Kvachi by Mikheil Javakhishvili

The original title of this book was Kvachi Kvachantiradze; presumably the publisher of the English edition thought that was a bit intimidating. With names like Javakhishvili and Kvachantiradze, it is of course my book from Georgia for the Read The World challenge.

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It’s actually my second attempt for Georgia; I tried reading Avelum by Otar Chiladze, but didn’t finish it. I wondered at the time if it was a problem with the translation, but this had the same translator, Donald Rayfield, and was much more readable.

It’s a big fat novel — 523 pages; my heart sank slightly at the sight of it — but the blurb was promising:

This is, in brief, the story of a swindler, a Georgian Felix Krull, or perhaps a cynical Don Quixote, named Kvachi Kvachantiradze: womanizer, cheat, perpetrator of insurance fraud, bank-robber, associate of Rasputin, filmmaker, revolutionary, and pimp. Though originally denounced as pornographic, Kvachi’s tale is one of the great classics of twentieth-century Georgian literature — and a hilarious romp to boot.

And on the whole it lives up to that blurb. Obviously it’s not actually ‘hilarious’ — it is after all literary fiction — but I’ve long since learned that literary reviewers have very low standards for humour, and I know to make allowances. I would describe it as lively and entertaining.

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Kvachi is quite an appealing character just for his dynamism and inventiveness, but he is a complete shit: he makes his way in the world entirely by lying, cheating and stealing, and has no redeeming qualities. The narrative largely consists of one swindle after another and a sequence of seduced and betrayed women, which would be too repetitive to sustain a 500 page novel; what keeps it interesting is the regular changes of backdrop.

So he starts from a humble background in Georgia in the 1890s; works his way up, via university in Ukraine, to the highest circles of Russian society, and ingratiates himself with Rasputin; things get difficult, so he moves on to France; he returns to Russia in time for the Great War and the Russian Revolution; he initially works within the revolution but in due course flees back to the briefly independent Georgia; soon revolutionary politics catches up with him and eventually he flees again.

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The author, sadly, did not manage to escape Soviet politics himself. He was not sufficiently willing to keep to the party line, and was tortured and shot during Stalin’s Great Purge. It’s tempting in fact to see Stalin as a model for Kvachi; a Georgian, Ioseb Jugashvili, of humble origins, with intelligence and charisma but a complete ruthlessness, who worked his way to the top of Russian society.

But perhaps that’s a bit facile; there are no shortage of literary and historical models for a character like Kvachi. The blurb mentioned Felix Krull; you could think of Jonathan Wild or even Becky Sharp. A more recent parallel is Rácz from Peter Pišťanek’s brilliant (and genuinely funny) Rivers of Babylon.

» The photos are all from Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s amazing colour photographs of the Russian Empire in the 1910s, created using three separate black and white images, each taken with a colour filter, which can be recombined into a full colour image. You can find them at the Library of Congress website [woman, fish, bamboo]. I picked examples from Georgia, although the woman is stretching the point: she is in Armenian national dress and from a town which is now on the Turkish side of the border.

Stamping Grounds by Charlie Connelly

Full title: Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream. It’s Connelly’s account of following the Liechtenstein national soccer team during their qualification matches for the 2002 World Cup. After my previous book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge turned out not to be from Liechtenstein at all, this one is at least about the country, even if it’s written by an Englishman.

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You can see why he thought it would be a good subject for a humorous football book; there is something fascinating about these tiny countries, fielding largely amateur teams that lose nearly every game they play and almost never score a goal. On the one hand, if you were an amateur playing your club football in the third tier of the Swiss league (Liechtenstein isn’t big enough to have its own league), it would be a terrific opportunity to play against some of the finest players in Europe in front of tens of thousands of people. But how do you cope, psychologically, with playing for a team that almost literally never wins a game?

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is that they adjust their expectations about what ‘success’ means. If they make their opponents work really hard to score, that’s a success; scoring themselves is a triumph. They didn’t in fact score in that campaign; their greatest moment in the book is losing only 0-2 to Spain at home. Which is admittedly impressive for a country with only 30,000 inhabitants, 10,000 of whom are foreigners who aren’t eligible for the national team.

