Monday, 30 December 2013

Poetry Revisited: New Year’s Morning


Only a night from old to new!
Only a night, and so much wrought!
The Old Year’s heart all weary grew,
But said: “The New Year rest has brought.”
The Old Year’s hopes its heart laid down,
As in a grave; but trusting, said:
“The blossoms of the New Year’s crown
Bloom from the ashes of the dead.”
The Old Year’s heart was full of greed;
With selfishness it longed and ached,
And cried: “I have not half I need.
My thirst is bitter and unslaked.
But to the New Year’s generous hand
All gifts in plenty shall return;
True love it shall understand;
By all my failures it shall learn.
I have been reckless; it shall be
Quiet and calm and pure of life.
I was a slave; it shall go free,
And find sweet peace where I leave strife.”

Only a night from old to new!
Never a night such changes brought.
The Old Year had its work to do;
No New Year miracles are wrought.
Always a night from old to new!
Night and the healing balm of sleep!
Each morn is New Year’s morn come true,
Morn of a festival to keep.
All nights are sacred nights to make
Confession and resolve and prayer;
All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.

                                    Helen Hunt Jackson

Friday, 27 December 2013

Book Review: The Farewell Angel by Carmen Martín Gaite last review of the year 2013 is dedicated to a novel ending on Christmas Eve although the religious feast only serves as the perfect date for the protagonist’s emotional rebirth after a deep crisis. The Farewell Angel by Carmen Martín Gaite, one of her country's most renowned modern authors, is a contribution to my literary tour around Europe and gives me an opportunity to revisit Spain, Madrid and Galicia to be precise. In the first place, however, it’s the story of a young man who is caught in the invisible and invincible snow palace of his soul. His past is as a huge puzzle asking to be solved. For this purpose he has to look reality in the face and separate it from imagination. 

Carmen Martín Gaite was born in Salamanca, Spain, in December 1925. After her studies of Romance philology at the University of Salamanca she took up doctoral studies at the University of Madrid. A group of young writers encouraged her to try out her own literary skills. She began to publish stories in magazines, while earning her living as a teacher and later as a secretary. Her first award-winning work, the short novel El balneario (The Spa), came out in 1954. Three years later Carmen Martín Gaite received the prestigious Premio Nadal for her novel Entre visillos (Among Anti-macassars). The 1960s were dedicated to family and doctoral thesis. The latter was approved in 1972 and inspired her highly popular essay of the same year Usos amorosos del dieciocho en España (Love Customs of Nineteenth-Century Spain). From then on Carmen Martín Gaite translated works of important writers like Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi and Eça de Queiroz into Spanish, wrote literary criticism for newspapers, essays, screenplays, short stories, poems, children’s books and several novels. Only few of her works have been translated into English like The Back Room (El cuarto de atrás: 1978), Variable Cloud (Nubosidad variable: 1992), Living’s the Strange Thing (Lo raro es vivir: 1996) and The Farewell Angel (La Reina de las nieves: 1994). Carmen Martín Gaite died in Madrid, Spain, in July 2000. 

The novel The Farewell Angel is set in Spain in the late 1970s. The protagonist is Leonardo Villalba Scribner, a young man of around thirty, who leads a rather haphazard and purposeless life travelling at random, doing odd jobs and pursuing half-heartedly his artistic ambitions. His family is wealthy, but Leonardo abandoned home soon after his paternal grandmother’s death. The late Doña Inés Guitián left him her estate in northern Galicia, the Quinta Blanca, where he spent most of his early childhood wrapped up in a fantasy world which was nourished by the remote area’s magical atmosphere as well as by his grandmother’s fairy tales and puzzles. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen strangely attracted, even obsessed him from an early age on. Much in his life makes Leonardo compare himself to Kai. Like the boy in the Snow Queen’s Palace he seems to be incapable of deep emotions and often his memory fails him because without warning he tends to drift off into his fantasy. He experiences himself as a stranger even among friends and family. In the end his careless lifestyle, which included taking drugs and being in bad company, brought Leonardo into prison. When he is released, he learns from the paper that his parents have died in a car accident and he realizes that he needs to get his life and his mind into order. It may be his last chance. The Quinta Blanca and its new owner Doña Casilda Iriarte turn out to play a key role in Leonardo’s following search for the past, for reality and for his identity. 

The Farewell Angel is a very complex and difficult novel written in a poetic language including many references to important works of literature. The story of Leonardo Villalba Scribner begins to unfold in a series of seemingly disconnected details. In a certain way this mirrors the chaos in Leonardo’s mind which becomes particularly apparent in the second part of the novel. Those chapters are marked as being from the young man’s notebooks, thus they are basically a long and confusing stream of consciousness. The novel’s first – introducing – and the third – unravelling – part, on the other hand, are told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. Whichever narrative technique Carmen Martín Gaite uses, she indulges in slowly dealing out the pieces of a puzzle which is much larger than expected and quite different from what the reader is led to believe at first. On the symbolic level Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen serves as a guide-line for the writer, the reader as well as the protagonist which is also expressed in the original Spanish title corresponding exactly with that of the fairy tale. It seems strange to me that the English title is The Farewell Angel instead and contains no reference whatsoever to The Snow Queen. The German edition has at least been published under the title Das Haus der Schneekönigin (The House of the Snow Queen). 

