Monday, 30 June 2014

Poetry Revisited: Self-Dependence by Matthew Arnold



Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel's prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o'er the starlit sea.

And a look of passionate desire
O'er the sea and to the stars I send:
'Ye who from my childhood up have calm'd me,
Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!

'Ah, once more,' I cried, 'ye stars, ye waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew;
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you!'

From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,
Over the lit sea's unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer:
'Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.

'Unaffrighted by the silence round them,
Undistracted by the sights they see,
These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.

'And with joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silver'd roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.

'Bounded by themselves, and unregardful
In what state God's other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the mighty life you see.'

O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear:
'Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!'

                                               Matthew Arnold

Friday, 27 June 2014

Book Review: The Wall by Marlen Haushofer you might have noticed, I dedicated this June to literary genres which I don’t usually read. After sidesteps into humour, woman’s fiction and horror I’m moving on to the dystopian this week. At the same time I’m returning to my roots, namely to a modern classic of Austrian literature. The author ironically called it a “cat story” when she handed the finished manuscript over to her mentor, Hans Weigel, and asked him for his opinion. In fact, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer is a rather disturbing robinsonade with a female protagonist. Reading it I couldn’t help being reminded of two books that I had read early in high school: the original Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, it goes without saying, and The Last Man Alive by Alexander Sutherland Neill. 

Marlen Haushofer was born as Marie Helene Frauendorfer in Frauenstein in Mölln, Upper Austria, Austria, in April 1920. After graduation from a (formerly) Catholic school in Linz, Austria, in 1939 and her labour service in East Prussia, she studied German philology. After the war, in 1946, she made her literary debut with short stories in papers and magazines. In 1952 she brought out a novella, Das fünfte Jahr (The Fifth Year), which was followed by her first novel titled Eine Handvoll Leben (1955; A Handful of Life). Her most important works are the novels The Jib Door (Die Tapetentür: 1957), The Wall (Die Wand: 1963), Nowhere Ending Sky (Himmel, der nirgendwo endet: 1966), and The Loft (Die Mansarde: 1969) which was the last work still published during the author’s lifetime. Worth being mentioned are also her children’s books, especially Brav sein ist schwer (1965; It’s Hard to be Good) and Schlimm sein ist auch kein Vergnügen (1970; Being Naughty Isn’t Fun Either) which seem never to have gone out of print. Marlen Haushofer suffered from bone cancer and died after surgery in Vienna, Austria, in March 1970.

The account of events that the narrating woman in her forties gives in The Wall begins with what was meant to be a nice weekend away from town, presumably Vienna, with her cousins Luise and Hugo at their hunting lodge somewhere in the Austrian mountains. It’s spring, more precisely a last day of April in the early 1960s. In the evening Luise and Hugo leave to have dinner in the village, while the narrator stays behind with the hunting dog called Lynx. The following morning everything seems as always at first although it’s kind of odd that the cousins haven’t returned. The narrator isn’t worried yet and takes Lynx for a walk to the village, but they don’t get far. Overnight an invisible wall has turned up from nowhere and doesn’t allow any person or animal to pass. The dog is bewildered and so is the narrator. She walks along the wall to see if there’s an end to it, but there isn’t and, what is worse, there’s no living creature to be seen on the other side. There’s nothing but an old man with his hollow hand halfway to his mouth in the process of washing his face at the well in front of his house who gives the impression of having been petrified in a split second. The narrator concludes that some sort of horrible weapon must have hit the country or that an experiment went terribly wrong and wiped out all life, but she has no means to find out the truth. Before long she returns to the lodge with Lynx to think things over. The next day she begins to explore her surroundings and the limits of her world. On a pasture she finds a cow isolated from her petrified herd and her shed. The lonely and helpless animal is at once a godsend and a burden because it gives milk and needs to be taken care of. The narrator analyses her situation, makes an inventory of all things in the lodge and realises that the provisions won’t last for more than a couple of months if she has to rely on them alone. At the same time she is painfully aware that life hasn’t well prepared her for surviving in a mountain forest. She knows how to milk a cow and to handle the scythe to mow hey to get it through the long winter. She has learnt to use a rifle although she never did anything but target practice, but she knows that she’ll have to shoot deer to have fresh meat for Lynx and herself. There are also potatoes and beans which she thinks wiser to plant than to eat, since she doesn’t know for how long she’ll have to hold out. From then on the daily routine of hard work and fight for survival begins. One day a shy tabby cat turns up at the lodge and hesitantly joins the narrator and Lynx. As it turns out later the cat is pregnant and so is the cow. Two and a half years pass by in the eternal rhythm of life. Then Lynx is killed and the narrator sets out to write down their story knowing that nobody will ever read it.

