Friday, 30 August 2019

Book Review: To Bury Our Fathers by Sergio Ramírez

It’s people who make history by way of passing on knowledge about the more or less heroic deeds of individuals and groups to later generations not just through different memorabilia, but also as stories that over time may even turn into legends. Above all, turbulent times that are exceptional with regard to what people have to go through and bear with – be they wars or revolutions, be they periods of voluntary or forced migration, just to give a few examples – are a hotbed for such stories. And wherever people come together it’s likely to hear the one or other of them like in To Bury Our Fathers by Sergio Ramírez, a Nicaraguan novel from the 1970s that evokes from different perspectives the country’s (or actually the whole region’s) tragic that is history marked by terror regimes and armed resistence with or without the meddling of the USA and the USSR.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Poetry Revisited: Sunset by Constance Naden


(from Songs and Sonnets of Springtime: 1881)

The sun is setting not in colours gay,
But pure as when he blazed with noon-day heat;
The upland path is gold before my feet,
Save where long, dancing, poplar-shadows play,
Or arching lindens cast a broader grey:
This radiant hour, when peace and passion meet,
Stirs with tumultuous breezes, freshly sweet,
The odorous languor of an August day.

Above is peace; below is gleeful strife ;
Aflame with sunshine, battling with the wind,
The trees rejoice in plenitude of life:
A sea of light is sleeping in the west,
Untroubled light, o’erflowing heart and mind
With that empyreal rapture, which is rest.

Constance Naden (1858-1889)
English writer, poet and philosopher

Friday, 23 August 2019

Bookish Déjà-Vu: Penguin Island by Anatole France

Much like beauty also truth is in the eye of the beholder. This becomes particularly obvious with regard to history because known facts are always subject to interpretation and often allow very different, if not utterly contradictory conclusions to fill inevitable gaps. The factors that influence our view of the past are as myriad as they are manifold and, if we like it or not, they are more or less marked result of individual knowledge and belief. Politicians, notably demagogues gladly take advantage of this bias of historical truth to create their own, suitable version of events past with the help of experts who share their ideas. In the Chronicles of the fictitious country Penguinia, which span from the Middle Ages to a highly technological future, my bookish déjà-vu Penguin Island by Anatole France, recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature, satirises historiography at the service of militant patriotism.
Read my review »

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Back Reviews Reel: August 2016

Except for the dystopian fantasy from the Habsburg monarchy before the first Great War, all books that I presented at this time of summer three years ago dealt with World War II and with some of its effects on later generations respectively. I started the month’s tour on The Train by Vera Panova, a forgotten Stalinist classic about people working on a hospital train behind the front lines of Eastern Europe. After a nightmarish detour to The Other Side with Austrian writer and graphic artist Alfred Kubin that evoked a walled-up “Dream Kingdom” somewhere in the mountains of Central Asia in the 1960s, I returned to war-time Soviet Union and accompanied The Conductor by Sarah Quigley during the siege of Leningrad. And finally I joined The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson who is the son of Jewish immigrants in Manchester and relives his adolescence as a gifted table tennis player.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Poetry Revisited: A vida – The Life by Júlio Dinis

A vida

(das Poesías: 1873)

A alvorada foi risonha;
Ergueste-te como o dia,
Eu fiz, naquela alvorada,
Uma alegre profecia.

Inda radiava fulgente
Vénus, a saudosa estrela,
Já tu ornavas as trancas
E cantavas à janela.

E dos laranjais vizinhos
Os rouxinóis acordados
Respondiam-te com trinos
Da tua voz namorados.

Dos virentes jasmineiros,
Que a Primavera enflorava,
Vinha cheio de perfumes
O vento que te beijava.

Quem dissera então ao ver-te
Nessa risonha alvorada,
Que a noite, estrela cadente,
Serias inanimada?


Júlio Dinis (1839-1871)
médico e escritor português

The Life

(from Poems: 1873)

The dawn was radiant;
You stood up like the day,
I made, at that dawn,
A joyful prophecy.

Still shines bright
Venus, the yearning star,
Already you decorated the plaits
And sang at the window.

And from the nearby orange groves
The awake nightingales
Answered you with trills
Filled with love by your voice.

From the viridescent jasmine,
That Spring made bloom,
Vineyard full of perfumes
The wind that kissed you.

Who said then when I saw you
At this radiant dawn,
That the night, shooting star,
You would be lifeless?


