The Babel Guides
- The Babel Guide to Brazilian Literature
- The Babel Guide to Dutch and Flemish Literature
- The Babel Guide to French Literature
- The Babel Guide to German Literature
- The Babel Guide to Hungarian Literature
- The Babel Guide to Italian Literature
- The Babel Guide to Jewish Literature
- The Babel Guide to Portuguese, Brazilian, and African Literature
- The Babel Guide to Scandinavian Literature
The Babel Guide to Brazilian Literature
Use this guide to explore its diverse and entertaining literature. Included are lively reviews of books by Jorge Amado, Chico Buarque, Clarice Lispector, Machado de Assis, Paolo Coelho and forty other Brazilian authors whose books are available in English translation. Contributors include leading British and American literary specialists and translators.
Download the PDF version of this Babel Guide for $16 or local equivalent /or buy the printed book.
Golden Harvest [Sao Jorge dos Ilhéus]
If you’ve ever eaten a bar of chocolate then you should read Golden Harvest; it’s the extraordinarily potent tale of how cocoa was produced and traded in 1930s Ilhéus in the state of Bahia, Brazil. Like Captains of the Sand this is a book from Amado’s more politically engaged period of work, and was first published in Portuguese in 1944. It’s a splendid, baroque epic of a work, as rich (and as dark) as the finest Parisian mousse au chocolat.
Amado’s story runs on parallel tracks to reflect the lives of the different social groups that make up the cocoa equation. There are the plantation labourers: desperate migrants from drought-afflicted regions or the luckless descendants of black slaves. They are not merely poor but, deeply indebted to the company store, they are serfs who cannot leave the harsh life of the plantations because of the money they owe the boss. At the other end of the economic scale are the landowners and the up-and-coming cocoa exporters. These latter manipulate prices up and down in a clever scheme to wrest control of the land from the ‘colonels’, the bold and lawless types who first cleared and planted the terrain. They are a colourful bunch but Amado shows them being swallowed up by the international cocoa traders — a stage in the development of today’s corporate global monopolies is rather tellingly illustrated in this book.
In between the poorest and the potentates are a series of characters: prostitutes, poets, pimps and peasants who also ride and fall on the cocoa boom and bust that makes Ilhéus first the ‘Queen of the South’ and then into a kind of purgatory when all the debts, financial, moral and spiritual, are called in. Amado creates an elemental, a Greek, drama with his Baiano characters who experience the extremes of wealth and poverty, power and impotence…
Read Golden Harvest to understand why Amado was Brazil’s most revered, most loved author for so many years…RK
If the number of new faces in the streets of Ilhéus had already been large, the boom brought to the cacao zone a multitude from all parts. People looking for work and fortune, adventurers seeking only to exploit the moment. It was during this period that the red-light districts of Aracaju, Bahia, and Recife emptied out, with ships and small sailboats arriving packed with women — white, black, and mulatto, foreign and Brazilian — all thirsting for money, disembarking with huge grins plastered on their faces and drinking champagne at night in the cabaret, where they helped the colonels at the roulette tables. 177
That old epithet of Dr. Rui’s (who had died drunk in the middle of the street during Carnival, while making a speech to a group of revellers) had become a classic, used by one and all when referring to the area by the docks where the immigrants put up shanties while waiting to find a work contract: the ‘slave market.’
They would ride second-class in the trains to Itapira, Itabuna, Pirangi, and Ácqua Preta, the tenuous hope of a new life on their thin and melancholy faces. In general they went with the idea of retracing their steps a year or two later with money in their pockets, of returning to the land they had left behind and planting it when the rains brought better times. They never returned. They would spend the rest of their lives, scythe on their shoulders and machete at their sides, filling sacks with cacao, pruning fields, drying the beans in sheds and kilns, never getting ahead, always owing the plantation store. Once in a while one would run away, be apprehended and handed over to the authorities in Ilhéus or Itabuna. There was never a single instance of a fugitive being acquitted, despite the agitation stirred up by the communists in some recent cases. They were sentenced to two years in prison, and when they later returned to some other plantation, demoralised and without hope, they had completely given up the idea of flight. There were also a few cases of workers who killed colonels. They were sentenced to thirty years in the Bahia State Penitentiary. 58
Intimate Diary [selections from A teus pés, Luvas de pelica and others]
Ana Cristina César’s Intimate Diary is a compilation of writings by one of the most outstanding figures of Brazil’s ‘marginal generation’, whose life and career were cut short by suicide in 1983. The publication of A teus pés (At your feet) the year before her death marked the appearance of a highly original voice, offering with its teasing humour, its provocative blend of intimate self-concealment and self-exposure, a refreshing countercultural alternative to the prevailing language of those years: whether the chauvinistic propaganda of Brazil’s military dictatorship or the militant rhetoric of the orthodox left-wing opposition. César’s playground is the artifice of autobiography, through which the reader is drawn into a compelling, but precariously ambivalent relationship with this elusive ‘unknown modern woman.’ The tease within- a-tease of her fake letters and diaries seems to allow us privileged access to the most painfully intimate confidences, the minute, daily dramas of physical sensation, psychological mood and personal relations, only to hold us tantalisingly at arm’s length with an ironic disclaimer or a smart rebuff.
Intimate Diary demands to be read, and heard, as performance, reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave. Such as when Ana Cristina gets up on stage wearing her sensual kid gloves, and opens her suitcase crammed full of postcard images, the pretext for revealing to her curious, excited audience an endless succession of confessional stories that are made of both private and collective fantasy: ‘My friends, this is a suitcase, not a top-hat with rabbits. We have cards enough to last the whole night.’
In this sense, the stuff of Ana Cristina’s writing is the ever-shifting, fluid terrain of the sketch, whose language refuses to fix meaning or pronounce truths, but rather illuminates the vortex of modern life from a feminine and erotic perspective, one sensitive to its flux and ambiguity.
The stability of language is here dissolved into an effervescence of clichés, allusions, cross-references and tricks. The word is above all the bearer, as well as the filter, of the myriad of cultural icons that bombard and threaten to depersonalise and absorb the individual in the mass industrial age. So the objects of her intimate poetic universe — ‘gadgets to amuse me, bedside TV, recording tapes, postcards, notebooks of various sizes, nail clippers, two Pyrex dishes and a lot more’ — share a space with the grander public icons of mass culture — West Side Story, the Pope in the shanty-towns of Rio de Janeiro, I Ching, Vaseline ™, Knorr ™ soup, 50p coins — as well as the array of artists who weld together our individual and collective fantasies: Walt Whitman, Carmen Miranda, Tintoretto and Katherine Mansfield, to name but a few.
Ana Cristina invites us to explore this image-saturated universe through her ‘aestheticising gaze’, with all the risks that trust and fallibility entail: ‘I never know for sure how it will turn out. I play the detective.’ With her we may discover that, as she says of the Place des Vosges postcard, ‘it’s as if you can see and grasp it, or you’re completely inside it’ — this, for sure, defines the seductively bewildering power of Ana Cristina’s Intimate Diary and the challenge it poses to us, its readers, to live and die with her, ‘on the edge’. DT
I thought up a cheap trick that almost came off. I shall have correspondents in four capitals of the world. They’ll think of me intensely and we’ll exchange letters and news. When no letter arrives I plan to rip the calendar from the wall, in the session of pain. I’m drawing little snakes which are the offspring of rage — they’re little rages which mount the table in a cluster and cover the calendar on the wall, ceaselessly writhing. Those plans and tricks — it was me who invented them on the train. ‘Train passing through chaos?’ — nonsense. A letter arrives from the capital of Brazil which says: ‘Everything. Everything but the truth.’ ‘The characters wear disguises, capes, face masks; all lie and want to be deceived. They want desperately.’ On the contrary, the train was passing through civilised countryside. It was a slow train, a local, that stole into tunnels and in these hours I planned still further, planned to raise a smoke screen and abandon my correspondents one by one. Because I make these journeys propelled by hate. In other words, in search of bliss.
That’s why I catch trains a quarter of an hour before they leave. Sweetheart, kleptomaniac sweetheart. You know what lies are for. Sweet kleptomaniac heart. 13
Tree of the Seventh Heaven [Relato de um certo oriente]
Tree of the Seventh Heaven bathes the senses in a Tropical rainstorm on a foliage-laden patio as ripe mangoes drop all around us. This is the city of Manaus, made famous (and rich) during the Amazon rubber boom, and rather an exotic locale for the Anglo-Saxon reader, made even more so by its focus on a Brazilian-Lebanese family. This is a family with as many secrets as ‘the dark cave in the crown of the jambo tree’. A tree that grows in the secluded patio of the family home and seems to represent a dynasty that is both closed in on itself around the ‘shame’ of a daughter, Soraya, who cannot speak and another who has had an illegitimate child.
Although the storyline is unsympathetic towards the cramped hypocrisy of ‘Old World’ religion (both Muslim and Christian in this case) it is nevertheless a romantic and affecting tribute to the life of the Eastern part of the Mediterranean world transplanted to the state of Amazonas, Brazil. The ‘real’ title of the book Relato de um certo oriente which might be literally translated as ‘report or story of a certain Orient’ gives us the motive behind the book; an account of the otherworldliness of a transplanted culture.
At the same time it lets us see Manaus as something more complex and interesting than the rubber boom town with the opera house in the middle of nowhere. Hatoum believes that an isolated place like Manaus, far off in the Brazilian interior, embodies another kind of time as well as place. Hatoum’s Manaus is as visually, sensually rich as Polish- Jewish writer Bruno Schultz’ Cinnamon Shops [see Babel Guide to Jewish Fiction] if less fantastic. His characters are more recognisably real; the German Gustav Dorner, European witness to Manaus’s decline, who haunts the dockside with his Hasselblad camera and takes ‘pictures of God and everything else in this city worn down by loneliness and decadence’. Or the figure of the family patriarch, the silk trader, who despite his life-affirming motto—‘in this world, paradise can be found on the back of a sorrel, in the pages of a few good books, and between the breasts of a woman’—eventually retreats into pious seclusion with his copy of the Holy Koran.
This is a book that amazed Brazil with its mythically powerful account of seclusion and emotional stasis and it will probably do the same for you. RK
Whenever Soraya joined in collecting fruits and flowers, she did so in her own curious way, sitting for a long time staring at the flesh of the velvet heart that is the jambo fruit, or slowly breathing in the fragrance of the poppies and orchids and other flowers. Later I realised she was trying to use smell and sight to compensate for her lack of speech and hearing. Other times, as on that morning, Soraya contented herself by playing with the rag doll Emilie had made her. I remember the doll’s face perfectly, it had jutting black eyes, the cheeks of an angel, and if you looked closely you could see that only the ears and mouth were flat, stitched with red thread, a special artifice of Emilie’s. Soraya never let the doll out of her sight; she made poppy garlands for it, offered it pieces of fruit, clutched it in her arms when she clambered astride the sheep, and took it to bed with her in a tight embrace. These were glorious days, days full of discoveries. 9
(Dorner) was forever writing down his impressions of Amazon life. The ethics and behaviour of the area’s inhabitants and everything about the identity and intimacy among whites, mixed-breed river people, and Indians were among his favourite themes. Included in one of his letters from Cologne were several pages entitled ‘Looking and Time in Amazonas.’ He maintained that the slow gestures and the lost and unfocused look of people here appeal for silence and constitute ways of resisting time or, better, remaining outside time. He disputed the widespread assumption here in the north that people are alien to everything else, born slow and sad and passive; his arguments were based on his own intensive experience in the region, on ‘Humboldt’s cosmic pilgrimage,’ and also on his reading of philosophers who probed what he called ‘the delicate territory of the Other.’ The letter was full of quotations and circumlocutions: a generous strategy intended to capture the attention of the recipient, whose only response was doubt and hesitations. 100
The War of the Saints [O Sumiço da Santa]
The writer amused himself with The War of the Saints, as he says in the preface: ‘It’s been fun to write; if someone else has fun reading it, I’ll consider myself satisfied’. It’s hard not to enjoy reading this breathless narration of the events which took place — at the height of the military dictatorship in Brazil and of revolutionary fervour around the world — during forty-eight hours sometime in the late 60s or early 70s in Bahia.
