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A provocation – differing views on Venice: Part The Second…

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Against Venice by Regis Debray
Translated by John Howe

Debray’s book is the third of the titles discussing Venice I’ve read in recent months; and honestly I’m not sure quite why I’ve been drawn to them at this particular time! I’ve never been massively attracted to the city, although it *has* featured in books I’ve read like Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight“. My views on the city may well have been a little disparaging, from reading about the mass tourism which afflicts the place and also from hearing about the smelly flooding my aforementioned boss suffered on a visit! Nevertheless, both Brodsky and Simmel laud the place; Regis Debray, however, offers a counterview which is just as interesting as the arguments in the two other books and which is one which might be expected to find favour with me. But I’m not so sure…

Debray himself is a fascinating character. A noted French intellectual born in Paris, his life includes a spell fighting with Che Guevara in Bolivia, a period as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Havana, and even working as a Government adviser back in France. “Against Venice” was originally published in French in 1995, and then issued by Pushkin Press in 2002, with an afterword by Debray written at the end of 2001. Mine is a later Pushkin edition from 2012, with lovely French flaps and gorgeous design, and I happily picked it up in a sale at the LRB Bookshop! But enough of that – what of Debray’s essay?

It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Well, it’s very clear from the start that Debray is declaring himself as emphatically not a fan of Venice. He deplores its artificiality which he equates with a lack of spontaneity; and he makes numerous comparisons with the living, changing city of Naples, the latter always coming out on top. He rails against its falsity, the vulgarity of the place and its occupants, as well as the social-climbing of the latter. This is a Venice seen in the middle of its busy season, swamped by tourism (unlike Brodsky’s off-season visits) and it’s not a pretty sight. Debray seems to feel that the city has been so commercialised that it has in effect been ruined and even if you were to allow for its various attractions, any appeal has been wiped out. Certainly, as Debray makes clear, it’s hard at times not to see the city as a cliché of gondolas, canals, masks and glitter.

Regis Debray in 1970 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The author, as befits someone with his intellectual pedigree, is an erudite commentator and the essay is littered with literary references to everyone from Proust to Paul Morand. However, he’s perhaps being a little disingenuous in his railing against Venice as he does claims in his afterword that it is only what has become of the city, what’s made of it by tourism that he has an issue with. Certainly tourism can set a place in aspic; once it ceases to evolve and change but is (as Debray calls it ) museumised, then the real appeal, the living breathing heart of the place has gone. I can’t judge if that’s the case with Venice, as I’ve never been, but I’ve certainly seen it happen with places I love and I understand what he’s saying (though I don’t know if the original essay is always clear enough about this aspect). Debray reminds us that the Italian Futurists condemned Venice for being fixed in the past, wanting it smashed up, and it’s a provocative viewpoint.

Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it. Like urchins, like actors. With time for a time suspended, we abandon the seriousness of real life for the as-if of a charade of life. It’s like going up in a balloon.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Debray’s viewpoints on art of all types; he’s pretty dismissive of much of Baudelaire, for a start! His insistence on the authentic is almost strident at times, and I found myself questioning just how subjective his (or anyone else’s) view of what is authentic might actually be. If you approach Venice expecting it to be smoke and mirrors, mask and illusion, where is the harm in that? I suppose his point, perhaps, is that Venice is too venerated when you bear in mind what it actually is, which is an artificial construct built on a piece of reclaimed land with a debatable function. Is it art? Is it a living city? Who knows? And like so many places we might dream of visiting, but never do, there is the question of whether the Venice of the mind lives up to the real city; which is doubly so in a place so rooted in illusion.

… here we are, elsewhere and moving differently, on foot or like a cork on the water; no doubt about it, we have passed through from the other side of the mirror.

So “Against Venice” ended up being a slightly ambiguous, often playful, never dull and probably never entirely serious take on “The City of Masks”. Debray is perhaps less seduced than the other two writers I’ve read on the subject, preferring the hustle, bustle and down to earth nature of Naples to the artificiality of Venice. Nevertheless, his essay took a fascinating look at this very individual city; and all of this reading about Europe is giving me very itchy feet… 😀

“The modern spirit has become a more and more calculating one” #GeorgSimmel @pushkinpress #willstone

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The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice by Georg Simmel
Edited, translated and introduced by Will Stone

After the mad reading and posting for the #1944Club I hit the usual unfocused slump that usually follows an intense period of reading. I have *loads* of books I could choose to open next, but have been hit by raging indecision. After the lovely escapism of “Eve in Egypt”, something slim and non-fiction seemed the best option – so I went for this lovely little review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, which turned out to be anything but slight!

