Friday, 31 May 2013

Book Review: The Passport by Herta Müller
It never is an easy decision to leave home for good, but many people don’t really have a choice. Let’s be honest. Who apart from adventurers and philanthropists would WISH to live in a war zone or just in a region without jobs to make a decent living? Oppression from political and/or religious authorities is another motive to go into exile. Some like Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) in 8 A.D. were forced to go, while others crave for a chance to leave. Not so long ago many Romanians like Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller and the protagonists of her novella The Passport ventured at the bureaucratic troubles involved in legal emigration from a Communist country.

Herta Müller was born in German speaking Niţchidorf in the Banat, Romania, in August 1953. In the 1970s she studied German and Romanian Philology at the University in Timișoara, Romania. As a writer Herta Müller made her debut with a censored version of Nadirs (Niederungen) in Romania in 1982 and was then banned from publishing as a reaction to her criticism of the Communist terror regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. In 1986 The Passport (Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt) came out in Germany. The following year, in 1987, she was finally allowed to travel to Berlin where she stayed and still lives. Other important works of the writer that led to her receiving many literary awards, among them the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, are Travelling on One Leg (Reisende auf einem Bein: 1989), The Land of Green Plums (Herztier: 1994), The Appointment (Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet: 1997) and The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel: 2009). 

In the novella The Passport (the original German title would be Man is Nothing But a Pheasant in the World in English) Herta Müller tells the story of a miller family in a German-speaking village in Romania in the 1980s. Mr. and Mrs. Windisch and their grown-up daughter Amalie, who is working in a kindergarten in town during the week, are waiting for their passports and visa to Germany. Passing by the war memorial and through a deep pot hole on his bicycle every morning, Mr. Windisch counts years and days since the application. Existence is filled with the continuous repetition of activities in the always same desolate environment producing ever again ominous signs of old peasant superstition. To Windisch life seems to stand still, but the perspective of leaving gives him the sense of an ending. Many neighbours have already left or are about to leave, while the necessary permissions of the Windisch family are being delayed by the officials. To get their passports Windisch has gives dozens of flour bags and money to the involved officials, notably to the mayor, the militia man, the post-office woman and the (Catholic) parson. However, the men want more. They want sex in return for the yearned for papers and Windisch is disgusted by the thought of having his beautiful daughter sell her body like his worn-out wife had done to survive in the Soviet gulag after the war.

The simple plot of The Passport is intensified by the description of seemingly unimportant objects and observations that intersperse the entire text. It isn’t easy to read between the lines and to decipher the true meaning of the symbolic language that often reminds me of a game of word associations. Especially the chapter titles leave me with the impression of having been chosen at random. The writing style of Herta Müller is often compared to that of Franz Kafka although in The Passport I don’t see much of a resemblance, yet. The story and its setting may be exaggerated, but not enough to remove them almost beyond recognition from reality and to lift them to a more symbolic as well as universal level. It’s a narrative from the German-speaking minority in a rural area under Nicolae Ceauşescu, hardly more. Maybe Herta Müller's later work reminds of Kafka?

The Passport is the first and only book of Herta Müller that I know so far. I enjoyed the read because it makes think about power and its abuse, but also about the absurdity of certain aspects of life and superstition. It’s not very likely that I’ll ever become this writer’s biggest fan, and yet, I’m more than ready to recommend this novella.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Exiled Writers Ink: Voices in a Strange Land

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 postulates in its Article 19 the freedom of opinion and expression. In my corner of the world, in the European Union, this fundamental right has become a matter of course and writers usually don’t give it much thought, but in many – far too many – countries authors face censorship and repression every day. There literary or journalistic work can put at risk the freedom and even the life of the writers themselves as well as of their families. Is it a surprise that under such conditions critical minds decide to go into exile? 

For writers the decision to leave their countries of origin is even more difficult than for others because in their work they depend almost always on the use of their native language. Going into exile can thus deprive them of access to the literary community and to publishing. Since few authors can be expected to be as gifted for foreign languages as for instance Joseph Conrad (who was a Pole writing in English), the registered charity Exiled Writers Ink was formed in London. Its mission is to provide a platform ‘for the work of artists living in exile in the UK and mainland Europe’. 