The disappearance of the sculpture of Saint Barbara, in transit to an exhibition of sacred art, doesn’t provide the reader with a detective story — we know from the beginning who is responsible for the theft — but with entangled stories of love, religion and politics.
In a very relaxed way Jorge Amado writes about the famous Brazilian ‘syncretism’; the blending of Roman Catholicism with African religions, about high art and popular art, national politics and local ‘arrangements’, about deep-rooted prejudices and familiar racial intermingling, blending his fictional characters with real celebrities of Bahian society and real history with a well-written plot that joins together reality, invention and the supernatural. MAD
The land of Bahia, where fate had led him to live and work, a land where everything is intermixed and commingled, where no one can separate virtue from sin, or distinguish the certain from the absurd, or draw the line between truth and trickery, between reality and dream. In this land of Bahia, saints and enchanted ones make miracles and sorcery, and not even Marxist ethnologists are surprised to see a carving from a Catholic altar turn into a bewitching mulatto woman at the hour of dusk. 23-4
Modern Brazilian Short Stories
An anthology with sixteen Brazilian authors, first published in 1967 but still worth having today because created with such authority, professionalism and passion. Published by a US-based University press it may need a bit of tracking down in the UK.
There are here, as well as the great and the good already wellknown in the Anglo-Saxon world, some authors considered highly in Brazil but not otherwise translated. An example is Marques Rebelo with his poignant story ‘The Beautiful Rabbits’, about childhood’s insecurities and rivalries but with a sting of social critique in it too.
Mário de Andrade, the great man of Brazilian modernism famous for his extraordinary myth-novel Macunaima, is represented here with ‘It can hurt plenty’, an expert, moving story told, like Rebelo’s, from a child’s point of view. ‘It can hurt plenty’ is a small, casual masterpiece, as humane as Chekhov, as socially aware as Orwell.
Other major stories in the collection are ‘Metonomy’ by Rachel de Queirós, written with great ‘spring’ and encapsulating very well the frequent ironic strain in Brazilian writing; ‘The Thief’ by Graciliano Ramos — like Rachel de Queirós another famous social novelist — is short with a sharp, filmic quality and finally there is Guimarães Rosa’s The Third Bank of the River, a birthday present of a story, stunningly profound and resonant, a genuine touch of the spiritual. It would be worth getting the book for this story alone.
A genial part of this anthology is the provision of potted biographies at the end of each story; lives of Brazilian authors are often interesting in themselves. Altogether Brazilian Short Stories is an excellent starting point to explore Brazilian writing. RK
She was home. But could you really call it a home? It looked like one of those road huts where the mule drivers rest. Just about as dirty. Two things that looked vaguely like chairs. One table. One bed. On the floor there was a mattress where the cockroaches lived. At night they came out and danced on the old lady’s face. After all, where do all the insects of this world perform their tribal dances?
The Babel Guide to Dutch and Flemish Literature
Dutch and Flemish writers have been pulling ahead over the last few years in the World writing paperchase. So this Babel Guide has plenty of recent translations to discuss including books from Cees Noteboom, Hugo Claus, Marcel Möring, Harry Mulisch, Marga Minco and Tessa de Loo. Altogether 115 books are reviewed here making it the only comprehensive and up-to-date reference in English.
Download the PDF version of this Babel Guide for $16 or local equivalent /or buy the printed book.
Women Writing in Dutch [ed. Kristiaan Aercke]
Weighing in at over seven hundred pages, this is a fully documented and annotated historical anthology containing verse, letters, diaries and learned treatises as well as fiction. The twentieth century accounts for about half the total space. The range of voices is very wide indeed.
Some of the work printed here is virtually unknown outside the Low Countries. From the mystical poems and prose of the medieval Hadewijch and Beatrijs of Nazareth and the biting satire of the sixteenth-century Anna Bijns (‘The little brat’s cradle I rock to and fro/ So the little bastard won’t cry till it’s blue’) we move to the polished writing of Anna Roemers, Maria Tesselschade and Anna Maria van Schurman, who were very much aware of being women artists in the men’s world of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. Van Schurman is the author of what is generally regarded as the first feminist manifesto in the Netherlands, claiming equal opportunities for women in education and scholarship. There is also an extract from Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken’s eighteenth-century epistolary novel Sara Burgerhart, the first modern novel in Dutch. Geertruide Bosboom-Toussaint, a major author of historical novels in the nineteenth century, is represented with two lengthy extracts, and the left-wing activist Henriette Roland Holst-Van der Schalk — who conferred with the likes of Lenin and Trotsky — appears with a string of confident, impassioned poems on women and socialism (‘O socialism, you must learn once again/ To yield to inner strength’). Apart from shorter prose by Marga Minco and Maria Stahlie and extracts from Anne Frank’s diaries, the modern section features two of the towering figures of contemporary Dutch writing, Hella Haasse and Monika van Paemel. Hella Haasse has had several of her novels translated into English (see elsewhere in this volume). Since Monika van Paemel’s work has attracted less attention abroad, this is an excellent chance to get a first impression; and the selection contains extracts from several of Van Paemel’s novels, including De vermaledijde vaders (‘The Accursed Fathers’) of 1985, a large and gripping book about war, violence and women, often compared with Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium for its sweep and grandeur — except that Van Paemel offers a feminist perspective on the destruction wreaked by men in positions of power. TH
Sunday excursions to the war cemeteries. The prettiest gardens you could imagine. Between the endless rows of tombstones: roses, heather, climbing plants — not to mention the poppies. Something is in flower in every season. Plants from the dead men’s countries. Inscription: ‘May the heavenly winds blow softly over that far and foreign grave...’ ‘Look at all the boys lying here!’ Elisabeth blows her nose. Nowhere else is the grass so springy. The moss so soft. And the silence that you’d like to mistake for peace. Lysenthoek, Vladslo, Tyne Cot Cemetery. Figures that make your head spin. A good place to hide, invisible among the ghosts. In the bare land, under the red beeches. Protected in the dunes. When the snow has covered the mounds of the graves, endless. Our footprints. Crackling kisses. Blinding flakes. Hold me tight. If they rise again. Wandering noiselessly through the walls. Infiltrate our houses. Or if the neutron bomb has already fallen. J’accuse. If it was only a movie... Imagination limps along behind reality. (p. 618; Monika van Paemel, ‘The Accursed Fathers’, tr. Basil Kingstone)
Brecht had the guts to ask me, “Where are you going?” “That’s none of your business.” “Then you can as well stay home.” “If you think you can, stop me, just try.” I can get angry but not quarrelsome, and seeing that Brecht was putting her talents to good use, I changed tactics. “Brecht,” I said, “if Auntie gave you those orders, then I will have to ask her to explain her reasons when she gets home. What is there to eat?” “Leftovers,” she said. “Good, because I’m hungry, but first we shall drink to Auntie’s health. Dear girl, go get a bottle of wine. Surely you have the key.” “I do not, Miss Sara” (now that I mentioned the booze, I was suddenly addressed like this!). “You are lying, Brecht; if Auntie says anything about it, I will pay her for the wine.” “Your aunt always keeps the key, but if Missy won’t tell on me, I can still manage to get in.” “Me, tell on you! Well I would have to be quite crazy; go get it then, and quickly.” She left. I had noticed for quite some time that sister Brecht was tippling. Therefore, I appealed to her weakness. She had been in the cellar only a moment when I locked the door behind her and turned the bolts. Then I left the house, closing the front door behind me. What happened to the sister after that I don’t know.
I left a note on Auntie’s table so that she wouldn’t worry. She has bugged me so terribly. She will likely remember this and I don’t need to torture her, now that I’m out of her control, isn’t that so, Sir!
How I long for a letter from you! I received the music. Oh, you’re such a good man. If only I could tell you face to face how much I respect you, how happy I am that I am Your humble servant and pupil, Sara Burgerhart
P.S. I’m enclosing my address, too. (p. 285, Elisabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken, Sara Burgerhart , tr. Jeanne Hageman and Kristiaan Aercke)
The Sorrow of Belgium [Het verdriet van België]
The title of this bulky, gutsy, sprawling masterpiece written by one of the most distinguished writers in Dutch to emerge since the Second World War is more than just a descriptive label. Throughout the book the main character collects material for his own novel which is to be called The Sorrow of Belgium, and by the end he has completed the first part, ‘The Sorrow.’ As one of the characters says, the title has ‘a nice ring about it.’ Much nicer than The Shame of Belgium for example.
Not that the novel itself is at all nice, describing as it does how the members of a Flemish family living in Nazi-occupied Belgium are motivated almost entirely by opportunism and thrive on deceit and betrayal. The youngest member, Louis Seynaeve, is a precocious boarding-school boy at the time of the invasion, and emerges after the end of the war as a successful but somewhat tarnished author. During the occupation he methodically notes in a series of exercise books the behaviour of his parents, grandparents and a bizarre collection of aunts and uncles. As his exasperated mother says: ‘He’s spying on us with his mean little eyes and listening to us with his rabbit ears and writing down everything we say and do... what we went through during the war. Our sorrow. Your story is called “The Sorrow” isn’t it?’
Sorrow in this book often means regret at being found out rather than genuine grief. And ‘The Sorrow’ is not just that of Louis’ relatives who by 1945 are having to regret their wartime activities which included black-marketeering (Uncle Robert the butcher), sleeping with Germans (Mama), working for the Germans (Uncle Armand who enforced unpopular regulations on local farmers), and more serious political collaboration (Louis’ father, a rather naive Flemish nationalist, is imprisoned by the Resistance after the Liberation and starts to talk about emigrating to Argentina ‘because all we have to look forward to here is sorrow — The Sorrow of Belgium’). Sorrow was also to be the legacy of the Dutch-speaking, Flemish element of the Belgian population after the War. The various right-wing Flemish factions mostly held intense nationalistic feelings; they ranged from moderates to Fascist fanatics, and many of them looked to the Germans to help them gain some form of Flemish self-rule. But they had backed the wrong horse, and perhaps the real ‘Sorrow of Belgium’ was the Sorrow of Flanders (the mainly Flemish-speaking region).
Louis himself is a candidate to be the main symbol of his country’s Sorrow. From childhood he has learned to escape from the reality of the corrupt and selfish society around him into the make-believe world of his own inventive fantasies. So much so that it is not always easy to know when to believe him and when not. We should bear this in mind when we read about the daring escapades of his secret society and the tough penalties meted out to erring members, about breaking into the nuns’ quarters at school, about his experiences in the local fascist youth movement, and about his sexual awakening in the arms of a curious assortment of lovers ranging from the most unprepossessing of his aunts to a chirpy local gypsy girl. His relationship with his grasshopper mother with its Oedipal undertones was something of a disaster and it was unfortunate that the only person who might have exercised a positive influence on him — a young Roman Catholic priest — was arrested and sent to Germany. One suspects that behind the smile Louis intentionally assumes to mask his feelings, lies real sorrow which comes from the realisation that he has learned not to believe in anything or anybody.
And since the author’s own war-time experiences mirror to some extent those of Louis, the Sorrow which has haunted us may well have been the Sorrow of Claus. But whichever or whoever’s Sorrow, this book should be read by everyone interested in modern Dutch or Flemish literature. BP
‘I don’t know who to vote for. You either have to vote for people you don’t know from Adam, who claim they were good patriots in secret during the war, working for the underground, which means the man in the street has no way of checking up on it, or else you do know them from before ‘40 and they’re the ones who took fright and scuttled off to London with shit in their pants. And if it isn’t them it’s their uncle or brother-in-law.’...
‘It’s marvellous how they all stick together through thick and thin, how they don’t split up and feud with each other.’
