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“…right now the other nations are just cheating us Germans…” #MH20 @MelvilleHouse #EternalPhilistine

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Today on the blog I’m delighted to be kicking off a series of celebrations for the indie publisher Melville House Press on the occasion of their 20th anniversary! MHP is based in New York and issues a wide range of works; on the Ramblings I’ve previously covered books from their Art of the Novella and Neversink Library series, with authors from Irmgard Keun and the Strugatsky brothers to the eponymous Herman Melville; and I confess I still have a few unread on the TBR… However, they also publish works covering just about all of the genres – do check out their website! Anyway, when I was invited to take part in the celebrations, I decided to focus on one of the Neversink titles from an author new to me: the book is “The Eternal Philistine”, written by Ödön von Horváth and translated by Benjamin Dorvel.

Von Horváth was an Austro-Hungarian author, son of a Hungarian diplomat, and his family was always on the move. He studied in Vienna and Munich; began writing plays in German; and settled in Berlin, where his plays were raved about by everyone except the Nazis. Inevitably, the rise of the Fascists led to him relocating to Vienna, Budapest and finally Paris. It was here that his untimely death took place when he was sheltering under a tree in a rainstorm; a lightning strike brought down a branch which killed him outright at the age of only 36. Despite his youth, he’d published 21 plays and three novels (of which “Philistine” is the first), so his death was a tragic loss.

“Philistine” is set in Europe between the two World Wars and the main focus is on one Alfons Kobler, a failed car salesman who dominates the first of the three parts of the novel. The world is in a strange, unstable state thanks to the aftermath of the first conflict and the forthcoming war which is regularly signalled throughout the book. Therefore Kobler, who wishes for a comfortable life, attempts to make his living in all manner of ways, including sponging off women. After conning a poor sap into paying over the odds for a clapped out car, he has a moment of inspiration and decides to travel to the World’s Fair in Barcelona. Here, he hopes, he will meet a beautiful, rich woman (preferably Egyptian…) who will keep him in the style he deserves. As you might guess, things won’t be quite as easy as that…

For a starts, there’s the journey itself; the train takes a bizarre route from Germany to Spain, which has endless changes and for some reason travels via Italy – even someone as geographically challenged as I am can see that that’s a bit silly. En route, Kobler meets a strange and often disturbing array of characters who are xenophobic, dishonest and frankly a bit mad. Eventually Kobler and one of his fellow travellers encounter a beautiful and rich woman who’s also on her way to Spain; will Kobler’s plan work out or will wealth and luxury elude him?

The second section of the book follows the adventures of Anna Pollinger (who appeared briefly in the first part), one of many who found themselves out of work in the unstable financial situation in Europe of the time. Anna’s search for a job leads her to a try at modelling for an artist, which does not go so well. She soon comes to realise that she has one asset to sell, and thereby takes control of her own destiny… As for part three, in this section Anna meets an unemployed Austrian man who fails to recognise her profession. But one good turn deserves another, and he may be able to offer her some help, allowing the book to end on a note of hope.

It has to be said that von Horváth was a very funny writer, and this is a wonderfully dark and satirical book. It gleefully punctures the conventions of the time, and reveals how most of the characters really are philistines, with no love or understanding of art or culture, ready to switch political allegience at the drop of a hat, and desperately bigoted. The drily witty narrative allows the protagonists to reveal themselves in all their awfulness, but it’s never done in a slapstick fashion – von Horváth is too subtle an author for that. In contrast to Kobler and his cronies, however, the author hints at more sympathy for Anna who may be a philistine because she’s forced to sell herself, but as an impoverished women of that time and place really has no choice.

