Thursday, 31 January 2013


The first month of 2013 is almost over. If I were asked to describe the past thirty-one days in no more than three words, I'd choose: holidays, snows, deadlines.

All things considered, the beginning of this new year hasn't been too bad for me. I started off with almost a full week of holidays, true holidays to relax and recharge my batteries. Of course, the peace and quiet didn't last for long. Ever since the end of my holidays, I've been having a rather busy schedule at work as well as at home like the greater number of people in our fast-moving age. On most days I didn't even have time to follow the news! Well, that's nothing I regret. After all, I heard about shootings, wars, kidnappings, accidents, and natural disasters despite all. Like it or not, in our modern and digitally connected world it has become practically impossible to avoid bad news. On the other hand the good news, don't always make it into my universe. Isn't it weird, even perverse?

My days have been rather exhausting, but I still managed to find some moments to read regularly - on my way to and from work as well as in bed before going to sleep. It hasn't always been easy to follow my reading verve because thanks to the snow and the cold the bus was often too packed with people to open my bag with the book inside. As you can imagine, I haven't actually been delighted at the weather, but then, what could I do about it? At night I could hardly keep my eyes open on some days and had to put away my book after just a few pages. Also many letters have remained unanswered during this month. I needed my weekends for writing fiction because I had a deadline to meet. Luckily, January has been a very calm month in my letterbox. It stayed emtpy on many days and I didn't mind. On the contrary, I was glad to have no reason for a guilty conscience.

Tomorrow a new month begins, another good month as I hope... and one that will allow me to take up my usual activities at my usual pace. But let's wait and see. Life is always good for a surprise, isn't it?

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Art of Writing Letters

Power of Words
by Antonio Litterio
During the past seventeen years I've often been asked why I indulge in snail mail correspondence. In general, people understand the purpose of corresponding with someone who lives far away, usually in another country. They can relate to the wish to stay in touch, to improve foreign language skills, to learn about other cultures, to talk about a common hobby, to exchange experiences and ideas, etc. etc. Most of them, however, find it very bizarre to do it the old-fashioned way using paper and ink when there are more modern and more immediate means of communication available. They imagine that it must be rather frustrating to be watching out for the postman every day to deliver the long awaited answer from a penfriend. They are wrong!

In snail mail correspondence time is of secondary importance. Every letter from a true friend is welcome however long it may have taken her or him to reply... as long as s/he wrote with at least a minimum of care. There's hardly anything more harmful to a penfriendship than letters that are dashed off without much thought and that contain nothing but empty phrases as it happens so often in e-mails and posts on the internet. People like me who enjoy writing letters are often introverted, but correspondence definitely is the wrong activity for people unwilling or unable to open up to others. Those who don't want to reveal their true character are well advised to start writing a diary instead of snail mail letters. Or if you find it hard to tell the truth, you might consider writing fiction.

A true amateur of snail mail correspondence will pay a lot of attention to her/his letters and not just writing them. S/he will choose the notepaper with care or will even create her/his own paper like I do. I prefer handwriting my letters because I feel that it's part of expressing myself and showing my penfriend who I really am. To me typed letters always seem a bit matter-of-fact, even sterile. However, there's nothing to be said against typing (in some cases it's even a blessing!) provided that the letters are personal and not just addressed printed matter to put it bluntly. Someone who commits herself/himself to writing letters should always keep in mind that s/he conducts a dialogue and that it's up to him/her to anticipate the reactions and feelings of the other. I admit that the latter is not easily achieved. In fact, it's almost like playing chess against yourself. The reward for all the effort is worthwhile, though: a deep friendship.

In a nutshell, for me and my likes letter-writing is much more than just connecting with people and passing a good time with them. A good letter needs devotion and thought like a piece of art. In fact, letter writing is an art.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Acrylic & Polyester

It's winter in Austria, even one that is cold and rich in snow. Here in Graz, at the south-eastern foothills of the European Alpes, we aren't used to such harsh conditions anymore and I realized that I wasn't too well prepared for them. I was cold rather often during the past weeks and I had to accept that I needed a larger choice of warm pullovers than I already had in my wardrobe. 'No problem', I thought, and went shopping after work - something that I hate and thus avoid like the plague.

