Category Archives: Novella

Our Love, Tell Me, What Is It?: The Completion of Love by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

“Our love, tell me, what is it?” Claudine asks this heavy, direct, honest, complex question in a letter to her husband.  She is on a short trip to see her daughter, who was conceived during a brief affair with a dentist, at boarding school but is snowed in at her lodgings.  There are so many layers to the philosophical language of Musil’s stream-of-conscious narrative; but the one that stood out to me the most was his reflection on love, and how we experience another person through the self and internalize emotions that are created through this experience.

Musil explores the fact that Love is such a complex human emotion, one that can oftentimes be confused or mixed with pity, nostalgia or physical desire.  The opening scene in the book depicts Claudine and her husband as quietly content and presumably in love—enjoying a cup of tea, discussing a book, relaxing in their home.  But on her  journey, as she leaves her husband behind and encounters another man on her trip she reflects on this love that, up until now it seems, she has not questioned.  The translation of such a complex text could not have been easy; Genese Grill’s rendering of Musil was wonderful to contemplate and absorb:

So, they drove on, close to each other, in the deepening dusk. And her thoughts began to take on that softly forward-urging restlessness again.  She tried to convince herself that it was just a delusion brought on by the confusing interior stillness of this suddenly lonely amid strangers; and sometimes she believed that it was just the wind, in whose stiff, glowing coldness she was wrapped, which made her frozen and submissive; but other times it seemed to her that her husband, strangely, was very close to her again, and that this weakness and sensuality was nothing more than a wonderfully blissful manifestation of their love.

As she is drawn closer to a man on her journey simply known as the “commissioner” these thoughts of her husband and her love for him as well as her life before her marriage keep flashing through her mind.

She felt that she could never again belong to a strange man. And precisely there, precisely simultaneous with this revulsion towards other men, with this mysterious yearning for only one, she felt—as if on a second, deeper level—a prostration, a dizziness, perhaps a presentiment of human uncertainty, perhaps she was afraid of herself; perhaps it was only an elusive, meaningless, diffuse desire that the other man would come, and her anxiety flowed through her, hot and cold, spurning on a destructive desire.

And when she is alone at night:

And then it came to her suddenly, from out of that time—the way that this terrible defenselessness of her existence, hiding behind the drams, far off, ungraspable, merely imaginary, was not living a second life—a calling, a shimmer of nostalgia, a never-before-felt softness, a sensation of I, that—stripped bare by the terrifying irredeemable fact of her fate, naked, disrobed, divested of herself—longed, drunkenly, for increasingly—debased debilitation.  She got lost in it, strangely confused by its aimless tenderness, but this fragment of love that sought its own completion.

Claudine’s thoughts are blurred to the point that I felt they could equally apply to her relationship with her husband, her love affairs before her marriage, or her current situation with the commissioner.  This fragment of love that sought its own completion.  This last sentence, in particular, has given me much to think about.

I found Claudine’s response  jarring when the commissioner asks her if she loves her husband: “The absurdity in this prodding, his assumption of certainty, did not escape her, and she said, “No; no, I don’t love him at all,” with trembling and resolution.”  She obviously has some love for her husband, so why tell this lie?  The hint to this, I think, comes a few pages later:

And then the cryptic thought struck her: somewhere among all these people there was one, one who was not quite right for her, but who was different; she could have made herself fit with him and would never have know anything about the person she was today.  For feelings only live in a long chain of other feelings, holding on to each other, and it is just a matter of whether one link of life arranges itself—without any gap in between—-next to another, and there of hundreds of ways this can happen.  And then for the first time since falling in love, the thought shot through her: it is chance; it becomes real through some chance or other and then one holds fast to it.

