The Dog – Hunden by Kerstin Ekman – Swedish Novella – A Post a Day in May

Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman is something like the grande dame of Swedish literature. She’s considered one of the most important, if not the most important living Swedish writer. She has written numerous novels, many of which received prizes and were made into movies. She’s also been extensively translated. Ekman began her career as a crime author but subsequently moved away from the genre. The novella The DogHunden was published in 1986. I read the German translation, Hundeherz (by far the most poetic title) as I always feel it’s closer to the Scandinavian languages than English.

Before I start the review, I have to spoil the book. The blurb does so too and with good reason. The beginning of the book is quite sad, and, for most animal lovers, it would be too heart-breaking to read on not knowing whether there would be a happy ending. Luckily, there is. So, now you know it – Sad beginning, happy ending.

The Dog is set in the countryside of Northern Sweden. It’s winter and a man drives to a lake to go fishing. He has no intention to take his dog, but she sees him and runs after his scooter. Her little puppy follows her. In the snow and the cold, the puppy gets lost. Upon his return home, the man notices the dog’s absence and searches for him. To no avail. What follows is a dramatic tale of survival during a harsh winter, in a wild landscape. The puppy almost freezes and starves. At first, he just crouches under the low branches of fir trees, shivering, his heart beating wildly. Then he finds a dead elk and the meat of the massive animal helps him over many weeks.

During the long winter months, he learns to recognize the noises and traits of the landscape. Eventually, he explores farther and farther away from his hiding place. He learns to hunt and to avoid being hunted.

The story is told from the point of view of the dog, but Ekman doesn’t try to humanize the dog. She tells the story in a way that makes it very plausible, just describing what the puppy can see, smell, taste, hear. The result is brilliant. In lesser hands this might have become mawkish, but it isn’t. She is an astounding writer, with a huge vocabulary and intimate knowledge of the Swedish landscape, the flora, the fauna. The animals and plants are all named. It’s never just “a tree” or “a bird” or “a plant”. She’ll let you know exactly what it is. All the many wild birds and animals are differentiated through the noises their wings or paws make. The wind sounds different, depending on which grasses and plants it rustles. And the many scents are described in so much detail too. It’s true that every plant smells different when it is crushed.

The story isn’t sentimental and therefore, at times, a bit hard to read. After all, it’s a tale of survival and that includes hunting. The dog must hunt to survive. And there’s also an elk hunt later in the novella that leads him back to the man who lost him.

This is a tale about survival, about enduring cold, hunger, and loneliness. But ultimately it’s also a tale about the strong bond between man and dog.

I did expect this to be good, but I didn’t expect the writing to be this extraordinary. I’m already looking forward to reading more of her work.

 

Am Südhang – On Southern Slopes by Eduard von Keyserling – A Post a Day in May

I wrote about one of Eduard von Keyserling’s novellas during GLM 2013 –here. Back then, not one of his books had been translated into English and that was such an incredible shame. Meanwhile, his masterpiece Die Wellen  Waves has been translated and published by Dedalus European Classics. As I wrote in that post, von Keyserling is often compared to Fontane because they are from the North and both set their novels in the Northern parts of Germany. It’s a very unfortunate comparison because the era and writing style are so different. Both are elegant writers, but von Keyserling is much more like Schnitzler than Fontane. He’s a typical impressionist writer. He has something very Austrian and when one knows a few things about his life, that’s no coincidence. He was born at Castle Tels-Paddern (now in  Latvia), Courland Governorate, then part of the Russian Empire, but then moved to Vienna and later to Munich.

Maybe Waves wasn’t a success – I never saw it reviewed on any blogs – because that remained the only official translation. There’s good news though, as Tony from Tony’s Reading List actually went and translated first the book I reviewed in 2013 – Schwüle Tage  Sultry Days and then two other short works, which you can all find here.

Sadly, Am Südhang – On Southern Slopes, the novella I read on my beautiful rainy reading day last week, hasn’t been translated. As with everything I’ve ever read by von Keyserling – it’s a shame. He’s such a brilliant writer.

Am Südhang opens with Karl Erdmann von West-Wallbaum in a carriage on his way to his parent’s estate where he will spend his summer. He has just been made Lieutenant and thinks that this rise will mean people will take him more seriously. He can hardly wait to arrive as the summers on his parent’s estate are always so beautiful. And he is always in love. Always with the same woman, Daniela, a friend of his mother, who is much younger and divorced. Every summer she’s the centre of all the men’s attention as she’s beautiful, intelligent, and likes to charm. It’s both painful and delicious to be in love with her, as Karl Erdmann muses, and he’s looking forward to lying in the grass and dream of her all day long.

But that isn’t the only thing he’s looking forward to. On the estate, with his family, his parents and siblings, he lives a life of sheltered ease and luxury which makes him languorous and lazy. While he can be hard and cynical in the outer world, during summer he’s like sensitive, thin-skinned fruit that grows on southern slopes.

It wouldn’t be a von Keyserling novel if things stayed light and harmonious. There’s always a dark undercurrent and tragedy and this story is no exception. Even though he doesn’t take it very seriously, the duel that awaits Karl Erdmann casts a dark shadow. And there’s also the deep sadness of the private tutor who, like everyone else, is in love with Daniela.

It’s a beautiful novella. Rich in emotions and descriptions. Nature and the weather always play important parts, mirroring the feelings of the protagonists. In this story, the garden descriptions are so very lush. Von Keyserling paints with words. He captures scents and sound, colours and forms. We sit next to Karl Erdmann in his carriage and feel the cool shade under the trees, hear the soft rustling of the dew in the leaves. We can see the family waiting for Karl Erdmann’s arrival, the women in their white summer dresses standing on the stairs.

The only thing that was hard to read was the duck hunting. It’s always part of these novels set among the upper classes. And it’s always terrible. It was over quickly, but still made me sad.

There is some criticism of the way of life described, but mostly von Keyserling just captures a moment in time. It’s a dying society but when he wrote this novella, in 1916, it was still very much alive.

I hope this will be translated because it’s so amazing. I’m sure most of us can relate to the magic of summer holidays when you’re still a child or very young. Those hot, languorous, carefree days, mostly spent outdoors unless summer rains kept you in.

If you haven’t read von Keyserling yet, do yourself a favour and read Waves or some of Tony’s translations. I’m adding the link to them here again.

Most of his novellas were translated into French – here’s a link to the collected works.

The cover of the German edition shows a painting of Max Liebermann, Landhaus in Hilversum (1901). It’s the perfect choice for this book.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy – Classic Russian Literature – A Post a Day in May

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, roughly thirty years after War and Peace and twenty years after Anna Karenina.

I have read this before but felt it was time to reread it. I didn’t realize when starting it, what an excellent companion piece to Flaubert’s A Simple Heart this is. Both novellas tell the story of a life. One the story of a simple, uneducated woman, the other the story of a highly educated, successful man. Both stories are tragic.

The Death of Ivan Ilych starts with the discussion of a few lawyers, one of which just read their colleague, Ivan Ilych, has died. This intro chapter sets the tone. The reaction of the men tells us everything about them, their way of life, and Ivan Ilych’s life. Not one of them is saddened. They are only upset because it briefly reminds them of death. They soon console themselves though.

The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died, and they hadn’t.

Only one of the men feels he should pay the widow a visit. Seeing the dead man makes him feel uncomfortable. He’s glad when he can escape again and go back to his life, his “friends” and playing bridge, a game Ivan Ilych had enjoyed and been very good at.

After this intro chapter follows the story of Ilych’s life. This is how it begins:

Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

This is so short and cruel and tells us in one sentence everything that we need to know about Ivan Ilych. It condenses what we will read in the next chapters in more detail.

Ivan Ilych was a successful lawyer. He made a stunning career, even though he wasn’t always happy with the developments, especially not after he got married. What at first looked like a good idea, settling down with someone who had a bit of money and was nice to look at, soon proved to have been a mistake. She was jealous and never happy with what they had, always pushing him to make more and more money. He did so, not only for her and domestic peace, but because he, too, measured success in terms of financial and professional success. And he also liked power.

In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality.

After living in provincial towns for many years, he finally gets offered a very good position in St Petersburg. He buys a house and furnishes it the way he always wanted. In his eyes it is perfection. But the author tells us otherwise.

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes — all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.

Ivan Ilych, who has never done any manual thing in his life, enjoys decorating his new home but then something happens. He has a minor accident and feels some pain in his side.

Soon after this, he notices that the pain won’t go and that he has other symptoms. He knows he’s seriously ill, even fears he might die.

Over the next months, Ivan Ilych deteriorates more and more, is misdiagnosed and misunderstood and dies a lonely painful death.

Ilych’s illness and death are slow and agonizing and give him time to think about his life. He realizes that something had been missing, that he had measured success in the wrong way.

‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

The tragedy is that the doctors who are incapable of empathy, are just like he was with the criminals— pompous and condescending. His entire world, he discovers is full of falsehood.

What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that he only needs keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is an upsetting story. It’s dreadful to see how much he suffers and how nobody cares. I think one can also feel that Tolstoy didn’t like his character and that might be the biggest difference to Flaubert’s story. Flaubert didn’t judge Felicité. He felt compassion. Tolstoy doesnt feel compassion for Ilych as he seems to stand for everything Tolstoy abhors – bureaucracy, nepotism and arrivistes.

As I mentioned before, I read this twice and it feels like I’ve been reading two different stories just because my own life has changed so much. The first time, I’ve read it right after my dad’s death. This time around the sections on illness got to me more because the doctor’s reminded me so much of some of the doctor’s I’ve seen in the last couple of months. They just didn’t listen and had their idea about why I was in pain but very clearly they were wrong.

A lot has been speculated about Ivan Ilych’s illness. It’s never said what he has and might not be important. There are also many theories about the meaning of this story. To me, it is the story of a man who wanted only pleasant things in life, who hated change, and let himself drift until he hit a major obstacle, which he was incapable of overcoming. In that, and verything else, he is indeed mediocre.

Killer in The Rain by Raymond Chandler – Precursor of The Big Sleep – A Post a Day in May

The novelette Killer in the Rain is one of the later short works of Raymond Chandler. He reused some of the elements with great effect in his first novel The Big Sleep.

As a teenager and early teen, I read all of Chandlers novels and loved them very much. Whenever someone asked me who my favourite writer was, I didn’t need to think twice – Chandler. As much as I loved him, I didn’t return to him because I rarely reread books. So, a few years back, someone asked me the question again and I said “It used to be Chandler”. That made it sound as if I didn’t like him anymore, but that wasn’t what I meant, it just meant – it’s been so long, I can’t be sure anymore. While I read and loved all of his novels, I hardly read any of his short stories and novellas, so it was with a lot of trepidation, that I started Killer in the Rain. What an experience this was. This isn’t as good as any of the novels, but it already has all the trademarks and reminded me why he once was my favourite author. Next time someone will ask me the question again, the answer will be – Chandler. And not in past tense, no.

Killer in the Rain is set in LA in the 30s and tells the story of a PI – probably Marlowe – who is asked to look after the daughter of a rich client. She’s been blackmailed and her dad is afraid that she’s got caught up in something sinister. Marlowe finds out the blackmailer owns a lucrative porn book lending business. When he goes to visit him, he finds him dead, his client’s daughter sitting stark naked and completely stoned on a chair, and someone running from the crime scene as soon as Marlowe enters. A little later, one of Steiner’s cars is found in a river, with a body in it.

Telling you more would spoil the story, but I think, this gives you an idea of what to expect.

Killer in the Rain is the novelette that’s closest to his novels in style. We can already see how different from other hard-boiled detectives Marlowe is – he isn’t named in the story, but we can assume it’s him. Marlowe cares. He’s anything but tough. Sure, he can act tough, doesn’t shy away from using a gun and shoot at someone, but he doesn’t do it lightly. As in all the later novels, solving the murder isn’t that important. Marlowe wants to help his client, keep him or her safe. While not as developed as in other books. there’s a social commentary here as well. The corruption of the police is obvious. Marlowe is one of two things that make me love Chandler so much. The other is his style. His books are written in a slang that’s not always easy to understand, especially not since a lot is made up. Chandler loved figures of speech and used them extensively in the novels. Here too, I found many wonderful sentences that made me chuckle.

“Carmen Dravec sat in Steiner’s teakwood chair, wearing her jade earrings.”

“Then all the expression went out of her white face and it looked as intelligent as the bottom of a shoe box.”

“Her giggles ran around the room like rats.”

As the title of the novelette evokes – it’s raining a lot in this book. The weather is always important in Chandlers work. It helps to create a moody atmosphere. I can’t remember if it rains often in his other books, but it does here and in The Big Sleep.

If you’ haven’t read Chandler yet and don’t know where to start this is a good pick. If you like it, you’ll already know that there’s much more and much better stuff where this came from. As for me, I might actually become a rereader after all.

Do you have a favourite Chandler novel? Mine is The Long Goodbye.

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux – French Life Writing – A Post a Day in May

I own everything Annie Ernaux has written up to The Years but have only read a few of her books. Since her books are so short, she seemed an excellent choice for my May project.

Annie Ernaux is divisive. Some people adore what she does, others are put off. Those who love her, praise her honesty, those who don’t, find her indecent. I go back and forth between these two reactions. Sometimes I find it a bit too much, as well. At other times, I’m just so fascinated.

What helped me get along with her better, was to see her oeuvre as a whole. Sure, you can read single books, but you will get so much more out of reading her, when you read more or all of her. It’s never just about the story or the topics of a book with her, it’s always about the process of writing and giving meaning. Writing about a woman’s life, her body, and often, her sexuality.

Several books have been rewritten Simple Passion, her account of her love affair with a Russian diplomat, is one of those. She wrote another book about her affair many years later – Se perdre (To lose oneself – not translated, I think). Aa a reader, you often wonder – Why does she write about this? Why does she have to reveal herself like this and so does she. You’re always part of the writing process as well, part of the thought processes behind the writing.

In Simple Passion (Passion Simple), Annie Ernaux analyses a love affair she had with a married man, the previous year. The affair lasted over a year and was all-consuming. She couldn’t think of anything else but him. Couldn’t find interest in anything else or anyone else, unless they somehow reminded her of him or had something in common with him. She sat whole days next to the telephone, waiting for his call. Spent whole afternoons preparing for his arrival; shopping new clothes, painting her nails, applying new make-up.

The absence of a call is agony. A call is bliss. She’s completely dependent on this man and doesn’t exist outside of their meetings. It’s never as apparent as when she goes on a holiday to Florence. She doesn’t even want to look at anything. Just wants to think of him, imagine how he would see the place.

The book describes everything. Her weakness, her dependence, her desire, her obsession. It’s like reading the account of a drug addict. She’s aware of that herself but there isn’t anything she can do. She wonders sometimes, if he feels the same, but she has no idea. Conversation isn’t exactly part of the whole affair. Sex is important, everything else, not so much. But that is also because of the language barrier. It’s not said in this book that he’s Russian, but in a later book it is revealed. She doesn’t speak Russian, and his French, while good, is not always accurate. He has difficulties to translate deeper meaning.

Since he’s a diplomat, it’s always clear, the affair will end. When it does, she’s shattered. And she takes note of the world around her again. And writes about her affair. It takes her five months during which the Berlin wall falls and the Ceaușescus are executed.

After having finished to write about her affair, she suddenly feels shame. A shame she never felt during the affair, a shame that comes from the idea to publish.

I found the way she described this affair interesting. Most of it rang so true. Haven’t we all waited next to a phone before? Spent afternoons getting ready or endlessly talking and thinking about our love interest? I never found it problematic, that she’s honest. I found it problematic that she never questions having an affair with a married man. Not once. It’s all about her and her feelings. He’s only interesting as far as he’s the object of her desire. And the other woman? It’s as if she doesn’t exist. Obviously, this shows how honest she is, as it doesn’t really make her look good.

People were shocked when this came out in the 90s. Also, because it was a departure from her earlier work and because it’s so explicit about female desire and sexuality. It was certainly courageous to write and publish this at the time. Nowadays, I find it a bit sordid. Not because of the descriptions – it’s never very explicit anyway – but, as I mentioned, because there’s another woman. If it’s a feminist act to live our passions, isn’t it also a feminist act to think of the other woman? I’m not judging that it happened, that would be naive, these things do happen, but that she’s never thinking or writing about it.

After the translation of The Years, Annie Ernaux received a lot of attention outside of France. She’s interesting, well worth exploring, but I’d say, this isn’t the best entry point to her work.

If you’d like to read another review – here’s on I wrote on A Woman’s Life. I liked that one a great deal.

Once There Was A Family – Es war einmal eine Familie by Lizzie Doron – Israeli Literature – A Post a Day in May

Lizzie Doron is a prize-winning Israeli writer. In her work, she often uses autobiographical elements. She was born in Israel to a mother who was a Holocaust survivor. She lives in Tel Aviv. Her books have been translated into German, French, Italian but not English.

Once There Was A Family, as one would translate the Hebrew title Hajta po pa’am mischpacha, is set in Tel Aviv in the 90s. Elisabeth’s mother, Helena, has died. Elisabeth who has left the neighbourhood, in which she grew up as a teenager, returns to observe shiva in her mother’s apartment. During the seven days of the shiva, many people come to pay respect and keep her company. Some she still remembers, some are strangers. The seven days of the shiva are a journey of remembrance for Elisabeth. She dives deep into memories of her childhood, the neighbourhood, and its people.

Born in 1953, like the author, Elisabeth is second-generation, as the children of Holocaust survivors are called. She grew up alone with her mother in a neighbourhood predominantly inhabited by survivors of the Shoah. Everything turns around their memories. Everything is tainted by their memories. Sadness is everywhere. To the sadness of those who survived, often only physically, the sadness of recent wars is added. Many of the children Elisabeth grew up with die during the Six-Day war in 1963 and the Yom-Kippur war in 1973. Like the author, Elisabeth leaves the neighbourhood at eighteen, joins the army and later goes to live in a kibbutz.

I have never read a book like this before. I have read other Israeli authors, but they didn’t focus on the aftermath of the Holocaust. This book is so moving and sad, but never depressing. It allows us to enter a world, that is long lost but has left its mark on many who are still alive. There are so many books about the Holocaust, but not that many, I know of, which tell about the life in Israel, right after the war. There is no escaping the Holocaust. People feel close, because they went through the same. They differentiate each other, often calling others not by their surname but by the camp they have been in. There is one person called Itta Theresienstadt. They all have this in common – they seem to cling to the past. One of them says “I do not want to be well. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to forget.”

And it’s hard to forget as Elisabeth is reminded when the first guests come to the shiva. “One of them was small and scrawny, only bones and wrinkles, the second one tall and big. They stood in the door with crossed arms, as erect as possible, and in the candlelight, one could see the numbers on their arms”.

When there was a festivity in the past, many of the older people got annoyed. “Who are you going to invite? Your mother and father from Treblinka? Uncle Jisruel and aunt Mira from Majdanek? Your grandfather from Dachau?”

Sometimes, the memories are so overwhelming, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, when asked where they live, still answer with the number of their barracks in Auschwitz, Dachau or Treblinka.

The longer the shiva goes on, the more Elisabeth remembers the good things; not everything was overshadowed by the pervading sadness. Because of the shared past, there was a connection that made them all feel like family. You could rely on your neighbours. They would always help. They would always care. Proof of that are the many flickering remembrance candles in everyone’s apartment.

There is tragedy too. Some cannot shake off the past and eventually choose to kill themselves.

One of the most poignant scenes comes towards the end of the book. Elisabeth remembers the day when she went to the hospital with her mother. The doctor insisted he needed to know something about the family history to diagnose her properly. What illnesses were there in the in the family? Elisabeth tells him that she doesn’t know. “They all died young and healthy.”

“Maybe there are family members you could ask,” the doctor insists. “Oh yes”, Elisabeth says, “of course, we could hold a seance.” The doctor does absolutely not understand why she is so unhelpful and finally gets a social worker who scolds him. “It’s a second-generation case, doctor.”

This last scene is so important because it shows that even in Israel, some might have forgotten that whole families, several generations of them, were wiped out.

I don’t understand why this or other books by Lizzie Doron haven’t been translated into English. It’s a massive omission. This book is so beautiful and important that everyone should be able to read it. Especially if they are interested in the Holocaust and Israel.

In later books, Lizzie Doron focusses more on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I’m very keen on reading them as well.

Here’s a very short video in which she talks about how she experiences the lockdown in Tel Aviv and her fear of dictatorship.

Literary Witches by Taisia Kitaiskaia and Katy Horan – A Collection of Magical Women Writers – A Post a Day in May

Taisia Kitaiskaia’s Literary Witches – A Collection of Magical Women Writers, illustrated by Katy Horan, is similar to We Are Artists, the book I wrote about two days ago. Only this time, it’s not women artists but writers from around the world that are celebrated.

In thirty chapters, Kitaiskaia and Horan pay homage to as many writers. Some like Emily Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Toni Morrison are well known. Others, like Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad or Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, might be a little less familiar. Or, at least, I didn’t know them. The wide range allows many readers to discover new names.

Here is the Table of Contents.

The biggest difference between this and We Are Artists is the way it is presented. The biographies are only one paragraph long and not seven pages like in the book about artists. The illustrations also depict the women and something that symbolizes their writing.

Additionally to the biographical paragraph, you find, on the same page, three fictional paragraphs, inspired by the authors. You could call them flash fiction pieces. They are dreamlike explorations of the writer’s consciousness.

What I liked best are the illustrations. I think Katy Horan is terrific. And I also find the biographical paragraphs useful, especially because there’s also a list of the most important works of the authors.

To give you a better idea I’ve chosen three chapters that should help illustrate the book.

Virginia Woolf’s chapter

And Shirley Jackson

And Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad

Literary Witches was published in 2017 and I think I’ve had it since then. I pick it up quite frequently as I like it very much. It’s not the kind of book that I read from beginning to end, more one that I browse.