‘Because they’re all hand in glove. Just one big lump of shit stuck together. You’re allowed to put so many fingers in the till, but try one finger more and I’ll stick a knife in your back. Okay, now I’ll shut my eyes while you put your fingers in the till. — Hey, you’re stabbing me in the back anyway. — Ah, you should have known better than to turn your back on me.’ (p. 565, tr. Arnold Pomerans)
The Babel Guide to French Literature
Including such masters as Camus, Yourcenar, Genet, Cocteau, and Tahar, this Babel Guide equips you for a literary journey through all the lands that speak with a French accent.
The best of one of the world's greatest literatures is now available in English translation and this little book will point the way to years of pleasure and enlightenment from some of our century's most important authors...
Download the PDF version of this Babel Guide for $16 or local equivalent /or buy the printed book.
Paris Peasant [Paris Paysan]
This book is a kind of descendant of another unique French book with the strangeness of the urban experience at its heart, also written by a young Parisian rebelling against literary and social convention; the notorious Maldoror of Lautréamont. Surrealism, a revolutionary cultural movement of mostly writers and painters starting in Paris in around 1924, in fact saw Lautréamont as a precursor. While Lautréamont’s Paris is rather surrealist in its disjunctures and impossibilities and its passionate anger at whatever obstructs desire, it fell to the the young Aragon to consciously evoke the surrealist city for the first time, a process to be repeated in many locales subsequently, by Mervyn Peake for instance in a half-ruined London as the Flying Bombs landed, or Reyner Banham dazzled by night-time Las Vegas pulsating with light in the Nevada desert. Here, though, the surrealist city is a collage of objets trouvés like the beautiful and haunting Passage de l’Opéra, a long-demolished arcade which he calls, owing to the diffuse greenish light that enters it and the wary subfusc behaviour of its habitual denizens, ‘a human aquarium’.
Paris Peasant is the first (and perhaps only) textbook of what the Situationists — strongly influenced by early Surrealism — nearly forty years later were to call ‘Psycho-geography’; the plumbing of the resonances of built spaces for the vibrations and sympathies that make love and play possible. In lovely, surprising and above all playful writing the man who went on to become a great Stalinist bore, churning out worthy novels in the cause of Party and Proletariat, celebrates the city as a place of happy and stimulating coincidences, encounters and inexplicable oddities. He offers us the urban world of mystery and possibility with its ambiguous teasing spaces, its public baths and parks with their constant invitations to nature and nudity, however respectable their outward appearance.
Aragon discovers as another of the prime surrealist intersections the café, the quiet, spacious congenial place where reverie and friendship can flow. In contemporary cities where cafés and bars are often filled with loud piped music to snuff out thought before it forms, the sophisticated urbanity of 1920s Paris seems nostalgic.
Alongside The Passage of the Opera are several shorter pieces from the original series of magazine articles that form the book. In the second piece A Feeling for Nature on the Buttes-Chaumont another side of the enormously fertile early Surrealist thought emerges; an updated secular mysticism that finds immanence in everyday objects in their random juxtaposition which Aragon calls a ‘mythology of the modern’. A Feeling for Nature is more discursive than The Passage of the Opera — which is ecstatically gossipy at times — and although full of marvellous language (‘the mental suburbs where these old monsters haunted by the sea’s treacheries are relegated’) it cannot equal the breathless inspiration of the hundred-odd pages of revolutionary writing of its companion piece. RK
‘Turn round, and see, there right opposite is the little restaurant where, in our progress towards the depths of the imagination, I find the last traces of the Dada movement. When Saulnier seemed too expensive for us, we used to come here, appeasing our inopportune appetites as best we could with food cooked in rancid coconut oil and with their sharp, unpleasant wine, consumed in a stuffy, vulgar atmosphere. What memories, what revulsions linger around these hash houses: the man eating in this one has the impression he is chewing the table rather than a steak, and becomes irritated by his common, noisy table companions, ugly, stupid girls, and a gentleman flaunting his second-rate subconscious and the whole unedifiying mess of his lamentable existence; while, in another one, a man wobbles on his chair’s badly squared legs, and concentrates his impatience and his rancours upon the broken clock. Two rooms: a bar room with a zinc counter and a door opening on a low-ceilinged, smoke-filled kitchen, and a dining-room extended at the end by an alcove just big enough to accommodate a table, a settee and three chairs, this being really a tiny courtyard covered over to provide space for six extra customers. The chorus girls of the Théâtre Moderne, their lovers, their dogs, their children, plus a few commercial travellers, are the chief occupants, these days, of the restaurant’s settees. The whole scene — sweaty walls, people, stodgy food — is like a smear of candle grease.’ p105
Leo the African [Léon l’Africain]
If history is the legacy left to us by the victors of the past, then Amin Maalouf’s fictions represent something of a rearguard action, waged as a re-telling of episodes normally viewed from the perspective of the West. His major interest is in the history of the Middle East and the Arab world and his goal is to provide his readers with a fresh view, one which challenges us to reassess such moments.
Maalouf is Lebanese but now resident in France. He turned to fiction after years of journalistic work. His early book, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, attempted to reconstruct the crusades using Arab accounts and he was soon to use his knowledge of such sources to produce a series of novels exploring historical themes. The first of these was Leo the African. Based on the life-story of Hasan al-Wazzan, the geographer who came to be known as ‘Leo Africanus’, Maalouf creates an imaginary autobiography which sets Leo against the major events of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. Leo narrates his life, from Granada, his birthplace, to his residence in Fez and his extensive travels in Africa and the Muslim world of the time. In addition, and fundamental to what we know about him, there was his capture by pirates and his being offered as a gift to Pope Leo X. It was this event which gave him his new Christian name of ‘Leo’.
In his fiction Maalouf manages to bring this story to life with a richness of detail that forces us to rethink our own attitude to the past, particularly that past shared by the two opposing Mediterranean shores.... GS
‘Before Fez, I had never set foot in a city, never observed the swarming activity of the alleyways, never felt that powerful breath on my face, like the wind from the sea, heavy with cries and smells. Of course, I was born in Granada, the stately capital of the kingdom of Andalus, but it was already late in the century, and I knew it only in its death agonies, emptied of its citizens and its souls, humiliated, faded, and when I left our quarter of al-Baisin it was no longer anything for my family but a vast encampment, hostile and ruined.’ p83
The Babel Guide to German Literature
A fascinating and important range of German-language fiction has been translated over the years; the indispensable Kafka, the angry young Austrians: Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard as well as classics like Thomas Mann, Robert Musil and Joseph Roth. This Babel Guide sums up their work with 100 punchy but well-informed reviews as well as covering sixty other writers.
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Jewish Voices, German Words
This collection of nineteen short stories, novel extracts, the odd essay and several poems is by young Jewish writers writing in German, in Austria and the two Germanies, and who grew up in these countries after 1945. The idea of being Jewish in post-Shoah (‘Holocaust’) Germany or Austria already starts from such a bleak premise — you’re living amidst a nation of Fred Wests who’ve put your brothers, sisters and aunties under the Fatherland’s great patio in the sky — that anything is possible.
In fact quite a variety of situations are explored and different conclusions reached, often no more or less sour about their uncomfortable homeland than are Goyish German writers. The book’s editor — also Jewish and (partly) raised in Germany — who currently edits one of Britain’s most interesting literary/current affairs magazines, the Jewish Quarterly, does an excellent job posing the kind of issues that many Germans would prefer to be overlooked. As she says in her introduction while ‘for most young German writers, the past appears to have been deleted... for their Jewish counterparts it is an indelible part of their consciousness of the present’. Until younger Germans wake up to the fact that Germany can only clear its name by trying, for a suggestion, to do a tenth of the good in the next one hundred years as the evil that was done in those infamous twelve years of the Third Reich, then Jews in dealing with Germans are, as Peter Jungk says in his contribution, ‘obliged to forget, forget each day anew, what took place there, forty years ago’, to forget on behalf of the Germans and Austrians, to spare their feelings.
In the actual collection a particularly interesting piece is by East German Chaim Noll who grew up as the son of faithful Party parents but writes laconically, ‘The country to which our part of Berlin belonged called itself the GDR (German Democratic Republic). That name stood for three claims: Germany, democracy, and republic, none of which would bear close examination. One saw them everywhere, in block letters: on bridges, on roofs, in store windows among baby carriages and cabbages. Usually associated with promises of a brilliant future.’
Thomas Feibel in a beautiful, hilarious piece ‘Gefilte Fish and Pepsi: A Childhood in Enemy Territory’ also plays it for laughs, in a long Jewish literary (and oral) tradition; ‘We were neurotics in the marinade of Jewishness.’ Another contributor, Katja Behrens, like a lot of young Jews from Western countries, is attracted to visit Israel in a search for roots — implicitly the roots that otherwise might have been sought in the Yiddish Heartland between Berlin and Moscow that was destroyed by the Germans under their famous Austrian leader and then further (culturally) filleted by Stalinism. Behrens’ Israeli tale is poignant, funny and horribly true-sounding as she gets chased around Jerusalem by a sexually frustrated Fundamentalist dirty old man.
The identity crush, often very complex for non-religious Ashkenazi Jews because of secularism and the Shoah, is also addressed in two pieces by Barbara Honigmann where she talks of the curious ‘lost’ state of a creative, clever woman trapped between identities (German/East German and Jewish/World Citizen).
This confusion over identity is to some extent the condition of all Europeans, especially since the end of World War Two, but especially of the continent’s Jewish citizens, ‘super-Europeans’, with a long tradition of presence in all European countries — amidst expulsions and exterminations — and with a common European culture. All in all the authors in this book are appropriate witnesses to the way Germany and Austria have (not) dealt with their recent past.
The book also includes many other thoughtful and well-written pieces and is a beautifully produced and translated book, a tribute to its small American publisher, Catbird Press. RK
‘In the longer run the German nation will not be forgiven for Auschwitz, or for the calculated attack on humanity this word has come to symbolise. How Germany comes to terms with this is its own problem. When a people makes such a spectacle of itself, its name becomes emblematic of something revolting; for centuries that was the case with the Huns, Tartars, and Mongols.’ p54 (Chaim Noll A Country, A Child)
‘Could any people be more uprooted than the Germans?... they have lost the ground under their feet and cannot recover it with the gravitational pull of money. Abroad one gets to look at them under a magnifying glass. A German tourist enters a restaurant in Holland with his family and does not dare to say “Guten Tag”, because he would not want to be identified with the Germans who invaded Holland; even so, he feels guilty. This man is the civilised façade of the same man who goes to his club with fellow Germans and sings soldiers’ songs... The Germans are a schizophrenic people. The hatred they feel for their own identity comes from the lost war, forced democratisation, and the incomprehensible crimes of the Second World War... Nothing in this country’s consciousness has done as much harm as the notion of collective guilt. The fascists’ crimes were unloaded on the entire people, and the executioners, the fellow-travellers, the merely indifferent, and the resistance fighters were all tarred with the same brush... If Herr Krupp’s chauffeur is as guilty as Herr Krupp, both may feel free to continue going about their business — or neither. Thus the Germans blocked themselves from calling their criminals by name, from distinguishing between them and the fellow-travellers, the indifferent, and the resistance fighters, and building their future on the right people.... Not guilt but shame would have been appropriate. Guilt is a religious emotion and obscures one’s understanding. But a person who feels shame about something contemplates that thing and tries to get to the bottom of it, even if that means pursuing his father’s crimes... Then he can purge them and live without guilt. The child who promises to be better only because of a guilty conscience is already paving the way for the next misdeed.’ p35-6 (Benjamin Korn Shock and Aftershock)
‘If you ask me whether I have a Heimat (Homeland), and where it is, I reply in classic Jewish style: evasively. I think I have a Heimat, but I can’t localise it. It’s the odour of gefilte fish and potato pancakes, the taste of borscht and pickled herring, the melody of the Hatikva and the sound of the Internationale, but only when it’s sung in Yiddish by old members of the Bund in Tel Aviv on the first of May. It’s the Marx brothers’ night in Casablanca, and Ernst Lubitsch’s to be or not to be. It’s Karl Kraus’s Torch and the autobiography of Theodor Lessing. It’s a spot on the Aussenalster in Hamburg, a little stairway in the old harbour of Jaffa, and the Leidseplein in Amsterdam. Isn’t that enough?’ p101 (Henryk M. Broder Heimat? No, Thanks!)