Reading the original Spanish version of The Farewell Angel by Carmen Martín Gaite has been quite a challenge for me, and yet I enjoyed it enormously. I found the novel fascinating, surprising and captivating, a read which was really worth the effort. Actually I’d say that it is one of the best reads that I ever read. What a pity that the work is so little known outside the Spanish-speaking world! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens in 1855
oil on canvas, by the
French artist Ary Scheffer.
Courtesy of the
National Portrait Gallery,
There are few writers whose name is so closely linked to Christmas as that of Charles Dickens. Who doesn’t know his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, the first and most famous of his Christmas books? One of these days many will have read the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts of past, present and future or they will have watched one of its countless screen adaptations. This has become quite a tradition, almost like reading the Christmas gospel. Charles Dickens’s four other Christmas books, however, are less known to readers worldwide although they are impressive stories as well. They are The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and the largely autobiographical novel The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848). 

Neatly wrapped Charles Dickens’s novels surely found their way under many a Christmas tree this year, too. Although they are nineteenth century works they keep being popular presents – classics in the best sense of the word. Dickens lovers, of course, welcome them with great joy, but children and teenagers often tend to look at them with some distaste because Victorian literature isn’t actually very much in fashion today. Moreover they are books that remind of school, that look lengthy and that are difficult to read because their English is antiquated. I must admit that I’ve read only few works of Dickens because I’m more interested in twentieth century and contemporary writers. Nonetheless I devoured the first three Christmas Books (1843-1845) and Hard Times (1854). They were wonderful and inspiring reads! Great Expectations (1860/61) is on my pile of books to read. 

Unarguably Charles Dickens is one of the greatest authors of the Victorian age and he was very prolific, too. However, I’m pretty sure that nobody would have expected such a career when he was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England/U.K., on 7 February 1812. He was the second child of a clerk in the Naval Pay Office who had another six children with this wife in subsequent years and a habit of living beyond his means. The family soon moved to Bloomsbury in London and later to Chatham in Kent where the father was transferred respectively. Until Charles Dickens was eleven, he enjoyed a happy childhood with much freedom roaming fields, reading popular novels and attending school for a while. Following financial difficulties the family moved to Camden Town in London in 1822. Two years later his father’s debts got completely out of control and made a traumatic end to Charles Dickens’s carefree existence. 

While the rest of the family was forced to move into the Marshalsea debtors' prison in Southwark, London, in 1824, twelve-year-old Charles Dickens was taken from school and sent to Warren's Blacking Warehouse to earn not just his own living, but also to help satisfy his father’s creditors. It must have been a dreadful experience for the boy to work ten-hour days all of a sudden and to have to endure the harsh working conditions common in factories at the time in addition to living separated from his family. After a couple of months the father could pay his debt thanks to a legacy from his late paternal grand-mother and the family was released from the debtors’ prison, but Charles Dickens’s mother insisted that he continued to work in the factory. In the end it was his father who removed the boy from the factory and sent him to school again for a while. Those few months, however, had a lasting impact on Charles Dickens’s soul and made him an ardent social critic as confirms his later fiction. 

In 1827 Charles Dickens left school and began working as a junior clerk at a law office at Gray's Inn. As soon as he had taught himself shorthand, he first entered upon a writing career. He became a freelance reporter covering legal proceedings for different journals, but he was also attracted to the stage. However, after having missed an acting audition at Covent Garden, he fully devoted himself to writing. As from 1833 he worked as a parliamentary journalist for The Morning Chronicle and his first short story A Dinner at Poplar Park appeared in the Londoner Monthly Magazine. Over the following three years Charles Dickens published several sketches under the pseudonym Boz. which were very popular and compiled to a collection titled Sketches by Boz. in 1836. The same year the writer married his editor’s daughter Catherine Hogarth. 

The commercial success of Sketches by Boz. prepared the grounds for an even bigger one: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, better known as The Pickwick Papers, which came out in monthly instalments in 1836/37. From then on the rise of Charles Dickens as a novelist was unstoppable. While he continued as a journalist and editor of weekly as well as monthly periodicals (some of which he founded) all his life, he produced one highly successful novel after the other and most of them are widely read up to this day: The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39), The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1838/39), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840/41), Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty' (1841), The Christmas Books (for titles and publishing years see above), The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849/50), Bleak House (1852/53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860/61), Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and the unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). 

It’s obvious that much of Charles Dickens work was strongly influenced by the writer’s own childhood experiences in the factory. Especially David Copperfield, Bleak House and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain are generally regarded as largely autobiographical although the novelist always took great care not to reveal the sources of his vivid and often shockingly realistic descriptions. In his writings the author based many characters on real people like for instance the family friend Elizabeth Roylance making an appearance as Mrs. Pipchin in Dombey and Son or Archibald Russell and his wife who have been immortalized as the Garlands in The Old Curiosity Shop. He also took recourse to places he knew well. So the scene of all Dickens novels is London where he spent almost all his life with the exception of travels to the USA and Canada and a short period in Italy, Switzerland and France. 

The literary production of Charles Dickens remained prolific throughout his life. In addition he started giving public readings of his works in 1853 and in the late 1950s he founded a theatrical company to bring the play The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins on the stage. For ten years he managed the Urania Cottage, a new kind of home for “fallen” women providing education in domestic household chores instead of punishment. Also the writer’s private life was turbulent. In 1857 the 45-year-old Charles Dickens fell up to the ears in love with the eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. After the birth of his tenth child the following year he separated from his wife Catherine and humiliated her in public. It goes without saying that such industry asked its toll. In 1869 he suffered a first light stroke which was followed by a fatal one a couple of months later. Charles Dickens died at Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent, England/U.K., on 9 June 1870. 

For further reading I recommend the following (of countless) biographies:

Monday, 23 December 2013

Poetry Revisited: Natale – Christmas

Non ho voglia
di tuffarmi
in un gomitolo
di strade

Ho tanta
sulle spalle

Lasciatemi così
come una
in un
e dimenticata

non si sente
che il caldo buono

con le quattro
di fumo
del focolare.