The novel is cleverly constructed so that the three section are linked by characters, and it’s a wonderfully entertaining read. However, there’s inevitably that underlying darkness; this is a world where anti-semitism is taking over, where fascism is rampant in both Germany and Italy, and there are many references to the ‘next war’; bearing in mind the book was published in 1930, this is worryingly prescient. The world portrayed here reminded me a little of that reflected in the books of Irmgard Keun (who’s also published by MHP), and it does seem that Germany in the 1930s was a very uncomfortable place to be. One particularly interesting matter which comes up regularly in the discussions of the characters is whether any kind of ‘Pan-Europe’ is possible (presaging, I suppose, the eventual formation of the Common Market and the EU). Of course, it wasn’t going to happen in the 1930s though as we know Europe eventually pulled itself together for a while; alas, some rather foolish country decided to pull out, but that’s another topic…

As you might have gathered, I thought “Philistine” was a marvellous read; funny, satirical, dark, and very entertaining, I would highly recommend it. It surprises me that von Horváth is not better known (or maybe he is, and I just hadn’t stumbled across him yet). His short life was highly prolific, and as well as the three novels published in his lifetime, there is apparently an earlier (untranslated) one issued posthumously. “Philistine” is wonderfully translated by Benjamin Dorvel (kudos to MHP for naming him on the cover of my copy!) and comes with a hugely entertaining introduction by Shalom Auslander who berates all of our friends for not reading this book when we encourage them to! I can see his point – Ödön von Horváth’s wonderful book “The Eternal Philistine” was a treat from start to finish, and MHP are to be applauded for issuing its first translation into English. It’s a perfect illustration of why they’re such a successful indie publisher and I can only hope my post will encourage you to check it out!

The 20th anniversary celebrations for Melville House Press will be continuing until 2nd June and as you can see from the graphic, there are some great books and bloggers involved; do check them out and explore MHP’s catalogue – there are some excellent books and authors to be discovered!

“Only poets are innocent enough to invent such monstrosities” #baudelaire @melvillehouse

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Despite the teetering piles of the TBR, I can never resist procuring new books and they certainly haven’t stopped trickling into the Ramblings recently… They tend to suffer one of two fates: either joining the piles and getting lost in there forever (or for quite a while) or getting picked up and read pretty rapidly. Today’s book is one of the latter; I had been intending to pick up a copy for absolutely ages, as it’s Baudelaire! and prose! but somehow hadn’t. However, I stumbled across a reasonably-priced copy and as I was in the middle of reading some chunky volumes for Shiny New Books, it seemed the ideal distraction between a couple of these. The book in question is “Fanfarlo”, translated by Edward K. Kaplan and released in the Melville House Press ‘Art of the Novella’ series; and it’s fascinating.

As well as being a stunning poet, Baudelaire was also a writer of prose, and I have a collection of his writings on art, as well as “Paris Spleen” and others. However, “Fanfarlo” is rather special as it’s his only piece of prose fiction and was written a decade before his masterwork, “The Flowers of Evil”. An intense 61 pages long, it tells a story which really does seem to mirror that of its author; of an obsessive love affair which will change the life of the protagonist forever.

… Samuel was, more than all the others, the man of failed works of beauty;- a fantastical and sickly creature, whose poetry shines forth much more in his person than his works…

The protagonist is one Samuel Cramer; a poet, dandy and aesthete, he becomes embroiled in a situation with a childhood friend. She is Mme de Cosmelly, and her husband is obsessed with the titular Fanfarlo, a beautiful burlesuque dancer. Cramer is charged with seducing her himself, persuading her away from M de Cosmelly; however, all does not go as planned, and Samuel finds himself falling under Fanfarlo’s spell. Quite what effect this will have on his life and his work remains to be seen…

… he gave her his volume The Ospreys, a collection of sonnets, like those everyone has written and everyone has read, at the age when our judgement was so short and our hair so long.

As I mentioned above, “Fanfarlo” is reckoned to be drawn from Baudelaire’s complex relationship with the dancer Jeanne Duval, and if this is a self-portrait of the poet in his youth, it’s certainly a fascinating one. Samuel is a wonderfully entertaining and very complex character; oscillating between laziness and ambition, constantly drawn to shiny new things and experiences, he seems, in fact, no match for the women he meets. Fanfarlo, though, is a bit of a puzzle; in some ways less defined than Samuel, she’s a sensual and hot-blooded character, and likely to hijack his artistic ambitions. The result of the collision of these two forces of nature plays out in what might be the expected manner, and the narrator/author perhaps seems a little disappointed at this! Interestingly, Mme de Cosmelly is a more rounded character, and Baudelaire allows her to express some very modern and strong views about the education of women, allowing them to be given much more knowledge of the vices of men so they can approach adulthood and a marriage with a clear view of reality.

Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862 – Public Domain

“Fanfarlo” was such an interesting read, and was enhanced very much by the extra material which is accessible after purchasing the book. I have several of these MHP ‘Art of the Novella’ editions (they’re so lovely) and the publisher describes them as a ‘hybrid book’. There is a link in the back (or a QR Code to scan) which takes you to a PDF containing some wonderful addition information to support the reading of the book. There are images, biographical extracts and discussions of the work itself which make interesting reading in themselves as well as adding to the experience of reading “Fanfarlo”. I don’t know that I’ve actually accessed any of these before, despite, as I mentioned, owning a number of books in the series – that’s something I need to check out soon…

So this acquisition turned out to definitely be worth the wait! I love Baudelaire’s writing and this translation worked well for me (apart from the occasionally Americanism…) The poet seems to love self-deprecation, mocking his alter-ego regularly, although I found myself wondering about how he would feel later on in real life, seeing how his relationship with Duval played out. The prose was very beautiful, and on the evidence of “Fanfarlo” I rather wish Baudelaire had written more fiction… Highly recommended, particularly in this lovely edition with the extra material!

 

Beneath an Iron Heel

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The Graveyard by Marek Hłasko
Translated by Norbert Guterman

Life under Soviet rule is something that turns up in an awful lot of books I’ve read; but I don’t know that I’ve come across one as bleak and dark as “The Graveyard” by Marek Hłasko. It’s a Melville House Books Neversink Library edition, and I finally picked it up after looking at it on several subsequent visits to London. It’s taken me a while to get to it, as I suspected it might be a difficult read; well, it was in places, but definitely worth it.

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Marek Hłasko (14 January 1934 – 14 June 1969) was a Polish writer who lived through some of the most turbulent years of the country’s history and died young, leaving quite a legend behind him (some of which is disputed, according to Wikipedia.) A non-conformist for much of his life, he came to fame during the 1950s and his work was controversial, leading to confrontations with the authorities and the police, and spells in psychiatric clinics. Much of his later life was spent wandering the globe, flitting through Germany, France and even Los Angeles. He died in Wiesbaden and the circumstances of his death are apparently unclear. “The Graveyard” was his third novel, and like much of his work was considered unpublishable in Communist Poland.

The protagonist of “The Graveyard” is Franciszek Kowalski, a factory worker and a good party member. One night he meets an old comrade from the partisan army he fought in, and they get very drunk together. And on his way home he has a fateful encounter with some young policemen, shouting insults at them that he can’t even remember the next day. He’s hauled into the police station and spends a humiliating night there before being released. This is his turning point, and that one night leads to him being expelled from the party, losing his job and his family and setting out on a kind of personal odyssey.

The only way Kowalski can see to rehabilitate himself is to get testimonials from his old comrades, those whom he fought alongside in the name of the Communist cause. However, as he sets out on his journey through the city to find them, he discovers that they have all changed in ways he hadn’t expected and that life under the iron heel of Communist rule is enough to change anyone…

Ah, Franciszek, we wanted to take the road to life, and we’ve come to a graveyard; we talked about justice, and all we know is terror and despair … History has no use for witnesses.

“The Graveyard” turned out to be a remarkable powerful book and very different to how I’d expected. What starts off as relatively straightforward story takes a turn into a kind of Kafkaesque labyrinth, as Kowalski makes his way through the decaying city; and the book ends up telling an utterly devastating tale. As he goes in search of his comrades from the past, the journey almost seems mythical, and the horrors he encounters on the way give witness to the effects of a totalitarian regime.

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The imagery Hłasko uses is stunning; Kowalski encounters children in chains (apparently for their own safety but symbolic of so much more), and the city itself is totally ruined and squalid, in contrast to the image projected by the state. Interestingly, the book was rejected by the publishers with the statement “This Poland doesn’t exist” and I imagine that no regime would have wished to acknowledge a country with cities falling apart and citizens living in hunger and fear.

There are chilling portrayals of political meetings where there is such a culture of suspicion and mistrust that it is impossible to function normally or understand what’s happening around you. And this extends into Kowalski’s private life, where his children are affected by what’s happened to their father; it’s very clear that the personal does not count, only the party, in a way that’s reminiscent of “Nineteen Eighty Four”. The book ends with final, fateful encounter with a policeman from the beginning of the story, and I was left with a feeling of horror at the cruelty and absurdity of totalitarian political systems. Kowalski had given his all in the name of a cause he believed in, a search for equality and a better world, and that belief had been completely betrayed; his past commitment, and that of his lost comrades, counted for nothing.