The Journey to the East [Die Morgenlandfahrt]
Everybody — hopefully — has at least one book that they can read and reread, enjoy again and again and draw heart and energy from, like the company of an old friend. The Journey to the East is one of those very special books. A book too, that seems to be a perfect use of its particular medium, the brief novella based around the reminiscence of a single narrator. It would be hard to imagine it as a film; such is the air of exciting and mysterious insubstantiality Hesse weaves around a seemingly concrete argument — a journey.
It’s a spiritual journey, the spiritual journey of a cultivated European travelling through his own culture, who doesn’t set off merely to discover newness and wonder elsewhere but who, as an educated, reflective journeyer carries wonders within himself as well. Journey to the East is a magnificent travel book because it relates a journey to nowhere that never took place and yet continues through every day that passes. It’s a journey outside the ‘world deluded by money, number and time’, a journey into the wonderful possibilities of life, of life rich in grace and enchantment, where the best things of the human spirit and natural beauty combine. The fellow-pilgrims on Hesse’s journey are people who have detached themselves from the noisy, ratcheting world of contemporary routines and absorbed something of what is profound and eternal.
Hesse’s traveller is a man like any other, so that just as he reaches the attainment of his quest he allows it to slip from him and the book then becomes a story of the shattered idealism of youth and the long subsequent search to recover or replace it. In fact the narrative is a very sophisticated interweaving of the pursuit of the grail of truth and of the delusions, contumely and dissent around that pursuit.
The book can be read as a beautiful story of a crisis of (creative) faith and the struggle to retain it. Although one of Hesse’s shortest works it stands alongside the more famous Steppenwolf as his best; subtle, sketched rather than spelt out, wonderfully wise, a good investment for every traveller on the planet. RK
‘What life is when it is beautiful and happy⎯a game! Naturally one can also do all kinds of other things with it, make a duty of it, or a battleground, or a prison, but that does not make it any prettier.’ p72
‘I looked for and found the place in the archives. There lay a tiny locket which could be opened and contained a miniature portrait of a ravishingly beautiful princess, which in an instant reminded me of all three thousand and one nights, of all the tales of my youth, of all the dreams and wishes of that great period when, in order to travel to Fatima in the Orient, I had served my noviciate and had reported myself as a member of the League. The locket was wrapped in a finely-spun mauve silk kerchief, which had an immeasurably remote and sweet fragrance, reminiscent of princesses and the East.’ p94-95
‘despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and fulfil their requirements. Children live on one side of despair, the awakened on the other side.’ p106
A Man and his Dog [Herr und Hund]
If Bertolt Brecht was the giant of German-language theatre in the twentieth century then Thomas Mann is the fiction equivalent. Some of his most famous works like Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain though are forbiddingly large. Mann however also wrote brilliantly-fashioned, profound novellas like Death in Venice which are perhaps better places to start with this unmissable writer.
Extreme sceptics who imagine German literature must be as heavy, if nourishing, as German bread could start with this beautiful, happy and lighthearted piece (usually collected with other novellas by Mann) about exactly what its title promises, a man (Thomas Mann) and his dog (called Bashan).
A Man and his Dog demonstrates a gentle understanding of a fellow-creature in a close relationship that develops from puppyhood on. A close relationship that was especially important for a man of difficult and cool temper like Mann. Bashan and Thomas’ exploits on their walks around the neighbourhood and along the riverbank, encountering hares that Bashan can never quite catch, are pure delight. Bashan is a dog of character and independence of mind who instinctively hates and barks at ‘policemen, monks and chimney-sweeps’. The details of dogness are beautifully observed and captured; Bashan is heard ‘coughing in the odd, one-syllabled way that dogs have’ and there is here that crucial realisation of how an animal’s companionship can release us from the mad self-importance of the merely human world.
Mann was a clever writer but — and this seems a German strength — not a cerebral one, and here as in his other work he celebrates the physical, felt, simple world. A world that blesses us if we let it. RK
(A chased hare runs in desperation to Mann, ed.)
‘Was it beside itself with fright? Anyhow, it jumped straight at me, like a dog, ran up my overcoat with its forepaws and snuggled its head into me, me whom it should most fear, the master of the chase! I stood bent back with my arms raised, I looked down at the hare and it looked up at me. It was only a second, perhaps only part of a second, that this lasted. I saw the hare with such extraordinary distinctness, its long ears, one of which stood up, the other hung down; its large, bright , short-sighted, prominent eyes, its cleft lip and the long hairs of its moustache, the white on its breast and little paws; I felt or thought I felt the throbbing of its hunted heart. And it was strange to see it so clearly and have it so close to me, the little genius of the place, the inmost beating heart of our whole region, this little being which I had never seen but for brief moments in our meadows and bottoms, frantically and drolly getting out of the way — and now, in its hour of need, not knowing where to turn, it came to me, it clasped as it were my knees, a human being’s knees: not the knees, so it seemed to me, of Bashan’s master, but the knees of a man who felt himself master of hares and this hare’s master as well as Bashan’s. It was, I say, only for the smallest second. Then the hare had dropped off, taken again to its uneven legs, and bounded up the slope on my left....’ p278
The Babel Guide to Hungarian Literature
Get to know more about a fascinating, sometimes bizarre nation, romantic and crazy, with a history full of brilliance and brutality, through its literature.
This Babel Guide presents modern Hungarian literature: novels, short-story collections, poetry and drama that have been translated into English. Sample the hallucinogenic typography of Péter Nádas, the psycho-comedic narratives of Ágnes Hankiss, or Tibor Déry's Lilliputian characters.
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Kosztolányi, born in 1855, is one of Hungary’s greatest stylists, both as a lyric poet and as a prose writer. His precise language and ironic humour are particularly well suited to the short story, or novella, of which Skylark, written in 1923, is one of his best known.
It takes place in September 1899, in an imaginary provincial town called Sárszeg, clearly based on Kosztolányi’s birthplace Szabadka, then in southern Hungary. Less than twenty years later it was to become part of the new state of Yugoslavia and be renamed Subotica, so Kosztolányi was writing from the standpoint of a man whose one-time fellow citizens were having to learn Serbian.
In crisp, mostly short sentences, the novel paints an entertaining but also affectionate portrait of life in a small town, with its gossip and its cast of splendid characters: Olivér the atheist, who has been suffering from degenerative syphilis for years; the pimply railway official Géza Cifra; the gloomy theatre director Arácsy; Miklós Ijas, would-be poet and assistant editor of the local paper, with a family tragedy in his past; a trio of actors — the dashing leading man Imre Zányi, the comedian Szolyvay, and the much-gossiped-about Olga Orosz; the alcoholic Latin teacher Szunyogh; and the leading light of local merrymaking Bálint Környey. Kosztolányi’s ability to bring these somewhat grotesque characters to life with great economy of means makes it seem entirely appropriate that he should have been the translator into Hungarian of Alice in Wonderland — and of Shakespeare.
The action takes place over just one week. An elderly couple, Ákos Vajkay, a retired county archivist and passionate genealogist, and his wife Antónia, find themselves at a loose end when their only child, a very plain thirty-something daughter nicknamed Skylark, unexpectedly takes off for the country to visit relatives. After a great deal of comic fussing over preparations for the journey, her parents see her off at the station and contemplate a bleak interlude without her. But the expected penance of lunch in the local hostelry — Skylark is the cook in the family — turns out to be a thoroughly enjoyable occasion. And gradually the parents come to realise that their reclusive, uneventful existence has been forced on them by poor Skylark’s ugliness and the blight her old-maid status has cast on their lives.
The prematurely aged Ákos takes on a new lease of life as he joins in the fun at the Panthers’ Table, frequented by the local drinking club of which he was once a member. He relishes the taste of vanilla noodles, blood-red goulash soup and breast of veal — so different from Skylark’s rigourously bland chicken risotto, her pale sponge fingers and her semolina puddings — and for the first time for years indulges in beer, wine, even champagne, and smokes a dark Tisza cigar. Meanwhile his wife enjoys coffee and whipped cream with the ladies of the town. And to celebrate the new brightness that has entered their lives, they even decide to replace the three (out of four) lightbulbs removed for reasons of economy from the dining-room chandelier — and revel in the cosy ambience that results.
The excitement reaches a climax with an invitation to attend a performance of The Geisha, which necessitates a long-overdue visit to the barber for Father and the purchase of a splendid crocodile handbag for Mother. The opera is one of the comic highlights of the novel, with the audience idolising the local diva even as they reprove her morals. And the Panthers’ Thursday evening ‘shindig’ sets the seal on Ákos’ transformation, as instead of his usual nine o’clock bedtime he finds himself carousing into the early hours, and turns out to be a dab hand at card-playing. On their last day of freedom the couple sleep right through the day, emerging only hours before Skylark’s expected return, their exhaustion heightened by a tearful scene in which, Ákos, dead drunk, claims that they don’t really love her because she’s ugly, a claim that is vehemently denied by his wife. The poignant ending contrasts with the jollities that have gone before, but does perhaps leave the possibility of lasting change open. VMI
The barber gave Ákos the full treatment. He wrapped him in a towel and lathered his face with tepid foam. With the bib around his chest, Ákos looked like a little boy treated to cakes at a patisserie, his face smeared thick with whipped cream.
When his assistant had finished the shaving, the barber set about the old man’s hair, shaping it on top with electric clippers, scraping away any leftover stubble behind the ears with an open blade, then trimming, raking, combing and smoothing the sides. He carefully snipped the grey tufts of hair from Ákos’ ears and spread his moustache with fine twirling wax. This had just arrived from Tiszaújlak and, at seven kreuzers a tub, possessed the singular property of bonding even the most stubborn of Magyar moustaches. Finally, when he had swept away any remaining strands of fallen hair, he dusted Ákos’ temples with a soft brush and pressed his hair into shape with a net.
When net and towel were finally removed, Ákos replaced the copy of Saucy Simon in which he had read many mischievous stories from the pen of some amateur scribbler, and looked into the mirror. His face darkened a little.
He hardly recognised himself.
A new man sat on the velvet cushions of the barber’s swivel chair. His hair, although it had just been cut, seemed more bounteous than before. His moustache curled into a sharp and utterly unfamiliar fork, blackened by the Tiszaújlak wax, and as bright and stiff as if hammered from cast iron. His chin, on the other hand, was smooth, fresh and velvety. Every pore seemed younger. But different, too, and this unsettled him. 77-8
Krúdy is a prolific, forgotten-and-rediscovered writer whose favourite topic was the country life of another era, a Hungarian Golden Age of the nineteenth century. Although writing about his version of rural tranquillity — a world of lush, romantic young women and eccentric, Quixotic aristocrats — Krúdy himself was a city scapegrace, Bohemian, a night-owl who lived from story to story he published in newspapers eager to distract a post World War One readership with images of a brighter world at a time of territorial partition and economic privation.
Sunflower starts off as an unabashedly lyrical, quite light-headed celebration of rural peace but, like the subtle writer he undoubtedly was, Krúdy simultaneously backs away from a utopian view of the countryside with his tavern-haunter’s barb:
If you are sleepless in the big city you may gain some consolation from street noises that tell you there are others who find no relief in the night. But in the village the midnight hours can drive you to distraction…the insomniac looks on with open eyes, like a cadaver who forgot to die..
Perhaps the greatest pleasures of his books are the rich characters like Mr. Álmos-Dreamer and Krúdy’s amazing fluency and originality in evoking them. Álmos-Dreamer for example lives on a river-island in an old house so old that ‘the lamps gave a tired light’.
