Friday, 29 August 2014

Book Review: A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1906413754/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1906413754&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21For the Books on France 2014 reading challenge I continue to revel in the wealth of Francophone literature for a little longer, but from the long past Middle Ages I’m returning to the present. Moreover, the book that I’m reviewing today has a strongly Maghrebian touch which it owes both to the author from Morocco and to its expatriate protagonist. A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a short novel about one of many foreign workers from Northern Africa who came to France in the 1960s to have a better life and who, probably out of fear to lose their identity, cherish and cultivate the cultural heritage of their places of origin, notably their Muslim creed, with more fervour than they might if they had stayed in their home countries. 

Tahar Ben Jelloun (الطاهر بن جلون) was born in Fes, French Morocco, in December 1944. After graduation he studied philosophy in Rabat and worked as a philosophy teacher until 1971, the year when he published his first volume of poems. Following the arabisation of education in his country, he moved to France where he wrote articles for Le Monde, studied Social Psychiatry and later worked as psychotherapist. At the same time he kept publishing poems and fiction, but fame only came in 1985 with the release of The Sand Child (L’Enfant de Sable). The most important novels of the prolific francophone author are The Sacred Night (La Nuit Sacrée: 1987), The Blinding Absence of Light (Cette aveuglante absence de lumière: 2001), and A Palace in the Old Village (Au pays: 2009). His latest published novel is L’ablation (2014; Ablation). Tahar Ben Jelloun lives in Tangier, Morocco, with his family. 

The story of A Palace in the Old Village revolves around Mohammed Ben Abdallah who was born and raised in a poor village in Southern Morocco where he was taught to recite the suras of the Koran and where he also married his sixteen-year-old cousin. As a young man he went to France to join the masses of foreign workers who were recruited by a thriving automobile industry during the years of the post-war economic miracle in Europe. He meant to earn money abroad for a while and then return home, but in the end he fetched his wife and stayed for forty years, thus his entire working life. During all those years Mohammed clang to his inherited culture and didn’t allow anything French to touch his soul. He warded off the “Lafrance”-infection as he called it and even refused to speak French although he understood it at least. He remained a Muslim, a father and a Moroccan through and through. At the same time he was humble and peaceful disapproving of all kinds of fanaticism, violence and racism. He tried to pass on his values, his traditions and his language to his five children, but they were born in France, attended French schools and refused their Arabic heritage in favour of a “normal” life as French citizens. They only spoke French, chose the professions they wanted, lived where they wanted, married whom they wanted, and Rachid even changed his name into Richard to mask his origins. They don’t obey him, but he is proud of them despite all. Only his youngest daughter Rekya who hasn’t yet finished school and Nabile, his mentally handicapped nephew and foster-son, are still living with Mohammed and his wife, when his turn comes to retire from his job. All of a sudden he realizes that the big flat in Yvelines has turned empty and that he lost his family to the foreign land. He dreads that he may die alone in a country that isn’t his own and that nobody will take care of his grave in Lalla França. So he sets out for his old village in Morocco to build the big house of his dreams that will bring back together his family and restore the traditional order. 

All in all there doesn’t happen much in A Palace in the Old Village because it’s just the quiet story of an average man without exceptional qualities, nor great ambitions, nor an adventurous spirit. He’s an illiterate immigrant like many others in his generation, an everyman devoted to hard work and raising his children who in the end resorts to the impossible dream of making his family return to Morocco with him although for all except his wife the country is just a place where they spent their school summer holidays. The tone of the novel is melancholic or resigned as would be the account of a real person looking back on forty years away from home and finding himself estranged from his children because his soul never truly took root in France. In several flashbacks the third-person narrator tells memorable episodes from Mohammed’s past as well as his reflections on questions of religion, society and family. Extremism, racism and violence are beyond him whose idea of the world is based upon a strong belief in the mercy of Allah, a soft heart and a humble mind. Tahar Ben Jelloun portrayed Mohammed with great care and skill moulding an entirely credible character who feels made of flesh and blood from beginning to end. He succeeded in showing the isolation that results from the refusal or incapability of adapting to a different cultural environment in a very clear and unpretentious language full of powerful images. The German translation titled Zurückkehren was a pleasure to read and I hope that the English one is just as convincing. 

For me A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun was a very touching read which allowed me a first-hand insight into the background and the mind of a Muslim immigrant who refuses all change of attitude and thus remains a stranger for decades. It helps to understand a little better why the communities of foreign workers tend to create parallel universes of their own within the “native” society. For this reason and for its literary quality I warmly recommend the novel.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Poetry Revisited: A Meeting with Despair by Thomas Hardy

A Meeting with Despair

(From Wessex Poems and Other Verses: 1898)

Aa evening shaped I found me on a moor
Which sight could scarce sustain:
The black lean land, of featureless contour,
Was like a tract in pain.

“This scene, like my own life,” I said, “is one
Where many glooms abide;
Toned by its fortune to a deadly dun—
Lightless on every side.

I glanced aloft and halted, pleasure-caught
To see the contrast there:
The ray-lit clouds gleamed glory; and I thought,
“There’s solace everywhere!”

Then bitter self-reproaches as I stood
I dealt me silently
As one perverse—misrepresenting Good
In graceless mutiny.

Against the horizon’s dim-descernèd wheel
A form rose, strange of mould:
That he was hideous, hopeless, I could feel
Rather than could behold.

“’Tis a dead spot, where even the light lies spent
To darkness!” croaked the Thing.
“Not if you look aloft!” said I, intent
On my new reasoning.

“Yea—but await awhile!” he cried. “Ho-ho!—
Look now aloft and see!”
I looked. There, too, sat night: Heaven’s radiant show
Had gone. Then chuckled he.

                                                               Thomas Hardy
                                                                 (1840-1928)

Friday, 22 August 2014

Book Review: The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar

The Middle Ages are often referred to as dark and cruel, while the Renaissance is said to be progressive and light like its pictures. With this week’s review I want to take you to sixteenth-century Europe, when the Middle Ages weren’t yet entirely over and the Era of Enlightenment hadn’t yet begun. I must admit that in general I’m no big fan of historical novels, but a few years ago a dear friend from Belgium gave me a copy of The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar and I read it with greatest delight. The story of two cousins who (separately) leave their homes in Flanders as young men to explore the world and who become – each in his way – mixed up in the vicissitudes of European history is also another contribution to the Books on France 2014 reading challenge. 

Marguerite Yourcenar, real name Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour, was born in Brussels, Belgium, in June 1903 and grew up with her paternal grandmother in France. She made her literary debut with the poem Le jardin des chimères (The Garden of the chimeras) published at her own expense in 1921. Her first novel, Alexis (Alexis ou le Traité du vain combat), appeared in 1929 and was the beginning of a prolific decade during which she produced among others A Coin in Nine Hands (Denier du rêve: 1934), Oriental Tales (Nouvelles orientales: 1938), Dreams and Destinies (Les songes et les sorts: 1938), and Coup de Grace (Le coup de grâce: 1939). At the dawn of World War II, in 1939, the author left France and joined her lover (and translator) Grace Frick in the USA where she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian (Mémoires d'Hadrien), the novel which made her international fame in 1951 and which was followed by The Abyss (L’Œuvre au noir; also translated as Zeno of Bruges) in 1968. The author was the first woman elected to the Académie française in 1980. Marguerite Yourcenar died in Northeast Harbor, Maine, USA, in December 1987. 

