Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Shortest Longlist Ever?

We interrupt the plethora of German Literature Month review posts to announce something slightly different...

As it's now official, I can share the news with all and sundry - my little blog has been longlisted for the Classics category of the Book Blogger Appreciation Week Awards for 2011 :)  Longlist is a little bit of a misnomer though, as there only five blogs vying for this award (which perhaps reflects the amount of interest in classics in the blogosphere...).  Be that as it may, the nominees, three of whom will go forward to the shortlist, are:

I am very happy to be in such company - great blogs all.  Please take the time to have a look at what they're offering to lovers of classic literature :)

I believe that we will now all be judged on the five posts we submitted for perusal, mine being:

A big thank you to all who nominated me for this award, and a big hug to all those who actually bother to read (and comment on) my rambling posts on a semi-regular basis.  A little appreciation goes a long way, and I can assure you that I feel extremely appreciated!  To show this appreciation, I'm posting a photo for you all; here I am, relaxing after a hard day's blogging with a glass of red and a special friend.

I do smile sometimes - honest...

Normal service will be resumed in a couple of days...

Monday, 29 August 2011

Mostly in the Mind

Time to move on now, and it's a fair gallop down through the mountains, across the border and into Vienna, the beautiful Austrian capital.  It's time to meet another famous G-Lit writer - and a couple of his wonderful creations...

First, we're off to a concert, where we are privileged enough to be allowed to see into the mind of a late-19th-century Austrian soldier, Leutnant Gustl (Lieutenant Gustl).  In Arthur Schnitzler's thirty-page story, the reader is caught within the stream of consciousness of the pompous, misogynistic, anti-Semitic young lieutenant as he leaves the concert hall and takes a night ramble through the empty streets of Vienna.  Having been insulted by a civilian, he feels himself compelled to erase the blot on his honour by putting a bullet through his brain, a decision which is turned over and over in his mind during the lengthy night.

The story is a wonderful example of stream-of-consciousness, one of the first of its kind in German literature and a pointer to the works of later writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  More than this though, Leutnant Gustl is an excellent satirical piece, poking fun at the old-fashioned, snooty world of the Imperial army, bursting the bubble of those who looked down on civilians and their mundane, non-military existence.  The story apparently caused quite a stir in the imperial capital (remember: at the time - 1900 - The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was one of the major world powers), and Schnitzler was reprimanded for daring to cast aspersions upon the honour of the army.  Whether an exaggerated satire or an insightful exposé, it's certainly a very interesting tale.

Schnitzler was to return to this technique of internal monologue twenty-four years later when writing the second of the novellas in this book, Fräulein Else (Miss Else).  Else is a nineteen-year-old Austrian woman without any particular occupation, drifting from hotel to hotel in the company of some wealthy relatives.  When she receives a telegram from her mother, requiring her to ask a family friend for some money (without which her father may go to prison), she feels oppressed and betrayed.  Yet this is nothing compared to her feelings on making the request.  Herr Dorsday, a middle-aged gentleman, agrees to the request - but only on one, extremely demeaning condition...

The crux of the story then, as with our old friend Gustl, is the maelstrom of thoughts whirling around the young woman's mind as she decides whether or not to comply with Dorsday's condition, one minute deciding to throw caution to the wind, the next considering whether to beg for release, unable to commit to any one thought for more than a few seconds.  Fräulein Else, however, is twice as long as the earlier tale, and at least twice as complex.  Where the reader is encouraged to mock the puffed-up officer and is rarely that concerned over his eventual fate, Else is a much more sympathetic figure, and we can appreciate her dilemma - and her feelings towards the people who have put her in this awful position.

Another difference between this story and the first one is that there is much more interaction between Else and the outside world.  The majority of Gustl's tale takes place in his head with only two short conversations with outsiders; however, in Else's case, not only do we eavesdrop on several important conversations (and, at the same time, read the thoughts which often contradict her words), at the end of the story we are also able to hear people talking about her.  These conversations then give a slightly different slant to the tale, forcing us to revise our opinions about Else and, perhaps, throwing an element of doubt into play.

When you mention Vienna, the name which comes to mind is that of a certain psychoanalyst, and while Schnitzler was not a follower of Freud, it is clear that these two stories, especially the style adopted, owe something to the idea of psychoanalysis.  Fräulein Else, especially, is a treasure trove for anyone looking to pore over the workings of a troubled mind, with ominous dreams, barely suppressed parental issues and swings between sexual embarrassment and a desire to show her body off to the world.  It's clear that her family and society in general, who have made Else what she is, have a lot to answer for...

Two stories, totalling around eighty pages, but the thinness of the book belies the intensity of the writing.  A comparison with Woolf is apt, especially where Fräulein Else is concerned, and I'm already a big fan of Schitzler's writing.  I think I'll be making a return trip to Vienna very soon :)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Twice Around the Fontane

Today, after our brief trip down to Switzerland, we're back up to the north of Germany to become acquainted with another wonderful classic writer, Herr Theodor Fontane.  No, not Theodor Storm, he of Der Schimmelreiter fame, but another Theodor, from very much the same part of Germany.  Let me clarify this a little...

Theodor Fontane is one of the most famous of Germany's nineteenth-century writers, and he is probably the one I'd recommend most to those who have grown up with the English V-Lit canon.  Unlike many of the works I've been reading recently, which can struggle to crack the hundred-page barrier (and, in some cases, are barely scraping into novella territory), Fontane's back catalogue includes a few actual novels, books over the 200-page mark.

Another area where Fontane's writing has more in common with English works than the German novellas is the amount of attention paid to characterisation and the internal workings of his protagonists.  In some of the novellas I've read recently, I felt the lack of a real connection to the characters, the subtle painting of layer upon layer of humanity applied by writers like Eliot and Hardy.  Happily, the two works I've read by Fontane have been much better in this regard, allowing the reader to become absorbed in the lives of those depicted within their pages.

Earlier this year, I read (and failed to review...) Unwiederbringlich (Irretrievable), a novel about the disintegration of the marriage of a north-German aristocratic couple.  Count Holk, a minor nobleman attached to the Danish court in Copenhagen, goes off on one of his occasional residences in the Danish capital, leaving his faithful wife behind in his majestic, but solitary, mansion on the Baltic coast.  The jovial Holk is already starting to grow apart from his more serious wife, and when he meets a beautiful, fiery young courtier at the palace, sparks are bound to fly.

The story is not as predictable as you might think, and the ending, most definitely, is different to that which an English novelist would probably plump for.  The effect of the whole, however, is to make you ponder about what you really want from life, and what you are prepared to risk to get it.  Having read this a good few months back now, I'm not going to try to go into any more detail than that; however, the wonderful Lizzy Siddal of Lizzy's Literary Life wrote a marvellous review of Irretrievable a while back (the review that induced me to read it in the first place), so why not give that a go instead?

And now, dear reader, our journey takes us to Berlin near the end of the nineteenth century, where we will meet the title lady of another Fontane novel, Frau Jenny Treibel.  Jenny is a well-to-do middle-aged woman who has managed to elevate herself in the world (through an advantageous marriage) from humble beginnings, and now, with her home life secure and sumptuous, and one son safely married off, she is looking around for a bride for her younger son, the slightly colourless Leopold.  While her daughter-in-law's sister is only too eager to create another tie between the business-like Berlin Treibel family and the rigidly formal Hamburg Munks, Frau Treibel secretly believes that Leopold needs a partner with more fire and flair.  Of course, when one actually appears, Jenny's true colours will be exposed for all to see...

From his private letters, we know that Fontane had it in for the vulgar bourgeoisie with their false pretensions towards high culture and their desperate desire for increasing their wealth, but Frau Jenny Treibel is a more measured, and subtle, attack on the newly-moneyed classes.  Corinna Schmidt, the lively, intelligent young woman in question, is clever enough to know that Leopold is far below her in terms of intelligence and character, but shrewd enough to realise that the financial and social gains from such an alliance would probably make up for her husband's shortcomings.  The writer cleverly develops a comparison between Jenny and Corinna, allowing the reader to see the similarities and differences in their respective positions; in fact, it is when Corinna herself becomes aware of this that the crisis of the piece is reached.

The book is, unusually for the time, a fairly humorous one, Fontane's tongue-in-cheek handling of the bourgeois troubles reminding one of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.  In fact, the story can at times seem almost more suited to being a play than a novel, with long conversations between the principal characters and switches of scene between the two prominent settings: the luxurious (albeit located next door to a factory) mansion of the Treibels; and the run-down, but comfortable, Schmidt abode.

When you throw in a couple of elderly court ladies (one plump, one thin), a gaggle of young husband-seeking misses (including the Misses Kuh - cow-, jocularly referred to as Kälber, or 'calfs'), an over-educated young girl who is well on her way to becoming a Stepford wife, and Mr. Nelson, a jovial Englishman who speaks half in English, half in German and expects every man to do his duty... well, you can see that this is a welcome change from some of the more depressing stories I've read of late.  I would heartily recommend Frau Jenny Treibel, and I suspect that when I next visit The Book Depository web-site (which will probably be not too far in the future...), I will more than likely be throwing a couple more of Fontane's works into my shiny, virtual basket.  And I think that really says it all, don't you?

Monday, 22 August 2011

All You Good, Good People (Listen to me...)

Are you all well rested and ready for another trot around central Europe?  Today, we'll be heading over the Alps to visit some friends over the border.  I hope you had a big breakfast - this promises to be a long ride...

This time, we're off to Switzerland, to the possibly fictional town of Seldwyla, the setting of Gottfried Keller's cycle of novellas, Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyla).  In the introduction to the first half of this collection, the writer describes the small town and its fascinating inhabitants, a collection of lazy, cunning, work-shy speculators who enjoy nothing better than the entertainment of other people's misfortune.  Many contemporary readers (and critics) claimed to know the true identity of Keller's literary backdrop; whether real or invented however, the town is merely the background to the stories Keller wishes to tell.

Of the five stories in this part of the collection, by far the most famous is Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (Romeo and Juliet in a Village), a shifting of Shakespeare's famous tragedy to a slightly-less glamorous Swiss setting. Sali and Vrenchen grow up as friendly neighbours until their fathers come to blows over a piece of land bordering both their farms.  The two families become sworn enemies, but this cannot stop the inevitable rekindling of the children's relationship after a chance meeting years later.  Unable to forge a happy life together because of social and familial constraints, the two innocent souls decide to have at least one happy day, one last walk in the sun before parting ways - sadly, despite temptation, that day cannot last for ever...

Apart from this beautifully-written tearjerker, the best of the collection is probably Die drei gerechte Kammacher (The Three Just Combmakers), a satirical look at how the well behaved struggle when surrounded by other upright citizens (and how they can be taken advantage of by the less well inclined...).  This story shocked some of Keller's readers with its cruel toying with the unfortunate German protagonists, who are reduced to rolling in the dirt in front of the roaring Seldwyler crowd.  They felt that the story portrayed the Seldwyler, and by extension the Swiss, in a rather poor light...

Frau Regel Amrain und ihr Jüngster (Mrs. Regel Amrain and her Youngest Son) is the tale of how Mrs. Amrain, an upright woman from a neighbouring town, tries to bring her son up wisely among the lazy ne'er-do-wells of Seldwyla, while Spiegel, das Kätzchen (Mirror, the little Cat) is an amusing fairytale-esque story in which a shady character bites off more than he can chew when making a Faustean deal with a poor little kitty cat.  This story is another example of the Germanic literary device (cf. Theodor Storm's Der Schimmelreiter) of setting the tale in the distant past in order to make use of supernatural elements which would seem out of place, and ludicrous, in a more contemporary setting.  

The four stories above are all entertaining, and I felt that only the first of the five novellas, Pankraz, der Schmoller (Pankraz, the Sulker), a story about a native of Seldwyla who goes into a big sulk (for a very long time...) was less than worth the effort.  In the story, the returned sulker relates his travels and adventures in the far east to his mother and sister, who promptly fall asleep.  I  almost joined them.  Luckily, I decided to press on through this story and was rewarded by the other four, much better tales :)

The eagle-eyed reader may have noticed above that I referred to the first half of the collection, and that is because there are actually ten stories in the whole Die Leute von Seldwyla cycle.  The five I read were published in 1856, and five further novellas appeared between 1860 and 1875, when the complete collection was published for the first time.  All of which means that I have another five waiting for me on my Kindle when the mood strikes me, including another of the all-time classic German novellas, Kleider machen Leute (Clothes make People or, perhaps, Clothes make the Man).

Ach, ist das Leben schön...

Sunday, 21 August 2011


Well, it appears that just as July was devoted to rereading Victorian novels, August has somehow become a month of German-language classics, with books from Storm, Fontane, Rilke, Goethe and many, many more.  While I will be reading a couple of books in English this month, the vast majority of my reading will be done auf deutsch.  Of course, after all these posts about Teutonic texts, there is one burning question my readers want answered, namely, 'Why did you bother?' 'Where do you source your reading materials?'.  Glad you asked :)

Of course, one of the major sources of my literature (and those of most impoverished Australian book addicts) is The Book Depository, who, with their free delivery worldwide, keep book buying affordable for those of us Down Under - long may it continue, even under the reign of the evil empire...

I've been buying the odd German book from the BD for a couple of years now, but a few weeks back I discovered something which has accelerated the trend somewhat.  You see, I have always been a fan of cheap classics (e.g. the wonderful Wordsworth Editions for English-language classics), but the only German equivalent I was aware of was Reclam (whose small, yellow-covered books remind me too much of my university days).  All of a sudden, after a few random clicks and a couple of internet searches, I stumbled across Hamburger Lesehefte, an imprint which provides cheap copies of German-language out-of-copyright books.  Brilliant!  Admittedly, they have fairly small type and are not exactly designed for the ages, but for a couple of dollars each, I can live with that.  I now have about ten, with more to come...

Of course, when your passion is for books written by people who, to put it politely, are no longer up to appearing at writers' festivals, there is another, cheaper option.  Provided you have an e-reader, you can download out-of-copyright books to your heart's content, and the Kindle I bought earlier this year allows me to do just that.  A bit of a search, a few clicks, and hey presto, you have one of Dickens' novels sitting snugly on the shelves of your virtual library :)

If you also have a Kindle, dear reader, then it's fairly simple to find some free German-language classics.  Simply search in the Kindle store using the search terms "German language" or "German edition", and the friendly people in Hades the world's most excellent online store will do the rest.  If your German's not up to scratch, you may still be lucky enough to find a few freebies, as long as you know which authors to search for (and what else is my blog for if not for that?).

If, for some reason, you'd prefer to look elsewhere, there are a couple of other electronic choices.  The original repository for e-texts is Project Gutenberg, not a reality TV show for budding German writers, but a not-for-profit site dedicated to bringing classic literature to your e-reader.  One drawback to PG is that many of the texts have very long copyright notices, mostly irrelevant for those who just want to read the book and then erase it again.

Personally, I prefer Manybooks.net, another site providing e-classics (some of which just appear to have been ripped from PG!), but one which is a little more user-friendly.  It's a lot easier to browse, and I have found some books there which I couldn't find elsewhere.  They also tend to take the annoying copyright messages and put them at the back of the book instead.  Legal? Not sure.  Helpful?  Definitely :)

If all else fails, you can simply trawl the net.  A good Google search will often come up with the book you want; however, it probably won't be in the format you want (often either PDF or simply HTML).  With a bit of ingenuity though, you shouild be able to work out a way to get the text you want into the device you want to read it on ;)

And that's the answer to your (my) question!  I hope this little post has been worthwhile, even if I'm probably preaching to the converted (and, in many cases, the missionaries too).  In any case I hope that through this post, and the many G-Lit reviews I have already posted (and the few I have yet to post), I've managed to persuade someone to give a German-language book a go.  If that happens, then I'll have my answer to that other, slightly more irreverent question...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

There's this bloke...

There's this bloke, you may have heard of him, German writer, goes by the name of Goethe - yep, that's the man.  Anyway, this is about a few of his writing things, you know, books, I mean.  He's not a bad writer, you know...

Immense understatement aside, basically Goethe is to German literature what Shakespeare is to English literature, and nobody with more than a passing interest in reading German can really avoid picking up one of his works before long.  Last year, I read Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, a rollicking, emotion-charged epistolary novel, and this year I have added to that with a bit more prose (I'm leaving Faust, his most famous work, until I'm a bit more confident in my German - like never...), so here are a few brief, confused thoughts on some of his works.

Earlier this year, I spent a good two weeks tussling with a monster of a book, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship), the first Bildungsroman and an absolute classic of German literature.  Wilhelm Meister, the son of a middle-class trader, is earmarked to step into his father's shoes; however, he has a passion for the theatre - and women -, and this leads him to decide to break out on his own and follow his passion(s).  A naive, young man, Wilhelm makes a multitude of mistakes during his travels, but the sum of his experiences will make him into the successful man he is to later become.

In this (rather thick) book, Goethe is asking us to be patient towards the young, putting forward an idea of youth as a time for experimentation, a chance to follow your dreams (which was not as self-evident then as it can be now).  It's all very interesting, but it did drag a little, and there are times when you wish that Wilhelm would hurry up and reach maturity a little faster...  In short, it's not one for the casual reader, unless that casual reader is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature (which you may well be - I know my readers are extremely erudite).  Werther, while rather melodramatic and over-the-top at times, would be a much better introduction to the great man's work for most of us.

Not all of Goethe's prose is lengthy though, and our next example is fairly brief.  Novelle is a, well, novella, written according to what Goethe decided novellas should be (and when Goethe decided something, there were usually people with chisels and stone tablets on hand).  In this short piece of fiction, a single event is described, a noblewoman's ride out into the countryside of her domain and the effects of a fire which breaks out in a nearby town.  When things go wrong, the writer shows us two ways of dealing with the same problem, allegories for dealing with issues in real life.

While not wanting to disagree with Herr Goethe though (sorry, Herr von Goethe), I was less than impressed with this brief story.  It's the sort of work which is better appreciated by literary theorists than readers, twenty or thirty pages of pretty words and little action which stops very abruptly (and I did check to make sure my e-version was complete...).  Having said that, it is short though, so you won't have to devote a lot of time to finding out for yourself :)

Luckily, my final choice for today was far more satisfying than Novelle - when I actually managed to find the whole text.  Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten, which could possibly be translated as Entertainments of German Emigrés, is an intriguing work, consisting of seven stories of varying length contained and augmented by a frame narrative, the start of which takes up a good chunk of the book.  A family of nobles is displaced by the advances of the invading French troops, and, after a political quarrel upsets the peace in their temporary home, they all decide to ignore the events of the outside world and get along in harmony by telling each other interesting stories (the Unterhaltungen of the title).

Some of the stories are very brief, just a page or two, while others are regular short-story length, and most of them are retellings of traditional stories, specially treated by Goethe for this collection.  There is a moral element to the collection as most of the stories turn on the behaviour of the main protagonist, a bad decision or a moral weakness leading to an interesting twist in the tale.  The exception among the seven, however, is the final tale, Das Märchen (The Fairytale), which is a wild, radically-imaginative story which screams 'allegory' at a hundred paces and seems almost out of place amongst its more sedate counterparts.  In fact, it is often removed from this collection and published together with Novelle (which it effortlessly overshadows) in a single book.  The Will-o'-the-Wisps, the kings, the giant, the snake, the ferryman, the hero...  yes, they are (intentionally) allegorical, but I won't tell you what it's all about - that's what the internet's for :)

And what was that about the whole text, I hear you cry in chorus?  Well, as I started my e-text, it quickly dawned upon me that there was something funny about what I was reading, as if it was built upon a premise I was unaware of.  A quick check on German Wikipedia confirmed that my version (and, as it later transpired, virtually every other e-version floating around) was a drastically-reduced effort, containing only three stories - and none of the frame story...  So, after quickly rejecting the option of giving up (it's all for you, dear reader!), I managed to somehow find a complete online text, and with a bit of copy and paste, alter format, convert to PDF, upload to Kindle thingamajiggery, I was able to enjoy the whole text.  Brilliant :)  And, what's better, it was well worth it ;)

So, to summarise today's lecture:
  Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre - Interesting, but long, and not one for the novice.
  Novelle - A bit over my head and not my favourite bit of G-Lit (to put it mildly).
  Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten - Very entertaining, and difficult to source electronically (even in German!).

That's all for today, but never fear: there'll be more German-language delights very soon :)

Monday, 15 August 2011

A Rare Foray into the World of Poetry

As regular readers of my blog (if there are any) will know, my literary preference is most definitely for the novel, and other genres are comparatively underrepresented in my reviews.  You will find the odd novella, a smattering of short-story collections, even the occasional non-fiction text if you look long and hard enough.  However, apart from a rather irreverent look at an Ancient Greek classic, poetry has not had a look in on Tony's Reading List, leaving a small, poetically-shaped gap in my online world.

I know that makes no sense - now you know why I'm not big on poetry.

Today though, I am bucking this trend and talking about a book I recently received for review from the good people at Oxford World's Classics (and indeed am still, and for a long time will be, reading), namely Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.  German poetry?  That's right - and the best thing is that this brand-new book is actually a bilingual edition, with parallel German and English texts on facing pages.  Brilliant :)

Rilke is one of Germany's most famous poets, and the above-mentioned selection is a hefty one, including poems from the whole of his career, from his first published sonnets to the later, meatier epic poetry of The Duinese Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, and on to his later, shall we say, more interesting work.  German is a language which seems to lend itself well to poetry, the ebb and flow of the words and the formal sounding rhythms creating soothing patterns of language (well, to my ear anyway!).

The shorter poems are often snapshots of images observed by Rilke on his travels throughout Europe, slices of life interpreted through the poet's eyes.  Whether his subjects are flowers, merry-go-rounds, passionate flamenco dancers or dangerous Venetian courtesans, Rilke sketches an incomplete picture, which somehow says more than a complete one ever could.  One of his most famous poems, Der Panther (The Panther), describes the still beauty of the caged animal:
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht. (p62, l5-8)
Or, if you prefer the English:
The supple, powerful footfall paces softly
in ever-tinier circles, tight-described,
a danced strength, as though about a centre
where a great will stays, stupefied. (p63, l5-8)

Those of you with some knowledge of German will, no doubt, be comparing the two versions above, and it immediately becomes clear that while translation is always a rather inexact science, translating short lyrical poetry is up there with splitting the atom.  To preserve all nuances while adhering to both rhythm and rhyme must, technically speaking, be an absolute nightmare, and the two translators of this version, Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland, do a sterling job.  However, the translation will never quite capture the essence of the German.

An example of this is an extract from a poem which I immediately took a liking to, Das Karussel (The Merry-go-round):
Und auf den Löwen reitet weiß ein Junge
und hält sich mit der kleinen heißen Hand,
dieweil der Löwe Zähne zeigt und Zunge
Und dann und wann ein weißer Elefant (p72, l12-15)
Or, in English:
And on the lion rides a boy, quite young,
in white, holding on with sticky hands,
while the lion bares its teeth and tongue.
And now and then a white, white elephant (p73, l12-15)
It's easy to see that the meaning has been altered slightly to fit the rhythm in the first line, from Junge (boy) to 'a boy, quite young', while in the second line mit der kleinen heißen Hand (with the [his] little, hot hand) is changed to 'with sticky hands' - accurate, but perhaps missing the possible connotation of 'eager and excited' which the German contains.  Also, in the final line above, 'now and then' can't compare with the assonance of dann und wann, nor does the repetition of 'white, white' (to catch up on syllables) quite match the simple German weißer.

However, when we come to the longer epic poetry of The Duinese Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, the translators really come into their ownThe lack of rhyme gives them more freedom to adhere to the meaning and rhythm, and it is here that the non-native speaker (and possibly many native speakers too!) are grateful for any help the translators - and the excellent notes at the back of the volume - are able to give.  When faced with pages of dense imagery, it is easy to tune out to the overall message, and with poetry, unlike with a novel where missing an idea or two dann und wann is not such a big deal, that pretty much defeats the object.

Thankfully, the beautifully spaced print, with the original German on the left-hand page, facing the English on the right, allows you to sneak a peek every so often, dragging you back from the tangential path you thought the poem was pushing you down.  This is a very good thing because when Rilke is musing about angels and the connection between our world and theirs (as he does in The Duinese Elegies), it is very easy to simply slide under the thunder of words and sounds...

I still haven't read this book cover to cover, but that is most definitely not the point.  I will continue to enjoy dipping into its pages, revisiting some of my favourite shorter poems and working my way through the longer fare.  Selected Poems is a must for anyone interested in Rilke, or German poetry in general, but I do feel that there is a need for some German proficiency - otherwise, you will simply be missing the point of the book.  Anyway, I'm off to read another of the elegies and try to work out what is happening now in the plane of existence inhabited by the awesome angels - I may be some time...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Rider on the Storm

After a month spent metaphorically galloping all over Victorian England, you would think that it was time to relax, fill the bathtub with Radox and hot water, slip into some comfortable jim-jams and read something light and fluffy.  Well, no.  Instead, it's back into the saddle (once we've got the little matter of the English Channel out of the way), across France and on into the German-speaking lands of Central Europe - and we'll be heading back a few hundred years in time too.  Off we go, and don't forget to bring your phrase book...

Today, we're off to the North Sea, where the small groups of coastal dwellers live in awe and fear of the watery deeps which occasionally try to reclaim their land.  This is the setting for one of the most famous works in German literature, Theodor Storm's acclaimed novella Der Schimmelreiter.  Translated into English as The Rider on the White Horse (which simply does not have the same ring to it...), this hundred-page story is a tense, taut Teutonic tale with a slight supernatural slant.  Based on a true story Storm read in a newspaper (which is included in the appendix of my version), the novella takes the central premise of the ghostly rider and fills in the back story of its origins.

Hauke Haien is a young man fascinated by the dykes which surround, and protect, his hometown.  He educates himself in mathematics and, through his own studies and a fortuitous marriage, he achieves his aim of becoming the Deichgraf, the overseer of all the town's works on the dykes.  Once established in his role, he decides to pursue his dream of building a new, improved style of dyke to reclaim more land from the sea, and it appears as though his dream will become reality.  However, not everything is perfect in Hauke's cold, bleak homeland.  His cool nature and perfectionism have made him enemies amongst the local farmers; his only child appears to be developing very slowly; and there is also the matter of his new white horse (der Schimmel) - which appeared at the same time an old horse skeleton disappeared...

I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that you shouldn't expect much of a happy ending here.  Unlike English Victorian authors, their German contemporaries felt themselves under no pressure to marry off the hero happily at the end of the third volume (they also felt no obligation to even let them get that far, the novella seemingly being the work of choice at the time).  Like Hardy and Eliot, Storm paints such a detailed picture of his setting that you can see the sea rolling towards the dykes and breaking on the hard walls, the long, narrow and treacherous path rising between the town and the sea, the distant isolated islands poking out from amongst the waves.  Unlike the pastoral depictions of the aforementioned English writers, the images we perceive are dark, cold and - I'll say it again - bleak.

Another similarity to some of the V-Lit I've read recently is the structure of the book.  Storm takes us from the year of publication, 1888, to the 1830s, then to the 1820s and finally to the early eighteenth-century, via a series of the ever-popular frame narratives.  Firstly, the narrator recalls a story a visitor told his grandmother when he was a child fifty years ago.  Then we enter the visitor's story and end up in an old inn (after this visitor has had a rather unpleasant encounter).  Finally, the visitor is entertained by an old man at the inn with the story which makes up the bulk of the novella.

This Russian-doll approach is similar to the ones employed by the Brontës in both The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and, especially, Wuthering Heights, and the setting of the main part of the tale in the distant past also allows Storm to introduce supernatural elements which would perhaps be less tolerated in a contemporary setting.  While Der Schimmelreiter never descends into a true ghost story, the hints of other-wordly elements at play help to prepare us for the dark ending, a finale which, while not unexpected, is still powerful and gripping.

If there is anything I would criticise about Der Schimmelreiter, it is probably the characterisation.  While, as mentioned, certain elements remind the reader of Eliot and Hardy, the protagonists here are certainly never as three dimensional as their characters.  Hauke Haien receives most of what attention to personality there is, but many of the other characters are merely types, rather than individuals.  This is a slight quibble though, and, of course, this is probably due to the brevity of the book.  If Storm had spread his story out over five hundred pages, then the characterisation would no doubt have been deeper - and probably at the expense of the tension.

And that is the abiding memory the reader takes away from Der Schimmelreiter - the sense of foreboding pervading the story, leading up to the gripping, inevitable end amidst the stormy northern night.  The final few pages, filled with thundering hoofs and lashing rain, are as tense as anything you're likely to read...  There is definitely no happily ever after in Storm's work, but the reader certainly won't be sorry they decided to make the long journey to the German coast.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Last Chronicle of V-Lit

July is over, and so is my Rereading July project.  Over the past month, I managed to reread seven wonderful books, all plucked from my V-Lit collection, and to finish off my reviews, I have one last little post to entertain you with - one last trip through time and space, if you please :)

Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope, is the first of the six books known as The Palliser Novels, and it's a good book in its own right.  It tells the tale of Alice Vavasor, a young woman who breaks off her engagement to the worthy John Grey because she feels that she is unsuited to the kind of life he is planning to lead, a secluded, leisurely life on his country estate (which sounds wonderful to me).  After making this decision, she begins to gravitate back towards a former love, her cousin George, whom she decided not to marry earlier in her life because of his terrible behaviour towards her.  As Alice moves closer towards throwing her lot in with her impulsive (and possibly psychopathic) cousin, Trollope ask the reader a couple of questions: will Alice regret her decision, and, more importantly, can you, the reader, forgive her?

Funnily enough though, as well designed as this side of the story is, I really couldn't care about Alice (or John Grey) at all because the main order of the day is our first lengthy introduction to one of Trollope's favourite characters, Plantagenet Palliser, and his bubbly wife, Lady Glencora.  Palliser previously appeared in a bit role in The Small House at Allington, but here he takes centre stage as the character who will occupy the writer's mind for the next decade or two.  In fact, Palliser is the character who best represents Trollope's own opinions and beliefs - the epitome of the English gentleman -, and his relationship with his wife is a masterful, realistic depiction of love and companionship.

Rather than taking us up to the wedding day and then leaving the loving couple to live happily ever after, Trollope has married off a young heiress, against her wishes, to a good, but unloving, politician - and then stirred in a little unresolved tension with an old flame.  Over the next five books, we will see how, from an unpromising beginning, the relationship will blossom and grow into a true love match, despite the many bumps along the way (especially in this book...).

I've read this story several times, but I still wolfed it down, devouring the 800 pages (of admittedly large type) in just four days.  I simply love this kind of Victorian novel, where multiple plot strands are teased out over hundreds of pages (and, in the original format, over years - Can You Forgive Her? was originally published in twenty monthly parts...).  You know what is likely to happen - that is if Trollope doesn't actually tell you himself -, but the destination is relatively unimportant; it's the journey that matters.  And when that journey involves the wonderful Pallisers, the terrible George Vavasor and a cameo appearance from the writer himself (in the guise of a heavyweight literary fellow gamely following the hunt over the English countryside), it's a very good journey indeed.

And, as I suspected on starting this wonderful book, I think I have just committed myself to reading the rest of the series over the rest of 2011.  Life's hard sometimes :)

My final book for the month, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, is a slightly different novel to my usual Victorian reads.  It's a mystery, set in the Victorian era, and one of many 'sensational' novels of the time.  However, despite being lumped in with a multitude of other crowd-pleasing novels, Collins' work is a quality piece of writing with a groundbreaking style.

The Woman in White is told in a series of narratives by the person most closely involved with the events of the time, almost as if the course of a crime was being described in a court of law.  Our first narrator, young drawing teacher Walter Hartright, is walking home one night after paying a visit to his family.  He is walking along a deserted road in the darkness, thinking about the work he is shortly to do in the north of England...  when suddenly, from nowhere, a woman dressed all in white appears in the street.  Although his first meeting with the woman is fleeting, this chance encounter is to alter the course of his life, setting him on a journey where he will meet the love of his life - and some rather dastardly villains...

The style adopted by the writer allows him to build up the story from several different angles, and also permits him to poke a little fun at his characters' expense.  While the parts played by the major characters are played with a straight bat, some of the minor roles are definitely described tongue in cheek.  The part told by the housekeeper is full of "I'm not racist, but..." jibes at the foreign occupants of the house, while the section narrated by the self-absorbed, self-declared invalid Frederick Fairlie begins:
"It is the grand misfortune of my life that nobody will let me alone." Wordsworth Editions, p.266
a statement immediately indicating that this is a character who will struggle to gain our full sympathy ;)

Anyone who has read the book will know though that the most impressive character is that of the inimitable Count Fosco, a villain of the highest order, but with the most impeccable manners.  Belonging less in a Victorian novel than in a James Bond film, the mysterious Italian emigré, a magnificently intelligent, courteous (and corpulent) mountain of a man, plays with his pet mice and birds, bursts out into impromptu arias and effortlessly plots a monstrous crime without breaking into a sweat - all assisted by his sinister, devoted wife.

What sounds like overexaggerated melodrama is raised above this by the book's format; Fosco is described by several of the narrators, each fleshing the Count out in a slightly different way, all (willingly or unwillingly) admitting the power of his persona.  In this way, Fosco becomes larger than life, a seemingly unstoppable genius, which makes the danger Hartright and his friends find themselves in seem palpable to the reader.

I'm not really one for crime novels, but The Woman in White is far more than just a detective story - it is a fascinating account of the lengths people will go to to get money, and a superb character sketch of a criminal mastermind.  Whether you are a fan of this genre or not, it's well worth the effort.

So alas, Rereading July has come to an end.  Over the past month, dear reader, I have travelled far and wide through Victorian England: over hill and dale; through the bucolic Wessex landscape and up to the pleasant farm lands of the Midlands; up to a wild and wintry Yorkshire and across the Pennines to industrial Manchester; down to the great capital, the centre (at the time) of the civilised world and back up to the far-flung desolate north-west.  This is my country; at least, this is the country I visit in my imagination.  The more Victorian literature I read, the fuller my image of the England of the past becomes, and the more I want to know.  I'll be back very soon.

Monday, 1 August 2011

BBAW is Here Again!

 It's that time of year again - the Book Blogger Appreciation Week is here!  It's a week of getting to know new (and old!) friends, and there are also prizes and awards galore.  You should register to take part, and this also allows you to nominate people for various awards...

...which is where this post is going ;)

I have decided that it would be quite nice to have a go again, so I am planning to try to be nominated in two categories - Best Written Book Blog and Best Classics Book Blog.  However, I can't nominate myself - only a registered BBAW participant can nominate me (I think - I'm still a little confused!).  Anyway, below I have left a few links to some of my favourite posts over the past year.  Feel free to browse through my work, and nominate me if you see fit.  Thanks in advance, and I hope you have fun anyway!!!
Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall & North and South

July 2011 Wrap-Up - Rereading July

July, of course, was my month for rereading, titled (somewhat predictably) Rereading July (although, as you may have noticed, it rather turned into Rereading Victorian Classics July...).  Alas, while the reading went very well, the blogging - for various reasons - simply crashed and burned.  Sigh :(  Still, on with the show!

Total Books Read: 7
Year-to-date: 74

New: 0
Rereads: 7

From the Shelves: 7
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 0

Novels: 7
Short Stories: 0

Non-English Language: 0
Murakami Challenge: 0 (2/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (13/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 7 (20/15)
Japanese Literature Challenge 5: 0 (2/1)

Tony's Recommendation for July is: George Eliot's Adam Bede

Well, it's hard to pick a winner when all the competitors are old friends, but George Eliot's excellent tale of pastoral tragedy has always been a favourite of mine.  Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd is another which stands up to constant rereading, and (as those of you who are regular readers no doubt know) I'm also a big fan of the works of big bad Tony Trollope, my last-minute decision to reread Can You Forgive Her? almost certainly leading me to commit to rereading all of the Palliser novels over the rest of 2011.  Honourable mentions go to, well, all of them really - that's the great thing about rereading your favourite books!  Do try it some time :)