Monthly Archives: June 2011
Cees Nooteboom: Mokusei! (1982)
Cees Nooteboom’s novella Mokusei! Een liefdesverhaal – Mokusei! a Love story is my second contribution to Iris’ Dutch Literature Month. It is currently out of print in English but there are German and French translations available.
Cees Nooteboom is one of those writers who simply never disappoint me. While reading this short book (70 pages) I was once more wondering how he does it. How can he write such stories that are feathery and light and still so full of meaning. His writing is inventive and informative, playful and deep, beautiful and melancholic. Apart from Nooteboom I know only the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi with a similar style.
Arnold Presser comes to Japan to shoot pictures of a woman in a Kimono standing in front of Mount Fuji. He has a image of Japan in his mind that is very idealized. He thinks, he knows what the real Japan is like. It is the Japan of Kimono’s, Basho’s Haikus, Hokusai’s paintings, the Japan of the many views of Mount Fuji, the Japan of rigid traditions and beautiful gestures. The modern Japan which adopts Western traditions, buys into consumerism, the big cities, the traffic and pollution are not Japan for him. Same as he has fixed ideas about the country he knows what a beautiful Japanese woman has to look like. It takes a while until he finds the perfect model but then he discovers Satoko.
He photographs her and falls in love with her. Their story will last five years. Five years in which they are more separate than together, five years of secret love-making and intense moments in which she will never tell him about her life, never introduce him to his parents. Presser has three names for her, her real name Satoko, the one he calls her to himself, Snow Mask, that implies that he cannot read her expressions and the term of endearment he uses when he calls her, Mokusei. Mokusei is one of the rare Japanese flowers with a scent and seems to perfectly fit his mysteriously withdrawn lover.
Mokusei! is masterful for many reasons. It’s a short, intense and tragic love story, and a meditation on Japan and the images and ideas we can have of a foreign country. What is so amazing is that Nooteboom writes at the same time about an idealized Japan, the real Japan and manages to adopt the Japanese writing style. The concept of wabi sabi pervades this novella on every page. There is a scene in which Presser goes for a walk in a garden and sees a dead leaf hanging not on a branch but on a torn spider web. This image captures beauty, fragility and perishability.
Mokusei! is a beautiful and profound piece of writing and I am glad I finally read it thanks to Iris’ event.
Tommy Wieringa: Caesarion (2009)
During powerful winter storms the North Sea tosses its full weight against the coast of East Anglia, and little by little the land disappears into the waves. High atop the cliff, Ludwig Unger lives with his mother; with every winter that passes the sea comes a little closer.
Ludwig is the child of two celebrities, predestined to be the continuation – raised to the umpteenth power – of both their talents. In his mother’s ambitious dreams, he is already a concert pianist. At the moment, however, he plays for a living in cocktail bars, and in the course of three nights he tells his life’s story to a woman.
I wanted to read at least two novels for Iris’ Dutch Literature Month but so far I only managed Tommy Wieringa’s novel Caesarion that I discovered on Lizzy’s Literary Life.
I’m in two minds about Caesarion. I did like reading it but at the same time I didn’t know what it was all about. That’s a peculiar feeling. Usually I either like a book or don’t like it, I know whether it is good or not, but in this case, I only know it was entertaining but…
Something is missing and I cannot put my finger on it. It was original and trite at the same time. An odd combination. I think the worst was, that I had no feeling for Ludwig. He wanted to make us believe that his life was tragic but I simply didn’t feel it, on the contrary, I found him annoying. The voice and the character didn’t seem to go together well and I’m not sure at all whether Wieringa did like Ludwig or not… If he wanted to portray a sexist jerk, he did well, but if he felt sympathetic towards Ludwig, he failed. At the same time one could ask whether Wieringa did intentionally choose to portray gender bias or whether it was rather accidental.
At the beginning of the novel Ludwig is on his way to England to a funeral. In the evenings he plays the piano in a bar, meets a woman and tells her the story of his life. Ludwig was born in Egypt, his mother, a former porn star, has been left by his father, an eccentric egotistic artist. They live in Alexandria until his mother decides she wants to go back to Europe and packs all their belongings. They first go to the Netherlands, his mother’s home country, where she isn’t welcome. She goes to England, leaving Ludwig behind but eventually has him follow her to East Anglia where they will live in a cottage precariously close to the eroding cliff.
The relationship between mother and son is quite strange, incestuous one could say, as Ludwig desires his mother. She loves to dress and make him up like a girl and her touch and warmth arouse him. It seems that she isn’t even aware of this but he is and struggles to get free. One attempt to free himself is to engage in ways that are meant to assure he becomes more traditionally masculine and that is why he joins a rugby team.
