I should make it clear at the outset that I have read neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey, so I came to Adam Nicolson’s latest book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, perhaps like many in the same boat: keen to understand why these mighty poems still exert such a powerful hold over the modern imagination. Continue reading “The Mighty Dead: Adam Nicolson on Homer”
Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”
Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer and a very fine writer. His first book The Running Sky was a superb meditation not just on bird-watching, but on life. Last month I read his latest book Four Fields, in which Dee’s subject is, broadly, the way in which humans across the planet have shaped the landscape through cultivation. Succinctly summing up the idea that lends unity to his book, Dee writes:
Without fields – no us. Without us – no fields.
All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts.
– Ivan Chtcheglov
When people of my generation travel to Berlin they arrive with their heads stuffed already with images of the city soaked up from decades of newspaper and newsreel coverage and from books – both non-fiction and a plethora of spy fiction and novels that have created the city that haunts our imagination.
This summer we spent a few days in Berlin, and before we left I read a few books either about or set in the city, revisiting some old favourites and catching up on some more recently published works. Here then is a quick survey of some of the books that allowed me to walk the streets of Berlin before I even went there. Continue reading “Berlin: books that created the city that haunts our imagination”
There’s a DVD I’ve had for years but never watched, except for the first ten minutes or so. I’ve always been overwhelmed at the prospect of the long haul that lies ahead. Made by the director Béla Tarr, it’s a seven hour long adaptation of the first novel by fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, called Sátántangó.
The book was published in Hungary in 1985, and Bela Tarr’s film came out nine years later. But it was only in 2012 that an English translation of the novel appeared. Lent it by my friend Dave, I finished it in just less than the time it would have taken me to watch the film version. But what to make of it? Continue reading “Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud”
This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold.
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, where her father was a physicist and philosopher, and her mother an Arabic translator. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. She is also an opera director, and still lives in Berlin. Erpenbeck’s grandparents both lived in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After 1945 they became important cultural figures in the socialist East Germany. They are figures which suggest that there is much that is drawn from her own family’s history in these two books.
The central character in The End of Days is a Jewish woman born in a small Galician town in the early 20th century. In a sequence of five alternate lives, each separated by an intermezzo, Erpenbeck imagines the different courses the woman’s life might have taken, and how the impact of those different lives might have had on others around her. It’s a bit like one of those old silent films in which the pratfallen clown rises up to live another day.
The scope is ambitious: from the provincial borderlands of the Austro-Hungarian empire to Vienna, Moscow, East Germany, and finally the reunified Berlin of the post-Communist years. Published in Germany in 2012 and now available in a careful English translation by Susan Bernofsky, the novel takes its German title from the saying Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend, meaning: ‘It isn’t over until the end of all days.’
The protagonist seems to have died in the first sentence:
The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.
The child being buried is an eight-month-old Jewish girl in a small Galician town around the year 1900. The child’s mother stands by the grave and, as each handful of dirt is thrown in, mourns the death of the girl, wife, and old woman her daughter might have become:
She doesn’t know how she can bear it that her child’s death still persists, that from now on it will persist for all eternity and never diminish.
After the child’s death, certain events unfold: the baby’s goy father emigrates to America; the mother learns that her own father was killed in a pogrom; the family is torn apart. But Erpenbeck is less interested in what happens than in what might have been: the possibilities foreclosed by, but seemingly coexisting with, the child’s death. The other night I watched an Horizon documentary about the concept of multiverses: Erpenbeck’s story has that sort of flavour. Each of the intermezzos which punctuate the narrative enable Erpenbeck to shift gear and imagine how things might turned out differently in one of these parallel universes.
It’s certainly a clever way for Erpenbeck to extend the lifetime of her protagonist from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire to an old people’s home in 1990s Berlin. Her heroine meets death several times: as a fragile infant sickening in a freezing winter to a fall downstairs that kills an eminent Communist writer in 1960s East Berlin. Each time she dodges death, enabling the writer to refashion her history: each sidestepped fate opens the door to another kind of destiny.
