Home

“It is impossible to live in a void.” #ReadIndies @PushkinPress #Montaigne #StefanZweig #WillStone

30 Comments

I was really glad when Lizzy proposed that we allow an extra week for #ReadIndies reviewing as, like many, I ended up reading far more books during February than I could squeeze onto the blog! And for my last review for the event, I was very keen to cover the wonderfully-named Pushkin Press, one of my favourite indies and a publisher whose books I’ve featured regularly on the Ramblings. They’ve produced any number of books I love, but during February I spent time with a very special title that took in two favourite authors: “Montaigne” by Stefan Zweig.

Both subject and author of this little book have appeared on the Ramblings regularly; Zweig is a wonderful author who’s deservedly been rediscovered after decades in the wilderness; Montaigne crossed my path more recently, and his work and life are inspirational (as are those of Zweig). So to discover that one had written a monograph on the life of the other was a real treat!

“Montaigne” is translated by Will Stone, who’s also appeared on the blog as he’s produced wonderfully rendered English versions of a number of books I’ve loved. Most recently, I read his translation of Zweig’s “Journeys”, which was fascinating and poignant; and Stone’s foreword to this volume makes sobering reading, as he reveals that this was the last book Zweig was working on before he took his life in 1942. Zweig took comfort from reading Montaigne’s work, hanging on to the threads of hope as long as he could; but in the end, the collapse of the civilised world he loved so much was too much for him.

… one of life‘s mysterious laws shows that we only notice the authentic and essential values when it’s too late: youth, once it has fled, health at the moment it abandons us, freedom of the soul, that most precious essence, at the very moment when it is taken from us, or has already been taken.

So in typically Zweigian fashion, the author explores the life and work of his great forebear and how it’s still relevant to the modern world. Interestingly, as I read through the book I found much of the biographical detail was familiar from my reading of Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book, so Zweig obviously did a wonderful job in encapsulating Montaigne in a much smaller work.

Only the contemptuous stand in the way of freedom, and Montaigne despises nothing more than “la frénésie“, the violent madness of those dictators of the spirit who crave with supreme arrogance and vanity to impose on the world their “glad tidings“ as the sole and indisputable truth, and for whom the blood of hundreds of thousands of men is as nothing in the fanatical pursuit of their cause.

However, what was particularly fascinating was seeing Montaigne through the prism of Zweig’s sensibility; much of the book is about his current experiences, how Montaigne’s words, writtin during a period of world conflict, resonated with Zweig as he was living through the catastrophe of World War 2, and how Montaigne’s life and work can stand as advice on the best way to stay true to yourself in difficult times. We are still in the middle of a particularly trying period of human history, one which Montaigne would have recognised as he lived through a plague era himself; and so reading his words brings comfort now, as it did to Zweig back in the 1940s.

Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

Zweig’s “Montaigne” was a joy from start to finish; a beautifully written little book which not only brought to life the great essayist, but also gave me a glimpse into the author’s mind at that late stage of his life. Reading this little gem from Pushkin Press was a poignant, deeply moving and yet uplifting experience, and I’m so glad I chose it as my last book for #ReadIndies month (and a bit…)

“Once again a terrific hurricane has broken on the world…” #stefanzweig #willstone

39 Comments

Journeys by Stefan Zweig
Translated and with introduction, notes and photographs by Will Stone

Do you ever get that feeling where you’ve read so many novels and novellas and short stories that you’re kind of all fictioned out and need a change? That happened to me recently, and I suddenly had the massive urge to read some kind of non-fiction. It’s a genre I do love, from history to philosophy to essays to biography to travel writing, and it’s not as if I don’t have many unread choices on Mount TBR to select from… In the end I turned to Stefan Zweig; I had thought of him recently when Pushkin were promoting his titles and I spent some time tracking down a copy of his “Montaigne”. So I plumped for a slim collection of his writings about his travels, “Journeys” – and it definitely turned out to be the right book at the right time!

