Friday, 30 December 2011

December 2011 Wrap-Up

For once, I've been true to my word - December has been a very messy month, with a few new books scattered amongst a bit of rereading and reviewing.  In truth, I've just been sorting out odds and ends before starting up again in the New Year (when I will begin my fourth year of blogging!).

2011 has been a fairly good year, despite a couple of lulls in the middle.  Over the past four months, I've been getting more visits and page views than ever, the numbers steadily increasing each month.  Obviously, I'm doing something right (or I'm checking out my blog myself in my sleep...).  Thanks to all who regularly visit and comment :)

I'll be doing my traditional yearly awards at the start of January, so I won't be doing any big retrospective today.  However, I will (as usual) be giving you the low down on what happened this month - one last time...

Total Books Read: 6
Year-to-date: 123

New: 4
Rereads: 2

From the Shelves: 3
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 1

Novels: 5
Novellas: 0
Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 4 (2 Japanese, 1 Spanish, 1 Swedish)
3) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Book One, Book Two, Book Three)

Reread and reviewed this month:

Reviewed (but not read) this month:
Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor

Murakami Challenge: 1! (4/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (20/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 1 (32/15)
Japanese Literature Challenge 5: 2 (8/1)

Tony's Recommendation for December is: Haruki Murakami's 1Q84

Just six books to choose from, and for a Murakamiphile like me, it was really an easy decision.  Yes, 1Q84 is flawed (and I will be debating the pros and cons of the book more in the New Year), but it's still a fascinating book, and one which all fans of the Japanese maestro should read.  You're not a fan?  Well, that's a different story...

Drop by again in a few days then, to see my look back at 2011, including a few interesting numbers and my choices for both Turkey of the Year (self-explanatory, surely!) and Book of the Year - don't miss it ;)

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

An Illusion of Freedom

You may remember that during German Literature Month I reviewed Clemens Meyer's collection of short stories, All the Lights, published by And Other Stories, and while I enjoyed it, didn't really find it my kind of book.  However, the other book from the same publishers, the book I had actually asked to be sent, had to wait until late December, pushed down the queue by a whole host of German-language books and a certain Japanese novel you may have heard of...

Argentinian writer Iosi Havilio's Open Door (translated by Beth Fowler), the book I asked to review, is much more my kind of novel.  Set in Buenos Aires and a small country town not far from the Argentinian capital, it explores a year in the life of a person whose partner disappears one day, leaving them to start afresh in a small town.  They somehow stumble into a relationship with a taciturn macho farmer, spending long days doing housework, taking siestas and researching the history of Open Door, a local low-security mental asylum.  Gradually though, attention wanders from the farmer to a teenage girl, a young lady who makes no secret of her attraction to our narrator...

At which point you're probably noticing something unusual in the way this post is unfolding, namely the fact that I haven't actually given you much information about the central character, someone who narrates the story and keeps a lot close to their chest.  We never learn their name, and in fact it takes a long time for their gender to be explicitly revealed (even then, I had some serious doubts for a while!).  Although the disappearance, and possible suicide, of their girlfriend Aída is the catalyst for the events of the story, there is a sense that things are awry well before this.

It is probably no coincidence that when our friend drifts into the arms of the rugged Jaime, it is in the vicinity of Open Door.  After discovering an old book on the 'colony', written in French, a fascination with its workings and history arises, an interest which is more than just a hobby to occupy the time spent waiting for the man of the house to return from work.  In fact, as the novel progresses, the line between the colony and the nearby town blurs and disappears, leaving us to wonder whether there is any difference - and where we actually are...

Havilio's style virtually encourages us to indulge in such speculation, the lack of detail hinting that the truth lies somewhere below the surface, and the book our friend discovers, relating the history of the colony, could just as well be telling us about her life.  In fact, the distinction between the town and the colony seems relatively unimportant, and if you take it a step further, Havilio is suggesting that we are all, in some way, living in our own little colonies.  In the book it says:
"No walls restrict the horizon, nothing to limit the illusion of absolute liberty." p.133
While it is meant to describe the freedom of the patients at Open Door, it may actually be hinting at the illusion most people outside it have of being able to lead free lives...

The relationship the narrator develops with the young Eloísa is also slightly unsettling, seeming as it does to just drift into being, from nowhere (a pattern which many of the events in Open Door follow).  An almost violently-sexual affair develops, with the (presumably) older woman fascinated by the misbehaving teenager - who frequently shows that perhaps she would not be out of place at the colony.  However, it is Eloísa, unable to understand what our friend is doing living with an old man, who says:
"It's madness.  If I didn't know you better I'd say you were wrong in the head." p.185
It's hard not to think that she is on the right track with this comment...

As much as the reader speculates though, the reality is that this is a book which defies interpretation, giving enough up to intrigue us, but nowhere near enough to allow answers to be found.  At times, it all feels a little Kafkaesque, but where the Czech writer's characters charge around in a desperate attempt to find out what on earth is going on, Havilio's creations leave the heavy thinking to the reader, preferring to drink, fornicate and enjoy their siestas while we are wondering what to make of it all.  Is it a story of post-traumatic stress?  Is it an allegory for some aspect of modern life?  Are we meant to suspect that we are all actually living inside an asylum?

Don't ask me (I never claimed to know!).  Read it for yourself, and you might find out - then again, you might not.  In any case, whether you succeed in unravelling the truth or not, you'll certainly have an interesting time :)

Monday, 26 December 2011

A Tortured Mind

If you mention the words 'Japan' and 'short stories' in the same sentence, the chances are that the name Ryunosuke Akutagawa will not be far away.  In terms of importance to the genre (if it is a genre!), Akutagawa is up there with writers like Mansfield, Fitzgerald, Maupassant and Chekhov, despite his untimely death at the age of thirty five.  Over the past few weeks, I finally got around to reading a Penguin collection I bought a good while back, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, a wonderful introduction to the work of one of Japan's most famous writers, and (after leisurely rereading it in its entirety) I thought I'd jot down some idle thoughts :)

The collection has been divided by the translator, Jay Rubin, into four sections, each containing a few stories representing a certain type of tale.  From clever retellings of twelfth-century tales to highly-cathartic personal pieces, the collection is a wealth of fascinating and well-written works, some of which appear here for the first time in English.

The first section, A World in Decay, contains several of Akutagawa's most famous stories, mostly set in the twelfth century, a time when the imperial capital of Kyoto was in decline.  Rashomon tells the tale of a dismissed servant sheltering from the rain under the once-magnificent gate of the title (in Kyoto) and the decision he comes to after taking a look upstairs.  In a Bamboo Grove is a wonderful creation, where seven differing eye-witness accounts are given for a single crime.  The two stories form the basis of Akira Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, with the scene of the title story forming the frame for the longer tale.

The second section, Under the Sword, contains stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the ruling Tokugawas' desire to maintain stability (and power!), led to the implementation of strict behavioural norms, and the persecution of those who followed the recently imported religion of Christianity.  In Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum and O-Gin, we see the two sides of Christian experience in Japan - one a report of a minor miracle, the other telling of a sudden loss of faith.  Loyalty, on the other hand, looks at the consequences of failing to choose the good of the group over the individual, consequences which (as you can imagine) are fairly bloody and gruesome....