When Ludwig turns twenty the thing that everyone expected happens, their house is swiped off the cliff in a storm. At the same time Ludwig finds out about his mothers past as a porn star and even sees the movies. Shortly after this his mother leaves for L.A.. Ludwig manages to track her down and follows her everywhere, pretending he wants to take care of her. His mother is working in the porn industry again and Ludwig disapproves a lot. He meets a nice girl but she breaks up with him when he follows his mother to Vienna and then Prague. Ludwig’s constant nagging depresses his mother and one day she tells him that he has to leave, she cannot stand his accusing presence anymore.
Ludwig starts drifting through life, working as a bar pianist, engaging in love affairs with elderly and old women until he reunites with his mother again after a few years. She is living in Tunisia and has left the porn industry or rather, she has been fired. The reason for this is a oozing spot on her breast which is obviously malignant. Ludwig’s mother must know that it is cancer but she is in denial and even though she finally gives in and has it diagnosed she doesn’t have it treated traditionally but starts travelling through Europe looking for a magical cure. The moaning Ludwig follows her everywhere. When it becomes obvious that his mother will die, the two finally settle down in the Netherlands.
The last chapters lead Ludwig to Panama where he tries to find his father.
It is a very readable book and I would like to read Wieringa’s highly acclaimed Joe Speedboat but I didn’t really get the point of Caesarion. There were so many parts that felt familiar, where I was thinking, that I had read this before. The last part in Panama, for example, reminded me of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber.
The part I liked the most and the one that touched me was the beginning in England. It was done very well but from then on the novel started to turn into hotchpotch. I was wondering whether he wrote this novel over a long period, stopping in between, which could explain why it didn’t feel seamless.
Overall it seemed to have been a re-imagining of the tales of Oedipus and Odysseus. I didn’t like Ludwig at all but then again, is it necessary to like the main character? I don’t think so, but I hated the way he desired his mother and at the same hated her and sabotaged everything she wanted for him (becoming a concert pianist, for example) or whatever she did for herself. It is as if he blamed her for having been left by his father and for being too attractive. And at the end, when she falls ill, he behaves as if it was justified and she deserved it. All her life she has been exploited because of her body and now this body turns itself against her, and all Ludwig does is hate her for not letting anyone cut her open.
If you are interested in another view, here’s the review from A Common Reader.
Primo Levi: If This is a Man or Survival in Auschwitz – Se questo è un uomo (1947) Literature and War Readalong June 2011
Survival in Auschwitz is a mostly straightforward narrative, beginning with Primo Levi’s deportation from Turin, Italy, to the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland in 1943. Levi, then a 25-year-old chemist, spent 10 months in the camp. Even Levi’s most graphic descriptions of the horrors he witnessed and endured there are marked by a restraint and wit that not only gives readers access to his experience, but confronts them with it in stark ethical and emotional terms.
Survival in Auschwitz or If This is a Man was difficult to read and the images it created will haunt me for a long time. Additionally I watched Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard – Night and Fog which intensified the reading experience.
Primo Levi was part of the Italian resistance when he was captured by Fascist militia in the winter of 1943. After hearing that he is Jewish, the militia hand him over to the Nazis and he is deported to Auschwitz. It’s towards the end of the war and despite Auschwitz being an extermination camp, as they needed many people to work there, they didn’t kill as many as before which is one of the reasons why Levi survived.
Stepping off the train, the people who have been captured, are divided, sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes depending on their strength and fitness. Those who are sent to another direction than Primo Levi will take a shower and we all know what that means. The others who are kept alive, have to strip, wait in the cold for hours and are finally shaved, tattooed and stripped of their old identity. 174517 is the number that is tattooed into Primo Levi’s arm. The numbers, that are like a bar code, tell the other prisoners a lot. They can deduce where the people come from, how long they have been at the Lager. Some numbers are famous, for example the lower numbers of the first ones to arrive from Polish Ghettos. Three years after their arrival some are still alive.
Levi describes their arrival in great detail. He also tells in great detail how everything ends, how after long days of bombardment, and when it becomes obvious that the Russians are not far, the Germans abandon the camp. They leave the weakest and the sick people, like Primo Levi, behind, the others are taken along and probably shot on the way. What a struggle it was for those left behind to survive. There was no more heating and it was icy cold outside, they had no more food, no more blankets, just dirt, debris, corpses and sick and dying people.
Flanked by these two long chapters – the arrival and the end – we get to read a succession of shorter chapters that describe every aspect of the life in a concentration camp. How they are fed, always just a little bit to keep them alive, but never enough to stop the hunger. How they sleep, two men on a small bed of 70cm together. They wake all night because their bladders are weak and the others wake them, it is cold, they have nightmares. He describes what clothes they wear, how dirty and torn they are, the work they do, which is mostly forced labour of the most strenuous kind. They are always cold, hungry and extremely tired. The only time they can recuperate a little bit is when they fall ill. But falling ill is dangerous as well, should they fall too ill, they will be exterminated.
What we read is horrible and shocking but what disturbed me the most is what he wrote about the increasing inhumanity of the prisoners. People turned into monsters under these conditions. They had hardly anything and tried to take advantage, they stole and cheated and did everything for the sake of a tiny little piece of bread, some small advantage over others. Give a man a few privileges under the condition to supervise, punish and abuse others and he will do it. This trait of human nature was cunningly exploited by the Nazi’s. Levi picks a few examples and describes them in more detail than others. It’s amazing what people would do to save themselves.
There are a few men who are kind or manage to stay kind but they are not numerous at all. Levi is lucky, there is one Italian a non-Jewish prisoner, better off than he is, who helps him.
Survival in Auschwitz is impressive for many reasons. It is one of the most precious and detailed testimonies and so well written. One can really understand what it must have been like.
I have written in the introductory post that my edition is French. At the end of the book is an annex of 25 pages in which Primo Levi answers eight questions. These are questions he was often asked when he presented the book, in schools or elsewhere. Some of these questions were on my mind as well while I was reading.
I’m just going to pick those that interested me personally the most.
Did Primo Levi go back to Auschwitz after the war? Yes, he did. In the 60s but it left him surprisingly unfazed as most of the barracks he had been in did not exist anymore and large portions of the rest were transformed into a museum. It was very hard for him to see Birkenau, where the crematorium was although he wasn’t there during the war. That part was like he remembered the Lager, mud, dirt, debris.
Why was there no uprising? Levi tried to answer the question as good as he could. When they arrived, they could have done it but as they didn’t know what was going on they didn’t try. Later there were uprisings but always by political prisoners, not by Jews, which is understandable. The Jews were treated far more badly and therefore much weaker and most were not political people, they had no idea how to resist.
Was there a difference between Soviet Gulags and the German Lager? Yes, the Soviets didn’t want to exterminate the prisoners and although they were awful too – forced labour, bad conditions – it wasn’t as brutal.
The last question was by far the most fascinating. Someone asked Levi, who he would be if he hadn’t been in Auschwitz. Of course, he stated, this was a philosophical question and he added, that the only thing he knew for sure was, that without Auschwitz he wouldn’t have become a writer. The experience in the Lager triggered the urge to write. He started to write in Auschwitz and as soon as he was back, wrote this book pretty much in one go. Without Auschwitz he would have stayed a simple chemist.
This last question and some passages in the book seem to indicate how it was possible that Primo Levi survived, why he had the mental force that was needed. He wrote that he always had an interest in human psychology and that he was fascinated to watch the people and what happened around him. This also helped him to still recognize those around him as humans, although they had been stripped of everything.
It’s a difficult and depressing book but I was touched by Levi’s humanity and his voice and I know I will read more of him. A while back I watched Francesco Rosi’s movie La Tregua aka The Truce based on Primo Levi’s novel. It tells the story of his odyssey back home from the Lager to Italy. Primo Levi’s part is played by John Turturro. If you want to get a good feeling for the man Levi, this is a great starting point. It manages to convey how he became a writer. I will certainly read the book.
I’m interested to know what others thought about this book. Was it too hard to read? Did you also think that he managed incredibly well to make us feel and understand what he went through?
Introduction by Danielle (A Work in Progress)
Survival in Auschwitz was the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima mon Amour. Discussion starts on Friday July 29, 2011 .
Jo Walton: Among Others (2010)
With a deft hand and a blazing imagination, fantasy writer Walton mixes genres to great effect. Elements of fantasy, science fiction, and coming-of-age novels combine into one superlative literary package that will appeal to a variety of readers across age levels. After engaging in a classic good-magic-versus-bad-magic battle with her mother that fatally wounds her twin sister, 15-year-old Morwenna leaves Wales and attempts to reconnect with her estranged father. She was sent to boarding school in England, and her riveting backstory unfolds gradually as she records her thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a series of journal entries.
Jo Walton’s Among Others is an absolutely charming book. Despite the fact that there are some magical things happening this isn’t a fantasy novel. It is a novel about fantasy and SF and, if anything, I would call it magical realism. What is charming about this book is not the magic, which is raw, wild and dangerous but Morwenna’s voice and her love of books, reading and libraries.
Morwenna’s story unfolds in a series of diary entries. The year is 1979 and Morwenna has just arrived at and English boarding school. She is a 15-year-old girl from Wales whose twin sister has died in an accident. The very same accident has left her injured and crippled. As we learn in the novel the accident was the result of their evil mother’s doing. The girls tried to stop her from getting more power through magic and that’s how the accident happened.
Morwenna is an outsider at her new school. She is crippled and the only one from Wales. But that isn’t the only thing that makes her an outsider. She knows that she is different. Her mother is a witch. Morwanna only just met her father whose sisters are witches as well, she sees and talks to faeries and she is addicted to reading SF novels. Novels are her consolation.
“It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”
Books are her escape route but also her way to make sense of the world. Her enthusiasm and love for books is one of the most important elements in this novel. At the boarding school she discovers what libraries have to offer, is introduced to inter library loan which opens the world for her even more and finally she is invited to a SF book club. Once a week she will discuss all her favourite SF and fantasy writers and learn about new books and authors and go on reading her new discoveries in her spare time.
I sat on the bench by the willows and ate my honey bun and read Triton. There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside of the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.
At the book club she meets Tim a gorgeously beautiful boy with a bad reputation. It’s for her to discover whether it is founded or not.
I haven’t read a lot of SF and although I knew the names, I hardly knew any of the books still it was captivating to read about them, to see what elements she picked for her life, what themes, questions and speculations fascinated her.
The voice of Morwenna is very well rendered. This sounds like a young girl discovering the world and new books. We follow her thoughts and see how they develop, how wrong assumptions are corrected, how new things are learned.
The magical parts can be read in many different ways. A sceptical reader could just assume that it is all in Morwenna’s imagination. That grief, sadness and the constant pain she is in lead her to fantasize. It would make sense as well. If you are less sceptical you can just accept the fact, that, yes, she does see fairies and has an evil witch mother. The fairies are very interesting beings and she also mentions that they have nothing in common with Tolkien’s elves. Some of them look like gnomes, others are very beautiful. They are tied to places and seem like some sort of condensed energy.
A part that spoke to me is, the description of Morwenna’s pain. The descrptions were very realistic. The way chronic pain changes, how she tries to handle it, the cures that are provided, the wrong therapy she gets from conventional doctors and how she finally gets better through acupuncture.
Jo Walton lives in Canada but she is from Wales. The differnce between Wales and England is emphasized all through the novel. Half of the French side of my family is from Brittany. The difference to the rest of France is very similar. And you also find a lot of magical beliefs in Brittany. I grew up believing in loup-garous (werewolves) and nobody would have made me go out during a full moon when we were on holidays in Morlaix.
Amon Others is a very unusual coming of age story and I’m glad I read about it on Gavin’s blog (here is her post). I can’t imagine that anyone who loves books wouldn’t be able to relate to the intense love of reading that is capured in this book.
Paris in July – 2011 or French Books, Movies, Art and Music
Paris in July is an event hosted by Book Bath and Thyme for Tea. I think it should appeal to many as you can contribute almost anything as long as it is about something French (not Paris only).
All you have to do is either read a French book, watch a movie, share a recipe, post something on French art or architecture, write a travel piece or share your favourite French music. It is up to you.
I am, as usual, tempted to contribute many things but July is my busiest month work wise, therefore I’ll try to not put the bar too high. But let me share a few plans.
The July’s book for my Literature and War Readalong is Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima mon amour. I will review the book and the movie.
I’m tempted to read and even re-read some Colette. I have never read her novel La Chatte, it would be a great choice for me. But I might also re-watch Chéri starring Michelle Pfeiffer and finally read the eponymous book as well. Zola’s Le ventre de Paris is also an option especially since there is a certain actuality to the topic as Les Halles, as I knew them all my life, are being torn down at the moment. Now these are just a few choices but my French reading pile is huge, I will certainly find something.
I could also imagine a post on French writers and their black cats.
I also have quite a little pile of DVDs here. I recently bought a Jean Gabin collection. I already watched Le Quai des Brumes and La Grande Illusion but there are some others that are very good. Another option is watching Les Misérables starring Gérard Depardieu. And I wanted to re watch the movie Paris, je t’aime. Despite it’s title it isn’t very clichéd.
I wanted to go to Paris in July but my workload will not allow it. Instead of that I might share a few extremely nice books on Paris that I found last year. There are a lot of themed guides around that are really interesting.
My favourite French painter is Gustave Caillebotte. He painted Paris like not many others. I might write in more detail about his work and background.
When I think of French music, the first that comes to my mind is Air. I have all of their CD’s but I’m sure that’s not what people usually have in mind when thinking of French music. I’m also a huge fan of Edith Piaf. And there are many others that I could write about.
I hope this gives you an idea and tempts you as well. If you would like to sign up too here is the link.
Anne Perry – Interiors (2009) A Documentary
A while back I reviewed Heavenly Creatures (see my review) the movie based on the true story of two young girls who murdered the mother of one of them. One of the girls is the famous crime writer Anne Perry.
The movie was excellent although very disturbing. Last week I discovered on Sam’s blog Book Chase that there is a documentary on the story called Anne Perry – Interiors. If anyone is interested to dig deeper, Sam’s post contains other info and a long discussion.
I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet but will try to do so.
Here is the original site Anne Perry – Interiors