Napoli, il 26 dicembre 1916

Giuseppe Ungaretti
(1888 - 1970)

I don’t have the will
to dive
into a tangle
of streets

I have so much
on my shoulders

Leave me
like a
in a
and forgotten

one feels nothing
than the good warmth

I'll stay
with the four
of smoke
from the hearth.

Napels, 26 December 1916

Serena @ Italian Language Blog

Friday, 20 December 2013

Book Review: Skipping Christmas by John Grisham I’m making a Christmassy sidestep into commercial fiction for a change. Moreover I’m leaving Europe to take you to a typical well-to-do suburbia of a big city as it can be found everywhere in the USA between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Well, at least the place corresponds with the stereotype which countless American TV series, films and novels engraved in my Austrian mind over the years. I’m sure that I couldn’t feel at home in a neighbourhood of houses decorated with glaring lights and kitsch plastic figures. I know that I couldn’t be at ease with people urging me to be jolly and sociable all the time because they have no understanding for my quiet nature. It’s no wonder that the novel Skipping Christmas by John Grisham attracted my attention. Here’s my review! 

John Grisham was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, USA, in February 1955. After high school he attended different universities graduating from Mississippi State University in 1977 and from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1983. While practicing criminal law and serving in the House of Representatives of Mississippi he began writing his first novel A Time to Kill which was published in 1989. Two years later he released his second novel, The Firm, which became a bestseller. Many other highly successful novels followed, most of them legal thrillers like for instance The Client (1993), The Rainmaker (1995), The Testament (1999), The Summons (2002), The Broker (2005), and his most recent work Sycamore Row (2013). Skipping Christmas is a comedy and appeared in 2001. John Grisham lives in Virginia and Mississippi. 

Skipping Christmas starts with the Kranks at the airport just after Thanksgiving. Luther and Nora say good-bye to their twenty-three-year-old daughter Blair who is leaving for Peru to work for the Peace Corps for two years. They let the recently graduated go with heavy hearts. It’s also an awkward situation for the three of them because Christmas is forthcoming and for the first time the family will be separated. On their way back home from the airport Nora declares that she needs a few things from the grocery and it’s Luther who sets out for the crowded shop. The Christmas buying frenzy is already in full swing at Chip’s. 
“What a waste, Luther thought to himself. Why do we eat so much and drink so much in the celebration of the birth of Christ? … He got bumped by a shopping cart. No apology, no one noticed. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was coming from above, as if Luther was supposed to be comforted. Might as well be “Frosty the Snowman.”

… Luther was forced to move off the curb, and in doing so he stepped just left instead of just right. His left foot sank into five inches of cold slush. … and standing at the curb with two frozen feet and the bell clanging away and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” blaring from the loudspeaker and the sidewalk blocked by revelers, Luther began to hate Christmas.” 
When Nora finally is asleep that night, Luther goes down to his basement office. He’s a partner in taxes of a “boutique” accounting firm and also as a private man he keeps meticulous records of his expenses. It doesn’t cost him much time to find out that the previous year the family spent $6,100 on Christmas. 
“And what was left of it? Perhaps a useful item or two, but nothing much—$6,100!” 
Now he has a mission. He’s determined to skip Christmas and to spend the money on something pleasurable instead. The next morning Luther sneaks away from work and goes to the travel agency in the atrium of his building where he books a ship cruise to the Caribbean for himself and his wife. The vessel called Island Princess will leave on Christmas Day. All that still needs to be done is to convince Nora, but he knows her well and the fact that Blair will be away in Peru at Christmas is a good argument in his favour. Nora remains sceptical although she gives in offering only little resistance. However, the Kranks haven’t taken into account the reaction of their surroundings. They don’t understand them and some of them do everything in their power to put the Kranks off their plan. And then, on Christmas Eve, Blair calls from Miami because she’s on her way home! Luther and Nora have less than seven hours to prepare the tree, the decorations, Frosty up on the roof, the Christmas party, everything. 

The novel Skipping Christmas is a light and entertaining read with a formula plot offering many amusing turns in a simple and easy-to-read language. On the whole it’s a rather too conventional comedy to my taste. From the very beginning the average reader will know just like me that it won’t be as easy as Luther imagines to skip a tradition which is observed by most people around, including friends, colleagues, neighbours, and volunteers working for charity who know that his family has always been of the party. And as soon as Luther books the ship cruise and convinces Nora of his plans it’s clear that something will happen to make the Kinks’ efforts and sacrifices obsolete and that they will never go onboard the Island Princess to enjoy their sea cruise. Of course, it’s also inevitable that all the excitement and confusion will lead to a happy end – life as we want it to be, but as it seldom is. 

In general I don’t appreciate novels with such an obvious plot because most of them just bore me to death. Skipping Christmas by John Grisham is at least funny and well-written. Maybe it provides real comfort and escape to more extraverted people than me, while I think that the plot would have offered the perfect opportunity for much deeper reflection. However, I appreciate the little lesson about group pressure which this novel contains and also the open critique of our consumer society. All things considered, it’s a read which I can recommend with good conscience.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Poetry Revisited: Snow Flakes

Photo: Milena B.

(first published 1945) 
I counted till they danced so
Their slippers leaped the town,
And then I took a pencil
To note the rebels down.
And then they grew so jolly
I did resign the prig,
And ten of my once stately toes
Are marshalled for a jig!

