Wednesday 31 December 2014

A Look Back in Pleasure

Here we are once again at the end of a year! It has been only my second full cycle of twelve months as a book blogger and today seems a good moment to share with you a look back on my activities of 2014 – to fill some of the gaps that the Reading Bingo of three weeks ago inevitably left.

It has been a pretty busy year for me, not least for the many interesting reads that have come my way. It goes without saying that my literary exploration hasn’t been limited to the writings and authors that I decided to showcase here on my blog. In fact, they were quite some more than “just” the 52 books that I reviewed beginning with Once a Greek by Friedrich Dürrenmatt after the New Year and ending with A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy past Friday. 

Monday 29 December 2014

Poetry Revisited: Winter-Time by Robert Louis Stevenson


(from A Child’s Garden of Verses: 1885)

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,
At morning in the dark I rise;
And shivering in my nakedness,
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit
To warm my frozen bones a bit;
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore
The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap
Me in my comforter and cap;
The cold wind burns my face, and blows
Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;
And tree and house, and hill and lake,
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday 26 December 2014

Book Review: A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy to an old Christmas carol this is the season to be jolly and not to get absorbed in dead-serious or difficult reads – unless you take pleasure in them like I do. However, I decided to put my nature aside for a change and to review a novel that is light and entertaining with the Shakespearean motto “All’s Well That Ends Well” shining through every line. Since it’s also meant to be a contribution for My WINTER Books Special, I’m putting the spotlight on A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy. This last novel of the late Irish author revolves around Stone House in the Western Irish village of Stoneybridge which Geraldine “Chicky” Ryan turns into a cosy little hotel. The grand opening is in December and the first guests stay for a week.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Author's Portrait: E. T. A. Hoffmann
E. T. A. Hoffmann ca. 1800
painted by an unidentified artist
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were an important era for literature. It was the time of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism, a highly innovative literary movement altogether and in Germany in particular. Up to this day several German writers of the period are well remembered and read in schools (at least occasionally) as well as by classic lovers of all ages. The most prominent names of German Romanticism are Achim von Arnim, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, Joseph von Eichendorff, and E. T. A. Hoffmann. The last had a strong and lasting impact on literature paving the way for the fantasy, horror and crime genres.

Monday 22 December 2014

Poetry Revisited: Winterstimmung – Winter Mood by Sophie von Khuenberg


(aus Psyche, 1. Bei Sonnenschein: 1897)
Von tiefer Winterruh' umfangen
Schau' ich hinaus ins fahle Licht,
Kein heißes, zitterndes Verlangen
Aus meiner stillen Seele bricht.

Schneefrieden webt in stummen Lüften,
Aus weißen Schleiern blüht die Welt;
Mir aber träumt von Maiendüften,
Seit mir dein Kuß das Herz geschwellt!

Sophie von Khuenberg

Winter Mood

(from Psyche, 1. In Sunshine: 1897)
Embraced by deep winter quiet
I look outside into the pale light
No hot, shivering desire
Breaks from my quiet soul.

Snow peace weaves in mute air,
From white veils flowers the world;
I, however, dream of May scents,
Since your kiss swelled my heart.

Literal translation by
Edith Lagraziana 2014

Friday 19 December 2014

Book Review: If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino passion for reading uses to be a life-long one. I’m sure that everybody who has fallen under its spell like me will confirm this statement, and yet, it’s a passion that seldom appears centre stage in fiction. Of course, there are many examples for literary characters who pass their time reading, pondering or discussing books, but in general this serves the author only to create a mood, to show peculiarities or to form a bond between characters. So far I have never come across a novel that actually revolved around the pleasures of reading – except If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino which I’m reviewing today. Its protagonist is a rather annoyed reader who for different reasons never gets a chance to finish one of the books that he has just begun and who hunts after the interrupted reads getting involved with another reader, Ludmilla, on the way.

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Books on France 2014: The Summary

On New Year’s Day I joined the Books on France 2014 reading challenge hosted by Emma from Words and Peace which is going to end in a fortnight. Since my last review for it went online past Friday, I decided to make the balance and the final list today.

Monday 15 December 2014

Poetry Revisited: Winter by John Howard Bryant


(From The Life and Poems of John Howard Bryant: 1894-96)

The day had been a calm and sunny day,
And tinged with amber was the sky at even;
The fleecy clouds at length had rolled away,
And lay in furrows on the eastern heaven;—
The moon arose and shed a glimmering ray,
And round her orb a misty circle lay.

The hoar-frost glittered on the naked heath,
The roar of distant winds was loud and deep,
The dry leaves rustled in each passing breath,
And the gay world was lost in quiet sleep.
Such was the time when, on the landscape brown
Through a December air the snow came down.

