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)