Júlio Dinis (1839-1871)
Portuguese doctor and writer

Literal translation: Edith LaGraziana 2019

Friday, 16 August 2019

Book Review: Souls Divided by Matilde Serao

Since times immemorial the main ingredients of a good love story are two steadfast lovers who overcome all kinds of obstacles and hazards until at last they are allowed to live “happily ever after” or – occasionally – find a tragic end after the model of Hellenic Hero and Leander or Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet. Unrequited love, on the other hand, isn’t such a popular subject of the Romance genre unless its twists and turns lead to a happy ending for the infatuated protagonist after all. The fictitious letters forming the almost forgotten Italian classic Souls Divided by six-time (sic!) Nobel Prize nominee Matilde Serao show a man in his early thirties who falls head over heels in love with a voice and seeks relief in writing to the woman for over a year because even after having found out her name and having exchanged furtive glances social conventions keep them apart.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Poetry Revisited: Every-Day Heroes by Charlotte Young

Every-Day Heroes

(from The World's Complaint and Other Poems: 1847)

We speak and we read of the hero’s deeds,
     And envy perchance his fame;
We would tread, like him, some path that leads
     To gaining a deathless name;
And we sigh as our time is vainly spent,
„Oh, ‘t was not for this that I was meant!“

We feel, with a touch of deep regret,
     What nothing’s, alas! we ‘ve been;
How like a stagnant pool, as yet,
     Has been to us Life’s stream.
There seemed to our souls a warning scut,—
„Mortal! for this thou wert not meant.”

Yet we sit and dream of a better day,
     And idly its coming wait,
When, like the hero of poet’s lay,
     We too maybe something great;
And still through the mist our spirits grope,
For the distant gleam of this better hope.

For alas! while we dream these airy dreams,
     And sigh for the better afar,
We are dwelling on that which only seems,
     While we slight the truths that are.
We are looking for flowers more fair and sweet,
While we trample the fairest ‘neath our feet.

The wearisome, lone, and monotonous lot,
     Where To-day ‘s as the day that is gone;
Where To-morrow brings nothing To-day has not,
     Nor evening the hopes of the morn;
Oh! even here, in the loneliest hours,
Are there lying some fair but neglected flowers.

Some being we gaze on from day to day,
     And tend with a holy care,
Lightening the woes in each other’s way,
     Each breathing a mutual prayer.
Oh! here, in the homeliest act or speech,
May we to the fame of a hero reach.

For when selfish thoughts are for others subdued,
     And smiles conquer the rising frown,
When we love our own in another’s good,
     Oh! we weave us a deathless crown,
That many a hero’s present or past,
With all its glory, has never surpassed.

Oh! did we but see how in smallest things
     Are beginnings of all that ‘s great,
Life’s soil woidd be watered by countless springs,
     That now ‘neath the surface wait.
We should feel that when earthward kindly sent,
For heroes and heroines all were meant.

Charlotte Young (fl. 1847)
British poet

Monday, 5 August 2019

Poetry Revisited: The Sun Upon the Weirdlaw Hill by Sir Walter Scott

The Sun Upon the Weirdlaw Hill

(from George Thomson: A Select Collection of
Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. Volume V: 1818)

The sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill,
     In Ettrick‟s vale, is sinking sweet;
The westland wind is hush and still,
     The lake lies sleeping at my feet.
Yet not the landscape to mine eye
     Bears those bright hues that once it bore;
Though evening, with her richest dye,
     Flames o‟er the hills of Ettrick‟s shore.

With listless look along the plain,
     I see Tweed‟s silver current glide,
And coldly mark the holy fane
     Of Melrose rise in ruin‟d pride.
The quiet lake, the balmy air,
     The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree,—
Are they still such as once they were?
     Or is the dreary change in me?

Alas, the warp‟d and broken board,
     How can it bear the painter‟s dye!
The harp of strain‟d and tuneless chord,
     How to the minstrel‟s skill reply!
To aching eyes each landscape lowers,
     To feverish pulse each gale blows chill;
And Araby‟s or Eden‟s bowers
     Were barren as this moorland hill.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Scottish historical novelist, poet, playwright and historian

Friday, 2 August 2019

Book Review: The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós

For a person who grew up in a family of long linage with a glorious past incorporated by adventurous and fearless ancestors whose deeds keep being recounted all across the country, it can be difficult to give life a direction that doesn’t fall short of their example. In The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós a young man who is exceedingly conscious and proud of his many legendary ancestors decides to go into politics because it will allow him to live at ease and to add his own to the country’s history at the same time. The trouble is that he has nothing except the name of his respectable family in his favour and needs to overcome his cowardice making himself known to the world. Thus, he begins to write a heroic novella about the brave men who started his family in the twelfth century…

José Maria de Eça de Queirós was born in Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal, in November 1845. During law studies in Coimbra he published poetry and later worked as journalist for a while. Besides, he collaborated with others on Correspondence of Fradique Mendes (Correspondência de Fradique Mendes: 1900) and The Mystery of the Sintra Road (O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra: 1870) released under his name, while working on The Relic (A Relíquia: 1887). The Crime of Father Amaro (O Crime do Padre Amaro: 1875) established him as novelist, but he continued as public servant contributing to periodicals alongside. His most famous novels Cousin Bazilio (O Primo Basílio: 1878), The Mandarin (O Mandarim: 1880) and The Maias (Os Maias: 1888) he wrote as diplomat in England before becoming consul-general in Paris. José Maria de Eça de Queirós died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, in August 1900, revising The Illustrious House of Ramires (A Ilustre Casa de Ramires: 1900) for the press. Unfinished The City and the Mountains (A Cidade e as Serras: 1901) and Alves & Co.  (Alves & Companhia: 1925; also published in English as The Yellow Sofa) appeared posthumously along with reprints of short stories, poetry, journalistic work and private correspondence.

Thirty years old and unmarried, Gonçalo Mendes Ramires is the last “Nobleman of the Tower” from The Illustrious House of Ramires, one of the oldest families of Portugal. By the late 1800s, however, the family’s glory is gone and the revenues from the Tower and another estate hardly permit Gonçalo the life-style that he enjoys and considers appropriate for a man of his station. His sister Gracinha is well provided for thanks to her marriage to a wealthy bourgeois, but he still worries about her because André Cavaleiro, their neighbour and brotherly friend of Gonçalo courted her for years leaving the girl desperate when he withdrew instead of proposed. Hurt in his family pride and trying to protect the virtue of his sister, whom he believes still in love with Cavaleiro, he even broke with his friend and blackens him whenever he can. Moreover, he envies his political career that already made him Civil Governor of the District and promises to promote him to Minister of the government. His other friends, too, are important men in local politics and administration, while Gonçalo has little to boast with except his lineage that he can trace back to the twelfth century. To improve his position and income he makes up his mind to go into politics as well and grudgingly reconciles with Cavaleiro for his support when unexpectedly the opportunity to be elected into Parliament arises, but he is uncertain of himself and convinced that he lacks the popularity to succeed. Having had some success with a novella during his studies, he sets out to make himself a name with a novella about his heroic ancestor Tructesindo Ramires that closely follows the lead of an epic poem published some fifty years earlier by an uncle and the example of Sir Walter Scott.

Written from the third-person perspective of an unconcerned as well as omniscient observer, The Illustrious House of Ramires draws the satirical portrait of a young nobleman who tries to enhance importance and reputation of his old family as well as of himself becoming a writer and a politician –mainly because he lacks willpower, energy and skill for other professional activity. A dreamer and a coward who likes to distort his “adventures” in his favour, he wants to write a heroic novella in celebration of his legendary twelfth-century ancestor whose chivalry and fearlessness he admires. Embedded in the chronological plot that shows the protagonist’s present life just before 1900, the five chapters of his historical novella mirror moods and events during the summer months up to his election into Parliament, a narrative structure that decades later Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago also used – slightly altered – in The History of the Siege of Lisbon (»»» read my review). Nostalgic of his family’s past splendour, the protagonist clearly stands for his country Portugal at the dawn of modern times. Saturated with impressive images and sometimes a bit lengthy by today’s tastes, language and style are typical of a realist novel of the time.

Altogether, I’m pleased to say that The Illustrious House of Ramires by José Maria de Eça de Queirós turned out to be an engaging and entertaining read for me although I must confess that I struggled quite a bit with the original Portuguese not mastering the language as well as I would like to. It was the second novel from the pen of this remarkable nineteenth-century writer that I read… and I liked it just as much as (shorter) Cousin Bazilio (»»» read my review). It seems that English-speaking readers now get a chance to rediscover this Portuguese master of realist style (greater even than Gustave Flaubert according to Émile Zola and to me) because several new translations have been coming out these past years. As historical fiction that was contemporary at the time of its first release, his novels definitely deserve more attention and I gladly recommend this one.

Nota bene:
Since José Maria de Eça de Queirós died already in 1900, the original Portuguese editions of his work are in the public domain in Europe. The major part of the fiction can be downloaded legally and for free from Luso Livros, Project Gutenberg and similar sites. Probably, many of the early translations are no longer protected by copyright, either, but hardly any of them seem to have been digitised and made available online, so far.