haven from his recent troubles in Germany, troubles which he’s been better insulated from to date than most:

Stefan Zweig in the summer of 1936. He looks at the sea through the large window and thinks with a  mixture of pity, reticence and pleasure about the group of displaced men and women he will be rejoining shortly.

Summer reads like a novel, which is both its strength and its weakness. There are no footnotes or endnotes and there’s no references or sources cited. That raises occasional questions about how confident we can be as to its accuracy.

Take the quote above as an example. Zweig “thinks”, but how do we know what he thought? Barring temporal telepathy this is presumably based on Zweig’s letters or a diary or something similar, but letters have an intended recipient, diaries may be written with a view to later publication, neither is entirely reliable as a guide to someone’s actual thoughts.

The question of how Weidermann knows what he writes remains a nagging concern throughout the book. It’s one that the reader just has to accept – I’ve no reason to believe Weidermann hasn’t done his homework and realistically it’s not as if I would have checked the citations had he provided them. Still, it makes this a book better read to get a sense of mood and of the nature of the world that was about to vanish rather than as anything more scholarly.

Read as novelistic-history (ironically something which Zweig hated), Summer reads very well indeed. Weidermann is good at capturing his subjects. Zweig in 1936 wears a pale suit with a well-trimmed moustache and is described as “self-confident, worldly” and “like an elegant shrew in his Sunday best.” By contrast, Roth is  “hunched” and “potbellied”; his moustache is “unkempt” and he “looks like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.”

RothZweig

Zweig was one of Roth’s early literary heroes, and Weidermann tells a nice anecdote of how long before Roth met Zweig he went on a literary pilgrimage to Zweig’s apartment in Vienna but sadly missed seeing him. Zweig is now a lifeline as well as friend, providing Roth with cash and ensuring that he eats and takes basic care of himself.

Roth is an advanced alcoholic. His legs and feet are badly swollen, to the point where it’s almost impossible for him to put on a pair of shoes. For year’s now he’s had to throw up every morning, sometimes for hours. He eats almost nothing. Going out to a restaurant seems to him as an eccentric waste of money, that only a rich man like Stefan Zweig would dream up. Nevertheless, Zweig tries to convince him to eat a meal day after day. This summer in Ostend it even frequently works.

Both then and now Zweig suffers from being seen (rightly in my view) as the lesser talent. Zweig is a great writer of popular fiction, but Roth is simply a great writer. Still, they usefully collaborate: at one point Zweig struggles with an ending for a novel and Roth writes one for him, leaving Zweig to adapt Roth’s ending and craft it into his own book. I thought that lovely. Zweig gives Roth useful advice too (including on Weights and Measures, which Roth finishes too quickly desperate for the cash it will generate).

It’s no surprise that amidst all the literature and politics there’s sex too. Zweig is in Ostend with his secretary and mistress, Lotte, with whom he would spend the short few remaining years of his life (they ultimately committed suicide together). Roth meets Irmgard Keun (“the only Aryan here” she quips), a writer he encourages though without reading anything she writes. She later says of her first encounter with him “My skin said ‘yes’ immediately”. A line so good that on its own it’s persuaded me to read her work.

The contrast between the two central figures here couldn’t be greater. Zweig is civilised, urbane, bourgeois. No wonder history has been (until recently) a little unkind to him. Roth by contrast is a classic art-monster. He’s arrogant, passionate, filled with crazy dreams and absurd fantasies, self-destructive and yet attractive to women. Zweig has talent; Roth genius.

And yet. While Zweig is ultimately forced to abandon Roth fearing that otherwise he’ll be sucked down with him, overall he comes across as a man who does his best to live up to his own ideals. He’s a good friend to Roth for as long as he can be, and he’s a good man if perhaps a somewhat naive one. I prefer Roth’s work to Zweig’s, but I’d rather have Zweig as a friend than Roth.

It’s perhaps unavoidable in a book like this that reading it one rather wishes one could have been there, and yet the “there” weidermann describes is a terrible place. It’s a spun-sugar fragment of culture amidst an oncoming avalanche of barbarism, and within a few years nearly everyone he writes of will be dead and they’ll mostly die believing that everything they’ve worked for is in ashes.

I read Messages after Summer, and I think that may be the best way round. Messages is a well chosen collection of essays bringing out certain of Zweig’s core concerns: of the need for Europeans to find a common identity; of the merits of cosmopolitanism and humanism over insularity and fear.

Zweig’s themes resonate with me, and remain surprisingly timely as the UK moves towards a referendum vote on whether or not to stay in the EU. I know which way Zweig would have urged us to vote. From 1916:

… some exist who believe that never can a single people, a single nation achieve what a collective of European nations has not through centuries of heroic endeavour; men who ardently believe that this monument must be brought to completion in our Europe, here where it was started, and not in foreign continents like America or Asia.

That quote shouldn’t be taken as Zweig disparaging America or Asia, but first and foremost Zweig is unashamedly a European and it’s Europe that concerns him. If he had lived to see a united Europe I’ve no doubt his ambitions would then have stretched further to a united world, but as he came to see even his little dream of a common European polity proved too much for the era he lived in.

Zweig returns repeatedly in the essays to the myth of the Tower of Babel. To him it represents a dream of human potential – first built in metaphoric stone and now in culture and civilisation. He sees the Tower as a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together and put aside their differences, and as a caution showing how disunity can prevent us reaching the heavens.

The years up to 1914 Zweig sees as a metaphorical rebuilding of the tower, with Europe becoming more than merely a collection of individual nations through a cross-continent mingling of literature and music and art and science. Now as the tide of nationalism steadily grows over the course of these essays, he sees the foundation of the tower once more in danger.

Here’s Zweig in 1939 complaining of how history is taught in schools, and of how that encourages the very nationalism he deplores:

History, which ordinarily signified the highest objectivity, was force-fed into us with the sole aim of making us fine patriots, future soldiers, obedient citizens. We had to show ourselves humble before our own state and its institutions, mistrustful of other countries and races, and we had to agree with the carefully inculcated conviction that our country was better than all the other countries, our soldiers were better than their soldiers, our generals were more courageous than their generals; that our people throughout history had always been in the right and whatever might happen we would always be right: my country,right or wrong.

He goes on to talk about how he was taught history as a sequence of important dates and figures, most of them battles and conquerors. He could have written that about my schooling. Instead he would prefer a history that focuses on the truly important dates and achievements – scientific breakthroughs, notable medical discoveries, the scientists and artists. He wrote this on the eve of a war that would swallow the world, and he knew I think that none of this would be achieved anytime soon or even in his lifetime.

There’s the (very) occasional comic moment, such as in 1931 when he writes that “… the era of the “historical novel”, the blatant falsification of our ancestors’ lives, is now over”, on which note I’m afraid I have bad news for him. Mostly however this is a passionately if impractically argued plea for us to be better than we are. In 1940 he writes of the Vienna that he loves and which is now lost to him, saying:

Art, like culture, cannot prosper without freedom, and the culture of Vienna cannot flourish if it is severed from the vital source of European civilisation.

All of which is as true of Europe as a whole now as it was of the Vienna of his youth. I said above that his pleas were impractical, and often they are, but an excess of practicality can be the enemy of progress and sometimes we need a little impracticality if we’re to make any progress at all.

Other reviews

Not so many yet on the blogosphere that I’m aware of, but Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings wrote up Summer here and Messages here and Lizzy Siddal positively gushes about Summer here (and in answer to her rhetorical question, if one can’t gush on one’s own blog where can one?). If you know of others please flag them (and feel free to link directly) in the comments.

Finally, I should just note that these were review copies sent to me by Pushkin Press. I also have a personal copy of Zweig’s World of Yesterday and having read these now makes me all the more enthusiastic to read that.

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Filed under Essays, German Literature, Pushkin Press, Roth, Joseph, Vienna, Zweig, Stefan

Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

Some books are too subtle to be easily reviewed. You lose them as you try to describe them. They slip away, leaving just a vague sense that you haven’t done them justice.

Antal Szerb is one of the 20th Century’s great writers. His The Pendragon Legend is one of the funniest shaggy dog tales ever committed to print and his Oliver VII is easily one of my favourite novels, featuring as its main character a king who ends up as incognito head of the resistance to his own reign. Szerb writes with intelligence, empathy, a gentle but very funny wit and an acute sense of the absurd.

JourneyJourney2 journey-by-moonlight-antal-szerb

The blue cover is the one I have on Kindle. The creamy-brown cover is an earlier one from Pushkin which I love, and the one with the photo of Venice is again I think very good and is the cover I have on my physical copy.

The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Mihály is on honeymoon in Venice with his new bride Erzsi. He’s a dreamer whose family are pressing him hard to settle down and to take a responsible role in the family business. He married Erzsi in part as she seemed a solid bourgeois who would help him adapt to what’s expected of him. It didn’t occur to him that she might have married him for what he is, not what his family want him to be.

She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

Erzsi is on her second marriage. She’s more experienced than Mihály, more worldly. When he wanders off one evening into the back-streets of Venice, not returning until the next day, she gets her first hint that there may be serious issues in store for them and that their mutual fiction might not be a lasting one. Things get worse when they run into Janos – a roguishly attractive childhood friend of Mihaly’s who stirs up old memories of adolescence.

Mihály tries to explain his past to Erzsi, but the more he does so the clearer it becomes that it still has a hold over his life that he barely understands and doesn’t particularly want to escape. When the time comes for the newlyweds to travel on Mihály gets briefly off their train to buy some supplies. He then “involuntarily, but not unintentionally” gets back on the wrong train. Now Erzsi’s en route to Paris on her own while Mihály bumbles across Italy in a meandering quest for he’s not quite sure what.

You start off as Mr X, who happens to be an engineer, and sooner or later you’re just an engineer who happens to be called Mr X.

At first it seemed to me there was a danger that Szerb would fall into that old trap of portraying a thoughtful and artistically sensitive man held back by a sensible yet dull wife. What follows though is vastly more interesting and intricate than that.

Before his departure Mihály told Erzsi of how his adolescent circle revolved around morbidly erotic role-plays led by the Ulpius siblings Eva and Tamas. The boys were all sexually obsessed with Eva and their little group broke up on the eventual suicide of Tamas. It’s clear to Erzsi that Mihály’s still fixated both on Eva and on the mystery of Tamas’ suicide. The result is that when he wanders off she’s not losing him to Italy – she’s losing him to nostalgia.

Mihály meanwhile comes to discover that as the old joke goes the past isn’t what it used to be. While he’s not a first person narrator he does still manage to be terribly unreliable, comically so. It’s perhaps natural given his insular nature that he doesn’t understand other people very well and mistakes much of what’s going on around him, but it’s more surprising to discover that he doesn’t understand himself terribly well either.

“I know what’s wrong with me,” he told the doctor. “Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?”

Mihály’s quest takes him across Italy to an encounter with one of his old friends who’s since become a particularly holy monk; to a series of missed and partial encounters with Eva; to further run-ins with Janos; and to an affair with an American tourist named Millicent (“‘Millicent,’ he said. ‘There’s someone in the world actually called Millicent!'”). As his money runs out he comes increasingly to realise that “There’s no cure for nostalgia” and the prospects of him ever returning to Erzsi become ever slighter.

The focus of the novel then shifts to Erzsi’s viewpoint. She too is adrift: nobody expects to be cut loose on their honeymoon. The difference is that while Mihály may be content to drift downwards into a morass of memory, Erzsi is made of firmer stuff.

All her life she had been the model of a good girl, adored by her nannies and fräuleins, her father’s pride and joy, the best pupil in the form, sent abroad to academic competitions. Her whole life had been sheltered and ordered, the good bourgeois life consecrated to a sternly supervised moral order. In due course she married a wealthy man, dressed elegantly, took on a grand house and presided over it as a model housewife. She always wore the identical hat sported by every other woman of the same rank in society. She took her summer holidays where fashion dictated, held the same opinions about theatrical productions, uttered the turns of phrase currently de rigueur. In everything she was a conformist, as Mihály would say. Then she began to get bored.

Erzsi married Mihály so he could save her from the very conventionality he wanted her to lend him. They never understood each other, but she at least is capable of understanding that and she soon realises too that she doesn’t actually need him as she’s perfectly capable of saving herself. Mihály is a weak man. His obsession with his past allows him to evade his present and is part of a wider lack of interest in the outside world. As an adolescent he was never quite as decadent as his friends, and now as an adult he yearns after something he thinks he lost but that was never really his.

Journey then is a novel of reversals. Nobody here is quite as we first expect them, something that’s true not only of Mihály and Erzsi but of many of the supporting characters too. Mihály can be irritatingly wet at times, but he’s not a villain. He is, literally, lost and if he’s perhaps less than he seems then Erzsi in turn is more. It’s the reader as much as anyone else who journeys by moonlight, and what seems one thing when seen through shadows from a distance can reveal itself to be something quite different close up.

Journey is a slower starter than either Pendragon or Oliver. Mihály isn’t always the most engaging protagonist and Szerb is right to ensure that he’s not therefore the only viewpoint character. Adolescent games however sophisticated are still fundamentally immature, and Mihály’s quest is deeply self-indulgent and ultimately rather selfish.

Despite those initial concerns, as it develops Journey shows such sympathy for its characters and by extension for all of us that it’s a hard novel not to love. Mihály and Erzsi are flawed and so are we. Their troubles and adventures are absurd and so are ours. Szerb was a kind man. He wrote a kind book.

“In London November isn’t a month,” he said, “it’s a state of mind.”

Journey has been widely reviewed. I’d draw your attention to Tom’s review at A Common Reader, here; Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations here; and Kaggsy’s review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here. Nick Lezard’s review at the Guardian is also worth reading and can be found here.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Pushkin Press, Rix, Len (translator), Szerb, Antal

Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man

Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt

I am, it’s fair to say, something of an Arthur Schnitzler fan. I’ve previously reviewed his Fraülein Else and his Dying, and loved both. When I heard that Pushkin Press were releasing a previously unpublished Schnitzler novella I lost no time asking for a review copy.

As a rule, I’m fairly suspicious of posthumous releases of unpublished work. All too often the result is some half-finished manuscript which the author discarded as not up to scratch but which was then slapped together after their death even though it’s perfectly evident it wouldn’t ever have been released in their life.

In this case, that suspicion would be totally unwarranted. Late Fame is quality Schnitzler, and as the excellent afterword makes plain was in fact very likely intended for publication in pretty much its current form. Pushkin Press have done both Schnitzler’s memory and his fans proud.

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Edward Saxberger is an elderly civil servant, not yet retired but comfortably settled in his department and his quietly ordered life. Years ago, in his youth, he wrote and published a small poetry collection titled Wanderings. It didn’t make much of a stir and after a little while he gave up his literary career and became the stolid and reliable civil servant that he is today.

Now (the book was written in the 1930s) a young man named Wolfgang Meier comes to Saxberger’s rooms seeking him out as the long-lost author of Wanderings. To Saxberger’s amazement Meier talks of how his artistic circle have discovered Saxberger’s work and been inspired by it; how they were delighted to learn he still lived; and that they believe the time has come for Wanderings to gain the recognition so long denied it.

Before long Saxberger is part of Meier’s set – a group of young writers and intellectuals based loosely on Schnitzler’s own similar early circle. Meier is himself a poet, but they also have a critic, a playwright, an actress and more. They all hail Saxberger as a giant come to walk among them and even more they claim him as a spiritual companion and inspiration. Saxberger finds himself replacing dinners with his long-standing friends and peers and their talk of business and politics with dazzling late night discussions of art and ambition.

Saxberger’s a sober man and his literary aspirations were long ago put to bed, and yet it wouldn’t be human not to be excited by this new attention. He’s cautious naturally, but what if he was overlooked? What if they’re right and now, after all these years, he’s finally being recognised? Who wouldn’t be tempted by such an extraordinary second chance, so unlooked for and so unexpected?

Meier and his group are organising a recital evening at which they will present various works from their movement and they want Saxberger to write new poetry for the occasion and to showcase it with them. It’s a dizzying prospect, but Saxberger finds that it’s harder than he thought to pick up his pen again, and he’s not entirely sure he understands the work his young compatriots are producing. Does he still have talent, if he ever did? Do they? Could he still be relevant? Will the audience proclaim him a lost master or will they laugh?

With his artistic dreams rewoken Saxberger finds himself caught between identities: the staid but comfortable complacency of his place among his aged peers with their careers in government or industry; the thrilling but perhaps fleeting recognition of him as an artist but only among people more than thirty years his junior. Saxberger no longer feels he fits in the world he’s come to inhabit, but he’s not a twenty-something just setting out either.

In lesser hands Late Fame could easily be a cruel novel. Schnitzler, however, walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Saxberger is a likable protagonist and his pleasure at being (re)discovered is palpable, as are the practical difficulties of his position. The young artists are passionate, deadly serious and full of their own importance as of course they would be.

They assuredly had a great deal of talent between them; work, however, was something they actually did very little of.

Here, Saxberger is in a café with them and notices them exchanging sharp glances at another very similar looking group.

“Who are those people?” asked Saxberger of Meier.

Christian, the tragedian, answered for him. “Those are the talentless ones.”

“Is that known for a fact,” Saxberger asked earnestly, “or do they call themselves that?”

“We call them that,” mocked Friedinger. “And that one there” – he gestured at one of those sitting at the other table – “is about to have a play put on.”

“Why do you call them talentless?” asked Saxberger, persevering.

“Talentless,” interjected Meier in his calm way, “is what we generally call those who sit at a different table from us.”

“Nonsense,” shrieked Stauffer, “they really are useless. Someone has to put them in their place.”

“I’m writing an article about it,” said Blink, his demeanour suggesting that this would dismiss them once and for all.

Note that in the above quote there’s a said, but before that some askeds, a mocked, an interjected and a shrieked. There’s an often quoted writing rule that you should only ever use said, not exclaimed or proclaimed or asseverated or whatever. It’s like most literary rules, fine for some kinds of writing, but far from a requirement for all as I think Schnitzler demonstrates.

Schnitzler succeeded in making me care for Saxberger, even sympathising with his growing but easily understood vanity. That empathy made this at times an oddly tense novel, since I found it difficult to imagine Saxberger suddenly being hailed as a major new discovery by anyone beyond his new circle. They title their evening Enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see him as just another enthusiasm they’ve briefly picked up and might just as lightly put down again not considering the damage they could do.

Late Fame doesn’t have the technical daring of Fraülein Else or the implacable awfulness of the situation in Dying, which I suppose could arguably make it a lesser work. Better though perhaps to see it as a gentler novel than either of those; a Sunday afternoon book to be read with a coffee and slice of strudel but still shining with Schnitzler’s characteristic psychological acuity.

Late Fame comes in a physically gorgeous hardback edition which fits neatly in hand or pocket and is just tremendously well put together. The translation is fluid and readable (though since I know no German I can’t speak to its accuracy), and the afterword is both fascinating in its description of how this manuscript was so nearly lost and yet finally came down the years to us and insightful (particularly in picking up subtle psychological elements that would I suspect be more obvious to a contemporary reader familiar with Freudian theory than a modern one for whom that’s largely historic). The whole package is a delight.

Other reviews

I’m sure I’m missing several, but the ones I have noted are from Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here and from Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life here. As ever, if you know of others please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Central European Literature, German Literature, Pushkin Press, Schnitzler, Arthur

“Everything is so fucking difficult and so fucking beautiful,”

In the Beginning Was the Sea, by Tomás González and translated by Frank Wynne

The dream that somewhere out there is an existence which is somehow more real, more authentic than the one we have has been around as long as there’s been people rich enough to be jaded by having too much. For those of us who don’t need to worry how we’ll put food on the table or meet this month’s rent it can be tempting to think that we’ve somehow become locked off from the “real” world; that if we just cut down, stripped back, we’d somehow have a richer life.

It’s nonsense of course. But it’s seductive nonsense. It only becomes dangerous though if we forget that reality isn’t a stage set designed as backdrop to our narrative. That can lead us to ill-judged interventions or to disastrous decisions.

Gonzalez

As a quick aside, Pushkin generally have a knack for covers but here I think they’ve done particularly well. It’s beautiful, yet brooding. It perfectly captures the novel.

Written in 1983, In the Beginning Was the Sea follows J and his partner Elena as they move from urban life in Bogotá to a plantation they’ve bought on an island off the coast. They’re living the Thoreauvian dream, or at least that seems to be what they’ve told themselves.

The following is the opening and brief excerpts from the first few pages, all in the first chapter:

The luggage was transported on the roof of the bus. Two leather suitcases containing their clothes, a trunk containing his books, and her sewing machine. Their belongings were surrounded by bunches of plantains, sacks of rice, blocks of unrefined sugar cane wrapped in dried banana leaves, and other suitcases.
Elena and J. were heading for the sea.

When, finally, the bus arrived at the port, the sea was not magnificent and blue. The harbour was built on a narrow inlet that looked more like a canal – a filthy canal three kilometres long that spilt into the sea. At 4 p.m. the bus pulled in to the main plaza. There was no sign of the sea, though the air smelt of salt and the fetid stench of open drains.

The squat buildings of concrete and brick – mostly grain stores and seedy bars – were roofed with corrugated iron or asbestos tiles. There was no attempt at elegance or style; the walls themselves were grimy. The people teeming on the plaza were ugly: the white men were garrulous, potbellied traders with a yellowish tinge to their skin; the blacks, raised far from the sea and cheap fish, had prematurely rotting teeth.

In a sense that’s the whole book right there. They’re heading for the sea, but it’s not magnificent and blue. Look at the language: “filthy”; “fetid”; “grimy”; “ugly”; “garrulous”; “potbellied”; “yellowish”; “rotting”. It’s a litany of revulsion.

Within those first few pages each of J and Elena reveal their character. J slopes off to have a drink; Elena erupts in fury at indifferent locals when they mishandle her luggage. It’s the pattern for their future with J avoiding facing up to problems and Elena unable to adapt or build bridges with those around her.

On their island the house is decrepit and the cattle that came with it die as quickly as they’re born. The whole enterprise is clearly a disaster, and González drops heavy hints from early on that it’s only going to get worse:

Even later, after they had replaced the water tank and the pipe and there was running water in the bathroom, J. went on bathing in the crystalline stream until the end.

Spoilers aren’t relevant here because González himself isn’t interested in them. This is a book which unfolds like clockwork to an outcome which is flagged from the earliest pages. J finds himself turning from a back-to-the-land intellectual to a petty colonialist as the plantation sinks ever deeper into debt and he struggles to control his workforce. Elena sunbathes on a nearby beach scandalising the conservative locals before escalating matters by having razorwire erected to stop them looking at her, in the process blocking a path they’ve used since long before J and Elena were on the scene.

Hippy ideals collapse in the face of poverty and practicality. J and Elena’s relationship becomes increasingly strained; he retreats into a bottle and she continues her petty wars with the people she’s chosen to come and live among. They become what they would once have despised – J having to consider turning the island’s trees into lumber so that he can pay back over-extended bank loans, in the process destroying the rural idyll that he came for; Elena constantly enraged at what she sees as feckless and unreliable natives.

J is a reasonably well realised character, and his reflections and passing remarks do give a sense of how he might have come to think that buying a remote plantation was a good idea and what (however vaguely) he might have wanted to get out of it. Elena though just seems to be there because he is, yet plainly isn’t the sort of woman who just trails unquestioningly after her man. She’s attractive, determined, full of passion and temper. Did she share J’s ideals? Did he talk her into it? She hates it from the start which raises all the more question as to what she’s doing there.

At the book’s mid-point González includes a fragment of a letter from J’s brother who criticises J’s “highbrow-anarcho-lefty businessman bullshit” and comments how J accused him of “becoming pretentious after I moved to Bogotá” and of “wasting my life in mental masturbation because I was afraid of facing up to real life”.  Again, it sheds light on J, but very little on Elena.

Biography is the dullest form of literary criticism, so I won’t dwell too long on the fact that González’ brother Juan did in fact buy a remote plantation where he died, engaged in exactly the sort of quixotic enterprise which J is attempting here. González has said in interviews that he based In the Beginning on that incident and that while the book is fiction it sticks fairly closely to some of the central facts of his brother’s death. I wonder if perhaps J being based on someone González knew so well is why he’s the more persuasive character.

In the end while I thought there was much to admire in In the Beginning, I didn’t love it. González is strong on the physicality of it all, the smells and textures and the cloying heat, but I wish Elena had received the same attention as the descriptions of the rain. The result was that I found Beginning to be a slightly airless book which could have benefitted from a little more warmth and empathy. González’ is carrying out here a near-forensic examination of the whirlpool of circumstance that engulfed his brother, that engulfs J, but the result is better at depicting the indifference of the world than it is at showing the humanity which makes that indifference matter.

Other reviews

I thought there were loads, but so far have only found two. Guy Savage’s excellent review is here, and David Hebblethwaite’s briefer thoughts are here. There’s also an interesting interview with González here. As ever please do feel free to alert me to more in the comments.

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Filed under González, Tomás, Pushkin Press, South-American Literature

“Things that have happened are never over and done with,”

Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz, and translated by Eric Mosbacher

Early 20th Century Vienna has to be one of the most fascinating periods and settings in literature. The end of the Austro-Hungarian empire saw an explosion in talent: Robert MusilJoseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Weiss; Stefan Zweig (and that’s just the ones I’ve personally read). Vienna in particular was a hotbed of ideas: Marxism and Freudianism offered new models of society and the individual, each of them challenging established traditions and philosophies.

It’s a natural setting for a crime novel, so much so that author Frank Tallis has set a successful series there with a disciple of Freud as his detective. Long before that though there was Master of the Day of Judgment, written in 1921 by a Viennese author steeped in the passions of his time. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

Master

Baron von Yosch is a soldier and aristocrat. He is setting down, for who knows what audience, his recollection of a terrifying series of events that occurred some years previously in 1909. He insists on the accuracy of his memories, down even to remembering minor newspaper stories of the day on which everything started. He insists so strongly in fact that immediately I began to wonder, why is the Baron so keen to persuade me he has forgotten no detail no matter how small?

Among the newspaper stories that day was a bank failure. Baron von Yosch had already moved his funds, but he knew his friend Eugen Bischoff had not. The Baron could have warned Eugen of the impending collapse, but as he reflects:

… would [Bischoff] have believed me? He always regarded me as a retailer of false information. Why meddle in other people’s affairs?

The Baron seems then a somewhat cold individual. A man whose friends don’t trust him, and who cares so little for them in turn that he won’t even try to warn one of possible ruin. This is our narrator; our guide to the events that claimed several lives. The Baron’s foreword gives us a premonition that whatever happened must have been truly terrible, and I found myself briefly reminded of Perutz’ contemporary H.P. Lovecraft:

Thus the whole sinister and tragic business lasted five days only, from 26 to 30 September. The dramatic hunt for the culprit, the pursuit of an invisible enemy who was not of flesh and blood but a fearsome ghost from past centuries lasted for just five days. We found a trail of blood and followed it. A gateway to the past quietly opened. None of us suspected where it led, and it seems to me today that we groped painfully step by step down a long dark passage at the end of which a monster was waiting for us with upraised cudgel. The cudgel came down twice, three times, the last blow was meant for me, and I should have been done for and shared Eugen Bischoff’s and Solgrub’s dreadful fate had I not been snatched back to life in the nick of time.

Sometimes sheer terror seizes me and sends me to the window, feeling that the dreadful waves of that terrible light must be rushing across the sky, and I cannot grasp the fact that overhead there’s the sun, concealed in silvery mist or surrounded by purple clouds or alone in the endless blue and round me wherever I look are the old, familiar colours, those of the terrestrial world. Since that day I have never seen again that fearful trumpet red.

It sounds like a work of gothic or cosmic horror, but it’s soon apparent that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, despite coming in at comfortably under 200 pages, nothing in this novel is simple.

Eugen Bischoff is a famous actor whose best days are past. His career is sharply in decline and now he has lost his life’s savings. The morning’s newspaper has been hidden from him so as to ensure he doesn’t get the news cold, and his friends have gathered round to support him, the Baron among them.

We know of course that Bischoff will die, the Baron’s foreword listed him among the victims. What we learn quickly is that Eugen is married to the Baron’s former lover, a woman the Baron still has feelings for. It’s a source of tension, and matters worsen when the Baron accidentally makes reference to the day’s events in ways which might give the game away. Well, the Baron’s writing the story and he says it’s accidental, but everyone else present seems to think he’s toying with Bischoff and amusing himself by seeing how far he can push the frail actor.

Bischoff leaves the room, and shortly afterwards two shots are heard. The Baron rushes to the scene where he finds Bischoff dying, a mutual doctor friend present but too late to save him. Bischoff casts a final gaze at von Yosch filled with pure hatred and speaks his last words – a reference to the day of judgment.

Almost everyone concludes that the Baron followed Bischoff, told him of the bank’s failure and gloated over him until Bischoff in panic and despair took his own life. The Baron however swears on his honour that he only entered the room after Bischoff already lay dying. Only the engineer Solgrub believes the Baron, and he sets out to discover what truly led to Bischoff’s death.

There are two mysteries here. One is why Bischoff killed himself. The other is why everyone who knows the Baron is so quick to believe he could be responsible. His former lover clearly blames him for her husband’s death, and her brother Felix demands that the Baron should take his own life as payment for his crime. Whether the Baron forced Bischoff into suicide is up for debate, whether he was capable of such an act however seems to be much more clear-cut. Even he is not entirely certain, at times remembering himself in the room and then dismissing the memory as false and produced by the stress of the situation (but notably not as out of character).

Solgrub’s investigation soon leads him to suspicions of another agent in the drama, a mysterious Dr Mabuse-like figure able to force men to suicide simply by forcing his will upon theirs (interestingly the novel Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler was also published in 1921). Solgrub and Felix agree then that Bischoff’s suicide was prompted by a third party, they just differ on whether that was von Yosch or this mysterious stranger. The Baron meanwhile reckons that he can solve the mystery himself, but soon finds his investigation overlapping with Solgrub’s.

At various points this moves from being a tale of gothic horror to a locked room mystery, to an amateur detective story and back again, but in truth it’s more than all of those. It becomes like so many good Austro-Hungarian novels a tale of psychological suspense. Solgrub is racing against time as the Baron, without even consciously realising what he’s doing, begins to make preparations for his own suicide. Society’s judgment demands that the Baron satisfy the demands of honour, and Solgrub is the only man truly convinced of the Baron’s innocence.

After a young failed artist connected with Bischoff also commits suicide, Solgrub strives to find a connection between the victims and to persuade Felix that there’s a common culprit. A hypothesis emerges that the slain may have willingly risked insanity and death for artistic inspiration; that creativity and terror draw from the same deep interior wells and that their own ambitions were the cause of their destruction. Now Solgrub wants to know what the dead knew, and we know from the foreword that before the story’s out he’ll join them.

That foreword casts a shadow over the whole narrative. We know the Baron lives and Solgrub dies, but not how or why. We don’t know what that “trumpet red” that von Yosch so cryptically referred to could be, or what exactly still terrifies him years later as he writes his account. As I raced towards the end I found myself asking more and more what kind of book I was reading, whether this was supernatural horror or psychological or something else altogether.

I’ll leave that last puzzle for each of you to answer for yourselves. The journey and the destination both are too satisfying to be lightly spoiled.

Other reviews

Only one on the blogosphere that I’ve found, by David Auerbach here. The Auerbach review gives away a bit more than I have, but not remotely fatally. I’ll also caution against the review in The Independent, which while positive I think rather misses the point of the book.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Perutz, Leo, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

“Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

The Man in a Hurry, by Paul Morand and translated by Euan Cameron

Way back in 2009 I read and loved Paul Morand’s memoirs, Venices. It’s an elegantly written book that’s held up well in memory and that I still recommend.

Venices is notable among other things for skipping Morand’s years as a collaborator in the service of the Vichy government. It was written in 1971 when Morand’s fascist sympathies were distinctly out of fashion, and when his pro-Nazi and openly anti-semitic views of the 1930s and 1940s were perhaps from his perspective best glossed over.

The Man in a Hurry however was written in 1941, and is therefore a rare example of a comic novel written by an open supporter of the Nazi and Vichy regimes. It’s actually pretty good, though far from flawless. Still, it’s interesting that a man could hold such horrific views, be an advocate of such evil, and yet be a talented writer. Perhaps the art and the artist truly are separate beasts, or perhaps not. I’ll return to that near the end of this piece.Morand

Pierre Niox is a Parisian antique dealer. Despite his profession he epitomises the modern man, or perhaps better the Futurist man, for Pierre is obsessed with speed above all else. He lacks all patience, drives fast and devises elaborate time-and-motion techniques to speed up his morning routine. All his trousers are fitted with zips to avoid wasting time fiddling with buttons and naturally he puts his shoes on at the same time as doing up his tie.

Here’s how he’s introduced:

At the point at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. He went into one of those suburban taverns where in the summer you can have lunch with a view and where you can dine in the cool of the evening. With an anxious step, he charged down the path lined with box hedges and rushed over to the terrace. […] He took a seat at  a metal table and clapped his hands. Twice, he glanced at his watch, as if it were friend. Nobody chose to bring him a drink. Finally, a waiter in his seventies whose rheumatism was aggravated by working at night came to wipe the table with a duster. Why, since he had achieved his aim, did the visitor appear disconcerted?

Pierre falls into conversation with a Jewish psychologist who sees him and takes interest in this curious case of accelerated development. Their conversation sparkles, as do all the conversations in this book. Morand is nothing if not witty.

“Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you talk with God?”

“I reckon that, having tricked me by bringing me into the world, it’s for Him to get in touch first.”

Here is a later exchange with Pierre’s friend and business partner, the aptly named Placide:

Quickly and badly, that’s my motto!”

“An epitaph more likely.”

“Epitaphs are the mottos of the dead.”

Over the course of around 350 pages Pierre manages to irritate all those around him through his obsession with pointless velocity. Placide tries to balance Pierre’s mania with his own taste for leisure and the good life, but without success and so has to part ways. Pierre’s comically bad servant (servants always seem to be comically bad in novels of this sort, which strikes me as a form of snobbery) quits, and even Pierre’s cat moves on to find an owner less prone to constantly rearranging its environment.

Pierre seems a hopeless case, but then he meets the beautiful Hedwig of the Boisrosé clan, and the Boisrosé never do anything quickly. Will love redeem Pierre where all else has failed?

This then is a satire on modernity, and in many ways is still a surprisingly timely one. Pierre today would be hurrying down the street checking his emails on his Blackberry while making calls on his bluetooth headset, duly proud of his ability to multitask. You probably work with him; quite possibly you occasionally are him. I know I occasionally am.

In the  Boisrosé Pierre meets his nemesis. Madame de  Boisrosé lives with her three daughters, the four of them a tightly knit and self-reliant unit. The eldest married, but her husband soon found his home mostly empty with his wife preferring to spend her days with her mother and sisters than with him. Can Pierre adjust his speed enough to win Hedwig, the second daughter? If he does, can he keep her by his side or will she too be lured back to the comforting  Boisrosé bosom? The family matriarch is a formidable opponent, “unparalleled in her ability to use her weakness in an intimidating manner.” Hedwig won’t be prised easily away from her…

Morand couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried, and the book is filled with neatly crafted set-pieces and encounters. Pierre is absurd, but not so much so that he isn’ t recognisable, and the satire largely hits the spot. It’s a fun little tale, and a good choice for a lighter holiday or airplane read. There are however two key problems it suffers from.

The first issue is that while I describe it as a fun little tale above, it’s not actually that little. It’s ironic that a book satirising speed should take 350 pages, and it would frankly have been more effective at 250. A friend suggested that the length was perhaps itself a comment on Pierre’s haste, but I think that’s too kind. The book sags a little in the middle and while I never got bored I did find myself thinking that less might have been more.

The second issue is more problematic. Morand isn’t, here at least, a writer of great psychological subtlety and characters tend to be somewhat stereotyped. The Boisrosé for example are Creoles with a mix of French and Caribbean blood, and that Caribbean ancestry is the reason given for their lassitude. The Boisrosé aren’t lazy and part-black, they’re lazy because they’re part-black.

Stereotyping in a comic novel isn’t of course a mortal sin any more than it is in a pulp novel. When you’re aiming for broad strokes it’s hardly surprising characters get a little simplistic, and carefully nuanced psychological portraits would have sat oddly against characters like Pierre and Placide. Still, there’s something a little ugly in a 1940s novel portraying mixed-race characters as less energetic by virtue of their blood, and generally this is a somewhat cold novel with Morand’s characters being types rather than people.

I wouldn’t describe The Man in a Hurry as a racist novel – it’s a product of its age and its author’s sensibilities and the racial elements aren’t central to it. It was however flawed for me by some of its attitudes. A surprised character is at one point described as having “wide-open eyes [that] resembled those of a Negro being taken to the circus”. Much worse, when Pierre visits New York late in the novel he discovers that “In Harlem, the centre of the darkest idleness, the Negros slept all day long.” It’s just one sentence, but it’s an unpleasant one.

That brings me back to the art and the artist. Morand is an excellent stylist. He’s funny, graceful and writes superb prose. Here at least though his art is compromised by a lack of sympathy with his characters and with a tendency to typecast them in a rather racially essentialist way, which given his real world views seems perhaps a fault not just of the work but also of the man.

On a final note, I received this as a review copy from Pushkin Press. It’s their first hardback release and it is physically one of the most beautiful and pleasing to hold books I own. They’ve done marvels with it, and Paul Morand I’m sure would be delighted with it (if not perhaps by all of my review).

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, or at least not the blogs I follow. Please feel free though to link in the comments to any you think particularly interesting.

 

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Filed under Comic Fiction, French Literature, Morand, Paul

the real test of life was uncertainty

Oliver VII, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

Nicholas Lezard, in his review of Oliver VII for the Guardian, asked if a novel can be constructed out of pure joy. The answer of course is yes,  because the answer is Oliver VII: a fairy tale of love, loyalty and confused identities.

Antal Szerb only wrote three novels. This was his last, written in the shadow of the Nazi conquest of Europe. Three years after its publication Szerb was killed in a labour camp. It would be easy to read Oliver VII’s humanist vision as escapism, except that it’s nothing of the kind. Rather it’s a statement of the value of romance in the widest sense, of kindness and perhaps ultimately of European culture in the face of an enemy that despised all those things.

Heroic as all that is, it’s not of itself a reason to read his novel. Were it didactic, or worthy, it would fail as literature however brave or inspiring it might be. The reason to read the novel is because it is, quite simply, wonderful.

Oliver VII is the indifferent king to the obscure Southern European nation of Alturia. Alturia has but two exports, its wine and its sardines, and it is bankrupt as its people are perhaps more romantic than practical. Alturia’s northern neighbour is Norlandia, a colder, gloomier and more sober land where grapes do not grow and which sardines do not care to visit.

Alturia’s finances have become unmanageable and its people are becoming increasingly unruly. The only hope Oliver’s ministers see is a deal with Norlandia’s greatest business tycoon, Coltor. Coltor will help Alturia redeem its debts, but in return will assume control of its wine and sardine production. Alturia will be saved, but at the cost of its sovereignty.

You know, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that it occurred to me quite how timely that is.

Coltor is no ordinary merchant. He made his fortune selling half-pairs of shoes (each of which could be worn on right foot or left), so those who had lost a shoe could buy a half-pair instead of wasting money on a whole pair. He built houses from onions, a textile cigarette, ant-powered lamps and edible fog. We’re in the world of whimsy here, but even whimsy has its serious inhabitants.

Oliver would prefer not to sell the country he only recently became king of, but his ministers give him little choice. Oliver then, in disguise, leads a revolution and has himself deposed by patriots opposed to the Coltor plan. He leaves for Venice with but a trusted aide, where he disguises himself again and falls in with a gang of con-artists headed by a figure naming himself Count St. Germain.

Soon the con-artists have an audacious plan. They will take this new acquaintance of theirs who has such an uncanny resemblance to the former King of Alturia and will train him to impersonate that missing monarch. Oliver, they decide, will pretend to be Oliver VII.

Meanwhile, back at home, the people are finding life without Oliver more difficult than they had imagined…

By now Alturia’s problems were not trivial. With the rejection of the Coltor plan the public finances had sunk to the state of an intractable mess. [The chancellor] had been replaced by the chief accountant of a large bank who, a week later, committed suicide in a fit of book-keeping insanity. He was followed by a wine merchant who fled the country without embezzling a single cent; then a business tycoon, who promptly arranged for his own denunciation, and a university professor who simply disappeared, said to have been lost in the labyrinth of the Exchequer and never seen again.

Like many comic novels Oliver VII in some senses is deeply serious. Here everyone wears a mask of some sort or another, and so naturally they find themselves in Venice. The novel becomes an examination of identity, of how we become who we are and how who we are changes according to who others think we are. Oliver steps beyond convention, represented in part by the heavy and restrictive greatcoat the king is required to wear on all formal occasions, and changes from being a man who is given his part in life (for a king is born to be a king, and has no other options) to one who chooses it.

If you want then, there is plenty here beneath the surface to think about and this is a novel that would easily bear a re-reading. It’s also though a novel with the most marvellous sense of its own absurdity. In Venice Olliver falls in love with a young woman who is part of the team of con-artists. Here he embraces her:

Being French, Marcelle liked to talk in moments of passion.

“Oh Oscar … I love it, you’re like an express train … like a wild sheikh … like a bartender at closing time …”

Oliver VII comes with an extremely well written afterword by translator Len Rix, that throws light both upon its themes and on Szerb’s life. Rix shows too how Oliver VII represents a synthesis of Szerb’s themes in his previous two novels, which Rix also translated. For that reason, I wouldn’t actually suggest this as your first Szerb if you’ve not tried him already. If anything, I’d do not as I did and save this for third. Rix makes a good case for reading Szerb in order, and I rather wish now that I had (I haven’t yet read Journey by Moonlight).

With that small caveat, all that’s really left to say is that it will be remarkable if this doesn’t end up on my end of year list come December. It’s clever, funny, well written and utterly charming. Like Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, and like the Alturian people themselves, it’s a book of “a somewhat dreamy nature, fanciful and poetically inclined.” That’s ok though, because as the Count St. Germain says:

“Long after reinforced concrete has disappeared, the need for adventure will still be with us.”

The Nicholas Lezard review I mentioned can be found here.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Rix, Len (translator), Szerb, Antal

Why distrust what brings you closer?

Count d’Orgel, by Raymond Radiguet

Raymond Radiguet died in 1923 at the age of 20. He left behind him a poetry collection and two novels. He’s a writers’ writer it seems, with fans including Cocteau and Huxley. I’m glad they liked him, because I didn’t.

Radiguet’s two novels are The Devil and the Flesh (which John Self recently kindly sent me a copy of, so that’ll appear on these pages in due course too) and Le Bal de Comte d’Orgel – Count d’Orgel (I would have thought a better translation The Ball of the Count d’Orgel, but I admit that sounds slightly antiquated. I can see why Count d’Orgel’s Ball was avoided, particularly given the subject of the book). Count d’Orgel was published posthumously by Cocteau in 1924, and comes with an afterword by him.

The afterword is short but good value, not least because of a quote it contains from Radiguet’s notes which sets out the essence of Count d’Orgel:

A romance in which it is the psychology that is romantic. The only effort of the imagination is applied not to outside events but to the analysis of feelings. A chaste love story as shocking as the least chaste. Style badly written as elegance must appear to be badly dressed. The social aspect: a useful atmosphere for the portrayal of certain feelings, but not a picture of society; difference to Proust. The background does not count.

It’s an excellent synopsis. So good in fact I wish I’d read it beforehand rather than after, I might have enjoyed the book more. Count d’Orgel is the story of a love triangle between the count, his wife Mahaut and a young man named François de Séryeuse who comes into their circle. François and Mahaut fall in love, but the fact of their love causes the Count to look at his wife afresh and so the married relationship is perhaps strengthened by the possibility of the extra-marital one.

This is a book largely without incident. The ball of the French title is prepared for but the entire book takes place before it. The characters meet, they talk and go to functions, but the action is all internal. Their emotions are what matters, their reflections (often inaccurate) on their own motives. This is very much a psychological novel. It’s the sort of story Stefan Zweig is so fond of. Undercurrents of passion suppressed beneath convention, but which threaten to burst out and to change everything.

