Truman Capote: The Glass Harp (1951) The 1951 Club

I’m glad that I finally managed to participate in one of Simon and Karen’s reading years series. It wasn’t easy to find a book for 1951, not because there aren’t many but because I already have read so many books published that year. Nonetheless, there were a few left on my piles. Dürrenmatt, Koeppen, and Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege. The latter is a book I’m really keen on reading but it has almost 1,000 pages. I wasn’t in the mood to read in German, and so I picked Truman Capote’s novella – The Grass Harp. I’m so glad I did. It will probably be on the best of list at the end of the year.

Truman Capote’s novella The Grass Harp is set in 1930 or 40, in a small town in Alabama. It’s loosely inspired by Capote’s own childhood.

After the death of his mother, Collin’s father sends him to live with his two estranged cousins Verena and Dolly. The two elderly women live alone, together with Catherine, an African-American woman who pretends to be of Indian origin. It’s a very colorful household because the three women are, each in their own way, eccentrics. Verena is a formidable, bossy woman, the head of the household and main bread-winner. She’s a shop owner and seems to make a lot of money. Dolly, her older sister, is stuck in her childhood. Her room is painted pink all over, she loves to eat only sweets and her imagination’s always running a little wild. But she’s also entrepreneurial. As a kid, a gypsy woman told her a secret recipe. With the help of Catherine, who is also her best friend, and Collin, she collects herbs, tree barks, roots, and berries, and concocts a potion against dropsy. Catherine, who has no teeth, speaks with the help of cotton balls she’s pushed into the cavities in her mouth. Dolly’s pretty much the only one who can understand her mumbling.

Collin’s childhood is lovely. He spends most of his time with Dolly and Catherine who tell tales and behave just like children. They are often outside, go on long walks, collect things from the forests and the meadows.

Beyond the field begins the darkness of River Wood. It must have been on one of those September days when we were there in the woods gathering roots when Dolly said: Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story—it knows the stories of all the people on the hill, of all the people who ever lived, and when we are dead, it will tell ours too.

Until Collin is sixteen, nothing really troubles him or the household he lives in. But then Dolly makes much more money with her dropsy cure and Verena thinks she has to take things in her hands. Without asking Dolly, she buys machinery and a building and brings along a man who should help them commercialize the “gypsy cure”. Dolly, who never refuses anything, is shocked. She doesn’t want to sell her recipe. She doesn’t want to give up the only thing she has. In despair she, Catherine, and Collin, flee in the middle of the night and take refuge in a tree house.

The tree house is soon visited and surrounded by friends and enemies. An elderly judge and a young man whom everyone admires and despises alike, move in with them. The sheriff and other notables of the small town want to force them down but they fight valiantly.

This is such a lovely, heartwarming story, and told in such lyrical prose. It’s as beautiful as it is melancholy and sad. It’s a much older Collin who tells this childhood tale and the tone he uses indicates that a lot of the things and people he describes in this story, are long gone.

If some wizard would like to give me a present, let him give me a bottle filled with the voices of that kitchen, the ha ha ha and the fire whispering, a bottle brimming with its buttery sugary smells . . .”

While it is lovely, it has serious undertones. One could say this is a tale of misfits who stand up for their rights. While Verena is an unusual character for the time, a successful business woman, each of the others stand for a minority or group of people that’s not taken seriously. Catherine is an African-American woman who doesn’t let anyone treat her like a servant. Dolly might have what we would call “Special needs” today. Collin is a kid and back then, they mostly had to do as they were told. The judge is retired and with retirement, he’s lost a lot of the respect he used to have. He was a very just judge. A bit too just for the liking of some and now that he’s older, they want to pay him back.

I remember how I surprised I was, years ago, when I read that Harper Lee and Truman Capote had been friends since childhood and that she helped him with his book In Cold Blood. While I haven’t read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, thinking of that novella and other elements of Capote’s life, made me assume he was from New York. I realized then, that I had been mistaken. Reading The Grass Harp, makes it obvious where Capote comes from and, given the close friendship with Harper Lee, it’s not surprising that this slim book has a lot in common with To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it inspired Harper Lee. The stories and the writing are different, but there are many similar themes; childhood, friendship, authority, love, justice, money, society, death, outsiders, life in a small town, the South, the role of women and African-Americans . . .