The morning came, the dreary morn, at last,
And showed the whitened waste. The shivering herd
Lowed on the hoary meadow-ground, and fast
Fell the light flakes upon the earth unstirred;
The forest firs with glittering snows o’erlaid
Stood like hoar priests in robes of white arrayed.

John Howard Bryant

Friday 12 December 2014

Book Review: The Winter of Artifice by Anaïs Nin, I intended to close my cycle of reviews for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge only in two weeks with the novel Voyage d’hiver by Amélie Nothomb, but unfortunately it seems that this work of the Belgian author – unlike most others – hasn’t been translated into English yet. As a result, I had to change my plans and look for another France-related book with the word WINTER in the title (»»» see my post on the current special). In the end I picked a collection of three novellas of which two are set in France: The Winter of Artifice by Anaïs Nin, namely the original published in Paris in 1939 which is available as a facsimile edition. The author wrote her diary-style stories revolving around love and passion in English although her mother tongue was French.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Reading Bingo 2014

Already in November Emma from Book Around the Corner posted a meme called Reading Bingo on her blog. She was inspired to it by Marina Sofia’s post on Finding Time to Write who had come across it in a post on Cleopatra Loves Books. Obviously, it’s something that makes the round like a chain letter, but good ideas always deserve being spread. I decided to follow suit today using it to make a first and necessarily fragmentary balance of the almost past book blogging year.
And now let’s start with the 

Monday 8 December 2014

Poetry Revisited: A Winter Ride by Amy Lowell

A Winter Ride

(from A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass: 1912)

Who shall declare the joy of the running!
Who shall tell of the pleasures of flight!
Springing and spurning the tufts of wild heather,
Sweeping, wide-winged, through the blue dome of light.
Everything mortal has moments immortal,
Swift and God-gifted, immeasurably bright.

So with the stretch of the white road before me,
Shining snowcrystals rainbowed by the sun,
Fields that are white, stained with long, cool, blue shadows,
Strong with the strength of my horse as we run.
Joy in the touch of the wind and the sunlight!
Joy! With the vigorous earth I am one.

Amy Lowell

Friday 5 December 2014

Book Review: A Monkey in Winter by Antoine Blondin

Click on the index card to enlarge it!
Literature is (or should be) a reproduction of reality and therefore it often portrays people who drink more than they should, and even worse, people who are slipping or have already slipped into the vicious circle of alcoholism. Authors – especially those who are known for their own excesses in drinking – seem to love displaying them in their desperate, though useless attempts to find an easy way out of their problems or at least “cheerful” oblivion. Usually, a drinking or drunk protagonist just serves plot development or character study, but it’s rare that an entire novel revolves around the short-lived pleasures of drinking like A Monkey in Winter by Antoine Blondin. It’s my last but one contribution to the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

My WINTER Books Special

A Literary WINTER Expedition
from 1 December 2014 to 28 February 2015

Last year I dedicated the month of December to novels connected to Christmas. This year I decided to make a three-month special featuring books with the word WINTER in the English title. Admittedly it’s a rather arbitrary way to choose a read, but it brought surprisingly many literary works to my attention which I might never ever have come across otherwise because they have never been on bestselling lists and/or the author isn’t particularly renowned (any longer).

The result of my extensive search is an interesting and varied list of 50 books, mainly novels and a few collections of short stories, but also the one or other non-fiction. Lamentably I was forced to rule out from review several works of non-English-speaking authors since I couldn’t find any English editions. From the remaining lot I picked thirteen books, some famous, some new, and some forgotten ones. As for the rest of my WINTER bibliography… maybe some other time!

Monday 1 December 2014

Poetry Revisited: The Winter’s Come by John Clare

The Winter’s Come

(c. 1850)

Sweet chestnuts brown like soling leather turn;
The larch trees, like the colour of the Sun;
That paled sky in the Autumn seemed to burn,
What a strange scene before us now does run--
Red, brown, and yellow, russet, black, and dun;
White thorn, wild cherry, and the poplar bare;
The sycamore all withered in the sun.
No leaves are now upon the birch tree there:
All now is stript to the cold wintry air.

See, not one tree but what has lost its leaves--
And yet the landscape wears a pleasing hue.
The winter chill on his cold bed receives
Foliage which once hung oer the waters blue.
Naked and bare the leafless trees repose.
Blue-headed titmouse now seeks maggots rare,
Sluggish and dull the leaf-strewn river flows;
That is not green, which was so through the year
Dark chill November draweth to a close.

Tis Winter, and I love to read indoors,
When the Moon hangs her crescent up on high;
While on the window shutters the wind roars,
And storms like furies pass remorseless by.
How pleasant on a feather bed to lie,
Or, sitting by the fire, in fancy soar
With Dante or with Milton to regions high,
Or read fresh volumes we've not seen before,
Or oer old Burton's Melancholy pore.

John Clare

Friday 28 November 2014

Book Review: None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer a long time South Africa was a place where a white minority saw itself in the right to exclude the vast coloured majority from power and even to determine the lives of its members in a way that nobody with working brains was likely to endure willingly, but in the end segregation and institutionalised discrimination couldn’t last even there. Thanks to the influence of Nelson Mandela and other moderate political activists the country saw a peaceful transition from the Apartheid regime to a democratic system based on equal rights for all her citizens. None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1991, shows some of the dramatic changes during this difficult period and their influence on the daily lives of South Africans.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Author’s Portrait: Maria Firmina dos Reis

Already earlier this year I remarked that Brazil was a bit of a blank on my literary world map although the country is huge and counts millions of inhabitants. As a matter of fact, her literature receives little attention abroad. Maybe this is due to the fact that Brazil’s official language is the local variety of Portuguese and I noticed that translations from this language aren’t particularly present on the international book market. Despite all there are of course notable Brazilian writers apart from Paulo Coelho, contemporary as well as classic ones. There even was a nineteenth-century woman writer, moreover one with African roots, who enjoyed some renown in her time. Her name was Maria Firmina dos Reis and this portrait is dedicated to her.

Friday 21 November 2014

Book Review: Brother of Sleep by Robert Schneider literature has a long tradition, but it’s not very well known abroad and as you may have noticed I’ve taken it upon me to spread its word a little. In fact, I would consider it rather odd if I – an Austrian book blogger – neglected the literary production of my own country in favour of Anglo-American blockbusters which are overwhelmingly present on the internet and in bookshops, anyways. For this week’s review I chose an Austrian novel which earned international fame in the early 1990s. Brother of Sleep by Robert Schneider is historical fiction set in the mountains of Austria in the early nineteenth century and tells the story of a musical genius in love who was born into a poor and hardworking environment without use or understanding for his exceptional gift.

Monday 17 November 2014

Poetry Revisited: A Night in November by Thomas Hardy

A Night in November


I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!

Thomas Hardy

Friday 14 November 2014

Book Review: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield early twentieth century brought forth some important woman writers whose innovative approach to writing has left such a lasting impact on literary production that the effects are noticeable up to this day. They not only continue to be widely read, but their work also keeps inspiring ever new generations of authors. One of them is Virginia Woolf, of course (»»» read my review of Jacob’s Room). Another one of those much revered modernists is Katherine Mansfield, the master of short story from New Zealand. Her last collection published during her (short) lifetime is The Garden Party and Other Stories which combines fifteen more or less cursory portraits of the everyday lives of well-to-do people, their children and servants in their habitat.

Monday 10 November 2014

Poetry Revisited: Courage by Margaret Steele Anderson


(in The Flame in the Wind: 1913)

I thank thee, Life, that though I be
This poor and broken thing to see,
I still can look with pure delight
Upon thy rose, the red, the white.

And though so dark my own demesne,
My neighbor's fields so fair and green,
I thank thee that my soul and I
Can fare along that grass and sky.

Yet am I weak! Ere I be done.
Give me one spot that takes the sun!
Give me, ere I uncaring rest.
One rose, to wear it on my breast!

Margaret Steele Anderson

Friday 7 November 2014

Book Review: Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline World War of 1914-18 brought not only radical changes regarding borders, governments and relations between countries, but it also had a lasting impact on people and society. An important, though controversial novel that shows how the war shadowed life and attitude of two average French combatants, and that I’m reviewing today for both the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge and The Great War in Literature Special, is Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. The plot begins with the belligerent atmosphere before the war which led the French army into incredibly atrocious battles in Belgium. The narrating protagonist survives, but carrying the burden of what he has witnessed and participated in his soul remains in the gloom of a never-ending night.

Monday 3 November 2014

Poetry Revisited: Next Spring by Clement Scott

Next Spring

(from Lays and Lyrics: 1888)

Their loveliness of life and leaf
At last the waving trees have shed;
The garden ground is sown with grief,
The gay chrysanthemum is dead.

But oh! remember this:
There must be birth and blossoming;
Nature will waken with a kiss
Next Spring!