My edition of the book has been lurking for a number of years, and is a lovely Hesperus edition from 2011. Translated by Will Stone (who I’ve encountered on the blog before – I do love his translations!), “Journeys” collects together a number of pieces by Zweig on a variety of European destinations he visited, presented in chronological order from 1902 to 1940. Stefan Zweig was of course a peripatetic man, constantly on the move either from temperament or external pressure. As a Jewish man from Austria, the period in which he was living of course necessitated constant relocation, until his final journey to Brazil where he took refuge from the Nazi scourge in Europe. Alas, his stay there was not for long…

Stations and ports, these are my passion. Four hours I can stand there awaiting a fresh wave of travellers and goods noisily crashing in to cover the preceding one; I love the signs, those mysterious messages that reveal hour and journey, the shouts and sounds dull yet varied that establish themselves in an evocative ensemble of noise. Each station is different, each distils another distant land; every port, every ship brings a different cargo. They are the universe for our cities, the diversity in our daily life.

Whether visiting Ostend and Bruges, meditating on Hyde Park, spring in Seville or a food fair in Dijon, Zweig simply writes beautifully. He brings alive the location, considers the architecture and the history of the place, and records his impressions with an experienced traveller’s eye. His early journeys were at a time when the concept of tourism was in its infancy, and he could move from place to place on his own, spend quiet time assimilating his impressions and explore a town or city or area in peace. That, of course, would change…

In truth, Zweig’s writings always had a somewhat elegiac tone which I guess perhaps represented his temperament. However, inevitably this tone changes as the book goes on. There is the First World War and its aftermath; and Zweig visits many places affected by the conflict and decries the effect of war. In fact, his piece from 1928, “Ypres”, is one of the most powerful things I’ve read by Zweig (and I *have* read a number) as he revisits a place he knew before the conflict to see how it is now, and whether there has been reconstruction.

Not a shop exists where they don’t profit from the dead. They even offer curios made from shell splinters (perhaps those very same shells tore out the entrails of a human being), charming souvenirs of the battlefield…

In fact, this particular piece leads on to another issue in a changing Europe, that of the increase in mass tourism, the threat this poses to the places visited, and the modernisation taking place to enable this. Zweig is unhappy about coachloads of tourists turning up, being force-fed a tour of some place of historical significance, buying a souvenir and ticking the visit off their list. This is particularly pointed in somewhere like Ypres, where he titles one section “Jamboree upon the Dead” and I am completely in sympathy with his view; turning a place of massacre into a tourist attraction seems wrong, and this  resonated with the horror I’ve felt when seeing people posting selfies of themselves laughing and posing at Auschwitz. We can’t spend our life wringing our hands over past horrors, but we can remember and respect those who suffered and certainly we shouldn’t be trivialising these places and those victims.

Young Stefan Zweig (via Wikimedia Commons)

But there are lighter moments; his lovely essay of how the British cope during wartime by gardening is a delight. Then there is a piece on the Jewish Shelter in London, a haven for refugees, which is very moving. “To travel or be travelled” attacks the package tour head-on; acknowledging that although journeying on your own involves more planning and risk than having someone else whisk you from place to place on a coach, the rewards are worth it. Only by travelling on your own do you really stand a chance of getting to know a town or city, spending time exploring and perhaps having one of those chance pieces of seredipity when you stumble upon something unknown or unexpected.

Each morning the paper barks in your face wars, murders and crimes, the madness of politics clutters our senses, but the good that happens quietly unnoticed, of that we are scarcely aware.

Stefan Zweig started writing and travelling when it was easy to move around Europe from country to country. He saw that freedom eroded and eventually had to flee the continent to a kind of life which became unacceptable to him. I fear we’re actually regressing into those times again, having had the luxury of free movement for so many years; and it’s chilling to read Zweig state: “Is it the premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breath quickly, while you still can, a little of the world’s air?” His writing is always elegant and beautiful (and as you can see from the amount of post-its, I could have quoted half the book); these pieces are evocative and atmospheric; and the more I read of Stefan Zweig, the less I can understand why his books were neglected for so many years. “Journeys” was a moving and transporting read, and if you’ve never read Zweig you could do no worse than to start here!

