Friday, 31 January 2014

Book Review: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said

Today Europe and the Orient seem irreconcilable worlds because of their conflicting cultures. Nonetheless there are places where Christians, Muslims and Jews used to live together more or less peacefully in the past, for instance the Caucasus region. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Caucasian territories of the Russian Federation build the bridge between East and West. The accelerated growth of European economy during the past two centuries has constantly widened the gap and made people there feel torn between the old Asian concepts of life deeply rooted in Islam and the new secular lifestyle of Europe as shows the novel Ali and Nino by Kurban Said which I’m reviewing today. 

Kurban Said is a pseudonym under which two German-language novels have been published, namely Ali and Nino (Ali und Nino: 1937) and The Girl from the Golden Horn (Das Mädchen vom Goldenen Horn: 1938). Up to this day nobody knows for certain who was the real person hiding behind it, but three possible authors have been made out. First of all there is the Austrian Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof (1894-1982) who signed the publishing contract and registered the copyright. In 1944, however, rumour spread that Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942), better known under his pen name Essad Bey, was the true author of the novels and today it’s widely accepted that the German-language writer originating from Baku in Azerbaijan must have been their co-author at least. In the early 1970s claims were made that the Azeri writer Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli (Yusif Vəzir Çəmənzəminli: 1887-1942) collaborated with Essad Bey on Ali and Nino which is supported by some scholars. The case of Kurban Said is investigated in the Dutch documentary Alias Kurban Said by Jos de Putter released in 2004 and in the bestselling biography of Essad Bey by Tom Reiss titled The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life which came out in 2005. 

The novel Ali and Nino begins with Ali Khan Shirvanshir’s memory of a geography class in 1909. A teacher of the Russian high school in Baku, Azerbaijan (then part of the Russian Empire) talks about the dispute of scholars regarding the dividing line between Europe and Asia in Transcaucasia. Five years later Ali is a young man of nineteen and in love with beautiful Nino Kipiani whom he knows since childhood. He is the son of a notable Muslim family and Nino is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a newly rich Christian Georgian family. During the summer holidays after Ali’s graduation from high school the two get secretly engaged. World War I breaks out and plunges Europe into chaos, but Ali doesn’t intend to fight for the Russian Empire. It isn’t his war. Some months later he asks Nino’s father for her hand, but he refuses at first and changes his mind only after the mediation of Ali’s older Armenian friend Melik Nachararyan. The wedding day is already close, when Ali is informed one night that Nachararyan kidnapped Nino. Tradition of honour requires that Ali finds the fugitives and kills them. He chases after them, but he only kills Nachararyan and spares Nino. Now Ali has to hide from the Nachararyan clan to escape the vendetta and from the Russian police. After several months Nino visits Ali in his refuge in Daghestan where they get married and lead a happy life in poverty until the Russian imperial authorities quit Azerbaijan following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Ali and Nino can finally return to Baku, but after a short fight for the country’s independence in which Ali too takes up arms they have to flee. In Persian exile Nino depresses in the conservative Islamic environment which confines her to the harem and the company of women with whom she has nothing in common. Ali on the other hand feels in his cultural element, but after a moment of religious ecstasy he realizes how much he misses Azerbaijan and her multi-ethnic life. As soon as Baku is taken by Turkish troops and put under British protectorate Ali and Nino return. Azerbaijan is independent now and the cross-cultural couple plays an important role as liaison with European representatives present in Baku. Alas the dream of independence doesn’t last long because the Bolsheviks already reach for Azerbaijan... and her oil. 

Ali and Nino is the first-person narrative of Ali Khan Shirvanshir spanning the turbulent years between 1914 and 1920, thus from the dawn of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia until the end of the temporarily independent Azerbaijan. The crucial period in the country’s history is inseparably interweaved with the personal fate of the two young protagonists whose love story serves to show cultural differences between Muslims and Christians as well as common traditions. Ali represents Asia and the traditional ways of life, thus adherence to the past, while Nino stands for Europe and progress, thus a future-oriented attitude. Consequently, Ali chases after Nachararyan’s car on the back of a legendary Karabakh horse and uses a dagger to kill his opponent. Nino, on the other hand, enjoys the ample social life and amenities of the western world. The novel has an unusually rich plot with many unexpected turns, but exciting and quick scenes are always followed by more contemplative ones acquainting the reader with the narrator’s observations, recollections and reflections. Language and style of the novel are engaging and easy to follow although many of the touched topics are complex and unfamiliar to a western audience. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading Ali and Nino by Kurban Said very much since it allowed me another glimpse into the Islamic ways and the difficulties to reconcile them with a modern – western – world without sacrificing the own cultural identity. Since its publication in 1937 the novel has lost nothing of its power and message as proves the fact that it’s currently being adapted for the screen. At any rate I recommend it for reading.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