On its website Exiled Writers Ink states that in order to fulfil its mission, it regularly organises creative writing workshops for refugees as well as for other exiles and it offers workshops with (established) exiled writers in schools, colleges and groups. It also arranges seminars and conferences, theatre performances, festivals and other events in the UK, often in collaboration with other organizations. Another important contribution of Exiled Writers Ink to the literary scene is Live Literature, for example the Exiled Lit Café taking place every first Monday of the month in London. 

The work of Exiled Writers Ink would be only half-hearted, if it didn’t include matters of publication and translation as well. One of the charity’s projects is dedicated to matching exiles and English writers for the purpose of working together on the English editing. In return the exiled or refugee authors translate work of the partner into their own languages. As the website says, volunteers for helping with the editing are always welcome. The results of such collaboration in a literary tandem are published and presented in a performance arranged by Exiled Writers Ink. 

The online list of publications by writers associated with Exiled Writers Ink is long, but the charity can come up with own publications, too. Several anthologies of exiled literature have been edited by its director, Jennifer Langer, and some booklets are available along with the books produced in the Mentoring and Translation Programme. Until winter 2010/11 a magazine called exiled ink! has been published and its issues 4 to 14 can be downloaded from the website for free. Lamentably it seems that the magazine no longer appears, not even on the internet. 

The website of Exiled Writers Ink gives a good overview of the charity’s activities. It’s an initiative that can’t be overrated because it shows how much power of expression and wealth of thought refugees and exiles bring to our countries. All we need to do is give them a chance to follow their literary ambitions - in other words: to write without fear.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Book Review: The Chef by Martin Suter
Every one of us has a history that moulds and forges us. Some personal histories are pleasant, while others are dreadful because they are linked with war, death and flight. Many true stories are being told these days and they sell. I prefer to review a book that is pure fiction, but this doesn’t prevent it from carrying a message and much truth. Out of a variety of novels I picked The Chef of the Swiss author Martin Suter.

The writer Martin Suter was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in February 1948. At first he earned his living in advertising while writing reports for newspapers and screenplays alongside. Since 1991 Martin Suter is a full-time author. He gained some renown with his columns Business Class and Richtig leben mit Geri Weibel (Living Right with Geri Weibel) that appeared weekly or monthly respectively until about 2007. His first novel, Small World, was published in 1997 and received immediate acclaim as well as literary awards. Several other successful novels followed, among them A Deal with the Devil (Der Teufel von Mailand: 2006) and The Chef (Der Koch: 2010). Martin Suter lives in Spain and Guatemala with his family. 

The Chef in Martin Suter’s novel is the Tamil refugee Maravan who works as badly paid kitchen help in a posh restaurant in Zurich. He’s a trained cook and a genius in his profession, but as an asylum seeker he is limited by Swiss law to doing unskilled work. One night he cooks a traditional Indian dinner for his Swiss colleague Andrea who more or less invited herself to teach the other cooks and waiters in the restaurant a lesson. She spends the night with Maravan, but being a lesbian she doesn’t understand why. Later she figures out that it had to do with the dishes that the Tamil cook served her. She asks him to prepare the same aphrodisiac meal again for her and a friend who so far resisted all her advances. He agrees and Andrea is delighted with the success. Meanwhile Maravan lost his job in the restaurant and struggles to make ends meet with the unemployment benefits. Then Andrea suggests that they team up and start their own business, a catering company called Love Food. Hesitatingly Maravan plunges into the adventure because he needs more money to support his family in Sri Lanka. The special qualities of his cooking get round and attract new customers. Love Food slowly slips into the abyss of politics and dirty business. Before soon Maravan and Andrea are confronted with questions of moral and responsibility that are closely associated not just with their business, but also with their private and family lives. 

The language of The Chef is simple and humorous. At first glance it seems to be a light story about two people who start a love business of an innocent kind, but in reality Martin Suter touches on many serious topics in his novel and he starts with it right on the first page. The economic crisis of 2008 serves as a red thread that connects the different levels of the story. There’s Maravan, the Tamil asylum seeker who lives in Zurich now and who remains despite all entangled in the difficulties, above all the civil war in his home country Sri Lanka. There are the refugees who are forced to make their living with any job that they can get or in the case of Makeda as prostitutes. There are the politicians and arms dealers who keep the spiral of violence and flight going. 