The final two sections are concerned with more modern fare.  The third small group of stories, Modern Tragicomedy, contains three tales set in the early twentieth century, of which Horse Legs, the surreal tale of a man brought back from the dead with some unusual additions, is the stand-out.  Finally, Akutagawa's Own Story, six pieces written against the back-drop of the writer's own life, brings the collection to a shuddering, autobiographical (and ultimately untimely...) halt.

It's difficult to give much detail when reviewing such a wide range of stories, but there are probably two which deserve a closer look.  Spinning Gears is the final story in the collection, and, running at just over thirty pages, it is also one of the longest.  We follow Akutagawa as he spends a week or so in Tokyo, writing a new story at a Western hotel and visiting friends in the capital.

It's a hectic affair, not because of a busy schedule but owing to the unceasing stress the writer is (unnecessarily) putting himself under.  Everywhere he goes, he sees patterns - multiple glimpses of men in rain-coats, images of feet with wings, random messages in the pages of books -, and the overall picture is one of a man slowly going mad under the pressure of reconciling his artistic endeavours with his life as a family man.  When you know the outcome of this pressure, it makes for sobering reading...

If Spinning Gears is his late classic though, his early masterpiece was the final story in the first section, Hell Screen.  In this, the longest story presented here, an unnamed narrator tells us of a horrifying event which happened at a royal court in Kyoto.  A wealthy nobleman commands Yoshihide, a famous and eccentric painter, to create a scene on a folding screen depicting the Buddhist hell, and the painter (a man every bit as sadistic and whimsical as the master he serves) comes up with a terrifying masterpiece - but is unable to paint the final, pivotal scene.  He returns to his lord and asks the unthinkable; what is even more unthinkable is that his request is approved...

If you are looking for a story which summarises everything that is wonderful in Akutagawa's writing, this is it.  A lesser writer could have knocked this off in half the space, but Akutagawa uses his canvas (pun intended) to create a narrator who is quite patently lying to us, a genius who will go to any length to complete a painting, a nobleman determined to get his wicked way with a beautiful serving girl - and a monkey (also called Yoshihide!) who is determined to stop him.  Now that's a short story :)

In short, this is a collection which anyone remotely interested in J-Lit or short stories would be well advised to snap up.  There aren't all that many contenders for the most famous and popular Japanese writer, but Akutagawa is certainly one of them.  One last piece of persuasion?  As well as being fully annotated by the admirable Mr. Rubin, this penguin edition also contains an impressive twenty-page introduction by none other than Haruki Murakami.  Now if that doesn't clinch the sale, nothing will...

Friday, 23 December 2011

A Portrait of Two Artists as Unloved Men

Earlier this year, I had one of my periodic bouts of RSI, and as a result, there are several gaps in my reviews for 2011.  Now, as we're coming up to the end of the year, I thought it would be nice to go back and revisit a few of the shorter pieces and give them the publicity they deserve, which is why today I'm reviewing a couple of German classics, both concerned with writers and unrequited love...

I read Tonio Kröger on my Kindle a good while back now, but when I saw a cheap edition featuring this story and another of Thomas Mann's novellas, Mario und der Zauberer, I couldn't resist.  At the start of Tonio Kröger, our eponymous hero is a young boy growing up in a north-German town, the product of a marriage between a local businessman and a southern-European beauty.  Different from the locals in many ways (not least of which is his bi-cultural name), he falls in love with two examples of the Aryan folk around him: the popular Hans Hansen and the beautiful Inge Holm, neither of whom really feel the same way about him.

We fast forward a couple of decades, and now Kröger is a successful writer living in Munich.  In an attempt to relax, and get over some writing issues, he decides to take a trip to Denmark (taking in his old hometown on the way), ending up at a quiet coastal resort.  One day, after several weeks of tranquillity, a party of guests arrives, shattering the peace and quiet Kröger craves - and among them are two very familiar blond figures...

The story will ring a whole group of bells with anyone who has ever read Death in Venice, and there are many similarities with the more famous novella (although this one has a slightly less depressing ending!).  As is often the case in his work, Mann is exploring here the difficulties of being an artist, at the same time drawing deeply on his personal history to paint a picture of a Bohemian from a middle-class family.  It can be a little patronising when Kröger looks down on the attempts of working men to create their own little works of art, and his plea to keep literature away from those 'normal', happy folk who don't need it is a little bizarre...

Despite this though, Tonio Kröger is a wonderful piece of writing.  You feel as if you are actually there with our unusually-named friend, walking around the old walls of Lübeck in the rain with Hans Hansen, crossing the sea to Denmark on a stormy night, sitting on the beach watching the grey-tipped waves roll in from a grey horizon...  It's one of those stories which will be a constant companion in the years to come, a perfect book to curl up with in winter, when all you want is warmth, a cup of tea and a well-written story.  Happily, I now have my paper copy for that very purpose - reading it on my Kindle just isn't the same...

...which is not to say that my little electronic friend is not useful in its own right.  After all, my first reading of Tonio Kröger was in digital form, and were it not for free e-copies of classics, it's doubtful that I would have got into the author of the next of today's stories.

Earlier this year, I downloaded several of Theodor Storm's short stories and novellas and had a wonderful few days losing myself in his storytelling world.  The best (and most famous) of these is Immensee (Lake of Bees), an evocative, and almost painful, tale of missed opportunity.  The story, divided up into about eight short sections, is contained within a frame narrative: an old, stern-looking man walks home and goes to his study, where he sits alone in the twilight.  When the fading light hits a portrait hanging on the wall, he mutters the name 'Elisabeth' - and memories come flooding back...

The real story then begins, and the reader is taken through the childhood of young Reinhard and his younger neighbour, Elisabeth.  The two children spend all their free time together, and it is clear from the start that theirs is a love waiting to happen.  Reinhard later leaves to study in the city, and Elisabeth is left behind to wait for his return.  Sadly though, a lot can happen in a couple of years - the next time the young couple meet, by the Immensee, Elisabeth is a married woman...

Ouch.  It's painful just writing about it :(  Not a lot happens in Immensee, but what does happen is unveiled in such wonderful language, such precise, elegant prose, that it stays with the reader long after the story is over.  Parallels abound in the story, from the two encounters Reinhard has with gypsy musicians, to the white lily floating in the lake, a beautiful flower which, on closer approach, is unattainable - just like Elisabeth herself.  On the last day the pair are to spend together, Reinhard points at the mountains and says:
"Elisabeth... hinter jenen blauen Bergen liegt unsere Jugend.  Wo ist sie geblieben?"
       "Elisabeth ... behind those blue mountains lies our youth.  Where did it go?"
Shortly afterwards, the story ends, and we return to our old man sitting alone in his study, the darkness engulfing him as the black waters of the Immensee once did.

Excuse me while I get myself a tissue...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Lifestyles of the Fairly Rich and not Awfully Famous

This year, just as in 2010, I decided to take up the Aussie Author Challenge, run by Jo of Booklover Book Reviews, and I'm extremely happy with the results.  In 2011, I've managed to read a staggering twenty books by Australian writers, easily my best-ever total, and I'll be back to do it all again next year!  So, to finish off the challenge, here are reviews of two more books: one which I didn't get around to reviewing at the time of reading (the only one of my Aussie reads this year without a review...), and one more entertaining novel to finish off the year in style :)

Indelible Ink is a book I heard about in an interview with Christos Tsiolkas, and which I reserved at the library while under the influence of a few glasses of Shiraz one Saturday night.  A couple of days later, I read Bree's post on the book and began to have second thoughts about the whole affair (the hangover probably didn't help either).  Luckily though, I gave it a go and was pleasantly surprised; it's a book which is well worth the effort.

Indelible Ink is set in the Sydney of a few years back and is centred on Marie, a well-off, middle-aged divorcée.  Despite a generous settlement, her lack of a head for numbers means that she has begun to slide into debt, and the only way out is to sell the family home - a multi-million dollar mansion with harbour views.  Unable to make up her mind to cast her old life away, she one day decides to get a tattoo - and this is the catalyst for a radical change of lifestyle...

You wouldn't be alone in thinking that Marie doesn't sound all that sympathetic a character (it is difficult to feel sorry for someone who is sitting on - or in - a few million dollars), but luckily that's not the intent.  Marie is well aware that the sale is the result of her own shortcomings, and it is her decision to throw caution to the wind (in this case, the lovely breeze coming off the harbour) that wins the reader over.  Besides, if you think Marie sounds a little vapid and shallow, just wait until you meet her family and friends.

This review would be a lot longer if I hadn't read the book about six months ago, but you don't really need to know much more about it than the fact that I liked it and would thoroughly recommend it.  It's an interesting insight into how the other half lives, and a peep behind the iron curtain the rich keep to cover their private lives, showing the dysfunctionality that lies behind.  And we all love a little voyeurism now and then...

The reader is also given a small glimpse of the high life in Nick Earls' latest novel, The Fix.  Set, as usual, up in sunny Brisbane, The Fix is a story of a story, and how things are never quite what they seem.  Josh has just come back to Australia after a few years working as a spin doctor in London, and while he is waiting to get back into his first love of journalism (and writing a newspaper blog to earn a few bucks in the meantime!), he is approached to carry out a PR campaign for a lawyer receiving a medal for bravery.

For someone used to saving the backsides of big, nasty corporations, it sounds like an easy gig.  One problem though is that the lawyer is Josh's old friend Ben, who we suspect may have hurt Josh in the past.  As the novel progresses, it's also clear that Ben's reluctance to talk about what happened in the 'siege' has less to do with his feelings towards Josh, and more to do with the truth of the whole affair...

I was a little hesitant on starting this book because Earls is a writer who started off writing lad-lit in the vein of Nick Hornby and Mike Gayle, and I wasn't sure if an older, more literary me would still enjoy his work (Gayle is one whose books I now avoid...).  An hour later, and a hundred pages down, I was safely able to take those fears and dump them in the Brisbane river; The Fix is a riveting read.

There were a few uncomfortable moments (I'm not sure a scene with a Korean businessman was strictly necessary, or appropriate), but what I like about Earls is that he has kept his earlier eye for the humorous side of life and combined it with a more developed sense of the darkness that lies beneath it.  The longer the book goes on, the more uneasy Ben becomes - and the more obsessed the reader becomes with uncovering the truth.  But what is 'truth', and is it ever possible to get to the bottom of anything, particularly someone's character?

On starting this post, I was thinking of writing something about how Earls has moved on from lad-lit and is working towards writing more complex and literary novels, thinking that this one would be another step in the same direction.  After finishing the book, I would have to say that I've changed my mind - this is the book that marks him as more than a humorous chronicler of the lives of thirty-something Brisbanites.  The descriptive writing may not be as elegant as I might want it to be, but The Fix is a fabulous, multi-layered work which will, I'm sure, stand up to rereading.

And that makes me very happy :)

Monday, 19 December 2011

Rocking Out In The Snow

Last week, somewhere on the net (alas, my memory has failed me here), I came across a mention of Mikael Niemi's Popular Music, a coming-of-age novel set in the far northern provinces of Sweden, and I decided I wanted to reread it.  So I did.  Life really can be that simple sometimes :)

I got the book as a Christmas present a good six or seven years ago, and while I remember liking it, I hadn't read it since.  On a second reading, it hasn't lost any of its charm; in fact, I probably enjoyed it more this time around.  Popular Music (translated by Laurie Thompson) follows Matti - a thinly disguised Niemi, no doubt -, a young Swedish boy beginning to move through the treacherous time between childhood and manhood.

Living in an Arctic village so remote that most Swedes would have trouble pin-pointing it on the map, the male residents of Pajala are encouraged to be manly and, above all, to avoid any activity regarded as knapsu (unmanly, effeminate or - my preferred interpretation - poncy).  Probably not a good idea to be the lead singer of a pre-pubescent rock band then...

The book is structured into a series of loosely-linked stories, following Matti (and his best friend Niila) from elementary-school days to late teens, and the narrator tells the story in the first-person, looking back at his distant youth.  However, he's not always your standard narrator; at times, he can go off into flights of fantasy, and some of the earlier stories seem to be told more by the boy than the man (unless you believe that Matti really did spend a winter cooped up in an old boiler before bursting out in the Spring!).

Life in the region of Tornedalen was not a particularly easy one, and although Niemi's style is light and playful, the events he describes are not always so fluffy.  In an area of great isolation, alcoholism, casual sex and violence are rife, and while Matti himself has a relatively normal family and upbringing, some of his friends, in particular the hapless Niila, appear lucky to reach adulthood unscathed.  Of course, a part of growing up is learning how to cope with adversity, and it isn't long before Niila and his brothers start to rebel against their strict and unnecessarily cruel upbringing...

Another interesting result of the isolation is the cultural and linguistic diversity on display.  Marooned in the frozen north, close to the Finnish border, the residents are seen as country hicks by those from the south, and this is shown in the school scenes, where the children who can only speak Finnish (or the local dialect) are hesitant to even open their mouths.

Of course, this goes both ways, and the northerners are scornful of the 'soft' Southerners, with their fancy inventions like electric saunas...  When the families gather for weddings or funerals, the interplay between the various family members, those who emigrated, those who moved to Gothenburg or Stockholm, and those who stayed behind in Pajala, is a fascinating study for anyone interested in intercultural communication.  Or domestic arguments ;)

In the end though, Popular Music is primarily about Matti and his friends in the band.  As the years go by, Matti and Niila are joined by the guitar prodigy Holgeri and the rhythmically-challenged (but usefully-muscled) Erkki on drums, and by the end of the story, our fab four have finally started to perform real music in front of actual audiences.  We leave them (literally!) at a crossroads, flat out in the snow with the whole world ahead of them.  Despite a rather poignant epilogue, it is this image of joy and hope that the reader takes with them on finishing the book.  And a wonderful one it is too...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

1Q84 (Book Three) - Anthony Trollope Allays Your Moral Concerns

Recently, a document of remarkable literary importance was found in an old house in Tokyo.  Incredibly, as strange as this may sound, it appears to have a bearing on a modern work of literature.  Scholars are currently authenticating the document in the hope of unravelling its meaning...