Gyula Krúdy in his personal life seems to have been a roué of the most dangerous type: passionate about and appreciative of women in general (‘possession of this exquisite woman meant knowing all of life’s secrets and mysteries’) but heartlessly pragmatic in practice. One lover threatened to throw herself out of the window if he didn’t spend more time with her; Krúdy told her to go right ahead — fortunately she only broke her ankle.
Sunflower fairly drips with local colour as it wends its way with anecdotal tales over a romanticised but somehow still convincing geographical and human landscape, a (briefer) One Thousand and One Nights or Canterbury Tales. Krúdy, like the great Chaucer, manages the difficult game of sympathetic irony, that invites the reader to smile rather than sneer at his over-the-top, rather daft and spoilt characters, the naïve girls, ageing roués and ne’er-do-well Hussars. Krúdy is an unmissable stop on the tramway of really Hungarian writing… RK
This particular Álmos-Dreamer was a village savant, around forty years of age, a wiry hard-headed bachelor with gentle eyes. He lived in solitude on his island in the meandering river, where a stone wall sheltered his retreat from people and the spring floods. He spoke softly and had not been heard to laugh aloud in years. His aspect was as calm as twilight in the country. He loved the winter silence. In the spring he liked to smoke a cigar and listen to passing raftsmen’s songs. He was neither extravagant nor a maniac. He remained on his island with the utter tenacity of an otter — a scientist whose name had never seen the light of print. He was one of those bygone Hungarian gentlemen who, just to amuse themselves during long winter nights, learned French or English by perusing the tomes in their libraries. As septuagenarians they would take up the study of astronomy. They knew their Horace and Berzsenyi by heart. But they would not speak out at the county assembly because of their disdain of electioneering and politicians. Calfskin-bound, yellowing classics carried their ex-libris. Surely bookmarks still remain at the pages they were reading on their deathbed. And their beloved women were like potted plants. Back in those days the lady of the house was a fair, fragrant and calm being, who went about her days at a leisurely pace, with little noise; her voluptuous curves provided evening time pleasures. These were leisurely Rubens-esque, tender romancings, slow and endless like the village hours. They brought peaceful, wholesome dreams… 29-30
The Babel Guide to Italian Literature
There is an embarrassment of riches in contemporary Italian letters; Italo Calvino, the divine Pasolini, Cesare Pavese, Natalia Ginzburg and Marta Morazzoni, not to mention Tondelli, Verga, Pirandello and Tabucchi... All, along with many others, presented here in the context of their translated novels and short stories. The first and highly acclaimed volume in the Babel Guides series.
Download the PDF version of this Babel Guide for $16 or local equivalent /or buy the printed book.
Invisible Cities [Le città invisibili]
Invisible Cities is a kind of I Ching or book of wisdom and commentary for the modern age. One of Calvino’s last books, it consists of fifty-five brief chapters, each of which describes a different imaginary city. The cities are at once mysterious and vaguely allegorical, reflecting various aspects and conditions of modern urban life.
In the ‘continuous city’ of Cecilia, for example, a wanderer encounters a goatherd who despises all cities — for him they are just criminal interruptions of good pasture — hurrying his flock away from town. Years later the two men meet again, but this time the goatherd is wizened, his goats so reduced that ‘they did not even stink’. He explains that Cecilia has become inescapable as all the cities in the world have joined together across all the pasture lands in the world, forcing his goats to graze on traffic islands. The marvellous city of Zora, on the other hand, is remote, lying ‘beyond six rivers and three mountain ranges’. The learned travel there because, forever kept unchanging, it serves as a giant mnemonic or remembering machine. Retained in the memory, its details (the fountain with the nine jets, the barber’s striped awning, the statue of the hermit and the lion) can be substituted by the details of any science or philosophy; its structure forms a giant periodic table for any branch of knowledge, whether the elements of this branch are music, dentistry or theology.
In this respect of course Zora is the antithesis of London or Tokyo or New York, where history and memory are daily ground under the earth-hammers of property developers. But then so gentle is Calvino’s touch that it can be read either as a critique of such development or as advocating it: forced to remain motionless and always the same, Zora has ‘languished, disintegrated and disappeared’ from the face of the earth.
The last of Calvino’s cities is ‘Berenice the unjust’, whose corrupt patricians at the baths ‘observe with a proprietary eye the round flesh of the bathing odalisques’ while, down in the city’s cellars, their opponents, who nourish themselves on a ‘sober but tasty cuisine’ based on grains and pulses, prepare for the reign of justice. Unfortunately, alongside their thirst for justice they are nurturing a malignant seed in their breasts: ‘the certainty and pride of being in the right’. And Calvino urges us to ‘peer deeper into this new germ of justice and discern...the mounting tendency to impose what is just through what is unjust.’ An excellent suggestion in a world beset by opposing, sometimes well-armed, self-righteous political, ethnic and religious groupings. RK
‘I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others, Marco answered. It is a city made only of exceptions — exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of elements we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist. But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real.”’ p56
Garden Of The Finzi-Continis [Il giardino degli Finzi-Continis]
This story is set in the fascist era of the 20s and 30s. The garden lies behind a villa in the prosperous Northern city of Ferrara and is the centre of the happy world of Alberto and Micòl, children of a wealthy Jewish family. Walled away from the ominous rumbles of an Italy slipping more and more under the influence of Nazi Germany, their world eventually shrinks to just this garden — a metaphor for the extirpation of their own lives and that of their community. As their horizons draw in, Alberto slowly sickens and dies of a mysterious wasting disease while the spirited and beautiful Micòl gradually relinquishes both her brilliant career — all professions were closed to Italy’s Jewish citizens after 1938 — and, sensing that she has no future, renounces any fruitful love.
Bassani’s book is a tender, delicate requiem for a drowned world of beauty and intelligence, a diverse and cosmopolitan way of being Italian that Italy robbed itself of, leaving it a country that shares, if to a lesser degree, the curious postwar ‘moral vacuum’ of Germany; a nation on parole, frightened of its own misdeeds and yet also frightened to own up to them. What makes this requiem effective is the way it transcends these particular events and celebrates the mysteries of beauty, intelligence, friendship and kindness, which are thrown into relief by a melancholy destiny. RK
‘When I went back... at the beginning of May I found spring bursting out everywhere, the sprawling fields between Alessandria and Piacenza already yellow, the country lanes of Emilia full of girls out on bicycles, already bare-armed and bare-legged, the great trees along the walls of Ferrara already in leaf.’ p183
The Babel Guide to Jewish Literature
As there are more Jewish writers writing in more languages than you can shake a stick at, this Babel Guide is a daring work of selection ranging over four continents and seventy years of contemporary fiction. Amongst the eighty authors discussed are Marcel Proust, Amos Oz, S.Y.Agnon, Sholem Ash and Cynthia Ozick. Books that cover Jewish life in the US, Eastern Europe and Latin America receive particular coverage in one hundred separate book reviews, each accompanied by a quotation.
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Twenty-One Stories [Hebrew]
Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 was the first writer in Modern Hebrew prose to give the language real international standing. He was though, radically unlike other great, Nobel-winning writers of the century like Thomas Mann or Albert Camus. Some of his preoccupations, such as the struggle to live a religiously-observant existence in a modern world, seem archaic but this somehow fits well with the whole notion of Modern Hebrew; the revival of a literature and a language from the past for a revived Jewish nation.
In this ‘modern archaism’ there is a similarity with Isaac Bashevis Singer, more a less a contemporary and also born in Poland. Perhaps the fact of the Holocaust — which finally destroyed a traditional Jewish civilisation already under attack from many directions; scepticism, emigration, Communism and Polish nationalism — it could be this made the contrast between traditional and modern ways of life so stark that both tried to re-create Jewish history and experience, often particularly cherishing archaism and tradition. In any case, reading Agnon is distinctly an odd experience. An experience perhaps better to undergo with the short works that are collected in Twenty-One Stories, in Two Tales: Betrothed and Edo and Enam or The Book that was Lost.
Some of the most outstanding, and perhaps representative, of the Twenty-One Stories are the short, uncanny To the Doctor, which is as disturbing as a nightmare or The Document, where its protagonist is caught up in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy; ‘So one day passed and so a second… The clerks sat on — their faces bent over their papers and their pens writing automatically, incessantly. The clock ticked gloomily away. Its hand moved slowly, and a dead fly was stuck to it and moved along with it.’ A simple, vivid story but constructed out of effortless transitions from one mood, one thing to another. Agnon is the writer of abrupt changes, he makes them seem natural — which is alarming to the reader unwittingly caught on his narrative thread.
Perhaps these sudden shifts are appropriate for a man whose own life shifted several times, dramatically enough between countries and states; Austria-Hungary, Poland, Palestine, Germany and Israel. Agnon’s ‘shifting’ reaches a peak here in From Lodging to Lodging, the story of a man who is seeking a cure for a physical illness but is also suffering from profound spiritual wounds. A story too of separation — as often in Agnon — the man’s wife and children are far away. Ultimately though, and to the reader’s surprise, From Lodging to Lodging is a powerful and convincing story about human compassion that manages to emerge from a seemingly flat re-telling of banal events. One of his short masterpieces. Also a masterpiece, but with a streak of humour too, is Friendship. In Friendship life is slowed down for us by this master of narrative time and space. Slowed down, as in a film by Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Bresson, we realise how much fiction (or film) usually depends on narrative excitement — but that if we stop and contemplate we might see as much or much more.
Love is an Agnon theme too, charmingly in the often-anthologised First Kiss and, more sombrely, in The Doctor’s Divorce, a highly original story, the theme is love but also ‘the worm in the rose’ of a great love; jealousy. It’s Agnon in his gloomy rejection-of-the-world mood; the world can only be a snare and a delusion because of the self-tormenting perversity of the human heart.
Finally, At the Outset of the Day is one of the very best in the Twenty-One Stories collection, combining many major Agnon themes elegantly, elegaically, heart-breakingly. Read it and be moved, amazed, grateful. RK
‘After the enemy destroyed my home I took my little daughter in my arms and fled with her to the city. Gripped with terror, I fled in frenzied haste a night and a day until I arrived at the courtyard of the Great Synagogue one hour before nightfall on the eve of the Day of Atonement. The hills and mountains that had accompanied us departed, and I and the child entered into the courtyard. From out of the depths rose the Great Synagogue, on its left the old House of Study and directly opposite that, one doorway facing the other, the new House of Study.
This was the House of Prayer and these the Houses of Torah that I had kept in my mind’s eye all my life. If I chanced to forget them during the day, they would stir themselves and come to me at night in my dreams, even as during my waking hours. Now that the enemy had destroyed my home I and my little daughter sought refuge in these places; it seemed that my child recognised them, so often had she heard about them.
An aura of peace and rest suffused the courtyard. The Children of Israel had already finished the afternoon prayer and, having gone home, were sitting down to the last meal before the fast to prepare themselves for the morrow, that they might have strength and health enough to return in repentance.’ (p252 At the Outset of the Day)
The Tevye Stories and others [Tevye der milkhiker] [Yiddish]
Sholem Aleichem was the most famous and popular of the Yiddish writers and both the musical Fiddler on the Roof and Barbara Streisand’s film Yentl were based on Aleichem stories. When critics call the tone of Yiddish literature rather sentimental, taking a romantic and idealised view of Shtetl* life and personalities, it is often this writer that they have in mind. Nevertheless, amongst his huge production of work there is plenty of excellent reading and he’s indispensable for an understanding of the turn-of-the-century Russian-Jewish world — with the proviso that many Jews did not live in the ‘typical’ small rural communities where he usually sets his work.