European Reading Challenge 2013: The Summary

Together with the month of January ROSE CITY READER’s European Reading Challenge 2013 is coming to a close at last and it’s time for the summary of my reads. Since joining the challenge past June I ploughed through veritable heaps of books limiting myself to fiction and banning crime and romance from my list of books to read because I don’t like those genres. Some novels and short stories which I picked for the challenge I devoured because they were captivating and intelligent, while I dismissed right away the memory of others because they were boring or I didn’t enjoy them for other reasons. Despite all I’m far from having made my way through every single one of the fifty countries scattered over the European continent. There just wasn’t enough time for so many! 

In addition some countries turned out to be quite a hard nut to crack. The small ones like Andorra, Liechtenstein and San Marino, for instance, haven’t actually brought forth important writers in crowds and they rarely served authors as the setting of a novel. Nonetheless I made out a suitable book for each one of those, but either it was an old novel long out of print like Il trono dei poveri by Marino Moretti dating from 1928 (and reprinted in the 1980s as far as I know) or it was a book on demand like Des bergers andorrans au château de Corbeyran de Foix by Florence Ricard which for mysterious reasons never arrived with me or the story itself couldn’t tempt me at all like in the case of Ludmilla: A Legend of Liechtenstein by Paul Gallico which I know from a German film made of it in the 1950s and which is out of print anyways. 

Eastern Europe (including the three Baltic countries), the Balkans and the Caucasus region too posed a much bigger problem than I had expected because few authors from there seem to have been translated into any of the European languages which I know, or if they were, I couldn’t get hold of their books anywhere around. Moreover, the countries of the former Communist Bloc, which existed more or less tucked away behind the iron curtain for decades, don’t seem to be particularly popular with western writers. In the end I managed to cover at least some of those neglected countries, notably the neighbours of Austria. 

Summing up, I must say that to my great regret there remain many blanks in the following list, but be assured that I’ll go on searching for hidden gems from the disregarded corners of our planet, not just Europe, to read and review them for you. 

My final count of the past 13 months is 65 books set in/from 38 countries and 32 reviews of books set in/from 25 countries. Not bad at all, but see for yourselves... here's my list!

Broken April by Ismail Kadaré


The Christmas Carp by Vicki Baum
Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg (re-read)
Chess by Stefan Zweig (re-read)
Engel des Vergessens by Maja Haderlap (no English edition found)

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
Bosnia & Herzegovina
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
Apostoloff by Sibylle Lewitscharoff
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna
Das Walnusshaus by Miljenko Jergović (original Croatian title: Dvori od oraha; no English edition found)
Czech Republic

Fair Play by Tove Jansson
Die Klärung by Hannu Raittila (original Finnish title: Pamisoksen purkaus; no English edition found)
The Cat by Colette
Christmas Holiday by William Somerset Maugham
Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (re-read)
Am Schwarzen Meer by Kéthévane Davrichewy (original French title: La Mer noire; no English edition found)
Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész
Befreiung by Sándor Márai (original Hungarian title: Szabadulás; no English edition found)
Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason
Der gute Liebhaber by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (original Icelandic title: Góði Elskhuginn; no English edition found)
A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen
The Taoiseach by Peter Cunningham
The Zahir by Paulo Coelho (re-read)




Sword & Scimitar by Simon Scarrow


Victoria by Knut Hamsun
Jenny by Sigrid Undset
The Wedding in Auschwitz by Erich Hackl
The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski
Republic of Macedonia

San Marino

Ein Sternenzelt aus Stuck by Goran Petrović (original Serbian title: Испод таванице која се љуспа; no English edition found)
Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho (re-read)
Nada by Carmen Laforet
The Farewell Angel by Carmen Martín Gaite
City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza
The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán
Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban by Santiago Gamboa (no English edition found)
The Emperor of Portugallia by Selma Lagerlöf
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Job: The Story of a Simple Man by Joseph Roth (re-read)
United Kingdom   
Vatican City
Eminence by Morris L. West

Monday, 27 January 2014

Poetry Revisited: Winter Song


Rain and wind, and wind and rain.
Will the Summer come again?
Rain on houses, on the street,
Wetting all the people's feet,
Though they run with might and main.
Rain and wind, and wind and rain.

Snow and sleet, and sleet and snow.
Will the Winter never go?
What do beggar children do
With no fire to cuddle to,
P'raps with nowhere warm to go? 
Snow and sleet, and sleet and snow.

Hail and ice, and ice and hail,
Water frozen in the pail.
See the robins, brown and red,
They are waiting to be fed.
Poor dears, battling in the gale!
Hail and ice, and ice and hail.

                            Katherine Mansfield

Friday, 24 January 2014

Book Review: The Storm by Margriet de Moor time of year is the season of winter storms in Europe and everybody living in coastal areas of the North Sea can certainly tell you a thing or two about it. The two biggest storm catastrophes of the twentieth century happened in the Netherlands on 31 January 1953 and in Hamburg on 16 February 1962. Both times cyclones caused huge tidal surge which broke dikes and cost the lives of thousands of people. A novel dealing with the flood disaster in the Netherlands and its impact on the lives of the surviving is The Storm by the Dutch writer Margriet de Moor which I chose for today’s review. 

Margriet de Moor was born as Margaretha Maria Antonetta Neefjes in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in November 1941. After her piano and vocal art studies she was a classical singer until she returned to university to study art history and archaeology in the late 1970s. Her career as a writer began only in 1988 when she published a much acclaimed collection of narratives which was followed by a book containing three novellas. Her debut novel was First Gray, Then White, Then Blue (Eerst grijs dan wit dan blauw: 1991) and it was an immediate as well as huge success. Her other works available in English are The Virtuoso (De Virtuoos: 1993), Duke of Egypt (Hertog van Egypte: 1996),  The Kreutzer Sonata (Kreutzersonate: 2001), and The Storm (De Verdronkene: 2005). Margriet de Moor lives in Bussum, The Netherlands. 

The opening scene of The Storm is set in Amsterdam on the morning of 31 January 1953. Lidy is about to leave for the small town of Zierikzee which is a drive of several hours to the South. Actually, her sister Armanda is expected there for the birthday party of her godchild, but on a whim Armanda talked Lidy into going in her place. The sisters are almost as like as two peas. Lidy is twenty-three and married Sjoerd after she got pregnant inadvertently. Armanda is twenty-one, shy and a bit jealous of everything her older sister has, including Sjoerd on whom she has a crush. When Lidy arrives in Zierikzee, the storm has already increased considerably although nobody is worried yet. After the birthday party she retires to her room, but soon is roused from sleep because a dike-reeve needs a car and wants to borrow hers. On the spur of the moment she decides to accompany him and unknowingly heads for the centre of the disaster which is looming and in which she will drown after a long and desperate fight for survival. In Amsterdam Armanda and Sjoerd are at a party that night and completely ignorant of the horrors lived in the South. Only the next morning the damage becomes gradually known. Day after day passes and Lidy is still missing. The worries of her family change into grief as the hopes to find her alive shrink. Meanwhile Armanda takes care of her small niece and also of her brother-in-law. Before soon Nadja regards Armanda as her mother and when Lidy is declared dead after two years it seems only natural to everybody that she marries Sjoerd. On her wedding day she feels like she were continuing her sister’s instead of her own life and continues to do so ever after. 

The Storm is divided into five major parts which – with the exception of the final “Respensorium” – are each composed of eight and six titled chapters respectively. An omniscient third-person narrator tells the stories of Lidy and Armanda alternately which always implies a certain change of perspective. Despite all the lives of the sisters remain interweaved by memories and thoughts regarding the other. The short and thrilling period of Lidy’s fight for survival during the flood is set against the long and rather ordinary existence of Armanda in well-ordered circumstances. In the moment of death the two story lines merge. Margriet de Moor’s style and plot seem elaborate to me although I believe that it would have given the novel more depth and power if she had more than just outlined Armanda’s and the whole family’s life after the tragic events of January/February 1953. The Dutch author’s language is powerful and rich in impressive images. I’d even call it poetic in a certain way, but then I know only the German translation. 