“The Art of the City” is a new volume in the Pushkin Collection range – lovely little books with gorgeous covers and French flaps – and the author, Georg Simmel is a new name to me. As the introduction by translator Will Stone reveals, Simmel (1858-1918) was an influential German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. This volume contains four seminal essays by Simmel; three discuss the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, all long considered aesthetic architectural gems, with the final one, “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” taking a very timely and modern look at the effect of city living on the human psyche. It’s a slim yet intellectually complex book and one which really sets you thinking about the way cities have grown up and how we live in them nowadays, as well as what they do to us.

In his introduction, Stone rightly identifies Simmel as an early flaneur, a kind of proto-psychogeographer, who looked at these three ancient cities as works of art as well as places to live in, ruminating on the effects modernity will have on them as well as considering how some kind of equilibrium can be achieved between the human spirit, nature and art.

Of Rome, Simmel comments, “Here, countless generations have created and built structures side by side, one on top another, each having no concern for or comprehension of what went before, responding only to the demands of the hour and the mood of the epoch.” That could be said of many a city, of course, but fortuitously for Rome the result is architectural beauty, a balance between landscape and buildings old or new which seems rare. The disparate elements are somehow harmonious and the city becomes a sum of its parts. Florence has a similar effect on Simmel:

Poppies and brook, shuttered villas like locked-up secrets, children at play, blueness and clouds of the heavens – all this can be found everywhere in the world and everywhere is beautiful, but here it harbours a spiritual and aesthetic element, a quite alternative peripheral view, for nothing enchants by its beauty alone, but rather participates in an overarching absolute beauty.

However, Simmel appears to find Venice‘s falseness displeasing; its facade is something I’ve heard others railing against, and the sham nature of the place is not to his liking. That city is, of course, an artificial construct (in much the same way that St. Petersburg is, I suppose) and although all cities are *built* the process is often random, unplanned and develops over many decades or even centuries, responding to the needs of the people using it. Building a conurbation from scratch, in a planned, controlled way, seems to me a very modern conceit (look, for example, at the Garden City movement of the 20th century) and what is manufactured and looks good on paper does not always end up being something in which a human being can live happily.

The bottom line is that in the life of the metropolis the struggle with nature for the necessary food of life has turned into a conflict between human beings, and the fiercely contested reward is here bestowed not by nature but by man. Here flows not only the previously cited source of specialization, but the deeper one, where the seller must arouse in the person to whom he wishes to sell ever more novel and specific requirements.

But I digress a little. The icing on the cake in this book is the final essay; an inspiring piece of work, which considers the dehumanising effects of the modern metropolis, it apparently influenced thinkers and writers like Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Rilke (I’d also be interested to know if Marshall Berman ever read it). It’s a thoughtful, bracing and provocative piece that discusses the vast differences between the experience of living in rural areas or urban areas; and rather chillingly Simmel traces the alienation of the modern city as stemming from the gulf between producers and consumers, the dominance of the money principle and the isolation of human beings from each other.

via Wikimedia Commons

The pace of life even at the time of the essay (1903) is perceived as having a negative effect, so goodness know what Simmel would make of the modern world. The vast number of stimuli thrown at human beings on a daily basis is constantly increasing, and it could be argued that we haven’t evolved at a pace to keep up with the changes around us – which could be the source of some of our modern problems.

Money, with its colourlessness and supreme indifference, becomes the universal denominator of all values, a most terrifying leveller, hollowing out the core of things, their peculiarities, their intrinsic value, their incomparability. All swim at the same specific weight in the continuously moving flow of money, all rest on the same level and differ only through their monetary value.

