Tuesday, 30 April 2013

April

Another thirty days have passed with loads of office work, the usual everyday chores and leisure time limited to evenings and weekends. My look back on April is ambiguous. The month had its good as well as its unpleasant sides, but of course, that’s just the normal course of existence. We all know that life is changeable by nature and that we have to deal with whatever comes our way. All in all, I have no reason to complain. The only real nuisance was the weather that happened to be hopelessly behind schedule at first. 

April didn’t begin on a cheerful note for me although it was Easter Monday and I didn’t need to go to work. As a matter of fact, the long winter with heavy snowfalls in the last week of March had ruined not only my holiday plans, but it had also put me out of temper. In spite of not being susceptible to winter depression, the late cold, the snow and the grey skies made me downright grumpy. When the sun finally returned, also my mood brightened. Trees and bushes have broken into leaf since. The temperatures are just below 30°C now. 

It has also been a busy month that forced me to reduce my blogging activities mid-way. I had known all along that this moment would come, but I had hoped to stand my pace for a little longer. Writing – as I wish – interesting and worthwhile posts every day needs quite a lot of devotion as well as energy. After a day in the office I often found it hard to summon up enough motivation to spend my free time, too, in front of a computer screen. In the end I resigned. I decided to follow my heart and to post less often to this blog. 

After half a month I can say that I definitely made the right choice. Spending less time online gives me more opportunity to read and to watch films which will be for the benefit of this blog as well as of my literary work. I don’t know how other authors think about it, but for me reading is necessary part of writing. When I don’t read, my inspiration peters out and I can’t create. So it’s better for you and for me, if I allow myself time to read.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Cycle of Nature



Loose flower petals
Beneath the magnolia.
Beginning and end.

© LaGraziana 2013 

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Power of Guilt

Guilt is a very powerful feeling that everybody experiences some time or another. The strategies to deal with it vary widely. Many people set out to clear their guilty conscience undoing their wrong or apologizing at least. Others try to push all disturbing thoughts aside in the hope of being able to live their lives as if nothing had happened. The latter rarely works out as imagined. The feeling of guilt uses to be extremely persistent and it can weigh so heavily on the mind that it overshadows every aspect of life even without the person being aware of it. 

When grown-up Briony Tallis, the protagonist of Atonement, fully realizes the consequences of her false accusation against Robbie Turner, she does her best to put things right. However, she can’t turn back time and start afresh from the moment before the child that she was ruined the young man’s and her sister’s life. The harm is irrevocably done. As a writer she has the edge on other people despite all since she can give events a completely different twist in her imagination. Thus in her last novel she crafts the life that Robbie and her sister could have had. 

Unfortunately, a guilty conscience cannot only urge a person to create in order to make amends, but it also has great destructive power as Daniel Sempere discovers little by little in The Shadow of the Wind. Growing up from a motherless boy into a married man, he explores the mystery around the life of second-rate author Julián Carax which makes him the target of several assaults. In due course Daniel is drawn into the writer’s misfortune and scheme of penitence that revolves around effacing from the world every trace of his existence, especially his books.

Novels often show us unconventional ways of dealing with things. Many of us may be prone to dwelling in if-then-scenarios, when something went terribly wrong (with or without our fault), but very few will sit down to give the person they harmed a different life through their writings. Many of us may wish to never have been born after they made a grave mistake, and yet I dare say that nobody ever thinks of atoning for the past erasing it. Instead we go on living with the new burden that is at the same time a new experience adding to our character.

Lamenting doesn’t help, either, nor can guilt be drowned in alcohol. Joseph Roth might have tried that in the first place although to my knowledge he didn’t have any reason for a bad conscience. He was only a disappointed and very troubled man living in exile. His soul was restless and the political situation in Germany as well as in his home country Austria must have worried him like many, if not all members of the European Jewish community at the time. As an intelligent man, moreover a journalist, he might have sensed that millions would make themselves guilty in one way or another.

We can’t change what we have done in the past, but we decide about what we do in the present and what we will do in the future. Every mistake can help us to take better decisions, if we are ready and willing to face things as they really are.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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For many of us books are a welcome distraction from the annoyances and disappointments that everyday life has in store. They allow us to get lost in their stories, to forget ourselves including mistakes and even disgrace. The flow of words banishes the grey from our minds and paints the world in brighter colours. Some books captivate us for life. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a literary account of the impact that literature can have.

The writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born in Barcelona, Spain, in September 1964. He began his literary career writing young adult fiction. Already his first novel The Prince of Mist (El principe de la niebla - 1993) earned him the Premio Edebé. Then followed The Midnight Palace (El palacio de la medianoche - 1994), The Watcher in the Shadows (Las luces de septiembre - 1995), Marina (1999, English translation forthcoming). Only in the new millennium he turned towards adult fiction. The Shadow of the Wind (La sombra del viento - 2001) immediately received international acclaim. The Angel's Game (El juego del angel - 2008) and The Prisoner of Heaven (El prisionero del cielo - 2011) are its prequel and sequel respectively in the cycle of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

In The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafón interweaves the threads of different stories into an intricate pattern forming the whole of the novel. The story revolving around Daniel Sempere and his search for traces of the writer Julián Carax is set in Barcelona. It starts in summer 1945. His father, the owner of a little bookshop, takes the ten-year-old to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret place in the old town to which only the initiated have access. There the boy is allowed to take one book from the shelves under the condition that he promises to be its guardian for the rest of his life. He picks a volume with a handsome binding that shows the name Julián Carax and the title The Shadow of the Wind inscribed on its cover. Of course, Daniel begins to read the book as soon as he is back at home in his room above the bookshop. The novel engrosses the boy and he spends the whole night reading it until the end. Then he searches for other books of the writer, but only encounters mystery because Julián Carax and his books seem to have disappeared without trace. After his initial enthusiasm Daniel slowly forgets about the book. Years later a mysterious man smelling of burnt paper is after Daniel and claims the book from him. This is the starting point of a new quest that reveals the tragic history of Julián Carax, his love and his writings. Daniel is drawn dangerously deep into the life of the author, but along the way he grows up, makes friends with a former political prisoner of the Franco regime and meets his love Bea.