In the end, though, the book was underwhelming. Liechtenstein just isn’t very interesting: it’s a tiny, mountainous country with an enviable standard of living, thanks to its healthy financial sector (i.e. it’s a tax haven); basically a microscopic Switzerland, without that country’s famous flamboyance. Connelly spends much of the book trying to work out what it means to be Liechtenstein, what distinct national character there is to separate it from Switzerland or Austria; it turns out there isn’t anything.

I think Connelly does a reasonable job with weak material; he gets chummy with some of the players, and interviews all the key members of the Liechtenstein FA, and tries to dig up a few local characters, but it feels a bit like squeezing blood from a stone.

» The photo is of a Scottish fan in Liechtenstein for their Euro 2012 qualifier. Tartan Cephalopod is © Robin Skibo-Birney and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Food In England by Dorothy Hartley

This is a magnificent book, written in 1953 by someone who learnt her cooking in English country kitchens in the days before widespread electricity and gas. It’s a combination of food history, recipes, general household advice, bits of personal memoir, opinion, and amusing or interesting quotes from old books.

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Apart from the obvious stuff — what sauces to serve with mutton*, regional ways to cook a ham, the difference between Welsh, Scottish and West Riding Oatcakes — there are chapters about beekeeping, brewing, butter churns, as well as the chapters about the history of English food: what they ate at medieval feasts, how they stored food for long sea voyages. It really does conjure up a whole lost world: not just because of the foods which have fallen out of favour, like mutton or parsnip wine, but because the recipes pre-date a whole raft of exotic ingredients like aubergine and yoghurt.

It is endlessly quotable, but here are a few random extracts:

Blending Plants For ‘Tea’

It was during the acute rationing period that all these ‘teas’ were used in England to adulterate the imported teas.

A serviceable English ‘tea’ may be made with blackthorn for bulk, and sage, lemon balm, woodruff (the plant), and black-currant leaves for flavour. Do not omit at least three out of the four flavouring herbs, but let some flavour predominate. Thus, if currant and sage predominate, the tea will somewhat favour Ceylon; if the lemon balm predominates, it will be a more China cup; if the ‘woodruff’, it will have the smoky aroma of Darjeeling.

Eggs And Apple Savoury Or ‘Marigold Eggs’ 

This is Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, and probably very old.

Line a shallow dish with thin short crust, butter the bottom, and cover it with thinly sliced apples, and set it to bake until the apples are just cooked. Make a custard mixture of eggs beaten in milk, season strongly with pepper, salt and thyme, a very little chopped sage, and a lot of marigold petals (the common yellow marigold). Pour this savoury custard over the cooked apples and return it to the oven to bake until set. I was told it was served with roast pork, like Yorkshire pudding is served with roast beef (the sage and apple indicate this), but the marigold is more usually a cheese condiment.

Sheep’s Trotters With Oatmeal

Sheep’s trotters are the ceremonial part of the Bolton Wanderers football team dinners. Only the heavy types of mountain sheep, such as the Pennine Range sheep, can make this dish well. (I don’t think a sparrow could make a meal off a Welsh trotter, but in the larger breeds of sheep, the trotters are almost as meaty as a pig’s).

And I thought this was an appealing juxtaposition of headings:

Recipe Used for Whitewashing the White House at Washington

[…]

Whitewash as Made for an Anglesey Cottage

It’s a genuinely fascinating book both as history and gastronomy.

* Redcurrant jelly for valley breeds; barberry jelly for upland breeds; rowan jelly for Welsh and mountain mutton. ‘With the dull winter mutton of the garden lands, hot onion sauce is very comforting.’ Hot laver sauce (seaweed) and samphire with salt-marsh mutton. ‘Caper sauce is served with any of the sturdier types of garden mutton. In default of the imported caper, pickled nasturtium seeds are very good.’ 

Nora by Ferdinande von Brackel, translated by Princess Marie of Liechtenstein

This was supposed to be my book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge. It was listed as Nora: A Novel from the German by Marie, Princess of Liechtenstein. All the companies selling it are ones that do ‘reproduction’ copies of scanned out-of-copyright books, complete with slight scanning errors and blemishes; which is a useful service, but the metadata tends to be a bit sketchy.

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I did some googling, but couldn’t find any information about the book. But when sitting down to write this post I had one more go. And I discovered I had read a 360 page novel that was only translated by a Princess of Liechtenstein; and that the reason her English was so excellent was that her maiden name was Mary Fox. She actually sounds like an interesting character; she was a foundling adopted by Henry Fox, 4th Baron Holland who met Prince Louis of Liechtenstein in Naples. The Princely Family of Liechtenstein ‘initially refused to approve the marriage’.

Meanwhile the actual author is Ferdinande von Brackel, who doesn’t have much presence on the anglophone internet; her German Wikipedia page, via Google Translate, tells me:

The contemporary literary criticism she judged as the most talented and most important of the Catholic authors, whose creations […] at the best achievements of female literacy at all included (Hinrichsen, 1891). [5] As a writer with a strong interest in social questions, it published first During the war years 1864, 1866 and 1870 prussia friendly minded time poems.

So my novel from Liechtenstein is a novel from Germany, translated by a writer born in France and raised in London. All of which is slightly annoying — I wish I’d managed the detective work before reading it — but thankfully I rather enjoyed it. It’s a sentimental melodrama about a pair of star-crossed lovers, and it’s very dated — snobby, silly, and occasionally offensively anti-semitic — but I like a bit of soapy melodrama from time to time.

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The lovers are a young German count and Nora, the daughter of a circus-rider. So that’s the social divide; but obviously that’s a bit radical, so her father is from a French noble family, has gentlemanly airs, and is very wealthy, as proprietor of the circus. And her genteel mother asks on her deathbed that Nora should be sent to be educated at the most exclusive convent school in Belgium.

And Nora, despite the stain of her background, is an absolute paragon of piety and decorum. She’s such a paragon that you might think the message of the book was: character is more important than earthly status, and that ancient names and noble titles are petty baubles next to a pure heart. But actually, even though most of the noble characters are fairly unpleasant, we’re left in no doubt that social class is Very Important. And while the nobles might be unsympathetic, the circus folk are positively subhuman with their vulgarity of taste and mind and morals.

It’s a lot of twaddle, really.

I was interested to learn some of Marie Fox’s biography though: as a Catholic foundling brought up in an aristocratic household whose marriage to a Prince is opposed by her husband’s family, you can see why she might see parallels to her own life in the story of a circus-rider’s daughter educated in a convent whose engagement to a German count is opposed by his family, and why she would like the idea that upbringing can triumph over humble origins.

Anyway, I will provisionally count it for the moment as my book from Liechtenstein, even though it’s a bit of a cheat. I mean I could spend twenty quid to read Prince Hans-Adams II’s thoughts on the place of the nation state in the C21st century, or sixty quid for Sieglinde Gstöhl’s The Neighbours of the European Union’s Neighbours, but I’m not enthused. Perhaps I’ll just read a jokey outsider’s book about Liechtenstein’s football team and call it a day.

» The poster is from this V&A article about Astley’s Amphitheatre.

Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

I finally got round to visiting the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern — it ends on Sunday — and it was enjoyable. Not so much because I absolutely loved the work; I liked quite a lot of it, but if there was another Polke exhibition next year, I wouldn’t be excited to see it. No, it was a good exhibition to visit because the work was varied, and going through thirteen rooms of work you’re lukewarm about, it helps if at least each room is a bit different.

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So it started off with some Pop Art-esque commentary on consumerism and mass culture; there was work playing with the idea of the artist as Artist/egomaniac (with titles like Polke as Astronaut, and Polke as Drug-Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe); and commentary on the idea of Modern Art (“Malevich looks Down on Pollock”); then a 1970s hippy phase when he travelled around India and Afghanistan, took lots of drugs and made collages of pornography and psychedelic paintings with references to magic mushrooms, Alice in Wonderland and Mao; a series of watchtower paintings which used a stencilled design of a hunting watchtower to reference both Nazi prison camps and the Iron Curtain; there were some big paintings using unusual materials like neolithic stone tools and meteorite dust… and so on.

I’m often aware how much my reaction to works of art is dependent on factors which are extrinsic to the work itself: if the exhibition is too small, I might get all the way through it without ever getting into the right mindset. If it’s too big, it doesn’t matter what they put in the last few rooms, because my concentration will be gone — something that happened at the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain recently. It’s much more difficult to engage with the work if the gallery is too crowded, or there are lots of small works so you are constantly in mini queues to look at them, or if there’s a group of schoolchildren bringing out the terrible acoustics of big unfurnished rooms. Or you can simply be in a bad mood or a good one.

In the case of the Polke, the exhibition was almost too big; but it wasn’t too busy, the works were large and varied, and the schoolchildren were old enough to keep their voices down, so it was a pleasant experience. But there’s something odd about reviewing an art exhibition as though it was a bed and breakfast (a little bit cold in the Turbine Hall, but lovely views of the St Paul’s…).

Anyway.

One other thing I thought was interesting was a curatorial decision. On the website the blurb says:

He worked in off-the-wall materials ranging from meteor dust to gold, bubble wrap, snail juice, potatoes, soot and even uranium, all the while resisting easy categorisation.

It’s the ‘snail juice’ I want to pick out. In the exhibition itself it calls it something like ‘dye made from crushed snails’. But when you read the label next the painting in question, it turns out to be Tyrian Purple. That is, the highly prized dye of classical antiquity that was used by the Romans to colour their ceremonial togas. Which is indeed made from crushed snails; but referring to it that way, without any hint of the cultural context, seems, you know, weird.

» The image is Girlfriends, 1965/66, from the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart. See lots more of Polke’s work in this review of the exhibition when it was in New York.

The Wanderer by Jane Holland

This, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both relative terms here, of course.

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I assume the controversy mainly arose because the poem is given a female narrator. To quote the introduction:

I also transformed the male ‘Wanderer’ of the poem’s title into a female figure and focused on that narrator alone, even though the original poem seems occasionally to suggest two distinct speakers. (A point on which some academics disagree.) This rather drastic change was made for two reasons. Firstly, the traditional male-male relationship of the lord and his faithful retainer takes on a strongly homoerotic charge when read with a modern sensibility and, writing as a female poet, this posited relationship lacked authenticity in my early drafts. Secondly, I originally undertook this translation to provide a centrepiece to my third poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, which is itself themed around the concept of a lone female traveller.

I think the change works well. The themes of exile and loss take on a slightly different flavour but work just as well with a female narrator. It makes it a different poem, but it’s not as radical a change as you might imagine.

There are two other notable tweaks to the poem. The first is to strip out the Christian imagery. Holland reads The Wanderer as an essentially secular poem with ‘artificially imposed religious overtones’, which is certainly an entirely plausible reading; others have found it to be deeply infused with a Christian sensibility.

The third change, which I thought was perhaps more striking than either of those, was the inclusion of a few modern references. Not that many of them, but for example in the description of men lost in battle, she writes [every other line is supposed to be indented]:

Some fell there in the line of duty,
caught off-guard in the crossfire; others
were blasted to bits at the roadside
or picked off by snipers

The Wanderer deals with that essential Anglo-Saxon theme of a world in decline, and living among the evidence former glory. Taking that idea and setting it in a modern world gives the poem a remarkable post-apocalyptic feel. I’d never made that connection before, between Anglo-Saxon poetry and, say, Mad Max; but actually it’s surprisingly apt.

Anyway, I’m generally in favour of people doing interesting reinterpretations of the classics, and I think this is completely successful. It does bring something new, but it also captures the gloomy beauty of the original.

* My awful pedantic soul (it’s a terrible affliction) requires me to point out: I’m pretty sure the title is a modern addition, like all the titles we give Anglo-Saxon poems.

» The photo is Flying in the same direction, © Susanne Nilsson and used under a CC by-sa licence.