I felt as though Claudine came to the realization that the “completion” (or “perfection” in other translations) of love is never possible.  She never sends that letter I quoted to her husband.  She has to learn for herself that if love is not returned—in word, in action, in gesture—it will die out.  Sometimes it suffers a long, painful death.  But, unless it is tended to and nurtured, it will indeed die out.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Novella

Putting the Shaken House in its New Order: My Year in Reading-2018

There is no doubt that this was a tough year by any measure. The news, in my country and around the world. was depressing, scary and, at times, downright ridiculous. Personally, I had some very high highs and some very low lows. The summer was particularly hot and oppressive. And this semester was unusually demanding at work. More than any other year I can remember, I took solace and comfort by retreating into my books. I have listed here the books, essays and translations that kept me busy in 2018. War and Peace, Daniel Deronda, The Divine Comedy and Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka were particular favorites, but there really wasn’t a dud in this bunch.

Classic Fiction and Non-Fiction (20th Century or earlier):

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Louise and Alymer Maude)

The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

A Dead Rose by Aurora Caceres (trans. Laura Kanost)

Nothing but the Night by John Williams

G: A Novel by John Berger

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Artemisia by Anna Banti (trans. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Flesh by Brigid Brophy

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (trans. by Ignat Avsey)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Lyric Novella by Annmarie Schwarzenbach (trans. Lucy Renner Jones)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Achilleid by Statius (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu (trans. Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell)

The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka (trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins)

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir (trans. James Kirkup)

Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger

Theseus by André Gide (trans. John Russell)

Contemporary Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard (trans. James Kirkup)

Requiem for Ernst Jundl by Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Years by Annie Ernaux (trans. Alison L. Strayer)

He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando (trans. Leland de la Durantaye)

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)

Essays and Essay Collections:

Expectations by Jean-Luc Nancy

Errata by George Steiner

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

The Poetry of Thought by George Steiner

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam

“George Washington”, “The Bookish Life,” and “On Being Well-Read” and “The Ideal of Culture” by Joseph Epstein

“On Not Knowing Greek,” “George Eliot,” “Russian Thinking” by Virginia Woolf

Poetry Collections:

The Selected Poems of Donald Hall

Exiles and Marriage: Poems by Donald Hall

H.D., Collected Poems

Elizabeth Jennings, Selected Poems and Timely Issues

Eavan Boland, New Selected Poems

Omar Carcares, Defense of the Idol

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Analicia Sotelo, Virgin

Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose and Letters (LOA Edition)

Michael Hamburger: A Reader, (Declan O’Driscoll, ed.)

I also dipped into quite a few collections of letters such as Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. that I won’t bother to list here. I enjoyed reading personal letters alongside an author’s fiction and/or biography.

My own Translations (Latin and Greek):

Vergil, Aeneid IV: Dido’s Suicide

Statius, Silvae IV: A Plea for Some Sleep

Horace Ode 1.5: Oh Gracilis Puer!

Horace, Ode 1.11: May You Strain Your Wine

Propertius 1.3: Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another

Seneca: A Selection from “The Trojan Women”

Heraclitus: Selected Fragments

Cristoforo Landino, Love is not Blind: A Renaissance Latin Love Elegy

As George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.” My reading patterns have most definitely changed and shifted this year. I am no longer satisfied to read a single book by an author and move on. I feel the need to become completely absorbed by an author’s works in addition to whatever other sources are available (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Instead of just one book at a time, I immerse myself in what feels more like reading projects. I am also drawn to classics, especially “loose, baggy monsters” and have read very little contemporary authors this year. I image that this pattern will continue into 2019.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, French Literature, German Literature, Italian Literature, Kafka, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Novella, Poetry, Russian Literature, Tolstoi, Virginia Woolf

Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love.  These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella.  Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures.  Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills.  Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.”  Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.

When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy.  As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture.  De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:

They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will.  They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something  better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan.  And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it.  To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.

The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.

The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model.  As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.”  In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years.  He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her.  Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.

Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan.  She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union.  He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:

Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on.  Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei.  By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.

The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon,  also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.

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Filed under Novella, Seagull Books, Uncategorized

How Do You Write About Mediocre Books?