                         Emily Dickinson

Friday, 13 December 2013

Book Review: The Christmas Carp by Vicki Baum
The number of Austrian writers from the first half of the twentieth century whose works have been translated into English is small. Few of them are still remembered today and even less of them wrote Christmas stories. The latter fact actually isn’t really a surprise since many of them were Jewish. Despite all I managed to dig out a Christmas story by a rather famous Austrian writer of the interwar period who resided in Germany after 1914 and in the USA as from the early 1930s. The Christmas Carp by Vicki Baum is a product of World War II and it is one of her early fiction written in English instead of her native German. I decided to review it although the original English edition has been out of print already for ages. 

Hedwig “Vicki” Baum was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, in January 1888. Already at an early age she began writing and after her mother’s death from cancer she published her first novel Frühe Schatten  in 1914. Despite all she first opted for a musical career and became a harpist of repute in Germany. Her second novel Once in Vienna (Der Eingang zur Bühne) came out in 1920 and started off her career as a full-time writer. During the 1920s she became one of the most popular authors of mainstream melodramatic novels in the German-speaking world. It was only in 1929 that the prolific writer had her international break-through with Grand Hotel (Menschen im Hotel). After a promotion tour around the USA she settled down in California with her family in 1932 and continued to write first in German and from 1941 on in English. The most notable among her later works are Love and Death in Bali (Liebe und Tod auf Bali: 1937; also translated as A Tale of Bali), Shanghai ’37 (Hotel Shanghai: 1939; also translated as Nanking Road), The Christmas Carp. A Story (1941), Berlin Hotel (1943), Weeping Wood (1943), and The Mustard Seed (1953). Vicki Baum died in Hollywood, California, USA, in August 1960. Her autobiography It Was All Quite Different (Es war alles ganz anders: 1962; also translated as I Know What I’m Worth) was published posthumously. 

The scene of The Christmas Carp is the home of the Lanner family in the Austrian capital Vienna. The story begins on a Nikolaus Day, that is to say on a 6 December in the 1920s, when Friedel and the twins Annie and Hans are still small enough to believe in all the magic stories connected to the season which they are being told by adults. But Nikolaus Day marks the true beginning of Christmastime for the whole family because the visit from Saint Nikolaus and his diabolic companion Knecht Ruprecht unfailingly coincides with the arrival of the widowed aunt Mali from the country who joins the Lanners to help with Christmas preparations and to celebrate with the family. Every year they have the idyllic Christmas of a well-to-do Catholic household with a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, a table laden with presents, heaps of savoury Christmas biscuits and for dinner a carefully chosen Christmas carp from the Jewish fishmonger whose carps are the best and most beautiful in all Vienna. But time doesn’t stand still. The children grow up, Austria is annexed to Hitler’s Third Reich and at last the country is at war. Friedel is a pilot, Annie is engaged to Paul, a lieutenant stationed in France, and Hans works in an ammunition factory instead of continuing his pharmacy studies. With the war comes penury, but old aunt Mali still travels from her relatively safe country home to Vienna and is determined to prepare a wonderful Christmas dinner for the family. After all, she has the Lanners’ cookery-book in which she put down her recipes for unheard of delicacies made of the most unlikely ingredients during the years of World War I. She even managed to trace out the Jewish fishmonger to have a carp for Christmas dinner as usual, but there’s a hitch to it. It’s only 6 December and she had to take the fish to Vienna alive. The only solution is to put the ugly little carp into the bath tub and to care for it until Christmas. 

In my German edition The Christmas Carp is a short story of scant fifteen pages, so it may be even shorter in English. Vicki Baum made it her task to make a non-Austrian audience, especially American readers, acquainted with typically Austrian Christmas traditions. However, they are only the peaceful and merry background for a plot showing the consequences of a cruel and destructive war on the level of a family and their impact on everyday life including dear habits. The carp serves as a symbol for the millions of innocent victims of the war as reveals the final passage. Vicki Baum’s style and language are simple, clear and rather matter-of-fact although – especially in the second half – the author also doesn’t spare with irony. The story is serious and thoughtful as well as funny and entertaining. For me the beginning was a bit slow because it contains several explanations regarding Austrian traditions which I know rather well of course. A non-Austrian reader may feel differently about it. The characters of the story, above all aunt Mali who is expressly described as quite an original, are well depicted and feel like real people. 

I enjoyed reading The Christmas Carp by Vicki Baum. It’s a pity that the short story is out of print (like almost all this Austrian author's works) and only few will get a chance to read it. It’s not just a story about a family Christmas, but it’s also a testimony of a time when war raged in Europe and people had to improvise to make possible a decent Christmas dinner in the middle of senseless slaughtering and destruction.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Thirteen Nobel Women of Letters

and the Relativity of Statistics

Yesterday, like every year on 10 December, the five Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace along with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (endowed by the Sveriges Riksbank, not the Nobel Foundation) of the closing year have been awarded in Stockholm and Oslo respectively. The names of the laureates of 2013 had been made public already two months ago and it goes without saying that I as a book lover had been most curious to know who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s always interesting to see which writer’s work the Swedish Academy considered as sufficiently outstanding “in an ideal direction” to deserve the prestigious award. Since 1901 probably hundreds of authors have been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and 110 of them (108 not counting Boris L. Pasternak and Jean Paul Sartre who declined the award) actually received it: 97 men – and 13 women. 

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature is the Canadian writer Alice Munro who for health reasons excused herself from attending in person at the splendid ceremony in Sweden. The “master of the contemporary short story” also declared in October that she would retire from literary work – although by now she is wavering already. Her long career as an author began in 1968 with the much acclaimed and award-winning short story collection titled Dance of the Happy Shades which was followed by a great number of short stories printed in renowned magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review as well as in several collections. Her latest published work is Dear Life (2012). The latest of her original short story collections are Too Much Happiness (2009), The View from Castle Rock (2006), Runaway (2004), and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001; including the story The Bear Came Over the Mountain on which Sarah Polley’s film Away from Her is based).