There are various collections of Aleichem’s short stories and these are a better place to meet him than his often over-ambitious novels such as Marienbad where he takes himself a little too seriously. Overall, the short stories feed us the texture of Shtetl life, its comings and goings, the network of relatives, the poverty and the everyday difficulties. In the popular ‘Tevye’ stories — which can be found in most Sholem Aleichem collections — we get to know the ‘Little Man’ Tevye the Dairyman who perennially struggles to make a living, marry off his daughters and look after the horse that pulls his dairy wagon around the villages and dachas (country villas) of his corner of Russia. Tevye is an earthy character who loves his grub —‘You should taste her noodle pudding. Then you would know what heaven and earth can be.’ — but also has pretensions to be an educated Jew and constantly drops garbled or inappropriate quotations from sacred texts into his speech.
Another of the ‘typical characters’, one-dimensional yet telling, that populate Tevye-land is the distant relative, the Luftmensch* who is a great talker, a spieler* who sells Tevye a useless ‘investment’ in the cautionary tale The Bubble Bursts. What this story also tells us is that in those times people lived on air (‘luft’) and hope as much as herring and blintzes* and borscht*.
Sentimental as he can often be, something Sholem Aleichem was quite unsentimental about was the caste or class division amongst East European Jews — the Shtetl wasn’t all ‘one big happy family’, and, in the story Modern Children, the harshness of social distinctions is made quite clear when a mere ‘stitcher’ applies to marry one of the dairyman’s daughters; ‘“A tailor” gasps Golde. [Tevye’s wife] “Where does a tailor come into our family? In our family we have had teachers, cantors, Shamosim*, undertaker’s assistants, and other kinds of poor people. But a tailor — never!”’. Similarly the story The Enchanted Tailor shows conflicts between poor Jews and the better-off individuals who held the official posts in the Jewish community This is a less-than-rosy view of social relationships in the Shtetl and is well-sprinkled with the pithy and often heavily ironic folk-sayings that Aleichem loved to reproduce, like this one; ‘Silver and gold make even pigs clean’. The reaction of many young Jews to the widespread social and ethnic inequality and political stagnation of Czarist Russia is suggested when a suitor for another of Tevye’s daughters — Hodel, in the story of the same name — turns out to be a young revolutionary who ends up getting deported to Siberia.
The story entitled A Wedding without Musicians is about a pogrom* that is miraculously forestalled
There’s plenty more about the tricky ethnic situation of the Jews in Russia — who were subjected to all kinds of legal and economic restrictions — in other stories here such as The Lottery Ticket, the bitter story of an impoverished young Jew who has to renounce his religion to enter university while The Miracle of Hashono Rabo is a leg-pull at the expense of an ignorant Russian Orthodox priest who displays great arrogance towards his Jewish neighbours.
Sholem Aleichem’s stories are unmissable for their populist artistry and their flavour of the Russian Jewish world, so track down a collection of them — don’t be satisfied with the Hollywood version! RK
‘The main thing is that what you bring must be good — the cream must be thick, the butter golden. And where will you find cream and butter that’s better than mine?
So we make a living... May the two of us be blessed by the Lord as often as I am stopped on the road by important people from Yehupetz — even Russians — who beg me to bring them what I can spare. “We have heard, Tevel, that you are an upright man, even if you are a Jewish dog...” Now, how often does a person get a compliment like that? Do our own people ever praise a man? No! All they do is envy him.’ (p141 Tevye Wins a Fortune)
Collected Stories [includes Red Cavalry [Konarmiya], Tales of Odessa [Odesskie rasskazy] [Russian](Trilling, L., Ed.)
You Must Know Everything Stories 1915-1937(Ed. Babel, N.)
Isaac Babel 1920 Diary(Avins, Carol J. Ed.)
Isaac Babel The Forgotten Prose(Stroud, N. Ed.)
We have to read Babel because he’s a breathtakingly good writer and because his work is about a fascinating and rather terrible moment in the story of the Jewish worlds of Poland and Russia. His own curious life-story is that he felt himself picked out to be a writer and deliberately placed himself in a dangerous ‘real life’ situation to discover his material.
Babel, the spectacle-wearing little Jewish intellectual, went off to serve in the ranks of Marshall Budyonny’s piratical (and famously anti-Semitic) Cossack division of ‘Red Cavalry’ in the Russo-Polish war of 1920-21. The result was a wonderfully written book, Red Cavalry, made up of series of vignettes of war, cruelty and pillage in a new and humane vein of war-reportage which made him an overnight success. Further collections such as Tales from Odessa and single stories published in magazines focused on Jewish communities in Russia and Poland either just before or just after the October Revolution of 1917.
Babel’s take on Eastern Jewry is radically different from the Yiddish writers of the 1910s and 1920s; there is never a strip of sentimentality or heroism in his picture of the Jews. He seems to view things as an outsider, as ‘Mr. Soviet Writer’ or ‘Mr. Red Cavalryman’. His ‘outsiderdom’ is more than a pose though, because he realises, as he stands in a Polish Synagogue where even the light-bulbs have been methodically pillaged by marauding soldiers, or sees an old Jewish man have his throat cut by his Cossack comrades for ‘spying’, that the traditional Jewish society, ground between the mills of Civil War, Communism, Modernisation and Slav anti-Semitism has no future. Indeed, one of the shocks of reading Babel is to realise how awful things were in the Russo-Polish borderlands even before the German mass murderers arrived.
Astonishingly though Babel perceives moments of great beauty in his sad campaigns across the Eastern lands; in a looted Polish manor he finds ‘the satin of feminine letters rotting in the blue silk of waistcoats’ and a despoiled church reveals the mysterious (to a Russian and a Jew) and fascinating religion Catholicism which he understands as ‘a fragrant poison to intoxicate virgins’.
An extraordinary individual in an extraordinary situation, as Babel, the young man from a comfortable Yiddish-and-Russian speaking home in sunny Odessa, becomes a witness-participant in the campaigns of this pogromnik* army. Even more extraordinary is that recently Babel’s private version of events during the military campaign (Isaac Babel’s 1920-21 Diary) has come to light. Here are the not-for-publication thoughts of a Red Soldier, to put alongside the published ‘story’ version of events in Red Cavalry. The rather post-modern flavoured conclusion we reach is that in the Diary — which of course like any diary is itself a literary construction — we can read another layer of what was going on and how it could be described, which is, in the case of such a great writer (and witness) as Babel, fascinating.
In his not-for-publication (in Bolshevik Russia) version Babel constantly questions the whole nature of this war and this army; ‘We are the vanguard, but of what? The population await their saviours, the Jews look for liberation — and in ride the Kuban Cossacks’ or ‘Boratum, beautiful evening, my heart is full, rich householders, pert girls, fried eggs, fatback [bacon], our soldiers catching flies, the Russo-Ukrainian soul. I’m not sure I’m really interested.’ Or, poignantly, in a village with a large Jewish population ‘Demidovka, night, Cossacks, all just as it was when the Temple was destroyed.’ And finally ‘the filth, the apathy, the hopelessness of Russian life are unbearable.’
Like all of Babel it’s very striking stuff. However, in the 1920 Diary, there is there is yet another Babel version; Babel served in the Red Cavalry as a journalist and sent despatches to his newspaper about the campaign, some of which are reproduced as an appendix to the 1920 Diary. Here is the heroic propaganda version of the campaign, that emphasises, for example, the Polish Army’s atrocities against Jews but ‘forgets’ the looting and murdering of the Red Cavalry Babel himself witnessed. So we have three versions of the same reality written by the same author at the same time, — heady stuff and probably quite unique.
In Red Cavalry and elsewhere part of the rich Babel mix is a kind of critique of Jewishness and, in contrast, a romantic admiration (well-tempered with disgust) of what Lionel Trilling in introducing the Collected Stories calls Cossack ‘boldness, passionateness, simplicity and directness — and grace’. Babel’s complicated view of his Jewishness perhaps arises because he was on the fault line of the modern Jewish world when Yiddish was deserted in favour of Russian or another majority language. This movement implies a necessary absorption, an intimate coming-to-terms-with an other, previously ‘outer’ culture.
Apart from the stark but exciting war stories there is also a funny Babel as he talks of low-life in Odessa and Moscow, applying an ironic humour to a society in dissolution, corrupt, matter-of-fact, incredibly Russian (and Jewish) and universal. Don’t miss Babel! RK
‘There, only two paces away, stretched our front line. I could see the chimneys of Zamoste, stealthy lights in the defiles of its ghetto, the watchtower with its broken lantern. The raw dawn flowed over us like waves of chloroform. Green rockets soared above the Polish camp. They shuddered in the air, scattered like rose-leaves beneath the moon, and went out.
And in the stillness I could hear the far-off breath of groaning. The smoke of secret murder strayed around us.
“Someone is being killed,” I said. “Who is it?”
“The Poles are crazed with fear,” the peasant answered. “The Poles are killing the Jews.” (p169-170 Collected Stories)
‘Toward evening the bank-manager came home. After dinner he placed a wicker chair right on the edge of the bluff overlooking the moving plain of the sea, tucked up his legs in their white trousers, lit a cigar, and started reading the Manchester Guardian. The guests, ladies from Odessa, started a poker game on the veranda. On the corner of the table a slender tea urn with ivory handles hissed and bubbled.
Card addicts and sweet-tooths, untidy female fops with secret vices, scented lingerie and enormous thighs, the women snapped their black fans and staked gold coins. Through the fence of wild vine the sun reached at them, its fiery disc enormous. Bronze gleams lent weight to the women’s black hair. Drops of the sunset sparkled in diamonds — diamonds disposed in every possible place: in the profundities of splayed bosoms, in painted ears, on puffy bluish she-animal fingers.’ (p296 Collected Stories)
The Babel Guide to Portuguese, Brazilian, and African Literature
Brazil — almost a continent by itself — has a tremendous of talented writers turning over its rich tropical, urban and racial mix.
Drawing from both these traditions and their own African heritage writers from Angola and Mozambique have recently begun to chronicle their own strange story...
The Babel Guide is your way in to this wide world of reading — inside are details on all the novels and short stories from these countries available in English. Discover Antonio Lobo Antunes’ reports of ruin; Clarice Lispector’s severity of passions; and Mia Couto’s mythologies of adversity.Download the PDF version of this Babel Guide for $16 or local equivalent /or buy the printed book.
The City & the Mountains [A Cidade e as Serras]
The City & the Mountains is a later and less-regarded work by Portugal’s master novelist, Eça de Queirós (1843-1900). However this tale of a (very) rich young man from rural Portugal who emigrates to Paris ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ as Walter Benjamin called it, is today suddenly very relevant and far-seeing.
Eça describes a life-style frighteningly like that lived by many in today’s big cities. His aristocratic hero becomes infatuated with a kind of trendy gadget-filled consumerism. His luxurious villa on the Champs-Elysées is loaded with telephones, ticker-tapes, music and listening tubes connected to the Paris Opera or the Comédie Française. He has all the principal newspapers from around the world delivered every day and has every possible kind of book acquirable. In effect he’s on the Nineteenth Century Internet.
He cultivates exclusively ‘artificial’, highly elaborated pleasures and can’t bear to step outside the centre of Paris. His friends are all sophistication, guile and free-loading. He is in the Heart of Darkness and the City of Light simultaneously. He is blessed and damned as is anyone living in a high-tech world. To round out his point Eça provides a moral crisis for his protagonist which transports him back to the ‘good life’ in rural Portugal where this ex-urban sophisticate takes up a deeply unconvincing interest in the welfare of cows and peasants.
An astonishingly prescient and haunting book, which is well worth dragging out of its obscurity. The current edition was translated by the noted South African poet Roy Campbell. RK
‘Almost immediately she reappeared: and Madame Oriol....seated herself at the table, where Jacinto found Maltese tangerines for her, frozen chestnuts, and a biscuit soaked in Tokay.