“The Graveyard” turned out to be a wonderfully written, bleak and remarkably powerful work; not a happy read, perhaps, but a necessary one and a stark reminder of the kind of society we should *not* allow human beings to set up. I’m glad I chose to pick this book up now, and I’m very keen to see if there are any more of Hłasko’s works available; if they’re anything like this one, they’ll definitely be worth reading.

Dystopian and surreal…

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The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

I’ve always considered myself as someone who reads quite widely, particularly with the variety of translated literature that’s on my shelf. However, when Melville House Press kindly offered me a copy of their new book “The Queue” (released today) I realised that there was a gap; the book is by Egyptian author Basma Abdel Aziz, and I’m struggling to think of another writer from that country whom I’ve read.

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Abdel Aziz is described by MHP as ‘an Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, and visual artist. Early on, she earned the nickname ‘the rebel’ for her indefatigable struggle against injustice, torture, and corruption. A weekly columnist for Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper, she represents a fresh and necessary female voice in Arabic journalism and fiction. She is the winner of the Sawiris Cultural Award, the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces award, and the Ahmed Bahaa-Eddin Award. She lives in Cairo.’

That’s quite an inspirational CV, and “The Queue” is her first novel. Set in a nameless middle eastern country, it tells the story of a group of people living under a totalitarian regime, ruled by The Gate. Emerging from a time of unrest, the country was suddenly brought back into line by the mysterious Gate and its forces, and it issues decrees and tightly controls what happens. Applications for anything, from the most minor thing to major needs, have to be made there in person, and as The Gate has not opened for some time, a queue has built up of people waiting in line to make their requests.

Most important amongst them is Yehya, the main character, a wounded man carrying a bullet inside him that could be considered as the most important bullet in the world. Yehya received it during the Disgraceful Events, a recent popular uprising; but despite its existence, the authorities deny that any bullets were fired on citizens, and mysteriously all records, x-rays or knowledge of bullets has disappeared. Nevertheless, Yehya is gradually bleeding to death, and if he doesn’t get treatment his condition will deteriorate irreparably.

But to get the required permits for the operation, Yehya will have to join the queue and make a request, and so he does. The queue itself is a kind of microcosm for society, really, with a variety of people in it waiting patiently (or impatiently!) to make their requests. There is Um Mabrouk, a mother desperate to obtain treatment for one of her surviving children; Ines, a teacher who doesn’t know when to keep quiet and often says the wrong thing; the man in the galabeya, a fervent preacher with strong views about how women should behave; Shalaby, who regards his dead cousin Mahfouz as an unsung hero and is petitioning to have this recognised; and the head nurse from the hospital, Alfat, who may or may not be able to help track down Yehya’s x-ray. Circling the queue and dropping in and out of it are Amani, Yehya’s feisty girlfriend, Nagy, his best friend and Ehab, a curious journalist who recognises that the bullet may be a crucial piece of evidence.

A whole little world builds up around the queue, with many spending most of their time there. But all the time they are being watched – and recorded, too, as a phone scam by the Violet Telecoms Company reveals. Some are bold in their condemnation of the way things are in the country, others retreat into religion and very little is certain in this shifting landscape. But the most important thing is whether Yehya will manage to get treatment in time to remove his bullet…

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“The Queue” is a fascinating, quite wonderful read; it contains a vision of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with endless paperwork, permits, rules and regulations as well as the titular queue itself, endless and constantly expanding. Set alongside this is the Orwellian totalitarian state; controlling everything, denying events which have happened, and with seemingly limitless powers to observe and record the behaviour of its citizens. The framing structure of the book is Yehya’s medical file, a source of obsession to the doctor Tarek, which he constantly refers back to whilst trying to decide if he dares help Yehya. The various documents in it are chilling in their differences from reality, and at one point the file almost seems to be writing itself… Tarek himself is pivotal to the story, as his crisis of morality as to whether to operate on Yehya without authorisation or not represents the choices constantly having to be made in this country.