The Shadow of the Wind is a very complex novel with many different plots running side by side or one within the other, but they are all well balanced and the story always runs smoothly. Carlos Ruiz Zafón even manages to include into the text the hardships and dangers that the Spanish people experienced under Franco although they stay widely in the background. The characters described are very lively. Throughout the book the writer’s language remains fluent despite the many twists that the story takes. The text is interspersed with lots of metaphors, sometimes without necessity or in abundance, and that can get slightly annoying every now and then. For me the only let-down is the end because the entire mystery surrounding Julián Carax is revealed too quickly.

A book changed the life of Daniel Sempere. We all know such books although very few of us have ever been confronted with real mystery. Literature often exaggerates. Carlos Ruiz Zafón packed a whole lot of life into his first novel for adults, probably more than necessary. However, I enjoyed the read very much and I can recommend The Shadow of the Wind.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Joseph Roth

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Roth_%281926%29.jpg?uselang=de
Joeph Roth 1926
Until her end the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was a jumble of ethnic groups that diverged in step with awakening nationalism. The presumed supremacy of the German-speaking class accelerated the progress under the eyes of Emperor and King Franz Joseph who was too conservative to make the necessary reforms. The final decades of his reign brought forth a couple of important writers in German language, among them Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel and Stefan Zweig. Another one of the great literary men of perishing Austria-Hungary was Joseph Roth. 

Born into a Jewish family of merchants in Brody near Lemberg in Eastern Galicia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, today in the Ukraine) in September 1894, Moses Joseph Roth attended a local high-school and then studied Philosophy, German Language and Literature at the universities of Lemberg and Vienna until World War I broke out in July 1914. As from 1916 he served in the Austro-Hungarian army, mainly in the news service. During this time he also wrote articles for different newspaper in Vienna and Prague. 

After the war Joseph Roth continued working as a journalist in Vienna and in Berlin, but devoted himself to literary work in his spare time. Although he had published several novels from 1915 on – among them well-known works like The Spider's Web (Das Spinnennetz - 1923) and Hotel Savoy (1924) – his breakthrough as a novelist didn’t come before October 1930 when Job: The Story of a Simple Man (Hiob. Roman eines einfachen Mannes) was released. Two years later Joseph Roth brought out the novel Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch) that made his eternal fame as a writer. 

The early 1930s saw the rise of National-Socialism in Germany as well as in Austria. Like many other important Austrians of his time he was faced with growing anti-Semitism around him and he decided to go into exile as early as in 1933 when Adolf Hitler took over power in Germany. Joseph Roth moved to Paris, but was too restless to stay there for more than a couple of months in a run. Private problems and disappointment about the political situation drove Joseph Roth further into alcoholism. He kept on writing, however. His novels were brought out by Dutch publishing houses. 

The writer lived to see the German annexion of Austria in 1938 that ends his sequel of Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch) titled The Emperor's Tomb (Kapuzinergruft). Later the same year Hitler’s troupes also occupied the Sudetenland, but Joseph Roth was spared to witness the invasion into Poland, the beginning of World War II and the holocaust that followed. Joseph Roth died in Paris, France, in May 1939. His novels The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom Heiligen Trinker) and The Leviathan (Der Leviathan) were published posthumously in 1939 and 1940 respectively.

For more information about Joseph Roth and his time I recommend either of these books:

Monday, 22 April 2013

Atonement: The Burden of Distorted Truth

Life isn’t easy and growing up is even less. We all make mistakes on the way, but luckily only few of them have serious consequences, even worse if we did it knowingly and we aren’t forgiven. Sometimes, however, we trigger events that make us regret what we did for the rest of our lives. The English writer Ian McEwan told such a tragic story in his bestselling novel Atonement that first came out in 2001 and won several important literary awards.

Director Joe Wright (known for his screen adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina) turned the novel into a much acclaimed film of the same name in 2007. The following year Atonement was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama and it was nominated for seven Oscars, but only won Dario Marianelli the one for Best Original Score.

The story of Atonement revolves around the events that 13-year-old Briony Tallis (played by Saoirse Ronan) witnesses on the family’s country estate on a hot summer day of 1935. From her bedroom window she sees the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (played by James McAvoy), who the girl has a crush on, and her older sister Cecilia Tallis (played by Keira Knightley) having a quarrel. The girl doesn’t know what it is about and takes the erotic tension that she senses between the two for aggression. Later that day Robbie asks Briony to take a letter to her sister Cecilia. Being curious and seeking adult inspiration for her childish phantasies the girl opens the envelope and is disgusted by the blunt wording of the love letter. At the same time she is jealous. When Briony comes down for the family dinner and peeps through a crack of the door into the library, she surprises her sister and Robbie having sex. Once more she misreads the situation. She is confused because she thinks that Robbie hurts her sister. There is no time, however, to talk with her. During dinner it turns out that their twin cousins have run away and the whole party goes out to look for them. Briony searches alone in the woods and is almost run over by a man, before she stumbles across her 15-year-old cousin Lola (played by Juno Temple) who has been attacked by him. Lola is under shock and says that she doesn’t know who the man was, but Briony with her memory of the day still vivid jumps to the conclusion that it must have been Robbie. She also wants it to have been him because she is jealous. Cecilia doesn’t believe that he is guilty for one moment, but everybody else does. The police arrests Robbie and in due course he is sent to prison.

Five years later, during the war, 18-year-old Briony (played by Romola Garai) becomes a nurse like her sister Cecilia who is living in London. As it turns out, Cecilia has broken up with the family and has refused to talk to Briony ever since she made the false accusations against Robbie who was released from prison under the condition that he joined the army. Cecilia and Robby are married and Briony wants to apologize, but the visit doesn’t go as she imagined.