Clement Scott

Friday 31 October 2014

Book Review: The Tea Lords by Hella S. Haasse crazy the distinction is considering that we all share only one planet and however politically incorrect the terms are today, in our minds Earth keeps being divided into a first (rich), a second (well-to-do) and a third (poor) world because Gross National Products and European culture remain the established standards of comparison. In an effort to show some appreciation at least in language, already many years ago we adopted the term “developing countries” for former colonies released into independence after centuries of mainly taking and little giving. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the arrogance in relations with them has been eliminated. Much of it has been passed on to us through generations. The usual mind-set of colonists becomes evident in The Tea Lords by Helle S. Haasse which I’m reviewing today. The story is about a young man who in the late nineteenth century joins his parents in the Dutch East Indies to make his fortune growing tea.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Author’s Portrait: Adalbert Stifter

Literature is an art bound to culture and language. Thus it often happens that an author who is famous in his own cultural and linguistic environment remains unknown in other parts of the world. I have made it my mission to present some of them, notably writers from before 1900. Among important Austrian authors who don’t get much attention outside Austria or German-speaking countries (anymore), I already portrayed Bertha von Suttner (who is better known as a peace activist) and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach. Today I want to spotlight Adalbert Stifter, a leading figure of Austrian Biedermeier literature. Despite his lasting fame in the German-speaking world, it seems that most of his work is still waiting to be discovered abroad.

Monday 27 October 2014

Poetry Revisited: Domestic Peace by Anne Brontë

Domestic Peace


Why should such gloomy silence reign,
And why is all the house so drear,
When neither danger, sickness, pain,
Nor death, nor want, have entered here?

We are as many as we were
That other night, when all were gay
And full of hope, and free from care;
Yet is there something gone away.

The moon without, as pure and calm,
Is shining as that night she shone;
But now, to us, she brings no balm,
For something from our hearts is gone.

Something whose absence leaves a void--
A cheerless want in every heart;
Each feels the bliss of all destroyed,
And mourns the change--but each apart.

The fire is burning in the grate
As redly as it used to burn;
But still the hearth is desolate,
Till mirth, and love, and PEACE return.

'Twas PEACE that flowed from heart to heart,
With looks and smiles that spoke of heaven,
And gave us language to impart
The blissful thoughts itself had given.

Domestic peace! best joy of earth,
When shall we all thy value learn?
White angel, to our sorrowing hearth,
Return--oh, graciously return!

Anne Brontë

Friday 24 October 2014

Book Review: The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski a crisis people show their true faces, even more so in times of war and persecution. Hadn’t it been a period of most disgusting crimes against humanity, World War II would have been the perfect scenario for sociologists to study human behaviour in all kinds of dangerous situations. The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski shows how the much tried Polish people reacted to Nazi occupation after centuries of foreign rule (be it Russian, Prussian or Austrian) and underground resistance. The novel talks of secret heroes, of the mercilessly persecuted and of accidental victims just as well as of collaborators out of conviction or out of need. But for many of the survivors World War II was just the beginning of their fight for survival in an oppressive regime.

Monday 20 October 2014

Poetry Revisited: Tenho tanto sentimento – I Have so Much Feeling by Fernando Pessoa

Tenho tanto sentimento

Tenho tanto sentimento
Que é freqüente persuadir-me
De que sou sentimental,
Mas reconheço, ao medir-me,
Que tudo isso é pensamento,
Que não senti afinal.

Temos, todos que vivemos,
Uma vida que é vivida
E outra vida que é pensada,
E a única vida que temos
É essa que é dividida
Entre a verdadeira e a errada.

Qual porém é a verdadeira
E qual errada, ninguém
Nos saberá explicar;
E vivemos de maneira
Que a vida que a gente tem
É a que tem que pensar.

Fernando António Nogueira de Seabra Pessoa
I Have So Much Feeling

I have so much feeling
That it often is that I persuade myself
That I am sentimental,
But I recognise, pondering,
That all this is thought,
That I don’t really feel.

We have, all who we live,
A Life that is lived
And another life that is thought,
And the only life that we have
Is the one divided
Between the true and the false.

Which one, however, is the true
And which the false, nobody
Knows to explain to us;
And we live in a way
That the life that people have
Is the one of which they must think.

Translation by Edith LaGraziana 2014

Friday 17 October 2014

Book Review: Marie Claire by Marguerite Audoux one week ago the French writer Patrick Modiano was announced as this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (»»» read the respective announcement on Read the Nobels), but quite apart from the fact that I had never heard of him until then, I would consider it too early and too obvious to review one of his books for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge already today. Instead I chose a bestselling novel from the early twentieth century, more precisely a memoir: Marie Claire by Marguerite Audoux. The author was already forty-seven years old when this masterpiece of hers, in which she recounts her childhood and adolescence in a Catholic orphanage and on a remote French farm, came out and earned her the Prix Femina 1910.

Monday 13 October 2014

Poetry Revisited: The Secret Day by Stella Benson

The Secret Day 

(From Twenty: 1918)

My yesterday has gone, has gone and left me tired,
And now to-morrow comes and beats upon the door;
So I have built To-day, the day that I desired,
Lest joy come not again, lest peace return no more,
Lest comfort come no more.

So I have built To-day, a proud and perfect day,
And I have built the towers of cliffs upon the sands;
The foxgloves and the gorse I planted on my way;
The thyme, the velvet thyme, grew up beneath my hands,
Grew pink beneath my hands.

So I have built To-day, more precious than a dream;
And I have painted peace upon the sky above;
And I have made immense and misty seas, that seem
More kind to me than life, more fair to me than love—
More beautiful than love.

And I have built a house—a house upon the brink
Of high and twisted cliffs; the sea’s low singing fills it;
And there my Secret Friend abides, and there I think
I’ll hide my heart away before to-morrow kills it—
A cold to-morrow kills it.

Yes, I have built To-day, a wall against To-morrow,
So let To-morrow knock—I shall not be afraid,
For none shall give me death, and none shall give me sorrow,
And none shall spoil this darling day that I have made.
No storm shall stir my sea. No night but mine shall shade
This day that I have made.

Stella Benson

Friday 10 October 2014

Book Review: One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello are we? Are we really who we believe we are? Or are we someone completely different than we think? Do others see us the way we see ourselves? These are questions that occupied and still occupy the minds of many ordinary people and of scores of philosophers worldwide. While philosophers necessarily take a scientific point of view on matters of identity, writers can deal with it more freely, and in fact, they do so rather often – to their own as well as to their readers’ delight. Often the philosophical aspects of a novel almost disappear under the surface of an intricate plot, but One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello offers a direct approach. The work of the Nobel laureate 1934 centres on the narrating protagonist’s search for his only true identity which disturbs him to the point of madness and confuses his surroundings.

Monday 6 October 2014

Poetry Revisited: Thought by D. H. Lawrence


(From More Pansies: 1932)

Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existing ideas
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion,
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.

David Herbert Lawrence

Friday 3 October 2014

Book Review: I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar if a person can no longer bear the constant pressure and competition of modern society? What if this person feels the need to withdraw from the world hiding away in a safe place (like the parents’ home) and refusing social intercourse for weeks, months, years, even decades on end? The Japanese call such a person a “hikikomori”. It’s a piece of recent Austrian literature that acquainted me with the term. I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar tells the story of a twenty-year-old “hikikomori” making his first hesitating steps out of self-chosen isolation and of a fifty-six-year-old man who lost his office job and doesn’t dare to tell his wife. They pass their days in the park on benches opposite each other, until the old approaches the young and inspires him to talk. 

Milena Michiko Flašar was born in Sankt Pölten, Austria, in 1980 to a Japanese mother and an Austrian father. After high school she studied Comparative Literature, German and Romance philology in Vienna and Berlin. She made her literary debut in the early 2000s and has published several short stories in anthologies and literary journals since. Her first book titled Ich bin (I am) came out in 2008 and was followed by Okaasan. Meine unbekannte Mutter (Okaasan. My Unknown Mother) two years later, but only her novel I Called Him Necktie (Ich nannte ihn Krawatte: 2012) brought first commercial success and the literary breakthrough. Milena Michiko Flašar lives as a writer and teacher of German as a foreign language in Vienna, Austria.

The plot of I Called Him Necktie is set in the anonymity of a typical Japanese metropolis. On a February morning twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro timidly ventures back into life and society after having locked himself up in his room at his parents’ and having avoided social contact even with father and mother for two years. As a “hikikomori” he is not just an outsider, but also a disgrace to his family because he obviously is too weak to dutifully play his role in society like everybody else. It costs him a big effort to leave his room and his house although he really longs to get out of the prison that he built for himself. The hustle and bustle in the streets overwhelms him and the mere idea that his trouser-leg could accidentally touch the rim of another person’s coat, or even worse, that his eyes could meet those of somebody else for a split second makes him feel so sick that he has to haste into the park to vomit. He settles down on a bench by a cedar tree and begins to pass every day there getting gradually used to vibrant life around him. On a morning in May a typical Japanese salary man wearing a white shirt and a grey suit with a grey and red striped necktie appears seemingly out of nowhere on the bench on the other side of the path. He is in his fifties and just sits there the whole day long with his leather brief-case by his side, a newspaper to pass his time reading and obviously homemade bentō for lunch. The two men see each other every day, they observe each other, and although they don’t talk, they cease to be strangers. One day Taguchi Hiro gives him a name – Necktie – and their attitude to each other changes. Before long they greet with a shy wave or with a discreet nod, until one Thursday morning the salary man joins the narrator on his bench and introduces himself as Ōhara Tetsu. He pours out his heart to Taguchi Hiro. He talks about how he was fired from his job because he couldn’t keep pace with his younger colleagues anymore and that he didn’t dare to tell his wife Kyōko. Taguchi Hiro keeps silent at first, but as time passes, he begins to open up to Ōhara Tetsu and eventually tells him the entire story that led him to become a “hikikomori”. The two outcasts of society become friends of sorts.