As you can see by my constantly rambling off at tangents, this book really *does* punch above its weight and provides some profound insights into the difficulties of urban living. I found myself surprised that I hadn’t heard of Simmel before, and wondering why his work wasn’t more read and discussed nowadays – but of course that might be a lack of English versions… Which leads me on to naming and thanking the translator! 🙂

I’ve reviewed works rendered by Will Stone (who is also a poet and essayist) before on the Ramblings; I thought very highly of his defence of Stefan Zweig and also his translation of “Rilke in Paris” which he produced so wonderfully for the Hesperus Press edition, even providing photos for the book. Once again, he’s done the essays here justice with an erudite foreword exploring Simmel’s life and work; and although as a monolinguist I can’t really comment on the nitty-gritty of the translation, it does read beautifully! If you’re at all interested in considering how architecture and urban living impact on humans, or just in reading some really stimulating essays, I recommend this book highly – Simmel’s work is most definitely worth exploring.

*****

After finishing Simmel’s essays, which linger beautifully in the mind, I remembered that

a. they were translated from German
b. it’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy Siddal and Caroline at Beauty in a Sleeping Cat!

I always try to take part in German Lit Month, and so even though these essay are probably very off topic (as I believe the ladies have a particular focus this month), I’m still going to claim this post for the month’s reading!

Bookish Serendipity

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have picked up that I’ve been on my travels recently. I usually do a summer round trip to visit the Aged Parent and then the Offspring, all of whom are located fairly close together in the East Midlands. As I don’t drive, I have to make several train journeys, which are usually enjoyable; as I like to settle down with a book and a coffee and let the train take the strain, as the old slogan used to say.

However, the first leg of the journey which involves going via London was horrendous. I ended up standing all the way on a train that felt like a sardine tin and I was Not Impressed. I couldn’t even read… The rest of visit and the train travel went swimmingly, however, and I had a lovely time everywhere. Middle Child put me up (she usually does) and they all looked after me beautifully. So I had several days of socialising, eating out and of course managed to sneak in a little book shopping… (well, it wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t, would it?)

As you can see, I managed to be pretty restrained! Two new books and three second-hand is good for me, and they all felt like essential purchases.

These are the newbies. I picked up the Pessoa in Hatchards at St. Pancras Station (yes, even while rushing frantically to catch a train, I made time for shopping – and only just made my connection by the skin of my teeth…) I’ve heard such good things about the Penguin translation that I wanted to try it, and this was the first Real Bookshop I’d seen it in. The Gonzalez was a sale item in Waterstones, Kettering – £3 is a real bargain and I had this one on a mental ‘must-read’ list so that was a find!

These are two of the second-hand books, from charity shops in Kettering and Leicester. I seem to be amassing a lot of Robertson Davies without actually reading him and I must get on with it. I also have about 5 gigantic Powys books lurking. I could spend a year just reading him…

And the third second-hand book is very, very interesting:

Finding a Green Virago I want is getting harder, as I don’t intend to try to collect them all, and so I’m quite selective nowadays. “Clash” was sitting in the Age Concern Bookshop in Leicester, and the blurb on the back intrigued me – it’s set around the General Strike of 1926, and as I was feeling the need of something to counteract the hideous right-wing stuff that’s going round at the moment I grabbed it (£2 – a real bargain). It was only when I got it back to the flat and looked more closely I realised that I had a nice review copy of Wilkinson’s second book at home, waiting for me to read… Serendipity or what! I’m about a third of the way into “Clash” at the moment and loving it, and so I think I might move straight on to “Division Bell” afterwards. How exciting!

So a reasonably small haul on my travels. I did, however, arrive back to find that this lovely review copy had arrived, courtesy of Michael Walmer:

I don’t know that I even knew that F. Tennyson Jesse had a sister, but this is she, and this is her only book. Sounds like fabulous fun and I’m really looking forward to it!

Reviewing has got slightly behind while I was away – I’ve finished Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow Diaries for #WITmonth, and also have been dipping into Catherine the Great’s Letters. So I’ve done *some* translated women, and I am well into a Virago – hey, I’m almost sticking to my plans!! 😀

“Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow….” @poetrycandle @PushkinPress

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Ten Poems from Russia
Selected and Introduced by Boris Dralyuk
Published by Candlestick Press in association with Pushkin Press

You might have seen me expressing great excitement recently all over social media about the arrival of this slim but gorgeous collection of Russian verse. That’s going to be no surprise to any passer-by of the Ramblings; I love Russian literature in all its shapes and forms, and it’s a country with a long and deep tradition of verse. You only have to look at the number of books of Russian poetry on my shelves to realise just how many great poets the country’s produced, and my collection only scratches the surface…

