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…a dream within a dream… #NovNov22 #germanlitmonth #baronbagge

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I’m continuing my run of shorter works today with a book which not only fits into Novellas in November, but also works for German Lit Month (I love it when I can hit two events with one book!!) This is another book which only arrived recently; I somehow stumbled across it (I think on Twitter) and it had several things going for it. The book is “Baron Bagge” by Alexander Lernet-Holenia; the author’s appeared on the Ramblings before when I covered his “I Was Jack Mortimer“, which I did enjoy. However, “Baron Bagge” had much to immediately commend itself: it comes with an introduction by Patti Smith, and also letters between the author and Stefan Zweig! Needless to say, as soon as I found out about the book, I ordered a copy from Blackwells pronto!!

Lernet-Holenia was, as I said in my review of “Jack Mortimer…”, “Viennese, fighting for Austria-Hungary in the First World War, and going on to become a protegé of the poet Rilke. He was quite a prolific author, taking in novels, poetry and plays (writing one of the latter with Stefan Zweig)…” “BB…” was first published in 1955, and the lovely Penguin Classics edition here was translated into English by Richard and Clara Winston. Set during the First World War, the book follows the story of the titular Baron, a Cavalry Officer fighting in the Carpathian Mountains. Nerves are frayed, his commanding office is on a short fuse and behaving erratically, and Bagge has his doubts when the man in charge orders his forces to ride into battle with Russian artillery. However, as the cavalry charge over a bridge, it appears that they have swept to victory, with the Russians completely routed and Bagge’s comrades unscathed. But as they pass on through the suddenly calm land, it becomes clear that all cannot be as it seems…

Forgive me — I’m growing forgetful. That’s what happens to us when we grow old; we become forgetful and confuse everything, times and women. Luckily, by the time old age overtakes us, we no longer have wives; otherwise, they would be angry with us all the time. For truth to tell, we are no longer sure who is still alive and who is already dead; we’re no longer even sure about ourselves.

For a start, Bagge’s comrades in arms are behaving uncharacteristically; there is no sign of opposing troops anywhere; and when the group arrive at the small town of Nagy Mihaly they are astonished to find it packed with merrymakers, all acting as if there is no conflict. Sentries are set up, but see no hostile forces; and then Bagge discovers that old family friends are still living nearby, including the daughter of the house, Charlotte, a young woman to whom Bagge’s mother had often wished he would get married. The attraction between the pair is instant, and it’s clear that they are completely in love. However, the course of true love never did run smooth, and the cryptic remarks of his fellow officers combined with the lack of any enemy troops creates tensions and confusion – how will the lovers fare in such an uncertain world?

Perhaps I would even have conceived of you in dreams if you had never been. Isn’t it said that we always dream only of beings who do not exist? So I might have been disappointed when I saw you at last. But true feeling cannot be disappointed by anything, for it is self-engendered and has little to do with the object. You have simply become for me the person of whom I dreamed. You have become that by chance, if there is such a thing as chance.

I have to say that I found “Baron Bagge” to be a dream of a novella in more ways than one! For a start it really is beautifully written; having fought in the First World War himself, it’s to be imagined that Lernet-Holenia knew what he was talking about when it came to the action and military aspects of the story. However, the nature of the story he was telling required more than accuracy, and it’s the wonderful capturing of atmosphere and conjuring of setting which really stood out for me here. As the Baron and his troops stumble through the misty mountainous landscape, the narrative becomes remarkably unsettling, and the haunting dreamlike quality of the prose has the reader wondering with the Baron whether they are still in the real world or some strange other realm between worlds. The end can perhaps be guessed by the astute reader, but it’s no less heartbreaking for that; and despite the final conclusion, there is definitely the sense that love conquers all and will endure.

As I mentioned, appended to the novella is a letter from Stefan Zweig to Lernet-Holenia, and two from the latter back to Zweig. It’s clear that Zweig thought very highly of “Baron Bagge”, and I can see why. It’s a hypnotic tale of a strange and impossible love, one that’s impossible for different reasons to the last novella I read; yet despite that, those loves seem stronger than the things which defeat them. It’s a beautiful and unforgettable story, the landscapes of which are quite haunting; and this is another novella which is going to stay with me.

Again, “Baron Bagge” could easily be read in one sitting, and I pretty much did that with it, only pausing for a while because I wanted what I’d read to sink in a bit. And while I was reading it, I had a real panic because I thought I’d donated “Jack Mortimer…” during a recent purge… Well, I had put it in a box to go, but fortunately it hadn’t gone yet, so the book is rescued. “Baron Bagge” is a brilliant and memorable novella, and I may have to go off and explore more Lertnet-Holenia… 😉🙄

“Around midnight she had been awoken by a gentle knocking…” #GermanLitMonth #MmedeScuderi

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November, apart from everything else going on, is German Lit Month, this year hosted by lovely Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume 2) – you can find out more on her site here. This is an event I always like to take part in, and I was determined to do so this year; there’s also Non-Fiction November and Novellas in November, and pleasingly today’s slim volume counts for the latter of those two events! As you may have noticed from my October round-up, I did actually finish this book last month – but as usual I’m playing catch up with reviews! Anyway, on to today’s book, which is “Mademoiselle de Scuderi” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Andrew Brown for my Alma Classics 101 Pages edition; and Lizzy is also responsible for this as it was her review of the book which convinced me I should read it…

Hoffmann is, of course, famous for his fantasy and Gothic horror stories, often collected as “Tales of Hoffmann”; and “Scuderi..” was first published in 1819, becoming an instant success. It’s apparently still one of Hoffmann’s most highly regarded works and its not hard to see why. The story is set in Paris, during the reign of King Louis XIV, and the city is in the grip of a crimewave. A band of thieves appear to be attacking citizens and stealing their jewels, often resorting to murder to get hold of the booty. Alongside this, a series of poisonings has taken place, and the king has established a special court to investigate the crimes. Unfortunately, the man tasked with investigating has more zeal than sense, establishing a reign of terror and not really getting to the bottom of the things.

Enter Mademoiselle de Scudéri, an elderly poetess who is a favourite of the king and his mistress. One night, a frantic young man comes to her house and pleads to see her, but her maid keeps her from seeing the poetess. The young man escapes into the night, leaving a piece of jewellery behind him; and thus Mme de Scuderi is drawn into the plot which will turn out to be much more complex than you might initially think! The piece of jewellery turns out to has been made by the master craftsman Cardillac; but how has it got to the young man and the Mme de Scuderi? Who *is* the young man? Who is behind the crimes? And will Mme de Scuderi be able to ensure that justice is done?

Despite its short length, “Scuderi…” is packed with action, and has a wonderfully conjured historical setting! It’s been hailed as one of the earliest examples of a murder mystery, and it’s not hard to see why; there’s a lot of detecting and investigating done in the story, albeit not in the traditional Golden Age manner and within the societal structure of France of the time. But there’s also plenty of drama, romance, Gothic terror and also the fear of injustice. Certainly, the king’s investigators are thorough and brutal, and once they have a culprit they believe is guilty they’re immoveable. It takes all Mme de Scuderi’s talents to get to the truth of things and the denouement is perhaps unexpected but very satisfying.

As far as I’m aware, this is the first Hoffmann I’ve read and I really enjoyed it; brimming with drama and atmosphere, it was a wonderfully distracting little novella and evidence of Hoffmann’s skill as a storyteller. I also sensed undercurrents, as it’s possible to read into Hoffmann’s narratives criticism of a way of rule which depends so much on the whims of a monarch, as well as the moral of the investigator who is anything but willing to consider an alternative to his conclusions. The portrayal of the ‘criminal’, too, is fascinating, with quite a lot of psychological depth. All in all, this was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, and it’s definitely left me keen to read more of Hoffmann’s work!

I’m counting this read for two events in November – the aforementioned German Literature Month, and also Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746Books and Bookish Beck! 😀

A character in need of a new author @nyrbclassics #germanlitmonth

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Charles Bovary, Country Doctor by Jean Amery
Translated by Adrian Nathan West

Well – I’ve managed to clamber out of the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole for the time being (although I *am* still reading Baudelaire’s poems!), and I’ve been sidetracked rather unexpectedly off to France. Yes, I know I have a pile of French Revolution books lurking, and yes I know that this one wasn’t on it (it’s a lovely review copy from NYRB). But there are unexpected resonances with 1789 in what is really a rather unusual work…

Amery himself is a fascinating character; born Hans Maier in Vienna (his father was Jewish and his mother half-Jewish, half Catholic), he fled the Nazis to France and then Belgium, where he joined the Resistance. Surviving torture and Auschwitz, he went on to write under the pen-name Jean Amery and probably his most famous work is “At the Mind’s Limits”, a collection of autobiographical essays looking at his state of being as a Holocaust victim and survivor. “Charles Bovary…” might seem to be a very different kind of book, but there are certainly parallels.

The book is subtitled “Portrait of a Simple Man” and takes up the story of the titular doctor after the death of his wife, Emma, the main protagonist of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. The initial pages, a heartbreaking monologue from Charles depicting his grief at her death, are actually acutely painful and difficult to read; here is a man’s suffering laid bare, with the loss of his wife almost too much for him to cope with. The child has lost her mother; the husband his wife; and Charles Bovary is revealed as a man almost obsessed with his love for Emma and his physical need for her. This grief leads him to meditate on the events which led up to her death; her infidelities; his failures as a man and a husband; and his inability to give her the kind of love and romance she craved. However, Amery takes the book in an unusual direction by blending these monologues with essays of his own on the whole Bovary story; and he begins to state a case for Charles having been given a very raw deal by his creator.

The lines between Charles and Amery become blurred, and the latter clearly has issues with Gustave Flaubert and his portrayal of the cuckolded M. Bovary as a pathetic and laughable creature who deserves what is meted out to him. Not only does Amery find Charles unconvincing as a character, calling into question Flaubert’s art and the claims made for it as realist fiction; he also sees Bovary as anything but realistic and goes on to critique not only Flaubert’s writing but also his intellectual heritage and legacy, finding him a lesser artist than his protegé Maupassant.

At the heart of Amery’s issue is his belief that Charles Bovary could never have existed as Flaubert portrayed him. He reminds the reader that Flaubert was an incorrigible haut bourgeois who was dependent on his father’s money, whereas Charles was a petit bourgeois self-made man; yet the latter is portrayed as a clod even though he had fought against his limitations and made his way in the world. Amery offers alternative, much more convincing scenarios of how such a man would have been, how he would have behaved in the situations Flaubert created, and finds the latter’s imagination to be very wanting. Taking a wider view of French fiction, he even takes Flaubert to task for nothing less than betraying the French Revolution in denying Charles the rights fought for during the conflict of liberté, égalité, fraternité, “the undying principles of 1789” as he reminds us. Amery rails against Charles’ passive acceptance of lesser status as unworthy of a man who is the product of a country which had killed its monarchs, arguing that a more convincing rendering would have been of a man who knew that he was equal to any other.

What we see before us is a man from the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philiipe. The great adventures of the French nation have come to an end; the universal allure of the Revolution, the imperial-pathetic escapade of Napoleon 1, the Grand Armee dreamer, have run their course. In Waterloo, the eagle, rapacious hunter and heraldic seal, is beheaded; only once more will he rise from the ashes as the outsized general with the oddly small mouth uttering phrases that are the grandest, most solemn literature, before flying off and vanishing forever in the heavens.

In many ways, Amery believes the creation and ultimate fate of Charles Bovary was Gustave Flaubert’s reckoning with the bourgeoisie from which he never escaped. However, his re-working requires acceptance of the possibility of a very different Charles Bovary: one who would have been capable of being a passionate lover; one who could have sent his wife’s lovers packing; one who could have answered back those who bullied him during his life; and one who was so physically obsessed by the beauty of his wife that masturbation and necrophilia crop up as subjects in Amery’s revision of his character.

Do you need to have read “Madame Bovary” to fully appreciate Amery’s book? Well, yes… I read it some time ago and my memories are minimal, so I did check out a plot summary online – which is probably not sufficient to take in all the nuances of the original or to appreciate all Amery’s points. And I need to add a caveat I think. Flaubert’s book is focused on a female character and her needs; this aspect is perhaps diminished by Amery’s reading of it and it’s a focus for which Flaubert should be congratulated. In an era when women’s choices were still very restricted he gave female desires a voice. For the story which Flaubert wanted to tell it was necessary for Charles to be stolid and stupid; although Amery in some ways disputes the point of “Madame B…” as in the end there is a predictable inevitability in the fact that the transgressing women has to be punished in a way that will satisfy the moralists.

“Charles Bovary…” was an intriguing, if at times complex, read. The book is very much an intellectual exercise and your response to it will depend on how willing you are to follow Amery down his path and accept his reinterpretation and reworking of the characters of Gustave Flaubert. Certainly, it’s a fascinating piece of work which left me with much to think about as well as many questions about how much we trust our authors – and whether we should be a lot more critical of how they treat their characters!

Review kindly provided by NYRB, with many thanks to Emma O’Bryen.

*****

I’m claiming this book for German Lit Month too; I hadn’t realised till I picked it up that Amery wrote in that language, so that makes three unexpected and unplanned entries for the reading month. Not like me to manage to participate…. 😉

Additionally, after finishing “CB”, it occurred to me that I had owned a copy of “At the Mind’s Limits” and that I had probably purged it in my recent attempts to downsize the amount of books in the house. However, I had a dig and found that it was still lurking in a donation box:

It had been sitting on my Primo Levi shelf for some time; I’m not sure if I have the moral and intellectual courage for it at the moment, as the world we’re living in seems so full of intolerance and hatred that I’m rather afraid I will see the present reflected in the past. But we shall see; it’s certainly been reprieved from the donate pile…

November Reading – To plan or not to plan?

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That is indeed the question! October was most unusual for me, in that I structured and planned my posts and reading quite strictly, owing to the 1924 Club. Normally, I rebel against that kind of thing; but maybe because the books were so appealing, or maybe because it just fitted in with my lifestyle and reading for that fortnight, somehow the reading and posting flowed beautifully for me. In fact, I could have read many more 1924 books – and perhaps November will see me doing this!

Some possibles for German Lit Month!

Some possibles for German Lit Month!

It’s German Literature Reading Month, hosted by Caroline at Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life, and there are many, many tempting titles calling to me – Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” is one of those (I won a copy from Lizzy’s lovely giveaway) and this would not only tick the German Lit box, but would also carry on the 1924 trend as it was published in that year. I have a number of reviews to catch up on, and there’s also Christa Wolf Week from 8th to 14th November. Whether I will get to all this remains to be seen, as I’m currently having a bit of a translated crime fiction fling. I’ve finished the next Penguin Modern Poets volume too, so there’s the next one of those to tackle.

wolf 2

My Christa Wolf books.

So plenty of nice books in the pipeline – watch this space!

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