Sunday 30 June 2013

Month of Roses

The perfume of roses drifts through the air,
Invites passers-by to stop and rest.
People on benches devour the sun,
The roses around shine in bright colours.

It's the month of June!
Well... just for a few more hours.

© LaGraziana 2013 

Friday 28 June 2013

Book Review: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier is like a journey on a train. Sometimes it feels as if it were standing still although in reality we are advancing at the usual pace without noticing it because the landscape by the wayside is so uniform or dark. Sometimes we seem to be rushing through such an incredibly varying scenery that we get dizzy looking out of the window of our compartment. The big question is: do we prefer travelling through unspectacular and secure spheres or are we ready for some adventure and nausea? The novel Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier that I picked for today’s review deals with such choices and what makes us take them.

Pascal Mercier is the pen name of the Swiss writer and philosopher Peter Bieri who was born in Berne, Switzerland, in June 1944. After his studies of philosophy he pursued a scientific career becoming a full professor of philosophy at the Free University of Berlin in 1993. His debut novel Perlmann’s Silence (Perlmanns Schweigen) came out in 1995 and was followed by Der Klavierstimmer (The Piano Tuner, still untranslated into English) in 1998. Night Train to Lisbon (Nachtzug nach Lissabon) was released in 2004 and soon became an international best-seller. Pascal Mercier’s latest published fiction work is Lea (still untranslated into English) from 2007.

The protagonist of Night Train to Lisbon is 57-year-old Raimund Gregorius who has been teaching ancient Greek, Latin and biblical Hebrew in a grammar school in his birth town Berne for decades. He is a creature of habit and a model of reliability paired with precision avoiding the imponderables of life best possible. He doesn’t enjoy travelling out of fear to get lost or to lose his already very poor eyesight and delights in ancient languages for their invariability which gives him security. Everything changes on a rainy morning when Raimund Gregorius encounters a woman about to jump from the bridge that he crosses every day on his way to school. To his question about her native language, she answers only one word: ‘português’. In his ears it sounds like music that adds to the mystery surrounding the deadly pale stranger. 

The daily routine is broken and in class Gregorius’ mind wanders off to questions about the rich future lying ahead of his students. In the middle of his lesson he leaves school without a word knowing inside that he won’t return. He strolls through the city of Berne and ends in the Spanish bookshop where a humble grey book printed in Lisbon in 1975 attracts him: UM OURIVES DAS PALAVRAS – A GOLDSMITH OF WORDS. The owner of the shop translates the first passages for him and he is hooked. Its Portuguese author Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado expressed his thoughts in a way that makes Gregorius feel as if the words were directed at him alone: 
‘Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us – what happens with the rest?’ 
The book and its author intrigue Gregorius. It doesn’t suffice him to translate the text with the help of his sound knowledge of Latin and a Portuguese self-study course for beginners. After only one night immerged into the thoughts of Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado he knows that he must find out more about the man and his life. He needs to go to Portugal, but for a moment he hesitates because it means giving up his settled and secure existence. Then his mind is set and he takes the night train to Lisbon not knowing what he will find, nor what he is really looking for. In Lisbon he plunges into the history of Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado and that of Portugal during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. He investigates the life of the mysterious medical doctor from a noble family, traces and meets people who knew him, sees places where he was at some point, and learns about events that made him the person who eventually brought to paper a goldsmith’s words. Putting together all those pieces of the puzzle, he reveals an ever completer picture of Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado. At the same time Gregorius analyses and questions his own life as a school teacher without ambitions and as a divorced man without passion. 

Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon is no light read. It’s a philosophical novel about the search for identity, for the outer events of a life and seized as well as missed opportunities moulding a personality. In addition the text is interspersed with Portuguese phrases that Gregorius translates with ever more ease as his studies of the language advance. The story is absorbing like a thriller with the difference that on the way through the book we aren’t hunting for a dangerous killer, but for the life story of a person never catching more than just a small glimpse of it at a time. 