Shelves and racks were still crammed with winter clothes everywhere although occasionally spring outfits turned up, too. My big problem was that the current fashion isn't my cup of tea. It proved difficult to find cuts and colours that I liked. Worst of all were the materials, though. Whenever I saw a piece that seemed nice, I took it out to have a closer look... and at the first touch I felt the telltale prickle creeping up my spine. There was hardly a need to check the labels on the inside to know that the pullovers were made of acrylic or polyester, often even 100%. It's not just that the static is a constant nuisance to me because I often get a tiny electric shock touching an object and because sparks emit from my fingertips if I don't take care. The real problem is that I'm allergic to synthetic fibres widely used for making clothes these days! I get a rush and pimples where the material is in direct contact with my skin for too long, not to mention the itching. I need natural fibres on my body - wool or silk because it's winter and cotton doesn't warm me sufficiently. Where can I find pure woollen pullovers? Not in the shops where I went! But why?

Quite obviously acrylic, polyester and other synthetic fibres are easier to produce in big quantities and, judging from the prices, they seem to be more inexpensive than wool, silk and even cotton. However, they are just certain kinds of plastic! Are people aware that mineral oil is needed to make their clothes? Are you aware of it? Considering that the quality of such clothes often isn't very good and they soon end in the rubbishbin, it seems an outrageous waste of our limited natural resources. I definitely have a different idea of sustainability! And yet, the market is inundated with cheap synthetic clothes... that are of no use to me.

I tried to find woollen pullovers in shops and boutiques. I came across some, but they were all made of special yarns, very select and very expensive... certainly not suited for everyday use. As a knitter I'm not disinclined to make my own pullovers although I limited myself to scarfs, hats and gloves so far. Over the past years I noticed that the prices for wool were rising constantly and that it's difficult to get just "normal" wool, nothing special. What a pity that wool is becoming a luxury good again.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Book Review: The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats William Butler Yeats is known above all as one of Ireland’s greatest poets who was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. But he didn’t only write much admired and often recited poems. He also collected folk tales and legends which already in his time were at risk of getting lost in a modern Ireland that was under British rule during all his lifetime and remained under it until several years after his death at the age of seventy-four in January 1939.

With its strong reminiscences of heathen, thus Celtic times the mythological heritage of first Catholicised and then Anglicised Ireland is surprising, impressive and quite unique in the world. I'm sure that W. B. Yeats has been aware of it when he set out
“to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them.”
Under the title The Celtic Twilight he brought together a varied selection of stories and tales from Old Eire which first appeared as a book in 1893. Some more stories passed on to the author were added to the revised edition of 1902 which I’m reviewing here and which keeps being in print until this day. Therefore it deserves a closer look.

The book offers a mixture of what W. B. Yeats heard and saw of the legendary worlds of dhouls and faeries, but he also commented the stories like almost every other writer of his time and his background would have done. He didn’t degrade and dismiss the beliefs of the peasantry as superstition and mirages produced by uneducated minds, though, as might have done a less open-minded person or more fundamentalist Catholic in his place. On the contrary, he perceived Ireland as a magical land and even reported some strange incidents that he experienced himself. For the rest he translated the stories told to him into modern language and wrote them down as “accurately and candidly” as he could.

The people who appear in the stories as their protagonists, as their witnesses or just as their passers-on are the men and women of Ireland who live in unison with a world of magic surrounding them. But they don’t just cling stubbornly to their heritage of a pagan past that has been virtually wiped out everywhere else. They accept to be part of a universe where much more is possible than science can explain and they take things as they come, sometimes with an impish wink of the eye. This gives them and their whole country the natural and charming aura that keeps impressing us.

Reading The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats allows a glimpse into a magic world that is closed to most of us ever since we left childhood behind. Isn't this a good enough reason to abandon yourself to the skilled storyteller for a while?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Snail Mail Correspondence

It’s characteristic of our modern society that both in English and in German we speak of snail mail (Schneckenpost) when we refer to letters sent or received via postal services. It’s true that transporting an envelope from one point to another takes time, but does such an exchange really deserve being named after a snail? Is it so slow? In fact a letter sent from Graz uses to be delivered to any place in Austria the next day or the day after. Within Europe you can be somewhat sure that your letter will reach the recipient in two to five days. Letters leaving the continent can take longer, even much longer depending on the reliability of the postal service concerned. My only negative experience in this respect regards the USA: whenever I tried to establish a pen-friendship with a person there, one out of two letters got lost. Maybe the Bermuda Triangle swallowed them? In any case my letters never turned up again.

