On finishing The Iliad, I decided (naturally enough) that it was time to read something a little lighter, so my eyes landed on one of the Roddy Doyle books sprawled across one of my long-suffering bookshelves (note to self - operation Bookshelf Overhaul is long overdue!). Most people will have heard of or read (or, more likely, seen) Doyle's The Commitments, the first of the Barrytown trilogy (also the setting for Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha), and The Van is the third of these novels. Set in Dublin in the wondrous year of 1990, amidst the backdrop of the Republic of Ireland's first trip to the World Cup (something more important than non-football followers could ever imagine), The Van takes Jimmy Rabbitte snr. as its main protagonist, following his experiences from unemployment to setting up a mobile fish and chip shop, the van of the title, with his best friend, Bimbo.
It's written in Doyle's usual funny, yet profound, style, giving us an insight into the day of a man who, undereducated and unemployed, has been left to make his own way through the week, drifting from the local golf course to the park, with the occasional pint or two in the evening when he can afford it. The reader can really empathise with Jimmy and his struggle to adapt to time spent alone after an adult life of work (although I, for one, would be quite happy with a bit more spare time), and his attempts to make himself useful to his family are faintly noble.
Doyle also uses the book to muse on adult male relationships, taking the long-term friendship of Jimmy and Bimbo and subjecting it to the pressure-cooker environment (or should that be deep-frier environment?) of their fledgling business. As the money comes in, emotions start to fray: the role reversal whereby the usually dominant Jimmy becomes Bimbo's side-kick, and then employee, places a great strain on their friendship until the tension becomes too much for other people to bear. Now, how do you resolve something like that...
While the gradual breakdown of a lifelong friendship and the nostalgic joy of reliving the halcyon days of Italia '90 made this a pleasure to read, the enjoyment of this novel was tainted at times by the handling of the role of women. Jimmy and his friends have a voyeuristic tendency, and women (and some girls on the cusp of attaining womanhood) are used mainly as objects to be ogled - and later pursued. I'm not doubting the reality of what Doyle has written; it's easy to believe that someone of a certain age, in a time and setting far from today's, would act as Jimmy would and not really think anything of it. It just made me feel a little uncomfortable (and I have seen a couple of reviewers who have agreed with me). That may well have been the point, but this book could well have done with a little more female perspective. Where I felt sorry for Jimmy towards the start of the book, by the end I was a little ambivalent towards him and his greasy endeavours. Which is a shame.
One author who never finds me ambivalent is Thomas Hardy, whose works I started reading again last year (and will continue to enjoy in 2010). After the rolling farmlands of Far from the Madding Crowd and the ominous heaths of The Return of the Native, this time it is the woody glades of Wessex which take centre stage in his novel The Woodlanders.
Grace Melbury, educated beyond her station by her ambitious father, returns to the sylvan Wessex village of Little Hintock unable to fulfil the family promise of a marriage to Giles Winterbourne. Instead, she succumbs to the advances of a local doctor, an outsider from a higher social background, but with lower morals. I think we can all see that there won't be many happily ever afters here...
It's a lovely little read, if not a patch on his major works, and, as always, you can almost imagine yourself transported to the leafy glades by Hardy's measured prose (even if he never uses a couple of short words where a complicated - and occasionally invented - Greek-based word will do). The book abounds with love triangles and unrequited passions, and the moral seems to be to choose wisely before rushing into wedlock, especially if you're marrying above/below your station. Hardy also reflects on the unfairness of the law, particularly as regards the differing ease with which men and women were able to obtain divorces in olden days (I wonder if he'd be happier now...). Something to reflect on when remembering your wedding vows.
Where Hardy is restraint and pastoral calm, my most recent book is passion and despair, usually in equal and mixed up proportions. Just as you may have heard that some bloke called Shakespeare is a fairly famous writer of English, you've probably come across the name Goethe in the context of German literature. As an avid reader, and a modern languages graduate, I am a little ashamed to say that I had never read anything by the great man - until now, that is.
Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) is an epistolary (or letter form) novel, in which the Werther of the title, a young, romantic German, pours out the contents of his overflowing heart to his friend Wilhelm. Escaping city life for nature, Werther settles in a small town where he meets the angelic Lotte - and promptly falls head-over-heels in love. Sadly, despite their mutual understanding and attraction, their relationship can only be platonic as Lotte is promised to another man. So begins Werther's slow spiral into depression, madness and suicide...