She refused them with her hands kept in her muff. She was neither tall, nor strong, but every fold of her dress, or curve of her cloak, fell and rippled harmoniously, with perfections covering perfections. Under her close veil you could scarcely perceive the whiteness of her powdered skin or the darkness of her large eyes. What with those black silks and velvets and a little, hot reddish-gold hair, strongly twisted, which showed over the black furs on her nape, she gave forth a sensation of smoothness and fineness everywhere. Persistently I considered her as a flower of ‘Civilisation’ — and I thought of the centuries of toil, refinement and culture that were required to produce the soil from which such a flower could bud, and then bloom fully, as now, in full perfume, even more beautiful for being a flower of conscious cultivation and the hot house, and for having something in her petals that seemed about to fade and wither.’ p39
The Book Of Disquiet (Tr. M J Costa)/The Book Of Disquietude (Tr. Richard Zenith)/The Book Of Disquiet (Tr. Iain Watson) [O Livro do desassossego]
Lisbon: What The Tourist Should See [Lisboa: O Que O Turista Deve Ver] (Livros Horizonte: Lisbon 1992)
Fernando Pessoa is a colossus of Portuguese culture, though an unlikely one: slight of build, a clerk’s neat clothes, almost asexual, bow-tie, homburg, face punctuated by a trim moustache, myopic eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles, he sits still outside the Lisbon writers’ cafe A Brasileira, a bronze figure at a table with an empty bronze chair beside him, waiting for whom? The two big names regularly and reverently breathed by those with the smallest knowledge of Portuguese literature are Pessoa and Camões. What a contrast Pessoa is to the rugged, randy, one-eyed sixteenth-century epic and lyric poet Luis Vaz de Cames who sailed the seas, was wrecked in the Mekong river, stranded in Goa and Mozambique and commemorated in Jerónimos monastery with an exuberant sarcophagus opposite that of Vasco de Gama. Pessoa has a bleak marble and metal pillar poised uneasily in the cloister, inscribed with verses by some of the poets that he was.
Pessoa (his real name) means ‘person’ or ‘individual’, but he assumed many names that he called ‘heteronyms’; or perhaps we should say that Pessoa’s pen was assumed by many of the multiple personalities of which he — and, he maintained, each person or pessoa — was made. His universe, his theatre was within him.
‘The idea of travelling nauseates me.
I’ve already seen what I’ve never seen.
I’ve already seen what I have yet to see.
The tedium of the forever new, the tedium of discovery (as if there were a difference between things and ideas), the unchanging identity of everything...Life makes me suffer a vague nausea, and any kind of movement aggravates it.
Tedium is absent only from landscapes that don’t exist, from books I’ll never read. Life, for me, is a somnolence that never reaches the brain. This I keep free, so that I can be sad there.’ (The Book of Disquietude tr Richard Zenith)
Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. After his father died of TB, his mother married the Portuguese consul at Durban and they emigrated to South Africa in 1895. He returned to Lisbon in 1905 to live with his grandmother and great aunts.
‘I went among them as a stranger, but not one of them saw what I was. I lived among them as a spy, but nobody — not even myself — suspected what I was. All of them imagined I was one of their kinsfolk, but not one knew that there had been a substitution at my birth. So I was like others without resembling them....’(The Book of Disquiet tr. Iain Watson)
Soon abandoning his Philosophy course at the university, he tried unsuccessfully to set up a printing press. For the rest of his life he worked for various businesses as a commercial translator and moved from lodgings to rented rooms to relatives again.
‘And if the office in the Rua dos Douradores represents Life for me, the second floor room I live in on that same street represents Art. Yes, Art, living on the same street as Life but in a different room; Art, which offers relief from life without actually relieving one of living, and which is monotonous as life itself but in a different way. Yes, for me Rua dos Douradores embraces the meaning of all things, the resolution of all mysteries, except the existence of mysteries themselves which is something beyond resolution. (The Book of Disquiet tr. M J Costa)
One night in 1914 Pessoa stood at his chest of drawers and wrote ‘about thirty poems straight off, in a kind of ecstasy whose nature I cannot define.’ It was, he said, an unrepeatable day of triumph. The poet who appeared in him was Alberto Caeiro, the Keeper of Sheep, whom he regarded as The Master for himself and for two other major heteronyms, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos. Pessoa had his own disciples, though, until his last year, he published only a scattering of poems, prose fragments, a handful of pamphlets and manifestos and three booklets of poems in English. In 1915 came the first, and only, two editions of the review Orpheu through which Pessoa and his friends had a dramatic influence on twentieth-century literature. José Sobral de Almada Negreiros regarded their work, including that of Mário de SáCarneiro, a friend who killed himself in Paris in 1916, as a glorious and catastrophic break with the past.
Of course, like all modernisms, it wasn’t. In 1915, Pessoa wrote to another friend, ‘The patriotic idea, always present in my intentions to some extent, is now growing in me, and I can’t think of creating anything without aiming to exalt the name of Portugal through whatever I am able to accomplish.’ He planned to set up as an astrologer (that and his later relationship with the magus Aleister Crowley, among other things, invite comparison with W.B. Yeats). After the First World War he began works which aimed at a revision of Portugal, that had once been great and should be again, now in spiritual rather than political terms; the finest of them would be the multifaceted poem Mensagem (Message), published in 1934, the year before his death.
There’s little evidence of this positive, propagandising frame of mind in The Book of Disquiet. Up to now I’ve led you, misled you to believe that it is by Fernando Pessoa. It’s not. In the end he attributed it to one Bernardo Soares, an assistant accounts clerk, ‘a demiheteronym, a literary personage...or rather a simple mutilation of my own personality.’ In 1919, at one office where he worked, Pessoa met the nineteen year old Ophelia Queiroz. It was a compulsive, tender, sometimes humorous affair which lasted thirteen months. During its course he moved in with his widowed mother on her return from Africa. She died in 1925 and his relationship with Ophelia revived painfully a few years later. He stayed in the house he’d shared with his mother for the rest of his life. At work: ‘I approach my desk as if it were a bulwark against life...I feel love for all this, perhaps because I have nothing else to love or perhaps too, because even though nothing truly merits the love of any soul, if, out of sentiment, we must give it, I might just as well lavish it on the smallness of an inkwell as on the grand indifference of the stars. (The Book of Disquiet tr M J Costa)
The meditations on love in The Book of Disquiet are remarkable for their chill luminosity and hopeless tenderness. The pictures of Lisbon come (especially if you know the city) with the shock of the new. The folders and disorganised papers that make up Soares’s book sat in a big trunk with the rest of Pessoa’s life’s work — 27,000 plus documents — for years until, painstakingly but still not finally collated, it was published in 1982. Three English translations were published in 1991; Richard Zenith’s is the fullest, sharp and scholarly; Iain Watson’s good selection reads rather stiffly; Margaret Jull Costa’s prize-winning version is the one I return to because, for me, it breathes with Pessoa/Soares’s breath: to read it is to overhear a man, often seeming pathetic because so courageous, and for all the costume-changes, suffering life voluptuously, nakedly.
Pessoa’s guidebook, Lisboa: What the Tourist Should See, first published in 1992, has quite a different voice. Perhaps he never quite rediscovered the city his five yearold self lost: he gives us an enthusiast’s pedantic catalogue of monuments spiced with moments of ‘poetry’. It can hardly be compared with the Lisbon of his other writing. Alvaro de Campos’s town is a wharf wide open to the world, a station like an ever-beating heart. Bernardo Soares prizes the ‘village’ that is the city’s soul.
Pessoa wants us to know how great a city Lisbon is, and was, and will be: not merely the Cultural Capital of Europe (as in 1994), but spiritual capital of the world, and head of the Fifth Empire when King Sebastian, who fell in his ill-conceived Moroccan campaign of 1578, returns like King Arthur or Christ himself to restore Portugal to greatness. This mythic metaphor is what Pessoa explores in Mensagem’s poems: a great modernist’s book that sets Portugal’s prophetic heroes in an heraldic shieldscape. Like Camões’s epic Lusiads, it seeks out Portugal’s destiny. Despite the doubtful fog with which it ends, it won second prize from the Propaganda Ministry of the dictator Salazar whom Pessoa despised. It’s potent, some say dangerous, stuff.
‘At this moment I have so many fundamental thoughts, so many truly metaphysical things to say that I feel suddenly tired and decide not to write anymore, not to think anymore, but to let the fever of saying lull me to sleep whilst, with closed eyes, I gently stroke as I would a cat all the things I might have said.’ (The Book of Disquiet tr. M J Costa)
But then, Soares is a humbler creature than his progenitor. If we could melt the bronze Pessoa at his cafe table, he’d order another brandy, another coffee, light maybe his seventy-sixth cigarette of the day and, if he was comfortable, snap at the world with wit and dazzle us with his sharp mind. They say he was fun to be with. He died in hospital in 1935, aged forty seven. The previous day he’d written his very last words, in English: ‘I know not what tomorrow will bring.’ Perhaps the empty bronze chair beside him waits for a dutiful tourist or for any pessoa willing to lift an eyebrow at destiny. Or for Ophelia. Or for King Sebastian. P H
Note: The poetry of Fernando Pessoa (including Mensagem mentioned above) has been widely if patchily translated.
‘Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently feeble voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of voices, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to useless dreaming and clueless hoping in this quotidian destiny. In these moments my heart beats louder because I’m conscious of it. I live more because I live more grandly. I feel a religious force in my person, a species of prayer, something like an outcry. But from my mind comes its rebuttal... I see myself on the high fourth floor of Douradores Street, where I feel sleepy; I look past the half-written page at unlovely vain life and at the cheap cigarette [...] on my worn blotting-paper. Here I am on this fourth floor, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, inventing prose...’ p11 (The Book of Disquietude tr. Richard Zenith)
We killed Mangy-dog & other stories [Nós Matamos O Cão-Tinhoso]
These are stories from Mozambique, where Portuguese is still an important language of literature and administration. Set in the colonial era — extended until 1975 by the Salazar regime’s refusal to accept political independence — they reflect some of the harsh ways of that time. In Dina, apart from the shocking cruelty, with its echoes of slavery, in the life of field labourers under a brutal white overseer, there is something else; the marvellous smell of Africa, its rich soil and the hours of intense heat.
Honwana is a gifted writer delivering authentic fragments of a time and place. Written while he was still in his twenties he demonstrates a kind of wise authorial detachment unusual at that age; in the story Hands of the Blacks he gives us a funny, unbitter record of the everyday racism of colonial society. Nevertheless he doesn’t pander either to a sentimental vision of ‘traditional Africa’ but deals with the lives of mineworkers returned from years in the Republic of South Africa; hardened men who play cards in bars, fight, drink and fornicate.
Disturbing, well-written, truthful stories, where you hear the true voices of the people of Mozambique. RK
‘A wide veil of mist covered the lands of the chief Goana. The finest threads of vapour surrounded the trees, the houses and the animals in a blue halo without, however, leaving any signs of humidity on the surface. From above the tree tops the mist was pierced by the first rays of the sun, and turned to gold before dissolving in the heat. Greeting the day, the sounds of the bush, like harsh, strident yawns, zigzagged lazily from leaf to leaf, and echoed dully until they lost themselves in the depths of the veil of the mist. A strong smell of clay rose from the earth, mingled with the acrid vapours of the swamp and the fragrances of the forest, then attached itself to the droplets of the blue veil and dissolved up above, in the air now intensely golden in the rising sun.’ pp66-67
Dumba nengue: run for your life. Peasant tales of tragedy in Mozambique [Dumba Nengue. Histórias trágicas do banditismo]
Mozambique achieved independence from Portugal in 1975. The promise of its first years of statehood under Samora Machel’s socialist Frelimo (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) government did not last long. Armed ‘bandits’, glorified by the name of the Mozambique National Resistance and sponsored by Rhodesia and South Africa, soon began their predations on a defenceless peasant population. The suffering, destruction and destabilization that has since been inflicted on Mozambique is barely imaginable.
Dumba nengue is, according to the translator’s introduction, a Mozambican proverb meaning ‘you have to trust your feet’. It is also a name given to an area surrounding the country’s main highway. This once prosperous region was targeted by the bandits and the peasants fled. The twenty-two short sketches which make up the book Dumba nengue tell of atrocities of barely credible sadism and brutality. They are not fictional. As a writer, Magaia faces a considerable challenge in dealing with such shocking material. She wisely chooses to tell the peasants’ stories in simple language. Free of embellishments the events seem to speak louder.
Since the publication of this book international negotiations have brought rapprochement between the MNR and Frelimo and refugees have been returning. Sadly, the stories will have continuing relevance. The peasants captured by the bandits were themselves forced to participate in the slaughter of their own families. What homecoming can there be for Julieta’s young brother, in ‘How Julieta’s brother was “baptized”’:
Julieta’s husband was writhing. The bandit chief took out a knife and pointed it at Julieta’s brother. He ordered that the brother be given the axe and use it to put an end to his brother-in-law’s torment.
Julieta’s husband was gripped by the legs by two bandits and his head was held in the curve carved on the wooden mortar. Her brother raised the axe and delivered the fatal blow. Her husband’s neck was severed on the two sides of the mortar, and he died. Julieta’s seven children clung tightly to their mother, unable even to shed their tears of terror and horror.
The bandit chief said to Julieta’s brother, “Now you’re one of us. You’ve been baptized. You can come with us.”
He and all the kidnapped people went off at gunpoint into the bush.” p33-34
The traumatisation and brutalisation of the children kidnapped by the bandits will be a continuing problem for Mozambique. Girls between eight and fourteen years of age were routinely raped. Boys became killers. In ‘A young killer’ a woman described one young bandit whom she saw on the night she was kidnapped:
“‘Chief, chief, let me kill someone. I want to. I want to kill one of them, let me.’ And he trembled as if possessed, or drugged. He was crying.
‘I’ve already told you that I don’t want to see any blood today.’
It was very dark, and there was bush all around. Some people managed to escape in this confusion. Others continued their forced march.
She had felt herself very close to death. ‘I can’t stop thinking about the woman who gave birth to that bandit. What must she be like? What would she think if she saw her son now? What did the bandits do to him to make him end up like that?’” (p. 44)
In ‘An armed bandit: an unfinished portrait’ Magaia raises, but cannot bring herself to answer, the question that must occur to every reader of her book. She is watching a captured bandit describe his activities: (CS)
‘The smile he gave as he spoke was an insult to the human race. I suspect he took a mad delight in talking of the blood that poured onto him from the victims and from the blades he used to draw it. I have never seen so much cynicism in one human being.
And the same revulsion and cringing I have when I see a snake made my flesh come out in goose pimples and a shiver run down my spine.
Can this be a man?’ p102
The Babel Guide to Scandinavian Literature
This Babel Guide covers all the Scandinavian lands plus Finland, Iceland and the Baltic Republics and treats the classics as well as the younger writers like Jaan Kross, Agneta Pleijel, Peter Høeg and Jostein Gaarder.
Download the PDF version of this Babel Guide for $16 or local equivalent /or buy the printed book.
The Black Cauldron [Den Sorte Gryde]
A novel from the Faroes, an island group North of Scotland, politically part of Denmark but with a distinct culture and language. What, if anything, does a reader expect from such a source? Probably not this racy, conversational satire, set in the period of British occupation during World War II. War time means Kingsport or ‘The Cauldron’ is filled with ‘déracinés and refugees’ and has become ‘a cosy nest for profiteers of every kind’. It is also very much a place filled with great characters, amongst them the voluptuous but bewhiskered young woman Thomea and her admirer, a bedraggled Icelander, Engilbert, a scholar of a mystical kind who makes a living lugging whale blubber around.
As in Nietzche’s phrase, ‘Alcohol and Christianity’ are rife amongst the islanders, who habitually imbibe the cocktail of stern religion and hard drink common on Europe’s North-Western fringes.
The Faroes evidently had a strange war, in that while many of their seamen were killed in German attacks on commercial shipping, at the same time unprecedented amounts of money poured in for their products and labour. This is Heinesen’s main theme, the moral corruption of the powerful in the pursuit of wealth and the destruction of the powerless through death at sea and that disease of the poor life, TB.
Less prosaically one also gets a sense of this land encircled by nature (the seas) and hence more magical than those places where man has broken the link, the narrow bridge, between himself and the natural world and its dreams and visions, its waves of feeling and delight. These are things suggested by the Dedalus edition’s jacket image: a night-set painting of boats, seals and mythical animals out in the fjord, from a painting by the multi-talented Heinesen himself.
It’s not just love of nature that Heinesen celebrates; plenty of what flows between man and woman, particularly in war-time when men don’t know how much of life’s fruits they’ll ever live to taste; the islands are awash with foreign soldiers and sailors pursuing the island women, both single and married…
Meanwhile German raiders machine gun fishermen and torpedo boats carrying cargo to Britain — towards the end of the book Heinesen’s satirical tone darkens and we discover why it’s called The Black Cauldron, as more and more young men are killed bringing in and trans-shipping from Iceland fish catches that bring their owners record prices, and wealth is made amongst great misery. This is not a ‘war book’ but that of a brilliant witness to this cataclysmic period, seen from an unusual ‘far-off’ viewpoint but with perhaps all the more perspective for that, particularly relevant today as we discover just how much money was made (and in such evil ways) on both sides of the war that Heinesen’s Faroes played a minor part in. Ray Keenoy
‘Ivar and Frederik were not allowed to go before they had had a cup of coffee. Ivar poured a snaps for his father. The old man sipped it slowly; he held the glass gingerly and took great care not to spill a single drop, and with every sip he breathed a wish for thousandfold good fortune and then called down Christ’s blessing and grace on them.
lvar watched him impatiently. His father had always been like this, tender, delicate, almost womanish, full of pious apologies, excessively grateful for little things. lvar could not help thinking of his mother, whom he clearly remembered, although he had only been five years old when she died: she was the opposite of her husband, big-boned and tough, mannish in temperament, kind and patient with her children, but taciturn and bitter when confronting strangers. Aye, his parents had been very different in nature and background; his father had come from poor stock, his mother from an affluent farming family. Yet despite this their married life had been happy, and they had left behind them the achievement of a lifetime: they had cleared the virgin land under the outcrop known as the Angelica Wall, where there was now a potato patch, meadows and a small herd of cattle. A peaceful locality, well hidden from the world, aye, merciful heavens, a happy place, a paradise to look back on when you were out there on the sea.’ 101
From Baltic Shores
This genial little anthology of Scandinavian and Baltic (three stories from each country) writers kicks off with Denmark’s Suzanne Brøgger setting the scene of her writing in an old old place, a land full of mehirs, ancient grave-sites and the town of Løve ‘a hundred kilometres away from Copenhagen by train – but thousands of kilometres away in time.’ Svend Age Madsen’s The Man Who Created Woman is set in ‘an illustrious old library’ and is something of a tribute to the Argentinean master Jorge Luis Borges. Dorrit Willumsen’s If it really was a film efficiently explores the criminal career of an under-educated social reject - it’s clearly not all sweetness and light in Social Democratic Denmark.
Estonian Einar Maasik’s Summer Rhapsody is a kind of nature-poem celebrating the fish-soup, fir forests and fecundity of a homeland that he peoples with some fairly ferocious types… Mati Unt’s Saturday in the Sauna also projects something of a crude rural world. Arvo Valton — who was deported by the Russians between 1949 and 1954 — dis-assembles another kind of crudity, the clanking bureaucratic collectivism of late Soviet Communism in his amusing The Man with the Green Rucksack.
Finnish Orvokki Autio’s harsh Thirty Pennies bears the same fascination with squalid social realism as Dorrit Willumsen’s If it really was a film, as two drunken parents and a drunken lover argue over child-custody.
The celebrated Finland-Swedish (i.e. Swedish-speaking citizen of Finland) writer Bo Carpelan returns us to a calmer, more elegaic mood with his lyrical, nostalgic The Storm about a great ‘yellow wind’ that seems to blow around the margins of his childhood and then one day strikes the little provincial town where he grew up… Another noted writer from Finland is Rosa Liksom; in her rural paradise of That Summer the Clouds Hung Low the ill wind seems to be sexual desire and its consequences. In a brief piece she establishes a world of emotional and cultural claustrophobia, challenged by the fresh energy of a girl who turns into a woman, one unforgettable summer.
In Eeva Tikka’s The Aluminium Rings Finland’s fading rural certainties — symbolised by a faithful old couple living in their isolated cabin — lie uncomfortably side-by-side with the transient lifestyle of a typical young city-dweller.
Moving back across the Gulf of Finland to Latvia in Alberts Bels’ The Wrestler we encounter the harsh conditions and stoicism of the peasant world in this story of a small farmer who goes to extraordinary lengths in his desperation to save his farm from the bank; it’s a wry and sympathetic story set in an impoverished landscape. Latvian Valentins Jakobsons, author of The Fatherland is in Danger, spent fifteen years in Soviet labour camps and his story, revealing the complacency and ignorance of Soviet jailers, stands as a little coda to the history of ‘the Gulag Achipelago’.
Sometime Later by Aija Valoodze gives a cross section of middle-class lives in Soviet-era Latvia, in journalism and teaching, where the leitmotiv is frustration and hypocrisy. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Lithuania, a mysterious country famous as the last Pagan land of Europe, veteran writer Juozas Aputis portrays in his Wild Boars on the Horizon a rural world composed of natural forest beauty and extreme domestic violence. It’s a story which has that unmistakable aura of truth.
A truth that has happened all over Europe is the rather sad abandonment of rural homesteads in favour of the cities or settlements nearer the main roads and the mod cons. In The Dark Windows of Oblivion Romualdas Lankauskas chronicles this sad process in a tiny hamlet of his native land, creating an elegy for a life lived in what would be today an unimaginable tranquillity.
Rural peace is threatened by a kind of everyday erotic enchantment in the popular Swedish writer Göran Tunstrom’s Shadow of a Marriage, even if everything ends happily (and boringly) ever after…
From Baltic Shores ends with its best story: Marie Hermanson’s The Wandering Cook, a ‘simple little story’ that actually brings together many grand themes of civilisation, philosophy and anthropology; it’s as wise as it is well-written. Bravo and thank you Marie and the same to editor Christopher Moseley and the Norvik Press, a small but effective outfit that specialises in making Scandinavian fiction available in English. Ray Keenoy
‘through contemplation I live in freedom and in peace and in connection with the world’ Suzanne Brøgger I Live As I Write And I Write As I Live 34
‘The men were sitting under the big birch-tree and drinking vodka in honour of Miners’ Day. There weren’t any miners amongst them, but a holiday is a holiday’ Mati Unt Saturday in the Sauna 104
‘to them she would always be just a ’teach’ leading her insignificant grey life for a pittance of a wage — because what normal person goes to work in a school anyway? The normal ones head ministries and travel in luxury Zhigulis, appear on television, make films and get scientific degrees. And at least for the present Astrida did not have the power to demonstrate that in a couple of short years quite a few of these snobs, instead of the college auditorium and the laurels, would be having to put a gun across their shoulder and march ‘left, left!’, or weigh sausages behind a counter, but that is what Astrida wished for them with all her heart.’ Aija Valoodze Sometime Later 181
‘every time I came to this secluded village on the other side of an old pine forest, I liked to walk along the sandy path by the side of the forest that led to a pleasant little town with a small church solidly built out of field stones. It was pleasant to walk through the pine forest full of graceful juniper trees and breathe the air here. To the left of the pine forest stretched meadows and fields and further away flowed a stream winding its way past the banks overgrown with bushes and past another forest looking in the distance, probably larger and wider because it rose up to the sky as if it were a giant green fence that could not be scaled. Above the forest floated white clouds or when the days were sunny and fine a clear blue sky could be seen.’ Romualdas Lankauskas The Dark Windows of Oblivion 219
Each guide has around 100 original reviews of books by authors available in English, each review an enjoyable ‘trailer’ for the book with an excerpt as a taster.
Each guide has around 100 original reviews of books by authors available in English, each review an enjoyable ‘trailer’ for the book with an excerpt as a taster.
At the back is a complete database of all fiction translated into English since 1945, with original titles, dates etc.