The plot of The Abyss is set in sixteenth-century Flanders. The region, which is today part of Belgium, was then under the reign of Hapsburg emperor Charles V. and belonged to a “empire on which the sun never set” because her territory stretched over great parts of Europe and the New World. Both protagonists of the novel were born into the family of Henri-Juste Ligre, a rich banker in Bruges. The older one is Zeno who is the illegitimate son of Henri-Juste’s younger sister Hilzonde and an ambitious Florentine priest called Alberico de’ Numi who seduced the young girl during a stay in the banker’s house to recover money from his debtors in the region. The boy is raised to become a priest since his disgraceful origins prevent virtually all other promising careers, but he soon decides to follow his own vocation for natural sciences and philosophy instead of continuing the prestigious studies of theology at the University of Leuven. The other is Henri-Juste’s oldest son Henri-Maximilien who is Zeno’s junior by only four years and quite wild. He, too, leaves home to make his own dreams come true which don’t include bookkeeping and lending money to the rich and powerful like his father. Much rather he wants a life of adventure and romance which he hopes to find as a mercenary and a poet. In the opening scene of the novel the two young men, twenty and sixteen years old respectively, meet on a French country road by accident. Zeno is heading for Santiago de Compostela and Henri-Maximlien is on his way to join the troupes of the King of France. They set out in anticipation of a great future, but they live in times of fundamental change which have in store unprecedented prosperity as well as trouble and danger. The conservative mindset of the Middle Ages clashes with revolutionary ideas of the beginning Renaissance. Banking, industry and natural sciences advance at quick pace, while wars rage between countries as well as between religions. The until then constant advance of the Turks, thus Islam, is stopped and Protestantism is fought in a bloody counter-Reformation led by Charles V. And on top of it all the Black Death spreads over Europe fuelling superstition and raising public support for the merciless witch-hunting of the Holy Inquisition. Committing himself to medicine and alchemy Zeno with his curious mind and scientific zeal soon oversteps the line of what the Church allows. With the Holy Inquisition always at his heels he roams the entire European continent for decades, while his cousin Henri-Maximilien wanders from one battlefield to the next in search of glory and wealth. 

In The Abyss an omniscient third-person narrator not just tells the fates of two very different cousins from Flanders, but meticulously depicts the very diverse world of the sixteenth century with all its challenges and inconsistencies. The original title of the novel is L’Œuvre au noir (Work in Black in English) which refers to the alchemistic opera negra, ie the first of three steps required to transform lesser metals into gold or the Philosopher’s stone. In fact, Zeno pursues a lifelong quest for wisdom which at one point plunges him into the abyss of his inner self. Hence, The Abyss is much more than just a very skilfully crafted historical novel with detailed references to important events, social life and scientific achievements of the time. Marguerite Yourcenar gives her readers also deep insight into the psyche of her protagonist and into philosophy at the dawn of Renaissance. Everything in this novel is told with utmost precision without making it ever feel lengthy. The author’s language is particularly rich and powerful, but also poetic – at least in the original French version. I can’t say anything about the quality of the English translation although I know that the author collaborated on it with her lifetime companion Grace Frick. 

As I already mentioned in my introduction, I enjoyed reading The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar immensely – both times. Unfortunately, it seems that with the exception of her chief novel Memoirs of Hadrian her work has fallen into oblivion in the Anglophone world and may be difficult to find. What a pity and what a loss. However, I warmly recommend The Abyss for reading and hope that you get a chance to devour with as much as pleasure as I had.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Poetry Revisited: Burned Out by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Burned Out

(From Yesterdays: 1910)

Blow out the light: there is no oil to feed it:
That dim blue light unworthy of the name.
Better to sit with folded hands, I say,
And wait for night to pass, and bring the day,
Than to depend upon that flickering flame.

Take back your vow: there is no love to bind it:
Take back this little shining, golden thing.
Better to walk on bravely all alone,
Than strive to hold up, or retain our own,
By soulless pledge, or fetter of a ring.

When first the lamp was lit, too high you turned it;
The oil was wasted in a blinding blaze.
Your passion was too ardent in the start -
Set by the lamp: farewell. God gird the heart
Through darkened hours, and lone and loveless ways.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox
(1850-1919)

Friday, 15 August 2014

Book Review: The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1847086144/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1847086144&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21A hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War we often wonder how the light and merry belle époque could lead the world into a barbaric carnage of unprecedented dimensions. Taking into account that propaganda was running wild at the time, it is difficult to say if people, above all military and bourgeoisie, really welcomed the war with as much patriotic fervour as is reported, but it seems that the atmosphere in the early twentieth century was very peculiar. In the realm of fiction one of the most succeeded and important depictions of life in the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy during the decades before its fall is The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth which I’m reviewing today. It’s the chronicle of three Barons Trotta von Sipolje, descendants of poor Slovenian farmers, whose lives are determined by their instilled devotion to Emperor Francis Joseph I and to Austria-Hungary. 

