Friday, 26 July 2013

Book Review: Accabadora by Michela Murgia and death are the two constants circumscribing our lives. They accompany us every day, if we are aware of them or not. Most religions venerate life and protect it. 'Thou shalt not kill' is one of the ten commandments and similar rules exist even in the most primitive societies. Today we are convinced that life is something holy and that nobody has the right to end it before the time. Except during a war and in self-defence murder is a crime, no matter the reasons. Euthanasia is a much disputed topic and Michela Murgia deals with it in her novel Accabadora although it's not really in the centre of her attention as the title makes expect.

Michela Murgia was born in Cabras, Sardinia, Italy in June 1972. She studied Roman Catholic theology and worked among others as religious studies teacher and a saleswoman. Her debut novel Il mondo deve sapere (The World Must Know) developed from a blog about her experiences working in a call centre and came out as a book in 2006. Her biggest success so far is the bestselling novel Accabadora from 2009 which received several literary awards and has been translated into many languages. Her latest published works are the narrative L'incontro (The Encounter) and her contribution to the diary of four Italian writers titled Presente (Present).

The story of Accabadora is set in the small Sardinian village Soreni in the early 1950s. Six-year-old Maria Listru is the unwanted fourth daughter of a widow who has a hard time feeding her family. When Bonaria Urrai, an unmarried woman in her late fifties, observes at the grocer's how ill the girl is treated by her mother, she decides to take her as a 'fill'e anima' (a 'soul child' translated literally into English) which is an informal kind of adoption common in Sardinia for centuries. Maria's mother gladly accepts with the secret hope of profiting indirectly from the relative wealth of Bonaria Urrai. Maria perceives leaving her family of origin to live with her new mother, whom she will always call Tzia Bonaria, as her second birth. Bonaria isn't a very affectionate person – maybe because her dream of marriage was crushed by World War I which robbed her of her fiancé, maybe because it has always been her nature –, but she treats Maria well and instils strong principles in the girl. She insists that Maria goes to school for longer than most villagers consider necessary and doesn't allow the Listru to exploit her when they need someone to help out. For a living Bonaria works as a dressmaker for both women and men, a profession which she teaches to Maria. However, Bonaria Urrai also has a secret occupation and she hides it from her adopted daughter best she can. Intelligent as Maria is, she knows all along that there is something about Tzia Bonaria of which she is ignorant, but she is forbidden to ask questions about the people coming to fetch her at night or about her doings. When her friend Andria Bastíu tells Maria that he watched Bonaria suffocating his crippled elder brother with a pillow one night, she doesn't believe him. Tzia Bonaria doesn't deny it and it dawns on Maria that her second mother is an 'accabadora' (most accurately translated into English as 'finisher'), a woman who kills the agonizing out of mercy. Maria is shocked and disgusted. With the help of her teacher Luciana she moves to Turin as a nanny, but stays there only for little more than a year trying to forget. In the meantime Bonaria Urrai's health is deteriorating. Eventually she has a stroke and is bedridden which requires Maria to return to Soreni. Nursing Tzia Bonaria and watching not only her decline, but also her long agony, she begins to understand the reasons why she was an 'accabadora', one of the last in a long Sardinian tradition.

The story of Maria Listru and the Accabadora Bonaria Urrai is a quiet one which focuses on the growing-up girl. With the exception of ruthless gossip, ancient superstition and a neighbourhood row which costs Andria's brother a leg and his living will, there isn't really much going on in the rural environment which Michela Murgia describes with so much skill. The characters of the novel are quite ordinary ones, but they are carved out expertly in the author's elegant language. Besides, the entire plot is embedded in the social system and the centuries-old traditions of their country which have been quietly slipping into oblivion after World War II.

Accabadora may not have been the kind of novel which I had expected when I bought the book a few weeks ago, but it was a very enjoyable read after all. In fact, I highly recommend it.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Book Review: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera seems to be a stimulating place for men and women of letters. Many renowned writers originate from the region like just for instance Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch, or Max Brod. They all were writers in German language and thrived in the bilingual atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy around and after 1900. The twentieth century saw important authors who wrote in Czech like for example Jaroslav Seifert, Pavel Kohout, Karel Čapek, Bohumil Hrabal, or Jaroslav Hašek. Many Czech writers were driven to go into exile either soon after the end of World War II in 1945 or after the crushing of Prague Spring in 1968. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, which I'm reviewing today, was written and first published in France.

Milan Kundera was born in Brno, now Czech Republic, in April 1929. Under the impression of the German occupation and World War II he joined the Communist Party, but was expelled in 1950, re-admitted in 1956 and expelled again in 1970. He began his literary career as a poet, essayist and playwright. His first novel, inspired by the expulsion from the communist party in 1950, was The Joke (Žert: 1967). After the violent end of the Prague Spring in 1968 his books were first banned from libraries and then from publication altogether. In 1975 Milan Kundera finally emigrated to France and was denationalized by the Czechoslovak regime four years later. His first work written in exile was The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění: 1978) followed by his best known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí: 1984). In the 1990s Milan Kundera switched to writing in French instead of his native Czech and he considers himself as a French writer now. His first novel in the adopted language was Slowness (La Lenteur: 1995). His latest published works are the essay collections The Curtain (Le rideau) from 2005 and Encounter (Une rencontre) from 2009. Milan Kundera has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature already several times. Until his death in July 2023, he lived a secluded life in Paris, France.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting isn't a novel. Milan Kundera himself calls it a variation on a theme, namely on laughter and forgetting, and in fact it's a collection of seven independent stories linked together by those two essential reactions of human nature to the outside world, be it in the sphere of politics, history, love or life in general. The first story titled Lost Letters is about Mirek who wishes to forget his Communist youth which included a love affair with unalluring Zdena. He tries in vain to make her return his love letters because they could discredit him in the dissident community. On his return home he and his son are arrested. Mama is the second story. It deals with an old woman from a provincial town who visits her son Karel and daughter-in-law Marketa in Prague. She is introduced to Eva, an alleged cousin of Marketa and really the lover of Karel. When the mother drops in to tell Karel that Eva reminds her of her old friend Nora, she almost catches the three in a sex game which they arranged for that Sunday. In the end the old woman retreats to her room and the memory of Nora turns on Karel to play his role in his game with Marketa and Eva. In the third story The Angels in the shape of two American students and a teacher called Mrs. Raphael make an appearance. It's a story about absurdity, that of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, that of politics in Czechoslovakia under Communist reign which forced Milan Kundera to secretly write horoscopes, and that of life altogether. The masses are described as the circle-dancing angels soaring into the sky laughing. The Lost Letters of the fourth story are those of Tamina's late husband which they left in Prague together with her diaries, when they fled from Czechoslovakia some years earlier. Tamina wants to get them back to revive her fading memory of her husband. When Bibi, a guest from the café where she works and at the same time a friend, tells her that she intends to visit Prague during holidays, Tamina sets all her hopes in her to fetch the letters and diaries. In the end the travel never comes about and all Tamina's talks to her relatives in Czechoslovakia have been in vain. In his fifth story Milan Kundera explains the idea of Lítost, "a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self" which - as it seems - has no word in any other than the Czech language. The story serving to explain lítost revolves around Kristyna, the wife of a butcher in a provincial town, and a student from Prague who is invited to a gathering of renowned poets and writers at the Literature Club the very night when he expects to be together with Kristyna. The Angels and Tamina reappear and eventually disappear in the sixth story together with Milan Kundera's terminally ill father. A boy called Raphael takes Tamina to an island of children who are curious, thoughtless, innocent, intrusive and cruel. While the children circle dance, Tamina tries to escape from the island swimming, but drowns in the sea surrounded by the children in a small boat who just watch. The last story is titled The Border and is dedicated to the idea of socially accepted conduct as well as reform. The family Clovis and its friends serve as the model of adapted individuals who consider themselves progressive because they support new ideas which in reality are only the next step in social evolution and in no way revolutionary. Not even a sex orgy excludes its participants from the circle of ordinary people.

There are many passages in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting which remind of magical realism. In addition Milan Kundera interspersed his stories with many autobiographical remarks and first-hand historical information about Czechoslovakia and her people. Altogether it may not be an easy read for a relaxed weekend at home because the book requires concentration as well as a certain gift for reading between the lines or deciphering symbols. The circle dance in the two Angels stories is quite clearly a symbol for society hooked to light entertainment and conformism, but other symbols are less accessible. There's also the sexual component which runs through the whole book and which might not be to everybody's taste. I didn't mind reading about protagonists having sex or participating in sex orgies, but especially readers firmly rooted in a religious setting (Christian, Muslim or other) might feel embarrassed by the frank descriptions although they are far from detailed enough to be pornographic.

For me The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera was a wonderful read which made me think about society a lot and that's definitely something which I always appreciate. In a nutshell: I recommend the book for reading.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Book Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan are novels which most people devour during high school and which I didn’t bother to read at the time because their stories just didn’t tempt me. As a matter of fact, I never really cared for coming-of-age and young adult fiction. Then, in my thirties, I began to wonder if I might have missed some important works of literature due to my opinion of the genre and I decided to give it another try with a few of them. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye only increased my dislike, while I didn’t regret reading Bonjour Tristesse (usually untranslated and meaning 'Hello Sadness' in English) by Françoise Sagan which I’m going to review today.

Françoise Sagan was born as Françoise Quoirez in Cajarc, France, in June 1935. Stemming from a bourgeois family, she went to convent schools and then attended Sorbonne University in Paris although she failed the baccalauréat in 1953 and thus never graduated even from high school. At the age of 19 she published her first book Bonjour Tristesse (1954) under a pen name taken from the Princesse de Sagan in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The novella marked the beginning of a literary career which lasted almost until the new millennium. During her lifetime she wrote plays, autobiographical and biographical works, song lyrics and about thirty novels among them A Certain Smile (Un Certain sourire: 1955), Those Without Shadows (Dans un mois, dans un an: 1957), Aimez-vous Brahms? (1959), Wonderful Clouds (Les merveilleux nuages: 1961) or That Mad Ache (La Chamande: 1965). Françoise Sagan died in Honfleur, France, in September 2004.

Bonjour Tristesse is set in summer. Seventeen-year-old Cécile, her widowed father Raymond and his current mistress Elsa retire to a secluded white villa at the French Riviera for the holidays. They pass carefree days in the sun at the sea. After about a week Cyril, a law student in his twenties, turns up in the bay with his small sailing-boat. From then on Cécile and Cyril go sailing together every day. One night Raymond announces that a friend of his late wife, Anne Larsen, will be joining them. Knowing well her philandering father, Cécile anticipates difficulties with the two attractive women in the house and proves to be right during a night out in Cannes. Raymond leaves Elsa after dinner without a word. The following morning Cécile learns that Anne and her father decided to get married. Cécile’s feelings about the marriage are ambivalent. She admires Anne for her intelligence and style, but also feels that she and her father will have to give up their superficial and extravagant lifestyle. Soon Anne takes over the role of a mother towards Cécile and makes an end to her free intercourse with Cyril when she finds them kissing on the porch. In addition Anne obliges Cécile to pass part of the day studying for the baccalauréat which she failed in the first attempt. At this point Cécile knows that she must get rid of Anne in order not to be doomed to the life of boring monotony which she fears so much. She uses her sound knowledge of her father’s, Anne’s, Elsa’s and Cyril’s character to spin an intrigue to spoil the wedding plans. Everything works out although with unexpected consequences which make Cécile experience real sadness for the first time. 

In 1954, when Bonjour Tristesse first came out, it caused a scandal. It was daring of Françoise Sagan to write a novella about seventeen-year-old Cécile who lives with her playboy father and doesn’t mind his changing affairs. Hypocritical post-war society was even less prepared for reading the first-person-narrative of a girl who doesn’t see any sense in studying, who drinks too much and who enjoys her first sexual experiences with her boyfriend Cyril without the faintest intention of getting married. I can well imagine people calling the novella amoral and dangerous for the youth. Certainly it was ahead of its time, ahead of the sexual revolution of the 1960s as we know now. However, it’s a psychological, not an erotic novel. In a simple and matter-of-fact language Françoise Sagan describes the confusion of the adolescent on the brink of adulthood who never had a mother to guide her and rebel against, nor a father accepting his role and responsibility. Cécile enjoys her empty and carefree life because she doesn’t know anything else. When Anne shows her that there could and should be more, she shrinks back since it means growing up and taking responsibility

There’s much truth in Bonjour Tristesse and it has lost nothing of its power. Quite on the contrary! In a society based on consumption and entertainment we’re all in danger to succumb to the temptation of a carefree and superficial life – if only in our spare time away from the inevitable duties and responsibilities of daily life. It’s not without reason that escapist books make up such a huge part of the market. I prefer literature which makes me think. As a teenager I might have benefited more from Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, but even at my age it has been an excellent read which deserves my recommendation.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Book Review: The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev women writers choose romantic love as the central theme of their literary work and an awful lot of them deal with it in a way that I don’t appreciate at all. Probably the latter is why for years I filled my shelves above all with male writings. The title of the book which I’m reviewing today makes expect a romance of the usual kind with qualities predestining it to sell well in the bookshops. In fact, The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev is a best-selling novel, but it’s not about a woman loving a man and their struggles to come together. The story which one of Israel's most popular and successful writers tells is about the emotional ties between parents and children, about injuries and obsessions.

Zeruya Shalev (צרויה שלו‎) was born at Kibbutz Kinneret on Lake of Tiberias, Israel, in May 1959. She pursued Bible studies at the University of Jerusalem and with the MA in her pocket she worked as a literary editor. In 1993 she brought out her first novel, Dancing, Standing Still (רקדתי עמדתי), which attracted little attention. Her literary breakthrough came only in 1997 with the novel Love Life (חיי אהבה) which gained the author immediate critical acclaim in Israel as well as internationally. The following novels Husband and Wife (בעל ואישה) and Thera (תרה) came out in 2000 and 2005 respectively and completed the trilogy. Each one of the three novels received important literature awards. Today Zeruya Shalev is an independent writer and lives in Jerusalem with her patchwork family. Her latest novel The Remains of Love (שארית החיים) was first released in 2011.

The Remains of Love traces the lives of Hemda Horovitz, her daughter Dina and her son Avner. The novel begins with almost eighty-year-old Hemda wondering at how big the tiny room of her apartment in Jerusalem seems now that she is too weak to leave her bed. In her mind, memories of the past mix with the disappointing present. She takes it ill that both her children come to see her only out of duty, but slowly she begins to realize that the roots of their emotional coldness towards her lie in her own feelings and childhood. Hemda could never love enough her daughter Dina while she enveloped her younger son Avner with all her love. Both children suffered. Dina desperately longed for love and a close relationship, while Avner felt suffocated by his mother’s affection. Avner married his first girl-friend only to get away from home. Now he is trapped in a marriage with two sons and no love left, but he doesn’t have the courage to change anything. Things take a new course for him, when he witnesses the loving consolations which a woman addresses to her dying husband in the hospital. He becomes obsessed with finding the couple and knowing their story. Dina isn’t happy, either. She has a sixteen-year-old daughter, Nitzan, who withdraws from her ever more and her husband Gideon doesn’t understand her feeling of loss. She still loves Gideon, but what she yearns for is the love of and for a child. She gets obsessed with the idea to adopt a boy from Siberia. As Hemda’s health deteriorates, her children step out of her shadow and liberating themselves from the emotional ties at last they take life into their own hands.

In the beginning The Remains of Love can be a bit confusing because Zeruya Shalev uses alternating streams of consciousness to tell the stories of Hemda and her children which inevitably means that the narrative perspective constantly changes. Each one of the protagonists experiences flashbacks shedding light on their past and helping them to understand why things are the way they are. Israeli history and politics are touched on several times revealing Zeruya Shalev’s critical point of view through the thoughts of her protagonists. The author also gives the kibbutzim in Israel much room because the conditions there explain many of the emotional injuries that the family suffered. The story is multi-layered and complex, but Zeruya Shalev narrates it with much skill and without contradictions or loose ends. All in all it’s easy to follow the plot.

Although I needed a page or two to get used to the long sentences, I thoroughly enjoyed The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev. The book offered me a glimpse into a country outside my usual literary perception and beyond media coverage of closed borders or conflicts regarding Jewish settlements. This alone would be reason enough for me to recommend the novel, but in addition it’s a really good read.

For a novel about life in Palestine see my review of The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Author's Portrait: Ingeborg Bachmann

Always in the beginning of July, the town of Klagenfurt, Austria, changes for a couple of days from the quiet capital of the federal province of Carinthia into a buzzing hub of modern literature: it’s the venue of the Festival of German-language Literature. Its highlight is the award of one of the most prestigious literature prizes in the German-speaking world named after the late Austrian poet, playwright and novelist Ingeborg Bachmann. From 4 to 7 July 2013 the finalists for this year’s prize will read their texts in front of the jury, an interested audience and TV cameras. For me this is reason enough to portray the writer today.

Ingeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in July 1926. Her father was a teacher of languages in a grammar school and later a headmaster. The entry of Hitler’s troops into Austria in March 1938, which was hailed in many places of my country, and everything that followed had great impact on her view of the world making her take a firm stand against war and violence for the rest of her life. In 1944 she went to university to study philosophy, psychology and German philology in Innsbruck, Graz and Vienna. As a student she had a love affair with the poet Paul Celan. In 1950 she presented her doctoral thesis on Die kritische Aufnahme der Existenzialphilosophie Martin Heideggers (The Critical Reception of the Existential Philosophy of Martin Heidegger). 

As from the early 1950s Ingeborg Bachmann earned a decent living as an editor and scriptwriter for the Allied radio station Rot-Weiss-Rot. She became a member of the literary circle called Gruppe 47 that loosely united German-language writers like Ilse Aichinger, Paul Celan, Heinrich Böll (Nobel Prize for literature 1972), Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Günter Grass (Nobel Prize for literature 1999). At a conference in 1952 she read her lyrical poetry which was her literary breakthrough. The following year she gave up her job and moved to Italy working as a freelance writer and travelling a lot, while partly living with the German composer Hans Werner Henze. During their relationship she produced libretti for Hinze’s Operas Der Prinz von Homburg (The Prince of Homburg: 1960) and Der junge Lord (The Young Lord: 1965) and several poems which he set to music. 

In 1958 Ingeborg Bachmann met the Swiss writer Max Frisch and plunged into a difficult relationship with him which influenced the work of both and lasted until 1962. The early 1960s saw her moving between Rome, Zurich, Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt (where she held the newly created chair of poetics at the university during the winter term 1959/60) and travelling to Egypt, the Sudan and the German Democratic Republic. She settled down permanently in Rome in 1963. During this time she also began reconsidering her choice of literary genre. She took to writing few poems and concentrating on prose instead. In spring 1973 she made a reading tour of Poland visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau among others. 

The literary work of Ingeborg Bachmann can be called feminist writing because of its woman-centred perspective, but this is a label which was developed only later on. Apart from her poems which have been translated into English and collected in a bilingual volume titled Darkness Spoken (2005), Ingeborg Bachmann’s most important works comprise the early radio plays A Deal in Dreams (Ein Geschäft mit Träumen: 1953), The Cicadas (Zikaden: 1955) and The Good God of Manhattan (Der gute Gott von Manhattan: 1958) published in English as Three Radio Plays (1999), her partly autobiographical cycle of stories titled The Thirtieth Year (Das dreißigste Jahr: 1961), the novel Malina (1971), and the volume of stories Three Paths to the Lake (Simultan: 1972). 

Ingeborg Bachmann died from severe burns in a hospital in Rome, Italy, in October 1973, three weeks after her apartment had gone up in flames. Until today it remains uncertain whether the fire was an accident caused by her having fallen asleep with a burning cigarette or if it was suicide.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a biography in English, but there's at least Uwe Johnson's Trip to Klagenfurt: In the Footsteps of Ingeborg Bachmann.

Monday, 1 July 2013

My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013

Summer, sun and the sea. That's what many Europeans yearn for during most of the year and millions of them are heading towards the South, towards the Mediterranean Sea in the holiday season. I prefer travelling in my mind – reading books. Why not see how many Mediterranean countries I'll get to know through the eyes of a writer this summer?

This is not a reading challenge as you know it from other blogs. There will be no prize waiting at the end and I won't list any participants. It's just me and my summer reads. However, if someone wishes to make it an official challenge, it's alright with me. Let me know and I'll publish the link.

And now join me on my four-month journey around the Mediterranean Sea! Here's my list of countries which I wish to visit through my reads between 1 June 2013 and 30 September 2013 and the first three books of the journey. The complete list of my reads as of 30 September 2013 is available in the summary.

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Bosnia & Herzegovina








Israel and Palestine