Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Great War in Literature Special

The Great War of 1914 to 1918, the First World War that was called so, covered our beautiful planet with blood and suffering. Millions of soldiers around the world, many of them scarcely prepared for battle, were sent into an inferno of dimensions beyond thought until then. Danger lurked everywhere: on the ground, in the air and even under water. Terror and fear filled the hearts of those who, by sheer luck, survived the slaughtering executed by faceless enemies serving soulless machines. It was a new kind of war that must have left many fighting men speechless because they couldn’t even think of appropriate words to express the horrible experience in its full extent. 

But there were others at the front, gifted writers whose minds could translate inhuman impressions into human language to share them with those off the battlefields and to maybe, just maybe inspire them to stand up for peace. Many of them were killed in action and thus prevented from revelling in their success. Many survived and only started to write after the war when there was time to sit down and put pen to paper in a peaceful and safe environment. Also those who stayed behind at home, above all women and children, wrote about hardships and sacrifices that war asked of them to tell the world that their life wasn’t a bed of roses, either. 

Is it much of a surprise that this first great war of the twentieth century had a huge impact on literature? Topics changed, but also language and style. In which ways? I decided to make a special to find out book after book! By the way, if you would like to suggest a read (one that doesn’t glorify war) – you’re welcome to leave a comment

And here's my list of novels which are – one way or another – related to the Great War of 1914-1918 (subject to change). Links are to my reviews: 

  • Peregrine Acland: All Else Is Folly. A Tale of War and Passion (1929)
  • Enid Bagnold: A Diary Without Dates (1917)
    - - -: The Happy Foreigner (1918)
  • Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), translated into English as Journey to the End of the Night
  • Jean Echenoz: 14 (2012), translated into English as 1914 
  • Mark Helprin: A Soldier in the Great War (1991)
  • Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (1929)
  • Henning Mankell: Djup (2004), translated into English as Depths
  • Ian McEwan: Atonement (2001)
  • Anaïs Nin: Lilith in: The Winter of Artifice (1939)
  • Leo Perutz: Wohin rollst du Äpfelchen... (1928), translated into English as Little Apple
  • Erich Maria Remarque: Im Westen nichts Neues (1929), translated into English as All Quiet on the Western Front 
  • Joseph Roth: Radetzkymarsch (1932), translated into English as The Radetzky March  
  • Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn: Август Четырнадцатого (1971), translated into English as August 1914
    - - -: Oктября Шестнадцатого (1985), translated into English as November 1916
    - - -: Март Семнадцатого (1989), not translated into English yet
    - - -: Aпрель Семнадцатого (1991), not translated into English yet
  • Marcelle TinayreLa Veillée des armes. Le départ; Août 1914 (1915), translated into English as To Arms! as well as previously as Sacrifice  
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner: Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927)
  • Franz Werfel: Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (1933), translated into English as The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (the Great War is only the background of the story about the cruel banishment and slaughtering of Armenians in Turkey in 1915)
  • Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier (1918) 
  • Edith Wharton: The Marne (1918)
    - - -: A Son at the Front (1923) 
  • Virginia Woolf: Jacob's Room (1922)
    - - -: Mrs. Delloway

Monday 28 July 2014

Poetry Revisited: 1914 by Wilfred Owen

Today 100 years ago, on 28 July 1914, the almost 84-year-old Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King Francis Joseph I declared war against the Kingdom of Serbia and set in train what was to grow into World War I or simply the Great War. In commemoration of the sad event I'm sharing with you the following poem by Wilfred Owen who was killed in action in 1918, only one week before the armistice:


War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art's ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love's wine's thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.

For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.

                                                        Wilfred Owen

Friday 25 July 2014

Book Review: The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck
With today’s review I’m moving from Israel on the western coast of Asia to the south-eastern edge of the continent, namely to the Korean peninsula. Keeping largely to herself the Kingdom of Korea managed to ward off territorial cravings of Russia, China and Japan for centuries, but modern times introduced Europe and the United States of America into the game. Power shifted continually towards the Japanese Empire and in the early twentieth century Korea was first occupied by and then annexed to her. The Living Reed by Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck tells he fictitious story of four generations of a Korean noble family working for their country’s independence. 

Pearl S. Buck, also known under her Chinese name 賽珍珠, was born as Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia, USA, in June 1892. Her parents being Presbyterian missionaries in China she grew up in Zhenjiang near Nanking. After college in the USA she returned to China and married the agricultural economist missionary John Lossing Buck. As from 1927 Pearl S. Buck devoted herself to writing and brought out her first novel titled East Wind: West Wind in 1930 which was immediately followed by The House of Earth trilogy (The Good Earth: 1931; Sons: 1933; A House Divided: 1935). In 1935 she got divorced and married her editor Richard Walsh with whom she had been involved since 1930. “For her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces” Pearl S. Buck received the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. Other notable works of the prolific writer of fiction as well as non-fiction are for instance Dragon Seed (1942), The Promise (1943), The Big Wave (1948), Peony (1948), and The Living Reed (1963). Pearl S. Buck kept writing until her death from lung cancer in Danby, Vermont, USA, in March 1973.

The subtitle of The Living Reed immediately identifies the book as a novel of Korea. To be precise it’s a historical novel showing the country’s striving for independence between 1881 and 1945 at the example of the Kim family of the clan of Andong who are rich scholars belonging to the highest nobility of Korea and having a long tradition in the royal service. The story begins in Seoul in spring 1881, when a second son is born to Il-han and his wife Sunia. Meanwhile the older son got angry and broke several young shoots in the bamboo grove in the garden and Il-han explains to him that
“…, they grow only once from the root. The plants these shoots might have been, waving their delicate leaves in the winds of summer, will never live. The shoots crack the earth in spring, they grow quickly and in a year they have finished their growth. You have destroyed food, you have destroyed life. Though it is only a hollow reed, it is a living reed. Now the roots must send up other shoots to take the place of those you have destroyed. …” 
It’s a crucial moment in Korean history because the country is torn between those who like King Kojong and Il-han believe that only opening up to the world, especially to the United States of America, can save the millennia old Kingdom from annexation and those who like Queen Min and Il-han’s father trust in the traditional policy of seclusion under the suzerainty (and protection) of the Chinese Empire. Although neither Il-han nor his father holds an official position at the Royal Court, they are both loyal advisers to the Royal Couple. However, unrest is growing among Koreans and Il-han sets out to travel the whole country to get to know his own people. On his return home Il-han finds Queen Min in his house. She is hiding from the bloodhounds of the former Regent, who meanwhile seized power, and he saves her as is his duty. Some months after her and her husband’s restoration to the throne, Il-han and others are sent to the USA and Europe to learn more about those countries. After the experience Il-han is more than ever convinced that Korea needs the USA on her side and accordingly advises King Kojong. A treaty with the USA is made and first steps towards the modernisation of the country are initiated, but old and new political as well as social tensions are steadily growing over the years. Rebel groups like the Tonghak are attracting members everywhere and as it turns out Il-han’s elder son Yul-chun, who is now a young man attending a foreign school in Seoul, belongs to it. At the same time China, Russia and Japan are heading into war and the independence of Korea is threatened, but the USA don’t intervene as their treaty with Korea proclaims, not even when Japanese troops enter the country and kill Queen Min. While Il-han’s younger son adapts to the Japanese regime, his elder son fights it and disappears for a long time while a rebel called “The Living Reed” enters the scene. 

The whole story of The Living Reed is told by a third-person narrator, but Pearl S. Buck decided to add a first-person epilogue to explain what inspired her to write the novel and above all to provide a link between the plot that ends with the arrival of US-American troops in Seoul in 1945 and the independent, though divided Korea of the early 1960s. For a better understanding of Korean history the author also wrote a historical note as an introduction which is quite interesting although I doubt that it made the story any more accessible than it would have been without it. The first part covering the period between spring 1881 and Korea’s annexation to the Japanese Empire in 1910 takes up almost half of the books and is told in great detail, while the following two parts dedicated to the periods between 1910 and the suppression of the Mansei Demonstration in 1919 and the years from 1919 to 1945 are much shorter and seem too cursory by comparison. As regards the descriptions of life in exile and under Japanese rule, I also suspect that they might not be very realistic because they feel strangely light and uncomplicated. An important focus of the entire novel is on change, namely on the individual as well as on the political and social level. Characters are modelled with great skill and narrative foresight although the special traits of Il-han’s grandsons make expect much more of them than the plot offers because the author opted for a rather sudden – and in my opinion unsatisfactory – ending. To tell the story of the Kims and Korea Pearl S. Buck used simple language which is at the same time poetic and sometimes imitating traditional Korean ways of narration. 

All in all I enjoyed reading The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck and plunging into a world that is so far from my own experience and into aspects of history which have been known to me only rudimentary because they are too loosely connected to what happened in Europe at the time to be taught in our schools. It’s certainly a book that helps to raise cultural awareness and understanding for the historical as well as ideological background of the lasting division of the peninsula into a secluded Communist North and open democratic South Korea. Therefore I believe that it deserves to be read by many more people than it is today.

* * * * *

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!

Monday 21 July 2014

Poetry Revisited: Faro en la noche – Lighthouse in the Night by Alfonsina Storni

Faro en la noche

(de Mundo de siete pozos: 1934)

Esfera negra el cielo
y disco negro el mar.

Abre en la costa, el faro,
su abanico solar.

A quién busca en la noche
que gira sin cesar?

Si en el pecho me busca
el corazón mortal.

Mire la roca negra
donde clavado está.

Un cuervo pica siempre,
pero no sangra ya.

Alfonsina Storni
(1892 - 1938)

Lighthouse in the Night

(from World of Seven Wells: 1934)

The sky a black sphere,
the sea a black disk.

The lighthouse opens
its solar fan on the coast.

Spinning endlessly at night,
whom is it searching for

when the mortal heart
looks for me in the chest?

Look at the black rock
where it is nailed down.

A crow digs endlessly
but no longer bleeds.

Friday 18 July 2014

Book Review: Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon centuries Palestine has been the place of nostalgia for millions of Jews living spattered all over the world in Disaspora, but only rising nationalism in the late nineteenth century made them seriously think of returning to live in the Promised Land of the Thora and of rebuilding a Jewish state. As shows Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon, who together with poet Nelly Sachs won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1966, many early immigrants were dreamers and often ignorant of the situation in the Holy Land under Ottoman rule. They arrived in a country that didn’t welcome them as they had imagined and that instead of being virtually empty and waiting for cultivation was the home of Arabic families who had been living there for generations.

Monday 14 July 2014

Poetry Revisited: Sonnet to Liberty by Oscar Wilde

Sonnet to Liberty


These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant's price. I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet's heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God's wonder, or His woe?

                                                       Oscar Wilde

Friday 11 July 2014

Book Review: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke Sunday (6 July 2014) the writer and cartoonist Tex Rubinowitz received this year’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt, Austria. Since it’s the most prestigious literary award for German-language writers, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to review today the work of one of the thirty-seven previous laureates. As luck would have it, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke has just recently been translated into English for the first time and shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Almost a quarter of a century ago (sic!) an extract from the very same narrative about the repressed anger of a family ruled by a tyrannical father earned the author the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. 

Birgit Vanderbeke was born in Dahme, Brandenburg, German Democratic Republic, in August 1956. As from 1961 she grew up in Frankfurt am Main, Federal Republic of Germany, where she later studied law, Germanic and Romance philology. Reading from her narrative The Mussel Feast (Das Muschelessen) she won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 1990 which marked her literary breakthrough. None of the author’s other works, most notable among them Ich will meinen Mord (1995; I Want My Murder), Alberta empfängt einen Liebhaber (1997; Alberta Receives a Lover) and Geld oder Leben (2003; Money or Life), have been translated into English yet. Her latest published work is Der Sommer der Wildschweine (2013; The Summer of the Wild Boars). Birgit Vanderbeke lives in Southern France.

The main plot of The Mussel Feast is set in Western Germany some time during the 1970s. Waiting for the father’s return from an official trip which is expected to have led to the longed-for promotion, the eighteen-year-old narrator sits in the kitchen with her mother and younger brother. In anticipation of the good news the mother has prepared mussels which are the father’s favourite dish ever since he fled with his wife and baby daughter from East Germany shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. None of the others cares for mussels – the two women even find them disgusting –, but everything in this family is done according to the father’s rules and (presumed) wishes because otherwise they would have to suffer the humiliating, often violent consequences. He is a tyrant with very precise ideas of how a proper family works and how a perfect wife and the perfect children should be. He’s always right and everybody else is automatically at fault. Of course, reality never corresponds with the idyll in his mind and every so often he interrogates and punishes wife, daughter and son. At every opportunity he makes them feel his disappointment. He is obsessed also with social status to the point of living beyond the family’s means. Mother and children have learnt to play their roles and to live their own ideas of life outside his sphere when there’s no risk to be discovered. As the evening advances and the usual routine is broken because the father doesn’t arrive for dinner at six as expected, the three help themselves to some wine and before long they get slightly drunk. Their repressed anger drifts to the surface.

Superficially The Mussel Feast looks like a first-person narrative about a family falling short of the all-controlling father’s distorted ideal, but in reality it’s the story of people living in a tyrannical system of any kind. The dysfunctional family assembled around the kitchen table is at the same time a small-scale model of a dictatorial state like the German Democratic Republic between 1949 and 1990. Characteristic of both social entities is a climate of constant fear and distrust. Also the strategies of oppressor and oppressed are the same: the first rules with an iron fist to crush opposition against the proclaimed only truth as well as to sap self-confidence and the latter take on a habit of servility while secretly indulging in unwanted or even prohibited activities and behaviour. At the end the pressure gets too strong and emotions boil over in a revolution. History proved more than once that sooner or later the human urge for freedom of thought always succeeds in overthrowing a repressive system! Birgit Vanderbeke’s book is a slim volume of scarcely more than a hundred pages even in German, certainly less in English translation. There are no chapters and in addition the text is divided by only few paragraphs composed of long, involved periods which require a bit of concentration in order not to lose the thread. The language used by the author is colloquial in general and appropriate for the eighteen-year-old narrator. Everything, including dialogues, is narrated.

All in all, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke is an absorbing read which reveals a lot about the mechanisms of tyranny and the abysses behind the façade of a proper family. Unfortunately, there are fathers like the one portrayed in this novella in reality… and even worse brutes (men and women) who bring up children and keep the vicious circle of violence and abuse going behind the well-protected walls of home. The novella no light read, but one that makes think. Therefore I’m more than willing to recommend it.

To know more about the Austrian author in whose honour is awarded the leading prize for German-language literature  »»» read my portrait of Ingeborg Bachmann.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Author's Portrait: Camilo Castelo Branco

Portugal is a small and unobtrusive country in the southwesternmost corner of the Iberian Peninsula – and Europe. One of her most prominent and prolific nineteenth-century writers was Camilo Castelo Branco, first Visconde de Correia Botelho, whose books have remained popular long after his death in 1890 and are still read in Portuguese schools sometimes. He was a master of romance, but despite the lasting fame he enjoys in his country his name is virtually unknown outside Portugal and other parts of the Lusitanian world. This is reason enough for me to write his portrait today.

Monday 7 July 2014

Poetry Revisited: On Death by Anne Killigrew

On Death


Tell me thou safest End of all our Woe,
Why wreched Mortals do avoid thee so:
Thou gentle drier o'th' afflicteds Tears,
Thou noble ender of the Cowards Fears;
Thou sweet Repose to Lovers sad dispaire,
Thou Calm t'Ambitions rough Tempestuous Care.
If in regard of Bliss thou wert a Curse,
And then the Joys of Paradise art worse;
Yet after Man from his first Station fell,
And God from Eden Adam did expel,
Thou wert no more an Evil, but Relief;
The Balm and Cure to ev'ry Humane Grief:
Through thee (what Man had forfeited before)
He now enjoys, and ne'r can loose it more.

No subtile Serpents in the Grave betray,
Worms on the Body there, not Soul do prey;
No Vice there Tempts, no Terrors there afright,
No Coz'ning Sin affords a false delight:
No vain Contentions do that Peace annoy,
No feirce Alarms break the lasting Joy.

Ah since from thee so many Blessings flow,
Such real Good as Life can never know;
Come when thou wilt, in thy afrighting'st Dress,
Thy Shape shall never make thy Welcome less.
Thou mayst to Joy, but ne'er to Fear give Birth,
Thou Best, as well as Certain'st thing on Earth.
Fly thee? May Travellers then fly their Rest,
And hungry Infants fly the profer'd Brest.
No, those that faint and tremble at thy Name,
Fly from their Good on a mistaken Fame.
Thus Childish fear did Israel of old
From Plenty and the Promis'd Land with-hold;
They fancy'd Giants, and refus'd to go,
When Canaan did with Milk and Honey flow.

                                                    Anne Killigrew

Friday 4 July 2014

Book Review: The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom going a little astray for a full month, I felt like returning to the old rut again and in the end picked a rather slim volume from my shelves where it had been waiting undisturbed and patiently for many months. My penchant was towards something by a European author whose work has so far escaped my bibliomania and I was pleased to find that my instinct led me to a most intriguing philosophical novelette partly set in Lisbon. The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom deals with the many questions surrounding the experience of death and the inexplicable bond between body and mind, but also with matters of love and identity.