Good evening, one and all.  My name is Anthony Trollope, and I recently received a request to rewrite the third volume of a remarkable novel which has just come to light.  It is not my usual work - I am more of a writer than a rewriter -, but, as we all know, even Shakespeare wrote for money!  The reason for this most peculiar task is that my editor (a fine fellow) has high hopes for this young chap; however, he feels that his writing is most inappropriate for a readership raised on good, stout English principles, and it is my duty to amend the text to make it safer, and more palatable, for the public at large.

Let me tell you all a little about the author and his novel.  His name, according to my editor, is Mr. Haruki Murakami, and I am led to believe that he is an educated young man from the islands of Japan.  He has produced a most imaginative piece of writing entitled "1Q84", where the title refers to an alternative 1884, one in which Japan is a most civilised country (and not the barbarian backwater it is now!).  In choosing to place the action of his novel in the future, young Mr. Murakami has taken certain liberties with what is acceptable in polite society, and it is precisely this aspect of his work which I will be discussing today.  The antics his characters get up to are certainly very far from the way we live now!

There are two main characters in "1Q84", Miss Aomame and Mr. Tengo Kawana, and it is with Miss Aomame that I would like to begin today.  It really is an indictment on Mr. Murakami that an attractive young woman should be left unchaperoned to wander around the metropolis, and I am afraid that the disgraceful consequences which arise from this are a clear lesson to us all of the folly of giving young ladies more independence.  Not content with "working" for a living, she is even permitted to live completely alone!  I intend to introduce a sprightly duenna, Lady Murasaki, who will be able to keep a watchful eye on our murderous young reprobate - there will be no wandering the streets of Tokyo on her watch!

I am also extremely concerned about young Mr. Kawana, a man who really should be making more of his life, what with his undoubted mental capacity and literary prowess.  It troubles me to see the time he wastes on unnecessary thought, when he should be devoting all of his energies to the literary arts.  A man with such an inordinate amount of leisure time and no published novel!  I am currently working on three manuscripts in addition to this minor rewriting task!!!

Of course, my readership would be most keen for this romance to come to its natural conclusion.  Young Tengo, as befits a gentleman, will do the honest thing by Lady Murasaki's charge, and the culmination of my version of the novel will be the wedding of Mr. Kawana and Miss Aomame at Barchester Cathedral.  Quite how I intend to get them there is an issue I am yet to resolve - but you may rest assured that there will be no suspicion of any bump under the wedding gown...

However, the moral intransigence of "1Q84" is by no means limited to our two young friends, I'm afraid.  There is a wide cast of minor characters, many of whom will need to be considerably rewritten if they are not to offend the delicate nature of our potential readers.  Miss Havisham The Dowager, a wonderfully-drawn widow, is perhaps one of the least offensive and morally corrupt personages, and it is wonderful to see how she has established an abode for women who have failed to fulfil their marital duties, providing them with a home until they are ready to return to the rigours of their home obligations.  Perhaps we could tone down the mercilessly-seeking-out-and-killing-overbearing-husbands part though - a gentle ticking-off, delivered by an amiable policeman, should do the trick.

Now, one man who would be quite at home in an English three-volume novel is the fascinating Mr. Ushikawa, the gentleman (although I use the expression in the loosest sense) with the shabby attire and a marvellously misshapen head.  Despite his uncouth behaviour, I admire Mr. Ushikawa greatly.  He is a most fascinating creation, and, were I to be cynical, I would suspect that our old friend Mr. Dickens might have had a role in assisting young Murakami in his formation.  I really cannot see any pressing need to change his character at all; however, I'm sure my audience would enjoy his demise more if the lodgings he meets his fate in were a tad darker and even more insalubrious.

Another character who will have to learn his place is the Dowager's valet, Mr. Tamaru.  Quite why our valiant widow should have selected such a queer fish to serve in her establishment is beyond me, and I shall be making certain that this scoundrel gets his just deserts.  I should think that a short spell in one of his Imperial Majesty's prisons will do the trick - either that or transportation (does Japan have any colonies?  I must ask Mr. Murakami about this).  What's that you say?  Wouldn't he be hung for his crime?  Oh dear me, no, these are more enlightened times - sodomy is a relatively minor offence these days...

There is a lot for me to work out here, but I do think that I shall be able to make a fairly passable story out of this last volume.  By making the alterations mentioned above, and smoothing out a few of the rougher edges (I shall certainly be removing all of this nonsense about the 'Little People' - I mean, really!), the book should be ready for serialisation within a month or so.  Oh, and of course we will be adding a hunting scene (perhaps a thrilling chase after a cunning fox - or cat! - around Shibuya station?  That sounds like a nice, leafy estate for a run.).  I shall let you know how it all goes once I have completed the task.

I just hope I have the time to give it the justice it deserves.  I recently had an idea for a series of books about a politician, and I suspect that I may get a little distracted from the task in hand.  Wait - now if I also added an Irishman and a story about some missing diamonds...

The document ends abruptly here.  We will inform the public of any discoveries we make regarding the writing of this invaluable piece of literary history.

Monday, 12 December 2011

1Q84 (Book Two) - A Brief Chat with Mr. Ushikawa

You, the reader, are seated in a rather uncomfortable plastic chair in a rather depressing-looking room.  Having arrived to complain about Book Two of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, you were shown into this room and asked to take a seat.  The room is fairly dark, despite the sunlight coming in from between the blinds over the window, and it actually takes a good minute or two before you realise that you are not alone...

Over in a corner, a man is smoking a cigarette - as your eyes start to adjust, you see a packet of Seven Stars on the table.  But it is the man, not the cigarette packet that draws your attention.  Dressed in a crumpled old grey suit, which looks like it has spent the last few years screwed up in a bottom drawer, the man is perhaps one of the most unusual (and disturbing) figures you have seen in a good while.  His head has a most unusual shape - lumpy, asymmetrical -, and his bushy eyebrows almost join, reaching towards each other across the wrinkle-lined space above his bulbous nose...

As the smoke from the cigarette drifts over to you, you wrinkle up your nose, ready to ask the man to put it out.  However, before you do, the man begins to speak...

"I do apologise, a filthy habit I know, but what can you do?"  He raises his eyebrows, stubs out the cigarette (on what looks suspiciously like a rubber plant), and walks across to the table.  "I apologise for the inconvenience," he says, waving an arm languidly around the room, "but we have no better room free at the moment - the Foundation is currently very busy...  Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Ushikawa."  He leans across the table, offering his hand to be shaken.  You stare at him, unwilling to reciprocate.  "Ah, yes, I understand."  He drops his hand and sits down in the chair opposite you.  And smiles.  A mouthful of uneven, yellowing teeth appear, like a set of dirty dominoes in a worn black box.  He continues talking, leaning earnestly across the table.