However, today’s postal services in general are quick and reliable compared to those of former times. Yet, modern written communication is digital and typed. E-mail, sms, instant messaging, social networks, chat. Everything less immediate is called outdated and a waste of time. Literature is keeping up pace. While Lizzy Bennet penned dozens of long epistles to her family, friends and even Mr. Darcy, Bridget Jones spent much time on the phone and in front of the computer typing short messages. Of course, it’s futile to compare the nineteenth century’s means of communication with those of the last years of the twentieth century. Jane Austen was a woman of her era and so is Helen Fielding. Times have changed a lot. Life is faster-moving than ever. We are more hurried, more superficial and more careless than ever. Who do you think knew more about the character of the person with whom she was exchanging letters, Lizzy Bennet or Bridget Jones? I reckon that the answer is quite clear.

Is it a big surprise to know that there are still some people like me on this planet who indulge in handwriting letters to their friends? We are few and ever less, but we are keeping alive an old tradition and an art. We do this with pleasure and against all obstacles like rising prices for stamps, letter-boxes being removed over night and post-offices being closed at virtually every corner. It doesn’t even matter to us that some people look at us as if we were aliens from another planet or time. We enjoy sitting down to take a sheet of nice letter-paper (if we can still find one that matches our character, one that is neither ugly nor dreadfully infantile) and a pen for writing to a friend. For a little while we step aside from the usual hustle of life and leave ourselves to the flow of words. What could be better?

Friday, 18 January 2013

Book Review: The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak
The best-selling novel that I want to tell you about today first came out in 2002 under the Turkish title Bit Palas. The English translation, The Flea Palace, followed two years later and was short-listed for the Foreign Fiction Prize of The Independant in London in 2005 (the same year as Orhan Pamuk’s Snow   »»» read my review). The German edition, Der Bonbonpalast, was released in 2008, but I read it only last summer. As a matter of fact, I had never heard of the author before because apart from Orhan Pamuk Turkish writers receive little attention from German-language publishers.

Elif Shafak (correctly Şafak, "dawn" or "aurora" in Turkish and the first name of her mother) is one of Turkey‘s most famous contemporary writers and has been awarded many important literature prizes nationally as well as internationally. She was born in Strasbourg, France, in October 1971. Later she moved to Madrid, Spain, and Amman, Jordan, with her mother who was a diplomat at the Turkish embassies there. She returned to Turkey only when it was time to begin her Political Science studies at the University of Ankara. As a fiction writer she made her debut in 1994 with the narrative Kem Gözlere Anadolu. Her first novel Pinhan (The Mystic) was published in 1997 and received the Great Rumi Award the following year. The novel The Saint of Incipient Insanities launched her international career as a writer in 2004. It was the first of several books that Elif Shafak wrote in English and that was translated into Turkish afterwards.

The story of The Flea Palace is set in an apartment building from the 1960s in the centre of Istanbul, the so called Bonbon Palace. The name is a tribute to the woman – Agrippina Fjodorowna Antipowa, a Russian aristocrat who emigrated to Turkey after the revolution – that the once impressing, always unique and now shabby old house had been built for after she had regained the view of colours thanks to a box of candies, each one wrapped into paper of a colour linked to its taste. The building is home to many very peculiar characters. There are Musa, Meryem, and their son Muhammet in flat #1, Sidar and his St. Bernard Gaba in flat #2, the identical twins Cemal and Celal and their hair dresser’s salon in flat #3, the FireNaturedSons in flat #4, Hadj Hadj, his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren in flat #5, Metin Chetinceviz and his Russian wife Nadia in flat #6, the narrating "Me" in flat #7, the Blue Mistress in flat #8, Hygiene Tijen and Su in flat #9, and Madam Auntie in flat #10. The novel tells the stories of the house, of the neighbourhood where there had been two cemeteries which gain unexpected importance in the course of the novel, of life in modern Istanbul and of the tenants‘ everyday lives. The red thread of the novel and at the same time the connecting element is the seemingly ineradicable stench of rubbish everywhere in the house that attracts all sorts of vermin. Only at the end of the book the tenants and the readers find out what is wrong… and it’s quite an amazing revelation.

Elif Shafak found a rather unorthodox way of telling the story of those people. The book consists of five parts: Introduction, Before, Still Before, Now, And Then. The biggest part is dealing with the present. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the flats and to what is happening there. It’s difficult to judge the language and style of a writer when all you have in hands is a translation, but I think that both are clear and pleasing. The language is rich in pictures, sometimes metaphoric, very vivid, intelligent, witty, and often funny, too. All in all it’s well suited for a story from today’s Istanbul where people are trying to create their own identity combining the heritage of the old Ottoman, thus Islamic society and the requirements of modern life in a democracy that is European in character. 