Each intermezzo and subsequent ‘book’ introduces a new twist. What if, for example, the teenage protagonist is heartbroken by being rejected in love and induces a virtual stranger to kill her in a suicide pact? But what if that doesn’t happen and instead she becomes a writer and a Communist who settles in Moscow with her husband? What if doesn’t die in the Stalinist purges and labour camps but goes on to be a celebrated writer who wins the Goethe Prize?
Well, I’m always ready for a novel that embraces the sweep of Europe’s 20th century, and I don’t mind a good helping of modernist allusion. But, I have to say that I found this one uneven and ultimately unconvincing (the section set in the Soviet Union, in which Erpenbeck’s leaden prose aims to emulate the doublespeak of Stalinism is a particular slog).
Although there are many effective passages, overall I found Erpenbeck’s prose mannered with its deliberate distancing in which names are rarely used and identities muddied with characters often identified only in terms of their relation to others (‘daughter of’, ‘mother of’, ‘son of’, etc).
And then there’s the question of what it all meant – all these alternative lives? The cruelty of fate? The randomness with which a person’s life can intersect with history? This might be unfair, but at the end I felt it was like the great-grandmother in the story who sings a song about a man who makes a coat out of a piece of cloth, and when that is tattered makes a vest, and on and on, until he makes a button, ‘and a nothing at all out of the button, and in the end he makes this song out of nothing at all.’
At the end of the novel, after her heroine has endured death four times and lived through Europe’s 20th century turmoil in four cities, Erpenbeck finally grants her a name as she introduces us to the frail nonagenarian Frau Hoffmann in a Viennese nursing home. Her son Sasha, travels to Vienna where he enters an antiques store to buy his mother a present. Unwittingly, as he browses, he handles the very same edition of the Complete Works of Goethe that once belonged to his mother. He takes a fancy to them, but decides not to buy them.
You know, she says, I am afraid that everything will be lost – that the trace will be lost.
What trace? her son asks.
I don’t know any more: from where or to where?
The scene in the nursing home that follows is masterful, as the son sits by his dying mother contemplating the journey into – where? what? – upon she is about to embark:
Never has he known as little as he does now. The only thing he knows is that his not-knowing is as deep as a river on whose distant shore there must be a very different world than the one he lives in.
This moment seems to echo the epigraph from WG Sebald’s Austerlitz with which Erpenbeck prefaced the novel, which itself echoed Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film concerned with the workings of memory, Last Year at Marienbad:
We left here for Marienbad only last summer.
And now – where will be going now?
What follows, in the closing passage of The End of Days, is the best piece of writing in the whole book:
In this land to which his mother is crossing over, no longer able to understand anything she once understood, she will no longer need any words, this much he understands. For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim-that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now-and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowed within the earth: the springs, the roots, and the dead; the cry of the cuckoo of to one side would be just as real as the stones crunching beneath the sole of his shoe, as the coolness of the evening and the light falling through the leaves to the ground before him, as his hand that he is using to stroke his mother’s back, feeling her bones beneath her thin, old skin, bones that will soon be laid bare-briefly, sharply, clearly, he knows for one instant what it would feel like if the audible and the inaudible, things distant and near, the inner and outer, the dead and the living were simultaneously there, nothing would be above anything else, and this moment when everything was simultaneously there would last forever. But because he is a human being – a middle-aged man, with a wife, two children, a profession-because he still has some time ahead of him, time during which he can look up something he doesn’t know in an encyclopedia or ask one of his colleagues, this knowing free of language passes from him just as suddenly as it arrived. He’ll be prevented from seeing this other world with the eyes of his mother for a good earthly time, by the absence of the most crucial thing: the going away.
In a Guardian profile of Jenny Erpenbeck, Philip Oltermann made this interesting observation about this scene, noting an aspect of the book that had completely passed me by:
While The End of Days starts out as a portrait of a personality, it is, by the end, also a book about something much bigger: the disappearance of the faiths that help us to make sense of death. When the woman dies as a baby, her Jewish parents cover the mirrors, open the windows and sit with their silent grief for seven days. Even in socialist East Germany there are still rituals: the guards dip their flags in tribute at her state funeral, there is an elevated cushion presenting her medals. But when she dies for the final time, her son can only react to her death with despair: “As his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.”
Earlier, in the Spring, I had read Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation, published in English in 2011. The central character of that book was a house, one which had witnessed, in microcosm, the complicated history of East Germany in the previous hundred years – and even beyond, through geological time.
From prehistoric times through to the Third Reich and the collapse of the GDR, a Brandenburg country estate and the mansion built on it witnesses the growth and death of systems, the rise and fall of dynasties. The elliptical narrative traces the lives those who live in the house which is throughout a sort of silent observer of the waves of human activity in the 20th century that lap at its gates.
In an interview with Quarterly Conversation, Jenny Erpenbeck explained that the house actually stands on a lake in Bradenburg, a summerhouse that belonged to her grandparents, where she spent holidays for eight weeks every year:
It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.
The book features a mosaic of characters (as in The End of Days, few are given names) who all have connections to the property. Their stories are told in a dreamy, ethereal style, interwoven with glimpses of the seasonal labours of estate gardener:
After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time.
Although her prose is generally distancing, Erpenbeck embeds vivid descriptions of terrible events. In the chapter entitled ‘The Cloth Manufacturer’, she takes a small Jewish family tree and unsparingly chronicles its felling. These are the neighbours of the architect who owns the estate and he is a complicit bystander. The fate of the grandparents in a Nazi gas truck is told in one sentence:
Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before.
Later, the architect is also forced to flee his treasured home, having fallen foul of the post-war East German authorities. Closing up the house,
He buries his pewter pitchers among the roots of the big oak tree, the Meissen under a bushy fir, and the silver in the rose-bed right next to the house. Rest in peace. He knows that two hours from now he’ll be sitting in the S-Bahn to West Berlin, his fingernails still rimmed with dirt.
This is the sort of book I expected that I would really appreciate. But, in all honesty, it left me unmoved: an exercise in style, it seemed to me, rather than a real engagement with its characters or the events that affect them.
To mark the anniversary of the publication one hundred years ago of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Radio 3 offered a week of varied and interesting programmes, collectively entitled In The Shadow Of Kafka which examined the legacy of the novella, with contemporary writers and dramatists exploring Kafka’s life and work.
The season opened with In the Shadow of Kafka: Prophet of Prague, a documentary presented by Misha Glenny, who worked as a journalist in Prague in the 1980s (I remember reading his first book The Rebirth of History, published in 1990, which sought to understand the reasons for the sudden collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe a year earlier and determine what the future post-communist political landscape of the region might look like.
In the programme Misha Glenny visited locations in Prague associated with Kafka and explored how the writer’s reputation and visibility there had varied with successive changes in the political climate.
Born in 1883, Kafka essentially lived his whole life within a square mile of the Old Town Square. The street on which he was born, in the former Jewish ghetto, is now named Namésti Franze Kafky (Franz Kafka Place), though the house is gone, since most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to remodel the city on Paris.
Misha Glenny noted that, having been born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family, Kafka was an outsider twice over. Before the First World War, Prague was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Kafka’s lifetime, most of the population of Prague spoke Czech, and the division between Czech- and German-speaking people was a tangible reality, with both groups developing a strong sense of national identity. Kafka was fluent in both languages, and considered German his mother tongue.
When Kafka was six years old the family moved to a bigger apartment, and between 1889 and 1896, they lived at Dum U Minuty on Old Town Square. After studying law at Prague university (where he met Max Brod, his life-long friend and future biographer), Kafka worked as an insurance lawyer for 14 years at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia where his job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers.
In 1916, Kafka rented a medieval cottage in Golden Lane with his sister Ottla. There, in the shadow of Prague Castle, writing in the evenings after work he found inspiration for The Castle. In his documentary, Misha Glenny examined the influences on Kafka’s ideas: the esoteric philosophies that circulated in Prague’s cafes, the politics and paranoia of an empire in decline, and the rising tide of Czech nationalism which threatened to engulf the Jewish old town where the Kafka lived.
What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.
– Franz Kafka
Tracing Kafka’s legacy in Prague, Glenny discussed how the themes in his work – of alienation, panic and the struggle to make sense of the world – were thought so dangerous in the decades of Nazi occupation and post-war Soviet communism that his works were suppressed.
Then, in 1963, a conference held in Liblice on the eightieth anniversary of his birth, reassessed the importance of Kafka’s portrayal of bureaucracy. Unanticipated by the official organizers, the conference rejected the orthodox position – that Kafka’s depictions of alienation were no longer relevant in a society that had eliminated alienation. During impassioned debates, opinions ranged from the argument that he had satirised the bureaucratic bungling of a crumbling Austria-Hungarian Empire, to renewed emphasis on Kafka’s own expressions of socialist views.
With Kafka experts, Glenny discussed whether the writer had been a prophet of horrors to come, noting that Kafka’s three sisters died in Nazi concentration camps. Though Kafka lived at a time when the old Austro-Hungarian empire with its vast bureaucracies was disintegrating, Glenny concluded that his visionis timeless and universal.
Complementing Misha Glenny’s survey, throughout the week The Essay on Radio 3 presented five writers’ interpretations of Kafka, ranging from Margaret Atwood (revisiting an essay she wrote on Kafka when she was 19 years old) to Liverpool-born playwright Jeff Young (whose play Bright Phoenix I saw at the Everyman last year). In his essay, entitled ‘Transformer‘, Young discussed the powerful impact that Kafka’s work has had on him as a reader and, to a degree, as a person and as a writer.
Jeff Young first encountered Kafka in the 1970s as a Liverpool teenage ‘scruff-bag’ when his art teacher put John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the turntable during an art lesson and read aloud from Metamorphosis, ‘intoning like a beat poet over Coltrane’s saxophone’:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Young recalled how, after the lesson was over, he picked up the book from which his teacher had been reading – a Penguin Classic edition with a cover that featured a strange creature drawn by Max Ernst. For Young, the experience had been as if he had woken from his own uneasy dreams and passed from one state into another. Transformed.
One consequence was that, at a time when ‘there were at least a dozen bookshops in Liverpool’, he would haunt them on Saturdays and days skiving off school. In a comic shop on Moorfields he found his own copy of Metamorphosis. Starting to read it for himself over a pint in the Masonic pub, Young realised that, from now on, he had to live ‘in a world of strange, wondrous things’.
Young devoted a good part of his essay to muse upon the nature of translation: not able to speak German, how did he know that the translator was telling the true story and not intervening between the writer and his original words? Young grew to feel that there was a space between the German language telling of the tale and its English translation – ‘a mysterious zone of misunderstanding’. But this uncertainty thrilled Young, making Kafka’s books even more strange and alien.
Over time, Young collected and compared every new edition. He came to understand the nature of translation: how it sits between the writer and the words and how, in that magical space, the reader can discover his or her own version of the author and his intention.
Young gave examples of how even the famous opening line of Metamorphosis has varied in translation, with Gregor awakening as an ‘insect’, a ‘cockroach’, a ‘bug’ and a ‘monstrous vermin’. (When I read the book as a student in the sixties it must have been the ‘cockroach’ version, for that is how I’ve always imagined it since.)
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
What did Kafka want us to imagine? Young wondered whether it was Kafka’s original intention to make us uncertain, unable to identify the nature of the beast that Samsa had become. From Max Brod’s diary we know that after Kafka had completed the novella in late 1912 he read sections of it baloud to his friends. They, and Kafka, referred to it as his ‘bug piece’.
Kafka’s protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is the quintessential Kafka anti-hero. He has worked himself to the point of utter exhaustion to pay off his parents’ debts, and his grotesque metamorphosis is the physical manifestation of his abasement. So what exactly has he been transformed into? Jeff Young pointed out that when the story was published, Kafka was adamant that no insect should be depicted on the book’s cover. Although he and his friends used the word ‘bug’ when referring casually to the story, the words he used in the German original have been carefully chosen to leave things vague. Kafka uses the term Ungeziefer to describe Samsa’s new state. But as the translator Susan Bernofsky pointed out in article for the New Yorker in 2014 this raises all kinds of difficulties for the translator:
The epithet ungeheueres Ungeziefer in the opening sentence poses one of the greatest challenges to the translator. Both the adjective ungeheuer (meaning “monstrous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations – virtual nonentities -prefixed by un. Ungeziefer comes from the Middle High Germanungezibere, a negation of the Old High German zebar (related to the Old English ti’ber), meaning “sacrifice” or “sacrificial animal.” An ungezibere, then, is an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice, and Ungeziefer describes the class of nasty creepy-crawly things. The word in German suggests primarily six-legged critters, though it otherwise resembles the English word “vermin” (which refers primarily to rodents). Ungeziefer is also used informally as the equivalent of “bug,” though the connotation is “dirty, nasty bug”—you wouldn’t apply the word to cute, helpful creatures like ladybugs. In my translation, Gregor is transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect” with “some sort of” added to blur the borders of the somewhat too specific “insect”; I think Kafka wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor himself discovers them.
Jeff Young finished by suggesting that perhaps Kafka deliberately transformed his protagonist into something that can’t be accurately translated: Samsa doesn’t know what kind of creature he’s been transformed into, and neither do we – and neither should we. He is unnameable.
Young concluded, ‘I still don’t know what Kafka intended when he wrote his stories and I still don’t completely trust his translators.’ But, he said, Metamorphosis had transformed him as a reader and, to a degree, as a person and as a writer, ‘opening me up to the alien spirit of strange imagination’.
In another essay, Karen Leeder, a translator and Professor of Modern German Literature at New College, Oxford, discussed Kafka’s use of messengers and messages and the significance of communication in his work. Often, argued Leeder, the point of the story in Kafka’s works is not so much its meaning as the act of conveying a message itself.
Leeder chose as her main example a short (very short!) piece by Kafka – A Message from the Emperor – that was new to me (in fact, listening to these talks made me realise how limited my reading of Kafka has been). Leeder described how Kafka’s tale begins with the emperor, from his deathbed, sends you a message, a message for you alone.
But, in a series of short sentences that read as if watching a film in slow-motion, Kafka reveals the impossibility of the message ever arriving. The palace has ring upon ring upon ring of walls, successive outer palaces, and the messenger has to get through one after the other. But the palace is vast and the messenger will never succeed for beyond the palace ‘still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment’. Kafka’s conclusion is haunting: you will never hear the message intended for you alone. Yet you sit at your window and dream of it every evening.
Here’s the story:
The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.
Something about this story’s atmosphere made me think of The Trial, in which a man from the country comes to the capital and seeks to gain entry to the Law through a doorway guarded by a doorkeeper. The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man that he accepts them only ‘so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.’ The man waits at the door until he is about to die:
Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insatiable.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”
Like many, I read Kafka as a student in the sixties, but my my reading was limited to Metamorphosis, The Castle and The Trial (the latter read, I think, after I had seen Orson Welles’ nightmarish film version. A re-reading of those books is long overdue, I reckon – as well as an exploration of the works I never read.