Candlestick Press are known for producing beautiful little themed booklets which are designed to send instead of a card; indeed, I’m pretty sure I have one based on “Mothers” which was gifted to me one Mothers’ Day (by Middle Child, if my memory doesn’t fail me). Candlestick have been championed by Dove Grey Reader, and she’s right to do so – personally, I think that anything which gets people reading more poetry is a Good Thing! Pushkin Press, of course, need no introducing – they publish the most wonderful books in translation, and are responsible for bringing some brilliant works to us; including all the wonderful Gazdanovs rendered by Bryan Karetnyk, as well as Boris Dralyuk’s excellent Babel translations and his “1917” anthology (one of my favourite reads of last year).

Any road up, that’s enough rambling – what do you actually *get* here? Well, you get a beautifully produced, A5 booklet with a stunning cover design, on quality paper and with a matching bookmark (for you to write a message on if you so wish) plus envelope. And the contents are equally stunning; ten poems from the Russians, expertly chosen, in some cases translated, and introduced by Boris Dralyuk. The authors range from Pushkin (of course!) through Akhmatova Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak et al up to Julia Nemirovskaya, a living poet. And each poem is a little gem. What particularly pleased me was the fact that there were poets new to me, including Nemirovskaya and Georgy Ivanov; and I was also pleased to see Nikolay Gumilyov featured, as I’m keen to read more of his work. Half of the works are translated by Dralyuk, the rest by Robert Chandler and Peter France; and some appear here translated for the first time, which is fab!

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

It’s hard (and perhaps unfair) to pick favourites in any collection of works, so I won’t. But I *will* say that the Akhmatova is as stunning as she always is, with her poem on the fate of Russian poets, always menaced by “the shaggy paw of voiceless terror” (what imagery!) And I’m finding that the more I read of Tsvetaeva, the more I’m appreciating her writing; the poem featured here, “To Alya”, addressed to her daughter, is particularly stunning. But I’m not going to quote any of the poems because I want you all to go out a buy a copy of this… 🙂

Editor and translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk has themed his collection to capture the range of the Russian soul; from myth through terror, taking in art, love and life, the selection really does cover all the bases. In his introduction, he uses a rather beautiful image to describe what he’s trying to do with this anthology, that of leading you into a corridor with multiple enticing doors leading off; each one of which opens into a room full of wonders, and more doors… I was already in that corridor, having opened some of those doors; but what this marvellous little collection has done is offered me new doors to open, new poets to explore and more wonderful Russian verse which is always balm to the soul. If, like me, you love Russian poetry you should still buy this booklet because it’s such an illuminating collection; but if you’ve never read the Russians, it’s the perfect place to enter the corridor and begin your journey of exploration – you won’t be disappointed!

Manuscripts *do* burn…

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In Search of Lost Books : The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes by Giorgio van Straten
Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

There are some books you just *know* are going to be for you. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who’s passed by the Ramblings that I am obsessive about books – to quote Morrissey, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” – and so books about books are going to be a particular favourite. This little volume, however, has a different slant from many of them in that it deals with the missing – books lost, books destroyed, books that may never have existed…

Giorgio van Straten has an impressive pedigree, taking in such disciplines as novelist, librettist, playwright, editor, translator, critic and manager of arts organisations. His works have won numerous awards, though it seems that few of them have been translated into English; which is a great shame, based on the quality of this slim but important book.

Van Straten focuses his range quite tightly and the authors/books/works lost covered are:

“The Avenue” – Romano Bilenchi
“Memoirs” – Lord Byron
Various early works – Ernest Hemingway
“The Messiah” – Bruno Schulz
“Dead Souls” (later volumes) – Nikolai Gogol
“In Ballast to the White Sea” – Malcolm Lowry
A black suitcase full of who knows what – Walter Benjamin
“Double Exposure” – Sylvia Plath

…which is a pretty heavyweight list! Intriguingly, he opens the book with the one author new to me (Romano Bilenchi), with whom he has a personal connection; because Bilenchi’s missing book was one that van Straten had actually read before it was destroyed by the author’s widow. He goes on to guide us through stories which may be familiar – Gogol burning the second part of “Dead Souls”; Hemingway and Benjamin losing suitcases containing manuscripts; Sylvia Plath’s second novel which mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared – and yet brings a freshness and a new angle to the narrative. There are a variety of reasons for the works being lost; authorial decision, posthumous publisher/spouse decision to protect the still living, pure accident; but the loss of all of these works is a real tragedy.

Georgio van Straten writes elegantly and it’s quite clear he has a strong belief in the innate power of books and the written word. He acknowledges that part of the appeal of his investigation into the missing books is the thrill of the chase, the hope of discovering that one of these fragile works has survived. There is a recurring thread of fire running through the narrative, and van Straten is painfully aware of the vulnerability of books:

… those vessels freighted with words, which we launch onto the waters, in the hope that someone will notice them and receive them into their own harbour, can disappear into infinite space like spacecraft at the edge of the universe, receding from us at increasing velocity.

For a slim book, this one digs deep and is not afraid to tackle more serious moral issues; for example, the discussion of Byron’s scandalous memoirs is measured, weighing the need to publish and be damned against the need to protect those still living (and also Byron’s own reputation, as to admit to homosexuality in those days was unheard of). The book was burned but van Straten argues that it simply could have been locked away for posterity.

The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.

Again with Sylvia Plath, much of the chapter considers the destruction of her last journals and the mysterious disappearance of her second novel. The discussion of the ethics of picking over the detail of her life is particularly pithy:

It frequently happens that when someone commits suicide, their death becomes the point of departure for reading their entire life. But this entails the risk of superimposing over the fact of an actual person – the one who has lived, thought, written – a mask that squeezes the richness of their humanity and artistry into the form of an icon, into something two-dimensional.

Plath has, of course, attained such mythical stature that it’s almost impossible to see the real woman any more. This aspect resonated strongly with me, particularly as I was reading about the current plans to auction off Plath’s effects, which I can’t help thinking would be better off preserved in an archive somewhere.

I confess that I get a bit emotional about book burning and lost books, and at times found the stories of what happened to these works excruciating (especially when, as in some of the cases, the loss was avoidable and the simple expedient of a photocopy or a carbon copy could have saved things). But the stories of the authors themselves was also particularly moving; reading about Bruno Schulz and his life and fate is always an emotional experience; and likewise Walter Benjamin; both authors ultimately met their fate because of the Nazis.

Van Straten uses a quote from Proust to illustrate the tantalising effect the thought of these lost works have on us:

One can feel an attraction towards a particular person. But to release that fount of sorry, that sense of the irreparable, those agonies which prepare the way for love, there must be – and this is, perhaps, more than a person, the actual object which our passion seeks so anxious to embrace – the risk of an impossibility.

That reaching for the impossible is something which attracts us human; we are questing beings, never satisfied with accepting the status quo. With these missing books, there is always the hope that one or more of them may still be within our grasp, may turn up somewhere. Certainly, there have been cases of supposedly lost works turning up – Georges Perec’s first novel, recently published and translated as “Portrait of a Man”, is a good case in point, and it’s finds like these which keep us hoping. Van Straten’s wonderful book is a fascinating tale of human creativity, the agonies of the artistic temperament and the battle between literature and reputation – as well as a lovely little elegy for some titles that may or may not be lost forever.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

A poet encapsulated

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A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler

As an antidote to all of the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I felt drawn to picking up something more factual; and coincidentally a lovely review copy arrived that fitted the bill! Pushkin Press have just reprinted a slim biographical volume about the father of Russian poetry, Alexander Pushkin, by esteemed translator Robert Chandler, so it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it.

Pushkin, of course, is an author I’ve read before, mostly notably in poetry anthologies (I have a lot of Russian collections…) and also when I reviewed a nice edition of “Belkin’s Stories” for Shiny New Books. I had a vague idea of the outline of his life, but was keen to fill in the gaps – which this does in exemplary fashion.

The book divides Pushkin’s life up into short, readable chapters and takes us through the various stages. Chandler focuses on the events of Pushkin’s life, but also his poetic responses to it, and the book is laced with excellent quotations from Pushkin’s work which reflect what was happening to him. And certainly the poet did indeed have a colourful life; his heritage was fascinating, as his matrilineal great-grandfather was a Black African Page (Abram Petrovich Gannibal) brought over to Russia as a slave. He was a serial duellist (a fact that would eventually lead to his downfall), associated with the outlawed political group The Decembrists, spent time in exile, met the young Gogol and had a very complex relationship with the Tsar and the authorities. And then there’s the womanising… Pushkin was nothing if not erratic and Byronic in his outlook, and in fact Lord Byron was something of an idol!

Reading about the disordered nature of his life you wonder how the man managed to write any poetry, but he did, and the extracts that Chandler includes are excellent choices which stick in the mind and show just how much Pushkin’s emotional natural found its way into his work. Like many an artist he struggled financially, and the fact that his wife was required to participate in society (ah! Russian society – how much more I know about that after War and Peace!) meant that he was constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and died in much debt.

As for his death – well, that’s still somewhat controversial, but it certainly affected me emotionally and made me wish Pushkin hadn’t been so hot-headed when it came to duelling. Chandler hints also that by that point of his life Pushkin was in a rather fatalistic mental state, which didn’t help, and part of me wishes he had had less terrible ups and downs in his life – but I suppose if he’d lived a quiet and sedate existence, then he wouldn’t have written the works he did! And it often seems that Pushkin spent much of his time restricted in different ways – exiled, confined to an area by the plague – and in each of these settings he responded by producing substantial amounts of work.

Author and subject

Chandler’s book is a brilliant introduction to Russia’s national poet; lucid, readable, erudite and scholarly, yet it has a light touch which conveys much information in an easily absorbed format. The verse quotations are powerful and moving, and Chandler regularly points out the influence Pushkin’s work has had on a diverse range of later works – “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer and operas by Mussorgsky being just two examples. He also brings out in more detail the links with Gogol and the influence on Dostoevsky, and covers in detail the complexities of censorship and Pushkin’s relationship with Nicholas I.

One aspect that fascinated me in particular was the fact that Pushkin had something of a sideline as a historian; many of his works drew on Russia’s past and one of the reasons he needed to keep in with society and the Tsar was so that he could gain access to the state archives for his research. We take for granted nowadays the access we have to the Internet and so many archives and records that it seems unimaginable that a man would have to make so many compromises to be able to carry out his work.

Chandler is always even-handed in his treatment of the protagonists in Pushkin’s story (I *love* an unbiased biography!!!) and his refusal to condemn Pushkin’s young wife, Natalya Goncharova, is refreshing. I was interested to learn that she was a relative of one of my favourite Constructivist artists who bore the same name; the book is scattered with such interesting facts which I’ve not come across before.

At the end of the book, Chandler looks at Pushkin’s legacy down the years from Gogol shortly after his death and eventually reaching into Soviet times; and the attempts by various people and regimes to claim the poet for themselves. However, Chandler reminds us of Pushkin’s universal appeal and how he was popular with each level of society; his poetry is still alive and vital today, and the poet’s legacy is assured regardless of who tries to claim it.

I can’t recommend this excellent little book enough if you want to discover more about Pushkin’s life and work. There are bigger and longer volumes out there, but this distills all you need to know into 150 pages or so and gives a flavour of the poet’s writing too. For me, I gained a much wider understanding of Pushkin and his place in Russian literature, as well as thoroughly enjoying the journey through the poet’s life. I’ve read many of Robert Chandler’s translations with great pleasure, but I think this is the first book I’ve read which he’s written and it was a great joy – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!

Bohemian Fables – and more!

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The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil
Translated from the German by David Burnett

The second of the lovely Pushkin Collection volumes which was released on 2nd March is a fascinating collection of long short stories by German Bohemian author Johannes Urzidil, and it’s just as good as “The Hideout” was. Urzidil is another somewhat under-translated author; born in Prague before it was part of Czechoslovakia, he was part of the Prague Circle and a friend of Kafka and Max Brod. Urzidil fled the country in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and was initially helped to Britain by the author Bryher, before eventually settling in the USA. He continued to write and earned many awards for his writing.

