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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! 😀

“…frequently contradictory interpretations…” #novnov #gilbertadair #thedeathoftheauthor

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November is a month bursting with challenges, and as I said in my October round-up post, I hope to take part at least in Novellas in November and German Lit Month and maybe even Margaret Atwood Reading Month. But we shall see – I know bad I am about sticking with plans. However, let’s start off the month in a positive way with a novella! “The Death of the Author” by Gilbert Adair is 135 pages in my edition, so the perfect candidate – and it’s a most unusual and thought provoking read. I picked the book up earlier in the year, and as usual can’t recall what prompted me to do so (my memory seems to get more sieve-like by the day…) However, I’ve seen the book described as a satirical look at literary cults, and it’s apparently based on a real person, so I felt inclined to explore…

My second hand copy of the book with an interesting ‘inclusion’ – would love to know the history behind this!

The book is narrated by Leopold Sfax, a critic, theorist and philospher. As the book opens, he’s approached by a woman who plans to write his biography and this throws up a number of problems. Sfax is a emigre Frenchman with an aristocratic background and a hidden history of collaboration in Paris during WW2. Having escaped his country post-War, he’s made a new life in the USA and managed to keep his past buried, while carving out fame as an academic for his “Theory”. A pompous and self-important man, his narrative style and use of language certainly remind this reader a little of Nabokov…

Sfax is reluctant to reveal much of his past, but then doubles back and repeats himself and then expands. Gradually his story is exposed, and the risk is that the facts will become widely known. However, shocking murders occur which shake his academic setting – are these deaths connected with Sfax, and will a solution be found?

Words are far older and fickler and more experienced than the writers who suffer under the delusion that they are ‘using’ them. Words have been around. No one owns them, no one can prescribe how they ought to be read, and most certainly not their author.

That little summary makes the book sound a lot more straightforward than it actually is, because there’s so much going on beneath the surface here. The ‘death of the author’ is of course a concept explored by Roland Barthes in a 1967 essay, where he in effect says that the text must be considered as completely separate from whoever wrote it to avoid limitation of the text. It’s an influential idea which has been discussed, explored, accepted and rejected over the decades, and when I finally get round to reading it I’ll let you know what I think…

Anyway, Adair, takes things a step further with what is perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator; this text is apparently written by Sfax, existing on his computer, but as we are faced with potentially the literal death of the author, who is writing the text? Is it pure fantasy? Will his secrets ever be publicly known? Did Sfax ever really exist? And so on! It’s a fascinating concept which makes really interesting reading, even if it does boggle your head a bit at times!

As I mentioned earlier, the character of Sfax is apparently based on a real person, the Belgian critic, Paul de Man, who died before knowledge of his past escaped. This adds another layer to the reading of this text, as the fictional Sfax (a Nabakovian name if ever I heard one) and the real de Man could well be considered one and the same. As for the actual ‘death’ of the author, or even his existence, that’s left unresolved at the end of the book and the conclusion may well have you nipping back to the start of the book to reconsider what you’ve read! Whatever else it may be – literary spoof, Nabakovian satire, ripost to Barthes – “The Death of the Author” is a clever and memorable book about which I’m still thinking – and about which I may never be able to draw any concrete conclusions!

November – a month with lots of reading events…..

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It seems impossible somehow that we’re up to November; it has been a manic year for me, and October was a particularly tricky month, dealing with frantic times at work and also sorting out stuff around the health of my Aged Parent. Books have therefore been something of a refuge again, and these are the ones I read during the previous month:

As you can see I am even further behind with my reviewing than usual! But it was a good reading month with only one book which didn’t inspire, and so I’m happy with that.

However, as I mentioned in my heading to this post, November is a month with many, many reading events – some of which I shall be taking part in, although I have mostly read the books in question in advance! Here are some of the events I know about!

Those are just a few – I think there are more – and I have read a little for these so I can take part. As for the rest of the month, as usual I’ll let my mood take me where it will, and I do have plenty of choices! There are a good number of review books pending, and here’s just a selection:

Then there are other lovely books on the immediate TBR, and I’d happily pick up any of these next:

I’ll also be taking part in a blog tour for the British Library Women Writers series, and I’ll be covering a book I love – “A Pin to See the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse. It’s a compelling, powerful and absolutely marvellous read, and so I’m very happy it’s being brought back into print!

Apart from those – well, who knows! Watch this space (plus my Twitter and Instagram) to see what I read next! 😀

“There is really nothing that people get used to so readily as miracles…” #GermanLitMonth #NovNov

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Well, astonishingly enough, not only have I read some non-fiction for November, I have also managed to read a book which ticks two boxes at once for this month’s challenges! The work in question is “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” by Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hofmann) – a contender for not only German Literature but also for Novellas in November! Truth be told, at 49 pages of reasonably large sized type, “Legend…” could almost qualify as a short story! But as my copy is published in a separate volume on its own, we’ll count it as a novella, won’t we? ;D

Roth is an author who’s made a number of appearances on the Ramblings; as well as reading his works “The Hotel Savoy” and “Confession of a Murderer (told in one night)“, he also featured in “Summer Before The Dark” and of course has connections with both Irmgard Keun and Stefan Zweig. I have several other works of his lurking on the TBR, but “Legend…” intrigues for a number of reasons. Firstly, its brevity (many of the Roth books are quite long); then there’s the fact that it was Roth’s last work, written just before his death in May 1939. Add to this the fact that the story seems to draw from Roth’s own alcoholism and it becomes irresistible!

The holy drinker of the title is Andreas, a homeless alcoholic living in poverty under the bridges over the Seine in Paris. One evening, a well dressed gentleman presents him with a gift of 200 francs; why, we never know, although the benevolent man seems to be a recent Christian convert. He asks nothing of Andreas except that he repay the debt if he can by returning the money to the Chapelle de Sainte Marie des Batignolles; here, there is a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, instrumental in the well dressed gentleman’s conversion. This single act of charity seems to transform Andreas’s life; and every time it appears he has lost his money, or is in a difficult situation, a small miracle will save him. Remembering his beneficiary’s kindness, he does indeed try to turn his life around and return the money, although events intervene at every point. Andreas’s life may be edging closer to its end, but at least his last days will be happier ones…

“Legend…” is a quick read, but one which certainly raises more questions than it gives answers! Really, you could interpret the story however you want, because Roth gives no hard and fast explanations for what happens, nor the motivation of Andreas’s benefactor in choosing who to gift the money too. At times it seems that the fates (or the angels or luck or whatever you happen to believe in) are watching out for Andreas – and it was lovely to see him taking joy from his experiences – but nothing is spelled out. Whether these events really *were* miracles, or whether they’re being related by a drink-fuddled unreliable narrator isn’t really clear; but the story certainly makes fascinating reading.

I was left pondering for a long time after reading this; about luck and fate, whether we should try to take control of our lives or just go along with the route events send us on, and whether it’s better to live fast and burn out young. “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” is a fascinating story, particularly as it’s the work Roth chose to spend his last few months writing and refining; and I’m drawn now to explore some of the other books of his I have on the shelf. A fascinating read and I’m glad I picked this up for these two November challenges!

A complex study of the morality of survival @ShinyNewBooks @classicpenguins

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Penguin Classics has lately taken to issuing some wonderful new translations in very pretty editions; slightly taller than normal paperback format, with coloured card covers and French flaps, they *look* nice and *sound* absolutely fascinating! So I was very happy to have the opportunity to review one of them for Shiny New Books: “The Memoir of an Anti-Hero” by Kornel Filipowicz.

Highly regarded in his native Poland, Filipowicz has never been translated into English before – which is pretty shocking, particularly on the evidence of this novella. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking and in places chilling piece of work which considers the nature of survival under occupation, and how humans can and should behave when faced with oppression. There are certainly no easy answers, but the books exposes much hypocrisy and leaves the reader unsettled and uncertain (well, this one was, anyway!). You can read my review here – and hey! this counts as a Novella in November, so I’ve managed to take part in one of this month’s challenges anyway! 😀

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