There are three books I read over the summer that didn’t inspire me to write complete reviews or posts.  If a book is really not resonating with me then I will abandon it, and I really don’t have the time or energy to waste on negative reviews.  These three titles kept my attention until the end but I would call them mediocre and could not muster enough enthusiasm or words for a full post.  I am very curious to see how other bloggers handle such middle-of-the-road books.

Adua, written by the Somali, Italian author Igiaba Scego and translated by Jamie Richards, moves among three different time periods and two different settings.  The main character, Adua, emigrates from Somalia to Italy and her own story is a mix of her current, unhappy life and flashbacks to her childhood in Somalia.  The third thread in the book deals with the protagonist’s father and his time spent as a servant for a rich Italian who is part of the Italian attempt at colonialism in East Africa just before World War II.  My issue with the book is that I wanted more details about Adua and her father but the plot was too brief to provide the depth of plot and characterization that I craved.  The author could have easily turned this story into three large volumes about Adua’s childhood, her father, and her adult life as an immigrant in Italy.  Adua did prompt me to research and learn more about Italian colonialism in the 20th century but other than that I didn’t have strong feelings about the title after I finished it.

Late Fame, written by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by Alexander Starritt, involves an episode in the life of an older man named Eduard Saxberger who is suddenly reminded of a collection of poetry entitled Wanderings that he had written thirty years earlier and has long forgotten.  A group of Viennese aspiring writers stumble upon Saxberger’s volume in a second hand bookshop and invite him to join their literary discussions at a local café.  Saxberger, although he never married or had a family,  considers his life as a civil servant very successful.  The young poets, whom Schnitzler satirizes as bombastic and overly self-important, stage an evening of poetry readings and drama at which event Saxberger is invited to participate. Saxberger learns that although it is nice to get a little bit of late fame and recognition from this ridiculous group of writers, he made the correct decision in pursuring a different career.  Trevor at Mookse and The Gripes has written a much better review of this book than I could have done and I highly encourage everyone to read his thoughts: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2017/08/08/arthur-schnitzler-late-fame/

Party Going by Henry Green describes exactly what the title suggests: a group of British upper class men and women are attempting to get to a house party in France but are stuck at the train station in London because of thick fog.  Green’s narrative starts out on a rather humorous note as he describes these ridiculously fussy, British youth.  They panic with what Green calls “train fever” every time they think they are in danger of missing their train.  They fret over their clothes, their accessories, their luggage, their tea and their baths.  As the story progresses they become increasingly mean and petty towards one another which made me especially uncomfortable.  The men are portrayed as idiots and dolts who are easily manipulated by the vain and churlish women.  In the end I found Green’s characters so unpleasant that I couldn’t write an entire post about them.  I’ve read and written some words about his novels Back and Blindness both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I still intend to read all of the reissues of his books from the NYRB Classics selections even though I wasn’t thrilled with Party Going.

So which titles have my fellow readers found mediocre?  Do you bother to write anything about the ones that are just okay?

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, German Literature, Italian Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

…And a Dream: Anna Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar

As I was reading Anna Soror, the third and final novella in Yourcenar’s Two Lives and a Dream, I kept thinking about the images of love that Ovid creates in Amores.  The beginning poems in Amores Book I, in particular, depict Love (Amor)—personified as  Cupid replete with arrows— as something to be feared because of its (or his)  unpredictable nature.  The poet himself has fallen victim to this volatile and unruly emotion and he is tortured because it is something over which he has no control.  He begins Amores 1.2 (the translation is my own):

Esse quid hoc dicam, quod tam mihi dura videntur
strata, neque in lecto pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somno noctem, quam longa, peregi,
lassaque versati corporis ossa dolent?
nam, puto, sentirem, siquo temptarer amore.
an subit et tecta callidus arte nocet?
sic erit; haeserunt tenues in corde sagittae,
et possessa ferus pecora versat Amor.

What should I call this, that my bedsheets seem
so hard to me, and my coverlets do not stay in their
place on my bed, and without sleep I have passed
the night, oh for so long, and the weary bones
of my tormented body are suffering? For I think
that I would feel it if I were tempted by love.
Or could it be that cunning Love has crept up
on me with its hidden arts? It will be thus;
Love’s subtle arrows have pierced my heart and
savage Love disturbs my breast which he
already occupies.

The image of Ovid’s tumultuous night recalls the character of Don Miguel who suffers from fevers, insomnia and exhaustion because he is in love with his sister, Anna.  Their story takes place in Naples in the late-16th century when their father, Don Alvaro, is serving as the Spanish Governor of that city.  They live in an elaborate, well-guarded castle and they are raised together by their mother, Donna Valentina, a pious women who cares deeply for both of her children.  Mother, daughter and son form a close bond that largely isolates them from the rest of the world.  When the three of them travel to southern Italy to oversee the grape harvest on one of the family estates, Donna Valentina is taken to her  bed with fever and her ensuing death devastates both of her children.  When their mother dies, the brother and sister oftentimes find themselves alone and this causes a strange tension between them.

Yourcenar, through an extreme example with incest, is attempting to make the same point about love as Ovid did with his poetry; love is unpredictable, it cannot be controlled, and no matter how hard we try to resist it or fight it or reason it away, it is an emotion to which we are all susceptible.  Yourcenar treats her characters with compassion and understanding.  Her story is not shocking, lewd or salacious, but instead she highlights the torment that Miguel and Anna feel in their deep and innocent love for one another.  Their feelings are very subtle at first and neither one of them understands why they are suffering from constant anxiety, haunting dreams and extreme fatigue.  Yourcenar is a master at slowly and steadily building tension in her stories.  She describes Don Miguel on one of his sleepless nights:

He no longer repressed his nightly fantasies.  He awaited with impatience the half consciousness of the mind falling asleep; with his face buried in his pillows, he gave himself over to his dreams.  He would awake from them with his hands burning, his mouth stale as if from a fever, and more obsessed than the day before.

And later, when brother and sister consummate their love during a brief period of joy and passion, Yourcenar’s text is subtle and sensitive.  She only composes a few lines about their sexual encounter: “In the darkness, she discerned his anguished face , which seemed eroded by tears.  The words she had prepared died on her lips.  She fell upon them with an anguished compassion.  They embraced.”  Don Miguel and Anna do not apologize or regret their relationship, but they fear eternal damnation so each chooses a penance in the hopes of mollifying their sin.  Don Miguel volunteers for a dangerous mission to rid the Mediterranean of pirates and dies in battle.  Anna, despite marrying and having two children, never feels the same joy that she experienced in her five days spent with Don Miguel.  Throughout her life she wears hair shirts and prays constantly in the hopes of being released from her sin.

Yourcenar does not shy away from exploring different kinds of forbidden love in her other writings.  In An Obscure Man, for instance, Nathanaël has an intimate, physical relationship with another man that he enjoys and for which he feels no remorse.  He knows the world would judge him for engaging in what are considered unnatural acts, but he refuses to believe that his genuine affection for another man should be considered wrong.  Yourcenar makes it clear in Anna, Soror that Don Miguel and Anna, likewise, are unapologetic for their sincere, kind and passionate love.  It is the church and its laws which they are taught to obey that condemns their connection and it is because of the church that each chooses a penance.

As Ovid’s poem progresses, he realizes that there is no fighting against Love (Amor) so he willfully surrenders to passion and embraces his fate.  The torment of the first scene of the poem in which he is tossing and turning in his bed fades away.   In the Postface to this collection of novellas, Yourcenar’s description of  her characters feels very similar to the force of Love that Ovid experiences: “Their passion is too powerful not to be acted upon, yet, despite the long inner conflict which precedes their fall, is immediately felt to be an ineffable happiness, so that no remorse penetrates them.”

I would also like to share this great article in the New Yorker about Marguerite Yourcenar that Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed recommended to me.  Yourcenar is a fascinating writer and I am looking forward to reading her memoirs as well as her historical fiction novel about the emperor Hadrian: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/becoming-the-emperor

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Novella