Sunday, June 25, 2017

Du mußt es dreimal sagen : Faust, Faust, Faust

When in Weimar, visiting the house on the Frauenplan, I could not resist buying a cute micro-edition of the Faust.

I have now three mismatched copies on the shelf : The very large Folio Society edition of 2005, the one with the illustrations by Delacroix; An 1867 English translation of Goethe's dramatic works ( Faust, Iphigenia in Tauris, Torquato tasso, Egmont and Goetz Von Berlichingen - the last one in a translation of Sir Walter Scott ), Bell and Daldy, London and now this tiny tome ( Miniaturbuchverlag Leipzig ).

What lengths we go to please ourselves !

Faust: Es klopft? Herein! Wer will mich wieder plagen?
Mephistopheles: Ich bin's.
Faust: Herein!
Mephistopheles: Du mußt es dreimal sagen.
Faust: Herein denn!

Mephistopheles: So gefällst du mir.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A visit to Weimar and Leipzig ( 5 and 6 June )

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Goethe Frauenplan
Goethehaus, Frauenplan, Weimar

A sloppy travel plan and an unconfirmed cancellation of expensive hotelrooms were the reasons I rushed to Weimar and Leipzig for a blitz – visit over a weekend. Rather drive 1200 km than waste 200 euro of good travel money. My wife and I arrived in Weimar in the late morning, bought immediately our entrance tickets to the Goethe house for the afternoon visit and went then for a short lunch of pastries and geback. The weather was splendid.

Weimar is a cosy town, with cobbled streets and those typical façades which could be an excellent backdrop for any reenaction of a dark Grimm or Hoffman tale. Goethe’s house is a large three story building where the famous writer lived for more than 50 years. `

The entrance of the house, passes over a series of “magical” stairs. They are only half as high as normal steps and very deep and wide and stepping on them gives an exhilarating feeling as one climbs effortless towards the front door. An idea Goethe got in Rome, the guide explains, and designed as to instill in the visitor a feeling of hospitalty up to the front door with the “Salve” ( welcome ! ) words laid in the wood in the floor.

Inside the house, each pastel – painted room has a magnificent dark and creaking wooden floor. The rooms are decorated with copies of classical statues, paintings and other artworks Goethe hoarded during his long life.

As you walk through the different rooms of the house, you get a good impression of Goethe and his life. Much more so, I would say than Safransky’s biography of Goethe, which I could not finish.

For some reason, his large book collection is guarded behind bars.

Goethe’s sleeping room contains his small bed and the cosy seat in which he died…of old age, closing his eyes after a last glimpse at all the beautiful things he collected. Even the classy decency of his passing away makes one jealous. The window at which he looked as he asked for more light gives out on a splendid garden.

After the Goethe house we tried to grab a visit of the Anna Amalia library and its sumptuous rococo room, but the visits were sold out for the next weeks.

Leipzig is a less Romantic place than Weimar, but it was here in the fifteenth century Auerbach Keller at the Mädlerpassage, Goethe’s favorite when he was a student in Leipzig, that the famous man got his idea for a Faust novel. We had our dinner there and marveled at the wall paintings describing several scenes of the Faust legend.

We finished our blitz – trip the next day with a short visit to the Thomaskirche where Bach was Kapellmeister for many years and where his remains, after being moved around the town for a while, were finally laid to rest.

A great two days !

Sunday, April 9, 2017

...and be the greatest reader in the world.

Joyce was afraid of thunder,
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Zurich or Trieste?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.
On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks: they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory's end.
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many people can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash, like the cigar,
so many take thunder for granted.
How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

Derek Walcott.

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.

Maria Vargas Llosa : "The War of the end of the world"

Guerra de Canudos. 7º Batalhão de Infantaria. [Fonte: Arquivo Histórico do Museu da República]

Vargas Llosa’s famous eschatological novel, "The war of the end of the world”, recounts the bloody uprising of the poor that took place in the Brazilian badlands in the northern state of Bahia at the end of the 19th century.

It would have been a barely noticed hiccup in Brazilian history had this uprising not evolved into a full scale civil war featuring a rebellious community of 30.000 souls fighting back successfully the multiple attacks of the regular Brazilian army. This two year - conflict, known as the Guerra de Canudos, came to a bloody end in October 1897 when the Brazilian soldiers, despite suffering heavy losses, finally overran the rebellion’s stronghold and exterminated the insurgents, men, women and children to the last.

It remains an intriguing story, worth telling and certainly worth reading.

In the hostile Brazilian backlands known as the Sertao, a poor region plagued by drought, violence and political corruption, an enigmatic messianic figure known as the Conseilheiro ( the counselor), attracts followers through simple actions of faith : repairing decrepit churches, weeding bad herbs in abandoned cemeteries and enduring long praying sessions.

The people who join him in the early days of the crusade are those that have nothing to lose, the very poor, the excluded, the abused. Their motivation is fueled by an Apocalyptic mood that has appeared in the wake of a great drought that has decimated man and faun alike and a period of great national turmoil caused by the abolishment of slavery and the transition from Monarchy to a young and hesitating Republic.

In the following months, more and more believers inspired by the actions and sayings of the charismatic leader join the army of the destitute. Repentant criminals, people in need of a vision and religious searchers strengthen the ever-growing army.

The expanding group moves from village to village, camping in the open, living from the land and the gifts from sympathizing villagers. But soon enough the erring tribe has grown too large and a need for a permanent settlement is urgently felt. The counselor and his flock establish their own village on top of a hill. Their community is build on their own rules and organizations. They reject property, the use of money and they decide not to pay any taxes.

This of course attracts attention and the Bahia government sends a first small army detachment to quench this kernel of insurgence…

Llosa’s book is dedicated to the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, the writer of Os Sertoes, an early account of the military expeditions against the rebellious village of the Canudos.

This is more than a detail. Da Cunha was a Brazilian journalist and sociologist whose book Os Sertoes, written a few years after the war, was the main source of information of what happened in the desert available to a larger public. It was also the inspiration and contemporary source for the writing of "The war of the end of the world”. Book and the persona of the writer might partly explain the two strange characters in Vargas Llosa’s book : the revolutionary Scot and the near-sighted journalist.

I haven’t read Os Sertoes, but according to the available information, da Cunha, although sympathizing with the rebellion tried to explain the insurgents’ backwardness, their racial degeneration and their ”objectified insanity" with outdated and debunked racial and psychiatric theories.

In the “War of the end of the World”, we follow two characters, two witnesses who, they too, try to make sense of the weird pilgrims and strange development of this pauper - revolution.

The first one is a foreigner, a devilish Scottish revolutionist and phrenologist ( an outdated physiological theory too ), complete with red curly hair and a red goatee, follower of Proudhon and Bakunin who is trying to join the revolutionaries in order to present them, we assume ,his blueprint of a new communist state. He claims to understand the revolutionary movement better than anyone else but his attempt to reach Canudos is hampered by the harshness of the backlands and the people. He will disappear in the desert, murdered or not, after having transgressed all his own social, moral and ethical standards.

The second character, who comes more to the foreground in the second part of the book, when the fall of Canudos needs to be recorded and explained, is an unnamed cynic reporter, traveling with the army. But this journalist is (oh irony ) very nearsighted and prone to sneezing fits when stressed or scared. As he is constantly stressed and scared, he is at the most a very unreliable narrator. When he gets into a fighting melee, before being captured by the revolting peasants, he brakes and looses his glasses and witnesses the last stand of the revolutionary village through a blurred image and through the information he gets from others.

The undoing of both characters seem to indicate that Vargas Llosa’s conclusions are that no theory, scientific or pseudo-scientific can satisfactorily explain what has happened at Canudos and second that no one really witnessed how the peasant revolt resisted so long to an adversary so outnumbered and extremely more powerful and finally that all historical interpretation and explanations in the aftermath are spoiled by political near-sightedness, unreliable information sources and biased mental blur.

So if we cannot explain Canudos, what is it then ?

Canudos is simply a miracle.

"The war of the end of the world” is a long and demanding read. It is a complex story, following many characters with a lot of developments happening at the same moment and crisscrossed by political and religious digressions. But Vargas Llosa is a master storyteller, he holds the narrative reins firm in hand, the novel is impeccably structured and organized. This for the benefit of the leisurely reader, who needs but a shortlist of characters to help him through the 600 or so pages.

It is also a gruesome read, the pages bulk of countless horrors men inflict on fellow men. It is a feast of self flagellation, of primitive religious extremes in sync with the bleakness of the Sertao. The reader is spared nothing.

The fighting chapters in the last part of the book however, come over at times as tedious, especially since we know the outcome of the war. But again Vargas Llosa, deploying all the tricks of the trade…analepses, prolepses, anecdotes keeps the reader with his eyes on the page.

The most intriguing and fascinating chapters are ( at least for me ) those that introduce the most loyal disciples of the Conseilheiro by telling their miserable life stories. It is a series of hagiographic cameos, not unlike those written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the early days of Christianity, often containing scenes of extreme religiosity and abject suffering : Pajeu the cangaceiro with the slashed face, the most evil man of the sertao, Pedrao the enormous brute , the nameless “little blessed one” who tortures himself to express his love for the Conseilheiro, A dwarf terrified of dying, big Jaoa, a runaway slave, Maria Quadrado, devoted Maria Magdalena to the Conseilheiro, the Lion of Natuba, a creature half man half animal saved in extremis from the stake…

There is all along the reading of the War, a sense of familiarity, a strange déjà - vu.

The last centuries have seen dozen of similar insurrections of the desperate, set in movement by a charismatic religious or social leader. All of them leaving an immense trail of blood and terror in their wake. They are the histories of the poor, easily forgotten or overlooked in our history books.

I think it is not too far fetched, if we even recognize in some elements of the Taliban, Isis and the new caliphates, other Canudos. Here too, a backward and violent movement fueled by the frustration and hopelessness of a whole army of poor, encourages lost individuals to sacrifice themselves for an ill-directed cause. Our fogged and damage Tv - glasses do not always let us see things that clearly.

The War of the end of the world is basically an alternative history of the world. In the development of the War of Canudos, a model appears that has been played out numerous times in the history of our civilizations. The fact that these insurrections keep repeating themselves, also in our Modern times, is proof enough that many states have grossly failed to care of their armies of poor and disadvantaged.

If you want to visit Canudos today, say for an innocent pilgrimage or a remembrance of those who suffered, you won’t find it. The ruins of the town are covered by a water reservoir of the Cocorobó Dam, built by the military regime in the 1960s.

What needs to be forgotten must disappear.