At the age of 77 Briony (played by Vanessa Redgrave) is a renowned writer and presents her latest novel in a TV interview. It is meant to make amends for her wrong in a surprising way.

When I saw the film Atonement, I already knew the novel and had enjoyed the read very much. More often than not I’ve been disappointed in similar cases. Screen adaptations seldom can compete with the books that they are based on, but Joe Wright did a good job capturing the essence of Ian McEwan’s Atonement into motion pictures. Of course, there are important details missing and it goes without saying that it was impossible to include the best description of a migraine that I ever came across in a book. However, everybody who likes handsome pictures that breathe the atmosphere of an upper-class summer day in the 1930s will enjoy the film. I passed pleasant 123 minutes watching it, and yet, I liked the novel better.

For all those who prefer reading, too:

 

Friday, 19 April 2013

Book Review: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141189576/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0141189576&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21
In a noisy and glaring world like ours it can be very difficult to discover the right way. There is so much to distract us from what is really important in life, including our vocation. Those who are lucky find the right bend soon, others take longer, and some keep searching until the end. Books can give us a little bit of guidance or at least consolation. I decided to review one of them today and picked Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

Hermann Hesse was born in Calw in the Black Forest, Germany, in July 1877. The son of Christian missionaries in India was sent to boarding school in Germany, but couldn’t adapt to the strict discipline and left before graduation. In addition, he suffered from bipolar depression already from a young age. Hermann Hesse wrote many poems and novels like Peter Carmenzind (1904), Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (Der Steppenwolf - 1927), Narcissus and Goldmund (Narziß und Goldmund - 1930) and The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel - 1943). In 1946 Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and his writings keep being much liked by readers worldwide until today. Hermann Hesse died in Montagnola, Switzerland, in August 1962. 

The novel Siddhartha was published in German already in 1922, but the first English translation didn’t come out before 1951. The story is set in ancient India at the time when Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and made his teachings. In fact, the novel’s title as well as its plot remind of the life of Buddha who was born as Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Kapilvastu. Also Hermann Hesse’s protagonist Siddhartha starts into life as a privileged child although not of an Indian king, but of a Brahmin. Growing older he finds his life empty of meaning and leaves home to seek enlightenment. In his quest Siddhartha is accompanied by his childhood friend Govinda who idolizes him. During their travels as wandering and begging ascetics they meet the Buddha – called Gotama in the novel – and listen to his teachings. Govinda decides to follow the way of the Buddha as a monk, but Siddhartha doesn’t get from him the answers that he is looking for. He continues his quest and falls in love with the beautiful courtesan Kamala. In order to please her, Siddhartha gives up his life as an ascetic and becomes a successful businessman. But neither his life with Kamala nor all the luxury that he revels in can satisfy him in the long run. Eventually, he gets restless again and leaves his comfortable home. Siddhartha is tired of life and longs for death. When he meets the ferryman Vasudeva who seems fully at peace with himself, he decides to stay with him and to learn the trade of a ferryman. Siddhartha also learns to listen to the river and its infinite wisdom, but life has yet another important lesson in store for him. 

The story of Siddhartha is told in Hermann Hesse’s usual poetic language that, after ninety years, feels a bit antiquated compared to modern German, but it doesn’t impair the beauty of the text and even less its message. The whole novel tells of the writer’s profound knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Four Noble Truths as well as the Eightfold Path can be found along the way, but also the three stages of Hindu life – student, householder, and recluse – are there giving the story a natural frame and grip. 

Life is a constant quest of understanding reality. We all know it and Hermann Hesse elegantly put this universal knowledge into a story around the Buddha without writing his fictionalized biography. I enjoy Siddhartha very much every time I read the novel. I always find a new aspect of life in it that had escaped me so far. It’s a book that shows how important it is to go on. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is a highly recommendable book for everyone with an antenna for the spiritual.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Song of Bernadette: A Writer’s Ex-voto

When the Jewish Austrian writer Franz Werfel fled from German troops occupying France in 1940, he came through the town of Lourdes that at the time already was an important place of pilgrimage and adoration for the Virgin Mary. To cross the Pyrenees on foot with heart problems putting him at risk and the Germans at his heals, Franz Werfel made the vow to tell the amazing story of Bernadette Soubirous, if he escaped safe and sound to the USA. He arrived in New York a few months later. 

As soon as Franz Werfel had settled in the USA, he set out to sing The Song of Bernadette (Das Lied von Bernadette), the ex-voto that he had promised to offer in fulfilment of his vow. The biographical novel was first published in German in 1941 including a preface explaining why he, a Jew, wrote the story of the Catholic saint Bernadette Soubirous. The English translation came out in 1942. Directed by Henry King the best-selling novel was adapted for the screen as early as in 1943 and won four Oscars. 

The film – like the novel – tells the fictionalized life story of Bernadette Soubirous (played by Jennifer Jones who won the Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance), the daughter of a poor family from the village of Lourdes in France. The Song of Bernadette begins on 11 February 1858. Bernadette is a malnourished and asthmatic fourteen-year-old who has a hard time keeping up pace with the other children learning the catechism for their First Communion because she is sick often. Her class teacher, Sister Marie Thérèse Vauzous (played by Gladys Cooper), reprimands her for her ignorance and tells Dean Marie Dominique Peyramale (played by Charles Bickford) that she doesn’t deserve the holy picture of the Virgin Mary that he wants to give her. Later that day Bernadette, her sister Marie and their friend Jeanne go out to gather wood at Massabielle, a desolate and ill-famed place outside Lourdes. Because Marie and Jeanne don’t want frail Bernadette to wade through the cold water of a brook, she waits at the entrance of the grotto. There she is attracted by a brilliant light and sees for the first time the beautiful white Lady (played by Linda Darnell) who asks her to say the rosary with her. When she tells Marie and Jeanne about her vision, Bernadette’s fate takes its course. The story of her vision spreads among the villagers, but most of them are sceptic, including Bernadette’s parents. The girl returns to the grotto as the Lady had asked her to do fifteen times and soon other people accompany her. The growing assembly at the grotto of Massabielle disquiets stately and religious authorities. Bernadette is repeatedly questioned and ridiculed, especially when she eats weeds and mud from the grotto because The Lady told her to "eat of the plants" and "drink of the spring and wash there.” The next day water flows from the spot and soon its healing powers, attracting people worldwide until today, are discovered. People remain sceptic because miracles don’t seem to fit into their modern and secular world. The questionings continue for years on end until Bernadette Soubirous dies on 16 April 1879. 