When I first made up my mind to read The Chef by Martin Suter I wasn’t quite sure if it would be worth the while since his earlier book A Deal with the Devil hadn’t particularly impressed me. Luckily, The Chef was a very positive surprise. I liked the mixture of a light story with serious topic of international business and politics. The book certainly shows that the life of an immigrant, moreover an asylum seeker in Europe isn’t a bed of roses as many believe. It’s a read that widens the horizon and for that alone I recommend it.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Marguerite Duras
Marguerite Duras (Donnadieu)
French writer (1914-1996)
Source: paris, Author: paris
For many authors writing is a need like eating and drinking. One of those writers who devoted their whole existence to narrating and who lived through the parallel world of their fiction was Marguerite Duras. Much of her work is at least vaguely autobiographical to the point that she herself could find it difficult to keep her memories and fiction apart. So what could be more obvious than summarizing the known facts about the life of this grand figure of twentieth century literature? 

The French writer and film director Marguerite Duras was born as Marguerite Donnadieu in Gia-Dinh close to Saigon, Vietnam (then French Indochina), in April 1914. After her father had died in 1919, her mother had a hard time bringing up the children. They moved to Vinh Long in the Mekong delta where Marguerite and her two older brothers grew up freely. As a teenager Marguerite Duras had an affair with a Chinese businessman, an experience that later flew into her writing. Then she went to France for her university studies that she completed in 1936 earning a licence (master) in law. 

After her studies Marguerite Duras met her first husband, the poet Robert Antelme, and became an active member of the French Communist Party. As from 1936 she earned her living as a Government official dealing until World War II with matters concerning the colony of Indochina and during the war with the allocation of paper to publishers in the name of the Vichy government. Between 1942 and 1944 Marguerite Duras worked for the French Resistance as a spy and published a newspaper called Libres to communicate information about movements of prisoners to their family and friends. 

When she published her first novel Les Impudents (The Impudent) in 1943, she decided to use a pseudonym and chose the name of the French village where her father had settled shortly before his death and that he had intended to adopt as his family name. La Vie tranquille (The Quiet Life) that followed in 1944 was her last literary work until 1950 because writing fiction seemed too trivial an occupation to her while her husband (and millions of others) suffered in German concentration camps or fought in the war. When Robert Antelme returned home at last, he was half-dead. 

After Marguerite Duras had nursed her husband back to health from typhus and he had sufficiently recovered his strength, she asked him for a divorce. At the time this meant breaking with the role that wives were expected to fill. Marguerite Duras still cared a lot for her husband, but her feelings had changed and she didn’t wish to live with him as husband and wife anymore. Moreover she wanted to marry his best friend Dionys Mascolo which she did in 1947. Shortly after the marriage, which lasted about a decade, she got pregnant with their son Jean. 

In the late 1940s Marguerite Duras also resumed writing and published The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique: 1950) that made her fame. Many novels, essays, short stories, plays and screenplays followed over the following decades. Some of her most famous works are Hiroshima mon amour (1960), The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein: 1964), India Song (1976), Moderato Cantabile (1977), Savannah Bay (1982), The Lover (L’amant: 1984), The North China Lover (L'Amant de la Chine du Nord: 1991, and Writing (Écrire: 1993).

As from the late 1960s Marguerite Duras got into directing independent films. The first one to come out was La Musica (1966) which was to be followed by almost twenty others. The most noted among them are Nathalie Granger (1972), India Song (1975), Le Camion (The Truck: 1977) and her last one The Children (Les Enfants: 1984). However, the films of Marguerite Durashave have never been as popular as her books which is proved by the fact that her films are difficult to find these days. 

Marguerite Duras saw much success, but she was also a victim of her passions and vices. During most of her life she fought against alcoholism undergoing altogether four detoxification cures. In the end she died from throat cancer in Paris in March 1996. 

For further reading:

Friday, 17 May 2013

Book Review: The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin
Card games are and have always been a very popular pastime although there were times in history when the Christian Church demonised them, not least because people played for higher stakes than they could afford and forgot about everything else. Many lives have been ruined by gambling and today we know that it can be an addiction. The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin is a gambling tale that deals with obsession, with superstition and with the ruin of a person.