Joseph Roth, full name Moses Joseph Roth, was born in Lemberg (today: Lwow), Galicia, Austria-Hungary (today: Ukraine) in September 1894. Until the outbreak of World War I he studied philosophy, German philology and literature at the universities of Lemberg and Vienna. In 1915 his first novella Der Vorzugsschüler (The Honours Student), was published. While working in the news service of the Austro-Hungarian army from 1916 on, he began his career as a journalist and continued writing fiction. The most important literary works of the prolific writer are The Spider’s Web (Das Spinnennetz: 1923), Job: The Story of a Simple Man (Hiob. Roman eines einfachen Mannes: 1930) and above all The Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch: 1932) as well as its sequel The Emperor’s Tomb (Kapuzinergruft: 1938). Following complications caused by chronic abuse of alcohol, which he dealt with in his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom Heiligen Trinker: 1939), Joseph Roth died in Paris, France, in May 1939. 

The main scene of The Radetzky March is Austria-Hungary in the early twentieth century through the first years of World War I although the chronicle actually begins in the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Inexperienced as the young Emperor Francis Joseph I is in war matters (he is not yet thirty), he lifts his field glasses before the enemy has fully withdrawn. Infantry Lieutenant Joseph Trotta knows the danger from snipers and dives at the Emperor to save him. His rewards are promotion to the rank of Captain, ennoblement to Baron Trotta von Sipolje… and a bullet in his collarbone. Inevitably life changes for the hero of Solferino who finds himself sort of uprooted because he no longer belongs to the class of ordinary soldiers and citizens, nor feels comfortable among aristocrats. Eventually, he marries and has a son, Franz, whom he sends to cadet school in Vienna as becomes his station. When he finds out that his act of heroism in the battle of Soferino is exaggerated in his son’s school books, he asks that facts are set right. After his audience with the Emperor he retires to his wife’s country estate where he takes to managing the farm and requires his son to promise him to never join the army. As is a good son’s duty, he obeys and successfully pursues a career as a lawyer in the civil service. Two years after the death of his father, Franz Baron Trotta of Sipolje is appointed District Administrator in W., a small town in Moravia. He marries and has a son, Carl Joseph, whom he sends away to cadet school in Vienna. Carl Joseph grows up in an atmosphere of strict routines both in school and at home. At the age of eighteen, he joins the cavalry as his father wishes because for the grandson of the hero of Solferino a military career is the only suitable choice. Carl Joseph feels out of place and he is bored like all his comrades, but he is quickly dragged into the typical life of a soldier in peacetime which involves streams of alcohol, gambling, duelling with pistols, visits to the brothel and passionate love. Serious trouble is predestined and behind the horizon war is looming. 

Life in The Radetzky March passes under the eyes of two great father figures who look down on all three Trottas from their canvases and determine their lives. One is the hero of Solferino who would much rather have remained an anonymous soldier in his Emperor’s army and the other is Emperor Francis Joseph I himself who rules multiethnic Austria-Hungary during sixty-eight years. Both idols are fixed stars in the universe of the Trotta family around which each generation revolves. Also the melody of the Radetzky March, which Johann Strauss Sr. composed in honour of the heroic Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Count Radetzky von Radetz (1766–1858) in 1848, thus the year of Francis Joseph’s accession to the throne, is a red thread running through the entire novel and like life in the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy it always goes on unchanged in the way of a haunting tune. The author’s focus is on Carl Joseph Baron Trotta von Sipolje whose story not just shows his tragic fate, but at the same time reflects in great detail social and military life in the early twentieth century. As always, the language in which Joseph Roth told his novel is a mere delight to read – it’s elegant, precise, poetic and powerful from beginning to end. If the English translation is only half so good, it’s still excellent. 

