Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Hans Fallada : Every Man Dies Alone (1947)

Nowadays Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone (1947) , a true story of quiet back-room rebellion of a middle – aged couple against the Nazi regime, seems to be included more often than before in canonical lists of German literature.

It is one of those books that was written not solely for the sake of the story but also as an early attempt to show the World and especially the Germans themselves, that there had been a few decent people left in Nazi – ruled Germany. While the story is closely based on true events ( my edition includes pictures and official documents ), a few details are too good to be anything else than an attempt of propaganda: a fellow prisoner in a Gestapo prison, one of the last decent and kind men left, is a music conductor whistling a whole range of high Art tunes : Beethoven, Bach and other examples of high German culture. This symbolic feature is respected by both his fellow inmates and prison guards.

I belong to those who in trying to understand what happened in Germany between 1933 and 1945, refuses to separate the Germans from the Nazi’s.To me, with a grandfather executed by Wehrmacht soldiers, it was the same people. Nazism was the rule of the Bully and a mass that let the Bully rule.
The book’s main achievement, beside the merit of a well told story, is without doubt  the recreation of the atmosphere of oppression and fear that permeates daily life in Berlin during the darker years of Nazi rule. Fallada narrates the story of the little people and I must confess that the description of how the Nazi rule of law works is often chilling and gives the reader a good idea of how daily life is lived in a Police state, be it under the Nazi’s, Stalin’s Russia or nowadays in the Arabic countries under the rule of an extremist Mullah.

Every Man Dies Alone  is a book well worth reading. It is a  gripping and well structured story . At moments however it feels a bit like the narrative is stretched too much or diverting away too far from the main story line, but at the end all the threads come back into a single horrible knot.

With a last page turned, you remain with a few deep questions : What for instance is the physiology of these acts of resistance. Why do people rebel ? How much bravery goes into it and  most of all, is it worth doing it against a much stronger opponent?

The fact that the story is still read and praised is an answer by itself.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Roberto Arlt : The Seven madmen


Bolano compares his fellow writer Roberto Arlt to a character from one of Dostoyevsky’s later novels, and indeed it is Raskolnikov that comes to mind most often when reading about the ordeal of Remo Erdosain. With this difference I must add ,that Raskolnikov’s self-mortifying rambling takes place after the crime and that of Arlt’s character before the crime.

Erdosain, a nobody lost in a great city, himself acting and reacting on the basis of his own mad illusions, moves through a world of hookers, pimps, murderers, thiefs, thugs and other looneys, characters all who live their lives in accordance with their own mad and criminal logic, their self-constructed desperate schemes, their perverse apocalyptic nightmares.

For the reader of the 21th century it is chilling to realize how all these evil plans have turned out to become  painful reality in our last century and that Argentine’s most forgotten writer, Roberto Arlt, has turned out to be one hell of a prophet.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Doctor Faustus chapter 3 : Adrian's father

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin : L'enfant au tonton, 1738; Louvre

Chapter 3 of Doctor Faustus presents us Adrian's father : "... Jonathan Leverkuhn was a man of finest German Stamp..."

After a short physical description, an attempt is made to capture his mental being, by describing what preoccupies this man's mind when he is at leisure. 

Smoking his porcelain pipe ofcourse and reading his ancient "mammoth family Bible, bound in smooth pigskin and secured with leather clasps...".

But besides that there was ..." another trend that in certain ages might have been characterized as a desire to speculate the elements. That is, on a modest scale and with modest means, he pursued studies in natural sciences - biology , and even chemistry and physics, too.

This dabbling in chemistry and especially with the natural phenomena of inorganic matter acting as if it were alive, gives the inocent experiments an alchemistic,caballistic hue.

"It all comes close to sorcery...'

This alchemistic spielerei is ofcourse a clear allusion to the Faustian theme. 

Interesting enough in Rüdiger Safranski biography of Goethe, similar experiments are described as done by the young writer, who was, he too, looking for the mysterious transition of the mineral into the organic. ( Chapter 3; P 76 ). These experiments would later appear in Goethe's Faust as the search for the Erdgeist, the Earth Spirit, a force of nature competing in its creativity against God. 

Turning the inorganic into something alive is nothing less than imitating the Creator, to play God.

Wyndham Lewis in Canada

In my Reading Oscar post I already celebrated Hugh Kenner's book "The Pound Era" as a masterful, one of a kind, critical masterpiece.

It speaks, as said, not only about Ezra Pound, but also about a handful of writers and artists revolving around Pound. Wyndham Lewis is one of them.

While Kenner met and spoke Ezra Pound many times, he totally missed Wyndham Lewis, who'se exile adress however was very near to that of the University of Toronto, the university where Kenner graduated.

In one of the last chapters of his book, titled "The Last European", Kenner regrets this deeply and cannot understand that none of the academici of the  University cared or at least mentioned to their students that there was a famous writer in exile ( craving for contact ) living nearby ( one mile ). 

A Titan is what Kenner calls Lewis. A fantastic painter and writer.

Lewis in exile in Canada was a sad appearance. The man had left everything behind in war-torn England, especially his reputation and social network. He suffered terribly from the cold. His sight failed and he wrote one of his last books "Self -condemned" blind...

" He wrote it longhand , the ball-point scrawling its way till it bumped off the edge of the pad on his lap, then commencing a new line three finger-breadths below the previous one, a sheet with five or six wandering lines at last torn off and dropped on the floor to be retrieved by mrs. Lewis and typed."

Pound, still locked-up in the house of loonies, in St. Elisabeth Hospital, thought that Lewis' "Self - condemned" deserved the Nobel prize.

They gave it instead to Papa Hemingway.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reading Oscars 2016

2016 was a disappointing reading year as far as numbers of books go and I am not at ease with that at all. Reading has always been like oxygen and food for me and the constation that I get it in fewer doses is truly alarming me.

Too much work, too much hazzle, too many distractions... you name it.

Best Novel in English

* Synge : The Aran Islands. One of my companion books on my holiday trip around Ireland. Not really a novel, more a travelogue by the famous Irish folklorist relating his voyage to the most savage part of the Irish west coast. A good read.

Best Novel in Translation

* Alfred Dôblin : Berlin Alexanderplatz. The tragic story of an ex prisoner trying to stay on the right path in a Berlin enjoying herself between the two wars. Captivating and well written.
* Karel Capek : An ordinary life. An intriguing and profound book about the meaning of life.
* Hermann Broch : Death of Virgil. A challenge and a masterpiece of Modernism. Only three quartered finished.
Winner : Alfred Doblin

Best Poetry

* WB Yeats : Collected poems. Another companion book on my trip to Ireland. I am not really a poetry reader but I like Yeats. And it is the only poetry book I read during the year anyway.

Best Non-Fiction

* Valery Larbaud : Ce vice impuni : La lecture. ( Reading , that unpunished vice ). You would swear that Valery Larbaud was one of us: a kind member of the Tropics. He dissects in this short anatomical essay the evolution from childhood to old age of a very peculiar species : the reader. Tongue in cheek, self-mocking and educated fun. Loved it.

* Hugh Kenner : The Pound era. This book, written by the Canadian literary critic is by far the most exciting discovery of the year. Kenner has completely disappeared under the radar nowadays but this book needs to stay. Here is a quote by Guy Davenport : “The Pound Era is a book to be read and reread and studied. For the student of modern letters it is a treasure, for the general reader it is one of the most interesting books he will ever pick-up in a lifetime of reading”. It is no exageration : The Pound Era is in a class of its own.
* Gordon Craig : The Germans. A book I read in the wake of the Mann's Doctor Faustus experience. Ian Bostridge mentions Craig in his analysis of Schubert's Winter Journey. Craig says interesting things about Thomas Mann, Faustus and the Magic Mountain. Interesting for those who are interested.

* Moses Finley : The world of Odysseus. This one has been on my shelf for several years. The real historic world behind the Illias and the Odyssee by the famous classical scholar. A must read for anyone interested in that period.

* David Van Reybrouck : Against elections. Feeling uncomfortable since many years ( since in fact the election of Coluche in France and La Cicciolina in Italy ) about what I thought was a failure of the Democratic System, I understand now that it is not democracy that is the problem but the technique of elections associated with democracy. The election of the Trump, the Brexit, Kascinsky in Poland and Erdogan In Turkey show us the constant danger to democratically elect the next world-threatening demagogue.

Winner by far ; Hugh Kenner The Pound Era

Best Reread

* Timothy Severin : The Brendan voyage. The inlet where Tim Severin started his epoch making crossing of the Atlantic in a hand-sewn leather Curragh was a compulsive pilgrimage destination when I was in Ireland. The book after all describes a breathtaking sailing adventure and at the same time an exciting inquiery in the boat building skills of the craftsman in medieval Christian Ireland. Read Saint Brendan on the island of Skellig to understand why people need to believe in God and in the skills of a good boat builder.

* Paul Cronin : Werner Herzog. Cronin added a few chapters to his fantastic book made up of a dozen conversations with the incomparable Werner Herzog. Everything you wanted to know about the great man in a single book. And what you did not want to know too !

Winner : Cronin with his fabulous Herzog.

Overal Winner : Kenner with the Pound Era

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hedgehogs and foxes

Isaiah Berlin divides writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include PlatoLucretiusDante AlighieriBlaise PascalGeorg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelFyodor DostoyevskyFriedrich NietzscheHenrik IbsenMarcel Proust and Fernand Braudel), and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include HerodotusAristotleDesiderius ErasmusWilliam ShakespeareMichel de MontaigneMolièreJohann Wolfgang GoetheAleksandr PushkinHonoré de BalzacJames Joyce and Philip Warren Anderson).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Godwin's law

Godwin's law is an Internet adage asserting that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches—​​that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.