This is a society of extremes; the choices for women here are shown to be starkly limited, depending on the attitudes of those around them. They’re shown to be vulnerable to random harassment, either from passing drunkards or religious types. In the end, one is seduced by the apparent safety of religion and chooses marriage; one is marked by her experiences and can only cope by lying to herself; and one (only referred to as the “woman with the short hair”) continues to campaign for justice. Torture, something that the author has campaigned against, is referred to only obliquely, most obviously in one section dealing with a kind of sensory deprivation suffered by Amani, after a failed attempt to obtain Yehya’s x-rays from the main hospital; but it’s all the more effective for being done off camera. This way, we observe the effects upon her and, chillingly, cannot even begin to imagine what she’s been through. What’s also frightening is watching the control tighten on the populace through restrictions filtering down from above; the media is totally sanitised, no dissenting voices are allowed in the newspapers and anyone with any kind of position of authority will say black is white if required to.

I came to “The Queue” not knowing quite what to expect; and what I found was a remarkable book that deals with the human condition in extreme circumstances. Nothing here is logical or straightforward, and yet still people muddle through as best they can, trying to carry on a normal life in a surreal landscape. It may be this adaptability in humans that allows regimes like this to survive, as most of us would prefer to just get on with things than take a strong stance against what we feel is wrong. Basma Abdel Aziz is a brave person and this is a brave, important and excellent book – highly recommended.

(Review copy provided by Melville House Press – for which many thanks!)

The art of passive resistance

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Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

I suppose if you compared the size of Melville’s “Moby Dick” (over 600 pages) with his “Bartleby the Scrivener” (64 pages) you might be inclined to consider it a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous (or the other way round!) Certainly, I’ve never been particularly drawn to a long volume about a man battling with a whale; however, “Bartleby” slipped into vision when I was reading George Perec’s wonderful “LIfe: A User’s Manual”, as the character was apparently part-inspiration for Bartlebooth, one of Perec’s main protagonists. Somehow, the name popped up again recently and I tracked down a very pretty and quite appropriate Melville House Press ‘Art of the Novella’ version recently as I had a sudden need to read it (as you do!)

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The story is subtitled “A Tale of Wall Street” and it’s set in that very location during the 1890s. Our narrator is a lawyer with an office on Wall Street, a successful one at that. He employs two scriveners plus an office boy called Ginger-Nut. The two scriverners have some rather strange characteristics of their own and so our narrator decides to employ another – enter Bartleby, a pale, quiet young man about whom we (and the lawyer) know absolutely nothing.

Things go well at first: Bartleby is placed behind a screen in the lawyer’s office and writes away efficiently. It’s worth reminding ourselves of what a task it must have been in offices in the past, with no technology, no computers or even typewriters – so that everything was done by hand, and a complex, 500 page legal document would have to be written out as many times as was required. So the scrivener’s job was an important, but probably mind-numbingly dull, employment.

The crunch comes when the lawyer asks Bartleby to come and read through a document with him to check all is correct (a regular occurrence when dealing with hand-written documents). Bartleby’s classic reply is “I prefer not to”, with no other comment. He won’t answer questions about why, simply repeating his statement over and over again. His boss and fellow workers can’t understand why, and initially try to work round it. However, as the tale continues the situation deteriorates and Bartleby begins to make a gradual withdrawal from the world.

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I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from “Bartleby” but I got a fascinating and affecting tale, showing the strength of passive resistance. In many ways this seems to be a very prescient book – Bartleby is part of the early rat-race, stuck at a desk all day with a sea of paperwork, which it could be argued is no good occupation for a human being. So his rejection of the modern world of law and business could be seen as some kind of existential crisis. But the book is also something of an unsolved mystery in that we don’t know who Bartleby is, where he came from, what motivates him or anything. He could be a symbol of the little man, crushed under the wheels of big business, making a small stand against it and actually causing it some problems.

And that’s actually a demonstration of Melville’s achievement. You come out of this novel with half a dozen theories, your thoughts well and truly provoked – which is hopefully what Melville intended! I shall keep ruminating on this one (along with reading the helpful extra material MHP provide to go along with the book). Apparently Melville was roundly criticised for this novella, so obviously it was very ahead of its time. But I found it moving and strange and unforgettable – highly recommended!

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