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth is one of my all-time favourite novels and I’m glad that an English translation is available. To my great satisfaction I found out recently that the late German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranitzky included it into his canon of the most important literary novels in German language, and quite on top of the list. I shouldn’t be surprised. Not without reason scores of German teachers have read it with their students since it first appeared in 1932. It certainly deserves the popularity and I join them with my recommendation.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Poetry Revisited: Ode on Solitude by Alexander Pope

Ode on Solitude

(1700)

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose heards with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix'd; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

                                               Alexander Pope
                                                 (1688-1744)

Friday, 8 August 2014

Book Review: Sky Burial by Xinran

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0099461935/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0099461935&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21&linkId=AYUPGAPIXV5KB7UUTibet is a vast region in the Himalaya that hardly ever makes the headlines. If it weren’t for the Dalai Lama and the great number of Tibetans living in exile like him, the country might still be little more to us than her name printed on a map. Many true stories have been written about the people from the mysterious and secluded highlands, most of them from the point of view of the exiled or of friendly westerners like the late Austrian alpinist Heinrich Harrer whose Seven Years in Tibet is a classic. However, there always are at least two sides to everything. There are only few books dealing with Tibet from the Chinese perspective available in English translation. One of them is Sky Burial by Xinran which tells the life story of a Chinese woman who travelled with Tibetan nomads for thirty years to know her husband’s tragic fate.

Xinran is the pen name of Xue Xinran (薛欣然) who was born in Beijing, China, in 1958. After having worked as a radio presenter and journalist for Chinese Radio for eight years, she immigrated to the U.K. in 1997. She settled down in London where she began to write her first book about the lives of all the women whom she had talked to on her radio show. The Good Women of China appeared in 2002 and became an international bestseller. In 2004 the writer published the biographical novel Sky Burial which was followed by purely journalistic work, namely What the Chinese Don't Eat (2006), China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation (2008) and Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother (2010). The author’s only fiction work is the novel Miss Chopsticks (2007). Xinran lives in the U.K. where she works as a journalist and adviser for international media.

Sky Burial is the story of a Chinese woman called Shu Wen and it begins in her native town Nanjing in the mid-1950s. At the time Wen is twenty-two years old and a student at medical school where Wang Kejun works as a laboratory assistant. During a dissection class he gives her a piece of advice about how to overcome her fear of dead bodies and they become close friends. Friendship turns into love, but Kejun joins the Chinese army to serve his country, which paid for his medical training, and to attend to the soldiers who are still fighting in Korea. Two years later he returns to Nanjing because his military unit has ordered him to study Tibetan language and medicine for future action. Another two years go by. Wen works as a dermatologist in one of the big hospitals of Nanjing and Kejun who has finished his studies is waiting for his call-up. They get married and pass three ecstatic weeks together. Then Kejun’s unit is sent to Tibet and Wen is transferred to a hospital in Suzhou where her married sister and her parents live. It doesn’t take long and Wen is called to the Suzhou military headquarters where she is informed that 
“Comrade Wang Kejun died in an incident
in the east of Tibet on 24 March 1958, aged 29.” 
She wants to know more about her husband’s fate, but nobody seems to be willing or able to tell her what exactly happened to Kejun, how he died and where he was buried. It even occurs to her that he might still be alive after all and that he has only been separated from his unit. So Wen takes a decision of grave consequence: she joins the army to be sent to Tibet herself and to make inquiries. Already in autumn she is on her way into Tibet with a convoy of soldiers. One night they discover a half-dead Tibetan woman called Zhuoma and it turns out that she speaks Chinese. Zhuoma stays with them and the occasion for her to act as a mediator between Chinese soldiers and Tibetan guerrilla fighters isn’t long in coming. A dozen of Chinese who volunteered to be hostages are killed and the rest of the unit withdraws in the direction of China. Wen, however, decides to rather join Zhuoma and the other Tibetans to continue her search for Kejun. She passes the following thirty years travelling with Tibetan nomads and adapting to their deeply religious culture. In the end she finds the answers to her questions.

The plot of Sky Burial may sound like fiction, but Xinran makes it clear from the beginning that she is telling a true story. After a short introductory note, the author dedicated the entire first chapter to the interview which she led with Shu Wen in a teahouse in the city of Suzhou in 1994. It contains the old woman’s direct-speech look back at life before Tibet interspersed with the interviewer’s explaining remarks and personal impressions of the person opposite. As from Chapter 2 the author switches to third-person narrative to tell the amazing life of Shu Wen in Tibet. Background information concerning Tibet and China, especially her military campaigns in Tibet in 1958, seems to be thoroughly researched. All necessary explanations of Tibetan customs and traditions are skilfully woven into the story without disturbing the flow of the plot. As befits a trained journalist, Xinran’s language is generally clear and unpretentious which makes the biographical novel a pleasure to read. A letter of Xinran addressed to Shu Wen closes the book.

For me it has been a very interesting and exciting experience to read Sky Burial by Xinran. During the past decades I read a few books about Tibet. Most of them were accounts of western travellers like Alexandra David-Néel and Heinrich Harrer, but I also came across some very personal stories of exiled Tibetans who had seen and experienced a lot of violence. For those who would like to get a slightly different view at Chinese presence in Tibet, Sky Burial is an excellent starting point. To cut a long story short: I recommend the book.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Author's Portrait: Olive Schreiner

These days there is little to be heard about South Africa with respect to literature. Of course, there are recently deceased Nadine Gordimer and John Maxwell Coetzee who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 and 2003 respectively and whose work keeps being read around the globe, but how many names of other authors from South Africa come to mind at once? Although the official language of the country is English, which makes access to the international reading community so much easier, the fame of only few contemporary writers like André Brink has spread across her borders. I know even less names of South African authors from the times of the British Empire, but it goes without saying that there were some excellent ones. One of them was Olive Schreiner. 

Olive Schreiner was born on 24 March 1855 in Bosutoland, Cape Colony, British Empire (today: Lesotho). Her parents were missionaries working at the Wesleyan Missionary Society station at Wittebergen Reserve, in the Eastern Cape ever since 1837. Due to the father’s low salary and his lack of common sense in financial matters, the numerous family suffered great poverty. The situation got even worse after he was expelled from his post because he had started trading which was against the missionary regulations. Eventually, Olive and two of her siblings were sent to live with their older brother Theophilus, who had just been appointed headmaster in Cradock in 1867, where they attended school for the first time. 

Already during those early years, Olive Schreiner began to question her family’s strong religious belief and completely rejected their creed at the age of 15. To free herself and to escape from the constant quarrels at home, she became a governess. She read the works of Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin which strongly influenced her view of the world and of religion. This first period away from the family didn’t last long, though. After a brief engagement, the young woman returned first to her brothers working on the Kimberley diamond fields and then to her parents. It was then, when she first fell ill with asthma, an illness that would accompany and handicap her for the rest of her life. 

While living with her family, Olive Schreiner set out to write her first novel, Undine, but soon her family’s increasingly difficult financial situation forced her to hire herself out again as a governess. In her free time she continued to write and produced the semi-autobiographical Story of an African Farm as well as a collection of short stories and allegories titled Dream Life and Real Life. Since writing was just a hobby for her at the time, she didn’t try to publish them. In 1880 she could finally afford moving to Scotland to begin training as a nurse. Later she attended Women's Medical School in London to become a doctor. Her life was meant to take a very different turn, though, because the English climate made her asthma become chronic and eventually she had to accept that her poor health would never allow her to practice medicine or only to finish her studies. 

As from that moment Olive Schreiner set her hopes on writing and offered Story of an African Farm to several English publishing houses which all rejected it. Only in 1883 the quality of the book was recognised and later the same year it appeared in print for the first time. To escape the common prejudices against a woman writer, it was brought out under the male pseudonym Ralph Irons, though. The novel was received with immediate acclaim by literary critics and feminists alike. The famous sexologist Havelock Ellis was so impressed by the book that he wrote a letter to the author which was the beginning of a mutually inspiring and long-lasting friendship. 

During her studies in London Olive Schreiner had got into touch with the socialist movement and made friends with some of its leading figures like for instance Edward Carpenter, Eleanor Marx, Bruce Glasier and George Bernard Shaw. After her success as a writer she joined several discussion groups and different progressive organisations where she advocated women’s equality. As a freethinker she was in her element there and her later work was strongly influenced by the ideas discussed there. In 1886 Olive Schreiner left England to travel Switzerland, France and Italy. She used her free time to begin writing her novel From Man to Man, several allegories which were published in journals and an introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Back in England she soon decided to return to South Africa. In 1889 she settled down in Karoo at the town of Matjiesfontein where the air was better for her health. Also there she got soon involved in politics, especially feminist and human rights movements, and met the politically active farmer Samuel Cronwright. At the same time she resumed publishing. She brought out the short story collections Dreams (1890) and Dream Life and Real Life (1893). 

Pushing aside doubts about being able to adapt to married life, Olive Schreiner became the wife of Samuel Cronwright in 1894, who took the name Cronwright-Schreiner, and hoped to have a family. Their marriage remained childless, though, since the only child who was ever born to them alive died after only a few hours. Before long Olive Schreiner’s feeble health also urged the couple to give up the farm and to move houses often until they finally settled down in Johannesburg in 1898. 

In collaboration with her husband, who shared her political views on the “native question”, Olive Schreiner wrote a political pamphlet titled The Political Situation in Cape Colony (1895). Out of disappointment over the politics of Cecil John Rhodes she brought out a satirical allegorical tale under the title Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897). When the Boer war was looming, whe wrote An English South African Woman's View of the Situation, a critique on the Transvaal difficulty from the pro-Boer position (1899) in which she stood up for Boer interests and advocated a peaceful solution of the conflict. 

After 1900 Olive Schreiner’s health was further deteriorating, since the frequent asthma attacks had affected her heart and caused angina pectoris. Despite all she continued to be politically active and to write. She published A Letter on the Jew (1906) and Closer Union: a Letter on South African Union and the Principles of Government (1909). In 1911 she finished and released at last her book Women and Labour which she had begun when she was still living in England. In 1913 the author travelled to England for medical treatment and was prevented from returning home by the outbreak of World War I. Inspired by the carnage in Europe, she set out to write another book, her last one, which was later published in an abbreviated version as The Dawn of Civilisation

After the end of World War I Olive Schreiner returned to South Africa. She died in Wynberg, South Africa, on 11 December 1920. A collection of articles from the early 1890s about country and people was published posthumously under the title Thoughts on South Africa (1923) like Stories, Dreams and Allegories (1923). Also her novels From Man to Man and Undine were published only after her death, in 1926 and 1929 respectively. 

The novels, social and political treatises, allegorical tales and short stories of Olive Schreiner have entered into the European public domain almost twenty-five years ago. Some of her works are available as free e-books on the Project Gutenberg site and on ManyBooks.net.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Poetry Revisited: Summer Days by Marietta Holley

Summer Days

(From Poems: 1887)

Like emerald lakes the meadows lie,
And daisies dot the main;
The sunbeams from the deep blue sky
Drop down in golden rain,
And gild the lily's silver bell,
And coax buds apart,
But I miss the sunshine of my youth,
The summer of my heart.

The wild birds sing the same glad song
They sang in days of yore;
The laughing rivulet glides along,
Low whispering to the shore,
And its mystic water turns to gold
The sunbeam's quivering dart,
But I miss the sunshine of my youth,
The summer of my heart.

The south wind murmurs tenderly
To the complaining leaves;
The Flower Queen gorgeous tapestry
Of rose and purple weaves.
Yes, Nature's smile, the wary while,
Wears all its olden truth,
But I miss the sunshine of my heart,
The summer of my youth.