Reading The Storm by Margriet de Moor has been an interesting and instructive pleasure as well as a sad and moving experience. And of course I highly recommend the book!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Poetry Revisited: The Cold Heaven


Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

                                                             William Butler Yeats

Friday, 17 January 2014

Book Review: Snow by Orhan Pamuk Sweden I’m moving on to the South of the continent or rather to the European tip of the Bosporus and above all to Asia Minor, in other words to modern Turkey between Black and Mediterranean Sea. As a matter of fact, there aren’t an awful lot of Turkish writers whose work is translated into English or German although as late their number is increasing gradually. For today’s review I picked the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Without doubt the laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2006 is one of the most renowned authors of his country. 

Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in June 1952. Already before graduating in journalism from the University of Istanbul, he dedicated his life entirely to writing. His first novel Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (Cevdet Bey and His Sons) won the 1979 Milliyet Press Novel Contest under a different title, but was first published only three years later. Several other novels followed until the writer’s big breakthrough came with The Black Book (Kara Kitap) in 1990 which was followed by highly successful works like New Life (Yeni Hayat: 1995), My Name is Red (Benim Adım Kırmızı: 1998), Snow (Kar: 2002), and Istanbul: Memories of a City (İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Sehir: 2003). In 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The literary criticism The Naive and Sentimental Novelist (Saf ve Düsünceli Romancı: 2011) is his latest released work. Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul. 

The scenery of Snow ("kar" in Turkish) is the Eastern Anatolian town Kars which has seen much better days. It’s in a winter of the 1990s when Kerim Alakuşoğlu, who already as a schoolboy took to abbreviating his detested name as Ka, travels to Kars. Ka is a middle-aged poet of small renown who has been living in political exile in Germany for many years and who suffers from writer’s block. The commission of a newspaper in Istanbul to report about the upcoming local elections in Kars and a series of suicides by young women who refused to take off their head-scarves serves him as pretext to visit the town of his early childhood and to meet his adored former schoolmate İpek. He secretly hopes that the recently divorced will accept to marry him. At his arrival under heavy snowfalls Kars is cut off. The following three days are filled with investigations for articles which Ka doesn’t even mean to write and with courting beautiful İpek. Talking to military, police, Secret Service, secularists, communists, nationalists, moderate Islamists, and the wanted Islamic extremist Blue, Ka is drawn into the thicket of conflicting political convictions. Moreover the aging actor and leader of a travelling theatre group Sunay Zaim, who always dreamt of impersonating Atatürk on stage, takes advantage of being cut off from the world and of a live television broadcast of their performance to seize power in a coup de main executed on stage. Ka doesn’t really care about it, not even the killings and the arrests. He is a poet in love and in the snow he feels the presence of Allah. The writer’s block is broken and poem after poem flows into his pen and into his green notebook. But sooner or later even the heaviest snowfalls stop, traffic connections are cleared from snow and the old order is restored. Inevitably the events have some kind of sequel for everybody who got mixed up in them, for Ka too. 

It isn’t obvious from the very beginning, but Snow is told by a first-person narrator who traces Ka’s every move during those three days in Kars. As the reader learns later on, Ka was shot dead in Frankfurt four years after the events and the narrator, his writer friend Orhan (Pamuk), made it his business to reconstruct the nineteen poems which Ka wrote in Kars and which are lost to the world because his green notebook has disappeared. The genesis of the poems together with Ka’s life story serves the author as the perfect background to touch on the complex political and cultural situation in Turkey, a country between Asia and Europe, between Islamic heritage and western lifestyle, between tradition and modernism. The contradictions manifest also in the great variety of characters with often opposing views populating the novel and in Ka’s inner strife. They are described very carefully and with a certain degree of irony and playfulness. Orhan Pamuk’s language and style remain simple throughout and make it easy to follow the plot. Unfortunately, the protagonist’s poems are revealed only by their titles and by their position on a symbolic snow crystal which is a bit of a let-down. 

As you can easily guess, I enjoyed reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk very much. It shows the dilemma of the Turkish people in search of a new identity which pleases followers of all the different ideological and religious movements present in the area, be it on the national or on the individual level. To me it seems only natural that the topic is on the minds of Turkish writers. Also the novel The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak, which I reviewed almost exactly one year ago, revolves around the difficulties of finding a comfortable place between East and West. As for Snow by Orhan Pamuk, it’s a read which I recommend highly both for its literary quality as well as for the glimpse into the Turkish soul which it allows.

* * * * *

This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Public Domain Review

Copyright is property right on creative work like texts, pictures and music. It may annoy many bloggers and advocates of free online content that not everything on the internet can be reused without fear of being sued for damages after a breach of copyright (yes, that happens!), yet protection is important. How many artists would still go public with their work if it meant giving it away for free and that completely as well as for good? Certainly fewer than now and probably not the most talented, but the most pretentious or missionary ones who are otherwise provided for financially. 

http://publicdomainreview.orgHowever, copyright protection isn’t infinite. Sooner or later (depending on the respective domestic copyright law in force) every piece of art enters the public domain and there are many initiatives dedicated to making those works accessible on the internet. Just think of the Project Gutenberg eBooks. There is a vast and constantly growing sea of free online resources available, but they are scattered all over the web without systematic or quality control. The Public Domain Review has made it its task to put a spotlight on the best and most interesting as well as easily overlooked contents free of copyright. 

The Public Domain Review is a non-profit project of the Open Knowledge Foundation promoting free and open access to digital cultural heritage. The online magazine was founded by Jonathan Gray and Adam Green in order to make public domain works which are available for free on the internet more widely known. It first appeared on 1 January 2011 and offers articles written by scholars, writers and artists about non-copyrighted cultural gems which the authors wish to recommend and promote as well as curated collections of films, audio, images and texts. A free biweekly newsletter informs subscribers about topics covered on the magazine. 

Another mission of The Public Domain Review is to promote the work of many different projects, organisations and volunteers worldwide dedicated to digitising and publishing public domain works for free on the internet. A guide to the exploration of interesting online resources in the public domain completes the magazine’s contents and encourages to plunge into own research. The magazine regularly holds a caption competition on its site in which readers are called upon to submit a witty heading to adorn an image provided by the magazine. The prize for the lucky winner is a Public Domain Review cloth tote bag. 

Like many such projects The Public Domain Review depends on donations, but there also is a web store where prints, T-shirts, mugs and other merchandise “returning select gems from their pixel-based existence back into the world of real objects from whence they once came” can be bought to support the magazine. In addition the editors always welcome the submission of ‘playful’ or informal articles about public domain works which – if chosen – are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. Featured material must be available online in openly-licensed digitised form and it should preferably be unorthodox or unusual in some way.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Poetry Revisited: January


Pavement slipp’ry, people sneezing,
Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;
Titled gluttons dainties carving,
Genius in a garret starving.

Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
Courtiers cringing and voracious;
Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.

Wives who laugh at passive spouses;
Theatres, and meeting-houses;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

Arts and sciences bewailing;
Commerce drooping, credit failing;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal;
Separations, weddings royal.

Authors who can’t earn a dinner;
Many a subtle rogue a winner;
Fugitives for shelter seeking;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

Taste and talents quite deserted;
All the laws of truth perverted;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring;
 Merit silently deploring.

Ladies gambling night and morning;
Fools the works of genius scorning;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

Some in luxury delighting;
More in talking than in fighting;
Lovers old, and beaux decrepid;
Lordlings empty and insipid.

Poets, painters, and musicians;
Lawyers, doctors, politicians:
Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes,
Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.

Gallant souls with empty purses;
Gen’rals only fit for nurses;
School-boys, smit with martial spirit,
Taking place of vet’ran merit.

Honest men who can’t get places,
Knaves who shew unblushing faces;
Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded;
Candor spurn’d, and art rewarded.

                               Mary Robinson

Friday, 10 January 2014

Book Review: The Emperor of Portugallia by Selma Lagerlöf isn’t always easy. Now and then most of us have to go through a situation when reality is so hard to bear that it almost drives us crazy. At such times many people withdraw into themselves and some seek relief in the realm of imagination. Usually this escapism is temporary and limited to reading novels or watching films, but others are drawn further away from reality. Hundred years ago the first female laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote a story about a man who slips into a dream world and is much happier for it. Of course, I refer to the novel The Emperor of Portugallia by the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf which I decided to review today for ROSE CITY READER’s European Reading Challenge 2013

Selma Lagerlöf was born in Mårbacka, Värmland, Sweden, in November 1858. While working as a teacher, she began writing her famous first novel The Story of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings saga: 1891). As from 1895 Selma Lagerlöf dedicated herself entirely to writing, but only her novels Jerusalem and The Holy City: Jerusalem II (Jerusalem I: I Dalarne: 1901; Jerusalem II: I det heliga landet: 1902) earned her undisputed renown as a novelist. The author’s best known work up to this day is the children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige: 1906/07). In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and five years later she became the first female member of the Swedish Academy. The Emperor of Portugallia (Kejsarn av Portugallien: 1914) is said to be her last great work since in her later years she wrote little. Selma Lagerlöf died in Mårbacka, Värmland, Sweden, in March 1940. 

The novel The Emperor of Portugallia is set in Southern Sweden between 1860 and 1870. A girl is born to poor Jan Anderson and his wife Katrina working on the Falla farm. A beautiful sunset inspires the father with the perfect name for the baby: Glory Goldie Sunnycastle. Jan loves his daughter and their relationship is very close. When Glory Goldie is seventeen, the new master of Falla threatens to drive the family away from their home because the late master of Falla never thought it necessary to give Jan property papers for their land. Moreover, Jan and Katrina can’t raise the huge sum which the new master wants now. So Glory Goldie persuades her parents to allow her to go to Stockholm. She believes that taking service in the capital she can easily earn the necessary money within a few months. From the first day Jan misses his daughter and anxiously waits for her return. As time goes by and no word from her arrives, he begins to gradually fill the blank surrounding the girl’s fate with his imagination. Rumours of her immoral conduct reach the village, but in Jan’s dream world Glory Goldie is the spotless Empress of Portugallia… which naturally makes him the Emperor of Portugallia representing her in the country. Jan wears now the stiff, high-crowned leather cap and the long, silver-mounted ebony stick of the old master of Falla as his imperial regalia and begins to act as he thinks befitting a person of his high rank. He loves talking about his noble daughter and the villagers like listening to his fantastic stories. He doesn’t notice when people make fun of him and ever again it seems that his madness makes him clairvoyant. In this way fifteen years pass. At last Glory Goldie returns to surprise her parents and is plunged into a world beyond her understanding.

The entire novel revolving around The Emperor of Portugallia reminds of a sad fairy or folk tale. Language and style of the author are simple, yet very powerful and moving. The story’s beginning is slow because nothing out of the ordinary happens, but this normality only prepares the ground for the despair in which Jan is plunged as soon as his daughter Glory Goldie leaves home and for his wild imagination which transforms the idealized girl into the Empress of Portugallia. His madness allows him to challenge the established social hierarchy and although the villagers often make fun of him, they tolerate and even hold him in certain estimation after a while because he has a good heart… and maybe because they are a bit afraid of his prophecies, too. In the end, those few who wished him ill are all crushed and those who were good to him are rewarded like in every fairy tale. 

All in all, The Emperor of Portugallia by Selma Lagerlöf was an enchanting read although also an increasingly sad one towards the end. I enjoyed this novel written a whole century ago very much and I think that it deserves more readers. I don’t have to think twice to recommend it!

* * * * *

This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Literature and Bestsellers

Don’t They Go Together? 

Whenever I happen to come across a bestselling list somewhere, I can’t help wondering why the books on them are so successful. There’s rarely a title on them which could ever tempt me. Most covers of commercial novels act on me as a deterrent too, and if not, the first sentences of the blurb suffice to put me off. The stories are so much alike! They follow the fashion and well-tested plot patterns, no matter if the genre is romance, crime, history or fantasy. Don’t avid readers get bored? Do most readers pick books without much care, taking whatever comes their way and whatever they have been told they should read? In that case it’s no wonder that I very seldom enjoy a bestseller. I expect more from a novel than just to kill my time and to distract me from everyday life. 

However, it’s no big secret that bestselling lists aren’t actually full of quality literature. I thought that it has always been so because it’s in our nature to look for comfort and escape, especially in hard times, but an interesting online article about Best-Selling Women in the 1930s by Nava Atlas from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life opened my eyes. She analysed the US bestselling lists of the decade of the Great Depression (1931-39) and found that a great number of books appearing there have endured and are now classics. Writers like Pearl S. Buck, Willa Cather, Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), Aldous Huxley, W. Somerset Maugham, John Steinbeck, Rebecca West, Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, and Virginia Woolf figure on those lists, usually more than once. 

So have readers before us been more attracted by good literature? In fact, having a look at all lists of the twentieth century many famous names turn up: Simone de Beauvoir, Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Umberto Eco, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Erich Maria Remarque, Françoise Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, H. G. Wells, and Edith Wharton just for instance. There are also lots of authors on the lists whose names I never heard or read in my life, but still it’s obvious that in the 1960s and 1970s the bestselling lists begin to change. They become less diverse with always the same few names on them year after year, most of them the names of popular romance or thriller writers. 

The question is why have reading habits changed? Or haven’t they really? It would require in depth research to solve the puzzle, but I have my own ideas about it. I believe that the major part of people chooses just the same kind of reads as ever, only today more of them can afford buying instead of borrowing them from a library because incomes have increased in the western world and books have become a low-price product. When you don’t have much money, you’ll always give it a second thought if you really want to spend some of it on a book which may be forgotten and worthless within a few years. In addition, it’s my impression that many works which in former times would have been just good enough for a penny dreadful have found their way into the book market. 

Also authors are led to believe that the only way to make a living as a novelist is to follow the fashion. They are always under pressure to write what the market demands. Publishers these days aren’t as daring as they seem to have been some decades ago. They rather trust in established names and proven genres. They are reluctant to try out something new when the odds are high that the adventure will turn out to be a failure and a big loss for the company. Besides, who would neglect the goose laying golden eggs when there are just some ugly ducklings waiting in the background and there’s no way to know if at least one of them will grow up to be a swan or a golden goose? If only people gambling with our money on the stock markets were as conservative and cautious!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Poetry Revisited: Im Winter – In Winter


Der Acker leuchtet weiß und kalt.
Der Himmel ist einsam und ungeheuer.
Dohlen kreisen über dem Weiher
Und Jäger steigen nieder vom Wald.

Ein Schweigen in schwarzen Wipfeln wohnt.
Ein Feuerschein huscht aus den Hütten.
Bisweilen schellt sehr fern ein Schlittennd langsam steigt der graue Mond.

Ein Wild verblutet sanft am Rain
Und Raben plätschern in blutigen Gossen.
Das Rohr bebt gelb und aufgeschossen.
Frost, Rauch, ein Schritt im leeren Hain.

Georg Trakl
(1887- 1914)
Austrian poet


The ploughed earth sparkles white and cold.
The sky is lonely and immense.
Jackdaws circle above the pond
And huntsmen step down from the forest.

Among black tree-tops silence dwells.
A fiery glow flits from the huts.
At times sleigh bells ring from afar.
And the grey moon is slow to rise.

Game gently bleeds to death by ridge
And ravens plash in gory gutters.
Reeds tremble yellow and erect.
Frost, smoke, a pace through empty grove.

Alexander Stillmark
Poems and Prose. A bilingual edition
Libris 2001

Friday, 3 January 2014

Book Review: Once a Greek by Friedrich Dürrenmatt year 2014 has just begun and I’m determined to share my pleasure in good literature with you, my readers, also in the beginning cycle of months. This week it’s a prose comedy by a famous playwright from Switzerland which inspired me to write a review. Once a Greek by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (or Duerrenmatt as his name seems to be spelled in the English-speaking world) marks the grotesque and funny next stop on my tour around Europe: Switzerland. The original German edition uses to be on stock in every good book shop here, but apparently the English version of the novel is much harder to come by. Not only has the satire first been translated into English about ten years after its original release in 1955, but it has also been out of print already for a while now. If you ask me, this is a pity. To me the message of the novel seems very up-to-date and so I decided to review it.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born in Konolfingen near Berne, Switzerland, in January 1921. He studied philosophy and literature in Berne and Zurich, but soon decided to aspire to a literary career. In 1945 he published stories in local newspapers for the first time. 1947 turned out to be a particularly happy year for the emerging writer: he married, his son was born, his play Es steht geschrieben (It Is Written) was put on stage and earned him an important award starting his highly successful career as a playwright. His numerous dramatic works include the famous plays The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (Die Ehe des Herrn Mississipi: 1952), The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame: 1956) and The Physicists (Die Physiker: 1962). Friedrich Dürrematt also produced murder mysteries The Judge and His Hangman (Der Richter und sein Henker: 1950) and Suspicion (Der Verdacht: 1951), the prose comedy Once a Greek (Grieche sucht Griechin: 1955), the novels The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel (Das Versprechen. Requiem auf den Kriminalroman: 1957) and Justice (Justiz: 1985). In addition he always continued to paint and draw. Friedrich Dürrenmatt died from a heart attack in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in December 1990. 

The satire Once a Greek is set in French-speaking Switzerland, presumably in a (fictitious and nameless) capital because there are a Parliament with a Greek tympanum and a Presidential Palace right beside the Ministry of Economics… and the colossal concrete premises designed by star architect Le Corbusier where the Machine Factory Petit-Paysan plc. has its headquarters and where the story’s protagonist works. Arnolph Archilochos is a middle-aged sub-accountant in the Delivery Forceps Division, an insignificant underling in one of countless open-plan offices. He’s a very principled and religious man, a model of virtue imitating a number of chosen idols. In order to be able to financially support his brother as well as his entire family while disregarding and excusing their idle and criminal habits, he even lives in dark and smelly attics with a view at nothing but bathroom walls. In short: he leads a rather ascetic and bleak life. One Sunday the hostess of the Chez Auguste where he has his meals convinces him to place a Lonely Heart’s ad in the paper. Being the descendant of a Greek immigrant of the times of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), he seeks a Greek girl, an innocent like himself. Beautiful and charming Chloé Saloniki answers to the ad and everybody except Arnolph realizes at first sight that she is a prostitute. They agree on getting married quickly. Early the next morning, the day before the wedding, Arnolph’s comet-like as well as seemingly miraculous rise to the top of society begins and at the same time the collapse of his idyllic view of life as well as the fall of his idols announces itself. 

The plot of Once a Greek is absurd. Essentially Friedrich Dürrenmatt satirizes in a matter-of-fact language our inclination to idealize the world before our eyes and to simply fade out or mentally alter everything that doesn’t fit in. In other words: often we don’t see what actually is, but what we want to see. Despite his high moral principles Arnolph finds no harm in working for a company that produces atomic cannons because his place is in the Delivery Forceps Division. No matter what his brother and his people do, in Arnolph’s eyes they remain innocent and good at heart because they are family. People of rigorous virtue are particularly prone to it, if they – like Arnolph – take for granted that others observe the same moral values as themselves. But sooner or later everybody has to face reality and to decide how to deal with it. Run away? Surrender? Adapt? In any case the world will never be the same again – it certainly isn’t for Arnolph and his wife Chloé! They realize that unconditional love is all that counts in the end.

For me Once a Greek by Friedrich Dürrenmatt has been a quick and interesting read which I enjoyed very much. The absurd usually annoys me, not in this case, though. I reckon that this is because I didn’t need to spend hours on end meditating about the message. The truth behind all the ridiculous exaggerations was quite obvious to me. Friedrich Dürrenmatt may have been a greater playwright than novelist, but his prose comedy definitely deserves being read more widely… and my recommendation.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Reading Challenge: Books on France 2014

Emma from Words and Peace announced that in 2014 she hosts another reading challenge for books set in France, written in French (except Canadian French), written by a French author or by authors from any country about a French theme. I made up my mind to participate in it although it spans a whole year and I had sworn myself not to make another such long-term commitment. But it's France we're talking about! My first namesake whom I ever heard of was French: Édith Piaf. After that I've always been a big fan of the country and felt in seventh heaven when I finally began studying the language in school at the age of fourteen. So I can't help joining Emma's challenge – it's just too tempting!

However, I'm wise enough not to make too ambitious reading plans for 2014. Fifty-two weeks pass by so quickly and there's never enough time to read all the books which I'm longing to read. I reckon that something between six and twelve France-related reads is a realistic goal for me considering that I don't intend to read any translations and that in a foreign language I'm inevitably advancing slower. There are enough French books on my list of books to read anyways, just for instance Eléctrico W by Hervé Le Tellier (because every book set in Lisbon attracts me), 37°2 le matin by Philippe Djian, L'éducation sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert, the one or other novel by Marcel Proust and Émile Zola.

It goes without saying that I'll review the best among my French reads for you here on Edith's Miscellany and hope that you'll stay my loyal readers in another blogging year – only my second.

For the complete list of my reads and reviews for this challenge »»» please go to Books on France 2014: The Summary.