As indicates already the title of I Called Him Necktie (the English translation is literal), the novel is the first-person narrative of Taguchi Hiro, the twenty-year-old “hikikomori”, who tells his and Ōhara Tetsu’s story in retrospect. The plot is just as simple and unspectacular as true life happens to be more often than not, but it offers insights into human souls that have been mutilated, almost crushed by the cruel demands of our modern, increasingly competitive society. In some respects the mindset of the two protagonists may seem rather strange to most of us, while we are only too familiar with others of their experiences, feelings and thoughts. Thus the novel is a tender and also poetic character study of two protagonists representing two large groups of society who are often marginalised today because they can’t withstand the growing as well as constant pressure and have problems to keep functioning in society, namely the young who aren’t tough enough and the old who no longer succeed to muster up the required strength of body and mind. The general tone of the novel is quiet, sometimes even contemplative or melancholic, which is adequate considering the story told. Milena Michiko Flašar’s language is clear and unpretentious although in several places the author preferred to use subtle insinuations instead of just giving the rude facts. In German it certainly was a pleasure to read this short novel and I can only hope that the English translation doesn’t just convey the meaning of the words, but also the beauty of the writing.

All things considered, I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar is a short novel which is quickly read and which makes think about how we usually deal with other people, ie without consideration for their very own needs and limits. The “hikikomori” in me just loved the story. In fact, I devoured the book in less than a day and I really long to reread it soon. For all those who would like to know how a recluse – especially in a Japanese surrounding – feels and thinks, this may be the perfect novel to start with. I also recommend it to everyone who wants to try some contemporary Austrian literature for a change. Amazingly it took only two years for the English translation to come out, often it’s 20+ years… or never.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Author's Portrait: Aphra Behn

"Aphra Behn," by Sir Peter Lely
oil on canvas, ca. 1670.
Courtesy of the Yale Center for
British Art, Yale University,
New Haven, Connecticut.
There are many interesting figures among writers whose work is in the public domain. Today I want to shed light on an Englishwoman from the seventeenth century who caused quite some polemic among her contemporaries and who was even vilified by later – more prudish – generations for her “indecent” writings. Her work was only rediscovered in the early twentieth century and she was recognised since as a key playwright of the English Restoration, a notable poet and an important pioneer of the modern English novel committed to realism. She also was England’s first professional woman writer and a person surrounded by a certain amount of mystery. Her name is Aphra Behn.

Based on few existing sources biographers assume that Aphra Behn must have been born as Aphra Johnson in Canterbury, England, or close by before 14 December 1640, but her origins remain largely in the dark and nothing can be said for sure about them. Although it’s the most probable supposition, it isn’t even certain that she was called Johnson after all since already her contemporaries ascribed different maiden names to her. That her father was a barber, however, seems to be a fairly established fact passed on to us through the centuries.

Hardly any information on Aphra Behn’s childhood and youth is available. That her knowledge of French and Latin enabled her later on to translate books into English, hints at a good education. It’s also probable that she lived in Dutch Guiana in the West Indies, ie in Surinam, at least for a while because her writings show that she was well acquainted with the conditions there, especially with slavery. It was said that she travelled to Surinam with her parents and siblings during the first phase of the English Civil War in 1663 and that her father died on the way. Other sources suggest that she may have worked as a spy for the English crown there.

By 1664 Aphra Behn was back to England where she married the merchant Johan Behn – provided that he ever existed. No records about the man of Dutch or German descent or about the wedding could be found yet and rumour had it that she invented him altogether to comply with social conventions that discriminated against women, especially unmarried ones, or even to obscure her identity. Most biographers assume, though, that the marriage took place in fact and that Johan Behn died the following year. Soon afterwards, during the second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-67, she went to Antwerp, Netherlands, as a political spy, but instead of providing her with a living, the activity plunged her into debt. It seems that she never received the money that King Charles II. owed her and she may even have served time in the debtor’s prison. A warrant for her arrest survived.