When Alice Munro was officially announced as this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature in October, almost everywhere special attention was called to the fact that in the course of 113 years (minus seven years when the Nobel Prize wasn’t awarded) she is only the thirteenth woman of letters being honoured by the Swedish Academy for her literary work. Of course, the statistics are right, but what does it mean? Time didn’t stand still during all those years and our society of today isn’t the same as it was in 1901. To me it seems unfair to lump together the first half of the twentieth century and the years of the new millennium. We need a more differentiated look at the statistics. 

In fact the past ten years alone have seen four female recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature including this year's winner Alice Munro. The other three were the German-Romanian author Herta Müller in 2009 (see my review of The Passport), the recently deceased British writer Doris Lessing in 2007, and the Austrian novelist, poet and playwright Elfriede Jelinek in 2004. I’d say that four women to six men is quite a good ratio considering the situation in today’s literary business which still seems to be very much in favour of male authors (see also my post Women Writers). The picture is less balanced and at the same time more realistic, if we look at all the 2000s: four women and nine men. Taking the last 25 years as statistical basis, there are three more women writers who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. They are the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in 1996, the US-American novelist Toni Morrison in 1993 and the South-African author Nadine Gordimer in 1991. Seven women writers (almost half of all 13!) are up against 18 men. 

On the other hand, the 45 years between World War II and 1988 have been a rather bleak period for women of letters. The German-Swedish writer Nelly Sachs in 1966 and the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral in 1945 are the only two women among 45 (43 without Pasternak and Sartre) literary men who were thought worth of receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. The interwar period definitely has been a better time for female writers. From 1919 through 1939 three of the twenty Nobel Prize laureates were women, i.e. the US-American writer Pearl S. Buck in 1938, the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset in 1928 (see my review of Jenny) and the Italian novelist Grazia Deledda in 1926. The first female recipient ever of the Nobel Prize in Literature was the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf in 1909, the only one among 17 male recipients until 1917. 

My analysis of the statistics of the Nobel Prize in Literature shows that times have changed in favour of women and that at present we don’t have any reason to stand up against discrimination in Stockholm. After 113 years female writers seem at last to have equal opportunities of winning this important award. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case everywhere in the literary business, but women like me are working on it. Many of us write excellent literary fiction and continue the battle against prejudices evoked by the simple fact that we have female given names. Clear-sighted and courageous editors/juries, on the other hand, are still wanted in many places. 

For reviews of works written by Nobel Prize laureates I recommend Read the Nobels where I reblog my suitable reviews every once in a while.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Poetry Revisited: Advent


Es treibt der Wind im Winterwalde
Die Flockenherde wie ein Hirt,
Und mancheTanne ahnt, wie balde
Sie fromm und lichterheilig wird,
Und lauscht hinaus. Den weißen Wegen
Streckt sie die Zweige hin – bereit,
Und wehrt dem Wind und wächst entgegen
Der einen Nacht der Herrlichkeit.
Rainer Maria Rilke


In the winter woods the wind drives
the flock of snowflakes, shepherd-like,
and many a fir-tree feels how soon
it will be sanctified by lights,
and listens out. To the white pathways
it stretches its branches – ready,
and wards off the wind and grows towards
that one single night of glory.

Edith LaGraziana 2013

Friday, 6 December 2013

Book Review: Christmas Holiday by William Somerset Maugham’s December and all over the world Christian families are preparing for Christmas once again. For me as an introvert in a predominantly Roman Catholic country the hustle and bustle of this time of the year is getting almost unbearable and as often as I can I seize the opportunity to hide away at home alone with a good book for hours on end. However, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t pay my blogging tribute to the Advent season and I make the start with a classic from the wake of World War II. Remaining true to myself, I passed over the heaps of mainstream novels revolving around blood-dripping crimes or heart-rending love and instead chose for today’s review Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham which, as it turned out, offers bits of both.

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris, France, in January 1874. His childhood was unhappy since by the age of ten the sensitive boy had lost both his parents and grew up in the care of his cold uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, the Vicar of Whitstable in Kent. He began writing steadily at the age of fifteen and, secretly at first, aspired at being an author. During a year in Heidelberg, Germany, he produced a biography of the opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Back to the U.K. he trained and qualified as a doctor at St. Thomas' Hospital in Lambeth, London, but immediately gave up practicing when his first novel Liza of Lambeth became a tremendous success in 1897. Over the following decades the writer brought out many other novels, plays and short stories along with travel books, essays, literary criticism, and two autobiographical publications. The most famous among his works are Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Trembling of a Leaf (1921), On a Chinese Screen (1922), The Razor’s Edge (1944), and A Writer’s Notebook (1949). Christmas Holiday is one of his less known novels and came out in 1939. William Somerset Maugham died in Nice, France, where he had been living from the 1920s on, in December 1965.

The title of Christmas Holiday makes expect a light and entertaining read, but as soon as the blue-eyed twenty-three-year-old Londoner, Charley Mason, arrives in Paris it becomes clear that the plot won’t be particularly cheerful. The travel is a present from his father, a reward for having worked hard as an accountant for the family business for a full year after his graduation from Cambridge although he had toyed with the idea of becoming a painter or a pianist. It’s the first time that the shy young man is in Paris alone instead of with his art-loving family. He is looking forward to seeing his best (and only) school-friend Simon again after two years and to having a lark in the city of love. Already at the train station Charley is disappointed for the first time because Simon isn’t there.

As it turns out Simon made a point of not meeting Charley at his arrival. His behaviour is completely in line with his harsh, cynical and unscrupulous nature which made Charley’s mother always dislike him and wonder why her soft and cheerful son admired him so much. As a foreign correspondent Simon began to harden his character even more because he’s convinced that only who first achieves mastery over himself can achieve mastery over others. At dinner he explains to his naïve friend Charley that he intends to further cultivate his strength – rhetoric – and to rid himself of his weakness – humanity. He aspires at complete spiritual aloofness in order to be indifferent to insult, neglect and ridicule. His aim is the development of an unconquerable will; his means is self-denial. In all this there’s no room for friendship or other human relations. Simon never directly answers to what end he denies himself everything that makes life pleasant, but Charley knows his strong sympathies for the Communist cause and it’s obvious that he wants what he calls a life that matters.

Others would have been taken aback by Simon’s radical ideas, but Charley holds on to their friendship and doesn’t give his words much credit. After dinner they move on to a night club called the Sérail where girls of good descent are entertaining the well-to-do clients in baggy trousers, with small turbans on their heads and a naked upper part of the body. Charley learns that misery drove them into prostitution and on Simon’s initiative he is presented to one of them called “Princess Olga”. At the time Charley doesn’t know that he’ll pass the rest of his holidays with this young Russian émigré whose real name is Lydia. Her story will shatter his childish conception of life and let him see the dark sides of human existence as well as the true nature of his friend Simon and his fanatic schemes.

Critics of his time called the prose of W. Somerset Maugham plain and full of clichés. In fact Christmas Holiday is written in a simple language with everyday vocabulary which makes it easy to read. At the same time it’s a partly symbolist period work which might reveal all its significance only to those who have sufficient knowledge of the past, above all the years between the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the writing down of the novel in 1939 which saw the rise of several fascist or otherwise ruthless regimes in the world. Another great war was dawning, but the wide public brushed aside the thought preferring to ignore what was going on in Europe and in Germany in particular. Simon with his sombre dark eyes is the prototype of a demagogue and a dictator or at least of one of their cold-blooded executives like those who were later trialled in Nuremberg, while happy-natured Charley with his blue eyes stands for the innocent masses that only know their sheltered lives and look at the world through the rose-coloured spectacles of their own experience. Olga, or really Lydia, with her big blue eyes represents the suffering victim who has lost all illusions and who feels that it’s her duty to atone for the crimes of the ruthless although she’s innocent and her continuing loyalty seems crazy. She may also be seen as an allegory of a miserable reality which can no longer be overlooked by the likes of Charley.

These days the general atmosphere in society is getting harsher again. Performance – thus rhetoric – triumphs far too often over contents – thus expertise or just common sense. Coolness is considered as a desirable quality, while compassion and empathy use to be looked at as weakness, above all in business, but not only there. The complacent lives which most of us lead in the rich industrial countries shield us from the appalling reality of our neighbours. And like ancient Romans who took great pleasure in watching die gladiators or convicts (e.g. the first Christians) in the arena, we content ourselves with panem et circenses – bread and circuses, or in modern words: plenty of food and entertainment. Shouldn’t we know better after so many centuries, even millennia? Shouldn’t we have learned from history?

As you can see, Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham offers a lot to think about! The read was definitely worth the time and it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. Moreover I invite you to take this novel and the Christmas season as an occasion to re-evaluate your moral standards and your attitude towards others, no matter if you’re a Christian or not, a believer or not.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Poetry Revisited: A Winter Dawn


Above the marge of night a star still shines,
And on the frosty hills the sombre pines
Harbor an eerie wind that crooneth low
Over the glimmering wastes of virgin snow.
Through the pale arch of orient the moon
Comes in a milk-white splendour newly-born,
A sword of crimson cuts in twain the gray
Banners of shadow hosts, and lo, the day!

                                  Lucy Maud Montgomery

Friday, 29 November 2013

Book Review: Fair Play by Tove Jansson the season suggests, on my tour around the European continent I’m moving today from Hungary northwards to Finland, the home country of Santa Claus and his reindeers. Every year millions of letters addressed to the white-bearded gentleman in red are delivered to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle where he resides according to legend. However, I’m not going to review a Christmas novel – not yet. Instead I picked a book by a writer belonging to the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland: Fair Play by Tove Jansson. The author’s international fame is based above all on her stories for children revolving around the Moomins, but she also wrote noteworthy novels and short narratives for adults like the work which I’m reviewing today.

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, then Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire, in August 1914. After her arts studies in Sweden and France she made her living as a writer, painter, illustrator, and cartoonist. In 1945 she brought out The Moomins and the Great Flood (Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen) which was the first in the series of Moomin novels, picture books and comic strips produced over 25 years. Then Tove Jansson‘s dedicated herself to adult fiction producing among others the novels The Summer Book (Sommarboken: 1972), Sun City (Solstaden: 1974), The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren: 1982), and Fair Play (Rent spel: 1989) as well as several collections of short stories like The Listener (Lyssnerskan; 1971), Art in Nature (Dockskåpet och andra berättelser: 1978; also translated as The Dollhouse and Other Stories), Travelling Light (Resa med lätt bagage: 1987), and A Winter Book (Meddelande: 1998). All along she was also a highly successful painter. Tove Jansson died in Helsinki, Finland, in June 2001.

