Friday, 31 May 2019

Bookish Déjà-Vu: The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

The past can be as tempting a subject of contemplation as a better future, but while we can shape the last according to our dreams and plans, the first is impossible to change. What happened, happened. Despite all, the question “what if things had been differently” sometimes springs to our minds with such force that we get absorbed in futile reflections. Of course, such ruminations use to focus on a rather recent past and on something that we did or didn’t do in a specific situation. Science fiction writers, however, usually step further back in history to fill entire novels with alternative pasts. Out of a sudden whim the protagonist of my bookish déjà-vu, The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago, alters a minor detail in the proofs of a history book that he corrects and thus begins his alternative account of events and a love story…
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Monday, 27 May 2019

Poetry Revisited: The Green Linnet by William Wordsworth

The Green Linnet

(from Poems. Volume I: 1807)

Beneath these fruit-tree boughs that shed
Their snow-white blossoms on my head,
With brightest sunshine round me spread
               Of spring's unclouded weather,
In this sequestered nook how sweet
To sit upon my orchard-seat!
               And birds and flowers once more to greet,
               My last year's friends together.

One have I marked, the happiest guest
In all this covert of the blest:
Hail to Thee, far above the rest
               In joy of voice and pinion!
Thou, Linnet! in thy green array,
Presiding Spirit here today,
               Dost lead the revels of the May;
               And this is thy dominion.

While bird, and butterflies, and flowers,
Make all one band of paramours,
Thou, ranging up and down the bowers,
               Art sole in thy employment:
A Life, a Presence like the Air,
Scattering thy gladness without care,
               Too blest with any one to pair;
               Thyself thy own enjoyment.

Amid yon tuft of hazel trees,
That twinkle to the gusty breeze,
Behold him perched in ecstasies,
               Yet seeming still to hover;
There! where the flutter of his wings
Upon his back and body flings
               Shadows and sunny glimmerings,
               That cover him all over.

My dazzled sight he oft deceives,
A Brother of the dancing leaves;
Then flits, and from the cottage eaves
               Pours forth his song in gushes;
As if by that exulting strain
He mocked and treated with disdain
               The voiceless Form he chose to feign,
               While fluttering in the bushes.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
English Romantic poet

Friday, 24 May 2019

Book Review: Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu

The urge for freedom is so strong that not even the cruelest totalitarian regime can crush it completely. Fear of persecution, imprisonment, torture and death may keep it in check outwardly, but under the surface it smolders and seeks an outlet that may well be a violent revolution in the final consequence. Meanwhile, people just do their best to survive making good use of the little freedom left them to outwit authorities and informers or to flee the country if need be. This is the scene that the semi-autobiographical novel Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu draws of Romania during the Cold War when the narrating protagonist grows up in an intellectual environment with the secret police around every corner. Even her first love is overshadowed by the suspicion that her sweetheart might be an informer and eventually her father’s underground activities drive her to flee to the safe West.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Poetry Revisited: Eolie by Edith May


(from Poems by Edith May: 1850)

Oh ! you are welcome as the dew
       To the worn feet of pilgrim day.
And wild and fresh as flowers that keep
       The virgin bloom and breath of May;
Yet wilful as a hawk set free
       Ere whistle lure or huntsman tame her.
Capricious as the bridal smile.
       Spring half denies the skies that claim her.
You've slept since morning unbetrayed
       By waving grass, or whispering tree,
You're loitering now through grove and glade,
                                                 Wild Eolie

Oh! we were playmates long ago.
       And then I chased your flying feet
Over the brave rock-terraced hills,
       Over the valleys green and sweet.
Your kisses woke me, if I slept
       Where boughs unclasp and shadows play,
And, starting from my childish dreams,
       I heard your low laugh far away.
Most gentle in your wily mirth.
       Yet elfin half, you seemed to me,
I loved you more than I can tell.
                                                 Wild Eolie!

I love you still; when evening comes,
       I hear you tread my chamber floor,
You sweep aside my curtain's fold,
       And close the page I linger o'er.
For sunset is our trysting time.
       Our tryst we keep till stars convene,
Till, Thetis-like, from deeps of blue
       Upwends the silver-footed queen—
Breaking the crystal calm of night.
       As light wings break a glassy sea,
Your low voice hymns me to my rest,
                                                 Wild Eolie!

When through the heavens' serenest blue
       Move car-like clouds with lingering flight
I image you a nymph like those
       That urge the shell of Amphitrite.
At morn you are a huntress fleet;
       And cloistered from the heats of noon,
You seem at night a sister pale,
       Low chanting to the halved moon.
By morn, and noon, and saintly night,
       I imagine what I cannot see,
And give your elfin tones a soul,
                                                 Wild Eolie!

Edith May (1827-1903), real name Annie Drinker
American poet

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Back Reviews Reel: May 2016

Among my four reviewed books of three years ago there were three focusing on the lives of women. The 2008 historical novel The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie revolves around a sixteenth-century Indian princess whose good looks and charms made her the companion of powerful men and brought her from her native India via Florence to the Americas. Much less glamorous than hers is the life of the protagonist’s mother in the forgotten Austrian classic The Red House by Else Jerusalem because the renowned beauty is a prostitute in Vienna before 1900. In contrast, The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau is an experimental novel pacing through French history from the thirteenth century through the 1960s in a dream-like plot. In The Rose Petal Beach by Dorothy Koomson the seemingly perfect life of a woman turns into a nightmare after her husband’s arrest for attempted rape in Brighton of today.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Poetry Revisited: Mis Mai – To May by Daniel Evans

Mis Mai

(o Gwinllan y Bardd: 1831)

Mor dêg a hyfryd ydyw Mai,
Pob peth heb’drai sy’n ddedwydd,—
Mor hardd eu drych yw bloda’'r drain
A geir yn gain ar gynnydd,—
Aderyn bach, mor bêr dy big,
A’th gân ar frig y gwinwydd.

Y ddaear rwydd sydd oll yn wres,
A glân yw tês y glennydd,—
Mor fwyn y gwenyn sydd yn gwau,
Gan sugno diliau'r dolydd.
Ac arwain adre ‘u llwythau llawn
Ar dynnion iawn adenydd.

Mor lwys a llon yw meillion Mai,
Y lili a’i chwiorydd,—
Fel llawn yr afon pan bo lli’,
Llawn clod a bri yw’r bröydd:
A daethost tithau ‘nol yn iach,
Gu wennol fach I’n gweunydd.

Mor felus clywed llais y gôg,
A gweled clôg y coedydd,
Mewn llawen fraint a’u lliw yn frith,
Ac arnynt wlith boreuddydd,—
A gwrando wrth fachludiad sêr
Ar ganiad pêr uchedydd.

I roeso Mai, O deued myrdd,
A’i wên yn wyrdd ar wawrddydd;—
E ddarfu’r gauaf oer ei naws
Fu’n hir yn draws-reolydd,
Mae Mai mewn braint uwch unrhyw bris,
Y goreu Fis i faesydd.

Coroner Mai trwy’r byd ar g’oedd
Yn ben y miaoedd mwynrydd
A blodau teccaf trwy y tir,
Nes byddo’n wir ysblennydd,—
A doed i ganu ‘i fawl yn ffrwd
Mewn cariad brwd bob prydydd.

Daniel Evans (1792-1846)
Clerigwr a bardd o Gymru

To May

(from The Bard’s Vineyard: 1831)
How fair and fragrant art thou, May!
Replete with leaf and verdure,
How sweet the blossom of the thorn
Which so enriches nature,
The bird now sings upon the bush,
Or soars through fields of azure.

The earth absorbs the genial rays
Which vivify the summer,
The busy bee hums on his way
Exhausting every flower,
Returning to its earthen nest
Laden with honied treasure.

How cheerful are the signs of May,
The lily sweet and briar,
Perfuming every shady way
Beside the warbling river;
And thou, gay cuckoo! hast returned
To usher in the summer.

How pleasant is the cuckoo’s song
Which floats along the meadow,
How rich the sight of woodland green,
And pastures white and yellow,
The lark now soars into the heights
And pours her notes so mellow.

To welcome May, let thousands hie
At the sweet dawn of morning,
The winter cold has left the sky,
The sun is mildly beaming,
The dew bright sparkles on the grass,
All nature is rejoicing.

Let May be crown’d the best of months
Of all the passing year,
Let her be deck’d with floral wreaths,
And fed with juice and nectar,
Let old and young forsake the town
And shout a welcome to her.

Daniel Evans (1792-1846)
Welsh cleric and poet

Translation as found in
John Jenkins, Esq. (ed.): The Poetry of Wales.
London 1873

Friday, 10 May 2019

Book Review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
When life doesn’t take the expected turn, it’s often easier to come up with the idea of a conspiracy than to search for the real cause of events. Especially misanthropists (but not only they) are prone to blaming others for all and nothing. They need a scapegoat and who is better suited for it than the weak, be it an individual or a whole group like the Jewish minority spattered all across Europe. In The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco a man in his late sixties looks back on his life as unscrupulous informer and forger of documents whose every action has been marked by the blind hatred against Jews, Freemasons and Jesuits that he contracted in his youth. Writing down his adventures, it slowly dawns on him that he has an alter ego, a Jesuit priest of all things, who got active in the periods that he can’t remember…

Monday, 6 May 2019

Poetry Revisited: The Hot-House Rose by Charlotte Turner Smith

The Hot-House Rose

(from Conversations Introducing Poetry: 1804)

An early rose borne from her genial bower,
Met the fond homage of admiring eyes,
And while young Zephyr fanned the lovely flower,
Nature and Art contended for the prize.

Exulting Nature cried, “I made thee fair,
‘T was I that nursed thy tender buds in dew;
I gave thee fragrance to perfume the air,
And stole from beauty’s cheek her blushing hue.”

“Cease, goddess, cease,“ indignant Art replied,
“And ere you triumph, know that, but for me,
This beauteous object of our mutual pride
Had been no other than a vulgar tree.

“I snatched her from her tardy mother’s arms,
Where sun-beams scorch and piercing tempests blow;
On my warm bosom nursed her infant charms,
Pruned the wild shoot, and trained the straggling bough.

“I watched her tender buds, and from her shade
Drew each intruding weed with anxious care,
Nor let the curling blight her leaves invade,
Nor worm nor noxious insect harbour there.

“At length the beauty’s loveliest bloom appears,
And Art from Fame shall win the promis’d boon,
While wayward April, smiling through her tears,
Decks her fair tresses with the wreaths of June.

“Then, jealous Nature, yield the palm to me,
To me thy pride its early triumph owes;
Though thy rude workmanship produced the tree,
‘Twas Education formed the perfect Rose.”

Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806)
English Romantic poet and novelist

Friday, 3 May 2019

Bookish Déjà-Vu: Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Dreams of a better future are an exceptionally strong driving force as prove millions of people on the move on our planet. Unlike the latter – who must be really desperate – most of us chase after opportunities promising a better life without ever leaving home and family. Actually, we are taught to reach for the stars although often we are painfully aware that the dream is quite an impossible one. Despite all, we go on trying… and hoping even when we feel like Don Quixote fighting against his windmills because we meet obstacle after obstacle or people who do everything in their power to stop us or lead us astray. In Berlin of the 1920s, the protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, another one of my bookish déjà-vu, is determined to lead an honest life after four years in prison, but everything and everybody seem to have conspired against him…
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