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Александр Сергеевич Пушкин), was born in Moskow, Russian Empire, in June 1799. At the age of fifteen he published his first poem and continued to write for the rest of his life. Among his most important works apart from numerous and famous poems count the verse novel Eugene Onegin (Евгeний Онeгин: 1825-1832), the play Boris Godunov (Борис Фёдорович Годунoв: 1825) and short stories like for instance The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (Повести покойного Ивана Петровича Белкина: 1831), The Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама: 1834) and The Captain's Daughter (Капитанская дочка: 1836). In January 1837 Alexander Pushkin died in Saint Petersburg after a duel with a French officer who had tried to seduce his young and socialite wife. 

The Queen of Spades is the story of Hermann, a young officer of the engineers in the Russian Army. When his comrades ask him why he only watches them gamble and never plays at cards himself, he answers that he hardly cares ‘to sacrifice the necessaries of life for uncertain superfluities’. Then, one night, his friend Tomsky tells the story of his grand-mother who lost a fortune in Paris when she was young and then found herself unable to pay back her gambling debt. She turned to the Count of Saint Germain for help who instead of lending her money told her the secret of three winning cards to get back her lost fortune and even more. The story engrosses Hermann so much that he can’t think of anything else but making the old Countess tell him the secret. In order to achieve his goal he flirts with Lisaveta Ivanovna, the ward of the Countess, sending her love letters. Eventually, the young woman lets him know how to get into the house and into her room. Hermann waits for the Countess in her bedroom and bids her to reveal the secret of the three winning cards to him, but she tells him that it was only a joke. He refuses to believe her and threatens her with a pistol. The almost eighty-year old woman dies of terror and not knowing what else to do Hermann goes up to Lisaveta Ivanovna’s room. He confesses to her what he did and asks her to help him to get out of the house again. During the night after the funeral the old countess appears to Hermann as a ghost and tells him the three winning cards at last. Sure to win Hermann finally plays cards and puts at stake his entire fortune three times. Twice he wins as expected, but the third time... 

Of course, the setting and the mores that Alexander Pushkin described in The Queen of Spades are characteristic of the early nineteenth century, but the story itself is timeless in its outlines. The founder of modern Russian literature put down a typical story of greed that could happen everywhere and any time. There are casinos and stock exchanges that attract gamblers like Hermann who want to believe that there is an infallible as well as simple method to increase their fortune. Many of them would do anything to know the secret of the winning cards and they would stick at nothing. Few of them will be doomed like Hermann, and yet, a mind filled with greed is a madness of its own kind, isn’t it? 

The Queen of Spades is a short story that uses to be published with other works of Alexander Pushkin that may differ according to the edition. It may be an old story, but it’s also a classic that certainly is worth the time reading. So it’s another read that I’m happy to recommend.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Muzzled and Crushed

Society is based on social conventions that can be more or less strict. When people deviate from accepted standards they are often pushed away. It doesn’t really matter which are the reasons for their “misbehaviour”. If they commit a crime, they are sent to prison. If their mind is in disorder, they are sent to mental or nursing homes. They are put out of the way and out of sight of normal people under the double cover of protecting society from potentially dangerous influences and of helping the person concerned to become functional again. The result is the same: they are marginalized. And often they are muzzled and eventually crushed, too. 

In the Veterans’ Hospital where Ken Kesey worked for a while in the late 1950s he had seen in what a disrespectful way people were treated and he transposed his experience into fiction. His best-selling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came out in 1962 and was adapted for the stage already the year after. In the 1970s the originally Czech director Miloš Forman made a film from Ken Kesey’s novel that became legendary, and not just because it was one of few that ever won all five major Oscars.One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture of 1975, Best Director (Miloš Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay (Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman). 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tells the story of Randall Patrick McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) who – as the spectator learns only later – had been sentenced to prison for statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old girl, but preferred to feign mental illness in order to avoid the work detail. In the beginning of the film McMurphy is brought to a mental home for evaluation which is exactly what he wanted. At first he is thrilled because he expects it to be fun to stay among all those crazy people, to watch them and to share their assumed freedom. Soon he realizes, though, that in fact he leapt out of the frying-pan into the fire. 
Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher) has established a strict regime in her ward. Days follow a never changing routine that includes medication, the drowning sound of classical music from the ward room preventing normal conversation and something that is supposed to be group therapy, but that is above all humiliating. McMurphy soon challenges her authority and tries to rouse the other patients from their fearful lethargy. After some struggle including an unauthorized deep sea fishing trip he succeeds in making his mates livelier and more active. Then he learns from one of the gloating orderlies that having been committed to the mental home he can be kept there for as long as the nurses and doctors judge right. In addition, he becomes aware of the fact that most others stay there voluntarily which means that they are allowed to leave any time they want. From then on McMurphy’s power of resistance is sinking. 
When McMurphy tries to calm another patient during the group therapy, he and the Native American “Chief” Bromden (played by Will Sampson), who is a big man and comes to his help, get into a fight with the orderlies and are sent to electroconvulsive therapy. While waiting for their treatment the Chief reveals to McMurphy that he isn’t deaf and mute as everybody believes. Back in the ward McMurphy confides to the Chief that he’s planning to flee from the mental home because he feels that he can’t bear it much longer without really going crazy. That’s the point when things begin to go terribly wrong for McMurphy… 