"I understand that you are, shall we say, less than satisfied with the second book, and I fully understand that, I really do," he smiles, trying to convince you of his apparent understanding with a display of his uneven teeth, "but I think it would be very rash to give up on Mr. Murakami's work so close to the end.  I do understand," he quickly spits out, trying to preempt the objection rising in your throat, "that you are a very busy person and that you have a limited amount of time to spend on reading and reviewing - we at the foundation, and my employers, have a great deal of respect for your ability and judgement as a blogger," - a pause, and another smile - " however, we feel that perhaps you have been somewhat negatively influenced by certain, shall we say, unfortunate reviews which may have been written recently..."

You shift position slightly in your chair, showing a little impatience at Ushikawa's manner, but he appears calm and cheerful, unaware of the hostility you are projecting.  He sits back in his chair, puts his hands on his knees and continues with his virtual monologue.  "Now I'm sure that one of your main problems was the pace of the narrative... is that the right word, 'narrative'?"  You nod, almost involuntarily.  Ushikawa smiles again.  "Yes, that's right, the slow narrative."  A pause.  "But, you see, while unfortunate , this waiting was most unavoidable.  Aomame's meeting with Leader, this was the focal point of the novel, the point to which all roads were leading, and, indeed, from which they all moved away.  It is inevitable, is it not, that the writer would want to create some tension, to give the scene the weight it deserves, no?"

Ushikawa leans forward slowly, spreading his stick-like arms wide in an apparent act of supplication.  You nod your head slightly, and then kick yourself for doing so.  Ushikawa smiles again, that wide, eery display of the mangled ivory, and nods himself, as if in acknowledgement of a job well done.

"I would imagine that another of the issues you may have with the book is one of repetition", Ushikawa continues.  "The two moons, the scene in the classroom...", he smiles again, almost a leer this time, "even the rather unflattering descriptions of me and my misshapen head...  But you see, this is a very long book.  I agree, the lengthy speech Tengo gives beside his father's sick bed, or rather", he interrupts himself, "a kind of soliloquy, a ponderous recap of all that has happened to him - yes, that may be a little unnecessary..."  He pauses and looks you in the eye.  "I am quite sure that you, as a very intelligent reader and writer, are in no need of such repetition, but you have to think of others, those who do not read so regularly, or perhaps so quickly.  Do you not see a need for a little aid to the memory on occasion?".

On saying this, Ushikawa tilts his head to one side, shrugs his shoulders and extends his arms to the side, grinning his eery smile.  He holds this pose for what seems like an eternity until, out of sheer embarrassment, you give a slight, barely perceptible nod.  This slightest of movements, however, appears to satisfy him.  He settles back into his chair, crosses his legs and looks up at the ceiling, as if to ponder his next words.  You watch as the yellowing fingers on his right hand move rapidly and smoothly, a somewhat worrying action until you realise that he is playing with an imaginary cigarette...

"Of course," he says in a somewhat disconsolate voice, "I can see why you may be offended by certain events in this section of the book, events of a, shall we say, sexual nature?"  He glances over at you, raising his large, bushy eyebrows so high that they almost disappear into the mass of hair on the top of his misshapen head.  You squirm in your seat and look away, concentrating your gaze on the rubber plant in the corner.  Ushikawa smiles and carries on.

"Whether you are offended with what happens, or just with the clumsy way in which Mr. Murakami expresses it, I can fully understand, but I can assure you that there is a method in his madness...".  You look up, intrigued despite yourself.  Ushikawa smirks and says "Yes, I too know a little Shakespeare...".  He winks, and you slouch down in your chair, wishing you were somewhere, anywhere else.

"Yes, if you read further, you will see that all is not quite as it appears.  The, ahem, intercourse featured is there for a reason, it's a somewhat pivotal point of the plot.  I do understand that this scene can appear a little distasteful, especially given the age of one of the... participants," Ushikawa raises his eyebrows again, sending you further into your seat, "but perhaps your cultural sensitivities are a little different to ours.  I am not making excuses, I am just giving explanations." He shrugs.  "I am merely following the orders of those who employ me..."

You lean forward, and, for the first time, you decide to speak.  "But that's not really enough, Mr. Ushikawa.  Can't you explain a little more, enough to make me think it's really worthwhile continuing with the book?"  Ushikawa sits back and beams, his yellow teeth shining in all their gaping glory.  He waits a moment, obviously enjoying himself, before standing up and leaning towards you.  "If you can't understand it without an explanation, you can't understand it with an explanation...", he says, and turns towards the door.  As he takes a few steps towards the exit, you decide to ask one last question...

"Why should I trust you, Mr. Ushikawa?"

He stops, turns to face you and stares deep into your eyes.  All traces of his smile are gone; only a tired, time-worn face remains.  He waits, staring until, abashed, you have to lower your eyes.  He sighs and replies, "Well, if you read Book Three, you may well find out...".  With this, he leaves the room.

You stay seated, Ushikawa's last words echoing around your head.  And - just as Ushikawa knew you would - you decide to give 1Q84 one last try...

Thursday, 8 December 2011

1Q84 (Book One) - Split-Decision

It is getting late, and Tony is still pacing around his study, mulling over the events of Book One of Haruki Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84.  He is tired, but he feels that he won't be able to sleep until he at least begins to get some ideas down,

so he walks over to the computer and begins typing...

so he walks over to the computer... then he changes his mind.  The next day, after a good sleep, some exercise and a light dinner, he decides to spend the evening typing up his review...

1Q84 is, so far at least, a rather intriguing book (fairly intimidating in its gargantuan physical appearance) and both familiar and unfamiliar to those who have already spent many an evening exploring Murakami's worlds.  At the start of the novel, Aomame, a twenty-nine-year-old woman, is sitting in a taxi, stuck in traffic in mid-eighties' Tokyo.  On the advice of her driver, she gets out and climbs down an emergency ladder by the side of the expressway.  From this moment on, the world she is living in seems somewhat unusual, different from the one she is used to, and she decides to name this reality 1Q84, with the Q standing for question mark.

Meanwhile, Tengo, a young maths teacher with literary aspirations, is asked by his editor to polish up a first novel by a mysterious young writer.  Despite his initial hesitation, he decides to accept the task, one which leads him into a series of bizarre occurrences, which may or may not have something to do with a mysterious cult.  Oh, and there might also be a link to Aomame there somewhere too...

Tony writes that if you were in a critical mood, it would be easy to think that Murakami is repeating himself here, as anyone with more than a passing knowledge of his back catalogue will be able to spot parallels with earlier works. Tony decides to focus on the wonderful parallels with Murakami's earlier works and the way in which the writer has taken ideas and themes from other novels and integrated them here in what will probably turn out to be a much more ambitious and fascinating novel.

Evil cult?  Try his non-fiction work, Underground.  Mysterious old lady and talented young man providing an unusual and discreet service?  I'll raise you Cinnamon and Nutmeg from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  Dual-stranded plot, and alternating chapters with a fantasy slant?  Hard-Boiled Wonderland..., anyone?  By opting for a two-strand approach to the novel, one previously used in Hard-Boiled Wonderland..., Murakami opens up more scope to pursue his ideas, and he is able to use the themes he has worked on in his past fiction to work around the fascinating topic of one of his non-fiction books, the rise of the cult in modern Japan.  Obviously, Murakami-san is a little light on new ideas...

...and this new book is full of info-dumping, long paragraphs of 'necessary' information, thrown into the path of the narrative, bringing it to a shuddering halt, and, of course, running at over 900 pages in this version, 1Q84 is a densely-plotted book, with a wide selection of characters and appropriate pacing - if you're going to cover 900+ pages of writing, you don't want to push things along too quickly at the start!

Of the two main characters, Tengo is the more familiar to Murakami lovers, another example of the writer's everyman characters, ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations, a pale shadow, a bad imitation of earlier characters like Toru Okada or the 'boku' of Murakami's early fiction.  A time-wasting, unambitious teacher, too weak to actually break into the literary world, things just happen to him, and he is actually slightly more distanced than Murakami's usual protagonists, allowing us to be a little more detached, not looking over his shoulder, allowing us to see more of him than is usually the case (perhaps something which makes him more three-dimensional?).

Aomame is a rather more intriguing development though.  Several of Murakami's earlier works featured young women as secondary characters, many of them slightly kooky and special (for example, the pink-loving home-schooled grand-daughter in Hard-Boiled Wonderland..., or the precocious neighbour in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), but here we have one of these bit parts elevated to centre stage, and it shows that Murakami struggles with writing believable women because Aomame is a very thin character.  While Tengo is a knock-off, at least he is a well-rounded one - Aomame could be ripped directly from a straight-to-video Hollywood/Kung Fu movie...

And Murakami's demeaning attitude towards women just gets worse with the way he has Aomame and Yuki sleep around, the constant references to needing sex, the unnecessary lesbian experiences.  At times, you think the story is turning into soft porn, but the more you read, the more you realise that these outward shows of sexuality may be rooted in something deeper, and darker.  The slow pace of the novel allows the writer to gradually reveal elements of his characters' earlier lives, changing what could be pornographic into thought-provoking and worrying.  And as we are in 1Q84 (and not 1984!), we're never really sure how much of the action to take on face value...

Tony stands up, stretches and walks over to the window in his study.
Tony stands up, stretches and walks over to the window in his study.
He yawns, rubs his eyes and starts as thunder cracks outside.
He yawns, rubs his eyes and starts as thunder cracks outside.
Wanting to look out at the approaching storm, he opens the blinds -
Wanting to look out at the approaching storm, he opens the blinds -

He stops, puzzled.
Somehow, the sky looks slightly odd tonight...

Monday, 5 December 2011

Diamonds Are A Girl's Worst Enemy

After a hard month reading and reviewing German literature, it's time to kick off my shoes and slip into something a little more comfortable, and those of you who have been around my blog for a while will know that there's little I find as comforting as a reread of some of my favourite Victorian literature.  So today, for the third time this year, we're heading back into Anthony Trollope's Palliser Novels for a little R & R - slippers please...

The Eustace Diamonds is the third of Trollope's 'political' Palliser novels, but it is perhaps the least political of them all.  The story centres around Lady Elizabeth Eustace (known to her friends as Lizzie), a young, beautiful widow, who has made her fortune by capturing the hand of a Lord, shortly before his death through dissipation.  Not content with being left money, property and a regular income in her husband's will, Lizzie decides to appropriate a diamond necklace which is in her possession at the time of her husband's death - an ornament which the family lawyers are not prepared to let her have.

Lizzie, attempting to brazen out the situation, decides that her case will be better served by finding a new partner to fight her battles for her; the only problem is that the men she considers as potential partners all want her to give the diamonds back.  As the cunning Lady regards her potential beaus (the dull but steady Lord Fawn, her manly barrister cousin Frank Greystock, and the slightly dangerous Lord George de Bruce Carruthers), she continues to fight off the best attempts of the lawyers to seize the jewels.  Until, that is, someone else takes an interest in the precious stones...

I'll get it out in the open at once - The Eustace Diamonds is one of my least favourite Trollope books.  I had that feeling before starting it this time, and my opinion certainly hadn't changed by the time I got to the last page.  Although the Pallisers are mentioned several times over the course of the two volumes, the reality is that this is a stand-alone novel, and one which (in my opinion) overstays its welcome.

The key to the novel is the character of Lizzie Eustace, a no-good, cunning, treacherous gold-digger, who would remind any well-read Victorian of Thackeray's own villainess, Becky Sharpe.  To succeed in her intrigues though, Lizzie needs the men surrounding her to be almost as bad as she is, and this is where Trollope falls down a little in this book.  The world seems incapable of doing anything about Lizzie's antics, and despite Trollope's constant explanations as to why people are content to have the wool pulled over their eyes, it feels like a bit of a hollow argument.

Of course, it's not all bad (I wouldn't be reading it if it was...).  Lizzie is gradually worn down over the course of time by the pressure of having to fight for 'her' diamonds, and the writer describes Lizzie's psychological ordeal perfectly.  In fact, the diamonds almost become a character in their own right, one whose whereabouts are of pivotal importance to the story.  The idea of an item of great value becoming a burden not worth keeping, but equally something which you cannot part from, is not exactly unique in literature (my precious...), and Trollope almost makes you pity poor Lizzie - but not quite ;)

As always, Trollope also has a keen eye for the problems of Victorian women in their quest to be well married and less of a burden for those who must support them.  Quite apart from Lizzie's own need for a husband, there are several other marriage sub-plots, not all of which end well.  In particular, the frightening engagement of Lucinda Roanoake, a beautiful young American, and Sir Griffin Tewett, a brutal aristocrat, a 'romance' which ends with suspected mental illness, is one to put you off marriage for life...

At the end of the day though, I was very glad to get to the end of the novel, anticipating happier times when the series moves on to the next stop, Phineas Redux, featuring the return of our Irish friend Phineas Finn.  And, coincidentally, it was a character from Phineas Finn, Lord Chiltern, who best summed up my feelings about The Eustace Diamonds on the very last page:
"I never was so sick of anything in my life as I am of Lady Eustace.  People have talked about her now for the last six months... And all that I can hear of her is, that she has told a lot of lies and lost a necklace."
I couldn't have put it better myself  :)

Thursday, 1 December 2011

November 2011 Wrap-Up - German Literature Month

November (of course) has been dominated by German Literature Month, and this is reflected in my list for the month - not a word of English to be seen :)  I have thoroughly enjoyed my few weeks of Teutonic texts, but I'm also glad to have it behind me as I really need a break from the frequent posting it entailed ;)

It would be remiss of me to end the month without a shout-out to the wonderful organisers of the whole affair, Lizzy and Caroline.  I'm sure it was a nightmare keeping everything running smoothly, and it didn't show at all: DANKE SCHÖN!!!   

Seriously though, it has been a wonderful opportunity to discuss German-language books, something that can be difficult (certain of my G-Lit posts in the past have generated exactly zero comments...).  I've also found a lot of new bloggers who read and review the same kind of books I do - a relief after the disaster that was BBAW...

I greatly enjoyed the two read-alongs, the first I've participated in, as it was refreshing to get to see so many different opinions on one book.  I was even inspired to watch a film version of one of the books - even if it was a rather old, staid adaptation ;)  You want more?  How about my three-part Kafka tribute play?  Or my first ever post in German?  Now that is one busy month!

I get the feeling you're still expecting something else though...  Oh, alright, here are the numbers :)

Total Books Read: 11
Year-to-date: 117

New: 11
Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 6
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 5

Novels: 3
Novellas: 7
Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 11 (11 German)
In Original Language: 11 (11 German)

Books read in November were:
1) Das Schloß by Franz Kafka (Act One, Act Two, Act Three, Director's Cut)
5) Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (19/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 3 (31/15)
Japanese Literature Challenge 5: 0 (6/1)

Tony's Recommendation for November is: Stefan Zweig's Schachnovelle

I had a good think about this one!  I thoroughly enjoyed the Gothic stylings of Die schwarze Spinne, and as an introduction to Stefan Zweig, Schachnovelle was a real pleasure.  However, I'm a big fan of Fontane's work (and a big fan of novels over novellas), so his classic story of marriage and betrayal just about squeaks home as Klassenprimus this month.  But only just :)  Sorry, there's been a recount.  After rereading Schachnovelle, I've decided that Zweig is the winner by a nose.  No correspondence will be entered into ;)

December?  Rest, a slow-down in posting, and a fair proportion of rereading old friends I suspect.  Mind you, I've said that before...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

We Are The Champions, My Friend(s)

As the bus heads back into Germany, it's time for one last journey to round off German Literature Month...
[Hisses, screeches and various high-pitched noises.  Hmm, it appears the simultaneous translation unit on the bus has finally packed up - no wonder after a month's hard work...]

Na ja, weiter geht's.  Kurz vor Beginn des Monats der deutschsprachigen Literatur, hat eine Bloggerin mich aufgefordert etwas auf deutsch zu schreiben.  Natürlich, habe ich die Idee sofort kategorisch abgelehnt, aber da einer unseren Reiseführerinnen, Lizzy, sich an genau diese mutige Tat gewagt hat, musste ich noch einmal darüber nachdenken.  Deswegen (nur deswegen - und zum ersten und allerletzten Mal) gibt es heute in Tony's Reading List eine Rezension in der deutschen Sprache - auch wenn es mir höchstwahrscheinlich nicht ganz fehlerfrei gelingen wird...

Der Sonntag, an dem ich Weltmeister wurde ist eine autobiographische Erzählung von Friedrich Christian Delius, der Autor von dem mittlerweile auch in der englischen Sprache ziemlich bekannten Buch Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau.  Das Ganze spielt sich im Laufe eines einzigen Tages ab, aber es ist kein normaler Tag - denn am 4. Juli 1954 fand in Bern das Endspiel der Fußball-Weltmeisterschaft statt, bei dem die Deutsche Nationalmannschaft, die absolute Außenseiter, gegen die legendäre Ungarische Auswahl auftreten musste.

An diesem Tag, wird ein elf-jähriger Junge (vermutlich Delius selber) um sieben Uhr früh von Kircheglocken in der Kleinstadt Wehrda in Hessen plötzlich (und widerwillig) erweckt.  Als der junge Pfarrerssohn zu seinen Sinnen kommt, erinnert er sich an das Endspiel, und danach tut er sein bestes um durch den langweiligen Sonntag zu kommen, bis er sich das Spiel im Radio anhören darf.

Dass ein Junge in die Kirche geht, und danach zweistundenlang vor dem Radio hockt, klingt nicht besonders interessant, aber Delius (natürlich) hat viel mehr zu sagen.  Die Erzählung hat mit einem Wendepunkt zu tun - die Zeit wo die Westdeutschen, vielleicht zum ersten Mal seit dem Ende des Krieges, sich als Sieger fühlen durften.  Für unseren jungen Freund ist es aber auch ein Wendepunkt, da dieser Sonntag der Anfang von einem geistigen Kampf wird.  Der Junge, streng religiös erzogen, wird zum ersten Mal von anderen Göttern versucht - elf Männern und deren Trainer...

Das Thema von Fußball als Religion wird öfters im Laufe der Geschichte erwähnt.  Unser junger Held ist verblüfft als er bei einer Parade des deutschen Torwarts Turek hört:
"Turek, du bist ein Teufelskerl!  Turek, du bist ein Fußballgott!" s.93, Rowohlt (2004)
Zuerst hat der Kerl angst, dass er beim Radio hören sündigt, besonders als der Reporter, erinnernd an den goldenen Kalb, sagt das Turek Gold wert sei.  Allmählich aber, beginnt er richtig mitzufiebern, und bis dem Ende des Buches (und des Spiels), hat der Fußballfan den frommen Pfarrerssohn längst beiseite geschoben.

Dem Reporter hat der Torwart offensichtlich mächtig imponiert, da immer wieder von Turek die Rede ist.   Am Anfang des Spieles, lesen wir wie:
"Er hob seine große, segnende Wunderhände...", s.53
Na ja, dass der Torwart in solchen Worten beschrieben wird, sollte eigentlich keine Überraschung sein - jeder weiß dass Jesus rettet... (Entschuldigung bitte!)

Aber das Spiel wird nicht nur in religöser Sprache beschrieben, sondern auch als ein Art Krieg.  In der Zeitung am Vorabend stehen solche Sprüche wie "Sind die Ungarn zu stoppen?" und "Deutsche Nationalelf will den Himmel stürmen." (s.63/4), und später lobt der reporter die "Angriffsmaschine" (s.93) der Ungarn.  So was kommt ja vor im Sport, aber wenn der Leser das alles vergleicht, mit dem was zu der Zeit draußen in der Welt passierte, ist das einem fast peinlich.  An den Krieg, obwohl er eigentlich längst Geschichte geworden ist, wird man jeden Tag erinnert, entweder von der leeren Stuhl am Tisch beim Essen oder von den vorbeigehenden Amputierten in den Straßen.  Und da die Ostzone "...gleich hinter den nächsten Bergen..." (s.37) ist, ist die Rede von Angriff und Abwehr besonders zutreffend...

Legen wir aber die weitere, weltliche Bedeutung der Behandlung zur Seite, da das Buch genau so viel spricht über die Probleme des Jungens als die der Welt.  Das arme Kind hat etliche Probleme - er hat Schuppen an Knien und Ellenbogen, er ist ziemlich klein und ungeschickt, und (was viel schlimmer ist) er stammelt und stottert.  Für ihn ist das Spiel eine Rettung aus dem alltäglichen Leben, wo Andere für ihn spielen können.  In diesem Hinsicht, erinnert mich Der Sonntag, an dem ich Weltmeister wurde an David Mitchells Black Swan Green (obwohl Mitchells Erzählung sich über dreizehn Monaten ausspannt, wo Delius alles in zehn Stunden abspielen lässt).  Es kommt als eine Erleichterung, aber keine Überraschung, als der Junge, ganz im Ballfieber, die befürchtete Silben "zwei zu zwei" leicht aussprechen kann.  Offensichtlich wirkt Ballfieber wie eine Impfung gegen das Stammeln...

Als ich Bildnis der junge Frau als Mutter las, habe ich Delius poetischen Stil sehr genossen, und dieses Werk hat meine Meinung nicht geändert (sondern verstärkt!).  Ich bin wirklich froh, dass ich einen solchen Autor entdeckt habe (na ja, vielleicht wurde er mir eher vorgestellt...), und ich freue mich schon auf das nächste Buch... oder, besser gesagt, Bücher.  Denn ich habe letzte Woche eine Sammlung von drei seiner früheren, politischen Romanen gekauft, und ich schätze, dass das nächste Buch nicht auf sich warten lässt ;)

Und das war es, liebe Freunde - das Monat der deutschsprachigen Literatur ist aus.  Die Reise ist vorbei und unser alter Bus muss dringend zum Werkstatt ;)  Es hat alles enorm Spaß gemacht, und ich habe viele tolle BloggerInnen und Bücher kennengelernt.  Vielleicht nächstes Jahr mal wieder?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

More Than a Game

One thing which has rapidly risen to the top of my things-to-do list in recent weeks is familiarising myself with the basics of psychoanalysis.  Why?  Because it is becoming increasingly clear that the key to understanding Austrian literature is having a passing knowledge of the theories of a certain Sigmund Freud.  Arthur Schnitzler, a contemporary of the good doctor, is certainly fascinated by his characters' thought processes, and Alois Hotschnig's short-story collection, Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht, could also be seen in this light.  It was no surprise then to find that my third Austrian writer of the month was himself no stranger to egos, super-egos and ids ;)

Stefan Zweig is a writer that I had never heard of at the start of this year.  However, his books seem to have been everywhere recently (among the blogs I frequent anyway), and I have been very keen to sample his work for a while now.  Luckily, I won a copy of Schachnovelle (Chess) recently, allowing me to have a little taste of Zweig's style.  It's a style that I could become extremely fond of...

On a passenger ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires, an Austrian, the novel's narrator, becomes fascinated by a fellow passenger, the current world chess champion.  Determined to make his acquaintance, our friend lures him into playing a game against some of the passengers.  Of course, Czentovic, a Hungarian prodigy, casually defeats the group in the first game, but in the second game, some assistance from a casual passer-by helps the group to obtain a draw.  And it's here that the game really begins...

Alas, I simply don't have the time, energy or willpower to give this book the treatment it deserves.  Schachnovelle is simply brilliant.  In its contrast of the two chess geniuses, the dogmatic, automaton-like Czentovic, and the self-taught, half-crazed Dr. B, Zweig not only symbolises the eternal clash of art and science, but also lays bare the events of Hitler's annexation (Anschluß) of Austria - I kid you not.

The middle part of the book is a story within a story, in which Dr. B, who hasn't actually picked up a chess piece for twenty years, explains how he developed his incredible chess ability.  It's closely connected with Austria's subsumption into the Third Reich, and as a study of the horrors of nothingness, it is without parallel.  Let's just say that it is possible to be bored out of your mind...

So when the good Doctor, a man who struggles to connect the wooden pieces in front of him to the abstract notions in his head, sits across the board from the self-taught idiot savant, unique among chess Grand-masters in being unable to play a game without actually seeing the board, it is more than just a friendly game to pass the time - ideologies and psychologies come face to face (and don't much like what they see).

As the game progresses, it becomes clear that Dr. B is more than a match for the world champion when it comes to pure chess ability.  But is that all you need to make it to the top?  Or is animal cunning, a thick hide and a lot of patience actually more important in the long run?  Who will come out on top?  I won't tell you that, but the big match is certainly an absorbing contest to watch.

And that's not all Schachnovelle has to offer.  I could easily have written more about the narrator himself, obsessed with getting into Czentovic's mind; or about McConnor, the aggressive Scots millionaire, a man who can't take no for an answer (and definitely doesn't like losing).  In fact, while it may seem that our two protagonists are addicted to chess, they are not the only ones with a bit of a problem...

I read this twice, about ten days apart.  Both times I intended to spread my reading out over two nights; both times I rushed through it in a single evening.  While I would love to go into a deep, psychological analysis of the book, in truth that really is as much about Schachnovelle as you need to know...

Monday, 28 November 2011

All I Have To Do Is Dream...

It's time to leave the ruins of post-war Cologne now, and the German Literature Month Tour Bus is making another long journey south, this time returning to Austria over the next couple of days to peruse two classic pieces of short writing.  Yes, it would have made for a shorter trip if this stop had been scheduled after our last visit to Vienna - we apologise for the inconvenience...

Back in August, during my own month of German-language reading, I read a couple of novellas by Arthur Schnitzler (Leutnant Gustl & Fräulein Else), psychological tales providing insights into the minds of the protagonists and the wider Austrian society alike.   I had been intending to return to Schnitzler at some point, and the current event seemed like a fitting opportunity to read one of his most famous works, Traumnovelle (Dream Novella) - perhaps best known in English for providing the basis of Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut...

The story takes place over two days in late-nineteenth-century Vienna, where we meet Fridolin, a successful doctor, and his younger wife Albertine.  The couple appear at first glance to be a happily-married couple with a beautiful young daughter, but appearances, as we know, can be deceiving.  Beneath the urbane, civilised surface, both Fridolin and Albertine harbour repressed sexual desires, urges which they will attempt to satisfy in very different ways.

While the younger Albertine, sexually naive at the time of her marriage, is starting to lose herself in dreams and fantasies of other lovers, her husband is tempted to do much more.  In a night of unusual occurrences, the opportunity arrives to betray his wife and give in to his desire to experiment sexually.  However, the following day, everything is seen in a very different light...

The premise sounds risqué and highly sexually charged, and this is the impression I had before reading Traumnovelle; the truth, however, is that events are (for the most part), a lot less explicit than I had expected.  In reality, it is the possibility, the promise, of sexual activity which is tantalisingly portrayed; Schnitzler is actually far more concerned with what's going on inside the heads of our (relatively reserved) friends than in any bedroom antics they may get up to.

Fridolin, despite all his bluster and macho bravado, actually comes across as a little boy on an awfully big adventure.  We are told most of the story through his eyes, and (naturally) the women he meets all appear to see something special in him, whether it's the daughter of his recently deceased patient, the lady of the night he encounters or the mysterious stranger at a very exclusive party (the kind where clothing is - at least late in the evening - strictly optional...).  However, in the cold, rather wintry, light of day, his allure is not quite as obvious.

In fact, the reader is led to believe that he has no intention of philandering and is merely jealous of his wife's nocturnal fantasies.  The couple agree at the start of the novella to be honest with each other (to a fault!), so why is Fridolin so upset with Albertine for revealing her little sexual dreams?  Well, I'm afraid I'm not qualified to go deeper into that area (especially while we're in Vienna!), so I'll just leave the couple where the book finishes, a little closer than they were before, but perhaps also a little farther apart.

If you want tense, ambiguous writing, with excellent descriptions of the shadowy side of Viennese culture, this is definitely one to try.  It's a book to devour in a single sitting; just don't expect to come away with all the answers that quickly.  I'm hoping to return to Traumnovelle for another try soon as, like Schnitzler's other stories, it may need a second reading for the writer's intentions to fully sink in...