I’m grateful to Karen and Simon because they finally made me discover an author I’ve only known through his short stories and essays so far. What a wonderful, nuanced, and stylish writer. And so quotable.

I’ll leave you with some more of the quotes I liked:

But, ah, the energy we spend hiding from one another, afraid as we are of being identified.

 

What one says hardly matters, only the trust with which it is said, the sympathy with which it is received.

 

If you are not admired no one will take the trouble to disapprove.

 

Dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us.

Hermann Hesse: Klingsors letzter Sommer – Klingsor’s Last Summer (1919)

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The novella Klingsors letzter Sommer  or Klingsor’s Last Summer is another of Hesse’s autobiographical books. Like Veraguth in Rosshalde, Klingsor is a painter. As you may know, Hesse painted as well, so the choice of painters as alter egos makes a lot of sense. While both books are inspired by Hesse’s life and both have painters as protagonists, they don’t have much else in common. Veraguth was a realist painter, Klingsor is an expressionist. Veraguth is trapped in a loveless marriage, Klingsor is a free-spirit living an excessive life on the brink of disaster.

The way Hesse chose to write his novella is interesting because he seems to paint with words, tries to capture Klingsor’s expressionist work, and uses some of the most interesting and nuanced names for color. Here too, I liked the descriptions. The story is set in the Ticino region, the Italian part of Switzerland. It has one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Hesse barely disguises the real names. He calls Lugano – Laguno, Sorengo – Barengo  . . . As much as I liked Rosshalde, I really didn’t care for this novella. I hated the main character too much.

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Klingsor is an exalted, self-centred, alcoholic, womanizer and possibly bi-polar. The passages in which he is frenetic and exalted, tries to have sex with every woman he meets, drinks one bottle of wine after the other, and sees death, decay and destruction everywhere, were hard to take. I’ve met a few people in my life who had traits of Klingsor. I really have a hard time coping with this type of energy, even on paper. That said, I might not do this book any justice.

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Nonetheless, I’m glad I read it because it’s interesting to see, how the changes in Hesse’s life are reflected in this story. When he wrote this, he’d left his wife and three kids. Subsequently, sis wife had to be sent to a psychiatric hospital and Hesse too saw a therapist. Even his painting seems to have changed and he moved away from realistic depictions, to more expressive forms.

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What I truly enjoyed is the way he captures expressionist paintings. His choice of words is so strong and powerful; we can see distorted landscapes, painted in striking colors. Towards the end, he paints a self-portrait that really comes to life.

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Klingsor’s letzter Sommer is a short book. It’s essential reading for anyone who loves Hesse but not a good starting point for those who haven’t read him yet.

The biographical elements I’ve mentioned here and in my earlier post are taken from Heimo Schwilk’s Hesse biography. It came out in 2012. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated yet.

Hesse bio

If you’d like to read another post on Klingor’s Last Summer – here’s Pat’s (South of Paris Books) review.

Thomas Mann: Tonio Kröger (1903)

Tonio Kröger

Tonio Kröger is considered one of Thomas Mann’s masterpieces, but only a few elements spoke to me, most of it infuriated me.  The writing is stellar, as usual, and the way he described Lübeck – the narrow alleys and gabled roofs – made me want to travel there, but the idea of the artist as tortured soul and ultimately superior was hard to stomach.

Tonio Kröger is the son of a German Consul and a Southern woman. He’s got his looks, – dark eyes and dark hair – and the name from her. From an early age on, Tonio feels he’s different, an outsider. Not only because his mother’s from the South, but because he loves books and art and feels like an artist. He first feels an intense love for blond and blue-eyed Hans and later for the blond, blue-eyed Inge. They seem to live in another sphere, a happier one, more immersed in life and what society expects from them.