The protagonists of Fair Play are Mari and Jonna, a writer-illustrator and a filmmaker-graphic artist in their early seventies, who are living somewhere at the Baltic Sea, presumably Helsinki and one of the small islands off the Finnish coast respectively depending on the season. They have been close friends – companions – since childhood and share their lives dwelling
“… at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.” 
A series of seventeen seemingly unimportant episodes as can occur on any ordinary day shows how the two women managed to work and live together for so long without losing respect, admiration and love for each other. From the very beginning it becomes clear that allowing each other space has a key role in it. It’s a prerequisite for them to thrive, to simply be themselves and to go their own artistic ways with the support of the other, yet without her unasked meddling.
 “And over the years, [Mari]’d learned not to interfere with Jonna’s plans and their mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance, a mix not everyone can properly appreciate. Some people just shouldn’t be disturbed in their inclinations, whether large or small. A reminder can instantly turn enthusiasm into aversion and spoil everything.” (Changing Pictures) 
Mari and Jonna know the capricious nature of all creative urge. Between them there’s no need to talk about it, no need to explain sudden irascibility and unrest or the unexpected wish for retreat and solitude. They are familiar with each other’s habits and moods before, during and after the act of creating a new piece of art. They understand and do as bid because for both it’s best that way. After all, each one appreciates and admires the work of the other, its power and uniqueness, but also the thought and effort put into it.
“They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.” (Videomania) 
However, each one of the elderly women is a person of her own right and none of them is prone to submissiveness. So it goes without saying that they aren’t always of one mind and that they quarrel like every couple. In the end, they always sort things out one way or another. Life taught them that they can’t control everything and that sometimes it’s better to let go. They are painfully aware of getting older and of their dwindling strength. They go on living together and travelling together, but at the same time Mari and Jonna have each a life of her own, a life filled with friendship and love.

In Fair Play Tove Jansson produced a very fine and calm piece of literature about creativity and the life-long friendship of two women trying to reconcile life and art in their relationship. Fairness and playfulness are the essential qualities evoked from beginning to end. In a strict sense the slim book is a collection of seventeen vignettes, but the short stories are interweaved and combine to a character study of the two protagonists, a fact which makes it seem justified just as well to call it a novel. There’s no elaborate plot linking the stories and all things considered there isn’t happening much in Fair Play. On the other hand, the psychological conditions of the artist as well as the creative process itself get much room in it and form kind of a red thread. The author’s style is clear and unpretentious at first sight, but the stories use to have a philosophical dimension, too, which isn’t always obvious and which therefore may be less accessible to a quick reader.

For me Fair Play by Tove Jansson was an easy and light read in which I often recognized myself as an artist. I enjoyed the calm stories of everyday life very much and it was nice to see the relationship of two women depicted as true friendship instead of a never ending series of stupid intrigues. Consequently I recommend the book for reading.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
painted by Karl von Blaas
It’s no secret. When I choose something to read and review here on Edith’s Miscellany, the odds are almost 100% that it’ll be a book first published between 1900 and the present. Every once in a while I also go for a classic from the nineteenth century or before, but such reads attracted me a lot more when I was a teenager. Despite all I’m fully aware of the period having brought forth many important writers, notably women, whose work is appreciated up to this day. Everybody knows George Eliot and the Brontë sisters, but other nineteenth-century writers are rarely heard of. One of the most outstanding German-language authors between 1850 and the fin-de-siècle was the Austro-Hungarian noblewoman Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. 

The career of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach as a writer was quite extraordinary considering that she belonged to the Catholic-Bohemian aristocracy of Austria-Hungary and that in her time writing wasn’t considered a suitable occupation for a woman, even less for one of her rank. Marie Baroness von Ebner-Eschenbach, née Baroness Dubský von Třebomyslice, was born in Zdislavice Castle near Kroměříž in Moravia, Austrian Empire (Austria-Hungary as from 1867; Czech Republic today), on 13 September 1830. As a matter of fact, she was an almost exact contemporary of the Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King Francis Joseph I who had come into the world less than a month earlier. Marie’s mother died from puerperal fever like so many at the time and her father remarried soon, but the girl became very close to both her stepmothers Eugénie Bartenstein (who died when she was seven years old) and Countess Xaverine Kolowrat-Krakowsky. 

The little baroness grew up in Zdislavice Castle where she passed the summers and in the family’s winter residence in Vienna. German and French governesses were charged with her education which was carefully supervised by Marie’s maternal grandmother, her aunt Helen and her stepmothers. As was often the case in noble families, the girl’s first language was French, but she also learned German and Czech, the latter certainly to a great part owing to Czech servants. When they stayed in Vienna, her second stepmother often took the girl to the Burgtheater and encouraged her to read, while she didn’t approve of her literary attempts. Marie was seventeen when her stepmother sent some poems to the famous Austrian poet and dramatist Franz Grillparzer in the hope that he would call them awful, but he didn’t. On the contrary, he praised them and thus transformed the girl’s wish to be a writer into determination. 

At the age of eighteen Marie Baroness Dubský von Třebomyslice married her cousin Moritz Baron von Ebner-Eschenbach who was fifteen years her senior and moved with him to Louka near Znojmo in Southern Moravia (today Czech Republic) where he taught at the Military Engineering Academy until his transferral to Vienna eight years later in 1856. Encouraged by Franz Grillparzer and with the full support of her husband Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach pursued her literary ambitions. In 1858 she dared a first step into the public: her epistolary satire Aus Franzensbad was published anonymously. After that she focused on dramas in the style of Friedrich Schiller for about twenty years, but none of those (Maria Stuart in Schottland: 1858; Marie Roland: 1867; and several one-act plays) was successful. 

At last Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach turned to the genre in which proved to lie her true talent: narrative writing. Her short novel Božena came out in the journal Deutsche Rundschau in 1876 and received some positive attention which encouraged her to continue on her new way. In 1879 Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach did an apprenticeship as a clock maker – probably because she collected clocks – and wrote the narrative Lotti die Uhrmacherin (engl. Lotti the clock maker) printed in the Deutsche Rundschau in 1880. From then on publishing houses stood open to her and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach became one of the most widely-read and important authors of her time, noted above all for her elegant style and realistic depiction of characters and scenery. 