last-bell

Translator David Burnett (who also provides an informative introduction) has chosen to collect a group of stories from Urzidil’s oeuvre which were published in the 1950s and 1960s, and the first (the title one, The Last Bell) is stunning. It’s narrated by Marska, maidservant to the Mister and Missus, and as the story opens her employers have fled overnight, leaving Marska with their flat and all their money. Marska is afraid and excited by the situation in equal measure, but decides to enjoy the sudden windfall. However, she makes the mistake of inviting her wild half-sister Joska to stay with her, mainly so she can lord it over her; but this begins to misfire when the girls make the acquaintance of some of the occupying Germans. With a Nazi boyfriend, Joska starts to take control of the situation; Marska, by contrast, retains much of her humanity and attempts to warn some neighbours of the danger they’re in. As things go out of control, Marska is forced into dramatic action…

The second story in the volume, The Duchess of Albanera, is a very different piece of work. Set in pre-Czechoslovakian times, it tells the story of a lonely bank clerk who falls in love with a painting. Living alone and set in his ways, a chance encounter with the portrait of the Duchess leads to him grabbing and stealing it in a sudden act of madness. Chance favours him and he isn’t spotted; and back at his flat he has conversations with Duchess in the painting who, it transpires, is a bit of a Lucrezia Borgia. It’s a fascinating story, which ruminates on love and loneliness, how people really are, and the effect our actions can have on others.

Next up is Spiegelmann’s Journey, a story of a travel agent who’s never travelled; yet the stories of journeys he constructs are more real than any trip he plans for others. Unfortunately his tall tales captivate a lonely woman, but when they travel on the only journey he ever takes, to his home town, the truth will out. Is it significant, in a story published in 1962, that the only trip he has ever made is between the city and his home town of Birkenau? Probably it is, although the dream-like, allusive nature of Urzidil’s writing often defies simple classification and it could be coincidence. Certainly, the rural, idyllic Birkenau presented here is not what you would normally associate with the name.

The old clerk was the true soul of the office. He knew the porous boundaries of the law, he was familiar with the injustices of the justice system as well as the justice of injustice. Tiny paragraphs pulsed in his veins instead of blood corpuscles. He constructed his boss’s pleas in such a way that the state prosecutors, no matter how sound their arguments, feared for their reputation if Dr. Umtausch took on the defence.

The final two stories in the collection, Borderland and Where the Valley Ends take place in rural settings, beautifully evoked by the author. The former tells the story of Otti, a child of nature living with her father near the woods; she seems to have an almost mystical link to the elements around her, able to tame plants and animals, as well as predict events and divine emotions. However, her passage into adulthood will destroy this, and it is a change in her life with which she’s unable to cope. And “Valley” is a quirky look at a feud that breaks out between two halves of a settlement divided by a river, which is triggered by the theft of a cheesecake; the disagreement leads to outright conflict and murder and shows how small happenings can lead to cataclysmic events. In both of these works, Urzidil references the great Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, whom he’d already written about earlier in his career.

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The stories make fantastic reading in more ways that one; unreal elements creep into most of them, and they often have the dreamlike quality of a fairytale or fable. The later works in the collection might seem on the surface quite different to the earlier ones (particularly the title story) but they all share a common theme in that they focus on the misfit or the outsider. In “The Last Bell”, Marska is not part of the society being created by the invaders; she is an outsider because of her upbringing (where she and Joska suffered early abuse from an ‘uncle’) and unlike her half-sister, she sets herself apart from the Nazis in her attempts to help others. Schaschek the bank clerk is a loner – let’s face it, not many of us sit down and have reciprocated conversations with characters in paintings! – and his lack of interpersonal skills makes him happier with that relationship than a real one. Similarly, Spiegelmann is a fantasist, painting pictures of impossible journeys; it’s only when he’s faced with the reality that his journeys cannot exist that his world breaks down. Otti likewise is unable to deal with growing up and losing her ‘powers’; living a normal life in the normal world is beyond her. And Alois, the ‘village idiot’ in the final story, is the cause of the conflict that eventually wipes out a rural way of life. These latter stories in particular paint a world before the hell of WW2 overtook Urzidil’s part of Europe and there is an underlying threat in all of them from barbarian invaders.

So another powerful book from Pushkin Press and another wonderful new author that I’ve discovered. Apparently Urzidil only wrote one novel, preferring the shorter form (of which he was obviously a master); he also wrote essays and monographs, as well as translating works from Czech and English into German (including works by H.D., companion of his rescuer Bryher). Hopefully more of his work will make it into the English language because on the strength of the stories here, it will certainly be worth reading!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

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