The Song of Bernadette may not be correct in every detail of the saint’s life, but the story of the poor frail peasant girl, who continued to follow the call of The Lady even when the authorities, her teachers and her parents forbade it, is touching despite all. It shows how powerful religious faith is and how much a believer can endure. It also gives account of our science-based society that disregards belief and counts only on knowledge. Bernadette Soubirous’ visions were suspicious and she wasn’t treated well. Altogether her life wasn’t a very happy one, but she was the source of Lourdes’ fame as well as wealth. Thanks to her Lourdes no longer is a poor small village, but a thriving town that attracts millions of pilgrims every year. 

Today is the feast of Saint Bernadette Soubirous. There can be no doubt about her having been an impressing person. So why not watch The Song of Bernadette in her memory?

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Call

Being a writer means to follow a call. I don’t have in mind the call of the wild that Jack London immortalized between the covers of countless editions of his novel first published in 1903. The call of the words is much subtler and can easily be overheard in the background noise of grown-ups telling you to be realistic and of peers inviting you to have fun. No matter how old you are, as an aspiring or emerging writer you should always be prepared to hear yourself called a dreamer. I take it for a compliment. 

Someone who is a dreamer doesn’t necessarily live in the clouds. I admit, however, that it can be difficult to reconcile the creation of fiction and the facts of life, especially because the average fellow-citizen shows little understanding for the artistic vein. Most people can accept that a young person follows the call of the words and tries to make her or his way in the world of literature, but only for a while. Sooner or later they will be urged to grow up and get a job to make a living like everybody else. 

Getting a paid job usually means that the straight way to becoming a writer is blocked because creativity is forced into a fixed schedule. It takes a lot of courage and determination to still follow the call of the words through the maze of life. It isn’t easy to hold on to a dream against all obstacles, but a born writer doesn’t have a choice. For us spinning stories is a need just like eating and drinking. If it means a sleepless night in front of the computer, we can’t help it. Nature is stronger! The call of the words is stronger.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Spring!

Floating in the air
The perfume of violets.
A bird with a twig.

© LaGraziana 2013

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Classics of Literature

We like to think of books that have been written ages ago as testimonies of a past that has little to do with our present lives. There are many who would never even think of reading an old novel without being forced to. It’s certainly true that it can be a challenge to plunge into the world and the ideas of a writer from around 1900 or before because they are so different from the modern and fairly liberal ones that we’re used to. The mores of our society have changed considerably, too. What was called decadent then can be quite normal now. 

Judging by setting and plot, Heinrich Mann’s Small Town Tyrant (and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel) as well as Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth seem rather outdated. Today hardly anyone would be upset at finding photos of barefoot dancing Rosa Fröhlich (or Lola-Lola) in the hands of almost grown-up boys. Most people wouldn’t see any harm in Lily Bart coming from a male friend’s flat by day or by night, either. Bare feet and being alone with a man have long ceased to be a sign of a woman’s low morals. 

Neither of the novels is about questions of virtue or Times of Decadence. They are About Being Different and about the consequences that infringing social conventions brings about. Professor Raat (or Rath) isn’t supposed to fall in love with a shameless dancer in a club (or vaudeville) and even less to marry her. Lily Bart is expected to behave like any woman with her social background and to make a suitable match. Society doesn’t approve of their actions, it cuts and then drops them. In the end they realize that they don’t belong anywhere. 

Marcel Proust was more fortunate than his fictitious contemporaries. His fate wasn’t fall from society’s grace, but social ascent in belle-époque France. He knew the rules and he was able as well as willing to play by them. His great advantage was that he wasn’t just the son of a renowned medical doctor with excellent manners and enough money to get along well even without a paid job. First of all he was a writer of genius and in his literary work he chronicled his time just like Heinrich Mann and Edith Wharton. 

The value of old novels like Small Town Tyrant, The House of Mirth and the volumes of In Search of Lost Time, as they may already or not yet be found in the Project Gutenberg collection, isn’t only that they show us how life was like a hundred years ago. Nobody but historians would bother to read them if they hadn’t more to give, if they didn’t convey a timeless message that makes them true classics of literature. Our world has changed a lot and so have our social mores, but the nature of people hasn’t that much after all, has it?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Book Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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This week I’m searching for lost time as it has been depicted in countless novels of world renown. An American writer who produced several of them is my namesake Edith Wharton. For today’s review I chose her first great literary success, The House of Mirth, that dates from 1905. Although the story is set in upper class New York in the last years of the nineteenth’s century – in the Gilded Age after the American Civil War –, its themes are timeless and make it a fascinating read even in the twenty-first century.

Edith Wharton, née Newbold Jones, was born into a rich and distinguished family in New York City, USA, in January 1862. Despite having written already as an adolescent, Edith Wharton started publishing only in the late 1890s. In 1902 her first full-length novel, The Valley of Decision, was a notable success, but it was The House of Mirth in 1905 that made her fame as a novelist. As from 1907 Edith Wharton lived almost permanently in France. In 1911 she brought out the untypical novelette Ethan Frome that mirrored her own unhappy marriage with Edward Wharton whom she divorced in 1913. During her lifetime the versatile and prolific writer produced long and short fiction along with poems as well as non-fiction work on interior design, travels and war. Today Edith Wharton is remembered above all for her literary masterpiece The Age of Innocence that appeared in 1920 and earned her the Pulitzer Prize. Edith Wharton died in France in August 1937. 

The House of Mirth tells the story of the social descent of Lily Bart, a beautiful woman of twenty-nine years who belongs to a distinguished New Yorker family. When the chronicle begins, both her parents have been dead for years and Lily, who has no money of her own to support herself, is staying with her wealthy widowed aunt Mrs. Peniston because no suitor seems good enough to her. Approaching thirty her choice of suitable bachelors is already diminishing like her youth, and yet the idea of depending on a husband doesn’t particularly thrill her. She senses that a marriage of convenience will bore her and unconsciously lets slip good opportunities that present themselves. She even risks being compromised on several occasions when she is seen coming from the flat or house of married or unmarried male friends where she had been alone with them without anything happening really. In addition, she smokes, gambles high and runs into debt. When she turns towards her (married) friend Gus Trenor for financial help, her fate is sealed. Lily gets caught in a downward spiral nurtured by intrigues and gossip from people who she considered as friends. Little by little she loses her position in the circles of the old rich and is forced to work for her living although her education hasn’t equipped her with any useful skills for that purpose. Her reputation as ruined as her finances and her chances for a good match, Lily is even tempted to blackmail a former friend who betrayed her husband at one point and cuts her, but then she burns the compromising letters.

In The House of Mirth Edith Wharton drew a vivid picture of the New Yorker high society around 1900 that she knew so well from own experience and that was a world built on appearances and reputation. It’s a novel of manners and having a close look it reveals a very critical view on social conventions of the time and on hypocrisy. As always Edith Wharton tells her story with irony and wit as well as with much precision.

Times have changed in many respects, but certainly not in all. In our modern consumer society appearances are still as important as they were a hundred years ago. Those of us who fail or don’t fit in are dropped and left to themselves like Lily is. Also intrigues and gossip are part of our daily lives. If we like it or not, people haven’t changed that much after all and that is what make Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth  is surprisingly modern. I enjoyed the read.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Project Gutenberg: Free Books for Everybody

We owe it to Johannes Gutenberg (or more precisely to Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg) that the shelves of libraries worldwide are filled to the brim with books. It was him who invented printing from movable type in the middle of the fifteenth century and opened the world of letters as well as education, formerly limited almost exclusively to members of the clergy, to the public. Thanks to him, literature as we know it today had a chance to emerge from the darkness of the Middle Ages and to enter, with growing literacy of people, even the humblest homes. 

Today books belong to our daily lives. In fact, publishers flood us with more books every year than they can possibly sell and more than we can ever read. However, these days we no longer depend on printing. The new communication technologies have changed the book market as well as our reading habits. EBooks are constantly gaining importance. They are available in every online bookshop, but there are many websites that offer free online publications, especially (although not only) of old books that are no longer protected by copyright laws. 

One such website is Project Gutenberg that aims at creating eBooks and at distributing them for free. It was founded by Michael S. Hart (1947-2011) who had the idea to digitize the American Declaration of Independence and to make the text file available to everyone in 1971. Today, with more than 42,000 eBooks in various languages and file formats, Project Gutenberg may be one of the world’s largest collections as it says on the project homepage. In addition, partners, affiliates and other resources of Project Gutenberg offer more than 100,000 eBooks. 

Project Gutenberg (like Wikipedia) is based on the work of volunteers and on donations. All books under the Project Gutenberg Licence, which is included in each eBook, can be downloaded or read online completely free of charge and almost all of them are in the public domain, thus free to use as you please – at least in the USA. In other countries eBooks may still be copyrighted because laws differ. In the European Union, for instance, copyright protection expires 70 years after the death of the writer, while the period is only 50 years in the USA. 

However, on the electronic level the benefit of Project Gutenberg is very much the same as that of printing from movable type during the past four hundred years: it makes written texts available for everybody and thus spreads reading culture to places and people who have been out of reach before. It goes even beyond that scope because everybody can contribute another read (digitizing an old book or giving permission for unlimited non-commercial worldwide use for own copyrighted work), record an audiobook or report errors. And of course, donations are welcome, too. 

As for me, I must admit that I can’t come to like eBooks. For me the smell of paper and ink is an essential part of the pleasure of reading, not to mention the haptic delight that a paperback or hardcover in my hands gives me.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Marcel Proust

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marcel_Proust_1900.jpg
Marcel Proust ca. 1900
The turn of the twentieth century saw emerge many writers that had great impact on modern literature. One of them was Marcel Proust who is particularly famous for the length of his sentences, something that never irritated me having read Thomas Mann already at the age of twelve or thirteen. Also his approach to writing a novel was sort of revolutionary because he preferred describing the narrator’s experiences in the world to developing an ingenious plot and action. 

Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, France in July 1871. Already early in his life an excessive sensitivity and frail health became apparent. During a walk in the Bois de Boulogne with his family when he was nine years old, he had his first attack of asthma and it was so severe that even his father, a renowned medical doctor, believed that he was going to die. Graduated from school Marcel Proust began his military service in 1889, but after one year he was discharged because of his poor health. He then went to the Sorbonne and to the École des Sciences Politiques to study law and later philosophy. 

During his studies Marcel Proust frequented different literary salons of high society ladies in Paris which earned him the reputation of a snob and social climber. Later he was said to have been one of the last dandies of the Belle Époque (the years preceding World War I). The family fortune putting him financially at ease, the only job that he ever had was as a volunteer clerk at the Bibliothèque Mazarine where he was conspicuous by his absence. 

As a writer Marcel Proust made his first steps already while still in school. He wrote regularly for different magazines, above all criticism, short stories and poems. A collection of those writings was published in 1896 under the title Pleasures and Days (Les plaisirs et les jours). The same year he attempted at his first novel, but abandoned it in 1899. He reused parts of the novel in his later projects, though. In 1952 the unfinished novel was edited and published under the title Jean Santueil. In the early 1900s, with the help of his mother and a friend who had better command of English, Marcel Proust translated The Bible of Amiens (La Bible d'Amiens) and Sesame and Lilies (Sésame et les lys: des trésors des rois, des jardins des reines) of John Ruskin into French. 

In 1903 Marcel Proust’s father died, his beloved mother followed in 1905. The loss hit the writer so hard that he stayed in bed mourning for a whole month during which he couldn’t stop crying. Afterwards he changed his life-style staying in Paris most of the time, writing at night and sleeping during the day. In order to be able to write in complete silence, he shut out all noise having his bedroom lined with cork, the window sealed and the chimney walled up. 

After having published several pastiches in different magazines, Marcel Proust set out to write a novel again, but couldn’t convince a publisher to print it. On Art and Literature (Contre Sainte-Beuve) appeared only in 1954. Marcel Proust’s following work was the cycle of novels that created his worldwide fame as a writer: In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past). It consists of seven novels. Not finding a publisher willing to take the risk, Marcel Proust had to bring out the first novel, Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann, also translated as The Way by Swann’s), at his own expense. It came out in 1913. The second novel was delayed by World War I and the author’s deteriorating health. Within a Budding Grove (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, also translated as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) was published in 1919. The third and fourth novel, The Guermantes Way (Le Côté de Guermantes) and Sodom and Gomorrah (Sodome et Gomorrhe, also published as Cities of the Plain), were released in two volumes each in 1920/21 and 1921/22. The final three novels The Captive (La prisonnière, also translated literally as The Prisoner), The Fugitive (La Fugitive, also published as Albertine disparue, translated as The Sweet Cheat Gone or Albertine Gone) and Time Regained (Le temps retrouvé, also translated as The Past Recaptured, Finding Time Again or Remembrance of Things Past) were edited and published posthumously by Marcel Proust’s brother Robert in 1923, 1925 and 1927 respectively. 

Malnourished and worn out Marcel Proust caught pneumonia and died from it in November 1922. His grave can be found at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Times of Decadence or About Being Different

Heinrich Mann wrote his novel Small Town Tyrant, on which the film The Blue Angel is based, in the early 1900s. The years or actually decades preceding the outbreak of World War I in 1914 were often considered as a time of growing decadence and degeneration. Every new generation appeared to be softer, thus weaker than the one before and the increased sensitivity seemed to make it more susceptible to all kinds of temptation, be it political, social or sexual. The general tone was ranging from melancholic to downright pessimistic. 

Corruption of morals and decay of culture were often lamented, especially in the arts. In their works writers, too, depicted the uncertainty and discontent with life that were characteristic of the period. They also strived for new ways to capture what was going on. The feigned objectivity of naturalism limited them too much and it was only a matter of time until they broke free of it. They began to spread out before their readers the inner world of their protagonists (and themselves), in other words, their subjective points of view and their individuality. 

The years around the turn of the twentieth century were times of big change, but just like today not everybody was willing or able to keep up pace. Social conventions have always served as the backbone of society, as a stabilizing and conservative force in an environment that is perceived as unpredictable or even dangerous. However, they can keep going the old world only for a while. Sooner or later it breaks down and often in a big crash. In 1914 World War I made an end to everything that was outdated and no longer of use to society. 

In our modern world we may be startled at what was considered as unacceptable behaviour at the time when Heinrich Mann wrote Small Town Tyrant and when Josef von Sternberg made the novel into The Blue Angel a quarter of a century later. Today we are allowed to live our individuality to a much wider degree than our ancestors, and yet everyone who dares stepping out of the normal ruts has to face consequences. We may not be openly treated like Professor Raat/Rath because this isn’t socially accepted in our days. Still we need a thick skin, if we are different.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Blue Angel: Nobody's Darling

There aren’t many films from the early age of talking pictures that still reverberate in our memories. One of them is The Blue Angel directed by Josef von Sternberg that came out in 1930 and made Marlene Dietrich a star virtually over night. The story is loosely based on the first half of the novel Small Town Tyrant (Professor Unrat - literally meaning Professor Garbage, but missing the play on words in German that turns the real name of the professor, Raat, into Unrat) by Heinrich Mann, the older brother of the Nobel Prize laureate 1955 for literature Thomas Mann, that first appeared in print in 1905. 

At the time when The Blue Angel was made the German film industry was at its height. The UFA (Universum-Film AG) had been founded in 1917 and had produced many successful silent films. In the late 1920s, however, established directors like Josef von Sternberg and popular silent film actors like Emil Jannings had to face the challenge of talking pictures. As shows the musical comedy Singin' in the Rain from 1952 starring Gene Kelly, Debby Reynolds, and Danny Kaye the transition wasn’t easy for everyone. 

The story of The Blue Angel is set in an unnamed small German town in the late 1920s. Professor Immanuel Rath (played by Emil Jannings) is a respectable teacher (or a Professor in German terminology) at the local high-school. Manners and morality are an important part of education at the time. When the old professor intercepts suggestive photos of Lola-Lola (played by Marlene Dietrich) who is the star of the local vaudeville called The Blue Angel, he is indignant because it means that his students frequent the infamous place. The strict moralist that he is wants to catch them in the act in the vaudeville. However, in The Blue Angel he meets Lola-Lola and falls for her at once. The situation in school then becomes uncontrollable because his students know of his relationship to Lola-Lola and taunt him without mercy. When other teachers, the director and the inhabitants of the small town discover his unsuitable relationship Professor Rath is urged to resign from his post. Lola-Lola accepts to be his wife, but the initial happiness doesn’t last. Lola-Lola is too independent to change her life-style for her husband. Before long the professor is compelled to make his living as the stooge of a magician. The experience is humiliating for him. He watches his permissive wife with growing jealousy and when he sees her kiss the strongman Mazeppa (played by Hans Albers) he runs amok. The furious professor tries to strangle Lola-Lola, but the rest of the troupe rescues her. Beaten up severely and once more humiliated Professor Rath returns to his classroom in high-school. 

Josef von Sternberg clothed the plot of The Blue Angel into a series of sinister, even disturbing pictures as is characteristic of German Expressionism between 1918 and 1933. Broad performance still underlines emotions like it would have in a silent picture, but unlike other directors of his time Josef von Sternberg already started to work with sound as well. The film was shot both in German and in English (dubbing was difficult in the beginning age of talking pictures) so also an English-speaking audience can enjoy the original voices of Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich. The film is likewise known for the songs of Marlene Dietrich, among them Falling in Love Again (Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt) and They Call Me Naughty Lola (Ich bin die fesche Lola). 

The Blue Angel displays the hypocrisy and cruelty of society that shuns everybody who oversteps the borders of social conventions and that on the other hand doesn’t allow the professor to really become a part of the vaudeville. His fate is that of the lonely outsider who is doomed to exist in an in-between world, despised, ridiculed and humiliated by everybody. Nowadays much of the plot may seem outdated, but there are themes that are very up-to-date. It shows very clearly where constant humiliation can lead. In a time when bullying is a growing problem, we cannot be reminded of it too often.

Frontcover

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Rainy Sunday

Violet flowers
between the tips of grass blades.
Rain from a grey sky.

© LaGraziana 2013

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Diversity of Expression

Literature necessarily lives on diversity because it would be boring to read the same old stories ever again. Mind you, I wouldn’t take much pleasure in writing them down, either! Of course, there are themes and plots that are so characteristic of our human existence that we writers like using them as well-tried patterns or rough guidelines for our own work, but the stories that we produce are ours. Not one is the same as the other. Our approaches as well as our highlights are different. So are our tones and our styles. And it goes without saying that cultural background and language have their share in creating a unique story. 

Africa is a good example for the diversity of expression in literature. It’s a vast continent. It suffices to see the impressing vistas in Out of Africa to know that this is true. The film also proves that, even at a time when many believed in the supremacy of European civilization, there were people like Karen Blixen and Deny Finch Hatton who loved Africa as well as the people living there. However, they couldn’t strip off their culture and so it’s no surprise that Karen Blixen founded a European-kind school for the tribal children on her farm. Since then much of the original culture of the area must have got lost, but education was the key to independence, too. 

Even today Africa still is The Undervalued Continent as regards culture. Lamentably, the wealth of contemporary African literature isn’t very present in my corner of the planet. It’s simply overlooked and very few books of African authors are translated into German (at least to my knowledge). The situation may be better for those whose works are published in English or French, but it’s my impression that Europeans and (North as well as South) Americans keep dominating the best-selling lists. Of course, The Value of Best-Selling Lists is questionable because they give account only of high sales, but not of the literary quality of the books on them. 

J. M. Coetzee rose to fame as a novelist in the 1980s, but I never really perceived him as an African writer. Of course, he never made a secret of being South African, moreover one of Afrikaner decent. Quite on the contrary, he made his country the setting of his books. He wrote about South Africa and the living conditions there which made his work controversial in his own country. The marginalization of minorities in South Africa - Afrikaner and indigenous - takes up an important place in his work. And yet, J. M. Coetzee’s way of writing fits into the European, especially English tradition. The colonial past of South Africa keeps dominating the country’s culture. 

Albert Camus, too, is a writer whose name isn’t automatically linked with Africa in people’s minds. Much more often he’s referred to as an exponent of French existentialism and, in fact, he may have seen himself as belonging to France rather than to Algeria. After all, Albert Camus wasn’t a member of the native Arabian population of Algeria, but he was the son of French-Spanish settlers. Despite all, there can be no doubt about the Algerian youth of Albert Camus having influenced his writings as can be seen most strikingly in The Plague. All his life he felt affection for Algeria and he was critical of French politics regarding the country, and yet his culture was European, above all French. 

But indigenous Africans no longer stand in second line. There is a lot going on in the African literary scene. Authors are active at home as well as abroad as shows the big number of contributors to literary journals like African Writing Magazine, not to mention the host of entries on literary websites like African Writer. Through the internet African Words Around the Globe can spread across frontiers. Emerging as well as locally established authors can promote and possibly sell their books worldwide. In addition, important literature prizes like The Caine Prize help making the diversity of African literature visible. 

We readers and writers should be grateful for all the new ideas and points of view that African literature is going to give us.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Book Review: The Plague by Albert Camus

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141185139/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0141185139&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21
Having a focus on African literature, it’s almost inevitable to give Albert Camus a special place in the limelight. Most people think that the existentialist, who always considered this label as rather inappropriate, was a French writer to the backbone, but the truth is that the roots of the Nobel Prize laureate of 1957 were North African, more precisely Algerian. What makes Albert Camus’ most popular and accessible novel The Plague an even better choice for today’s review is the fact that it’s set in Africa, namely in the city of Oran, Algeria.

Albert Camus was born in Dréan, Algeria, in November 1913. He studied philosophy at the University of Algiers and joined the Algerian Communist Party that later expelled him. From 1938 on Albert Camus worked every once and again as a reporter. When he moved to Paris in 1940, he got into fiction writing. His first books, The Stranger (L'étranger) and The Myth of Sisyphus (Le mythe de Sisyphe), were published in 1942 and well received in literary circles. In 1945 his first play, Caligula, was successfully put on the stage. The best-selling novel The Plague (La peste) was published in 1947 and made the writer famous. Several other novels and plays followed until 1957 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Albert Camus was killed in a car accident in January 1960. Two of his works, A Happy Death (La mort heureuse) and The First Man (Le premier homme), were brought out posthumously in 1970 and 1995 respectively. 

The story of The Plague covers approximately one year in the 1940s, starting in spring. Before jumping into matters a nameless narrator describes the city of Oran at the Mediterranean coast in great detail and declares his intention to chronicle the events that he witnessed there. The main character is Doctor Bernard Rieux who is present and doing his job from beginning to end. The first signs that something is awfully wrong in Oran are the rats appearing on the open streets and in the houses only to die there in agony. In the first part of the novel the inhabitants are startled at the number of dead rats, but not yet really worried, and the officials are reluctant to take action in order to prevent an epidemic even when ever more people die from ‘the special type of fever’. Only by the end of part one the city is sealed off and the outbreak of plague is officially declared. Parts two, three and four of the novel show how the inhabitants of Oran deal with being trapped in their city that has become dangerous all of a sudden. Many turn to religion, some take advantage of the situation to make a fortune, others devote themselves to taking care of the sick, and others again plan their escape from the city because they miss their loved ones so much. The epidemic continues to claim ever more victims and the conditions worsen as summer reaches its height. A curfew and martial law are declared to protect the desperate and helpless inhabitants. In autumn the epidemic finally reaches its tipping point, but people are too worn out and discouraged to rejoice already. The plague continues to keep Oran in its grip until spring, but then things soon are back to normal. 

Albert Camus’ The Plague is a captivating story about human behaviour under inhumane conditions, especially in times of helpless suffering and under isolation from the world. The parallels to German-occupied France and the French Résistance during World War II are more than obvious. Resignation, collaboration and revolt are present throughout the text. Progress and course of the epidemic – fascism - are mirrored by the four seasons. The style of the novel is very metaphorical and has often been compared to Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Der Prozeß). Many sentences and passages allow different interpretations. Despite all it’s easy to read, probably because Albert Camus put much of himself into the story. 

I enjoyed reading The Plague very much and although more than half a century has passed since its first appearance, it’s more than just worthwhile the time reading the story of Oran and pondering about the different aspects of life and the human condition that Albert Camus so masterly expressed. Hence I highly recommend this novel to all of you.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

African Words Around the Globe

For this blog I’m doing a lot of research every week and it’s inevitable that I come across interesting websites along the way. They provide me with background information for my reviews and portraits, but they also inspire my marginal notes on literature or give me ideas for future topics. Some of my discoveries are compelling and it would be a pity to withhold them from you. I share individual articles via Edith’s Choice on Facebook and every week I pick a literary website to present here. 

This week my focus is on African literature. There were two sites on the internet that particularly attracted my attention and I find it difficult to make a choice between them. 

The first is the African Writing Magazine - Many Literatures, One Voice based in Bournemouth, UK, that is available online as well as in a print edition. The relatively new literary magazine (only eleven issues have been published so far) has a very professional and comprehensive look containing interviews, fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs, book briefs and book reviews that refer to the ‘African condition’. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch to this site: to see all contents it’s necessary to buy or subscribe the magazine. 

The other literary website is African Writer - Literature and Ideas, an independent offshoot of Nigerians in America, and it has been active since 2003. The site gives emerging as well as established African writers and critics room to publish their short fiction, book excerpts, essays, interviews, reviews, plays and poetry on the internet. Entries are sorted by different categories and can be commented. For those who like discovering new writers and their work online this is a great site although the publicity can be a bit annoying. On the other hand access to the entries is free. Writers can register for free. Of course, I only browsed the site, but there's a great variety of texts and I saw some really interesting features. The site definitely is worth a longer visit. I hope that the community of African writers will continue spreading the word around the globe.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

J. M. Coetzee

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J.M._Coetzee.JPG
J. M. Coetzee in Warsaw
Photo: Mariusz Kubik 2006
Among African writers whose names have spread over the frontiers of their countries and their continent of origin J. M. Coetzee is certainly one of the most renowned. Since 1980 at the latest his novels have been internationally not only noticed, but acclaimed. Over the past decades the reclusive South African and now also Australian received many important literature awards (some of them twice or even thrice). In 2003 his writings earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

John Maxwell Coetze, usually abbreviated as J. M. Coetze, was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in February 1940. Stemming from an old family of the Afrikaner minority in South Africa, his childhood on a farm in Worcester, Western Cape, hasn’t been easy, even less so because his father, a lawyer, was openly critical of the reigning Apartheid regime and lost his government job in 1948. Despite all J. M. Coetze studied English and Mathematics at the University of Cape Town. 

In 1962, with two Bachelor of Arts degrees in his pocket, J. M. Coetze moved to the U.K. (where he worked as a computer programmer) and earned his Master of Arts from the University of Cape Town in 1963. Two years later the Fulbright Program brought him to Austin in Texas, USA, where he did his PhD in linguistics. In the finals stages of his studies he became an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York in Buffalo. 

When J. M. Coetze was refused permanent residency in the USA in 1971 because he had taken part in anti-Vietnam-war protests, he returned to South Africa where he taught English Literature at the University of Cape Town until his retirement in 2002. Having been charmed by the beauty and spirit of Australia ever since 1990, when he had been a writer-in-residence at the University of Queensland, he moved to Adelaide and became an Australian citizen in 2006. 

J. M. Coetze started his career as a fiction writer with the book Dusklands that first came out in South Africa in 1974. Three years later the award-winning novel In the Heart of the Country was published in South Africa, then in the UK and the USA. His first true international success, however, was the novel Waiting for the Barbarians that appeared in 1980. It was followed by many other highly successful and often controversial novels like Foe (1986), Age of Iron (1990), Disgrace (1999), Elizabeth Costello (2003), or Slow Man (2005). His latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, was released in March 2013.

In addition to the fiction that J. M. Coetze is famous for, he also published fictionalized autobiographies: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009) that were brought out in one volume under the title Scenes from Provincial Life in 2011. Several essays, literary criticisms and translations round up the writer’s literary creations.

The writer's fictionalized memoirs: