Tag Archives: Short Stories

Review: A Very Russian Christmas

a-very-russian-christmasThis fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past.  Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets.  The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees.   In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka.  Lots and lots of vodka.  Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:

And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree!  In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant.  Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy.  Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness.  The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.

My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story.  In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness.  Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory.  Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.

When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory.  Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes.  Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka.  Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room.  Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.

A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him.  He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:

The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little.  For excess, you know, is wearisome.  You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life.  Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…

Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…”  The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage.  Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays.  Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love.  As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.

I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope.  New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.

I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Novella, Russian Literature

Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas: a review of December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

This title was published in the original German in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

My Review:
decemberDecember comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten because in the original Roman calendar December was the tenth month of the year.  When two new months were added to the beginning of the Julian calendar, thus pushing back December to become the twelfth month, no one bothered to change the name.  As the month which concludes the Julian and Gregorian calendar years it is naturally a month of reflection, of looking back, of becoming more aware of the passage of time.  Kluge and Richter use this last month of the year for the inspiration behind their collection of stories and photographs; there is one entry for each day of the month in December and together the writings and art work serve as a philosophical and poetic commentary about time, fate, choice and even love.

The entries or pieces of writing for each day in December are a mixture of short story, poetry and philosophy.  The dates for the entries vary widely, from 12,999 B.C. to 2009 A.D.  Kluge does tend to favor the events of December 1941 and 2009 as many of the entries are set during one of these two years.  My favorite entry is the one for December 18th, 1941 entitled, “A WRONG DECISION IN WARTIME.”  Kluge describes Marita, the wife of the surgeon Dalquen, who had come to Berlin from her provincial town to stay at the Grand Hotel Furstenberg on Potsdamer Platz.  She falls in love with First Lieutenant Berlepsch but refuses to make love to him on that night because she had not wanted to prematurely hasten their relationship by engaging in one evening of unbridled passion.  Kluge writes, “Only three weeks later she would regret her decision.  The young officer fell in the fighting in northern Russia.”  Marita is deeply upset because she did not take the chance to be with the First Lieutenant when she was presented with a choice.  When Marita is faced with the opportunity later in the war to have one night of passion she takes it, and although it is not with Berlepsch whom she truly loved, she does not regret it.  Kluge’s last quotation in this story is very striking:

For one night full of bliss

 I would give my all

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Kluge’s story about Marita and her fallen love brings up many more questions than answers.  Do we live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of every precious moment, whether there is a war or a crisis raging around us or not?  Do we take time to embrace and appreciate those whom we love?  And if we make the wrong choice is it irrevocable? Or can we find a way to learn from our mistakes and move on?

December is the month of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so the cold and the snow and the shorter days feature  prominently in Kluge’s stories and in Richter’s photographs.  Another story that stands out is the one dated the 20th of December, 1832: “UNEXPECTED CONVERSION OF A HEATHEN.”  Dr. Wernecke has just helped a woman give birth in the village and is setting out through the snow and the woods to go back home.  Kluge writes:

At first he took the path which the villagers, either out of habit or out of superstition, had created as a kind of VILLAGE EXIT INTO DEAD NATURE, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.

As the doctor gets farther along on his snowy journey he becomes increasingly tired and bewildered.  He keeps on moving so he doesn’t freeze but he is becoming tired and disoriented.  The snow and the woods around him are closing in:

The endless expanse of snow produced a certain brightness in the night.  Wernecke could neither say ‘I don’t see anything at all’ nor ‘I see something.’ For that a clue would have been needed, a difference in the monotony of the snow-covered land.

december-2The doctor estimates that he has about four or five hours to live when suddenly he sees a faint, flickering light in the distance.  He isn’t sure if this light is a figment of his bewildered mind but he chooses to follow it anyway.  The light, which is indeed the very thing that saves him, was the lamp of the cathedral verger who at that precise moment was climbing the stairs of the cathedral to ring the nightly bells.

Dull-eyed, Dr. Wernecke nevertheless resolved to trust the light that had soon disappeared.  The light had guided his obstinate heart.  So the doctor found his way to the first houses of the town.

Because the good doctor is saved by this light, he, the “heathen” pays to have an iron lamp installed in the tower next to the bells.  Once again, Kluge poses many deep, philosophical questions with this brief story.  Why do we choose to follow certain paths and not others?  When a light appears in life do we choose to let it guide us, or do we let our obstinate heart convince us to take a less fortunate and unhappy path?  Do we choose to trust and to follow the light like Dr. Wernecke did, or do we ignore it at our own peril?

Each of the 39 photographs in the collection are a variation of trees in a forest that are covered with snow.  The photos are taken up close and give one the feeling of being closed in by the forest and the snow.  Dr. Wernecke’s description of his time in the snow-covered forest, as being able to see something and yet nothing at all, is a fitting description for Richter’s art.  In one picture there is, in the distance, a tiny image of a deer and in the very last photo in the collection a small cottage appears in a clearing through the trees.  Like Dr. Wernecke, can we make our way out of this claustrophobic woods and find that faint glimmer of light?

The second part of the book entitled, “CALENDARS ARE CONSERVATIVE” contains various discussions and meditations on calendars, time, and the passage of time.  One passage in particular caught my attention because of its reference to Latin words for time.  In “Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas’, an Islamic astrophysicist from Bangladesh and a European ambassador who is a medievalist are discussing different kinds of time by using the Latin names for them.  TEMPUS is time associated with the clock, with checking our watches, it is earthly time that we are always fighting against.  AEVUM, however, is celestial time, experienced only by the angels or other celestial beings.  In Latin it can be literally translated as “Time regarded as the medium in which events occur, indefinite continuous duration, the time series.”  It is oftentimes translated as a “span of time,” a “generation,” or an “age.”  Finally AETERNITAS is brought up by the scholars which, they argue, is the sense of time experienced only by the highest divinity.  It is translated as “infinite time,” eternity,” or “immortality.”  This tricolon crescendo of time presented by the men makes us step outside ourselves and think about time as something other than that ticking clock on the wall or that alarm that wakes us up or that watch which is constantly staring up at us from our wrists.

Seagull Books has published another extraordinary, thought-provoking, beautiful book.  This book is worth owning not only for the literature, philosophy and poetry contained within, but the beautiful prints reproduced on glossy, heavy weight paper make it a very special piece.

About the Author:
Alexander Kluge is one of the major German fiction writers of the late- twentieth century and an important social critic. As a filmmaker, he is credited with the launch of the New German Cinema movement.

About the Artist:
Gerhard Richter is one of the most respected visual artists of Germany, and his seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).

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Filed under Art, German Literature, History, Literature in Translation, Seagull Books, Short Stories

Review: Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories by Robert Walser

I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  Please visit their website for a fantastic selection of titles, including more of Walser’s books in translation.  This collection has been translated by from the German by Tom Whalen, Nicole Kongeter and Annette Wiesner.

My Review:
girlfriends-and-ghostsThis collections defies classification as far as genre is concerned.  The introduction to the book calls the writings a collection of eighty-one “brief texts” that were written throughout the course of Walser’s life.  Some of the writings appear to be fictional short stories but others have a distinctly autobiographical feel to them.  Walser even writes a few short dialogues and a book review.  In addition, he has a wide range of topics and themes and writes about anything from nature, to fashion, to death and dying.  This is a collection best absorbed a few pieces at a time so one can savor his pithy and didactic collection.

Walser makes mundane things seem fascinating.  My favorite piece that falls into this category is entitled, “A Morning” in which he describes a Monday morning in a bookkeeping office as the minutes painfully tick by.   The central figure is man named Helbling who unapologetically walks into work almost thirty minutes late.  Walser’s description of the interaction between Helbling and his boss makes us laugh and cringe:

Totally be-Mondayed, his face pale and bewildered, he shoots in a jiffy to his place and position.  Really, he could have apologized.  Up in Hasler’s pond, I mean head, the following thought pops up like a tree frog: “Now that’s just about enough.”  Quietly he walks over to Helbling and, positioning himself behind him, asks why he, Helbling, can’t, like the others, show up on time.  He, Hasler, is, after all, really starting to wonder.  Helbling doesn’t utter a word in response, for some time now he’s made a habit of simply leaving the questions of his superior unanswered.

Walser makes ordinary events like suffering from a toothache, wearing a fashionable overcoat,  having afternoon tea and observing a beautiful woman absolutely riveting.

Another common and enjoyable theme that occurs frequently in his writing is that of nature.  There are pieces dedicated to the description of a peaceful morning and a walk on a beautiful autumn afternoon.One of my favorite pieces, entitled “Poetry” reads more like poetry than prose.  In this brief and reflective writing we get the sense that Walser is constantly fighting against a deep melancholia and he uses the occasion of a winter day as the inspiration for expressing his emotions. He writes:

I never wrote poems in summer.  The blossoming and resplendence were too sensuous for me.  In summer I was melancholy.  In autumn a melody came over the world.  I was in love with the fog, with the first beginnings of darkness, with the cold.  I found the snow divine, but perhaps even more beautiful, more divine, seemed the dark wild warm storms of early spring.

It is not surprising that Walser fought a deep depression and anxiety for which in 1929 he was voluntarily hospitalized in Waldau, a psychiatric clinic outside Bern.  By the early 1940’s he was permanently confined to the hospital and declared that his writing career was over.  There are hints in this collection that even as early as 1917 Walser is fighting some powerful demons.  In the story entitled “The Forsaken One,” written during that year, Walser pictures himself as a lonely, hopeless vagabond who is wandering around on a gloomy night.  He finds a house that is terrifying but he feels compelled to step inside and wander around until he finds an angelic female figure whom he calls a “celestial outcast.”  He feels an affinity toward her and is relieved that he has found someone that is just a lonely and isolated as himself.

It is truly impossible to cover the scope of this collection unless I were to make my review several pages long.  I have tried to sum up the writings that have made the greatest impression on me.  But I am confident that everyone can find something in this collection that he or she loves.  Thanks to the New York Review of Books for bringing us this brilliant classic in translation.

About the Author:
walserRobert Walser (1878–1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Jakob von Gunten and Berlin Stories (available as NYRB Classics), The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books

Review: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Deep Vellum via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original French in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Emma Ramadan.

My Review:
TrousersThis book contains a series of short stories told by a group of men sitting around at café in Morocco.  It appears that they have been friends for quite some time as there is a lot of teasing, interrupting, and jocularity mixed in with their stories.  Their tales range from the funny to the rather serious and I found that the theme of being an outsider in a foreign land pervades the entire collection.

The funniest tale is the title story in which a man is sent to Belgium by the Moroccan government to make a very important deal to import grain to his starving country.  The man checks into a hotel and is very nervous that the fate of his country hangs on his ability to negotiate this most important deal.  Since he is only visiting for one day he packs lightly and brings a single pair of nice trousers.  He is awakened during his first night in his hotel room by a horrible noise and gets out of bed to find that an intruder has come through his window.  At first glance it seems that nothing valuable has been stolen from him; but further inspection by the light of day reveals that his pants, his only pair of nice pants have been taken!

The man absolutely panics and goes does to the front desk of the hotel in his pajamas to ask for help.  The clerk directs the man to a charity shop which has a single pair of pants that are just his size; but the pants are a ridiculous pair of golf pants.  The events of his meeting, while he is wearing these pants, are hilarious but everything does work out for the best for him and for the fate of Morocco.

By contrast, there are two rather serious stories that I would like to describe from the collection.  The first one, entitled “Dislocation,”  is particularly fitting for what is going on in the world as far as refugees seeking asylum and people displaying xenophobia to anyone who seems foreign.  I found his use of repeating the same lines in the story very Homeric but instead of repeating epithets he repeats the entire beginning lines of his story over and over again.  Each time he repeats his story he begins with the phrase, “What would it be like, he asked himself, a world where everything was foreign?”  Each time he repeats these lines he adds more details about his life.  We discover that the man does, in fact, feel like a foreigner because he is a Moroccan who feels more French than Moroccan and is living in The Netherlands.  He is treated as a foreigner, an outsider and his walk home becomes slower and slower as he contemplates his feeling of dislocation.  This story showcases Lauori’s talents as a writer as he uses an array of unique styles throughout this short collection of stories.

The final story I would like to mention is story about a couple who are from different countries and having a long distance relationship.  John is traveling from The Netherlands and Annie is traveling from France and they are on their way to Brussels to spend a long weekend together.  They speak different languages, grew up in different countries with different cultures but for a while they have made their relationship work.  But they have both arrived in Brussels with the intention of breaking up with one another.

The language barriers and cultural differences have taken their toll on the relationship and they both want out.  The best example of their communication issues is described by John who says that Annie never easily gets his dry sense of humor and by the time he has to explain all of his jokes to her they are no longer funny.  This story has a surprise ending which I don’t want to give away.  But I will say that this is one of the best stories in the collection.

Overall this is a unique collection of stories that I can recommend to anyone who wants to experience a wide range of literary styles in a single collection of stories.

About the Author:
LarouiFouad Laroui (born 1958) is a Moroccan economist and writer, born in Oujda, Morocco. Over the past twenty years, Laroui has been consistently building an oeuvre centered around universally contemporary themes: identity in a globalized world, dialogue/confrontation between cultures, the individual vs. the group, etc. With ten novels and five collections of short stories written in French, plus two collections of poems written in Dutch, a play, many essays and scientific papers (written in French or English), his on-going ambitious literary output has been recognized with many awards, including: Prix Albert Camus, Prix Mediterranée, Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle, Grande médaille de la Francophonie de l’Académie française, Prix du meilleur roman francophone, Premio Francesco Alziator (Italy), Samuel-Pallache-Prijs (The Netherlands), E. du Perron Prijs (The Netherlands)

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Filed under France, Humor, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

Review: Henri Duchemin and His Shadows by Emmauel Bove

I received an advanced review copy of this collection of short stories from The New York Review of Books.  The stories were written in 1928 in French and this English version has been translated into English by Alyson Waters

My Review:
Henri DucheminThis collection of short stories all feature men who are unhappy and looking for someone or something with which to identify.  In the first story entitled “Night Crime,”  Henri Duchemin, a forty-year-old man,  is alone on Christmas Eve in a pub lamenting over his poverty and loneliness and the last thing he wants to do is to go back to his cold, empty flat.  He wanders around the streets in the rain until he really has no choice but to go home.  But before he goes home, a woman whome he meets on the streets notices his sadness and abrasively suggests that he kill himself.  As he drifts off to sleep, thoughts of suicide and murder haunt his restless dreams.

My favorite story in the collection is written in the epistolary style.  “What I saw” is a letter written by Jean to an unnamed friend; Jean desperately wants his friend’s opinion about something that he saw involving his girlfriend that disturbed him greatly.  Jean’s letter begins with a description of his girlfriend, Henrietta, and her devotion to Jean.  One thinks she is the model woman until, one day, Jean sees her sitting in a taxi and kissing another man.

When Jean confronts Henrietta about the liaison, Henrietta adamantly denies ever being with another man.  Henrietta and Jean’s other friends try to convince Jean that he must have been mistaken and only saw someone who resembled Henrietta.  Jean wants so much to continue his relationship with Henrietta and as he finishes his tale he begs the recipient of the letter to tell Jean his true opinion about Henrietta’s alleged indiscretion.  Jean, like the other characters in the story, has a tenuous grasp on an important relationship in his life and he is eager and even desperate not to lose it.

Another story worth mentioning is “The Story of a Madman.”  Fernand, the narrator, makes it a point at the beginning of his tale to address the reader and inform him or her that he is not, in fact, crazy or out of his mind.  He goes on for a few pages giving us some background about his activities and frame of  mind so that when he carries out his plan, the reader will think he is perfectly sane in doing so.

Fernand then proceeds to have a meeting with his father and tells his parent that he never wants to see him again.  Fernand then makes his way to his girlfriend, Monique’s apartment;  He assures us that he is deeply in love with Monique and they have a fantastic relationship, but he informs her that he never wants to see her again either.  The next stop on Fernand’s list is his best friend, with whom he also breaks off all contact.

Fernand’s final stop on his break-up tour is with his sister and brother-in-law.  After a friendly conversation, he also informs them that he never wants to see them again.  So, we are left wondering why Fernand would alienate all of the people in his life that he loves.  There are hints throughout the story that Fernand is exercising his willpower and that he is attempting to make a plan and adhere to it no matter what others may think.  But the last few sentences of the story leave us with a haunting suggestion that maybe his motives for leaving are a bit more depressing and sinister.

This is a small yet powerful collection of stories that will leave you thinking about these men and their feelings of alienation and unhappiness.  Bove’s language is sometimes curt and sometimes poetic.  He weaves these small tales in such a way that we are never sure where they will end.  I highly recommend this brilliant collection of writing brought to us by The New York Review of Books classics collection.
About The Author:
E BoveEmmanuel Bove, born in Paris as Emmanuel Bobovnikoff, died in his native city on Friday 13 July 1945, the night on which all of France prepared for the large-scale celebration of the first ‘quatorze juillet’ since World War II. He would probably have taken no part in the festivities. Bove was known as a man of few words, a shy and discreet observer. His novels and novellas were populated by awkward figures, ‘losers’ who were always penniless. In their banal environments, they were resigned to their hopeless fate. Bove’s airy style and the humorous observations made sure that his distressing tales were modernist besides being depressing: not the style, but the themes matched the post-war atmosphere precisely.

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Filed under France, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Short Stories