The nameless first-person narrator of The Wall (who refrains from giving her name because it’s of no importance in a world without people to address her) recounts her life in the wilderness in a matter-of-fact language. She has survived World War II and the threat of an all-destructive third war is very present in the early 1960s, the time of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost started an atomic war as we know now. Thus her presumptions about what happened are only consistent with her experience. It’s also obvious that she has resigned to her fate and has no hope that things will ever again be as they were. In fact, she doesn’t even show a longing to return into the densely populated world where she comes from because she’s a very self-sufficient woman. To me it seems that in a way she even enjoys being alone and able to live her true nature without having to consider the opinion of others. At times she’s close to break down under the huge task of keeping herself as well as her animals alive, but however weak or tired she is, no matter if she’s ill or well, she never gives up and never refuses her responsibility. She is a woman who has learnt to fight and to endure. There are many ways that this book can be interpreted. For me it mirrors the basic human condition. In the end everyone of us is alone and living in a world of her/his own because we all build invisible walls around us to protect us from harm – if we are aware of it or not. Sometimes it may even seem as if the outside world were standing still and we were the only ones moving on. And all the time we have to fight, not just to stay alive in a hostile environment, but also to keep our humanity intact.

For me The Wall by Marlen Haushofer has been one of the most impressive and thought-provoking reads this year. It’s certainly not a light entertainment that is forgotten as soon as it’s over. On the contrary, the story lingers on in the mind. Even days after I had finished the novel, scenes from it emerged from my subconscious and made me ponder about life and myself. All things considered it’s a book that truly deserves my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Lull Before the Storm

Life Between 1900 and 1914

This coming Saturday, on 28 June, is the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian Prince Royal Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo which only a couple of weeks later led to the outbreak of the first Great War of the twentieth century. It’s often said that the greater part of European population welcomed the war believing that it would be short, thus no more than a clearing thunderstorm in the sultry heat produced by ardent nationalism and the fervent desire of the ruling powers to show strength at any cost. Be that as it may, people started into the twentieth century with many hopes and fears based on technological progress and scientific discoveries. The wind of change was in the air and war seemed to many a scourge of the past that in a modern world would never find a place to rage again. As we know now, they were terribly mistaken.

It was a promising and inspiring period which allowed for the first time the quick and global exchange of ideas, and yet, literature shows that on the whole the atmosphere was rather melancholic, if not entirely pessimistic. There was a feeling of loss. The simple and clear rules which life had followed for generations no longer seemed to be valid. People saw signs of decadence and degeneration everywhere. Above all the youth was thought to be too soft or in other words too weak to get on well with life. The fault was given to a heightened sensitivity which was allowed to gain ground in society and in the eyes of many the only means to check the development was a strict education. In his master novel Buddenbrooks (1901) Thomas Mann put to paper the impressions and thoughts of a whole generation. Almost twenty years later, in 1919, his older brother Heinrich Mann painted the blunt picture of boys’ education under the reign of Emperor Wilhelm II in his impressive, but far too neglected novel The Loyal Subject (Der Untertan). The Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, on the other hand, portrayed the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in The Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch: 1932) and a family.

As always artists sought new ways of expression. They wanted to capture the uncertainty and discontent with life that were characteristic of the early twentieth century. Inner worlds and impressions gained importance over the mere facts and events of life and in literature the stream of consciousness was introduced which allowed to write from subjective points of view. Arthur Schnitzler shocked the conservative society of his time with innovative novellas like None but the Brave (Leutnant Gustl: 1900) and Berta Garlan (1900), but above all with his many plays (e.g. Anatol: 1893; Flirtation [Liebelei]: 1895); Reigen: 1897; The Lonely Way [Der einsame Weg]: 1903; The Vast Domain [Das weite Land]: 1911; or Professor Bernhardi: 1912). Colette appeared on the scene of Belle-Époque France with her Claudine novels Claudine at School (Claudine à l’école: 1900), Claudine in Paris (Claudine à Paris: 1901), Claudine Married (Claudine en ménage: 1902), and Claudine and Annie (Claudine s’en va: 1903). A little later Marcel Proust (»»» read my author's portrait) wrote the novels of In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past: 1913-1927). James Joyce brought out Dubliners (1914; »»» read my review) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). At the same time Henry James and Edith Wharton painted the picture of modern American society. dare say that everywhere in the world the beginning twentieth century was an enormously productive time in literature. It brought forth a huge number of important as well as highly creative writers and many of them are widely read up to this day. Their works can teach us a lot about circumstances and thoughts of a society unknowingly headed for disaster… but also about ourselves, our hopes and fears. To learn more about the period I recommend Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West. Europe, 1900-1914, Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2008.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Poetry Revisited: Air by Ann Radcliffe


Detail from Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
by Vittorio Carpaccio (1510)
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, Italy
(From The Romance of the Forest: 1791)

Now, at Moonlight's fairy hour,
When faintly gleams each dewy steep,
And vale and Mountain, lake and bow'r,
In solitary grandeur sleep;

When slowly sinks the evening breeze,
That lulls the mind in pensive care,
And Fancy loftier visions sees,
Bid Music wake the silent air.

Bid the merry, merry tabor sound,
And with the Fays of lawn or glade,
In tripping circlet beat the ground,
Under the high trees' trembling shade.

'Now, at Moonlight's fairy hour,'
Shall Music breathe her dulcet voice,
And o'er the waves, with magic pow'r,
Call on Echo to rejoice.

                                             Ann Radcliffe

Friday, 20 June 2014

Book Review: The Decapitated Chicken by Horacio Quiroga week I’m turning my attention to the southern hemisphere and to a master of short fiction who is often referred to as the “Latin-American Edgar Allan Poe”: Horacio Quiroga. At first I intended to review his Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte, but to my great regret I found out that this original short story collection has never been translated into English, at least not in its entirety. Considering the fame that the author again enjoys in South America almost eighty years after his tragic death, it seems quite strange to me that only so few of his short stories are available in English translation. A dozen of them has been brought together in the anthology The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga which I’m reviewing today.

Horacio Quiroga, in full Horacio Silvestre Quiroga Forteza, was born in Salto, Uruguay, in December 1878. Towards the end of the nineteenth century he began writing for papers and literary journals and already in 1901 he compiled the best stories and poems in his first book, Los arrecifes de coral (Coral Reefes). His private life was shadowed by dramatic blows of fate and recurring financial problems. To earn his living he ran plantations in the jungle that he loved, worked as a Castillian teacher and later as an employee of the Uruguayan consulate in Buenos Aires, while he continued to write prolifically. With The Feather Pillow (El almohadón de pluma) published in 1907 Horacio Quiroga achieved mastery and first fame as a short story writer. Along with several short story collections – most famous among them Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (1917; Stories of Love of Madness and of Death), Cuentos de la selva (1918; Jungle Tales) for children and Los desterrados (1926; Exiles) – he wrote two novels and a play which weren’t successful, though. At the age of fifty-eight Horacio Quiroga was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer and committed suicide in the hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in February 1937.

The scenery of The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories is the author’s South America, above all the Argentine provinces Chaco and Misiones on the river Paraná, but also Buenos Aires. The opening story is The Feather Pillow (El almohadón de pluma: 1907) which revolves around a mysterious illness draining life from a young married woman in her new home. In Sunstroke (La insolación: 1908) a puppy watches the unreasonable behaviour of its master under the burning sun of Argentinean summer. The Pursued (Los perseguidos: 1908) are two young men who meet in Buenos Aires. One had suffered paranoid episodes after typhoid fever, but had learnt to keep his fear and imagination under control, while the other is so highly sensitive and excitable that he on his part feels pursued by his new paranoid friend. The title story of the English-language anthology (which is not a translation of the original collection under the title of the same story), The Decapitated Chicken (La gallina degollada: 1909), is about the married couple Mazzini-Ferraz and their four mentally handicapped sons. After several years a girl is born to them and they neglect the boys leaving them in the care of their servants. The boys use to pass their days seated on a bench in the patio with the eyes fixed on the bricks of the enclosure before them. When they watch a servant in the kitchen behead a chicken for dinner, the vivid red of the blood fascinates them and drives them to commit a horrible deed. In the following story, Drifting (A la deriva: 1912), a man is bitten by a venomous snake and takes the canoe to seek help in town five hours down the river. A Slap in the Face (Una bofetada: 1916) of a seemingly meek indigenous worker is the final act to make him plan his cruel revenge on the tyrannical boss. The protagonist of In the Middle of the Night (En la noche: 1919) is a woman rowing tirelessly, but in vain against the current of the Paraná. Juan Darién (1920) is a tiger who is raised as if he were a boy and who eventually turns his back on human society in disgust. In The Dead Man (El hombre muerto: 1920) the hard-working protagonist has a fatal accident with a machete and refuses to accept that all his efforts have been wasted. Anaconda (1921) is a short novellette about a union between venomous and other snakes living in the jungle who want to protect their habitat from human destruction. The Incense Tree Roof (El techo de incienso: 1922) is about the rather chaotic chief of the local Registrar’s Office who needs to bring in order the registries of four years after an inspection. In the closing story The Son (El hijo: 1935) a man lies dying in the jungle fully aware that his two sons are too young to survive there on their own.

The atmosphere of The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories is more or less bleak and disgusting in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. The strong impression that the work of the latter and also of Guy de Maupassant and Rudyard Kipling left on Horacio Quiroga is obvious in his writings although they are salted with a distinctly South American touch and certain aspects like mysterious and recurring tragedy or detailed description of sensory perception which foreshadow the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and other writers of this literary movement. Among the twelve short stories in the present anthology there are at least three children’s stories, namely Sunstroke, Juan Darién and the short novellette Anaconda, which are all set in the jungle with animal protagonists, namely a puppy, a tiger and a snake, and which are written in a colloquial language reminding of fairy tales and fables. There he criticises the unreasonable and destructive behaviour of men, notably in the jungle. However, the narrative domain of Horacio Quiroga is the morbid, the cruel and the perverse, a fact that mirrors the author’s own life marked by so many tragic incidents that reading his biography almost makes think of the old-testamentary Book of Job. In his best stories he doesn’t even need to be explicit about the horrible facts, but mere insinuations suffice to make the flesh creep. In the chronologically arranged collection the development of the writer becomes very obvious. I read all stories in Spanish although some of the – luckily not too numerous – South American expressions were a bit of a challenge. The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories isn’t based on any of the original compilations edited by Horacio Quiroga himself (without identifiable order), I had to search for the individual stories. In the end I managed to lay hands on a most beautiful Spanish-language edition (out of stock, lamentably) which I don’t want to leave unmentioned, namely Horacio Quiroga: Cuentos, third edition 2004, published by Biblioteca Ayacucho in Caracas, Venezuela. It contains all the twelve short stories from the reviewed English-language anthology and many more, plus a very interesting introduction by Emir Rodríguez Monegal.

The original Spanish versions of Horacio Quiroga’s short stories are all in the public domain. Only one title by this author can be found on the Project Gutenberg site, but many more are available on Spanish sites providing free e-books. 

On the whole, The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga was a very fascinating, though sometimes unpleasant read for me since I’m not a huge fan of horror and cruelty in literature. However, not all stories are creepy and in small doses I can bear with it. In brief, it definitely was worthwhile reading those almost secret gems of Latin-American literature. My verdict: recommended to those who like the genre.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

About Shorts

Or How to Squeeze Literature into a Full Agenda

From childhood on most of us lead terribly busy lives and need to keep a close eye on time. Undoubtedly, our modern work ethics as well as lifestyle have a big share in it and almost succeed in barring the centuries old idea of “leisure” from our experience. Far too often our agendas are filled to the brim with whatever we believe indispensable to live our lives to the fullest. At best we manage to schedule a quick pleasure now and then, a short holiday every couple of months, but usually that’s it. Even people like me who love reading can find it difficult to spare a longer period to plunge into the imaginary world of a novel.