For modern standards the plot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is slow, but this only emphasizes the oppressive atmosphere in the mental home. The film differs from the novel on which it is based, since “Chief” Bromden isn’t the narrator. Instead most of the plot focuses on the battle of wills between McMurphy, the rebellious and maladjusted mind, and nurse Ratched, the self-righteous and inflexible authority. Today the situation in mental homes may no longer be as bad as depicted in this film from 1975. Patients’ rights have gained much importance, and yet, the basic theme of authority and its abuse is very up-to-date. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a great film to watch. It makes think of how easily we step into the trap of patronizing others for their own good... or do we really do it for our convenience?

For those who prefer the book:

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Still Waters...

Yesterday I reviewed Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë whose work has always been compared to and overshadowed by that of her older sisters Charlotte and Emily. After all, who doesn’t know Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? Without any doubt those novels are important classics of early Victorian literature, but how about Anne Brontë’s writings? Do her two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, have less literary value than those of her sisters? Was she too young and too inexperienced to achieve something great? As a writer maybe.

In fact, Anne Brontë wasn’t so much younger than her sisters. Charlotte was born in April 1816, Emily in August 1818 and Anne in January 1820. Certainly, Anne was the baby of the family and as such indulged, probably patronized by all others, and yet, she was the only one of the three who could bear to hold a position as a governess for several years. By her contemporaries she is described as quiet, gentle and subdued which are all qualities that befitted a woman, especially a young one, of her time and social standing. 

In her novels Anne Brontë depicted the world as she saw it through the eyes of a very intelligent, highly sensitive and uncommonly attentive observer. Her mistake in literature may have been that she always remained faithful to the truth and didn’t gloss over the dark sides of life to please her readers. As a matter of fact, she was very critical of Victorian society and aimed high with her novels, writing them to induce changes of mind and attitude. For her as a woman and moreover an introvert it was the only way to make herself heard at all. 

With Agnes Grey she wished to show how difficult and lonely the life of most governesses was in well-to-do families with low morals. As for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I must admit that I haven’t read it, yet, but according to what I know about it, it’s a rousing story that brands the complete dependence of women of men. With her straight-forward description of reality she may have been too much ahead of time to leave a lasting impact. At its release in 1848 the novel was a big success, but it was also very controversial and caused quite some polemic. 

It seems that even her sister Charlotte Brontë didn’t approve of her sister’s only two novels. The first she called a complete mistake from the start because it had no plot. I think she really made her point writing Jane Eyre! The other she considered as too inconsistent with the character of her dear adapted and harmless little sister. Consequently, after her sister’s death Charlotte actively prevented The Tenant of Wildfell Hall from going into print again during her lifetime. Before long Anne Brontë became a side character in the family’s literary history. 

What a pity that Anne Brontë died so young in May 1849. We’ll never find out what she could have achieved, had she been alive longer. Who knows if she might not have found the courage to fully disclose her rebellious side? Maybe she would have become a pioneer of women’s rights in the end? Still waters run deep, it is said, but the bold and extravert may never catch the shortest glimpse of the varying worlds on the ground because they are too impatient. They won’t bother to read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, either – and will never know what they actually miss.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Book Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
The nineteenth century saw the rise of some female writers whose work has a very prominent place among the classics of literature today. There will be few who haven’t ever heard of Jane Austen (1775-1817). That George Eliot (1819-1880) was the male pen-name of Mary Ann Evans is a fact already less universally known  as I was amazed to see in a literature forum only recently. And then, there are the Brontë sisters Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and last, but not least Anne who is the youngest and least noted of the three.

Anne Brontë was born in Thornton in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, in January 1820 and grew up a few kilometres away at Haworth Parsonage (housing the Brontë Parsonage Museum today) where her father was the curate. She worked as a governess for almost six years, before returning home in 1845. The following year she and her sisters published a volume of poems under the pen-names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell that sold poorly. Then the sisters set out to write novels. Anne Brontë produced Agnes Grey that came out in 1847 (together with Emily’s Wuthering Heights), a few months after Charlotte’s Jane Eyre that had in fact been finished after Anne’s novel. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, appeared in 1848 and was such a success that it was sold out within six weeks. Today it is considered as one of the first feminist novels because it branded social and legal realities of women living in Victorian England. In May 1849 – a few months after her brother Branwell and her sister Emily – Anne Brontë died in Scarborough, United Kingdom, from pulmonary tuberculosis. 

Agnes Grey is a quiet novel, as quiet as are its title-giving heroine and its writer who put much of her own experience as a governess in two families and of her personality into it. In fact, there are many parallels between the novel and Anne Brontë’s life. From the start the book has been criticized (even by her sister Charlotte) for the lack of an intriguing plot because unlike in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Emily’s Wuthering Heights nothing much happens. There are no highly emotional scenes, no melodramatic turns of events, no dreadful secrets being revealed. Anne Brontë just tells the story of an average governess striving to make her living in a socially accepted way. 

In the early Victorian Period Agnes Grey as the well-educated daughter of a poor English clergyman doesn’t have many options to build herself a future. If she is lucky, she can find a husband who doesn’t care for a dowry, but in the beginning of the novel the girl has little hope for that to happen. In the meantime she is compelled to stay with her parents and live at their expense. Her elder sister Mary has a gift for painting and can financially support the family selling her sketches. The only option for Agnes Grey is to become a governess or a teacher although her family doesn’t like the idea. The eighteen-year-old is inexperienced and highly sensitive, but determined to go. 

First Agnes Grey takes up a position as a governess with the Bloomfields of Wellwood House. However, she is unable to manage the unruly three children aged between four and seven because she isn’t allowed to chide or punish them and is dismissed after less than a year. A few months later Agnes Grey finds another position as a governess to the Murrays at Horton Lodge. The girls are older, fourteen and sixteen, and therefore giving Agnes Grey less of a hard time, but their morals are very different from hers. The elder sister only thinks of amusing herself, flirting and making a good match, while the younger sister is a tomboy interested in nothing but riding and hunting. 

When Agnes Grey’s father dies, she quits her position to set up a school together with her mother because now they can’t stay at the parsonage and need to make a living. It seems as if a quiet and somewhat contented future lay before mother and daughter, yet the reward for their hardships – the true happy end – is still to come in the person of the young philanthropic vicar Edward Weston, the former curate of Horton whom Agnes Grey met while working for the Murrays. 

Admittedly, the plot of Agnes Grey is plain and at least as regards the love stories of the members of the Grey family idealistic, thus a bit unrealistic, too. The more interesting aspects of the novel certainly lie in the subtle observations of the narrating protagonist who for sure is a highly-sensitive introvert of the kind that rarely appears in literature and that to my experience is so easily misunderstood by the less sensitive, more extravert majority. Anne Brontë really painted a very lively picture of her world, and not a very flattering one in many cases. Strikingly the difficulties of teaching children who are indulged or neglected by their parents are the same today as they were when Agnes Grey was first published. 

I enjoyed the read very much because it made me think about life and the ways of people. Consequently, I’m more than willing to recommend Agnes Grey.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Pastiche Magazine: A Blend of Global Writing

In the past it could be pretty difficult for a budding writer like me to get an audience beyond family and friends. Luckily, times have changed and writing is no longer an elitist activity for the few lucky ones who are accepted by an established publishing house. The internet considerably increased the possibilities to make oneself a name. For those who bother to look around, the internet is a veritable treasure trove of literature from all around the world. The number of writer’s blogs showcasing original work keyed by amateur as well as professional authors is huge although their quality naturally is very varying.

However, blogs are only one piece of the world wide web. There are lots of other likewise interesting online resources related to literature and the arts. Some of them are quite popular and others are almost a secret. I reckon that the Pastiche Magazine rather belongs to the latter than to the first because it’s a fairly new creative ezine. When Clare deTamble from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom, started her website in 2011, it was supposed to be a professional copywriting service, but before soon it developed into an online literary magazine. Of course, being a writer herself, literature and the arts are dear to Clare deTamble or she wouldn't take the effort to run an ezine!

The word ‘pastiche’ derives from Italian ‘pasticcio’ and describes a patchwork of different works of art. Faithful to its name the Pastiche Magazine features original literary work in prose or poetry as well as other works of art including audio and all forms of visual art. It also contains news about creative writing and literature from around the world. The big objective of the entirely free online magazine is to promote creativity in all areas of art and the contents are as diverse as this statement allows to expect. It goes without saying that I could only browse the site, but I found some really interesting topics there along with a number of intriguing texts and poems of emerging writers.

All kinds of creative and interesting submissions to Pastiche Magazine are welcome from anywhere in the world as it seems. The information given on the submissions page is rather minimalistic, as a matter of fact. In any case I didn't find any geographical restrictions for submissions although I reckon that texts should better be in English. Well, before submitting something any writer with a minimum of self-esteem or capacity of self-reflexion will have a close look at the entire ezine anyway. To me the website looks quite fine and inviting or else I wouldn't have written about it. Besides, it's as ECO-friendly as anything on the internet can ever be.

For the rest, you'll have to see for yourself if you like it... or not.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

On a Sunday in May

Cherry-tree alley.
A carpet of pink petals
On the gravel path.

© LaGraziana 2013 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Contemporary Literature

The fact that I found it so difficult to pick the right novel for this week’s review made me think about the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary literature. There are few living writers whose work I really appreciate, like for instance Ian McEwan. In the bookshop I always have second thoughts when it comes to widening my horizon and giving someone new a chance. It’s very likely that I’ll forget my good resolutions and buy yet another classic from before World War II in the hope that its being still in print is a sign of good quality. More often than not it is. 

Experience taught me that emerging authors who receive much critical acclaim can easily turn out to be a big disappointment. Indeed, it isn’t rare that I finish a novel written by such a newcomer with the feeling that I could do better. Weak reads aren’t a complete waste of time, though. Finding so many flaws in the books of others gives me the courage to continue writing myself and it helps me to further develop my own ideas about the ingredients of strong fiction. But why is it that contemporary literature tends to bore and annoy me so terribly? 

In the course of this week I read different articles (I posted the links of two on my facebook wall) raising the question if contemporary literature was always terrible and why. The commentators came to the conclusion that many novels were more self-portrayal than anything else. In fact, creative writing teachers and tutors use to encourage everyone aspiring at a career in literature to concentrate on themselves, their thoughts, their sensations, their feelings. This is a good way to learn to develop an original style and voice, but it’s seldom more. 

Ian McEwan brought it excellently to the point in a letter that the protagonist of Atonement, Briony Tallis, receives from the editors of a literary journal several months after having submitted the typescript of a story: 
‘… The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry; it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception, present a stylised version of thought processes, permit the vagaries and unpredictability of the private self to be explored and so on. Who can doubt the value of this experimentation? However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement. Put the other way round, our attention would have been held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative. Development is required. …’ 
Towards the end of his novel The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafón has Julián Carax say through Nuria Monfort 
 ‘… that a narrative was a letter that the author wrote to himself to tell things that otherwise he wouldn’t be able to understand. …’ (My amateur translation from the original Spanish text). 
This hints at the ultimate goal of every writer to explain the world and life to himself and hopefully to the reader, too. Perceptions and sensations can help to understand, but they don’t just pop up out of the blue. They are produced by a certain course of events, they are tinged by the peculiarities of the characters experiencing them and they always follow a personal logic. 

I’m sure that a novel like Fay Weldon’s Puffball published in 1980 would long be forgotten today if it weren’t for Liffey and Mabs who are depicted in all shades of colours. They are very different characters and they are changing as the story advances. Emotions, perceptions and sensations get much room, but they always serve the purpose of the plot making clear why people do what they do. That way Mabs’ efforts to get rid of Liffey’s unborn baby become natural without losing their sometimes surprising effect. Fay Weldon tells their story. 

In my humble opinion many literary fiction writers forget today that they are supposed to tell a story, at best a captivating one. Other genres like chick’ lit, romance, fantasy, science fiction and thriller are so much more popular because their focus is on entertaining their readers. Personally I find most of the latter too predictable and thus boring, but I have no doubt that there are exceptions to the cliché. After all, if a novel is strong or weak has nothing to do with how it’s labelled by publishers. And of course it goes without saying that tastes differ – also in literature.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Book Review: Puffball by Fay Weldon
Past Friday I reviewed a contemporary novel by a male author and for reasons of gender equality I wished to pass on to modern literary fiction written by a woman. Alas, I didn’t expect that this plan would give me such a headache! I checked my shelves and realized that my collection of books sprung from female minds was much smaller than I had thought. Of course, this is a shame, but until not so long ago only weak works of women writers seemed to cross my way and deterred by all the chick’ lit and romance novels on the market I rather turned towards the products of male writing.

For the past six days I’ve thus pondered which book to choose for my review. I could rule out two novels by Amélie Nothomb and one by Anna Gavalda right away because I didn’t particularly like them. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was an excellent option, but I wish to reread it first. In the end I wavered between Anna Gavalda’s compilation of short-stories titled I Wish that Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere and Puffball by Fay Weldon that was given to me by a friend. As you can see, I’ve made up my mind to review the latter. 

Fay Weldon was born as Franklin Birkinshaw in Birmingham, England, in September 1931, but grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, with her mother, sister and grand-mother. She studied psychology and economics at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, before moving to London, marrying for the first time and having her first son. When Fay Weldon left her husband two years later, she got into advertising for a while. In the early 1960s she met her second husband, Ron Weldon, who was a jazz musician. The couple had three sons and got divorced in 1994. Later she married her third husband, the poet Nick Fox, with whom she is living in Dorset, England. Fay Weldon’s career as an author began during her second pregnancy, when she wrote for the radio, the stage and TV. In 1967 Fay Weldon brought out her first novel titled The Fat Woman’s Joke that was followed by more than twenty other novels, several short-story collections, children’s books and some non-fiction including her memoir Auto da Fay (2002). 

Puffball is Fay Weldon’s seventh novel and was published in 1980. It’s the story of the Londoners Liffey and Richard who have been married for seven years. Dreaming of a country home and life, girlish-naïve Liffey proposes Richard a bargain: she will go off the pill and have a baby, if Richard agrees to move to a country cottage. Richard believes that his wife only bluffs and will want to stay in town after all, but he soon realizes that she had been serious. Eventually, the two rent Honeycomb Cottage in Somerset and lend their London flat to friends. Since Liffey has made a mistake checking train connections, Richard is forced to change plans and instead of commuting between Somerset and his job in London every day he stays in town alone from Monday to Friday. Honeycomb Cottage is a lonely place with the farmers Mabs and Tucker as only neighbours. Mabs doesn’t like the trustful and carefree Liffey, but pretends to be her friend with the motive of teaching the girl a life lesson. Then Liffey finally becomes pregnant. Mabs, who already has five children and yearns for another pregnancy, sneaks abortive herbal brews into Liffey’s wine and food to induce a miscarriage and tries other means of black magic to drive the baby out of the wrong womb. While Liffey feels tired, unwell and at the mercy of hormonal changes, Richard succumbs to the temptations of living alone in London and begins an affair. After some more complications Liffey’s and Richard’s son is born.

As a writer Fay Weldon has a reputation as a feminist, her protagonists being women of today who find themselves confronted with chauvinism, violence and oppression. Motherhood is one of her important themes and in Puffball she expands her field to science. Several chapters are devoted to the biological processes during pregnancy, but the language in which Fay Weldon describes them is simple, graphic and witty like the rest of the novel. The book is a pleasure to read and amusing. I like Fay Weldon’s sense of humour and her way of telling a story. Despite all I feel that the male part is moved into the background too much. While Liffey and Mabs are lively characters with deep and varied emotions, Richard and Tucker seem rather one-dimensional in comparison as if men were nothing but unimportant, thus humdrum characters in the play of life. As a result the picture feels a bit incomplete to me.

However, I enjoyed reading Puffball and am ready to recommend this novel, too.