October-December 2019: Mitteleuropa

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October-December 2019: Mitteleuropa

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Edited: Oct 7, 2019, 12:06pm

This quarter is dedicated to literature from Mitteleuropa – which for the purposes of the theme read we've defined as the countries Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Poland.

However, I think it makes sense to start the thread with a question: what is Mitteleuropa and does it make sense to talk about it as a coherent region?

There is no universal consensus about which countries are to be considered part of Mitteleuropa, and as the Wikipedia entry on the topic shows, it has been defined in a variety of ways by different people with different agendas. One understanding of the concept, which I think is the one that inspired the them read, is that of a cultural region influenced particularly by the Habsburg Empire.

This atmosphere is evoked in the writings of authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century like Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leo Perutz, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Heimito von Doderer, Ödön von Horváth, or Sándor Márai.

Apart from this meaning, one advantage to reviving the idea of Mitteleuropa may be to recenter an understanding of Europe that is still influenced by Cold War politics – in which everything on the formerly communist side of the Iron Curtain is marginalized as "Eastern Europe." Historically speaking, this region was not at the margins of Europe at all, but deeply involved in the cultural, intellectual, religious, and political developments of early modern Europe. (The "Hussite Trilogy" by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski vividly evokes this dynamic: set in the 15th century, we follow the young protagonist through Silesia and Bohemia as he becomes entangled with various heresies and pre-Protestant reformation movements, attracts the attention of the Inquisition, and meets various thinkers and innovators such as a certain Johannes Gutenberg.)

One thing the countries we will be covering this quarter have in common is a history of multilingualism and multiculturalism, even if the current geopolitical divisions suggest the idea of the nation-state as a supposedly monolingual entity. (The reality is in fact, as so often, rather more complicated.)
Franz Kafka, as part of a German speaking minority in Prague, may be the most familiar example of this historical diversity. One could also add Kafka's less well-known contemporary Gustav Meyrink.

Another point of note is the fact that these countries are mostly land-locked – the exchange of people and ideas relied on overland routes or along the major rivers of central Europe. And although these countries have been parts of various empires, they were always intra-European empires, in contrast to the nation-states of Western Europe that were built upon their colonies overseas.

More recently, four of these countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – have joined a political and cultural alliance within the EU, known as the Visegrad Group. In certain respects, these countries are currently facing similar political and cultural challenges: Their former status as independent states within the Soviet bloc; the out-migration of a large portion of the population in search of jobs in richer EU states; the challenges of the current rise of right-wing populism. The name, however, harks back to earlier connections: a meeting in 1335 between John I of Bohemia, Charles I of Hungary and Casimir III of Poland to form a trade alliance to counter the powerful Habsburg Empire.

I'll be putting up separate posts for the individual countries, but want to refer you all to the topic for Region 24: Europe VII (which largely overlaps with the selection of countries for this quarter) for additional inspiration.

Edited: Oct 7, 2019, 12:21pm

In no particular order, here are some Polish authors I've enjoyed or who are on my to-read list.

Henryk Sienkiewicz: Nobel laureate best known for his massive historical novels, in particular Quo Vadis (set in ancient Rome during the time of Nero). More regionally relevant to this theme read, he also wrote a trilogy set in the seventeenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (With Fire and Sword)

Jan Potocki: an eighteenth-century nobleman and adventurer. His gothic-picaresque novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was written in French.

Witold Gombrowicz: known for the novel Ferdyduke.

Stanisław Lem: A must-read for science fiction fans.

Andrzej Sapkowski: Known for his fantasy series "Witcher". I enjoyed his slightly fantasy-tinged historical novel Tower of Fools

Bruno Schulz: author of a remarkable collection of stories entitled The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Killed in the Holocaust.

Tadeusz Borowski:His book This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is based on his experiences in Auschwitz.

Magdalena Tulli: Her books In Red and Dreams and Stones have received glowing reviews from readers in this group. She also also translates from Italian (including, among other works, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities).

Olga Tokarczuk: Works include Flights, House of Day, House of Night, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Primeval and Other Times

I mention here also several German-speaking authors whose works are shaped by their experiences growing up in the eastern territories of the former German Empire that are now Poland:
Günter Grass: Danzig Trilogy
Horst Bienek: His Gleiwitz quartet (starting with The First Polka) chronicles life in a Silesian village during WWII.
Jurek Becker: Jakob the Liar is set in a Jewish ghetto in Poland during WWII; he settled in East Germany, which is the setting for his later novels.

Edited: Oct 7, 2019, 1:11pm


Again, in no particular order and with no pretense at completeness:

Jaroslav Hašek: author of The Good Soldier Svejk, a satirical tale of a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude, I Served the King of England, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, Closely Watched Trains

Karel Capek: Science-fiction writer, known for The War with the Newts and the play R.U.R. which introduced the word "robot" (from the Slavic word for "work") to the world.

Milan Kundera: has lived in exile in France since 1975, and his later novels (starting in 1993) have been written in French. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Life is Elsewhere, etc.

Václav Havel: political dissident in the communist period and later the first president of the Czech Republic. His plays are in the tradition of the theater of the absurd. The Garden Party, The Memorandum

Ivan Klima: Works include Love and Garbage, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light

Josef Škvorecký: The Engineer of Human Souls, The Republic of Whores, The Swell Season, The Bride of Texas

Pavel Kohout: publication ban (and later expatriated) by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s; settled in Austria. Works include: The Widow Killer, I Am Snowing. (Kohout was involved in an underground production of Macbeth that was the inspiration for Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth by Tom Stoppard)

Michal Ajvaz: author of the fantastic travelogue The Golden Age;also available in English: The Other City, Empty Streets

Patrik Ouředník: Europeana, Case Closed, The Opportune Moment, 1855 (all made available to English-speakers thanks to the efforts of Dalkey Archive Press)

Edited: Oct 13, 2019, 5:42am


Sándor Márai: Embers, Portraits of a Marriage, Esther's Inheritance

Gyula Krúdy: Sunflower, The Adventures of Sindbad (who here seems to resemble Don Juan more than the character of the Arabian Nights)

Péter Esterházy: Celestial Harmonies, Helping Verbs of the Heart, The Book of Hrabal (referring to Czech writer Bohumir Hrabal)

Imre Kertész: Nobel laureate. A number of his books thematize his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, e.g. Fateless, Fiasco, Kaddish for a Child Not Born

Péter Nádas: A Book of Memories, The End of a Family Story, Parallel Stories

Magda Szabó: a number of us in this group have raved about The Door; several of her other books are also available in translation, e.g. Iza's Ballad, Katalin Street, Eszter und Angela

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight, The Pendragon Legend (an outsider's look at England), Oliver VII (set in a fictional central European monarchy)

Dezső Kosztolányi: Skylark, Kornél Esti

Miklós Bánffy: Hungarian nobleman with roots in Transylvania (present-day Romania); his trilogy They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided is set in this milieu in the years before WWI.

László Krasznahorkai: Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance

Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole, a fantastically-tinged novel featuring a linguist who gets off a plane and discovers that everyone is speaking some unknown language

Terézia Mora: grew up bilingual in Hungarian and German, came to Germany in 1990. Writes in German. Day In Day Out is available in English translation. She has translated a number of Hungarian writers, including Péter Esterházy, into German.

Agota Kristof: fled to Switzerland and began writing literature in French, including the trilogy The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie

Edited: Oct 15, 2019, 2:11pm


I mentioned some Austrian writers in >1 spiphany: above, and I won't try to include a complete list of the classic authors here, but list a few highlights instead.

Stefan Zweig is the author of the masterful novella Chess Story, as well as a number of less famous short works.
Robert Musil is another author whose short works, e.g. the stories in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author or Five Women, are incredible miniatures, although he wrote several full-length novels as well.
Ingeborg Bachmann is likewise a must read in my opinion, but I liked the collection The Thirtieth Year considerably more than her novel Malina.
I'm sure I've raved about Ilse Aichinger before, so here I merely repeat my recommendation of her collection The Bound Man and Other Stories.

Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek is probably best known for The Piano Teacher, about a troubled, sexually repressed woman who has sado-masochistic fantasies. Here it is worth noting that this falls within the tradition of a country that was home to both Sigmund Freud and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (author of the erotic novel Venus in Furs and origin of the word "masochism"). Her novels and plays are characterized by biting criticism of society in general and Austrian society in particular.
Which brings us to the other great critic of Austrian society, Thomas Bernhard.
Peter Handke also seems like he would fit into this grouping (he is the author of a play entitled Offending the Audience, for example), although I'm not familiar with his work.

In the experimental tradition, I would mention Ernst Jandl, who doesn't seem to have been translated into English, perhaps unsurprisingly due to the way his poetry is based on playing with sound. For those who read German, I recommend Laut und Luise. His partner, Friederike Mayröcker, does have one book available in English: with each clouded peak.
H.C. Artmann is also a lot of fun; The Quest for Dr. U is available in English.

Marlen Haushofer: in the novel The Wall, a woman copes with being alone after a mysterious catastrophe: all other humans seem to have vanished and a wall has appeared that separates her from the rest of the world.
Thomas Glavinic's Night Work is based on a similar premise. Also available in English: Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw; Pull Yourself Together; The Camera Killer

Some other contemporary authors who are available in translation include:
Christoph Ransmayr: I've mentioned The Last World before; other works in English are The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, The Dog King, The Flying Mountain, Atlas of an Anxious Man.
Arno Geiger: his family saga We Are Doing Fine takes us through seventy years of Austrian history, decade by decade.
Norbert Gstrein: The English Years, A Sense of the Beginning
Erich Hackl: Farewell Sidonia, Aurora's Motive, The Wedding in Auschwitz
Robert Menasse: The Capital, Don Juan de la Mancha
Eva Menasse: Vienna
Marlene Streeruwitz: Seductions
Barbara Frischmuth: The Convent School
Robert Seethaler: A Whole Life, The Tobacconist
Daniel Glattauer: author of two bestselling novels told entirely through e-mails, Love Virtually and Every Seventh Wave

Edited: Nov 28, 2019, 9:42am

Czech literature: New Books in Translation: website from the Czech Ministry of Culture)

HunLit: website on Hungarian literature from the Hungarian Books and Translations Office. Searchable index of translations (the dropdown language menu is in Hungarian, however! Translations into English can be found under "angol")

Polish Book Institute: Author index and list of recent translations into English
Polish Literature in English Translation: Organized by century; website is the product of extensive research by a passionate reader

The following publishers/series are particularly useful for finding translations of East-Central European literature:
Writers from the Other Europe
Writings from an Unbound Europe: series from Northwestern University Press featuring literature from the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe
CEU Classics: series from Central European University Press featuring translations of classic works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Central European literature
Twisted Spoon Press: Prague-based publisher "focused on translating into English a variety of writing from Central & Eastern Europe"
Ariadne Press: independent publisher dedicated to publishing Austrian literature in English

And for those who read German, I want to mention Wieser Verlag, a publisher based in the province of Carinthia in Austria, which has a substantial Slovenian minority. The publisher's program has a heavy focus on fiction, poetry, and essays from eastern and south-eastern Europe.

Edited: Oct 3, 2019, 2:55pm

Whither Croatia? I realise that its multi-facetedness presents unique problems, but its entire modern history, especially in the north but eventually in the south as well, is of or marked by Austro-Hungary. Leaving it out means leaving out writers like Krleža, a quintessential "mitteleuropean" in person and work.

ETA: Slovenia too

Oct 3, 2019, 2:38pm


The Angelus Central European Literature Award also known as Angelus Award (Polish: Nagroda Literacka Europy Środkowej Angelus) is a Polish international literary award established in 2006 and presented by the city of Wrocław, Lower Silesia. The award is given annually for best prose books written in or translated into the Polish language by a living author originating from Central Europe whose works "undertake themes most relevant to the present day, encourage reflection and deepen the knowledge of the world of other cultures."

The 2012 laureate: Miljenko Jergović, Bosnia/Croatia

Oct 3, 2019, 3:16pm

I couldn't find the original source of this quotation so what follows is my rapid translation. I think it illustrates well the "Central European" condition of many people:

Of all the people I spoke with, Miljenko Jergović, the (...) Angelus laureate for 2012, is most sanguine that the idea of Central Europe isn't dead. "After all, my family tree proves that Central Europe exists. And the family trees of millions of other people, today's Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, but also Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Poles... Following the logic of great and small migrations, according to clerical administrations, people moved from one end of the empire to another, founded families, brought and took various customs and established astonishing identities.

My great-grandfather was a German, born in the Romanian part of Banat, my great-grandmother came from Slovenia, but she herself wasn't sure whether she was Slovene or German. Her mother, on the other hand, was an Italian from Udine. My other great-grandfather was from the environs of Šibenik {my note: Dalmatia}. My great-grandfathers and grandfather were railway men, and the language of their communication and literary culture was German. The space they experienced as their own was the space of the imperial and royal railways, which spread from today's Ukraine to northern Italy and today's Montenegro.

Without the existence of Habsburg bureaucracy, state institutions and common infrastructure, my great-grandfathers would never have met my great-grandmothers. There, that is Central Europe. And so I find it normal that there should exist a prize for--Central European writers." (John Bousfield interviewing Miljenko Jergović)

Edited: Oct 3, 2019, 3:52pm

Claudio Magris, a Triestine and possibly the greatest living authority on the culture, history and politics of Mitteleuropa (but as an Italian ironically excluded from this read), suggested the Danube as the common thread that binds Central Europe into a coherent if kaleidoscopic entity. At some point we cross into "Eastern Europe", and at the end plunge into the Black Sea, but it's a wonderfully fertile perspective on this region nonetheless.

Oct 3, 2019, 4:42pm

I don't have a strong ideological commitment to one definition of Mitteleuropa or another -- as I noted, there isn't a single straightforward way to define the bounderies. If participants in the group want to expand it to include other countries, that is fine with me.

However, the five countries I've listed are what I understood to have been agreed upon when the theme was selected, and since nobody else suggested alternative definitions when the group originally discussed the topic, nor expressed interest in leading this quarter themselves, I assumed this was OK. My familiarity with the literatures in question drops dramatically at the Austrian border, so I welcome others sharing their expertise.