So, why didn’t I like it? Well, there were a number of reasons really. I was indifferent to the characters for one. I don’t ask of a novel that I like the characters or that I sympathise with them. I certainly don’t ask that I empathise with them. The best novel I’ve read was Madame Bovary in which there wasn’t a single character I found remotely likeable.

The problem here was that I neither liked nor disliked these characters. I didn’t find them intriguing and nor did I wish to understand them better. I didn’t care whether Mahaut chose François or stayed with the Count. That’s a problem.

The question of course is why I was indifferent. It’s hard to answer. I think though the answer lies in Radiguet’s tendency to overexplain, which I’ll speak more about shortly.

Another issue that distanced me from the novel was its relentless and suffocating snobbery. This isn’t generally an issue for me with fiction. I’ve enjoyed Huxley after all and while I have a colleague at work who couldn’t complete A Dance to the Music of Time due to its particular snobbery (which is definitely present) I was never too concerned by it. What Huxley and Powell have though to compensate for their faults is compassion, a sense of the failings of those they portray. Here the cast of Count d’Orgel seem so utterly self-absorbed in their own sense of importance that such humanity as they had was swallowed by their surfaces.

Here’s an example. In this passage the Princess d’Austerlitz is introduced. Her car has broken down by the gate to an estate where a party is to be held. A crowd has gathered to “admire smart society” as it enters, and the breakdown leaves the princess stranded among them:

Under a gas lamp, in evening dress, with a coronet on her head, Princess d’Austerlitz was directing the repairs, laughing and talking to the mob. She was accompanied by an American lady, Mrs Wayne, who had a great reputation for beauty. Like all society reputations it was exaggerated. Anyone with the least insight could discover that she did not behave like a woman who possessed an assured advantage.
Princess d’Austerlitz was magnificent under the gas lamp which suited her better than the brilliance of electric light. She showed up well among these roughs, as much at ease as if she had always lived in their company. To avoid mentioning a name as showy as hers, everybody called her Hortense, which could imply that she was the friend of everyone, and in fact she was, oexcept of those who did not wish her to be. She was goodness itself. But moralists would perhaps have deplored it in the name of goodness. Certain houses were hostile towards her on account of the looseness of her morals.

So, uninteresting characters and an irresistible sense that those with most merit are those born with it. Much worse than either of these issues though is the one that for me was fatal. Radiguet explains everything.

This is a psychological novel. The entire point is the characters’ mental state. It’s a narrative which calls for subtlety and nuance. Unfortunately, at each stage Radiguet states quite explicitly what the characters each feel, indicates where they are misled as to their own emotions and generally leaves no space in which the reader can draw their own conclusions. I think this is at the heart of the other issues too. I didn’t care about the characters because I was given no space in which to care, no gap to cross to meet them. They were served to me fully prepared.

Here’s a short example:

François was not fully aware of his mother as an aristocrat. He was therefore inclined to exaggerate his personal merit, not realising that if he was received in exclusive houses it was often because of a family air, which other people did not even observe. For instance, in an Orgel’s fancy for François, there was perhaps the pleasure of finding something new in what is familiar.

It’s perhaps ungenerous, but I would have preferred Radiguet to show me how François mistook his station for his own merit, how Orgel’s liking for him was in part a liking for a previously unfamiliar member of his own class. By telling me all that, Radiguet has left me as a reader with nothing to do. It’s worse when the passages in question relate to the characters’ feelings for each other.

A psychological novel of necessity depends on two things: the portrait of the characters’ emotions and the language used to form that portrait. Radiguet is clever in having the driver of the drama being unexpressed desires, he is right that the result is as shocking (if that’s still the right term nearly 90 years later) in its way as expressed desires would be. Perhaps more so. The language though too did not entirely work for me.

Radiguet is exceptionally fond of similes. Things are always like other things. Sufficiently so that I became tired of it and worse began to notice it. Radiguet is known for the economy and beauty of his style, with this the best expression of it. For me though, on this occasion, it was lacking.

There is humour in the book. Much of it though is somewhat laboured. There is a farcical interlude when François is speaking with Mrs Wayne who is trying to seduce him by speaking of love but who he thinks is hinting at his own illicit feelings for Mahaut. It goes on too long for me. There are also passages such as the following:

Mme Forbach was married in 1850 to the Prussian Squire von Forbach, an alcoholic, collector of commas. This collection consisted of checking the number of commas contained in an edition of Dante. The total was never the same. He began again without remission. He was also one of the first to collect stamps, which at that time seemed quite mad.

All that said, it’s by no means all bad (I’m not sure I’m saying it’s bad at all, simply that I didn’t like it). Radiguet does have a nice eye at times for character, the Comte himself being the most interesting example. He’s a man completely at home when in public and on display. His whole persona is shaped around his position, with the result that when passion enters his marriage he is quite at a loss to understand his own response let alone that of others.

When drinking or eating he moved his free hand to prevent anyone interrupting and to impose silence. This gesture had become a tic and he did it even when there was nothing to fear, as today when his wife who never spoke, and François very little, were not dangerous rivals.

Radiguet also shows at times a wry (and intensely French) wit which works much better than his attempts at comic set-pieces. He remarks on how the “harmony of the Count and Countess d’Orgel’s movements expressed an understanding which love or habit alone can produce” and later notes that on a particular occasion “her husband desired her as though she were not his wife.”

Still, I’m left with the fact that the novel bored me. Radiguet sets out here to examine in painstaking detail the emotions of an affair that isn’t. That’s an interesting ambition and he largely succeeds. The chapters are very brief, often only a page or two. We move from scene to scene, the author’s eye observing vignettes and analysing their importance (sometimes with expressions of surprise or uncertainty). The effect is of an early arthouse movie, where the camera denies the viewer the comfort of narrative so forcing them to engage instead with the medium itself.

As I come to the end of this review, I can see why Cocteau, Huxley and others liked this. There is an audience out there for slow and contemplative works which don’t follow established rules of fiction. Sometimes I’m that audience. This time, however, I wasn’t. I’ll keep it around, I have a slight feeling I perhaps massively missed the point. Perhaps I’ll return to it. Perhaps my error was in reading Radiguet when my mood called more for Zweig. Perhaps Radiguet’s error was thinking he was Laclos. He refers to him at one point in the narrative, but I think he still had much to learn from that particular master.

Count d’Orgel. The Pushkin Press translation is by Violet Schiff.

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Filed under French Literature, Novellas, Radiguet, Raymond