This novel is one of the most famous Sturm und Drang works, and it is certainly stormy. On reading the first part of the novel, I was blown away by the intensity of the writing and the openness of emotion which Goethe breathed into his literary alter-ego. Werther is actually a mixture of the young Goethe's own obsession with a young woman called Lotte and the fate of a friend who ended his life at an early age. Although embarrassed by this early work later in life (he was only 25 when he wrote this - bloody geniuses...), it was an instant Europe-wide hit and found many admirers and Werther copycats. Of course, the church was not so happy with Goethe as some of those copycats went a little too far; in fact, the work was seen as an apology for those committing suicide.
A word of warning for anyone wanting to read this book in German; written in 1774, you may be a little surprised by what you see on the page. The original text varies ever so slightly from modern German, with several common and consistent spelling conventions different from today's, slight grammatical variations and a few vocabulary peculiarities. In fairness though, once you have waded through a few pages (removing redundant 'h's and swapping a few vowels around), it is surprisingly easy to read, provided you have a fairly high standard of German (and a high tolerance for chest beating, hair pulling and teeth gnashing).
Is it any good? Definitely. The prose is breath-takingly vivid at times, and Goethe drags the reader along as Werther swings between the highs of his halcyon days in Lotte's company to the lows of his attempts to come to terms with the impossibility of his desires. While the cynic in me did at times long to give him a slap and say "get over it, you cretin", it was a small voice at the back of my head and was usually drowned out by the passion Werther poured into his outbursts of grief and declarations of love.
Ready for Faust? I might give it a few months...
From the sublime to the ridiculous we go as I explain what that i-Pod is doing amongst the books in my post photo. Well, having eventually succumbed to the temptation of upgrading my trusty, battered old i-Pod Mini to a sleek new Classic before Christmas, and having finally got around to upgrading my internet connection to Broadband, I am now able to download video podcasts (and able to time that process with a watch rather than a calendar). Which brings me to Alisa - Folge deinem Herzen (Alisa - Follow your Heart), a telenovela which has been running on the German channel ZDF since March last year.
Now, you may not think of me as the type of person to be obsessed with kitschy telly programmes (and you'd be right - I'm far too intellectual for all that. No, really...), but watching rubbish is a great way to practice languages. I think I got more from watching a couple of years of the soap opera Unter Uns than from three years of German at university. As a language teacher myself, I encourage students to watch programmes like Neighbours and Home and Away as they model the kind of language people use every day - and there's a limit to how much news the average language student really wants to watch.
Anyway, Alisa runs for about 40 minutes every day, Monday to Friday, and follows the trials and tribulations of Alisa Lenz, who has come back to live with her adopted parents in the small town of Schönroda after a failed business (and relationship) in Berlin. The angelic-looking Alisa, played by Teresa Scholze (who, were she British, would be a certainty to be playing Cinderella in pantomime next Christmas), stumbles across Christian, a sensitive, good-looking man (I don't know the actor's name, but I bet he's played Prince Charming a few times in his career) who happens to be the son and heir of the powerful local Castellhof family. Can you see where this is going yet?
In her first week in Schönroda, Alisa manages to seriously annoy Christian's uncle (who is then revealed to be the one interviewing her for her new job), save Christian's sister from drowning and get on the wrong side of Christian's fiancee, Ellen (who, conveniently, is as dark and brooding as Alisa is blonde and bubbly; good witch - evil witch, anyone?). Throw in a stereotypically over-exuberant Italian woman who, despite speaking perfect German, has a huge accent and starts every sentence with an Italian word, a mean supervisor who has been instructed to get rid of Alisa at all costs and a family doctor who appears to be keeping a dark secret about one of the Castellhofs, and you have the set-up for the rest of the show. Oh, did I mention that Alisa accidentally saw Ellen in flagrante with Christian's Uncle Oskar in his office on her first day of work? Now if this series does not end in a wedding, I'll eat my i-Pod.
While it's depressing how low your standards sink when you're looking for free programmes in a foreign language, I must confess that it's all good entertainment. Yes, the dialogue is stilted, the characters are caricatures, and everyone has more secrets than I could hope to accumulate in a lifetime. Still, it's a pleasant way to while away an idle hour, and we can't be reading Goethe all the time now, can we?
Oh, alright, I admit it: I'm addicted...