Tonio wants to become a writer and finally, in his twenties, leaves Lübeck for Munich where he lives a life of debauchery, which disgusts him eventually. A long central chapter shows us Tonio discussing his views of art and life with the painter Lisaweta Iwanowna. Tonio is in his thirties now. Prematurely aged and sobered. Shortly afterwards, he departs for his hometown Lübeck. He visits his family home, which has been sold after the death of his father. One part of the stately home houses a public library. Tonio walks through the once familiar rooms. There’s nothing here for him anymore. He leaves for Denmark. At the hotel in Denmark he meets Hans and Inge again. They are married. He watches them without making himself seen. He’s less an outsider now than a spectator, still, he feels keenly that he’s different and decides to return home which isn’t Lübeck anymore.

A last letter to Lisaweta tells us he’s made peace with himself and will return to Munich for good.

The descriptions and the structure of the novella are wonderful. The way Mann captures the feeling of being an outsider is something one can easily relate to. But I didn’t like the ideas contained in the book. Tonio suffers a lot and he would like to be an ordinary person, like Hans and Inge. He would like to be blond and blue-eyed because those people have an easier, happier life. He’s tortured because he’s no conformist, but an artist. This is so dated and clichéd, it’s painful. Plus the association of blue eyes, blond hair with health and strength made me shudder. There’s also a lot of arrogance in this depiction of an artist. Yes, Tonio does suffer – or says so – , but he very obviously feels superior too.

I don’t think you have to be a tortured soul to be a great artists. Feeling like an outsider and being a non-conformist, most probably comes with it, but it doesn’t mean you have to suffer. And it most certainly doesn’t mean you are superior. I can’t accept the idea of an artist (or anyone else) as a superior person  or as “chosen”. That’s pure hubris. Tonio Kröger is filled to the brim with hubris. The suffering Tonio professes felt more like a pose than real pain.

Has anyone read Tonio Kröger? How do you feel about it?

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (2002)

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I’m slowly reading all of Neil Gaiman’s novels. I just love the way he combines the familiar with the uncanny and Coraline, a deliciously creepy tale, is one of the best examples of this ability. I often think I already know a Neil Gaiman story or novel when I begin reading it, but then, all of sudden, half-way in, he twists the story and what seemed like something I’ve read before turns into a new and highly original tale.

Reading Coraline reminded me of the discovery of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ book and it also reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Only the land that Coraline explores isn’t a wonderland, it’s dark, creepy territory.

Coraline is a small girl who has moved into a new apartment with her parents. The apartment is in a big, old house, surrounded by a vast garden. In the apartment below Coraline’s live two former actresses, in the apartment above, an old man who pretends to have a mouse circus.

Coraline is bored. The family moved in during the school holidays and Coraline has no friends in the new neighbourhood yet. Her parents are kind but always busy and distracted. At times it seems they wouldn’t even notice if Coraline was gone.

Then Coraline discovers the door and through that door she enters a reversed world. It’s the same apartment house, the same people live in it. Only things seem more beautiful at first. There are doubles of her parents and they are much more attentive. There’s a black cat that can speak. It’s the same black cat Coraline saw in her own world, only there it wasn’t able to talk.

When Coraline notices that the eyes of the other mother and father are made of buttons, and when she realizes that the other mother wants her to stay, she knows this world is a sinister place.

Will she be able to return to her own world? Will the black cat help her? And what about those ghost children? Will Coraline be able to free them?

What I loved best about Coraline, is how it got darker and darker towards the end. At first it seems a simple tale of a lonely girl finding another, better world that looks almost identical to her own, but then, slowly, she discovers more and more unsettling elements— rats who carry keys, snow globes with little people in it, button eyes, dead children and a lot more. The best element comes towards the end. Unfortunately I can’t write about it, or I would spoil the fun of reading it for the first time.

There is one thing that bothered me though. I’m not fond of black cats in fantasy novels, especially not when they have a few negative traits. This one is a helper but it has a lot of creepy characteristics too. There are too many countries that are superstitious of black cats, and, as long as this is the case, I find the use of black cats highly problematic. Halloween is upcoming, and, like every year – it’s a terrible time in many places for black cats. I would have wished he’d not used a black cat.

I wrote at the beginning that Gaiman combines familiar and unfamiliar elements. He uses stories we all know, but he also combines realistic descriptions of everyday life with fantastical elements. Coraline’s boredom, the way her parents treat her —kindly but without fully acknowledging her — is done very realistically.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but now, with the weather turning more autumnal, I feel like watching it soon.

 

Barbara Honigmann: A Love Made Out of Nothing – Eine Liebe aus nichts (1991)

A Love Made Out of Nothing

Barbara Honigmann’s A Love Made Out of Nothing tells the story of a young expatriate’s journey back to Weimar to attend her father’s funeral. As the narrator remembers her father’s life, she explores her own past and relates her struggle to establish new roots following her emigration from Berlin to Paris. In its portrayal of a young woman’s complex relationship with her father, the novella offers a rich account of German-Jewish history and of the search for identity in the shadow of World War II.

This is my first book by German author Barbara Honigmann but it’s not going to be my last. I loved this novella. A Love Made Out of Nothing  – Eine Liebe aus nichts is written in a very intimate style, almost like a memoir. Honigmann usually weaves her own life into the narrative, blending fact and fiction.

The narrator, who lives in Paris, starts her story with the funeral of her father. He has died in Weimar and she wanted to attend. It’s the first time in years that she goes back to Germany. She’s born in East-Berlin after the war to Jewish parents who had spent WWII in England. After the war the father decides to live in the Russian sector.

Her father has been married four times, her mother was wife number two. She’s returned to her home country Bulgaria years ago and even lost the German language. There is no possibility for the narrator to communicate with her as she doesn’t speak Bulgarian.

During her childhood she spent all of her weekends with her father and stayed in contact with him ever since. A couple of years before his death, she leaves the DDR and moves to Paris, hoping that a new city, a new language would not only bring a new life but her own transformation.

Much of her emotional life is full of shadows and muted grief over the impossibility to live with the man she loves. All they have is a “Love Made Out of Nothing” as it proves to be impossible for them to live together. When she meets someone else that love can’t be lived either because the man returns to the US.

Memory, identity, languages, exile and emigration are the themes this small poetic book explores. The reasons why someone leaves his or her home country are complex. Political reasons, danger, a lack of freedom are triggers, but they are not the only motive. There is always also the wish to become another person and when that isn’t possible what remains is a feeling of loss and unfulfilled yearning. The narrator wishes to be rootless, but, paradoxically, in trying to run away from her home and her parents she imitates their life.

Barbara Honigmann is a Jewish author but she transcends the Jewish experience and captures the universality of her themes, making it easy for non-Jewish readers to identify. I have read the German edition of this book that’s why I can’t tell you anything about the second novella, which is contained in the English edition.

Julia Strachey: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932)

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It seems my reading is very influenced by Danielle’s these days as this is the second book in a row I bought after having read an appealing review on her blog.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is an absolutely delightful little book; charming but still witty, filled with dry humour, detailed descriptions and quirky characters.

On the cover it is compared to Katherine Mansfield, E.M. Forster and Stella Gibbons which is apt but isn’t giving Julia Strachey enough credit for her originality.

A very crisp March morning slowly turns into a gloriously bright but chilly day. Dolly is about to get married to the Hon Owen Bingham who is eight years her senior. While she is getting ready in her room upstairs, the guests arrive and gather downstairs. Among the guests is Joseph with whom Dolly has spent a wonderful summer and possibly a love story.

The closer we get to the wedding the more things go topsy-turvy. Mrs Thatcham, Dolly’s mother, who is a very muddle-headed person assigns the same room to different people, the young cousins of Dolly chase and tease each other loudly, Dolly empties a bottle of rum, Joseph starts crying and in the end Dolly and Joseph are caught by Dolly’s soon-to-be husband in something that looks like an embrace.

Reading this book is like watching a dance on a slightly crowded dance floor. While all the dancers know their moves, they get into each other’s way, bump into each other and what we get to see is graceful chaos.

The character portraits are very witty. Dolly and Kitty’s mother, Mrs Thatcham is such an airhead. While there is huge drama going on behind the scenes, she wouldn’t even notice it, if it was brought to her attention. All she seems to care about is that there is cheerful weather for the wedding. Dolly and Joseph’s relationship is a mystery. We really wonder whether she is doing the right thing in marrying Bingham.

The people and their drama unfold within pages full of delicate descriptions which reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s early work. There are descriptions of the way light falls into a room through fern pots and colors it in a greenish hue, of the shades of dresses, the shape of a flower, the pattern on a lampshade. These are delicate and exquisite descriptions which paint a wonderfully rich picture.

Cheerful Weather for a Wedding is a most enjoyable little book which I can recommend to anyone who likes the writing of the early Virginia Woolf or E.M. Forster, infused with a dose of dry wit.

The novella has just been made into a movie starring Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey) as Mrs Thatcham. I was very keen on watching it but it has received an incredible amount of bad reviews and an IMDb rating of 5.1.

Has anyone seen the movie?

And has anyone read other books by Julia Strachey?

Dickens in December – A Christmas Carol – Readalong

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It didn’t take Delia and me very long to decide which book to choose for our Dickens in December readalong. There really couldn’t be a more fitting book to read just before Christmas than Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Last week we sent out a few questions. Some of you have chosen to answer them for the readalong, others wrote a review. Both is fine and all the links to the different contributions can be found at the end of my post and will help you to find the participants and visit their blogs. It’s updated regularly, so come back and check who else has contributed.

Is this the first time you are reading the story?

I have read A Christmas Carol before, I guess some 5 or 6 years ago and already knew then that I would read it again some day.

Did you like it?

I liked it very much 5 years ago that’s why I knew I would read it again. I still liked it this time around but for very different reasons. I was much more attentive this time to the moral of the story. The first time I was paying more attention to the descriptions.

Which was your favorite scene?

I have two favourite scenes or parts. One is the scene when Marley’s ghost appears. It’s quite spooky and Scrooge’s shock is shown so well. It’s also a very dark passage as there is clearly no redemption for Marley. It’s too late for him to change anything. While the whole story is about the power of change, this first part is a cautionary tale showing us that while Dickens did believe in change that didn’t mean he was an optimist who didn’t see that there were lost souls too.

The second part I liked a lot was when Scrooge first follows the second spirit. The descriptions are among the most evocative. They show Dickens’s style amazingly well.

Which was your least favorite scene?

I couldn’t think of a scene I didn’t like.
Which spirit and his stories did you find the most interesting?

I found the third spirit and how he was described, his appearance, the most interesting. He was the most ghostly but I liked the stories and what the second spirit showed Scrooge the most. These were the stories, I think, which reached Scrooge’s heart and let it melt.
Was there a character you wish you knew more about?

I would have liked to know more about Marley. Why did he become such an embittered old man?
How did you like the end?

It’s a perfect ending, Scrooge’s joy can be felt in every line and is very contagious. It’s the illustration of the belief that people can always change as long as they are still alive. And it also shows that there are good people in the world. While Scrooge has to make an effort and change, if the others were not ready to forgive him, we wouldn’t have this happy ending.
Did you think it was believable?

I think that someone can change profoundly but maybe not in such a short time.
Do you know anyone like Scrooge?

I know people with Scrooge-like traits but nobody who is as bad as he is.
Did he deserve to be saved?

Scrooge had a heart of stone but he wasn’t treating himself any better than others which I think makes a huge difference. If he had been spending a lot, living in luxury, feasting but depriving others, I would not so easily say yes to this question but given that he didn’t harm others for his own sake or actively inflict pain, I’d say, yes, the change of attitude and sentiment is reason enough for him to be saved.

Other contributions

50 Year Project (TBM)

Dolce Bellezza (Bellezza)

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Polychrome Interest (Novia)

Postcards from Asia (Delia)

The Argumentative Old Git (Himadri)

The Things You Can Read  (Cynthia)Questions and Answers

The Things You Can Read Student Comments

The View From the Palace (Shimona)

Lost in the Covers (Elisa)

Leeswamme’s Blog (Judith)

Lynn’s Book Blog

Love. Laughter and a Touch of Insanity (Trish)

A Work in Progress (Danielle)

Sandra – please see comments section

Tabula Rasa (Pryia)

Slightly Cultural, Most Thoughtful and Inevitably Irrelevant (Arenel)

My Reading Journal (Ann)

Vishy’s Blog (Vishy)

Resistance is Futile (Rachel)

Too Fond of Books

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat (Caroline)