*****

I wanted to say a little bit about this edition of the book, because it has so many lovely elements to it. As I said, the translation is by the poet, Will Stone, and as well as rendering the pieces in English he also provides an erudite introduction. There are useful notes and a little biography of Zweig, and most delightfully a selection of Stone’s own photographs of some of the places Zweig writes about. This was an element Stone added to the excellent “Rilke in Paris” and it’s a wonderful idea, helping to bring alive the places the author visited. As I mentioned, my edition is a Hesperus Press one, but “Journeys” is currently in print from Pushkin Press, so I imagine it will also have the extra material as it *is* the Will Stone translation. Definitely most highly recommended…

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

25 Comments

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!

Recent Reads: Rilke in Paris

11 Comments

“Rilke in Paris” is another treasure from Hesperus Press, a slim volume that was published last year. Rainer Maria Rilke is best known as a poet and the author of one novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, and also for his intense friendships with other artists across different fields of work, from Rodin to Pasternak. Wikipedia describes him as “a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist … widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.”

rilke in paris

He wrote in German but Paris was an adopted city for him, and this book covers his time in the French capital, which is where he conceived and wrote much of the “Notebooks”.

“Paris, of light and silk, faded once and for all time, as far as it skies and its waters, to the heart of its flowers, with the overpowering sun of its kings. Paris, in May, her white communicants who pass amidst the people, swathed in veils, like little stars, sure of their path and their hearts, for which they rise, set out and shine…”

The book is made up of  Maurice Betz’s essays on Rilke’s time in Paris (Betz was Rilke’s French translator) along with introduction and notes on the text by translator Will Stone. There is also a little gem at the end of the book in the form of a new translation of the prose poem “Notes on the Melody of Things” which rarely sees the light of day in other languages.

The essays are a fascinating insight into Rilke’s mind and way of working; they are generously sprinkled with extracts from his letters and Betz draws illuminating parallels between Rilke’s life in Paris and the way this ended up being portrayed in the “Notebooks”. Rilke lived through a turbulent era, including the First World War years, and left Paris several times only to be drawn back again.

Both Rilke and Betz use language which is rich and ornate and may not be to everyone’s taste. However, Rilke was definitely a one-off and this book is certainly a celebration of the poet as an outsider, a loner, which Rilke seems to have been, despite his numerous friendships and love affairs. He seems to have been constantly searching for the ideal state of mind to write, and solitude often seemed the solution.

“His life was a perpetual flight before social and human realities, towards that abstraction which is solitude, towards that preservation of the absolute that is infinite desire, nostalgia eternally unsatisfied, and towards those superior states of consciousness which give access, in the midst of the most beautiful and sorrowful landscapes of life, to the contemplation of death.”

The prose poem itself is very beautiful and dreamy, contemplating the human condition and the need for society versus solitude:

It occurs to me: with this observation:
that we still paint figures again a
gold background, like the early Primitives.
Before the indeterminate they stand,
sometimes of gold, sometimes of grey.
Sometimes in the light and often with,
behind them, an inscrutable darkness.

(on art)

It has proved that each lives on their island;
only the island are not distant enough that we might
live peacefully and in solitude. One can disturb another
or terrify them, or pursue them with spears – only
no-one cannot help no-one.

My one reservation with this book has nothing to do with the contents as such, but the fact that there is nothing in it about the translator! Normally Hesperus Press books have a little bit on the translator, but there was no indication at all as to who Will Stone was, apart from the fact that he wrote his foreword in Suffolk! This is all the more surprising as the final form of the book is very much dictated by him – his translation of the Betz and the prose poem; his notes on the places; and the fact that this volume is beautifully illustrated by photos taken by him. When I searched online it seems that he is a poet himself and also translates regularly. He has been very involved in the production of a lovely book here and should have had a little more recognition in it in my view!

rainer_maria_rilke

Despite this, I highly recommend this to any lovers of Paris and poetry. Rilke had an epistolary friendship with Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, the book of which is currently moving up my tbr – I’m looking forward to discovering more about this intense poet!

%d bloggers like this: