Looking back on the twentieth century, the family histories of most Europeans are full of tragic moments. There was World War One to begin with, but as we know the disaster far from ended there! Mutual hostility continued to smoulder between nations and then the Great Depression swept over the Atlantic to Europe making people crave for (non-existent) quick and simple solutions to recover economic prosperity and a feeling of strength, not to say worth. Power-hungry, artful and charismatic demagogues seized the opportunity. Fascism took root on the continent and under the leadership of Adolf Hitler it merged with Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. This is where the novel Vienna by contemporary Austrian writer Eva Menasse begins. In humorous anecdotes spanning the decades from the 1930s to the present it recounts the story of the author’s father and his Jewish-Catholic family that is inextricably linked to the Austrian capital as their place of origin.
Friday, 28 April 2017
Monday, 24 April 2017
Moonset(from Flint and Feather: 1912)
Idles the night wind through the dreaming firs,
That waking murmur low,
As some lost melody returning stirs
The love of long ago;
And through the far, cool distance, zephyr fanned.
The moon is sinking into shadow-land.
The troubled night-bird, calling plaintively,
Wanders on restless wing;
The cedars, chanting vespers to the sea,
Await its answering,
That comes in wash of waves along the strand,
The while the moon slips into shadow-land.
O! soft responsive voices of the night
I join your minstrelsy,
And call across the fading silver light
As something calls to me;
I may not all your meaning understand,
But I have touched your soul in shadow-land.
Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913)
Canadian writer and performer
Friday, 21 April 2017
The twentieth century before World War One is widely known as the belle époque although already at the time those willing to see could make out the signs of looming disaster. Then just like today, the vast majority preferred to block out forebodings of a ghastly future and went on with their lives as if what was to come were none of their business. The once celebrated and then long forgotten Hungarian classic They Were Counted by Bánffy Miklós shows Hungaro-Transylvanian nobility indulging in balls, hunting parties, horse races, gambling, political discussions, amorous adventures, duels, and voyages abroad. While young Count Bálint Abády represents his district in Hungarian Parliament in Budapest and runs after his married youth friend Adrienne, his sensitive cousin and gifted musician László Gyerőffy falls a victim to unhappy love and to the temptations of Bohemian life, most importantly gambling for high stakes.
Wednesday, 19 April 2017
My reads of three years ago were quite diverse as regards the genre, while they were set in Europe – Albania and France – and the Americas – Brazil and the USA – respectively. I started into April 2014 with the coming-of-age classic The Three Marias by Brazilian author Rachel de Queiroz that was so daring when it came out in 1939 that it caused quite a scandal although by today’s standards it’s more than decent. The next book on my review list was the historical novel Broken April by contemporary Albanian writer Ismail Kadaré that brought me to the remote highlands of the Western Balkans in the 1920s where ancient rules still determined the lives of people and called for bloody family vendettas. To follow the awakening to true life of a fifty-year-old concierge in modern-day Paris who is the protagonist of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French novelist Muriel Barbery was certainly more peaceful and philosophical. It’s one of my all-time favourites. Finally, I also read a satire that felt very topical although it first appeared in 1922, namely Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis who was the first US-American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Monday, 17 April 2017
An Easter Rhyme(from The Bulletin: 7 May 1892)
Easter Monday in the city—
Rattle, rattle, rumble, rush;
Tom and Jerry, Nell and Kitty,
All the down-the-harbour “push,”
Little thought have they, or pity,
For a wanderer from the bush.
Shuffle, feet, a merry measure,
Hurry, Jack and find your Jill,
Let her—if it give her pleasure—
Flaunt her furbelow and frill,
Kiss her while you have the leisure,
For tomorrow brings the mill.
Go ye down the harbour, winding
‘Mid the eucalypts and fern,
Respite from your troubles finding,
Kiss her, till her pale cheeks burn,
For to-morrow will the grinding
Mill-stones of the city turn.
Stunted figures, sallow faces,
Sad girls striving to be gay
In their cheap sateens and laces.
Ah! how different ‘tis to-day
Where they’re going to the races—
Yonder—up Monaro way!
Light mist flecks the Murrumbidgee’s
Bosom with a silver stain,
On the trembling wire bridge is
Perched a single long legged crane,
While the yellow, slaty ridges
Sweep up proudly from the plain.
Somebody is after horses—
Donald, Charlie or young Mac—
Suddenly his arm he tosses,
Presently you’ll hear the crack,
As the symbol of the cross is
Made on ‘Possum’s steaming back.
Stirling first! the Masher follows,
Ly-ee-moon and old Trump Card,
Helter skelter through the shallows
Of the willow-shaded ford,
Up the lane and past the “gallows,”
Driven panting to the yard.
In the homestead, what a clatter;
Habits black and habits blue,
Full a dozen red lips patter:
“Who is going to ride with who?”
Mixing sandwiches and chatter,
Gloves to button, hair to “do,”
Horses stamp and stirrups jingle,
“Dash the filly! won’t she wait?”
Voices, bass and treble, mingle,
“Look sharp, May, or we’ll be late;”
How the pulses leap and tingle
As you lift her featherweight!
At the thought the heart beats quicker
Than an old Bohemian’s should,
Beating like my battered ticker
(Pawned this time, I fear, for good).
Bah! I’ll go and have a liquor
With the genial “Jimmy Wood.”
Barcroft Boake (1866-1892)
Australian bush poet
Friday, 14 April 2017
To give way to feelings of inferiority and fear, to envy and ill will, to hatred and malice is never a good idea because it leads straight into a life of ever growing misery. Once caught in the vicious circle of such harmful emotions, it’s difficult to break out and to see the good in life or other people. Often the seed for a negative view of the world – and lifelong unhappiness – is planted in the soul already in earliest childhood like in the case of the main protagonist of Celebration in the Northwest by Catalan author Ana María Matute. As a man in his mid-forties, Juan looks back on his childhood and youth, notably on the mixture of hatred and love that he felt for his half-brother Pablo who was his complete opposite in looks as well as character and whom he chased away in an attempt to make him share his misery.
Wednesday, 12 April 2017
Women or men who need to come to terms with the loss of a loved one are popular figures in literature. Since readers like happy endings, the grieving often find new joy, maybe even new love by the end of the story and at first this also seems to be the case in the late nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-morte by almost forgotten Belgian journalist, poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). But he was obsessed with death and so it’s little wonder that his symbolist chef-d'œuvre first published in 1892 is a thoroughly gloomy piece of prose poetry, a short Gothic novel in the vein of his contemporary Oscar Wilde. The book focuses on the melancholy scene of dead or moribund Bruges in Belgium at least as much as on the woebegone protagonist who has chosen the city to indulge in his infinite sorrow after the death of his adored wife and in keeping her memory alive.
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