To cut a long story short: I enjoyed reading the novel very much and recommend it to everyone who is interested to learn more about the Turkish soul and about the life in Istanbul today.

An interesting portrait of Elif Şafak can be found on the website of the Turkish Cultural Foundation:

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Of Snows, a Dandy and Two Monsters

Last night it has been snowing again. Heavily, noiselessly, inexorably. As a child I would have gone into raptures over the frozen present that Mother Hulda was sending down from heaven. As a grown-up I couldn’t enjoy it anymore. It’s true that the whole world looked peaceful and quiet under its thick white blanket, but also cold and hostile. Even next to the heating the mere thought of being out there made me shudder with cold and I decided to crawl under my covers to warm myself.

I fetched Bel-Ami from the chest of drawers beside my bed and plunged back into Maupassant‘s colourful descriptions of dandy life in the second half of the nineteenth century. The chapter was set on a hot summer day in Paris. Under my covers I could almost feel the suffocating air filling the protagonist‘s lungs! Bel-Ami’s continuing and eventually successful attempts to seduce the wife of his boss certainly added to it although today those scenes wouldn’t even shock a small child.

As time advanced my eyes got heavier and heavier. The words started to jumble in my mind and stopped telling me the story. I just couldn’t read any longer. I had to put away my book and turn off the light. Time to sleep. It was silent outside as if the whole world were on stand-by for the night. No traffic noise made it into the room. No voices could be heard. The snow muffled every sound. I fell fast asleep at once and certainly drifted into sweet dreams after my read although I can't remember.

It was a few minutes past 4:00 a.m. when I was roused from sleep. At first my mind couldn’t make head or tail of the noise because it was still drowsy, but the more my consciousness emerged from the depths of the darkness the clearer it got what was happening. A big snowplough was cleaning the streets from the snow of the night! Just a few minutes later a roaring sound of a snow blower upset my ears. The caretaker was doing her job despite the small hours and against all rules.

For heaven’s sake it was too early for such a monstrous gadget and too early to get up! I turned to the other side and tried to get some more sleep. Without success. I stayed in bed until 5:30 a.m. Then I got up and made myself ready for work leisurely. The weird thing is that I’m not tired at all. Maybe I should get up so early every day? NO WAY!!!!!

Monday, 14 January 2013

On a Winter's Day

It’s snowing! A cyclone over the Adriatic Sea is blessing us with lots of tiny flakes gliding down from a deep grey sky. In Graz we often get snow from the South, above all when humid air from the Mediterranean mixes with cold air from the continent. Since yesterday noon, above all during the night, the city has been covered with estimated 10 to 15 cm of crystallized frozen water. That’s not much compared to the snow blanket in the Alpine regions of Austria, but it’s more than enough for a city like Graz to sink into chaos. In January snowfalls aren’t much of a surprise really because we’re right in the middle of winter, and yet… I had hoped… 

Frankly, to my taste this season is too unfriendly and too wet and too cold. Grrr. Nothing but looking outside I’m getting goose bumps and a depression! Is it a surprise that I prefer dark clothes during winter although this can be very dangerous after nightfall? The low clouds, the often dim light and the cold temperatures seem to call for it. Maybe I’m driven by an old instinct to camouflage. At any rate vivid colours don’t feel right when the world is painted in black and white. In fact, a look out of the window is like watching a photo printed long ago when colour films were rare and cameras working without film at best a crazy idea of science-fiction writers.

I’d prefer to be tucked in my bed and fast asleep now until spring, but I’m not a marmot, nor a turtle, nor a hedgehog. As a matter of fact, I’m human and I am awake. Every morning I have to go to work and bear the freezing monochrome surroundings. At the moment the snow is fresh, clean and shining white – a beautiful sight! I admit –, but it will mix with the dirt and the dust all around in no time. Then the white splendour will turn into a disgusting brownish grey mass everywhere close to streets and pavements. It’s inevitable. Graz will remind me once more of the ugly industrial town of Coketown that Charles Dickens invented back in 1854 for his novel Hard Times 

The only practicable solution for me is to stay at home as much as I can while the conditions outside are such that I despise. It goes without saying that I don’t mind at all! I can hold on in silence, too. At least for a while provided that I get a chance to express myself in writing.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Book Review: Matters of Honor by Louis Begley me buying books is a complex process that always requires my full attention. I let guide myself by intuition, feelings and reason at somewhat equal parts. So on a different day, in a different mood and under different circumstances I wouldn’t even have considered the purchase of Louis Begley’s Matters of Honor, but as luck would have it, I needed a present for a friend. It was so urgent that I was determined not to leave the shop without a book, even if I couldn’t find anything meeting my usual literary standards. Of course, I had to speed-read the novel before giving it to my friend.

The cover text of Matters of Honor had led me to believe that it was just another one of those boring stories about college life in the USA, moreover in Harvard in the beginning of the 1950s. In a nutshell: I thought that it would be a light read for young adults about to leave home. What attracted my interest, though, was the fact that one of the protagonists was a Polish-Jewish survivor of World War II. This was a background that promised to give the novel a little more depth. And indeed, it was much better than I had expected. I learnt a lot about the USA in the 1950s, the characters of the story are well developed and the plot is convincing. All in all, I had a really good time reading this book.

Most of the story is set in Harvard, but it’s less about college life than it is about the search of identity and life-long friendship. The three protagonists first meet when they move into the same suite of the college dormitory. Sam Standish – the narrator – is the son of an old New England family who hasn’t yet come to terms with the rather recent discovery that he had been adopted as a baby by his parents who belong to an impoverished branch of the Standishes and who are so miserable about it that they took to drinking. As time progresses he becomes a renowned writer. Archibald P. Palmer, short Archie, is from a Texan army family that never stayed in the same place for long. From the beginning he is the socialite of the friends, someone who enjoys taking risks and hard drinks. The third of the party is Henry White, born Henryk Weiss, a Polish Jew from Krakow who survived the war by hiding and who came to the USA with both his parents in 1947. He strives for acceptance and tries to shake off his Jewish heritage. Anti-Semitism is strong in the USA at the time. Eventually Henry becomes a lawyer in the Paris subsidiary of a big New Yorker law firm... Discover the rest for yourself!

Louis Begley was 13 years old when he came to the USA in March 1947 – a Jewish survivor from Poland like Henry White in the novel. On the surface the story is thus autobiographical, but for the rest it’s all invented. Other novels of the writer are: Wartime Lies, As Max Saw It, The Man Who Was Late, About Schmidt, Mistler’s Exit, Schmidt Delivered, Shipwreck, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, and Schmidt Steps Back.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

A Tiny Injury and the Stream of Life

For the past couple of days I have been feeling quite handicapped because I couldn’t use my right index finger. About a week ago I must have hit or squeezed it somewhere… and pretty hard, too. Despite all I can’t remember when or where or how. All I know is that the fingertip was slightly swollen and uncommonly rosy all of a sudden. And worst of all: it hurt terribly! At first even a gentle touch felt as if my finger were caught in a screw. I didn’t see a doctor about this because I thought that it couldn’t be anything serious really, maybe a small haematoma that would heal before soon. Luckily I was right and the finger hurt less every day. By now the pain has changed into a prickle.

However, I’m much behind with work. Not being ambidextrous like Leonardo Da Vinci, handwriting was completely out of the question and typing with only nine instead of ten fingers was an ordeal. In my job I didn’t really have a choice, but at home I postponed all manual work – writing included – that didn’t need immediate attention. It’s incredible that such a tiny injury forced me to refrain from writing for a whole week! For me as an avid writer this was quite a sacrifice. Well, I couldn’t change it. It was necessary to allow my finger to recover and I made the best of it: I gave my current read more time than I would have been able to otherwise.

Life is like that. We make our plans according to probabilities and previous experience, but we have to accept that our knowledge is limited. Out of the blue small causes can trigger a chain of unexpected events and we have to adapt to a new situation. No need to be frightened! Evolution has cut us out for learning and for changing plans. In fact we should be grateful for the surprises that life has in store for us every day. I’m sure that it would spoil my pleasure if I always knew what was coming. Admittedly my injured finger wasn’t a pleasant surprise and I could well have done without it, but having additional time to indulge in good literature was nice, too.

The stream of life doesn’t run smoothly through a straight pipeline with the perfect fall! There are stones and other obstacles everywhere, the bed is narrowing and widening ever again, the height of fall is always changing. There’s a very diverse landscape unfolding along the banks. Isn’t it beautiful?