After the unlucky experience in the service of the King, Aphra Behn set her hopes on writing. She had been making verses all along, but eventually tried her hand at commercially more promising plays since the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell was over and theatres were re-opening at last. As it turned out, she had a talent for it and became the leading playwright of the English Restoration. Already her first performed plays, The Forc’d Marriage (1670) and The Amorous Prince (1671), were a big success. They were followed by another seventeen more or less popular plays: The Dutch Lover (1673), Abdelazer (1676), The Town Fop (1676), The Rover – Part 1 (1677) and Part 2 (1681), Sir Patient Fancy (1678), The Feigned Courtesans (1679), The Young King (1679), The False Count (1681), The Roundheads (1681), The City Heiress (1682), Like Father, Like Son (1682), Prologue and Epilogue to Romulus and Hersilia, or The Sabine War (1682), The Emperor of the Moon (1687), and posthumously staged The Widow Ranter (1689) and The Younger Brother (1696). Together with composer John Blow she also wrote The Lucky Chance (1686).

Although some of Aphra Behn’s plays, notably The Rover – Part 1 and Part 2, were much loved by the audience and quite profitable, her work for the theatre never made her rich and she dedicated herself increasingly to poetry and narration. In 1684 she published the much admired volume of poetry titled Poems upon Several Occasions, with A Voyage to the Island of Love and brought out the novel Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister which saw several reprints, too. This early epistolary novel was so popular that the author wrote two sequels to it: Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, Second Part (1685) and The Amours of Philander and Silvia (1687).

The best-known narrative work of Aphra Behn up to this day is the tragic love story of an enslaved African prince around whom revolves the short novel Oroonoko. It first appeared in print in 1688, both as a single edition and in a collection titled Three Histories (along with the novellas The Fair Jilt and Agnes de Castro). Thanks to its realism and its influence on later novels, Oroonoko is seen today as an important milestone in the development of the modern English novel. Also in 1688 the author brought out another volume of poetry Lycidus; or, The Lover in Fashion and the short story The History of the Nun: or, the Fair Vow-Breaker.

The fact that her dramatic work, her poetry and her fiction provided Aphra Behn with a livelihood allowed her as the first Englishwoman ever to call herself with full right a writer by profession – and she was the first who did it with pride which shocked her contemporaries, male and female. Her creative work, however, could never fully relieve her from poverty and debt, and so she like many others in a similar situation also translated French and Latin books into English for a living. The last years of her life were overshadowed by growing pain and stiff as well as deformed joints, probably due to rheumatoid arthritis, but her financial situation forced her to continue to write indefatigably until the end.

Aphra Behn died in London on 16 April 1689 and was buried at Poet’s Corner in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. In the essay A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf called upon “all women together … to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, …, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

The works of Aphra Behn are available online as free e-books on different websits like just for instance Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks. you wish to know more about this important figure of English literature, I recommend the following biographies:

Janet Todd: The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (2013)

George Woodcock: The English Sappho (1989)

Monday 29 September 2014

Poetry Revisited: Indian Summer by Katharine Tynan

Indian Summer 

(From Experiences: 1908)

This is the sign!
The flooding splendour, golden and hyaline
This sun a golden sea on hill and plain, --
That God forgets not, that He walks with men.
His smile is on the mountain and the pool
And all the fairy lakes are beautiful.
This is the word!
That makes a thing of flame the water-bird.
This mercy of His fulfilled in the magical
Clear glow of skies from dawn to evenfall,
Telling His Hand is over us, that we
Are not delivered to the insatiable sea.
This is the pledge!
The promise writ in gold to the water’s edge:
His bows in Heaven and the great floods are over,
Oh, broken hearts, lift up! The Immortal Lover
Embraces, comforts with the enlivening sun,
The sun He bids stand still till the day is won.

Katharine Tynan

Friday 26 September 2014

Book Review: I'm Off by Jean Echenoz
Art business is tough. Tastes change at the same pace as fashion and buyers always ask for something new at a good price, something that will increase its value with time and that will give the owner the aura of a true connoisseur. Who wants to earn a fortune selling art thus needs to be either some kind of a clairvoyant or a genius in sales or a trendsetter of renown. The lady-killing protagonist of I'm Off by Jean Echenoz, which I'm reviewing for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, is the owner of a small art gallery in Paris who doesn’t spare costs nor pains to secure priceless objects for his clients almost from North Pole when his assistant baits him with the profits. Then the whole lot is stolen and it seems the end of all dreams, even of the protagonist’s life, but things are never so bad as they look at first.

Jean Echenoz was born in Orange, Southern France, in December 1947. He studied sociology and civil engineering at different French universities. He made his literary debut with Le méridien de Greenwich (The Greenwich Meridian) in 1979 which was followed by the prize-winning novel Cherokee (1983). Many works of this prolific French author have been translated into English, most notable among them Chopin’s Move (Lac: 1989), I’m Off (Je m’en vais: 1999; also translated as I’m Gone), Ravel (2006), Running (Courir: 2008), Lightning (Des éclairs: 2010), and the World War I novel 1914 (14: 2012). Jean Echenoz lives in Paris, France.

With the title words I'm Off the Parisian gallery owner Félix Ferrer leaves his wife Suzanne on Sunday, 3 January. He is a womaniser in his mid-fifties and longing for a change, but he is despite all surprised that Suzanne doesn’t even bother to make a scene. For a couple of months he lives with his young lover Laurence, until she throws him out. Then Ferrer moves into a luxurious apartment in the rue d’Amsterdam where his assistant Delahaye shows up one night with his friend Victoire (who settles down there for a while). Business in the gallery has been slack already for a while and Delahaye seizes the opportunity to talk to Ferrer about a small commercial ship called Nechilik that got stuck in the Arctic ice in 1957 and was recently rediscovered. Among the frozen cargo is Inuit art which happens to be sought for by collectors and seems such a good bargain to Ferrer that he decides to travel to northwesternmost Canada to secure it for his gallery. Before the adventure can begin, Delahaye is victim of a fatal accident. At least that’s what Ferrer and the rest of the world is made believe, while in reality he has taken on the name Baumgartner and waits for the moment to score the prepared big coup. On a day in June Ferrer boards a plane to Montreal and continues the strenuous travel to the remote coast of the District of Mackenzie (Nunavut Territory since 1999) first on an icebreaker and then on dogsled. Even in the isolation of the Arctic he finds women to seduce, the nurse-librarian of the icebreaker and an Inuit girl. The artefacts from the Nechilik meet all his expectations and he takes them back with him to his gallery in Paris. Before he has a chance to even insure his treasure, it is stolen by the junkie thief Le Flétan who was hired by Delahaye, now Baumgartner. For Ferrer the loss is a disaster, since he put almost all his money and hopes into the acquisition. He calls at every bank to get a loan, but his errands are in vain and eventually it is too much for his already weak heart. His life, however, goes on after a multiple heart bypass and it still has some surprises as well as charming women in store for him.

The novel I'm Off is told from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator who doesn’t hesitate to insert his own (sometimes laconic) comments on described events and actions in the plot whenever he considers it necessary or useful. It’s obvious that the main two story lines – Ferrer’s expedition beyond the Arctic Circle to secure the Inuit artefacts and everything concerning their following theft – combine the popular genres of adventure and crime with a character study of the protagonist, a womaniser going through a midlife crisis. Jean Echenoz spiced his novel with a good dash of irony, though, making fun of the established rules of fiction writing which keep being observed above all by authors who (try to) create genre bestsellers in great numbers in as little time and with as little effort as possible. A considerable number of flashbacks and flash-forwards livens up the plot which all in all feels plausible and without loose ends. Despite being caricatured to a certain degree, all characters in the book appear and act like types that can be found in any neighbourhood. With Jean Echenoz the choice of their names sometimes is a pun too, but in general they aren’t translated because otherwise the junkie thief of this novel would be called the Halibut instead of Le Flétan. In style the work of Jean Echenoz is said to evoke Raymond Queneau and Laurence Sterne. Since I haven’t read anything by either of them, I can’t tell it it’s true, though. The author’s language is modern, unpretentious and characterised by the ample use of wordplay as well as unique images which add a great deal to the pleasure of the read. I had no difficulty at all to read the original French version although some of the puns obvious to a French reader may have been lost on me.

All things considered, I'm Off by Jean Echenoz has been an entertaining and interesting cross-genre read. I liked the author’s sense of humour that shows in subtle irony rather than gross jokes and I will surely read others of his (usually) short novels. The first one will be the novella titled One Year (Un an) from 1987 that is included in the English edition that I chose for this review.

Monday 22 September 2014

Poetry Revisited: My Fairy by Lewis Carroll

My Fairy

(1846; first published 1932)

I have a fairy by my side
Which says I must not sleep,
When once in pain I loudly cried
It said “You must not weep”
If, full of mirth, I smile and grin,
It says “You must not laugh”
When once I wished to drink some gin
It said “You must not quaff”.

When once a meal I wished to taste
It said “You must not bite”
When to the wars I went in haste
It said “You must not fight”.

“What may I do?” at length I cried,
Tired of the painful task.
The fairy quietly replied,
And said “You must not ask”.

Moral: “You mustn’t.”

Lewis Carroll