Some may find Night Train to Lisbon too meditative and/or too intricate a novel, but for me it was a real treat. It’s definitely among the best books that I ever read in my life. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it more than warmly to everyone with a philosophical vein.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Murder on the Orient Express

These days I’m no big fan of crime fiction although the books of Agatha Christie were my gate to the world of original English versions. Later on I lost my taste for murder, kidnappings and the like. They use to remind me too much of criminal law which I thoroughly disliked throughout my law studies. However, every once in a while I still take pleasure in watching a murder mystery, preferably an old one. Today I’m in the mood for writing about one of those legendary films: Murder on the Orient Express based on the crime novel of the same title by Agatha Christie

The film Murder on the Orient Express directed by Sydney Lumet came out late in 1974, forty years after the book had been released and little more than a year before Dame Agatha Christie died at Winterbrook House, U.K., aged 85. As it seems, it was one of few screen adaptations of her stories that she sort of appreciated although she is reported to have complained about Hercule Poirot’s moustache that wasn’t as fine as she had described it. The film was a big success. It was nominated for several Oscars, but only Ingrid Bergman was awarded one as Best Supporting Actress. 

The story of Murder on the Orient Express is set in the 1930s, when travellers still took the prestigious train to get from Istanbul to Western Europe although plane flights already began to be quite popular at the time. The film starts with a flashback on past events: the kidnapping and murder of a baby that Agatha Christie clearly modelled after the Charles Lindbergh case in the USA filling the newspapers from 1932 on. Then the real plot sets off. At Istanbul main station travellers board the Orient Express, among them Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney). When Poirot talks to his friend Bianchi (played by Martin Balsam), who is a director of the company operating the train line, he learns that all first-class sleeping-berths are booked out although winter uses to be the slow season. Later Poirot is addressed by Mr. Ratchet (played by Richard Widmark), a wealthy businessman from the USA, because he received death threats and would like the famous Belgian detective to find the culpable. The case doesn’t tempt him at all and he refuses. During the following night a cry rouses Hercule Poirot from sleep. He hears muffled voices and steps in the corridor, but when he gets up to have a look everything is quiet. Only in the morning he learns that Mr. Ratchet has been killed in his sleep. As luck would have it, during the night the train was snowbound somewhere on the Balkans in the middle of nowhere and Bianchi asks Hercule Poirot to help him solve the crime. 

Dr. Constantine (played by George Coulouris), a Greek medical doctor and acquaintance of Bianchi, examines the corpse and confirms what Hercule Poirot expected, namely that Mr. Ratchet was stabbed several times. He counts twelve wounds, some of them slight, others mortal. The circle of suspects can quickly be reduced to the travellers on the first-class coach and the French conductor, Pierre-Paul Michel (played by Jean-Pierre Cassel), who helps in the investigation. Hercule Poirot begins a series of interrogations and cross-examinations of the travellers. There are the victim’s employees, the secretary and translator Hector McQueen (played by Anthony Perkins) and the English valet Edward Henry Beddoes (played by Sir John Gielgud). The other travellers are the widowed American socialite Harriet Belinda Hubbard (played by Lauren Becall), the Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson (played by Ingrid Bergman), the Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi (played by Michael York) and his wife Elena (played by Jacqueline Bisset), the elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (played by Wendy Hiller) and her Germen personal maid Hildegard Schmidt (played by Rachel Roberts), Colonel Aruthnott (played by Sean Connery) from the British Indian Army, the English teacher Mary Debenham (played by Vanessa Redgrave), the Italian American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli (played by Denis Quilley), and the talent agent Cyros B. Hardman (played by Colin Blakely). None of them seems to have had any connection with the victim, not to mention a motive for murder, but Hercule Poirot looks beneath the surface and draws the right as well as startling conclusions. 

I won’t disclose anything else because I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of those who don’t know Murder on the Orient Express, yet. Whenever I watch this film, I enjoy it – and not just because the cast list looks like the 1970s' Who's Who of cinema.

 For those who prefer reading:

Tuesday 25 June 2013

European Reading Challenge 2013

ROSE CITY READER (aka Gilion Dumas) is hosting a reading challenge. I reached the Five Star (Deluxe Entourage) level of participation already long before entering the challenge. Admittedly, I don't aim at winning the Jet Setter Prize because I loathe being pushed by competition, but I definitely want to read more diverse European literature. I adore the idea of making a literary tour of Europe. It's unlikely that I'll be able to read something from every single one of the fifty countries listed (some are really tricky), I'll try my best, though.

By the way, if you like, you can still join in. Just click above on the image, the headline or the link to Gilion's blog!

Here's the list of my reads set in the respective country – including the links to reviews which I wrote about some of the books:




Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg
Chess by Stefan Zweig
Engel des Vergessens by Maja Haderlap (no English edition found)


The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
Bosnia & Herzegovina




Czech Republic




Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola



Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason
Der gute Liebhaber by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (original Icelandic title: Góði Elskhuginn; no English edition found)


The Zahir by Paulo Coelho











Republic of Macedonia

San Marino


Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho
City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza





United Kingdom   
The Art of Leaving by Anna Stothard
Vatican City


Sunday 23 June 2013

Red Rose, White Rose

“Marry a red rose and eventually she'll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is ‘moonlight in front of my bed’. Marry a white rose, and before long she'll be a grain of sticky rice that's gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark over your heart.”
from Red Rose, White Rose by Eileen Chang

Friday 21 June 2013

Book Review: Red Rose, White Rose by Eileen Chang week I put my focus on Asian literature. There are authors from Japan like Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto whose novels are rather popular here in Europe, too, but for the rest Asia is almost a white spot on my literary landscape. The works of the Chinese Nobel Prize laureate for literature of 2012, Mo Yan, are only slowly appearing in the shelves of our bookshops and I haven’t yet read any of them. On the other hand, a friend of mine called my attention to one of her favourite writers, Eileen Chang. I decided to pick her novella Red Rose, White Rose for today’s review.

Eileen Chang (張愛玲, correctly transliterated Zhang Ailing) was born in Shanghai, China, in September 1920. She studied English literature in Hong Kong, but due to the war returned to China in 1941 before finishing her degree. In 1943 Eileen Chang began her literary career and within two years rose to be one of the most acclaimed Chinese writers. Together with Love in a Fallen City (倾城之恋) and Lust, Caution (色,戒) the novella Red Rose, White Rose (紅玫瑰白玫瑰) is one of her best known works outside China. In 1952 she moved to Hong Kong again and then immigrated into the USA where her first novel written in English, The Rice Sprout Song, came out in 1955. She finished two more English novels (both partly autobiographical) in 1963, but The Fall of the Pagoda as well as The Book of Change were published only many years after Eileen Chang had died in Los Angeles, USA, in September 1995. 

Red Rose, White Rose is set in Shanghai during the 1940s. The novella revolves around Tong Zhenbao and his attitude towards women as well as life in general. Stemming from a poor family he is the prototype of a social climber and self-made man who subordinates everything and everyone to his plans. He is the product of an education that still treasured traditional Chinese – i.e. strictly patriarchal – values while society was already heading into modern times. As an upper-level manager in a foreign textile company Zhenbao is a successful member of the higher middle class. In addition, he has a home, a wife and a nine-year-old daughter as he ought to. All things considered, he has the ideal life that he always planned to have at this stage. He has been faithful to his resolution to “create a world that was ‘right’, and to carry it with him wherever he went” and has no reason to complain. And yet, he isn’t happy in his ideal world. He feels that in return for goodness and sacrifices he doesn’t receive the respect and sympathy that family and friends owe him.

Love is a particularly difficult matter for Zhenbao because his view of life requires that he is the absolute master of his “little pocket-size world” including the women around him. Strong women who do as they wish, especially if they trespass the bounds that society sets them, shake him and attract him at the same time. Back in China after his studies abroad he can’t resist the charms of Jiaorui, the libertine wife of his friend, and resents himself for it. The affair goes on until Jiaorui tells her husband about it and asks for a divorce. Her initiative shocks Zhenbao because most of all he fears the scandal and its detrimental implications on his career as well as his status. Zhenbao has no intention whatsoever to marry Jiaorui, his red rose of passion, and drops her at once. His idea of the ideal wife is a very different one: she must be spotless, innocent and most of all tractable. To meet his white rose of purity Zhenbao allows his mother to arrange a marriage for him. The girl of choice is Yanli, a pretty and naive university graduate from a good family. Zhenbao gets what he wants, but the trouble is that real people never meet the idealised model assigned to them. 

It’s a rather unsentimental picture of love and marriage that Eileen Chang paints in her novella Red Rose, White Rose. The simple and despite all powerful language of the author leaves hardly any doubt about relationship being in her eyes nothing but a constant fight for control over the other. Zhenbao certainly has a problem with intimacy and isn’t ready to let anybody have a glimpse behind the thick castle walls into his inner world. Always on his guard in order not to lose control, he never learns what love really is. He does good for others to observe his own rules and to serve his own interest rather than out of a philanthropic impulse. In addition, he idealises the world and people. How could he not be doomed to disappointment under such circumstances? 

Red Rose, White Rose by Eileen Chang is a quick read, but it leaves a lasting impact and much to think about. Had I allowed myself more time to digest, I’d probably have found other interesting aspects of the story to write about. However, it’s an excellent novella for everyone interested in Asian literature that doesn’t actually flood the European market. In brief: I highly recommend it for reading.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Cha: Literature From and About Asia

Cha is the Chinese word for tea and at the same time it's the name of a Hong Kong-based online literary journal in English founded in 2007. Tea and reading are a wonderful match, at least for me who adores fine tea and quality literature. Of course, it may not be the best idea to sip my organic fairtrade sencha while sitting in front of a computer, but then it's always good to be careful and pay attention to what we do, isn't it? 

It’s obvious that the publishers of Cha gave their literary journal and its website much thought. Probably, they share my taste for tea and reading like many others in the world. Or maybe they just wanted to name their journal after something typically Asian that would convey the notion of cosiness and relish. The name was a good choice for a journal showcasing "Asian-themed creative work and work done by Asian writers and artists", both established and emerging.

Cha is a completely free online literary journal that offers a rich blend of different literary genres with a focus on quality creative work ranging from poetry, fiction and drama to creative non-fiction, essays and reviews. As a complement also photography and graphic art get room in the journal appearing quarterly in March, June, September and November. On the website the last two issues show in the left panel with their respective link to the contributions by genre. Past issues are available via the archives page sorted by date of issue as well as genre.

Selected work published in Cha is later discussed and replied to in the section called A Cup of Fine Tea which seems to be a seperate website, though, and not very active, I'm afraid. There's also a Blog where updates about the journal and its contributors are being published and where bloggers can share their thoughts, at least in principle. At the moment I don't see much going on there, but then it's summer and we're all cutting back on our indoor activities.

The Guidelines for submissions that Cha published are rather strict. Being a journal for Asian literature and art, any work that isn't from or about Asia is ruled out from publication, of course. Submissions also need to meet many formal requirements and if they aren't met the submissions are being ignored without reading. On the other hand, it's a positive surprise to find that the journal also accepts certain texts that have been published previously in other literary journals and magazines. They are placed in a section called Lost Teas.

All in all, Cha looks like a very interesting online literary journal that allows people from around the globe who otherwise don't have easy access to Asian literature to discover a whole different world. It's definitely worthwhile to browse the site and get absorbed in some of the poetry and other texts.

Friday 14 June 2013

Book Review: Passing by Nella Larsen
Human society is a multi-layered and unstable playing board for the complex game called life. Players are constantly changing and so are all kinds of circumstances, but we don’t have much of a choice. Either we draw or we perish. Sometimes we try to bend the rules in our favour or we cheat. Either of it is an additional risk that might pay or not. On the long run we always have to face reality as it really is. In her novel Passing Nella Larsen wrote down the story of two women with a similar background who chose very different strategies to play the game of life.

The writer Nella Larsen put much of her own experience as an African-American woman in a white neighbourhood and a white family into her story. She was born by a Danish mother in Chicago, USA, in April 1891, but her father was an African-American from the West-Indies. Nella Larsen only published some short stories and two much acclaimed novels: Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). After false accusations of plagiarism regarding her short story Sanctuary (1930) and a messy divorce she disappeared from the literary scene for good. Nella Larsen died in New York, USA, in March 1964. 

Passing is set in Chicago during the 1920s when slavery was long abolished in the USA, but racial segregation laws were in force that until the 1960s legalized discrimination as well as open racism in American society and that hampered the efforts of the African-American population to get equal opportunities and equal rights. Another, maybe less obvious dimension of the novel is the question of social standing and roles of women and men respectively. The key issue that Nella Larsen addresses is the search for identity as an individual, black or white, woman or man, low or high. 

The story of Passing focuses on two African-American women whose light complexion allows them to ‘pass’ for white, but although born in the same neighbourhood their attitude to passing could hardly be more different. Clare Kendry lives the life of a white married woman completely denying her black heritage and even concealing it from her rich white husband who is a racist. Irene Redfield, on the other hand, is the wife of an African-American doctor and a much respected member of the black community who allows herself to pass only occasionally to enjoy a small and innocent pleasure. 

In the beginning Clare and Irene, who haven’t seen each other for years, meet by chance in an elegant restaurant closed to African-Americans. Clare’s life as a white woman leaves Irene with conflicting feelings. She clearly disapproves of Clare’s choice, but at the same time she is fascinated. To reconnect Clare with the black community Irene invites her to a dance. Thereafter Irene sees her identity as an African-American even more challenged and that as a woman, too, when Clare and her husband are beginning an affair later on. At last, Irene is driven to put a violent end to the mess that Clare caused.

In Passing Nella Larsen painted a very vivid and realistic picture of the black community in Chicago. Obviously ‘passing’ for white was quite an issue at the time because several writers belonging to the Harlem Renaissance took up the topic. The novel gave me an interesting insight into a world that is not only past and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but also very different from everything I know. On the other hand, we all know situations in which we pretend to be someone who we aren’t only to be accepted by a group, don’t we? 

All in all, Passing by Nella Larsen was an interesting and instructive read that I enjoyed very much. The slim novel was definitely worth the little time that reading cost me. I liked it and thus I recommend it with great pleasure.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe
ca. 1870s/1880s
Contempt, humiliation and annihilation of people for certain aspects of their being like just for instance ethnic origin, young age or skin colour are and have always been a part of human life. There seems to be a strong urge in us to demonstrate our power over others more or less violently. Many writers took up the cause of the oppressed and marginalized in their literary work although it often made them the target of assaults and persecution. However, some actually provoked changes with their writings. One of those influential authors was Harriet Beecher Stowe. 

Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in June 1811 into the already numerous family of the Congregationalist preacher Lyman Beecher. She was the sixth of altogether eleven surviving children. Her mother Roxana Foote Beecher died when she was a little girl and therefore Harriet became particularly attached to her oldest sister Catharine who had a strong influence on her views regarding the life of women and other social issues. Later she was at very good terms with her stepmother Harriet Porter Beecher as well. 

Being the daughter of an evangelical Calvinist with strict religious principles and a strong sense of justice, Harriet Beecher was brought up to contribute to making the world a better place. At home the children were all encouraged to develop their debating talents, but they were sent to school, too. At Sarah Pierce's academy Harriet studied the classics, languages and mathematics instead of only ornamental arts like in almost all other girls’ schools of the time. When her sister Catharine founded the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823, Harriet completed her formal education there. 

For a few years Harriet Beecher worked as a teacher at Catherine’s seminary, but in 1832 she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio (just across the river of the slave state Kentucky), with the family because her father became head of Lane Theological Seminary. The same year Catharine opened the Western Female Institute, another school for girls, where Harriet taught. The sisters became members of a literary salon called Semi-Colon Club that brought together not only literature lovers, but also critics of slavery. There Harriet befriended with Eliza and her husband Calvin Ellis Stowe. 

Harriet Beecher had been writing ever since the age of seven, but began to give it a professional bent only in Cincinnati. In 1833 she and Catharine published a co-written textbook titled Primary Geography for Children that was received with praise from the local bishop. The following year Harriet turned to writing short stories for the Western Monthly Magazine of which her sister Catharine didn’t approve. Following the award of a prize for her story A New England Sketch, Harriet Beecher brought out a collection of more New England Sketches in 1835. 

After the death of her friend Eliza, Harriet Beecher and Calvin Stowe got closer. In January 1836 they married and had seven children over the following sixteen years. They had a bare living with the salary that her husband received as a professor of biblical theology at Lane Theological Seminary which was a good reason for Harriet Beecher Stowe to continue writing short stories and articles for magazines. In her writing she could not only spread her thoughts and beliefs, but she could also contribute financially to the family income. Her husband encouraged her literary career. 

In 1850 Calvin Stowe became a professor at Bowdoin College and the family moved to Brunswick, Maine. There Harriet Beecher Stowe finally set out to write her most famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is largely based on the life of Josiah Henson. The story was first published in instalments in The National Era between June 1851 and April 1852. The two-volume book became a best-seller right away in 1852. The following year the writer brought out A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin documenting the facts of her novel. 

The family moved to Andover, Massachusetts, in 1853 where Calvin Stowe taught at the Theological Seminary until his retirement in 1864. Then they settled in Hartford, Connecticut, passing winters in Mandarin, Florida. Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to write stories, essays, textbooks and novels. In 1856 she produced another slave novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which was very successful. Notable novels of a different kind that she published are e.g. The Minister's Wooing (1859), Lady Byron Vindicated (1871), Palmetto Leaves (1873) and Poganuc People (1878). 

Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut, in July 1896 at the age of 85. She was buried at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. The epitaph on her tomb stone reads: 
“Her Children Rise up and Call Her Blessed.”
For further information on the writer I suggest to visit the website of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center at

or to read a biography like e.g.:

Sunday 9 June 2013


Sun rays from the East.
A pink rose in the garden
Opens with the warmth.

© LaGraziana 2013

Saturday 8 June 2013

The School of LIfe

In childhood, adolescence and young adulthood we discover the world and develop a view of life. School is supposed to help us on the way by making us sufficiently acquainted with everything that might be useful. We’re pushed into the sea of arts, science and sports, steadily progressing from the flat coasts of reading, writing and arithmetic into the deep waters of more complex matters. Teachers stuff our brains with all kinds of information that will broaden our knowledge if we’re lucky enough to understand and fit the pieces into the constantly growing puzzle of human existence. 

At the same time our character is forged with as much force as it needs to bend a cooling (and hardening) mind into the socially accepted shape. This should be a gentle and smooth process, but it exacts a certain delicacy from the smiths not to hammer our souls with blows that are too hard or too light. Alas, in a rigid and inflexible system there isn’t much room for individual treatment and those who are highly sensitive or in other ways extraordinary will easily come to grief. In that case school can be a painful experience that will remain engraved in the memory forever. 

Even under favourable conditions education leaves a deep impact on a person because youth is impressive by nature. So much is happening! So much is changing! It’s no wonder that the years of learning and coming of age are a recurring topic in literature, even a genre of its own. Youth flows over with possibilities in reality as well as in fiction. Besides, many writers are digesting their – often unpleasant – experiences with the school system in books. Roald Dahl did it humorously in Matilda (1988) and Friedrich Torberg with grim detail in Young Gerber (Der Schüler Gerber: 1930).

Friday 7 June 2013

Book Review: Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg
One sadistic teacher can ruin the school career and the life of many people. Very few children will have the resilience and courage of Matilda, not to mention her telekinetic power. However, older students aren’t immune against pressure and torments from teachers. Hermann Hesse knew a thing or two to tell about it in Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad: 1906) and so did Robert Musil in The Confusions of Young Törless (Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß: 1906). The novel about school life that I picked for today’s review is Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg.

The Austro-Czech journalist and writer Friedrich Torberg was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungaria, in September 1908. In 1930 he published his first and most successful novel Young Gerber (Der Schüler Gerber) based on his own experiences in school. As a Jew he had to flee from Prague in 1938 and go into exile. He made his way to the USA and became an American citizen in 1945. In 1951 Friedrich Torberg returned to Vienna, Austria, where he worked as a journalist and became the much praised translator of Ephraim Kishon’s satirical novels into German. His later literary work includes Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes (Die Tante Jolesch oder Der Untergang des Abendlandes in Anekdoten: 1975) and its sequel. Friedrich Torberg died in Vienna, Austria, in November 1979. 

Young Gerber is the story of 18-year-old Kurt Gerber who is in his final year at the Gymnasium, an eight-year grammar school preparing for university. Until today it’s a tough year because it ends with the Matura (Abitur in Germany) which is the graduation exam consisting of a set of written exams and then, if they are passed, oral exams before the panel of class teachers and a representative of the school authorities. To pass the Matura means to qualify for university. In the 1920s, when the vast majority of people finished compulsory education at the age of 14, the Matura also was a guarantee for a better job, especially in the public service. 

Kurt Gerber is highly intelligent, but a poor and rebellious student. He doesn’t see a point in studying hard and doesn’t understand why everybody makes such a fuss about passing the Matura. When his father suggests that he changes school because during the summer a teacher threatened to give Kurt hell and make him fail, he doesn’t take it seriously. During the following months Artur Kupfer, nicknamed Almighty God Kupfer, makes his students and Kurt Gerber in particular feel his authority as a teacher of Maths and Descriptive Geometry who authored the standard text-books and who has been a captain in World War I. Behind the mask of correctness and lawfulness he delights in tormenting his students and breaking them. At the beginning Kurt Gerber still takes things easy, but then the pressure rises because his father has a serious heart attack after finding out that he forged his signature twice. Along with troubles in school Kurt Gerber also has to deal with his feelings for former class mate Lisa Berwald who plays with his love keeping him at a distance most of the time and kindling his hopes on other occasions. Until the end the young man is torn between complying with the demands of Professor Kupfer to spare his father the shame of seeing his son fail the Matura and revolting against the terror of Almighty God Kupfer and following his own heart. 

Being titled Young Gerber the novel makes think of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, but this is a mere coincidence limited to the English edition. Literally translated the German title would be something like Student Gerber. Student Gerber is the very formal and official wording that refers to the young man as a member of the student body rather than as an individual. It’s similar to military address as in Private Ryan and pretty old-fashioned though still in use today. The entire novel is written in the idiom of its time that still has a touch of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy broken up only in 1918. Passages of stream-of-consciousness and of traditional third person narrative alternate. Especially towards the end Friedrich Torberg also intersperses the text with mathematics constructing equations of life with great symbolic power. 

Some may think that Young Gerber is just another coming-of-age novel, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s a story about the abuse of authority having its root in the desire to be somebody and to be feared at least when there’s no hope to find love. Friedrich Torberg shows the effects of such abuse on the soul of Kurt Gerber whose power of resistance against Almighty God Kupfer shrinks constantly until he slips into hopelessness and despair in the end. It’s an impressive read of universal truth and thus highly recommendable.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Matilda: Child Power

There are films (and books) that are meant for children, but sometimes they have a message for people of all ages. In my opinion Matilda directed by Danny DeVito is one of the latter. The film was released in 1996 and is based on a novel that Roald Dahl first brought out in 1988. Today the book titled after its heroine Matilda already is a classic of children’s literature although its story is rather dark with a basic plot revolving around child neglect, abuse and revenge. Luckily, Roald Dahl was a true master of black humour and Danny DeVito is known for his comical talent. 

Matilda is a film comedy that starts on the day when Harry Wormwood (played by Danny DeVito) picks up his wife Zinnia (played by Rhea Perlman) and their newly born daughter Matilda at the hospital. From the first moment it’s clear that the Wormwoods are no model family. They ‘lived in a very nice neighbourhood in a very nice house, but they were not really very nice people’, declares the narrator later. Her father is a crook of a used car salesman. Her mother only cares about bingo and game shows. Her brother Michael is a school boy who takes after them. Matilda is different.

The little girl is not just extraordinary. Matilda is a genius… and nobody notices. As a baby she writes her name with the finger into a blob of spinach on the kitchen sideboard. At the age of two she has learnt to take care of herself and as a four-year-old she reads whatever she can find in the house. When her father denies her books because he thinks that television is much better, Matilda becomes a regular visitor of the local library rummaging through the shelves. She can also add and multiply big numbers in her mind and one night she discovers that she has telekinetic power.

At last Matilda (played by Mara Wilson) is sent off to Crunchem Hall, the school of ogre-like Miss Trunchbull (played by Pam Ferris) to whom he just sold a scrap car. The former shot-putter and hammer-thrower Trunchbull is the absolute tyrant of her school holding pupils as well as teachers in her iron grip, often in the literal sense. The counterpart of the mean and cruel headmistress is good-hearted and kind Miss Honey (played by Embeth Davidtz), Matilda’s class teacher and friend who makes school a pleasure. Before soon Matilda takes up the fight against Trunchbull’s terror regime and... you'd better see for yourself.

The story of Roald Dahl is a reckoning with adults who don’t listen to their children and who don’t pay attention to what they really need. Parents and teachers alike are called to question their usual attitude towards children. Of course, everything in Matilda is exaggerated like in a cartoon, and yet, there’s a grain of truth in every scene. We are all so settled in our own worlds with our own points of view that often it doesn’t even occur to us that another person (child or adult) could have different needs and desires than we have. How good to be reminded of it and to get a chance to have a laugh!

For those who prefer the book: