Baltic Books Blog Tour – A Guest Post by Kristine Ulberga

This year the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are celebrating 100 years of independence with new translations of Baltic Books coming to the UK for the first time and a series of cultural events happening across the UK. The Baltics are also being honoured as the Market Focus at London Book Fair (LBF), the biggest book trade event in the UK. Part of these celebrations is a blog tour. I was asked a while ago if I wanted to take part and since it sounded so interesting, I gladly accepted. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to read any books, but I’ll remedy that shortly. Instead of a review, I’m happy to share a guest post with you, in which Latvian author Kristine Ulberga writes about her writing day.

Kristine Ulberga’s acclaimed novel The Green Crow is a fable about womanhood, individual freedom and the strait-jacket of traditional gender roles. It’s one of Peter Owen’s leading titles for this year, translated from the Latvian by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini. I can’t wait to read it.

Here’s the blurb:

A feminist One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…

Institutionalized in an asylum, a woman with a record of hallucinations commits her life story to paper. She records, from the age of six, her earliest memories of a drunken and abusive father, the strange men her mother introduced to repair the family, the imaginary forest to which she would run to safety, and, of course, the enormous talking green crow who appeared when she most needed him. The green crow is a conceited, boisterous creature who follows the novel’s nameless protagonist throughout her life, until the day that the crow’s presence begins to embarrass her. Confined to a tedious domestic life, she is desperate to hide the crow’s very existence. Failing to do so, she is placed in a psychiatric hospital. Can she repress and renounce her acerbic, sharp-beaked daemon? Or learn to love herself, bird and all? Ulberga’s The Green Crow is a fable about womanhood, individual freedom and the strait-jacket of traditional gender roles.

And, finally, the most important part of this post, Kristie Ulberga’s guest post.

My Writing Day by Kristine Ulberga

The order of my writing-day varies depending on the life period. B.B (before baby) and P.B (in the presence of my baby). B.B period was quite a boring one, no challenge at all and a lot of unused time. P.B period has been a very productive one, because the essence of Time has changed so very much. Every writing minute while my daughter is napping, has become so very precious.

Though the habits of my working process have not changed almost at all. A big amount of a warm black tea, lap-top, cigarettes and silence in my kitchen, for I do not have a special cabinet for working. Sometimes I seek for something else to do, instead of using my time for writing, because I know that every time I write, it takes some peace of my heart and a lot of living energy. Getting into deep is a pleasure, but at the same time that means entering a strange world, what has nothing to do with the ongoing reality. And then it is a hard work to get out from this depth to take care of my children and do house duties.

In the time of writing my last novel, my daughter was a new-born baby. I tried to use every single minute to go on writing, because of the deadlines. I lived between two worlds – one – the endless love of looking into my child’s eyes and the other – doing the stuff which at the one side is nonsence and just an illusion of the real living. When I am asked if I read books, I always say, that reading is not living, writing is not living. But I cannot throw away the gifts I have been given. The gifts and the burden.

******

Thank you so much, Kristine, for sharing this with us. It was so interesting. I know from other writers what a challenge it can be to write with a baby. I also know that many are not able to write again until the child is much older or that they only write short and very short fiction.

The Green Crow by Kristine Ulberga, translated from the Latvian by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, will be published by Peter Owen in May 2018. 

The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – will be the Market Focus for the London Book Fair 2018 (10th – 12th April).

Have you read any Baltic literature? If so, what would you recommend?

My Case for “The Artificial Silk Girl” – A Guest Post by John Lugo-Trebble

The Artificial Silk Girl

When you are part of a writers’ group, it’s only natural to discuss books. And so, a while ago, I mentioned German Literature Month on my writer’s forum and found out that one of the members. John Lugo-Trebble, had studied German literature and did research on Irmgard Keun (and other authors). While discussing, he said that he found she deserved to be more widely known, especially her masterpiece The Artificial Silk Girl Das kunstseidene Mädchen. I certainly agree with him, and so I asked him whether he felt like writing a guest post for German Literature Month. I’m very glad he said yes. John Lugo-Trebble is an American writer, living in the UK. Some of his short fiction is forthcoming on Jonathan the literary journal of Sibling Rivalry Press.

My Case for “The Artificial Silk Girl” – by: John Lugo-Trebble

Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” was the inspiration for “Cabaret” which for an English speaking audience is often the image conjured up of Weimar Berlin. His Berlin is a decadent melting pot on the brink of implosion through the eyes of fun seeking expats. I don’t think you can argue that his observations are not important but for me, reading is like travelling and when I travel I always like to experience what locals would. This is why for me, one of the most important German texts capturing the era that should be read by English speakers is “Das kunstseidene Mädchen” (“The Artificial Silk Girl”) by Irmgard Keun.

Georg Grosz - Die Stadt

Irmgard Keun gives us not just a German insight but a female German insight to Weimar through the eyes of her protagonist Doris. Working in a theatre in Köln, young Doris craves the spotlight, like the women in the glossy magazines that are like her Bible. She wants glamour, she wants wealth. She doesn’t want to be like her parents, on the breadline. She especially fears becoming her mother and having to support a man, in a loveless marriage. Doris becomes enamoured with a fur coat at the theatre and decides to steal it. In her fur coat, she can dream of the life she so covets. She can pretend to be that wealthy young girl who deserves the finery in life. She can epitomise glamour when wrapped in the soft fur. Now a fugitive because of this coat, she runs to Berlin wherein her vain attempt in pursuing glamour she weaves through the city’s underworld of prostitutes, pimps, communists and even becoming a mistress herself. Her dreams quickly spiral out of control as she chases money, stability and ultimately love amidst the backdrop of Berlin’s economic and political turmoil; putting us in mind of one of Grosz’s paintings come alive.

On the one hand, Doris is a mirror of the limitations of the New Woman, a woman who was to be liberated from the shackles of Imperial Germany by the promise of the Social Democratic Weimar Constitution. The reality is the limitations of that liberation that came with the economic upheaval left by the Treaty of Versailles. There is though something in Doris’ tale that resonates still today and that is the pursuit of glamour, a desire for celebrity.

I was reminded only recently of “The Artificial Silk Girl” when I was watching “The Bling Ring.” For those of you who haven’t seen it, the film is loosely based on a crime spree in Los Angeles perpetrated by a group of celebrity admiring, glamour seeking teenagers who literally break into the houses of their style icons to steal their possessions. They are driven by this desire and need to be famous, to lead an untouchable existence of celebrity. I couldn’t help but think of Doris. The difference though is that Doris has a moral centre which comes forward as she sits on a bench at Bahnhof Zoo, no longer the girl start struck in pursuit of wealth, she is a woman aware of the world around her, her own limitations, and indeed her own desires. Will she head out of Berlin or stay? We don’t know, but what we do know is that the fur coat is long gone now.

Irmgard Keun is one of the few German women writers of her day who have been translated into English and I truly believe one of the finest writers of the Twentieth Century, full stop. She presents us with a protagonist who has the naiveté of youth and the observational skills of a woman of her day. You will fall in love with her vulnerability, laugh at her silliness and want to shake her till she grows up but also respect her path because she tries, even when there is no hope presenting itself. With Keun, there is a voice beyond Alfred Döblin and Hans Fallada’s portrayals of women which leave much open to debate. There is more than Sally Bowles.

*****

Thanks so much, John, for this interesting post. I hope those who haven’t done so yet, will soon pick up The Artificial Silk Girl, or one of Keun’s other great novels.

Guest Interview at Postcards From Asia

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I was very honoured when one of my favourite bloggers, Delia from Postcards from Asia, asked me if I would like to take part in her guest post series.

In her interviews she asks questions about favourite books, books that we’d take to a desert island, books that made us cry . . .

If you’re interested you can find the interview here.

I always enjoy reading Delia’s thoughtful posts and the events we organized together were some of the best blogging experiences I had. I hope we’ll do that again soon.

Prague German Writers – Franz Werfel: Pale-Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein)

This is the second in the series of guest posts from literalab on Prague German writers. Part I – The introduction – can be found here. 

So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here is the first of what will inevitably be an incomplete list of Prague German writers and some of the books they wrote:

1 – Franz Werfel

During his lifetime Werfel (1890-1945) was Prague’s leading literary star, the one whose fame allowed him to leave his provincial hometown behind for the intellectual and cultural bright lights of Vienna. Initially famous as a poet and playwright, Werfel’s current revival is based on his prose, specifically his 1933 international bestseller about the Armenian genocide The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and 1941 novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand, both published by Godine in 2012.

Though Musa Dagh had been translated into English and has been reprinted periodically since the 30s it suffered from cuts of up to 25% of the original novel, cuts that weren’t even made to appease Turkish political pressure (though that was present at the time and helped prevent a Hollywood adaptation) but to fit the work for this adaptation that wasn’t made and for the Book-of-the-Month club. The new edition is the first time the novel has appeared in English in its entirety.

I’d like to highlight the lesser-known novella because Werfel is sometimes criticized for writing long and long-winded novels – in other words for being the anti-Kafka, the opposite of the writer who was so sparing of his adjectives and adverbs. Yet Pale Blue Ink is a masterpiece of concision, and with a lot of recent discussion on the value and nature of the novella, it’s a prime example of a literary form (not just a short novel or a long short story) that at its best contains both the sweep of a long novel as well as the kind of precision in dramatic moments or individual lines typical of the best short stories.

The book opens with Austrian bureaucrat Leonidas Tachezy and his rich and beautiful wife, whose life of empty elegance reflects the Vienna of the 30s they live in. Unfortunately, for both the couple and the city, this smooth surface is only an illusion everyone pretends to believe in at a precipitously high cost. For Tachezy it’s a letter from his past that shatters his present life, though to what degree it will break he spends a great amount of effort trying to determine. An affair is one thing, actually not all that uncommon, but as the details of the letter get drawn out and as Tachezy is forced to confront his self-image Werfel subtly shifts the grounds of the book from ballrooms and boudoirs to Gestapo jail cells in a way that the impact is far stronger than if he had confronted the Nazis head-on.

Pale Blue Ink takes place within a single day and possesses a singular intensity in its focus on a letter and the specific long-ago relationship with a Jewish woman it recalls to the protagonist. Yet the novella’s reach is immense, bringing in Tachezy’s past and modest upbringing, Viennese high society, its government bureaucracy and the darkness of neighboring Nazi Germany.

In achieving the economy of the novella Werfel makes powerful use of leitmotifs that recur with particular characters or to drive home certain themes. Tachezy’s wife Amelie is obsessed with retaining her youthful beauty and the descriptions of her eyes become increasingly haunting and elaborate throughout the book. As a student Tachezy inherited a tuxedo from a Jewish fellow boarder who committed suicide, and this tuxedo likewise goes on to carry a dark, symbolic weight.

The best part of Pale Blue Ink is how unbalanced you are kept reading it, not knowing from one moment to the other just what type of story it is – a love story, a psychological portrait, a society novel, an early Holocaust book – and whether the main assumptions of the protagonist (and reader) are true or not.

Thanks a lot, Michael for this review.

The subsequent posts in the series will either be featured on this blog during German Literature Month or on literalab. I’ll add the links in any case. 

Here is part I of the series: Introduction and Werfel and Kafka (literalab)