That said, for pragmatic reasons, I'm not sure it makes much sense to focus particularly on Italy this quarter (by which I do not necessarily mean an absolute exclusion of all Italian authors -- nationality may not be the most useful criteria here) because Italy was already included in Q1 this year for the theme read on the Mediterranean world. So it seems like there is likely to be more to discover if we emphasize countries that we haven't looked at recently.

Oct 3, 2019, 5:36pm

The countries in the list are those we mentioned when we were voting on the thread so that everyone would know roughly what we meant, but I don’t think we should get too hung up about definitions ahead of time. How about considering those countries as the core of the thread, and including people/books from outside that area on a case-by-case basis? In any case, we’re going to have to deal with borders that have moved around since books were written, and authors who lived in more than one place. Common-sense will be needed. I don’t think we would include James Joyce because he once lived in Trieste, but Italy Svevo might be more borderline...

I’ve started Drive your plow over the bones of the dead. I’ve got a few Austrian authors on my TBR pile, old favourites like Thomas Bernhard and Ilse Aichinger, but I’m going to try to read people who are new to me as far as possible.

I read Magda Szabó’s The door a while back, I’d like to read some more of her and try some other Hungarian writers. I’ve read shockingly few.

Oct 3, 2019, 6:08pm

>11 spiphany:

I didn't mention Magris because I think Italy belongs here (I certainly don't) but for his insight and value to discussing Central Europe and its space, beginning with that suggestion about the Danube.

Omitting Croatia and Slovenia, however, makes no sense. They were part of Austro-Hungary for centuries, every city in Slovenia and Northern Croatia (and quite a few down south) has parallel German names, the culture is influenced, marked and haunted by this history in more ways than I can enumerate.

>12 thorold:

I hope you'll find some time for the Bard of Hungarian literature, Sándor Petöfi, born Aleksandar Petrović, ethnic Slav not Magyar, and to this day claimed by both Slovaks and Serbs. Speaking of what makes a "Central European"...

Edited: Oct 4, 2019, 1:33pm

I should have added that this (which by the way expresses beautifully that the "Central Europe" under consideration is not a mere geographical, but a psychogeographical region, a realm with shifting borders and temporal dimensions):

>1 spiphany:

One understanding of the concept, which I think is the one that inspired the them read, is that of a cultural region influenced particularly by the Habsburg Empire.

This atmosphere is evoked in the writings of authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century like Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leo Perutz, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, Heimito von Doderer, Ödön von Horváth, or Sándor Márai.

Apart from this meaning, one advantage to reviving the idea of Mitteleuropa may be to recenter an understanding of Europe that is still influenced by Cold War politics – in which everything on the formerly communist side of the Iron Curtain is marginalized as "Eastern Europe."

not only applies to Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Serbia in terms of "influence" but also in terms of what constitutes a great part of the respective literatures' themes and problems--in the case of Croatia (which I know best and therefore find easiest to talk about), I'd say THE greatest part. Eliminate the portion of modern (post-16th century) Croatian literature dealing with the history and neuroses of servitude to the Habsburgs, the Magyars, the Germans, or that is marked in some way by it, and you're left with... I don't know what. Some folk songs and bawdy tales? Struggling to get a grasp on one's identity as a pre-condition for emancipation, between the Slav, the Teuton, the Latin, and the Turk; fighting for one's own "small" language under the onslaught of forced Germanisation and Magyarisation; pitting your provincial self against the empire's capitals--that's basically what Croatian literature IS.

The paradox is that, in an ideal situation in which we could all access any text at will, it would become clear how much of that peripheral-to-the-empire production, that's so hard to get at in the "mainstream", actually illuminates the empire's problems. Those Slav peasants did for the Germanic and Magyar aristocracy, and they were trying and preparing to do so for a very long time. They argued about it, they educated their children and progressed through the ranks thinking about it, they hid, advertised or manipulated their ethnic and political allegiances in service or war to it--and they wrote about it.

It's Krleža people still have to discover and need to discover, not Musil or Roth, when it comes to understanding what Austro-Hungary was like and why it fell apart. The German-Austrian perspective is already well-exposed but obviously it's not the only one--and in a way it's not even the most important one. I'm not saying that what is missing presents an entirely opposite, antagonistic perspective--but an absolutely necessary, complementary one.

The vast Slav underclass in Austria that fragmentarily and uneasily, here and there, ascended to the middle and sometimes upper ranks, isn't adequately represented in the Germanic literature.

And yet for its very suppression it's all the more interesting--at least, I can't help thinking so.

Anyway, I do hope this is not considered off-topic as I would gladly make recommendations where I can, for those who don't mind the less trodden paths.

Unfortunately English is underserved by translation, but readers of German in particular should have better luck.

My first proposal, at least for the sake of "putting it on the map" if not in expectation someone may actually read it--it's five volumes (I found it unputdownable, but who knows?)--is Krleža's magisterial Die Fahnen, (Flags). A generational saga of an upper-middle class, very much "Central European" family in Zagreb (AKA Agram), it illustrates that problematisation of identity of people constantly subjected to waves of oppression. It matters, historically if not philosophically, that it's those people for once, the unseen and unknown counterparts of those in German classics.

Krleža was himself born an Austro-Hungarian subject and educated as a military cadet in Hungary--from where he ran off to volunteer in the Serbian army, only to find himself deported back into Austria under suspicion of being a spy. The Austrians drafted him and sent off with other Croatian cannon fodder into Galicia. He spoke fluent German and Hungarian. His entire oeuvre is relevant to the theme, exemplifies the theme, both because of where he was born, who he was, what he was, how he was raised, and in the sense of constant consciousness of precisely those aspects that make "Central Europe" a topic for discussion.

The Return of Philip Latinowicz, The Banquet in Blitva and On the edge of reason are available in English.

In German, there is furthermore Die Glembays, Der kroatische Gott Mars, Requiem für Habsburg and more that deals directly with the history of the Austrian empire, its decadence and fall, as experienced by the Croats and other members of minor ethnicities.

Apologies for the length...

Edited: Oct 4, 2019, 9:16am

>14 LolaWalser: I read The Return of Philip Latinowicz (guess who persuaded me to do that...!) a few years ago. That was certainly a book with a Mitteleuropa feel and strong echoes of people like Joseph Roth. I need to explore Krleža further, as I keep saying...

(I admit that Roth doesn't need to be rediscovered, he's still there, but I don't think you're being quite fair lumping him in with the "German-Austrian" perspective. His status as a Jewish outsider from the Galician fringe never quite allows him to drop into that metropolitan view.)


My first read for this thread, a short one already mentioned in >2 spiphany: above. This is on this year's Booker International shortlist:

Drive your plow over the bones of the dead (2009; English 2018) by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 1962- ) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (UK, 1962- )


Olga Tokarczuk originally trained and practised as a psychologist. She's been writing novels since the early 90s, and started to grab the attention of English-speaking readers last year when Flights won the Booker International. She's also a well-known thorn in the side of the xenophobic right-wing politicians who claim to speak for Poland these days.

It doesn't take much to guess that William Blake is going to be playing a big part in this novel: apart from the title and the chapter epigraphs, he's also there in the text - the narrator, a semi-retired English teacher, is helping one of her former students to translate Blake into Polish. And the whole moral compass of the narrator's slightly-crazy-but-disturbingly-sane way of describing the world she lives in comes from Blake's disconcerting, prophetic way of calling out the hypocrisies of our everyday life as though they were simple and glaringly obvious things.

But it's also an edgily-uncomfortable parody of the cosy-murder genre. A succession of men meet gruesome deaths in the area around the small hamlet where the narrator lives, and she tries to help the police with her observations and astrological insights. The victims are all prominent members of the local hunting club, and they die in ironic ways that make it look as if the animal kingdom is taking revenge on them for their cruel sport. There's an Ovidian undercurrent here as well, and all sorts of references to folk-tales.

Probably not a book you will want to read if you have venison in your freezer, but very enjoyable - in a slightly disturbing way - for the rest of us. Lots of unexpected little bits of observation.

(And, to add to the "Balkan question" - this reminded me quite a lot of the mood of Baba Yaga laid an egg...)

Edited: Oct 4, 2019, 2:10pm

>15 thorold:

There are many flavours of outsiderism. Jewishness in general is a whole question apart, with many variables within it. If you compare Zweig and Roth, or rather the world of Zweig and the world of Roth, it's clear that not all Jews were made the same in Austro-Hungary. Zweig was a rich native, as much of an heir to the capital's culture and prestige as anyone else (until the Nazis decided otherwise), Roth a poor Einwanderer. In some ways they belong in the same club, but there are other things that set them very much apart. Each could be grouped with very many examples of their respective cases--and also isolated from yet other types of "occurring" Jewish lives, those of the poorest, illiterate workers, peasants, religious fundamentalists etc.

It's, I think, always debatable whether, and in what degree, and when, a specific Jewish-Austrian/German perspective exists and emerges. In particular for the highly assimilated Viennese and other urban Jews, for whom frequently their "Jewish connection" is no more than a memory, an archaeological tidbit, perhaps a folkloric flourish around the holidays and suchlike.

Your description of Tokarczuk's book brought to mind a novel, based on real events, that has little to do with it past the mention of gruesome deaths "of men", but that would be an interesting and somewhat unusual read for this thread--The Widowmaker (1966) by Maria Fagyas. I'll copy what I posted about it a few years ago:

...is a great quick read if you have a taste (or tolerance) for the macabre--based on true events in a 1920s Hungarian village, it's a zesty fictionalised account of a slew of suspicious deaths, mostly male, mostly by arsenic poisoning.

I don't know how accurate the Wiki entry might be, but here it is, about the actual events:

Angel Makers of Nagyrév

Fagyas is very good at intertwining social commentary with the incredible proceedings, and manages to make the assassins understandable and even sympathetic, in some cases. The life of these peasant women is probably the worst on earth. Treated as literally nothing but beasts of burden and brood mares, forced into marriages more often than not, abused every which way, beaten to pulp by familiars, condescended to and ordered about by everyone else from the priest to the squire, they are as low as mud. When war gives them respite from their typically brutal husbands and, significantly, let's them experience not only independence but success in being heads of households, some find it difficult to reconcile themselves to losing it all again on husbands' return--many of whom are now sick and invalids, doing nothing but increasing the already horrendous burden on these women.

There's a monograph on the case: Tiszazug: A Social History of a Murder Epidemic; I think I'll get it. (...)

It gives a really great picture of Hungarian peasant life and the repulsive aristocrats (hardly better educated or mannered) who exploited them.

Oct 4, 2019, 8:27pm

I should read more of Magris. The only thing I have read of his is Inferences from a sabre. I know several people over the years have recommended him. I think the Austrian Nobelist Elfriede Jelinek certainly deserves a mention as well as the Romanian Nobelist Herta Muller. Speaking of Poland Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was an outstanding playwright who committed suicide after the German and subsequent Russian invasions of Poland at the beginning of WWII. There is no doubt in my mind he would have been murdered by either side if he hadn't acted. Zbigniew Herbert was a great poet--Report from the besieged city and Mr. Cogito among his works. Then there's the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. His Too loud a solitude is a great book. One of the weirder coincidences in my life--being a postal worker I always brought books with me to work. So I was reading Josef Skvorecky's The bass saxophone one night and casing outgoing mail and a postcard comes through addressed to Skvorecky at his address in Toronto Ontario. I wrote that address down inside the cover of my book. I never contacted him however--that I thought would have been indiscreet.

Oct 7, 2019, 4:47am

A warm-up to re-reading Kafka:

Betrachtung (1912; Contemplation/Meditation) by Franz Kafka (Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, 1883-1924)


Like his near contemporary, Rilke, Kafka grew up in Prague, but spoke German as his first language, learning Czech at school. He wrote in German, but in later life he also took a serious interest in Yiddish culture. Unlike Rilke, he earned his own living, staying in Prague and working for an insurance company for most of his adult life. His literary work was done in his spare time, and little of it was published in his lifetime (and of course he famously asked his friend Max Brod to destroy the unpublished work after his death, something Brod failed to do...).

The short story collection Betrachtung was Kafka's first work to be published in book form, in 1912. Most of the eighteen stories had previously been published in literary reviews. They are all very short, ranging from a tweet-length 41 words ("Die Bäume") to just under 1500 ("Unglücklichsein").

All the stories seem to be in one way or another about the narrator's alienation, mechanically following the rules and duties of modern, urban life but also somehow only watching it from the outside, in a detached, almost voyeuristic way, unable to break through into participation. Only the child-narrator of the first story, "Kinder auf der Landstraße", can fully enjoy taking part in contact with others in play, and even there there's already a strong hint that the adult world is a different matter.

The stories are written in terse, clear language, although there are sometimes hints that we are supposed to imagine them as extracts from a longer narrative - several of the stories open with a conjunction, for instance. The images are generally very concrete, but occasionally a text runs off into a flight of fancy - the dull shopkeeper on his way home in "Der Kaufmann" spends the few moments he is alone, going up in the lift, apostrophising a set of imaginary winged creatures that turn into runaway horses, then comes back to earth to ring the doorbell and greet the maidservant.

Not "Kafkaesque" Kafka, perhaps, but you can see how it only needs to go a little bit further to become that.

Oct 7, 2019, 1:43pm

>17 lriley:

Hrabal's I served the king of England is the one I read, also excellent. Of Magris, I'd say any of his non-fiction is a "must"--he opens up the world like an orange, a dozen slices focussing a dozen directions at the same time. Danube, Microcosms--actually, I guess you don't have that much choice in English so whatever you chance on is worth trying.

>18 thorold:

Quite a coincidence, I finished a book about Kafka this morning, Jeremy Adler's Kafka (woo, found the touchstone!) It's an illustrated edition with many useful and intriguing photos, paintings, Kafka's own drawings and sketches and serves well as an intro and invitation to deeper studies.

Kafka may not have published a lot during his lifetime (it being so short) but it's notable that he was by no means an unknown quantity in the literary circles--he was friendly with Blei, Werfel, Erwin Egon Kisch's brother and had met publishers Ernest Rowohlt and Kurt Wolff--the latter becoming his publisher. Musil wanted to secure his collaboration. Karl Kraus joked about him ("Es brodelt und werfelt und kafkat und kischt"). When you start counting Kafka's literary acquaintances and admirers, it adds up to a considerable and very dazzling set.

And the things that got published before his death--Die Verwandlung and In der Strafkolonie among other stuff I don't now recall--that's quite something, I think.

Nothing compared to what might have been, of course...

Adler's epigraph is a quotation from Kafka which is perhaps relevant to the reasons he asked for his work to be destroyed:

The reason why posterity's judgement of an individual is more correct than that of his contemporaries has to do with the dead. You only develop your own character after death, when you are alone...

Perhaps he didn't want to allow this judgement to develop based on what he had done so far, especially if, as it seems, he was a struggler and re-writer.

(But in any case, praise be to Max Brod!)

Oct 7, 2019, 3:37pm

#19--ordered two books today--Magris' A different sea and another by Maryse Conde who until recently I hadn't heard of. But anyway I've read several of Hrabal's books including I served the King of England--though I don't have that one in my library. He is my favorite Czech writer.

Edited: Oct 10, 2019, 9:48am

Olga Tokarczuk from Poland and Peter Handke from Austria have just been announced as the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature. I had planned to read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead for this quarter's theme, and I'll probably read Flights as well. I've read the only book I own by Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Which other books by him should I read?

Oct 10, 2019, 9:23am

>21 kidzdoc: I read Flights by Olga Tokarczuk last year but was not bowled over. Finishing it was an effort, not a pleasure. That was disappointing as she seemed right up my alley! Should I persevere? If so, which book would the knowledgeable among you recommend?
I haven't read anything by Peter Handke either, so am also looking for recs...

Meanwhile, I'm starting this quarter with Sándor Márai's Sirály/Les mouettes (it might be called The Seagull in English) which is waiting for me at the library.

Edited: Oct 10, 2019, 10:00am

>21 kidzdoc: We seem to have timed this theme perfectly, then! And I think this is the first time I've ever managed to read a book by a Nobelist (see >15 thorold:) less than a week before the award was announced...

Nice to see that they've half-followed their intention not to be male-dominated, but the pledge to stop being Eurocentric is looking a bit hollow.

The Guardian quotes Fiametta Rocco: "Olga Tokarczuk of course is beloved by everybody except the hard Polish right, Peter Handke is not so beloved of everybody, except for the arch followers of Slobodan Milošević..." https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/nobel-prizes-in-literature-olga-to...

Given what he's said about the Nobel in the past, I wouldn't have expected Handke to accept the award. But maybe he is prepared to stretch a point when they come knocking on his door.

>22 Dilara86: I think you might enjoy Drive your plow. But that's the only one I've read.
Re Handke, I've only read Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The goalie's fear of the penalty), which is a memorable title and one of his best known books. I didn't like it very much, and Handke's public persona rather put me off exploring further.

ETA: Hindsight is a funny thing: I'm sure I remember not enjoying it, but what I wrote about it five years ago was rather favourable. Maybe my memory is coloured by what I've read about the author since: https://www.librarything.com/work/379577/reviews/113203257

Oct 10, 2019, 9:49am

>22 Dilara86: I haven't read any of the three books I own by Olga Tokarczuk, so I can't make any recommendations. I'll probably start Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead later this month, after I finish the Booker Prize shortlist next week.

Edited: Oct 10, 2019, 10:09am

>23 thorold: Right, Mark. I watched a short video interview yesterday by Anders Olsson, the chair of the Nobel Committee, about this year's prizes on the Nobel Prize's Facebook page. Based on your comments I would guess that you watched that interview as well. I'm not surprised by either choice, especially Tokarczuk, but I had hoped that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o would be the 2019 laureate, especially after Tokarczuk's name was announced first, as the 2018 laureate.

I'm less familiar with Handke, although I do remember hearing about his apparent support for the late Slobodan Milosevic and the far right in Serbia; I'd forgotten who it was that made those comments until an hour or so ago. I suspect that we'll read a lot more about his political positions and statements in the days to come.

What did Handke say about the Nobel Prize before today? All I can find so far is a flurry of articles about today's announcement.

Oct 10, 2019, 10:33am

>25 kidzdoc: https://www.diepresse.com/3892843/handke-den-nobelpreis-sollte-man-endlich-absch... (in German)

“The prize should be abolished, it’s a false canonisation, a moment of attention, six pages in the newspaper”. Handke was being interviewed in 2014, when he’d been talked about as a candidate and Modiano, a writer he’d translated and promoted, was the actual laureate. So maybe there were sour grapes involved.

Oct 10, 2019, 10:54am

I've ordered something by Tokarczuk. As for Handke--I've read A goalie's anxiety at the penalty kick which was one of his earliest works and Absence. The first was pretty good--the second I didn't like so much and at that point I stopped. I'm interested a lot more in finding out about Tokarczuk than going further with Handke.

Edited: Oct 10, 2019, 12:53pm

This message has been deleted by its author.

Oct 10, 2019, 5:26pm

>19 LolaWalser: I, too, very much enjoyed I Served the King of England.

>17 lriley: I read The Bass Saxophone in grad school as part of a novella writing/reading seminar. I've also read and loved his short story collection called The Tenor Saxophonist's Story.

Regarding Meyrink, I highly recommend his The Golem.

Oct 10, 2019, 9:28pm

I recently read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and have been working my way through Iron Curtain.

Oct 11, 2019, 7:11am

#29--generally I liked Skvorecky. The Miracle game was really good. The one I wasn't that crazy about was The engineer of human souls which I think is the one he's most noted for. It happens---you like one book better than another. If I had to choose between him and Hrabal though I'd choose Hrabal. But it's also good that I don't have to choose.

Oct 11, 2019, 10:55am

Just back from more time away and although I had forgotten the theme for this quarter, coincidentally just started Journey by Moonlight. I also picked up Iza's Ballad on my travels and have a Joseph Roth on the go. It's good to feel in tune with the theme.

Although not part of this quarter's theme, but on the Nobel discussion, my own nominee would be Ismail Kadare, so hoping he sticks around long enough to receive the award.

Edited: Oct 12, 2019, 6:38pm

I was looking for a different book by the Viennese Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando (quite a mouthful, so FHO from now on) but when I couldn't find it, fell on Tarockanische Geheimnisse (Tarockanian secrets)*. The latter is a facsimile reproduction of some 44 drawings he made through 1919-1920, by and large of fantastic characters and bizarre activities (there's maybe one "straight" sketch of a Venitian scene).

FHO worked as an architect before illness made him abandon the daily routine (presumably there was family wealth to help him get along) and he seems to have done little but written, drawn and travelled, sometimes in the company of such friends as Alfred Kubin.

He didn't publish much during his lifetime but there's a hefty box of collected works out there now.

What's interesting is that he seems to have developed a self-contained narrative world encompassing his literary works and drawings, endowed with a private symbology and mythology. His name for this dreamland was "Reich der Tarocke". Recurrent figures include seductive young women, usually naked, and ridiculous-looking old men, usually with physical malformations. One of his reference points was commedia dell'arte, and his archetypes seem informed by it.

Judging by the drawings it was a surreal, grotesque, humorous place; judging by the title, the surface symbols hide a deeper reality. I don't think the drawings have much artistic value, they seem to me to be products of a story told to oneself, perhaps even therapeutically.

FHO had a variety of mystical, esoteric, pseudoscientific connections and interests (yoga, "New Age", Cosmism, freemasonry, parapsychology etc.) He joined the Nazis in 1932 (but decamped to Italy for health reasons and never returned), which of course didn't stop the Austrians from honoring him with a street name by and by.

A curiosity to add to the mosaic of cultural life in Austria.


ETA: *Or "Tarockanian Mysteries"

Edited: Oct 12, 2019, 3:13pm

Well, I just had the nastiest shock I ever received on LT since joining in 2007. I should probably step away from the computer, my heart is racing, my hands are shaking, my thoughts are a jumble, all bad signs, but--fuck it, I guess. I tried to be careful and circumspect; she interpreted that as acting in bad faith. An LTer whom I liked and respected, although I don't and never presumed to "know", just dumped on me the accusation that I'm defending far-right nationalism, and refuses me even the grace of a reply.
Since this was precipitated by something she wrote about Handke and my reply to it, I figure it may as well be commented here--it's ironic that I deleted my post in this thread before. I deleted it because I feared it could become a huge digression and--not secondarily at all--because talking about the destruction of Yugoslavia cuts me to pieces. But I guess there is no protection.

This is the copy of my post in her thread--given her monstrous insult, I won't post there again:

"I had deleted a post I made elsewhere that touched on the political attacks on Handke because I thought better of going that dismal route (which is, technically, a digression if the topic is Handke's literary worth and import), so I would much rather not take it up in anyone's personal thread. Suffice it to say that the topic is complicated and doesn't merit peremptory dismissal through a few strong, dubiously applied labels.

We tend to assume a committee is acting in the best interest of the award, not acting upon its members' own quirks and prejudices.

And yet it's often our own quirks and prejudices that blind us to how others view matters. If one is convinced that Handke is a "far-right nationalist" who has "condoned and contributed" to "international horrors" one is bound to remain oblivious to what others see in him that is worthy of praise--not unadulterated, blind glorification perhaps, but praise nevertheless.

I would suggest that there is a different view (and views) of Handke and his political engagement that, far from dumbly and criminally agreeing to some "far right" narrative, recognise not just his literary talent (the reason he is deserving of the prize in the first place) but the existence and the importance of the problems he raises--problems whose neglect compromises our own relationship to truth, our own ethical self, our own conscience.

I don't say this to force anyone away from their antagonism, however well or badly founded; merely to note that other opinions are available, not all of which automatically make of Handke's readers or admirers hardcore fascists."

As someone who has read only two works by Handke, I'm not much of "his reader"--although I intend to read more, if only to clarify my ideas. I have liked the two works I read, but I couldn't call myself an "admirer". I think it's fair, if somewhat anodyne, to say that I think he's a writer who can make one think, experience literature as something deeper than entertainment.

Whether pointing out that not everyone who reads him is thereby automatically a fascist and defender of "far-right nationalism" actually makes one (or me specifically) a fascist and defender of far-right nationalism is, I hope, open for debate.

Edited: Oct 12, 2019, 4:47pm

#34--FWIW a lot of literary writers (and artists of all kinds) are fucked up individuals and anybody who reads a lot should know that and anyone who is a reader of real literature no doubt has a library full of fucked up individuals and their works that they still like very much. I know I do. But really all kinds of neuroses, self loathing, bitterness and hate in great works of literature and I wouldn't be surprised if 100 or more of the writers I have read over the years have offed themselves. I could name a bunch. The suicide rate is pretty much through the roof. Serious literature is not for the weak of mind or heart.

On the question of Handke I've read him twice too--liked the first book--the second not so much and it's been a while since the second--at least ten years and as a 62 year old with a few thousand books in my background my memory is not that great or it's lapsing more as I get older so really the impressions I have on him as a writer are kind of vague--and really a writer's writing is how I tend to first judge him or her. There are certain writers I really detest like Ayn Rand because I think objective elitism is really evil but they are few.

I had no idea about anything regarding Handke and Milosevic until a couple days ago and really am not sure of the whole story even now. I never really thought about keeping track of who went to Miloselvic's funeral or would write eulogies for him. So I can imagine plenty of readers who had read some of his stuff were caught off guard. What I can say is from reading what I have I think he was kind of a mediocre pick for the Nobel--that there were numerous better choices but I could say that about other Nobel winners too so that's just an opinion and not necessarily a nuanced one.

I would bring up Claude Simon. I like Simon as a writer quite a lot. He writes kind of in that Faulkner-esque vein that you see in diverse writers like Lobo Antunes or Cormac McCarthy. But I also know someone who talked of meeting or running into others of the Nouveau Roman like Sarraute and Butor (both of whom she loved) and she hated Simon--called him a nasty old man in that he was very short and often contemptuous with people and probably there was at least some truth to it but really I had no way to qualify what she told me. I kind of look at it this way sometimes--that it's best to steer clear of meeting people whose work you admire because there's good chance they'll disappoint you if you do meet them.

Oct 12, 2019, 6:26pm

>35 lriley:

One of the saddest things of the innumerable sad things regarding the Yugoslav catastrophe is that someone like Milosevic and his cohort came to represent, positively or negatively depending on who is asked, the idea of Yugoslav unity. I think Handke went too far in paying respect to this idea, past the point when his actions became compromising, but at least he can say he was being consistent and true to it to the end.

It's not being "for" Handke (and by extension, as my ex-LT friend shockingly made clear today, for Milosevic and "far-right nationalism") to say that he's worth hearing out.

Neither do I mean it's to be listened to passively, or embraced, partly or let alone wholly. I mean that there is a debate to be had--about how the narrative about the war in Yugoslavia was created, promoted and manipulated, for what reasons and agendas. I won't say more as I hardly expect anyone to be interested; however, I hope people understand there is more to Handke than this topic. (But it should be noted that it may actually strikingly indicate a trademark of his persona--a contrariness and a loneliness partly inborn, partly elected.)

Regarding personalities and talent, achievement etc.--I've often posted about these dilemmas and expect to keep doing so in future. I don't know whether generalisations are possible. In most cases concrete accusations can be made and anyone interested ought to be able to decide what they can and can't ignore.

Edited: Oct 13, 2019, 12:39am

>34 LolaWalser: - >36 LolaWalser:
The trouble seems to be that we all agree in theory that it’s a crucial part of the writer’s job to challenge received ideas, but in practice we have a hard time accepting that that doesn’t just apply to other people’s received ideas. Or that someone can be (spectacularly) wrong on one thing but still worth listening to elsewhere. It’s tempting to be lazy and generalise, but really we ought to do the hard work of resolving the individual case with our own experience and moral red lines.

These things are clearly exacerbated by the way journalism works: conflict and controversy make news, literary merit doesn’t. We’re only likely to get on the barricades to defend a (politically) difficult writer if we’ve already invested a lot in reading their work, and obviously most of us aren’t quite there yet with Handke.

There do seem to be a few more nuanced views of Handke’s win out there, from literary rather than political journalists, for instance this piece by Hubert Spiegel in the FAZ (German): https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/buecher/autoren/peter-handke-erhaelt-den-... — “unlike Grass ... Handke never wanted to set himself up in the role of a moral authority, rather preferred to see himself as a naughty child” — or this one (in Dutch) by Jan Luijten in the Volkskrant: https://www.volkskrant.nl/mensen/nobelprijswinnaar-handke-mijn-ideaal-is-in-stil... — Luijten talks about the whole of Handke’s work as the realisation of his 1966 outburst against neue Sachlichkeit. “Handke knows reality, but he sees it as his task to defamiliarise reality, to make literature from it.”

The more knee-jerk pieces I see attacking Handke without ever talking about his books and plays, the more it makes me want to read them...

Edited: Oct 13, 2019, 2:06pm

>37 thorold:

Thanks--you might be interested in these too:


Le minoritaire existentiel, cette fois, a rejoint le minoritaire politique. Les jurés d’une institution moralement éprouvée couronnent aujourd’hui un auteur que la morale institutionnelle a un moment réprouvé, phénomène dont ses lecteurs se fichent, et libre soit cette infortune. On l’entendra toujours nous dire, d’une voix amusée, avec ses yeux plissés : «Les gens déraisonnables sont en voie de disparition.» Ce sont les gens sans raison qui foisonnent.

France Culture did a series of interviews with Handke in 2013 (I listened only to part 1, don't know the topics covered past that):


I presume there are other examples of his responses to the (various) attacks over the years, this came up first for me, from 2006--relevant in particular regarding the unqualified assertions that he is a genocide denier:


(I'm reserving comment--rest assured there is LOTS one could say.)

Die Zeit also published an article, quite scathing in my view, that condemns his political (and politicised) gestures but not the idea that he's worth reading:


Es ist keine Frage, ob Handke mit seinem 1996 veröffentlichten Text Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien, mit seinen darauffolgenden, zunehmend wirren politischen Äußerungen zum Balkankrieg und mit seiner Grabrede auf Milošević im März 2006 eine politische Dummheit und historische Fahrlässigkeit nach der anderen begangen hat, die er in seiner Sturheit und in seiner Medienverachtung nicht zu revidieren bereit war...

Die grundsätzliche Frage lautet, ob Handkes verbissene literarische Zelebration des Vielvölkerstaats Jugoslawien, die bei ihm den grotesken Umweg der Verteidigung dessen Zerstörer nahm, Konsequenzen für die Rezeption seines Werks haben. ...

Der Schriftsteller Jan Brandt, der zuletzt das viel diskutierte Buch Ein Haus auf dem Land / Eine Wohnung in der Stadt veröffentlicht hat, kommentierte auf seinem Facebook-Account die Juryentscheidung mit deutlichem Unverständnis und ergänzt auf Nachfrage: "Gerade, was den Nobelpreis betrifft, geht es um Haltung und nicht nur um Literatur. Deshalb sind ja einige andere wie Heinrich Böll oder Günter Grass überhaupt erst ausgezeichnet worden – weil sie sich gesellschaftspolitisch engagiert haben. Das eine vom anderen zu entkoppeln, als hätte das nichts miteinander zu tun, halte ich für falsch und unangemessen." Der Schriftsteller und Historiker Per Leo wiederum, Mitautor des Essaybands Mit Rechten reden, entgegnete: "Gute Literatur entsteht zum Glück nicht aus Geisteshaltungen! Sonst müsste ich mich beim Lesen ja dauernd fragen, wes Geistes Kind der Autor ist."

Wenn beide recht damit haben, dann ist der Nobelpreis für Peter Handke möglicherweise tatsächlich eine mutige Entscheidung.

Listening to the interview, I remembered what you said about prefering Bernhard, I feel the same way. It's actually a bit surprising that someone like Bernhard, who couldn't bond with people, would seem closer and (to me anyway) warmer than someone like Handke, who clearly feels deeply.

Maybe it's wrong to try to compare them on some level deeper than "troublemakers". In any case, I find Bernhard's hatred for his homeland healthy, familiar and dear (a passion like my own, a Hassliebe that preserves my moral compass ergo my sanity), while Handke's ambivalent, grumpy but in the end blindly bestowed patriotism ("my country right or wrong") repels me. However, I find Handke pitiable in a way that is impossible to apply to Bernhard, no matter how much more impoverished the latter was (emotionally and experientially).

Handke is some sort of orphan and perhaps that's the key to it all...

Oct 13, 2019, 8:21pm

In a lot of ways Bernhard and Jelinek remind me of each other. Blunt and bleak outlooks but very funny too.

Oct 14, 2019, 3:28am

>39 lriley: Yes, and both happy to be iconoclastic about scenery, skiing, Mozart-balls and walking-socks. Very different in other ways, of course.

Something that must be important, although I haven’t really worked out how yet, is that all of them, including Handke, seem to be focussed on the theatre at least as much as they are on novels, if not more so. I suppose it means that they must see the public that lives within a tram-ride of the Burgtheater as their only really important audience.

Oct 15, 2019, 2:36pm

>40 thorold: I think some of this is surely simply due to the fact that theater has long played an important role in German-speaking societies (and continues to do so), and in particular it is a genre that is overtly political in a way that novels tend not to be -- i.e., theater is seen as having the potential to move people, to change perspectives and attitudes.
I can't think of many German-language authors whose writing has a strong element of social criticism and who haven't also at least dabbled in playwriting at one point or another.

In English-language literary traditions the theater doesn't seem as prominent, which probably has historical reasons (periods in which the theater was seen as a hotbed of immorality); authors who want to criticize society are more likely to turn to satire or science fiction. (Whereas in German-language traditions science fiction tends to be considered "entertainment" and not something one writes if one wants to be taken seriously, although a few "literary" authors have occasionally ventured into the dystopian genre.)

Oct 18, 2019, 7:26am

>41 spiphany: Yes, I'm sure that's right. Not that theatre is unimportant in Anglo-Saxon culture, but it does seem to have detached itself quite firmly from the rest of literature, obviously as you say a hangover from puritanism.


As I said above, I wanted to try some Hungarian writers, and by chance one came along, via Gerald Murnane's A history of books, which I read earlier this week. Murnane is clearly a big Sándor Márai fan — he puts him up there with Halldór Laxness, and apparently taught himself Hungarian specially to read him:

Portraits of a marriage (1941,1949,1980; English 2011) by Sándor Márai (Hungary, USA, 1900-1989), translated by George Szirtes (Hungary, UK, 1948- )


Márai came from a bourgeois background in Kaschau/Kassa/Košice, now in Slovakia, then in the kingdom of Hungary. He studied in Germany and initially wrote in German, travelling widely as a young man. In 1928 he returned to Hungary and switched to writing in his mother-tongue, Hungarian, establishing himself as one of the major novelists of the time. He soon got on bad terms with the new communist government after the war, and in 1948 he left Hungary for exile in Italy and then the USA. Few of his works seem to have been known outside Hungary until after his death in 1989, but translations have been gradually appearing since then.

George Szirtes is a distinguished English poet and taught at UEA until his retirement. He left Hungary with his parents in 1956.

Portraits of a marriage is a puzzling book for the reader, because of the way Márai added to it at widely-spaced intervals and at quite different stages in his development as a writer, apparently without changing what he had previously written, but each time shifting the tone and mood considerably and undermining our confidence in what we have taken from the earlier parts of the book.

The book takes the form of three separate monologues in the voices of Ilonka the First Wife, Peter the Husband, and Judit the Other Woman. These are followed by an Epilogue, also a monologue, in the voice of Ede, the musician who was Judit's lover and the addressee of her monologue.

Ilonka and Peter seem to be a normal, troubled bourgeois couple of the sort that we might well find in a novel by Franz Werfel or Stefan Zweig. They give us their (contrasting, conflicting) views on the story of their failed marriage and the role played by Peter's damaging obsession with his mother's maidservant Judit. There is a lot in both their narratives about the details of their everyday life, but very little reference to other people outside the immediate family — with the notable exception of Peter's friend the writer Lázár, who is obviously a kind of alter ego for the author — and no explicit reference at all to social class or historical events. We don't have any obvious way to tell whether we are meant to be in the 1890s or the 1930s, it just doesn't seem to matter. This is a story about what love means, how it can be resolved with everyday life, and what happens when different people have different expectations about it.

But then Márai hits us with Judit's monologue, addressed to her boyfriend of the moment in a hotel room in Rome sometime in the late 1940s, and obviously written after he went into exile. Judit comes from the rural underclass, her family literally sleeping in a ditch in the winter months, and has pulled herself up by her own efforts, first to become a servant in the apartment of Peter's wealthy middle-class parents, then to turn herself into a lady who could live with Peter on something like equal terms. Her analysis of the way the wealthy live and the irrelevance of Peter and Ilonka and their feelings is just disturbing at first, but we are drawn into her way of seeing things when she shows us (painfully) how the experience of the last days of the war in Budapest changed all the rules. There's obviously a lot here that is taken from the author's direct experience, including Lázár's decision that he can't go on writing under fascism and the destruction of his library in the bombardment.

And then we get the epilogue, written some forty years later, which pulls the rug out from under us again, if not quite as spectacularly as Judit has done.

Quite something, and the English translation by George Szirtes blasts along with real energy.

Another writer to explore further ...

Oct 18, 2019, 8:21am

I started Sirály/Les mouettes by Sándor Márai last week, stopped, took it up again, from the wrong page (I mistook the previous reader's bookmark for mine, and only realised 30 pages later: not a great sign), then gave up for good. I just could not get into it.
I've just finished Confusion: The Private Papers of Privy Councillor R. von D. by Stefan Zweig, which I liked a great deal more! Am now half-way through Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, which could qualify for a number of Reading Globally themes, including this one...

Oct 19, 2019, 12:28pm

Years ago I was blown away by Márai's Casanova in Bolzano (I like the original title, the subtle Guest performance in Bolzano far better) and still have it on my ever-shortening list of books I wish to reread. As I recall it's basically a lengthy conversation between Casanova and one of his old conquests (old as in "been there done that", not chronological age), in which we see the lines of power ever shifting and changing in unexpected ways. Who is the seduced or the seducer and what is seduction, what love? But also more than that, maybe much more than that, the pathos of whole life's yearning and the tantalising possibility--but dare one hope?--of a real bond... and the certain tragedy of loss.

Another Austrian book for me, Die goldene Horde, a collection of Alexander Lernet-Holenia's poetry, some translations and dramatic fragments, first published in 1935. The author was another of those Habsburg semi-knightly characters with military experience and literary interests, more conservative than not, compromised during the Nazi era although--maybe--less so than many? Not sure yet.

He was a friend of Rilke's and also, they say, influenced by Georg Trakl and Gottfried Benn. I see some thematic resemblances--a lot about death and dying, life's inexorable passing, autumnal atmosphere, mournful lyricism--but frankly it wouldn't occur to me there was a connection. L-H favours religious and courtly imagery and writes with special gusto about aristocratic pastimes like hunting.

The title poem is about the killing of the Romanovs--so the Soviets are equated with the Mongols.

From Tiresias' prophecy:

All your companions are
dead and God knows where.

They left you sleeping
like a child on the shore

and you woke up
in homeland.

And you won't know,
lord of Ithaca,
where you are.

Oct 19, 2019, 1:01pm

I've only read Marai once and that was Embers. Coincidentally though Marai shows up towards the end of a novel by Alta Ifland--a Romanian writer who has been living in California for a while. The title of that is 'The Iffland Ring' which hasn't been published yet but I was recently asked to look at and unfortunately the publisher isn't going to publish because it's a really really good book. Hopefully she'll find another publisher.

Oct 19, 2019, 1:17pm

I really have to give Márai another chance, don't I...

Oct 19, 2019, 4:19pm

I have Embers and a few other of his, as I was so pleased by that Casanova one, but, you know--so many books, so little time... it's unlikely you'll want for good literature in case you decide not to try him again!

Oct 31, 2019, 11:55am

>47 LolaWalser: True! We'll see...

De la mort sans exagérer by Wisława Szymborska, translated by Piotr Kaminski

Writer’s gender: Female
Writer’s nationality: Polish
Original language: Polish
Translated into: French
Location: N/A

This is a collection of poems written between 1957 and 2009 by literature Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska. The writing is sober, elegant and evocative. I was slightly taken aback by the translator’s tendency to omit grammatical articles. It might have been warranted by the source text. I don’t know… The translation was a pleasure to read nonetheless. I am glad this quarter’s Mitteleuropa theme pushed me into exploring this author. All I had read of her so far was one poem from the Penguin Book of Women Poets I bought and first read a good 25 years ago.

Nov 3, 2019, 12:42pm

>48 Dilara86: Polish (like most Slavic languages) doesn't have articles, so the omission of articles in French must represent a decision by the translator -- possibly to reflect the structures or rhythm of the source language ("alienating" translation), or possibly to express something else going on in the poetry. Or potentially the translator is translating from his mother tongue into a second language rather than the other way around (this is not uncommon for obscure languages or unusual language combinations, because it can be difficult to find suitable translators otherwise, but I would not necessarily expect this for something like Polish-French).


I forgot to come back and report on my first book for this quarter (which, ironically, I had started end of last quarter without consciously thinking about its relevance for this theme).

Das flüssige Land by Raphaela Edelbauer
This is a recent publication by a young Austrian author which was shortlisted for the Deutscher Buchpreis this year. It's Edelbauer's first novel; she previously published an experimental prose/poetry collection called Entdecker which plays with phenomena from the natural world (maps, crystal formation, biological systems) as metaphors for text and language and is accompanied by illustrations by Simon Goritschnig. Das flüssige Land ("The fluid country") is an expanded and revised version of the text she presented at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize competition in 2018. That text is actually what originally piqued my interest in her work.

Das flüssige Land is set in a village somewhere in a remote Alpine region of Austria -- so remote that it seems not to exist and proves nearly impossible to get to. At least, this is the experience of our (possibly not quite reliable) narrator, a theoretical physicist who, after the sudden death of her parents, sets out to find their ancestral village, Groß-Einland. After arriving there almost by accident, she discovers that life in the village is dominated by two things: the vast network of mine tunnels that underlie the entire area and are gradually causing the entire settlement to collapse; and the countess, who seems to hold control over the people in an almost feudal economic system. This countess tasks the narrator with developing a means to stabilize the tunnel system, which is to serve as a vast tourist attraction that will revitalize the village. But as the narrator becomes more acquainted with the village and its people, she discovers that there are things they are determined to keep secret, and even the data she is given about the mine shafts don't seem to add up. She begins secret investigations of her own.

This is a hard book to classify. The term "Kafkaesque" comes to mind, and although it's a comparison that tends to be overused, certain aspects of this absurd world do indeed fit: in particular the inpenetrable rules or customs that govern the local society, and which everyone except the protagonist considers perfectly normal. There is a parable-like quality which, fortunately, is never clearly spelled out as symbolizing this or that specifically, although the collective suppression of Austria's participation in the Holocaust is one possible meaning. Edelbauer's work also reminds me of a novel by another compatriot of hers, Geometric Regional Novel by Gert Jonke, in the sense that both authors are interested in ideas -- particularly ideas from architecture, geometry, or physics -- and structures rather than creating compelling characters.

I didn't find the novel entirely satisfying -- there are places where all the parts simply don't entirely come together -- but it is a very intriguing one, and one that most decidedly does not follow the usual formulas being used by most German-language writers today. I'm intrigued to see what else Edelbauer produces in the future.

Nov 4, 2019, 5:16am

>49 spiphany: I'd say it's the first hypothesis. Possibly to keep to the right meter ? (In which case I don't think it was necessary - French isn't a very rythmic language anyway.) Or to reproduce the sparseness of the original? In any case, it was noticeable - it made some of the lines sound like old-fashioned proverbs -, but only occasional, and not too distracting.

Edited: Nov 10, 2019, 5:31pm

An "accidentally" fitting read, a book I picked up at random from one of the many read-to-discard piles around me and which proved engaging enough to read in a few days: A minor apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki. First published in 1979, at a time of peak economic difficulties in Poland, with a rising anti-Communist front (which Konwicki, oddly, doesn't seem to acknowledge at all).

The book's narrator, in all features identical to the author, is a fifty-something moderately known writer and film director, increasingly isolated and haunted by the sense that the world is ending, that a "decadence" has set on everything. He hates the society he's living in and the people of generations younger than his, seeing them as the compromised products of the postwar regime. There is a "silent majority" content to live as best they can in the circumstances, opposed to a handful of people like himself, the only moral ones, who are disgusted to live without freedom.

He receives a visit from a couple of other "oppositionists" who bluntly set him the task of lighting himself on fire in public, next to the building housing the Party's Central Committee. Hesitatingly, he agrees and goes off to fulfill the task to schedule--to meet up with others who will provide him with gasoline and matches, and company, if he wishes, until the allotted hour.

For a fan of black humour, this was a treat, with many laugh-out-loud moments. It's possible that at this time the novel works best as an example of quasi-surreal urban picaresque. In the ensuing eight hours or so, the narrator meets a cast of diverse characters including a long-lost dog, falls in love, is stopped by the police several times, attends an exhibition of lewd paintings by a former apparatchik-turned-dirty old man, is tortured by the police (who are in reality "oppositionists" putting him to a special test), runs into a friend who is a famous film director curiously poised between criticism and support to the regime, is followed adoringly by a young fan from the provinces (who is in reality a 40-something spy), almost has sex (twice), crashes a banquet prepared for high-ranking Soviet guests etc.--all this while clutching a can of gasoline and a box of imported Swedish matches, bought specially in a hard-currency store, meandering on his way to Ground Zero.

The farcical humour is offset by the narrator's recurrent musings about heritage, God, nationalism, and I must admit these are the parts I found the hardest to follow. Perhaps that is why I have the least sympathy for precisely those thoughts which were presumably the most important to Konwicki. Konwicki was Catholic and like many Poles right then, found in Catholicism a practical, militant antidote to marxism. He was not only a Polish nationalist, but that theorising, "racialising" kind of nationalist who finds justification in pseudoscientific typologies and genealogies and believes in Lamarckian inheritance of traits (what you do will imprint itself on your genes) and Lombrosian phenomenology (criminal nature is visible in one's physical makeup).

Lastly but not at all "least", it is significant that however he defined the freedom that was indubitably lacking in Poland's real-socialist society, this freedom was thought of only in relation to people like himself: white straight Polish men. Reading this novel I couldn't help thinking it heralded the rightwing Poland of today quite clearly.

{The narrator Konwicki, to his film director friend:} What I miss is--men, real men with honor and dignity. Self-controlled, brave, ascetic, chivalrous. And now everywhere there's only little women in pants. Mannish women with long hair, frills and décolletage. Greedy, avaricious, shameless women with penises concealed in their lace panties. Wladek, I miss men. My generation of men died off. I've been left alone with nothing but pussies, women, cunts; I'm going under because everything is against me. Everything is a slap in the face of me, an offense, I'm being kicked out of life."

Women exist only as wives and lovers (the last big set piece before the narrator's immolation is a bizarre, possibly hallucinated but described as real, meeting with all his ex-girlfriends and lovers), and if they deviate from those roles, as the young generation with its ugly regime-imprinted genes seems to do, they are hardly women at all.*

I also found disturbing the repeated remarks about the "Asiatic hordes" in Russia. This is an old trope (well, see Lernet-Holenia above), popularised by Oswald Spengler and enthusiastically taken up by Nazisoid types everywhere since the October revolution. It presents Russians simultaneously as foreign, non-European, and degenerate, contaminating the "pure" stock of other peoples.

A Russian character ("there are more Russians in Poland every day") tells Konwicki's narrator that their countries should be friends, after all they are all Slavs--to which Konwicki replies there are no more Slavs in Russia, "you've killed them all when you killed your upper classes", it's all "Asiatic hordes" now.

Setting aside how bizarre it is to think it's the upper classes in Russia who were ever "authentic" Slavs, I find such ideas incompatible with a democratic outlook. One doesn't have to sympathise with the Russians to find this racist (besides, what's wrong with "Asiatic", why is that epithet taken as damning in itself?) And yet there's no doubt that dissident authors like Konwicki ("dissident" regardless of having published in Poland) were and probably are advertised in the West, and even more, celebrated, as democratic anti-Communist freedom-lovers.

These aspects should never have been overlooked. As one watches Poland today sinking into another authoritarian phase, it's clear that how one thinks of other people--ALL the other people, including those not of our gender, sex, religion etc.--whether one's ideas of "freedom" extend to ALL those people, matters.

The most interesting and poignant thing about this novel isn't the by now all too familiar and profoundly clichéed picture of the bleak societies behind the Iron Curtain, but what it can tell us about shifting values and meanings. It shifts so much you can get vertigo.

Consider this: the notorious "Palace of Culture", so hated in Konwicki's novel as a symbol of Soviet oppression, is now reclaimed by a different opposition. But possibly the most "vertiginous" inversion of the meanings and values of the novel can be seen in a public suicide that really did happen there:

Konwicki’s bleakly satirical vision was made horribly real in October 2017, when a chemist called Piotr Szczęsny set himself on fire outside the Palace in protest against Law and Justice’s brutal conservative agenda; he died 10 days later. Szczęsny’s death was the most extreme example to date of the Palace’s renewed politicisation since 2015. Law and Justice’s 2016 “de-communisation” law orders all streets, public spaces, and monuments associated with the communist period to be renamed or removed. The Palace, a monolith to state socialism, is a thorn in the government’s side. The national news broadcast had previously used the Palace clock as a backdrop. “When the Catholic theocracy entered power in 2015,” Murawski notes, “one of the first things they did — after sacking all the judges and heads of state-owned media — was replace that backdrop with one of the Royal Castle: completely ignoring the fact that the Royal Castle, which was destroyed by the Germans, was also rebuilt by the communists.”

Inside Warsaw's fixation on the Palace of Culture and Science, the socialist skyscraper in a capitalist city

Who's a freedom-fighter now?

*For Konwicki's opinions on women and women's rights, see this interview from 1994 (Konwicki was then 68 years old): A Conversation with Tadeusz Konwicki By Dorota Sobieska

DS: My last question is really a set of questions about the portrait of women in your . . .

TK: Women are an element of beauty, loveliness, and pleasantness in the world. And many people, I don’t say all, need beauty in life. For some, valuables, trumpery, and golden glare are enough, but not for others. I talked about trees or the sky. A woman also, in her gesture, movements, silhouette, has something that makes a man stop, arrested, and look. Of course what I am saying is very old fashioned. Now we have “unisex,” and woman loses her femininity. Maybe this is a defense mechanism against excessive population. Something happened, and maybe it’s God’s gift, that women today have a different function, more utilitarian. For my generation, a woman was first of all a mystery. Secondly, she had her inscrutable dignity. And that is why for my generation, love was not just copulative acts but a whole big procedure, strife, the magic of winning this loveliness, this drop of beauty in our world, to use great words. I belong to the generation intrigued by women. To give a vulgar example, if I see beautiful women on our sidewalk, which is the New World Avenue, I, as an elderly man, look after her, unlike young men. So it’s a pity the magic place of women in our life got lost. We only have women friends, buddies, guardians, stepmothers, foster mothers. The world lost so much, but I suppose only for a while. As I said, together with Roitschwantz, if they dismiss one, they will accept a new one. If they lost their interest, then maybe they will soon start to love women hysterically.

DS: But from the point of view of American feminism . . .

TK: Why spoil this nice final note! Why look for what feminists. . . . I will tell you the truth. Feminists will die a natural death because they are ugly, ungainly, and won’t have children and will become extinct. And only beautiful girls will remain who will be feminists only so much as need be. Thank you, we have to go.

Note that even at this date he contrasts "Asiatic" (bad) with "European" (good):

It was the most unpleasant stay of all for me because Wilno was then {1956} completely Soviet, that is, an Asiatic city in which I recognized some architectonic traces dear to me. Even the natural surroundings were familiar. All of it, though, was swarming with Asiatics, this most unpleasant Russia, the czar’s, from the end of the nineteenth century. My impressions then were terrible. It seemed to me that it was a lost cause. Years later, in 1988, I was there because of my film “Lava,” which is based on Adam Mickiewicz’s “Forefathers,” and I saw Wilno a little recovered, in a somewhat better condition but still with obtrusive, importunate Russianness, which appears not only in the language, signs, clothes but in certain manners quite disagreeable to us. I was there a year later when I showed my “Lava” in the fall, and I saw a more Lithuanian city. On the streets one could see young Lithuanians perhaps even in the majority and could hear their language. Good-looking young people, with European aspirations, dressed like the rest of Europe.

Edited: Nov 10, 2019, 7:41pm

#51--I've read Konwicki four times--A dreambook for our time twice--A minor Apocalypse and The Polish Complex. The best of them is A minor apocalypse IMO. That said it's been at least 20 years since I read the last one so my memory of them are somewhat vague. Dreambook came from Daedalus Books in Washington DC--they use to sell literary remainders pretty cheap. That how I started with Konwicki though--I read the blurb--liked the book cover and went from there. It was a strange story revolving around a suicide prone survivor of the war between the Nazis and the Polish underground who wasn't finding life enjoyable in a post war Soviet satellite country.

In the Polish complex--it's more about the haves and have nots and the play of all that in a Soviet run society. I found it kind of boring to be honest. Actually even though I've read dreambook twice I wouldn't really recommend it. The main character is morose as all get out and the story really isn't that interesting.

Something of the same era/subject matter on the Polish side that I would recommend would be Kosinki's The painted bird. I've read that twice as well and that IMO is written with style and wit. It's a harrowing story but the narrator isn't morose. He is a survivor against all odds--actually I think there is a lot of auto-biographical in it. A lot of black comedy too.

Edited: Nov 11, 2019, 8:59am

More ranting and black humour. I don't think you could call Bernhard a nationalist, though, even though this book is full of (negative) claims of Austrian superiority. He's more of an anarchist misanthrope, perhaps, as well as being a writer who enjoyed getting mindlessly nationalistic Austrians riled-up enough to punch him...

Alte Meister (1985; Old Masters) by Thomas Bernhard (Austria, 1931-1989)


Atzbacher has been asked to meet his friend, the recently-widowed music critic Reger, in front of Tintoretto's White-bearded man in the Kunsthistorisches Museum at 11.30. He gets there early, spends 120 pages or so daydreaming, then they meet and Reger rants for most of the remaining 200 pages about what's wrong with the world, the arts, Austria and Vienna, in the best Bernhardian style. But then, two pages from the end of the book, Reger suddenly remembers the somewhat trivial reason why he asked Atzbacher to come.

Not a book to read if what you are after is a fast-moving action story, then, but you wouldn't expect that from Bernhard anyway. The ranting here is of the very finest quality, though, and the absurdity of the situation keeps us wanting to know more: why does this man who claims to hate all art, especially old art, choose to sit religiously in front of the Tintoretto three mornings a week for thirty years? Reger's diatribe is not only ludicrously and magnificently negative about everything (Vienna, it seems, has the dirtiest toilets, the most corrupt Catholic-National-Socialist judges, the most hypocritical politicians and the most mediocre writers and artists in Europe. Amongst other things...), but turns out to have been cunningly conceived to lead us into a very moving analysis of what it's like to lose the person who's been at the centre of your life for many years. Bernhard calls this book a comedy, but the distraught Reger's reaction to the death of his wife is obviously a fictional working-out of Bernhard's reaction to the death of his life-companion Hedwig Stavianicek in 1984. Only Bernhard could imagine a character who fights his way out of a near-terminal depression by reading Schopenhauer...

Nov 11, 2019, 11:25am

>53 thorold:

Love that book!

>52 lriley:

This was the first time I'd read Konwicki, I have a few more somewhere. I would recommend A minor apocalypse as an entertaining read, which is more than I could say about most "dissident" literature I've read.

I had so many thoughts yesterday connecting it to the current coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall but they all evaporated...

Nov 11, 2019, 12:04pm

>53 thorold: >54 LolaWalser: Yes, I can’t get over the way he pushes the reader further and further away from being able to sympathise with Reger and then suddenly pulls you back into the middle of his private pain with a totally unexpected modulation. All comes from stage technique, I suppose, but he gets away with it brilliantly.

Nov 11, 2019, 12:06pm

>55 thorold:

Hmm, I always sympathise with Bernhard's heroes but I accept I'm a weirdo. :)

Nov 11, 2019, 12:59pm

>56 LolaWalser: No, you're right, of course he does make us want to sympathise with Reger, but he also gives him opinions that make it more and more difficult for us to stick with him. Partly because they send themselves up (all that stuff about the Viennese only changing their underpants once a week), partly because he sneaks in attacks on cultural icons sacred even to most hardened iconoclasts (Beethoven, Velasquez, Goethe, ...). He wants us to be squirming in our seats as though we were trapped listening to a respected older family member going off the rails after a couple of glasses of Schnapps too many.

Nov 11, 2019, 1:31pm

>57 thorold:

I wonder... to me Bernhard's sting is not to be blunted by imagining his rage is in any measure a pose (or less rageful because of his sardonic humour), some petty attempt to épater the bourgeois. And the underpants thing is deadly serious--and true. No reflection on modern Austrians--but standards of personal hygiene are not, certainly have not been, one of the glories of the Catholic lands. It's a small detail in the picture, however, a passingly "concretized" flourish in his moral revulsion at the nation.

Nov 11, 2019, 9:24pm

#54--I would say the same. A minor Apocalypse is very very good. Much better than his Dreambook or Polish Complex. My favorites among Polish/Lithuanian writers--Zbigniew Herbert was an excellent poet--ditto for Wislawa Szymborska. I liked both better than Milosz. I think some of Stanislav Ignacy Witkiewicz's plays are extraordinarily good. I liked Kosinski's Painted Bird. Recently I read Olga Tokarczuk's Flights. That was really really good. The thousand hour day by W.S. Kuniczak is a WWII novel for people who like war novels--it's pretty much about Germany's invasion of Poland that set off WWII. For the genre of war novels it's very harrowing.

Nov 13, 2019, 5:53am

>58 LolaWalser: Yes, as always in satire, there's obviously a complicated relationship between the self-parody aspect and the real feeling behind it. I watched an old DVD a while ago with some TV interviews made around the time of Auslöschung, where he picks out his tendency to act the clown as one of his weaknesses as a writer (of course that might have been self-parody as well...).


Back to our recent Nobelist:

Flights (2007; English 2017) by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland, 1962- ) translated by Jennifer Croft (USA, Argentina, - )


This is more of a "typical postmodern novel" than Drive your plow — short, apparently unconnected sections with ironic chapter-headings, that are sometimes first-person observations in the author's persona, sometimes historical anecdotes, and sometimes (fragments of) conventional fictional narratives. Interspersed with reproductions of random-seeming old maps. It all seems to come together into one discussion about travel/movement/fugue and another about the human body as a physical object, the one centering on international air travel and the other on anatomical museums and their preserved specimens, and of course various ideas from the one cross over into the other.

Sometimes the subject-matter feels a little bit formulaic, but the way it's treated is always fresh and unexpected in detail, and it keeps you reading.

Nov 14, 2019, 2:15pm

I don't know why, but I simply can't get in sync with Handke's My year in the no-man's-bay; the sentences keep slipping out of my grasp. Truly weird experience, as there's nothing mysterious on the surface of it--a writer who is a compulsive traveller writes about half a dozen lifelong friends, an ex, his son (as far as I can tell this is all autobiographical, although no names are mentioned except very occasionally for the son, Valentin, and the son's mother, Ana).

Being autobiographical, that is following the humdrum channels of all human destiny, you might think it would be easier to understand, and yet on every page I found myself wondering what the hell was that about.

I did manage to like the segment about the woman friend who up and goes off unaccompanied on foot and by boat down the coast of Turkey etc., and has no patience for expressions of compassion--if there is something she can do to help she does it immediately, otherwise she doesn't dwell on trouble--but mostly, this was for me an unsettlingly alienating read, as if the more he wrote about these people--to say nothing of himself--the more distant and impenetrable they became.

But, there was one short, crystal-clear bit that found me, hit me right "at home", so that I'll note (with apologies to pure readers for being such a self-serving mercenary):

As a young person I suffered from Austria--I use this expression advisedly--and thought I was the only one, discovering only later: many suffered. Yes, we suffered from Austria, and differently from the way I imagined a German suffering from his Germany. That a person then became head of state who represented to a T the outlines of our perhaps half-forgotten youthful suffering brought all this back and at the same time made it obvious that this was a suffering without hope, for life.

If you don't suffer from your country you probably won't get this.

(That head of state: Kurt Waldheim)

Nov 27, 2019, 5:00am

>61 LolaWalser: Probably an over-generalisation, but it does sometimes seem that Austrian writers are at their best when they are attacking what Austria is now, whilst Germans are most comfortable exposing the sins of earlier generations.
(I can think of plenty of exceptions, but it works for some of the most famous writers...)


Another famous Hungarian — I read this one in Dutch because that was what came to hand first:

Reis bij Maanlicht (1937; Dutch 2004; Utas és holdvilág/Journey by moonlight/The traveler) by Antal Szerb (Hungary, 1901-1945) translated from Hungarian to Dutch by Györgyi Dandoy


Antal Szerb seems to have been best-known in his own time as a literary scholar and promoter of Hungarian literature, but he was also an anglophile (Hungarian translator of P.G. Wodehouse!) and a keen traveller in Italy, interests that come out in the subjects of his two novels. Because of his Jewish descent he was forced out of academia in the 1930s; he was killed in a concentration camp in 1945.

Journey by moonlight sometimes reads like Where angels fear to tread as rewritten by someone brought up in the spirit of German romanticism. Mihály is an emotionally-troubled young man who after years of drifting has tried to anchor himself in the bourgeois "real world" by marrying Erszi. Unfortunately, she has married him largely for the opposite reason: she is looking for a Tyger to drag her away from boring respectability. So it's perhaps not such a surprise that when, a week or so into their Italian honeymoon, Mihály accidentally gets on the wrong train and loses touch with his new bride, he doesn't make any great effort to find her again.

Mihály is still carrying around a lot of emotional baggage from his claustrophobic teenage friendships with a group of avant-la-lettre goths, addicted to role-playing games and death-imagery. In the meantime one of them has taken his own life (or possibly been murdered), another has become a Franciscan friar, another has adopted the persona of a wheeler-dealer crook, and only Éva, the girl they were all (including her brother) in love with, seems to have turned out halfway normal.

Lots of glorious Italian tourist-trail atmosphere, hardly spoilt by the posters of Mussolini on every wall, lots of romantic longing and fantasising about death, but all set off against common-sense reality with a delightfully ironic detachment. As in Forster, the Italian zest for life is set up in opposition to northern melancholy and over-analytical thinking, but unlike Forster he's clear that work and business belong on the "life" side of the scales, together with sex and pasta, whilst art and love and (mystical-)religion are classified with the other death-wish items.


This is another one I found out about through rebeccanyc : her review is here http://www.librarything.com/work/10100/reviews/107010054

Edited: Nov 28, 2019, 9:32am

>2 spiphany:, Poland

late to the discussion

interesting tidbits:

Witold Gombrowicz spent much of his literary career exiled in Buenos Aires where he became an active member of the literary scene there.

Bruno Schultz appears as a a main character in the brilliant novella, The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick.

Additionally Philip Roth helped re-introduce him to Western readers in his Writers From the Other Europe, a fantastic collection of middle European writers.

Nov 28, 2019, 9:49am

>16 LolaWalser:

I believe Zweig helped support both Joseph Roth and Walter Benjamin when their income wavered. Roth's Wandering Jews depicts both the outsiderism and the assimilation of Austrian and other mid European Jews. He foresaw what was coming years before Hitler.

Nov 28, 2019, 10:01am


Jerzey Kozinski's Cockpit was a fun romp of a read, and Being There is a modern classic. Another writer whose reputation has suffered but whose work will endure.

Nov 28, 2019, 10:04am

my LT review of Wandering Jews

The Wandering Jews by Joseph Roth

Known best for his classic novel about the Austria-Hungary Empire, The Redetsky March, Joseph Roth was first and foremost known for his journalistic reports about the state of Europe following the first Great War.

In The Wandering Jews his reports about the state of the Jewish people in Eastern and Western Europe is well documented. From the shtetls of Poland to the streets of Paris and the quarantines of Ellis Island the journeys and lives of the common Jew and the assimilated German Jews are portrayed.

In the first chapter, “Eastern European Jews in the West” while important to frame the time and environment within which he wrote this book, it is rather lengthy and thus boring, for the task at hand. It would have easily been addressed in ½ the time but why quibble, for what follows explodes off the page; in the richness of description and the wisdom of observation he captures all the intricacies of activities and personalities that persist within the Jewish communities of Eastern and Western Europe.

From the muddy streets of the shtetl to the boulevards of Berlin and Paris he reports on the unique qualities of the Jewish people, their history and tradition and the blind eye the German Jews turned on their own kind only to then be caught up in the horrors of the Nuremberg Laws and what followed.

“…The German Jew had grown arrogant. He had lost the God of his fathers and acquired an idol instead: the idol of civilzatory patriotism. But God had not forgotten him. And he sent him on his wanderings, a tribulation that is appropriate to Jews, and to all others besides. Lest we forget that nothing in this world endures, not even a home; and that our life is short, shorter even than the life of the elephant, the crocodile, and the crow. Even parrots outlive us”.

His reports were probably among the first to foretell the coming Holocaust and the damage it left in its wake for both the Jewish people and their tormentors.

Dec 1, 2019, 10:57am

>64 berthirsch:

He foresaw what was coming years before Hitler.

Yes, Roth did (Zweig, not so much...) Btw, I was pointing out the difference their backgrounds made to their respective outlooks, with no reflection on how much contact individuals from those backgrounds might have, in case that wasn't clear. In the literary world of the time in particular, it seems everyone "knew" everyone else. Oh and yes, Zweig seems to have been a very kind and generous person.

>62 thorold:

I've loved all I've read of Szerb's fiction so far and, most recently, a collection of essays Reflections in the Library (my tags record as subjects Blake, Milton, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Rousseau, Don Juan, Stefan George, Ibsen, Cervantes, Chesterton, Katherine Mansfield, Gogol, Proust, Thomas Mann). They have a special charm in that they introduce and describe as much as analyse some authors for the Hungarian public who would not have been familiar (very) with them. There's a freshness and a passion to these essays that makes them timeless. Apparently he was quite an Anglophile, but not that shallow snobby sort; rather, he combined curiosity, sympathy, respect and amusement in his gaze (I think it comes across beautifully in The Pendragon Legend).

Words can't express how much was lost...

Btw, I think there are many more editions of Szerb in German, important especially regarding the non-fiction--I also think the German edition of the essays contains more, plus there is other non-fiction (frankly the English translation was much cheaper, but no doubt I'll come around to dropping a hundred bucks on two paperbacks yet--been watching them for years...)

Dec 1, 2019, 2:34pm

#63--my two favorite works by Gombrowicz are Cosmos and Possessed both of which (at least as I imagined when I read them) were set in Poland and I really really like both. Most of his other books I'm more lukewarm towards though.

Dec 1, 2019, 6:19pm

>67 LolaWalser: The library hasn’t got Reflections in the library, unfortunately, but I had a look on BOL and saw that the German edition has 280 pages vs. 160 in English, so you’re probably right. That can’t all be editorial material, can it? I risked €20 on a secondhand copy of the German one, anyway...

Dec 3, 2019, 3:00pm

Milan Kundera is Czech again — as a citizen, not necessarily as a writer.


“I wonder if our notion of home isn’t, in the end, an illusion, a myth. I wonder if we are not victims of that myth. I wonder if our ideas of having roots – d’être enraciné – is simply a fiction we cling to,” he said, adding that he had made the choice between living “like an émigré in France or like an ordinary person who happens to write books”.

“Do I consider my life in France as a replacement, a substitute life, and not a real life? Do I say to myself: ‘Your real life is in Czechoslovakia, among your old countrymen’? … Or do I accept my life in France – here where I really am – as my real life and try to live it fully? I chose France,” he said.

Dec 4, 2019, 9:23am

>69 thorold: ...oops! Should have checked more carefully. It turns out that I ordered In der Bibliothek, which is actually the short story collection Szerelem a palackban (Love in a bottle). I thought I was getting Gedanken in der Bibliothek (Gondolatok a könyvtárban /Reflections in the library)

Oh well, no harm done, I'll read that as well...

Dec 4, 2019, 1:27pm

>71 thorold:

Oh no, I wish I had thought to quote the exact title... argh.

Speaking of Czechs, this is unorthodox, but I can't resist linking a movie (whole feature, good resolution), Karel Kachyňa's 1966 Coach to Vienna: Kočár do Vídně | celý film | Česká filmová klasika

Please take a look at least at the first few minutes--it has one of the most beautiful, eerie openings ever. The dialogue is minimal and almost entirely in German but there are no subtitles, HOWEVER, I would bet it's gripping regardless of this.

The plot: a Czech peasant woman is forced at gunpoint to transport two German (in fact Austrian) soldiers, one wounded and barely speaking, out of the forest onto the road to Vienna. Almost a fairy tale. But they don't know her husband had been hanged by the Germans only the night before. She is out for revenge.

The movie's release was delayed in Czechoslovakia due to the unflattering portrayal of Czech partisans (who appear at the end and kill the soldier and rape the woman).

Dec 4, 2019, 4:05pm

>72 LolaWalser: Not your fault, both were in the list, one clearly labelled “Erzählungen” and the other “Essays” — I must have got distracted by the one with the shorter title being half the price.

Dec 4, 2019, 4:19pm

>73 thorold:

How well I understand you! :)

Dec 5, 2019, 6:12am

Meanwhile, I found this half-finished on the TBR and read the last few stories. I originally meant to read it as part of the speculative fiction theme-read, but it can also be filed under "Austria", of course.

Eliza Eliza (1965) by Ilse Aichinger (Austria, 1921-2016)


When her twin sister was sent to England in a Kindertransport, Ilse Aichinger stayed in Vienna with her Jewish mother: her traumatic experiences as a teenage unperson in her own city formed the basis for her famous novel Die größere Hoffnung (Herod's Children, 1948), which brought her within the orbit of Gruppe 47. However, she seems to have lost faith in large-scale prose works after that, and spent the rest of her writing career on radio plays and short, but highly-prized, essays and prose pieces.

Meine Sprache und ich, wir reden nicht miteinander, wir haben uns nichts zu sagen.

This was Aichinger's second collection of "stories" (Erzählungen), but you shouldn't expect actual narratives. They are surreal, dream-like flights of fancy, in which words, most of them very concrete, often domestic or agricultural in range, seem to be chosen with a calculated randomness so that sentences make short-range sense but fight against every attempt our minds make to impose some kind of long-range order or message or symbolism onto them. There are giants, like the milkmaid of St Louis, and dwarves, like the infantry who accompany Diogenes on his journey; there is a gigantic fan in the title story; there are hares who decide after living for many generations in the sandy bay of Port Sing to mount an expedition to the (unexplained and inexplicable) Sacred Mountain, and so on. Random travel seems to be a recurrent theme: a farmer in search of weather proverbs sails from Brittany to Western Scotland, goes thence by rocket to Utah, and ends up by the sacred river in Mecca. But there are theories, the narrator points out, that Mecca is not on a sacred river. Tell that to the crocodiles.

In the late story "Meine Sprache und ich", the narrator's language becomes a character in her own right, the two of them are travelling over various frontiers together, and it is the language, not the narrator, who appears suspect to the border guards. Aichinger seems to have had a deep-rooted and growing distrust for language herself, and she constantly feels the need to challenge assumptions about words and their meanings and associations. The stories are wonderfully disorienting and disturbing, but it doesn't do to read too many at once, or you end up like a visitor to a giant gallery of abstract art...


I read this in the original 1965 hardback edition. When I checked against the volume Eliza Eliza: Erzählungen 2 in Aichinger's Complete Works (2015), I saw that there are four post-1965 stories included there: "Die Rampenmaler", "Ajax", "Die Geschwister Jouet" and "Meine Sprache und ich".
All these stories also appeared in the collections Nachricht vom Tag (1970) and Meine Sprache und ich (1978).

Dec 5, 2019, 11:08am

And another prominent Hungarian. I read and very much enjoyed Szabó's The door about 18 months ago:

Katalin Street (1969) by Magda Szabó (Hungary, 1917-2007) translated by Len Rix (UK, Zimbabwe, 1942- )


Three families live side-by-side in a prosperous middle-class idyll between the Castle and the river in Pest in the mid-1930s. It's always summer, the four children are constantly in and out of each other's gardens, and the three girls are all, in their different ways, in love with Bálint. Then comes the war, and everything changes...

Szabó plays around with time, space and narrative voice to commit us to her characters before we have quite worked out what it is that has happened between them, and she leaves a lot of key words unsaid (but all the more powerfully present precisely because we know they ought to be there): maybe that was a strategy that was originally imposed on her by the need to beat the censor. But it also means that the different external forces that operate in the book — Nazis, the Red Army, Stalinists, the rebels of 1956 — are oddly undifferentiated from each other, and we are brought in to a close-up view of what is happening in the relations between people rather than being allowed to think about the big outside events that may be causing them. Parents and children, siblings, good and bad reasons for lovers to come together, jealousy, obsession, distraction: it's all there, and all quite frightening in its simplicity.

Dec 5, 2019, 11:20am

>72 LolaWalser: Karel Kachyňa's 1966 Coach to Vienna

Thanks for that! Very beautiful and chilling, amazingly economical filming. And an eccentric but very effective (church-) organ soundtrack. Jaromír Hanzlík (Hans) didn't sound very Viennese, but that didn't really matter. The horses stole the show, of course...

And now we know that the Czech for "Whoa!" is "RRRrrrrrrr!"

Dec 5, 2019, 2:25pm

The link in >72 LolaWalser: had English subtitles when I clicked it. Quite a film.
>77 thorold: I’m going to practice that “RRRrrrrrrr!" in case I ever find myself conversing with the head of state of my country and desperately want it to stop.

Dec 5, 2019, 2:26pm

>77 thorold:

Glad you liked it! What, so Horse isn't a universal language? :) I think I've seen the "stop sign" written as "prrr..." And "go" is the palatal click or something like that (like "ts" but produced against the upper palate).

Iva Janžurová's performance was magnificent on that account too, how she handled the horses, the carriage--just amazing.

>75 thorold:

Meine Sprache und ich, wir reden nicht miteinander, wir haben uns nichts zu sagen.

Terrible, isn't it. I can't help thinking of Celan, if that was similar to his condition... There can be no greater abandonment before death, to be expelled not just from a place and a community, but language itself, to feel your own language hating you, being turned against you.

I note that Len Rix is also the translator of Szerb in the Pushkin Press editions.

Dec 5, 2019, 2:29pm

>78 dypaloh:

Oh wow, I thought I looked! It's great to hear you watched it, I'm so glad.

Dec 5, 2019, 3:39pm

>78 dypaloh: I expect the Queen has already tried that with your head of state...

>79 LolaWalser:
- RRRrrrrrrr vs PRRrrrrrrr — there could have been a plosive at the beginning, it was hard to tell. There is usually a conventional literary way of writing this sort of thing that doesn’t necessarily correspond exactly to real usage. Anyway, Iva Janžurová said it beautifully!

- Aichinger — maybe more ambiguous than Celan. She doesn’t seem to have liked the idea of being defined only by her wartime experience, and claimed that her quarrel was with the whole modern world and its lack of Zusammenhänge. But she did go on being a writer, even though she wrote less and less (and claimed she would have liked to rewrite her novel as a single sentence).

- Len Rix — he translated both the Szabó novels I’ve read, really excellent, natural-sounding translations. After he left Zimbabwe he was head of English at a school that my school had quite a lot to do with, but I don’t remember coming across him. We didn’t necessarily overlap, of course.

Dec 7, 2019, 2:05pm

For a change, a present-day Austrian writer who demonstrates that there's still a market for the well-made bourgeois novel. I enjoyed Arno Geiger's family-saga-novel Es geht uns gut three years ago and picked this one up in a charity shop a few months later. This one hasn't been translated yet, as far as I can tell, but a couple of his other novels have been:

Alles über Sally (2010) by Arno Geiger (Austria, 1968- )


Sally and Alfred have been together for about 25 years, with respectable jobs, three children nearly grown-up, and a house in the Vienna suburbs. Their marriage starts to go through a rather rocky patch when Alfred falls into a kind of mini-depression after their house is burgled, and Sally, always the more dynamic of the two, finds it hard to cope with his passivity.

Geiger explores with a mixture of slightly-barbed irony and affectionate humour some of the peculiar forms a long-term relationship between two people can take, and the ways it develops over the course of time. The book is structured as a rather conventional bourgeois-realistic novel, but there's always a slightly knowing literary jokiness just below the surface as well. Sally likes to retire to her private space in the attic, for instance, where one of the unread books Geiger has placed conspicuously on her bedside table is a biography of Marlen Haushofer. Or at another point we get an unexpectedly-transposed version of Molly Bloom's monologue...

As in Es geht uns gut, one of the things that struck me about the writing here is how comfortable Geiger seems to be writing from a female point-of-view: in fact his women characters seem to be much more solid and three-dimensional than the men. Although it does verge slightly on the voyeuristic at times — there didn't seem to be any real need for both of Sally's daughters to be naked the first time we met them.

Pleasant, intelligent writing, but nothing very challenging.

Dec 8, 2019, 12:20pm

Szerb again.
(This has been quite a Hungarian day: I also went to hear the Rotterdam Phil playing Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra this afternoon. But I'm not having goulash for supper...)

The Pendragon legend (1934) by Antal Szerb (Hungary, 1901-1945) translated by Len Rix (UK, Zimbabwe, 1942- )


This novel was the slightly frivolous by-product of a year Szerb spent doing research in Britain for his work on literary history. It's a bizarre and very entertaining pastiche of half a dozen genres of popular literature, especially gothic novels, murder mysteries and John Buchan/Dornford Yates thrillers.

The narrator, János Bákty, is a Hungarian scholar, working on 17th century English mystics in the British Museum Reading Room and a little bit less wise in the ways of the world than he thinks he is, who accidentally gets an introduction to the reclusive Earl of Gwynedd, and is invited to come and have a look at some interesting books in the library at Pendragon Castle.

As is only right and proper, he gets an anonymous phone call warning him not to go, and shortly before setting off for Wales he meets a Suspiciously Friendly Stranger and a Femme Fatale who both happen to be heading that way as well. Evidently he has unwittingly got mixed up in something dangerous...

Things continue with strange occurrences in the middle of the night, ghostly horsemen, stolen manuscripts, secret passages, Rosicrucians, desperate dashes over the mountains in bad weather, a kidnapping, the narrator failing to spot glaringly obvious clues, sexual temptation, and in short just about everything you would want from an adventure story (apart from a proper car chase, perhaps).

There are Dornford-Yates-like levels of crass sexism, but it's transparently there as a joke at the narrator's expense:
... no woman has ever yet taken an interest in an intellectual matter for its own sake. Either she wants to woo the man by a display of attention, or she is seeking to improve her mind, which is even worse. ... But the instant I gauged her true intellectual merit something was released inside me, and I became aware again of how young she was, and how lovely. I can never feel much attraction to a woman whom I consider clever—it feels too much like courting a man. But once I had realised she was just another sweet little gosling, I began to woo her in earnest.

I particularly enjoyed the beefy German woman-of-action, Lene, an Oxford undergraduate who uses Emil und die Detektive as a practical guide to detective work, and has set herself the apparently impossible task of getting an effete upper-class Englishman to have sex with her. (Ultra-violence turns out to be the answer...)

There are all sorts of scholarly allusions and obscure jokes, as you would expect. I was a bit puzzled by the name of the village where Pendragon Castle is situated, Llanvygan. As there's no "v" in the Welsh alphabet, I was starting to suspect that it must be some kind of Hungarian counterpart to Llareggub. But Googling it turns up someone who speculates that it might be meant as an archaic spelling of "Llanfeugan", which would be the church of St Meugan, an early British saint of dubious authenticity sometimes said to have Arthurian connections. However, for the same money you could go further: Wikipedia suggests that variant spellings of Meugan include Mawgan and Machan. Could this be a jokey reference to Arthur Machen buried so deep that only a philologist could find it? Nothing I've learnt about Szerb could rule that sort of thing out...

Great fun, and it does make you think a bit about some of the conventions of sensational fiction.

Dec 8, 2019, 12:30pm

>67 LolaWalser: etc. Gedanken in der Bibliothek has come. Apart from an introduction by András Horn, the essays in it are:
- Stefan George (1926)
- Der Hofmann (Baldassare Castiglione) (1927)
- Ibsen (1928)
- Blake (1928)
- Präromantik (J-J Rousseau) (1929)
- Dulcinea (Cervantes) (1936)
- Gogol (1944)

...More when I've read it!

Dec 8, 2019, 1:26pm

>83 thorold:

Whew, glad to hear you found it fun. This makes me want to reread it...

>84 thorold:

So you splurged on books again! Hmm, let's see--I don't remember anything about Castiglione, but isn't that actually fewer essays... Weird. Maybe there are more but shortened essays in the English edition? Don't recall specifically... I'll need to consult my tome--right now I'm in the middle of shifting hills of books again to clear up pathways for the filter people next week.

I'm behind on about a hundred books but pressed by library deadlines I started and finished in a couple days another Handke, The Great Fall. I liked it better than the other one, some parts and aspects of it even extraordinarily so--the stockbroker collecting blackberries in the forest and his silent death in the bushes is a piece of writing I wish to remember forever--but I find myself incapable of summing it up. It's not just that it's open to multiple interpretations, but that it seems to insist on the multiplicity in the eyes of the single reader. The prose doesn't let you think "this is a story about...", or "allegory", or "clearly the forest is a metaphor", nor is it a question of something working on "both levels". Perhaps it doesn't work on any level. Perhaps it's an expression of mood, the despair at the great falling of things, or a stance, an antagonism to society (as it is, or the present, or civilization).

I think part of my problem is that I get confused looking for "explanations" in the real-life writer's persona--hard to resist when the autobiographical recurrently coincides with the narrative--again we have here "the woman", "the son"--the woman offering more than can be responded to, the son absent on far away travels, etc.

Frankly I don't feel I've read this book, just been introduced to it.

Dec 9, 2019, 4:59am


Nobel Winner Tokarczuk avoids press interest by giving speech just before someone more controversial.

Dec 9, 2019, 11:12am

"Ich hasse Meinungen"

"Spiele das Spiel. Sei nicht die Hauptperson. Such die Gegenüberstellung. Aber sei absichtslos. Vermeide die Hintergedanken. Verschweige nichts", zitierte Handke aus dem 1981 erschienenen Drama Über die Dörfer, das von einem Konflikt zwischen drei Geschwistern und dessen friedlicher Lösung handelt. "Der ewige Friede ist möglich", zitierte Handke die Figur Nova.

Dec 9, 2019, 11:13am

La ballade d'Iza by Magda Szabó, translated by Tibor Tardös, revised by Chantal Philippe and Suzanne Canard

Writer’s gender: Female
Writer’s nationality: Hungarian
Original language: Hungarian
Translated into: French
Location: A small town in the Hungarian Plain and Budapest
First published in 1963

Ettie is a provincial old lady. When her salt-of-the-Earth husband Vince dies, her daughter Iza takes charge and moves her to her flat in Budapest. Everybody agrees that Ettie is so lucky to have such a caring daughter, who’s also a successful doctor in Budapest no less! But the thing is, she’s also incredibly bossy and has no emotional intelligence. Uprooted from all that she knows, Ettie starts to fade away. Szabó is a master of the psychological novel. It was both an uncomfortable read for me – Ettie reminded me of my grandmother’s last years which were definitely not happy – and a comforting read, as I feel I have gained in understanding and empathy.

Dec 17, 2019, 4:09am

>84 thorold: As discussed above, I read this in German because that version was both cheaper and more easily obtainable for me: the theory that it might have more essays in it than the English translation turned out to be mistaken, but never mind, I enjoyed it anyway:

Gedanken in der Bibliothek : Essays über die Literaturen Europas (1946; Gondolatok a könyvtárban / Reflections in the library) by Antal Szerb (Hungary, 1901-1945), edited and translated to German by András Horn


A collection of Szerb's essays was published in Hungary as Gondolatok a könyvtárban in 1946, shortly after his death. Later expanded editions appeared in the seventies, and there are various translations which all seem to have picked different subsets of essays, presumably those most likely to appeal to readers in that market. The German edition I read contains the following essays:
- Stefan George (1926)
- Der Hofmann (Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano) (1927)
- Ibsen (1928)
- William Blake (1928)
- Pre-romanticism (only the section about Jean-Jacques Rousseau) (1929)
- Dulcinea (Cervantes) (1936)
- Gogol (1944)

The first two essays between them take up more than half the book, and are very theoretical in their approach, with little detailed reference to the actual texts they are meant to be talking about — they show an amazing confidence, maturity and breadth of knowledge for a writer who was still only in his mid-twenties, and they expect the same sort of intellectual agility from the reader. Szerb sets out some big ideas about political and philosophical history, taking as his starting point the idea that European civilisation was at its best and brightest in the organically catholic and Catholic society of the early renaissance, before that nasty Martin Luther came along and infected us all with self-consciousness and individual responsibility. Which is fine if you see humans as a sophisticated form of social insects, but a bit hard to get your head around otherwise...

The remainder of the book is a little more down-to-earth. All the books he is talking about are clearly ones that he cares about very deeply: even with Rousseau, a thinker it's easy to blame for all kinds of evils in his own life and in his influence over others, Szerb's starting point is the enormous pleasure he got from reading the first volume of the Confessions. He also, only half-frivolously, credits Rousseau with demolishing the (malign) predominance of French culture in Europe — and with starting the Swiss tourist industry.

The Blake piece is much the most detailed, as Szerb is writing for Hungarian readers who are unlikely to have much idea who Blake was or why he matters. By the time they've read this, they'll be writing off for copies of the prophetic books. In between a compact biography and a description of his emotional response to Blake's writings, Szerb sneaks in a swift Freudian analysis of the origins of the prophetic writings as well.

The Cervantes essay is probably the most enjoyable. On the surface it's as a study of a character (Dulcinea) who doesn't actually appear in the book (as far as we know...), but in reality it is there to show us just how deeply Cervantes upset conventional ideas of how narrative works and thoroughly deserves to be thought of as the inventor of the novel. And every line is full of Szerb's love of the book.

Dec 17, 2019, 5:11am

>89 thorold: P.S. I didn't mention the Ibsen essay, but I was struck by Szerb's remark there that most of Ibsen's social campaigning, especially his feminism, is attacking points that are no longer at issue "today" (in 1928, that is). Hmmm.
But his other main point, that we should take Ibsen's "symbols" as literal representations of what is going on in his characters' subconscious, is a bit more useful. And it's fun to watch how he gets us deep into psychoanalysis without ever using the F-word or the J-word...

Dec 17, 2019, 2:57pm

Wouldn't be the first (or the last) time people prematurely saw progress, but it's surprising how advanced the twenties may appear from some angles. It was the decade of emancipation, followed by nearly fifty years of backlash.

American bankers killed us in 1929 and then again in 2009. The difference being that in 1929 there was just the one unstable Weimar Republic and one Hitler and today there are many...

Thinking about Szerb's interest in Blake I recalled a strange contemporary of his, the mystagogue Béla Hamvas--but it's unlikely they had met, and Szerb almost certainly couldn't have read Hamvas... the inverse, however, is quite possible.

Dec 18, 2019, 3:53am

Did you see this article in the Guardian: Islands in the illiberal storm: central European cities vow to stand together?
The mayors of four central European capitals signed a so-called “Pact of Free Cities” in Budapest on Monday, vowing to stand together against populist national governments in the region.

Budapest’s mayor Gergely Karácsony was joined by his counterparts from Warsaw, Prague and Bratislava to sign the document, which promised to promote the “common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance and cultural diversity”.

It warmed my heart (in a "oh, people are less worse than I thought" way)... They would also like to receive money straight from Brussels, bypassing their national governments who keep siphoning it off...

Dec 18, 2019, 3:28pm

Vienna in 1900. And more (not sure whether to file this under gossip, music or literature...):

Mein Leben (1960) by Alma Mahler-Werfel (Austria, 1879-1964)


As a little girl, Alma Schindler travelled around the Adriatic on a ship specially chartered by Crown-Prince Rudolf to take her father to the scenic parts of the Habsburg dominions he had commissioned him to paint. A few years later she was studying composition with Zemlinsky (one of her fellow-students being Arnold Schönberg), being pursued by Gustav Klimt and receiving crates of books from Max Burckhard. Then she met the newly-appointed director of the Hofoper, a certain Gustav Mahler, and reader, she married him...

...and that would have been enough for most people, but Mahler died in 1911 when Alma was only just in her early thirties. We've still got to fit in a stormy affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka, a wartime marriage (and peacetime divorce) with Walter "Bauhaus" Gropius, and what seems to have been the most important relationship in her life, with the writer Franz Werfel, whom she started living with whilst still married to Gropius, and eventually married in 1929. And of course there's a lot of European cultural and political history to get through in that time too. Modernism, the Great War and its aftermath, the rise of fascism, antisemitism (Alma was from a patrician Austrian background, whilst both Mahler and Werfel were of Jewish descent), the path into exile at the start of the war, the German exile community in transit (or in Transit) in Marseille, Los Angeles in the days when it was Vienna-on-the-Pacific, and so on.

Alma seems to have known absolutely everyone. Everyone who was anyone in music, of course, as well as writers, painters, politicians, actors; not just Austrians and Germans, but French (Ravel spending inordinate amounts of time making himself beautiful in her bathroom), Italians (Margherita Sarfatti, whom Alma tried to persuade to found an international league of fascists against antisemitism), British (she met Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in America and they became firm friends; there's also a magnificent cameo appearance by GBS in Venice), Irish (a glorious snapshot of James Joyce and Franz Werfel on a pub-crawl in Paris), Americans (the appalling Mr and Mrs Upton Sinclair, who committed the sin against good taste of installing a stairlift), and so on... Not everyone gets a mention, though: Alma is unsurprisingly coy about her friendships with prominent Austrian fascist sympathisers like Anton Rintelen, and there are a few unexplained absences from the index, like Elias Canetti, who was a regular visitor to her Vienna house.

As you would expect, these memoirs are not entirely frank, and you can probably get a more detailed list of Alma's lovers and their chronological overlaps on Wikipedia, if that's what you're after. Since she'd written another book about her time with Mahler, that part of her life is treated in a very condensed way here, and she also doesn't say very much about Gropius, who was still alive at the time of writing and whom she had treated rather badly. In 1915 she suddenly tells us that she's decided to marry him, with only a vague mention that she'd known him earlier (in reality, they had a holiday affair in 1910 that led to a serious crisis in her marriage with Mahler). And he fades out of the book just as quickly, once Werfel arrives.

Something that amused me was to see how Alma's attitude to Richard and Pauline Strauss had changed since the earlier book, where they are portrayed quite nastily, as Bavarian buffoons and terrible misers. Twenty years later, she's expressing great respect for his music and admiration for his friendship and support of Mahler's music. And she has apparently seen the point of Pauline, who makes a very strong team with her husband in private life, however clumsy and tactless she may be in public. (But Richard is still made to talk in comic Bavarian dialect...)

Alma as a mother is tricky to get hold of in this book. Obviously it must have marked her that only one of her four children survived into adulthood: when she's writing about her daughter Manon, who died of polio at eighteen, it sounds sincere and very moving, and she does keep coming back to her feelings about that, but at other times she seems to be able to go for fifty or sixty pages at a stretch without mentioning any of her children, and she often seems to have parked Anna and Manon somewhere whilst she went off on her travels. Of course, in some ways, she really still was an upper-class woman of the late nineteenth century, however much she asserted her right to be taken seriously as an intellectual in her own right and associated with modernists. You just need to look at what she says about her "servant problems" in Beverly Hills to remind yourself of the cultural gap between her and us...

Lively and fun in a highbrow-voyeuristic sort of way, if you don't mind being buried in an avalanche of dropped names. Very interesting if you want some background to Werfel's novels; if you want to know more about Mahler, read the other book.

Edited: Dec 23, 2019, 5:42pm

In My Father's Court by Isaac Bashevis Singer

In My Father’s Court is Isaac Bashevis Singer's memoir about his childhood in Poland in the years leading up to, and during, World War One. Singer’s father was a Hasidic rabbi and the court of the title was the Beth Din, the traditional court in the Singers' home to which community members came to have their divorces, lawsuits and other disputes arbitrated and their questions about Jewish holy books and law answered and illuminated. As Singer wrote in his Author’s Note to his book, “The Beth Din could exist only among a people with a deep faith and humility, and it reached its apex among the Jews when there were completely bereft of worldly power and influence.”

The book is presented as a series of short vignettes, each from five to seven pages in length, told more or less in chronological order, with Singer’s narrative evolving as the small boy begins to grow and to question his surroundings. In the early remembrances, the perspective is kept very tightly on his father’s fierce devotion to God and to Jewish biblical and rabbinical law, custom and mysticism. The tales told are about the people who arrive in the Singers' home, what their problems are, and how his father deals with them. There is a somewhat otherworldly glow about it all, the result, I thought, of Singer’s representing the viewpoint of a small and overawed boy as well as the effect of the author’s journey back through decades of his life.

Soon enough, however, the outside world begins gradually to intrude. The family moves from a small town to the crowded streets of a Jewish Warsaw slum. Next come rumors and then the realities of World War One, with its uncertainties and sharp deprivations. Singer’s older brother becomes more worldly, and young Isaac begins asking questions himself and longing for information about the outside world. Zionism and socialism begin to be discussed among the young, further eroding the hold of the old ways over the community as a whole.

Also, about halfway through, Singer begins dropping in reminders of what we all know will be the ultimate fate of this community. The chapter “Reb Asher the Dairyman” ends thusly:

“After we had left Warsaw (during the First World War), we continued to hear news of him from time to time. One son died, a daughter fell in love with a young man of low origins and Asher was deeply grieved. I do not know whether he lived to see the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. He probably died before that. But such Jews as he were dragged off to Treblinka. May these memoirs serve as a monument to him and his like, who lived in sanctity and died as martyrs.”

The reader is brought up sharply by this passage, because it is the first time Singer raises his focused view from the era he's describing to the greater disasters awaiting. After that, though, perhaps every third tale ends with a notation about the fate of one or more figures in the coming whirlwind.

The stories are all told with affection, humor, with a delightful touch for detail and phrasing. Throughout, we experience Singer’s deep love and respect for the faith of his father and grandfathers, of their longing for the coming of the Messiah, and of their certainty that this miracle will only occur if Jews hold firmly to the path laid out for them by their God. Petty disputes are interlaced with genuine compassion. As Singer’s father often says of the poorest wretch who comes to his chamber, “Who knows? She may be a hidden saint, one of heaven’s elect.”

Dec 30, 2019, 8:43pm

The door by Magda Szabó

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve heard nothing but good things about this novel, but know very little about it going in.

Review (Also posted here.)
Absent-minded and non-practical writer Magda, who has more than a few echoes of author Magda Szabó, hires elderly housekeeper Emerence, who is doggedly herself and refuses to compromise. Both women are diametric opposites in many respects: Magda is a politically active writer, but she is quick to give in, doesn’t speak up and lets everyday things happen to her; Emerece is a barely-literate who never rests, who even sleeps sitting up, and who has her unshakeable habits, which she is firmly convinced are the only way to live. Her bull-headed insistence on interacting with people on her own terms is enforced through sheer force of character. For a character she is: secretive, but known to all in the neighbourhood, and they are protective of her like a local semi-tame cat.

I found this novel to be strangely compelling. There really is not much to it, just the relationship between two women who are unlike each other, and the fascinating portrait of working class intransigence. But the development of the central friendship is captivating in a way I find hard to express in words. Much of the novel’s hypnotizing force, I think, rests on it feeling more like an autobiography or a character study than narrative fiction -- perhaps even a confession and a meditation on shame.

The door is not my usual cup of tea, but I’m glad I got to read it. It’s a book I’ll be turning over in my head from time to time.

Dec 31, 2019, 3:04am

>95 Petroglyph: I enjoyed your review! I can see from the book cover that Ali Smith wrote the introduction. That seems fitting!

I don't have the time or energy to write reviews for the books I read for this theme, but I'll list and star them before the end of the year.

Dec 31, 2019, 6:16am

Here's my breakdown for this theme:

Stefan Zweig - La Confusion des sentiments / Confusion: The Private Papers of Privy Councillor R. von D. **** and Le joueur d'échecs / Chess Story **** - I enjoyed both novels and was glad I tried Zweig again - I hated Chess Story when I read it as a teenager.

Sándor Márai - Les mouettes / Siraly / Seagulls (?) - did not finish
László Krasznahorkai - La mélancolie de la résistance ***+
Gyula Krúdy - N.N. **** - I'll be reading more of him
Magda Szabó - La ballade d'Iza / Iza's Ballad - Loved it ****+

Czech Republic
Bohumil Hrabal - Une trop bruyante solitude / Too Loud A Solitude - That was odd, and disturbing! ***+
An anthology of Czech authors called 13 écrivains tchèques : les belles étrangères ***+

Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska - De la mort sans exagérer **** - Sparse and moving. Will read more.

I did not manage to read anything from Slovakia. I'll get round to it in Travelling the TBR 2.0, no doubt.

Other books:

German-speaking authors
La Poésie allemande - a small, illustrated bilingual collection of German poems, from Walther von der Vogelweide to Zafer Şenocak, including Rilke ***+

Croatian author, story set in Croatia, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic
Dubravka Ugrešić - Baba Yaga Laid an Egg **** - Thought-provoking and enjoyable

Edited: Jan 2, 4:41am

A late entrant:

About a week ago I read Ordesa, an unusual mix of prose, verse and family photos in which a poet looks back at the lives of his parents. Guess what — here’s another poet doing almost the same thing. One’s labelled a novel, the other a memoir, and the lives of the people concerned have little in common, but it’s a weird convergence of techniques!

The photographer at sixteen (2019) by George Szirtes (UK, Hungary, 1948- )

Starting with her death and working backwards in time, George Szirtes tries to reconstruct the life of his mother Magda with the help of his own memories, poems that he has written about his family at various times, fragments of testimony from his father and others, and, in particular, photographs. Magda trained and worked as a professional photographer, so the pictures are especially relevant in this case, and he digs quite deeply into what the images seem to be telling us and why.

We go back through the various houses the family lived in after coming to Britain as refugees in 1956, their escape from Hungary, the Budapest apartment they lived in when George was a child and his father an important official in a ministry, and then before his birth to how his parents met (typically, there are several versions), and to the most difficult part of the story, Magda’s experience as a holocaust survivor and her life before the war in a Jewish family in Cluj, where Szirtes is almost completely in the dark, since apart from Magda only one distant cousin escaped being murdered by the Nazis. But there is a tantalising group of early photos showing Magda as a child with her mother and brother.

A delicate and rather beautiful exploration of how much and how little we really know about even the people we have the most intimate connection with. And a lot of interesting background on Hungary in the forties and fifties.

(Edited for touchstones)

Jan 1, 8:56pm

>98 thorold: Wow. That looks fascinating.