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.

Voices II: Contemporary Bahraini Short Stories, ed. & trans. Hasan Marhamah
Bras, Boys, and Blunders: Juliet & Romeo in Bahrain by Vidya Samson

I found these two books from Bahrain for the Read The World challenge, and I bought both because I thought they might offer an interesting contrast.

The Gulf states seem like a fascinating part of the world at the moment, but the rule I set myself — that books should ideally be by people who are actually from the relevant countries — are not helping. These are tiny countries with small publishing industries that do not translate a lot into English; and they have some pretty autocratic governments that probably restrict the kinds of things that can be published at all.

Bahrain Cityscape

So if I want to find books that address the full weirdness of the Gulf — the pouring of unimaginable amounts of money into international sport; the way that Dubai manages to be an autocratic Islamic state while also a favoured holiday destination of European playboys; the fact that Qatar has a population of 1.8 million, of whom only 278,000 are citizens; the planned outposts of the Guggenheim and the Louvre; the… ambiguous position of Saudi Arabia in the War on Terror — well, I’m probably going to have to look for something written by an outsider.

Vidya Samson is an outsider, and does provide an interesting perspective, although not the kind of perspective that would offer insight into, say, Qatar’s winning bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Bras, Boys, and Blunders: Juliet & Romeo in Bahrain is a teen romantic comedy about an Indian girl going to a multicultural Catholic school while her parents are working in Bahrain. At the school, white students have automatic cool status while the Indians and Pakistanis are at the bottom of the pecking order, mocked by the Arabs for their accents. Our heroine is a naive, shy girl dealing with boys, flat-chestedness, her parents; it’s fairly standard stuff, apart from the unusual setting. I’m clearly not the target market for this book, but it was likeable enough.

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Hasan Marhamah is apparently Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Bahrain, which surprises me: partly because Voices II: Contemporary Bahraini Short Stories is lacking things like author bios or even publication dates for the stories, which is the kind of thing you might expect an academic to include. But especially because the English isn’t very good. There are quite a few errors of grammar, and more often the language is just clunky and unidiomatic:

As he bulged his eyes on the road, distressing blows recurred as if broiling him on calm fire. In the extreme hectic traffic commotions, and while his feet hesitated to move, a genius idea struck into his head; a difficult idea, but he would execute it. […] Fear choked the depths of his throbbing heart. The road ambience looked like a cemetery waiting for a coffin to carry him. He could not see any more but could hear the caution horns of the angry car drivers as he drew in his mind the picture of death. A rough hand prevented his advancement and a voice in a strong military tone addressed him…

When I was reading the first story, I seriously doubted that I would make it through the whole book, but actually I found if I read it quickly, and tried not to get hung up on individual sentences, it wasn’t too bad. The more straightforward the story, the better it worked; anything too poetic or ambiguous was much more difficult. A badly translated stream of consciousness is hard going.

Still, prose style aside, reading the stories for their content was interesting. For example, love stories are interesting in a culture where contact between men and women is restricted; there are stories about extreme poverty; there were several stories about divorce. Of course I knew that it was very easy for men to divorce their wives under Islamic law, but I’d never really thought about how brutal it could be for the wives and children, that men could just set them aside and move on to new women. Which is a failure of empathy on my part, admittedly.

So I ended up enjoying it more than I expected, at least.

» Bahrain Cityscape is © Mubarak Fahad and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. Protests in Bahrain is © Al Jazeera English and used under a CC by-sa licence. 

Exotic Territory: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Paraguayan Poetry, ed. & trans. Ronald Haladyna

This is my book from Paraguay for the Read The World challenge. I previously bought a copy of I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, but that’s a fat dense modernist novel and it defeated me.

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I always find it frustrating reading poetry in translation. I mean, even with English-language poetry I often find myself uncertain, not knowing what to think; with translations you get the added bonus that you know that something will be missing, but you never know what.

And with a selection of different poets but only one translator, there’s the added worry that the influence of the translator will make them all sound alike.

In other words: nothing here grabbed me the way that poetry sometimes can. But there were certainly things to enjoy. And in fact I’ve been enjoying dipping in and out for this post more than I did on the first read-through.

Much of the poetry is political; Paraguay has been under some variety of dictatorship for most of its history, most notably under Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-89, and there are poems about repression and violence; here’s a short one about Stroessner, by Jacobo Rauskin:

Alfredo Ages

The effigy sustained
by a thousand standard bearers
loses its force and colour.

The years attenuate
the militant rictus
and the great bully
looks old in the sun.

But there is poetry on a variety of themes, including the usuals: poetry, love, death, nature. Rain seems to be a recurrent image. Here’s one by Joaquín Morales, picked semi-randomly because I quite like it and it’s short enough to type out:

Still Life, 1

It’s not the partridges with their eyes
probably bursting out,
nor the bouquet of their legs
mingled with aromatic herbs;
nor the clay vase
that clearly shows
the prints of the fingers that molded it;
not even the dark,
irregular boards of the table,
whose veins and nodules still retain
the aroma of the forest:

not the old theme of appearance and reality,
nor the one of time briefly detained in brush strokes
that memory vivifies and recomposes:

perhaps — though certainty is almost impossible —
perhaps it’s the complete apprehension
of a yellow reflection in a small dark beak.