                                      Marietta Holley
                                        (1836-1926)

Friday, 1 August 2014

Book Review: Betty Blue by Philippe Djian

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0349101108/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0349101108&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21&linkId=H3BYK2IAOEUSC5UQAt last it’s August and here we are in the middle of the so-called dog days, thus of the hottest period of the year. What better reason to pick a book from my crammed shelves that evokes a sweltering hot day already in its first sentence? Despite all 37.2 degrees in the original French title of Betty Blue by Philippe Djian don’t speak of summer heat. The novel, which I’m reviewing for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, is about the feverish as well as doomed love between the passive narrator who refuses to complicate his life making plans and beautiful Betty who isn’t willing to put up with the petty life that seems to be destined for her. 

Philippe Djian was born in Paris, France, in June 1949. After graduation from École supérieure de journalisme in Paris, he travelled to South America for a reportage and upon his return to France worked in different odd jobs for several years. His first published literary work was a collection of short stories titled 50 contre 1 (50 against 1) in 1981 which was followed by the novels Bleu comme l'enfer (1982; Blue Like Hell) and Zone érogène (1984; Erogenous Area). Only his third novel Betty Blue (37°2 le matin) established the writer’s fame. After that he brought out more novels and short story collections in short intervals. Among those later works Unforgivable (Impardonnables: 2009) and Consequences (Incidences: 2010) have been translated into English. Love Song (2013) and Chéri-Chéri (2014) are his latest published works. Boris Djian lives in Biarritz, France.

The story of Betty Blue begins on a hot summer day in a remote French seaside resort where the nameless narrator hides from the craze of modern civilisation. His job as a handyman allows him to take things easy and enjoy a quiet life, but love brings confusion into his well-balanced routine. Betty is the most beautiful girl that he has ever known and he is up to the ears in love with her. They have been having a passionate affair already for some time, when one day she quits her job as a waitress because her (married) boss made unmistakably sexual advances. It’s the first time that he sees her in a rage and he realises that it’s wiser to stay out of her way. The following day she moves in with him. The owner of the resort doesn’t approve of Betty’s constant presence and demands that she takes a share in the work in the resort. The narrator, however, doesn’t dare to tell her the whole truth, so when she finds out eventually that they are supposed to paint all the bungalows and not just one she gets into a fit of rage and pours a bucket of paint over the owner’s car. The narrator immediately apologises and cleans up the mess, something that Betty can’t understand at all because she never puts up with anything and always takes her revenge. The following day she is still angry at him because he doesn’t stand up for himself and throws several storing boxes out of the window. He doesn’t care until it’s the turn of the one containing his notebooks. The fact that he doesn’t want her to throw them out makes her curious and she spends the next couple of hours reading them. She thinks that he is a gifted writer and sees their big chance to escape mediocrity. Betty sets fire to the bungalow, so they are forced to leave in a hurry. They go to Paris. While the narrator is doing odd jobs for a living, Betty is typing his hand-written notebooks because she is convinced that publishers must be craving for his book. When the first rejection notice arrives, she flies into rage again and takes her revenge. From then on her fits of rage get ever worse, but the narrator refuses to believe that she is mentally ill. He is crazy in love with her and tries to protect her. Alas her fate is doomed.

The entire story of Betty Blue is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator who is at the same time the male protagonist. To show the constant struggle for happiness and some kind of “normality” Philippe Djian uses an unpretentious and colloquial language that makes the novel resemble an autobiographical account, a private journal or a long stream of consciousness as some reviewers stated. Its tone is “blue” which accounts for the English title of the book. On the whole all characters are depicted in a very realistic and authentic way, especially Betty whose deteriorating state of mind is made apparent in very powerful pictures. The author also succeeds in conveying the narrator’s helplessness in view of Betty’s problems and his inner development from someone who just lets himself drift through life without direction to a man who takes life into his own hands. At the same time, I must say that I can’t help feeling confused (even annoyed) by the fact that none of Betty’s and the narrator’s usually violent acts, not to say crimes, has legal aftermaths of any kind for them. In one case the police is at least involved, but it leads to nothing.

All things considered, Betty Blue by Philippe Djian has been as very gripping summer read which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’m not surprised that the story has been adapted for the screen. And of course, I’m recommending the novel.