Every bibliophile knows how annoying it is to be torn out of an intriguing plot ever again because of phone calls, appointments and other duties that can’t wait. It can even spoil the whole pleasure of reading. Luckily, there aren’t just novels on the market. An equally good alternative for readers who can’t free much time at a stretch are short stories, a discovery of modern literature. At least until the seventeenth century short prose was of little importance because there was no real market for it. Of course there were fairy tales, legends, fables, anecdotes, pamphlets, and essays, but most writers didn’t see them as a means of literary expression yet.

One of the first to give short fiction more attention was Madame de Lafayette in seventeenth-century France, but it wasn’t before Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Prosper Mérimée in the early nineteenth century that it raised more general interest. Authors like Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens in the U.K. and Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the USA paved the way for short stories to become a literary genre. In German the classical authors Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Peter Hebel, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Heinrich von Kleist can be considered as pioneers of short fiction.

Thanks to the increasing number of periodical media (magazines, journals, etc) the new genre had by the second half of the nineteenth century conquered its firm place in literature and in the hearts of readers. Authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov developed the form to full perfection and are up to this day considered as the great masters of short story who set the standards for those who came after them. And in fact, the task of writing an entire story on just a few pages should not be underestimated. It really is a challenge since it requires particular skill to reduce everything to the essential and to leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. 

There are countless fiction writers who during their careers produced short stories, but there are only few whose fame is based on them rather than on their longer writings. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that short stories have lost much of their original appeal since they gradually disappear from all popular print media. At least that’s the case in the German-speaking world where I live. Somewhere I read that if you wish to bring out a shelf warmer, you should try a collection of short stories. Even the 2013 Nobel laureate in Literature, the Canadian Alice Munro, said in an interview that she hoped “the award would bring readership for the short story in general.”

I must admit that I too prefer novels because they feel more complete and allow me to really get absorbed in events and emotions that aren’t mine, but I also read short stories occasionally and thoroughly enjoy them. However, heavenly times could be lying ahead for short story and flash fiction writers since our world is becoming ever more fast-paced, since even the minority who adores reading has ever less time to indulge in this passion and since the attention span of average people seems to have shrunken to the length of an sms or twitter message. Or do those condensed stories that authors write require too much thinking? Who knows!

For A Short History of the Short Story see William Boyd’s article of 10 July 2006 in the online magazine called Prospect or consult Wikipedia.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Poetry Revisited: Alla luna – To the Moon by Giacomo Leopardi

  Alla luna


O graziosa luna, io mi rammento
che, or volge l'anno, sovra questo colle
io venia pien d'angoscia a rimirarti:
e tu pendevi allor su quella selva
siccome or fai, che tutta la rischiari.
Ma nebuloso e tremulo dal pianto
che mi sorgea sul ciglio, alle mie luci
il tuo volto apparia, che travagliosa
era mia vita: ed è, né cangia stile,
o mia diletta luna. E pur mi giova
la ricordanza, e il noverar l'etate
del mio dolore. Oh come grato occorre
nel tempo giovanil, quando ancor lungo
la speme e breve ha la memoria il corso,
il rimembrar delle passate cose,
ancor che triste, e che l'affanno duri!

Giacomo Leopardi

To the Moon


O lovely moon, how well do I recall
The time, - 'tis just a year - when up this hill
I came, in my distress, to gaze at thee:
And thou suspended wast o'er yonder grove,
As now thou art, which thou with light dost fill.
But stained with mist, and tremulous, appeared
Thy countenance to me, because my eyes
Were filled with tears, that could not be suppressed;
For, oh, my life was wretched, wearisome,
And is so still, unchanged, belovèd moon!
And yet this recollection pleases me,
This computation of my sorrow's age.
How pleasant is it, in the days of youth,
When hope a long career before it hath,
And memories are few, upon the past
To dwell, though sad, and though the sadness last!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Book Review: The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol
My mind called for another light read this week and heaven knows that it’s never wise to ignore such a desire! After rummaging through my shelves, I picked a novel which is probably labelled a chick lit and, in fact, it can be called women’s fiction with full right because men have only minor parts in it. Such writings very rarely attract my attention and it hardly ever happens that I enjoy reading them. However, it turned out that The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol is more than just a book to distract from everyday life and to stop thinking after a hard day. Under its boringly superficial surface I found the detailed psychograph of an introvert’s mind and also the insider’s view on writing a historical novel. 

Katherine Pancol was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in October 1954 and grew up in Paris, France. After her literature studies she worked in different jobs until she became a journalist in 1974. Five years later she made her debut as a fiction writer with the novel Moi d’abord (Me First) and moved to New York for about ten years. While there she attended creative writing classes at Columbia University and published three novels. Katherine Pancol returned to France in 1991 and brought out another seven novels before The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles (Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles), the only one of her books available in English so far, earned her international acclaim in 2006. Together with La Valse lente des tortues (2008; The Slow Waltz of the Turtles) and Les Écureuils de Central Park sont tristes le lundi (2010; The Squirrels of Central Park are Sad on Mondays) it makes up the Josephine Trilogy. The author’s latest published work is the Muchachas Trilogy, a series of three novels released in 2014under the titles Muchachas 1, 2 and 3 . Katherine Pancol lives in Paris, France. 

The main setting of The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is Courbevoie, a not really posh town just outside Paris, where the Cortés family settled down to save money. Antoine “Tonio” Cortés lost his exceedingly well-paid job as head of sales and since then the family has been living off the generous indemnity, the family’s savings and Joséphine Cortés’s meagre salary from her work as a historian for the CNRS, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Centre of Scientific Research). Money is running low and yet Antoine isn’t ready to accept a less respectable job than he had. Instead he idles away his days and begins an affair with the manicurist Mylène. Joséphine has long pretended that everything was alright, especially in front of their daughters Hortense (14) and Zoë (10), she can’t shut her eyes to the situation anymore, though. It comes as it has to: the couple argues and Joséphine throws out her husband who moves in with Mylène. Only when Joséphine finds herself alone in the kitchen, she fully realises what she has done and fear overcomes her because she has never had to take care of herself yet. Moreover, she has her daughters to think of and her salary is scarcely enough to make ends meet. She knows that she could ask for help. Her venerated and beautiful sister Iris, who is married to the renowned international lawyer Alexandre Dupin, wouldn’t let her down, nor would her wealthy stepfather Marcel Grobsz. Joséphine, however, has taken it into her head to manage all by herself. She is ready to take any extra job that she can get and luck is on her side. Alexandre offers her (out of the blue) to work for him as a translator and without giving it a thought she accepts. In the meantime her husband seized an opportunity which he believes will make him rich and moved to Kenya with Mylène. He manages a Chinese crocodile farm in which he invested not just Mylène’s savings but also the money from a bank loan. When Joséphine learns that thanks to her husband she is deep in debt and that the instalments are in arrears, she is shocked and at her wits’ end, but once more fate offers a solution. At a dinner party Iris pretended to write a historical novel and the present editor is eager to publish it. Iris talks Joséphine into being her ghost-writer promising to pass on to her all revenues of the book. Reluctantly Joséphine accepts and sets out to write the historical novel, while reproachful and greedy Hortense drives her crazy and she meets a mysterious, but very handsome stranger doing research in the library. All the while her best friend Shirley who lives next door gives her moral support. 

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles begins like the ordinary story of a family and its problems, but then it takes a turn to metafiction. The basic plot lines are very realistic because they just retell the vicissitudes of life as they can strike virtually everyone of us any time. It’s the expensive bourgeois setting along with a couple of unusual turns and elements that give the novel drive and power. Unfortunately, the author’s inventiveness also reduces credibility as the story progresses. A member of the English royal family hiding for years under false name in a Parisian suburb with her son? A publisher keen on bringing out a historical novel by a new writer, moreover one that hasn’t even been started yet? Mind you, that’s too unlikely and yet not far enough from reality to be absurd. The outlines of parts of the historical novel that Joséphine is writing are an enriching element although to me they sometimes felt too lengthy and lifeless. On the other hand, it might be interesting to know what A Most Humble Queen would be like if it were actually written. All main characters of the novel, introverted and highly sensitive Joséphine most of all, appear in flesh and blood before the eye and also get psychological depth through the narrative trick of switching ever again to first-person stream-of-consciousness. The author also succeeds well in making felt the emptiness of Iris’s wealthy existence revolving around shopping, looks and fashion. Admittedly, Joséphine is quite naïve and nothing against happy endings, but in my opinion it all goes too smoothly for her. After having finished the novel the closing phrase of fairy tales popped up in my mind: “… and they lived happily ever after”. Towards the end it also annoyed me slightly that the author’s didactic purpose became too obvious. Some passages actually reminded me of recommended autosuggestions from self-help manuals. Language and style, however, are fluent and easy to follow. Even reading the French original I didn’t have any problems. 

By and large I enjoyed The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol quite a lot although I don’t expect it to ever be listed in the canon of world literature. The above mentioned shortcomings of the plot and Joséphine’s mantra-like repetitions of home truths about life hardly lessened my pleasure and I’m ready to recommend the book for reading.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Author's Portrait: Eliza Orzeszkowa

Eliza Orzeszkowa in 1900
In 1909 the Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, but she wasn’t the only and above all not the first woman nominated for it. Hardly anyone is aware of the fact that already four years earlier, in 1905, the Polish novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa had been a runner-up for the prestigious award competing with no lesser authors than Leo Tolstoy and Henryk Sienkiewicz. It was a close decision between the three, in the end she didn’t get it, though (nor did Leo Tolstoy). Eliza Orzeszkowa was nominated for the Literature Nobel Prize again in 1909 and lost it once more because Selma Lagerlöf was given preference over her.

As far as I can tell, Eliza Orzeszkowa as the Polish pioneer of literary positivism and an important social spokeswoman is up to this day held in high esteem in Poland, but for the rest her literary work is largely forgotten and most of her books will be available only in very old translations archived in the darkest corners of crammed libraries. Thus I reckon that her name rings a bell only with a few passionate lovers of nineteenth-century European literature who stumbled over a free e-book on the internet or over the new translation of On the Niemen released just recently. I believe that Eliza Orzeszkowa deserves better and decided to draw attention to her life and her work.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Poetry Revisited: Whitsun Monday by Christina Rossetti

Whitsun Monday

(aka We Know Not a Voice of That River)

(From Verses: 1893)

We know not a voice of that River,
If vocal or silent it be,
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows to no sea.

More deep than the seas is that River,
More full than their manifold tides,
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows and abides.

Pure gold is the bed of that River
(The gold of that land is the best),
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows on at rest.

Oh goodly the banks of that River,
Oh goodly the fruits that they bear,
Where for ever and ever and ever
It flows and is fair.

For lo! on each bank of that River
The Tree of Life life-giving grows,
Where for ever and ever and ever
The Pure River flows.

                              Christina Rossetti

Friday, 6 June 2014

Book Review: Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith my regular readers will have noticed without doubt, I’ve been engrossed in a lot of very sad, even depressing or disturbing reads during the past couple of weeks. Their burden is beginning to weigh heavily on the atmosphere of this blog and I decided to plunge into something lighter and more entertaining for a change. I’m also aware of the fact that humour is going rather short in my review list and I believe that it’s high time to do something about it, or else I risk to push my most loyal readers over the edge into clinical depression. Since I use to be attracted by everything connected to Portugal, if only very remotely, the comic novel Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith seems just the right choice for today’s review. 

Alexander McCall Smith was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now: Zimbabwe), in August 1948. He studied law at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K., and then taught law (specialising in Medical Law) in Belfast, Botswana and Edinburgh until his retirement. In the late 1970s he made his debut as an author of fiction and from then on published several children’s books. The year 1999 brought his international breakthrough with an adult novel, namely the first volume of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. The prolific writer also received much acclaim for the comic novels of the Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainment series (launched with Portuguese Irregular Verbs in 1997), the Sunday Philosophy Club series (also known as Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries) started in 2004, the 44 Scotland Street series begun in 2005, and the Corduroy Mansions series introduced to the market in 2009. Alexander McCall Smith lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K., with his wife.

The eight quite independent, though interconnected stories of Portuguese Irregular Verbs are set in the world of academia and tell the adventures of Prof Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. He is a hopelessly principled and old-fashioned professor at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg, Germany, where also his friends Dr Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer and Dr Dr (honoris causa) Florianus Prinzel, are working as professors. They compete with each other and Prof von Igelfeld ever again finds reason to envy them because they seem to get more academic recognition than they deserve compared to him, the author of the 1200-page standard work of reference on Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The book sells so poorly that after some years the publishers ask permission to sell the remaining over seven hundred copies (of one thousand) to a firm of interior decorators that wants to change the spine title into Portuguese Irrigated Herbs so they can furnish the shelves of their customers with them. Hurt in his pride von Igelfeld wants to do something to increase sales, but of course his tries to make out likely buyers are so discreet or awkward that it doesn’t work out. On the other hand, he succeeds in thwarting an intrigue of Dr Unterholzer and Dr Dr Prinzel who took advantage of his attendance to a conference in Goa, India, to suggest a reorganisation of the library and to banish von Igelfeld’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs to an obscure back room. A Holy Man in the rat-infested courtyard of a decayed Portuguese house in Goa had warned him. Also other conferences as well as a field trip to Ireland, holidays in Italy and even a visit to the dentist bring the ivory-towered professor ever again into touch with the real world which never actually functions the way he expects it to.

In general, Portuguese Irregular Verbs uses to be referred to as a short comic novel, but I’d rather call it a collection of humorous short stories. As a matter of fact, I miss a red thread other than the three professorial protagonists or a frame plot merging the stories into one to think of it as a novel. However, this is only a question of label, not of quality. The characters, especially Professor Dr von Igelfeld, are portrayed in a very convincing way, no matter how exaggerated (and ridiculous) their idiosyncrasies may be. Throughout the book the professor’s view of the world is veiled by the outdated ideals that his aristocratic ancestors have passed on to him and it is even further limited because his sole focus is on philological matters. This allows for many comic turns in the adventures of the scholarly scholar who outside university behaves like an innocent child in a jungle full of strange things and noises which he notices, but about which he cares little. It’s true that the academic environment in which Professor Dr von Igelfeld moves is exaggerated too, but every insider knows that the author depicted much of it in a painfully realistic light. Alexander McCall Smith told his comic stories with much skill staying on the side of irony and never drifting off to the truly absurd. As a non-native speaker I won’t take a liberty to judge the literary quality of the English used by the Scotch author, but I definitely loved it!

In fact, I passed a particularly enjoyable morning reading Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith. The book was a mere pleasure and a very amusing one too. The character of Professor Dr von Igelfeld made me laugh every so often! In short, it’s a quick read which I highly recommend. And for those who want more of it Portuguese Irregular Verbs has also been published together with the following two novels of the Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainment series in an omnibus edition titled The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Spotlight on Austrian Literature

Undeniably, my country is one of the small ones in the world and thus uses to receive only little attention. This is particularly true as regards our literature since it is habitually merged in the creative production of Germany and not perceived independently. It’s often said that the number of Austrians among German-language writers were disproportionate, but my insight into the literary scene is limited and so I am not the one to tell if this is in fact the case. Besides, Austrian literature is difficult to define. Place of birth, residence, citizenship, language or the declaration of an author can serve as starting points, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear result, above all as regards the era of the Hapsburg reign and the interwar period (1918-1938). 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Poetry Revisited: To Solitude by John Keats

Sonnet VII: To Solitude 


O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings: climb with me the steep,
Nature's observatory, whence the dell,
In flowery slopes, its river's crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
'Mongst boughs pavilioned, where the deer's swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell.
But though I'll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refined,
Is my soul's pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

                                                                      John Keats