After a collection of Aphorismen (1880, translated as Aphorisms) and two series of very popular short stories (Dorf- und Schloßgeschichten: 1883 – including her most famous novella Krambambuli; Neue Dorf- und Schloßgeschichten: 1886) the writer brought out her most important novel Das Gemeindekind in 1887. Over the following twelve years Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach produced a large number of short stories and novellas like Two Contesses (Zwei Comtessen: 1885) and Beyond Atonement (Unsühnbar: 1890) in addition to the novel Agave (1903) and autobiographical sketches titled Meine Kinderjahre (1906). Altweibersommer from 1909 was the last work published during her lifetime.

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s husband died in 1898, the same year when she received the highest civilian decoration of Austria-Hungary, the Cross of Honour for Arts and Literature. Two years later the University of Vienna honoured the writer for her life’s work conferring upon her as the first woman ever the degree of doctor of philosophy, honoris causa.

Marie Baroness von Ebner-Eschenbach died in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, on 12 March 1916 just a couple of months before Emperor Francis Joseph I.

If you wish to learn more about life and work of Marie Baroness von Ebner-Eschenbach I recommend the following biographies:

Monday, 25 November 2013

Poetry Revisited: November


No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon –
No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –

                                                 Thomas Hood

Friday, 22 November 2013

Book Review: Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész my literary tour of Europe I visit Hungary today and it almost goes without saying that I continue with a book connected to war and death. Hungary entered World War II in 1941 siding with Nazi Germany, but only in March 1944 German troops occupied the country and began with the deportation of the Jewish population to concentration camps. In February 1945 Red Army forces liberated Hungary as can be read in Sándor Márai’s masterly novel Szabadulás (meaning “liberation”) set during the siege of Budapest which lamentably doesn’t seem to have been translated into English. The country remained under Soviet supremacy (and control) until 1989. All those hardships naturally influenced the further lives of people, among them the Nobel Prize laureate in literature 2002 Imre Kertész who made his balance in Kaddish for an Unborn Child.

Imre Kertész was born in Budapest, Hungary, in November 1929. For being of Jewish descent he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz at the age of fourteen and later moved on to Buchenwald. After his liberation from the concentration camp in 1945 he returned to Hungary, finished school and then worked for a newspaper, as an industrial worker and a ministerial officer until his obligatory two-year military service. From 1953 on Imre Kertész earned his living as an independent writer and translator of German-language authors and philosophers. The author’s first and probably most famous novel published in 1975 is Fatelessness (Sorstalanság; also translated as Fateless) which together with Fiasco (A kudarc: 1988), Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért: 1990; also translated as Kaddish for a Child Not Born), and Liquidation (Felszámolás: 2003) forms kind of a tetralogy with strong autobiographical echoes like all his fiction and essays. In 2002 Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since 2001 the author lives mainly in Berlin, Germany.

The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead. The narrating protagonist writes his Kaddish for an Unborn Child or to be precise for a son or daughter who could have been, but never even was conceived because he always refused to bring children into a world in which the holocaust had been possible. At the beginning stands the innocent question of a philosopher making conversation during a walk through the park of a rest-home in the Hungarian highlands. He wants to know whether the ageing narrator has children. His answer is an as immediate and vehement “No!” as when his then wife, now (remarried) ex-wife, told him that she wanted a child. What follows is a bitter look back at his failed marriage, at his career as a writer compelled to do translations for a living, at his ordeal in the concentration camps, at his relations with the autocratic father and his time in a boarding school, thus at his entire existence. He also meditates on what relevance his Jewish heritage has in all this, especially for him who has no faith. He knows that in reality he has died long ago together with millions of others. Like many holocaust survivors he feels that he has no right to exist and that his purpose is to complete the task which the Nazi bloodhounds began in the concentration camps. So he is constantly “digging his grave in the air”. As a natural consequence he is unable to commit to anyone or anything with his entire self, be it his wife, his career, his dwelling – or a child.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a thin book offering dense content with many philosophical insights. It’s a first-person narrative addressed to the child whom the narrator never fathered and in a way it reminded me of a long letter. In fact, a thoughtful monologue interrupted only by some remembered dialogues fills the pages from beginning to end. In addition Imre Kertész didn’t structure his novel in any usual way. There are no chapters and only few paragraphs. Sentences are long and meandering. Form and style are entirely subordinated to the natural flow of the stream of consciousness which also forces a line break whenever the narrator hurls another firm “No!” at his wife and at the world. Also the inner order of the story isn’t chronological, but it works like our mind picking up ideas and thoughts on the spur of the moment. So in a certain way it’s a difficult read requiring sometimes to leaf back and to re-read passages to understand properly.

If you’re looking for a cheerful and entertaining read Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész definitely is the wrong choice. If you enjoy intelligent as well as intense writings and don’t mind a dark mood, it’s the perfect read. Highly recommended to everyone who wishes to understand the minds of holocaust survivors and their children.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Poetry Revisited: Temps Perdu


I never may turn the loop of a road 
Where sudden, ahead, the sea is Iying, 
But my heart drags down with an ancient load- 
My heart, that a second before was flying. 

I never behold the quivering rain- 
And sweeter the rain than a lover to me- 
But my heart is wild in my breast with pain; 
My heart, that was tapping contentedly. 

There's never a rose spreads new at my door 
Nor a strange bird crosses the moon at night 
But I know I have known its beauty before, 
And a terrible sorrow along with the sight. 

The look of a laurel tree birthed for May 
Or a sycamore bared for a new November 
Is as old and as sad as my furtherest day- 
What is it, what is it, I almost remember?

                                            Dorothy Parker
                                             (1893 - 1967)