A bit of a mixed bag, then, which perhaps is what anthologies should be; but certainly quite a lot of things I liked.

» I got the photo from Flickr; it shows the confluence of the Río Paraguay and the Río Paraná. The two rivers mark the border between Argentina (to the south and west) and Paraguay. So the photo is mostly Argentina; but it’s a nice image. It is © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and used under a CC-by licence (although actually I think NASA photos are in the public domain automatically?).

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye

This is my book from Mauritania for the Read The World challenge. It tells the story of Baba, a teenager who risks his life in a crowded refugee boat to start a new life in Spain.

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A geographical aside: the book kept talking about taking a small boat from Mauritania to Spain, which seemed staggering. It eventually became clear that the boats from Mauritania go to the Canary Islands rather than the Spanish mainland: a still-terrifying 500 miles across the Atlantic rather than the 1300 miles I was imagining.

It’s a self-published novel by a Mauritanian student who studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship. According to the blurb, ‘Amadou is one of the first students from his country to write a fiction novel’. And I hate to be negative about a first novel written in the author’s second language*, but it’s not a good advertisement for self-publishing.

It’s badly in need of a copy-editor, which is mildly annoying but forgivable. More importantly, it’s not well-written.The dialogue, characterisation, plotting… it’s all just clumsy and obvious. Which is a great pity, because this is exactly the kind of subject that is badly underrepresented in fiction; if someone could write a really good novel about the experiences of illegal African immigrants to Europe, I would be thrilled to read it.

I don’t know if Ndiaye would have done better for his first novel to have written about the experiences of a Mauritanian student studying in the Appalachians, which would also be a potentially interesting subject, I would think.

Anyway, despite its weaknesses, I’m glad this book exists; the boom in self-publishing is really helping me with reading around the world.

* Third? Fourth? I’m guessing he would have one of the African languages, plus French and maybe some Arabic?

» The photo is © UNHCR/L.Boldrini.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

It’s citizen science time again. I got thirteen species this year, which is actually about par; my record is nineteen, but I’ve had several years which were much worse.

Carrion Crow × 3
Magpie × 2

Feral Pigeon × 1
Woodpigeon × 1

Blackbird × 1
Robin × 1
Dunnock × 2

Blue Tit × 1
Great Tit × 4
Coal Tit × 1
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Goldfinch × 1

It’s a rather boring list, even by suburban London standards; no sparrowhawk, nuthatch, woodpecker, siskin, greenfinch, stock dove… but never mind.

The perfidious Kindle

In 2014 I read almost entirely genre fiction, and I blame the Kindle.

Not there’s anything wrong with genre fiction. When it’s well-written, it is the purest kind of reading pleasure; story-telling with no other purpose than to entertain.

It’s a bit like Hollywood blockbusters; a well-made blockbuster is in some ways the apotheosis of cinema. Brash, glossy, sensational entertainment may not be the most interesting or important thing that cinema can do, but it’s something cinema does uniquely well. All too often, though, I find myself sitting in the cinema watching silly, incoherent, predictable twaddle and promising myself that next time, I won’t be suckered in by the marketing, and I’ll go and see some the interesting Eastern European movie or the documentary instead.

Or the kind of junk food you think will be a self-indulgent treat, but you actually regret ordering even before you finish eating it.

And the Kindle just makes it too easy to keep buying more junk food. There’s always something heavily discounted; you can impulse buy and be reading in seconds; and the books don’t even clutter up your house.

And of course, there’s Amazon’s recommendations; they’re always telling you that if you liked X you might enjoy Y. But that doesn’t really work, for me. Because it’s the quality of the writing which matters more than the specific genre. And believe me, it doesn’t matter how much you like Georgette Heyer, other writers of historical romance are almost always disappointing. And just because you enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, it doesn’t mean you should keep buying random books that Amazon classifies as ‘Space Opera’.

So I’ve made a bit of a New Years resolution: more proper books.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

This is the family history of three generations of Germans. The author’s grandparents were young during WWII; one grandfather fought in the French Resistance, the other seems to have been a lukewarm Fascist, but both ended up being inspired by the promise of the new socialist East Germany that was going to rise out of the ruins of the war. Then his parents grew up as products of the GDR, and he was a young man when the Berlin Wall came down.

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He’s got plenty of good material, and it’s well-written*, so if it sounds like the kind of thing you might like, you’ll probably like it.

* Apart from some slightly clunky tense shifts; he opens chapters in the past tense to establish the scene then switches to the present tense for the bulk of the text. Maybe it works better in German.

» The photo, ‘KULTUR, BERLIN GDR 1984’ is © phillygdr and used under a CC by-nc licence.