Musil on Rilke & Rilke on Rodin

Rilke

More Austrian literature. Robert Musil is well known for his fiction and Rainer Maria Rilke his poetry, so I thought I would have a look at something a little out of the ordinary for each of these writers, a public address by Musil and a prose essay by Rilke.

After Rainer Maria Rilke’s death on 29 December 1926, there was a debate as to whether there should be a memorial service in his honour. Among those involved in the debate, Robert Musil was for and Bertolt Brecht was against the proposal. On 16 January 1927, the ceremony took place at the Renaissance Theatre in Berlin, where Musil spoke. His ‘Address at the Memorial Service for Rilke in Berlin’ appears in the book ‘Robert Musil Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft).

Musil’s address covers a raft of material, the affect of a Rilke poem, lyric affect, motifs, metaphors, similes and tropes to name just a few, and it is worth reading the whole address to understand Musil’s passion for Rilke’s work. However I am only going to look at a few highlights here.

There are some wonderful explanations of Rilke’s place in “German” literature laced with social commentary;

This period [the transition from the Classical to the present] was the cradle of the German belief that form could ennoble content, that elevated diction was superior to plain, that to glue the plaster ornament of verse onto a shallow thought was something special. I think I may say that the formlessness of our own time is the natural reaction to this, although of course in abandoning beauty of form our age has also abandoned, in part, beauty of content. Here I cannot permit myself to go into detail, but I think almost all of you know the feeling of aversion that this poetry, with few exceptions, leaves in the young reader who is forced to admire in it the cultural history of his people.

Rilke raising the German poem to perfection;

When I spoke of the perfection to which Rilke has raised the German poem, what I had in mind was at first only an external characteristic. I can describe it to you if I may remind you of the extremely distinctive impression one has on first reading Rilke’s works. Not only hardly a poem, but hardly a line or a word sinks below the level of the others, and one has the same experience through the entire sequence of his books. There arises from this an almost painful tension, like a daring presumption, which in addition is achieved not with any large orchestral display but as if it were quite natural, accompanied only by the simple sound of the verse’s flute.
Neither before not after him has this high and sustained tension of impression, this jewellike stillness within a movement that never pauses, been attained. Neither the older German poem not George not Borchardt possess this free burning of the fire, without flickering or darkness. The German lyric genius carves a furrow like a stroke of lightning, but piles up the soil around it carefully or carelessly; it ignites like lightning, but only scratches surfaces like lightning; it leads up the mountain, but only in order to lead up the mountain one must first always be down below. Compared with this, Rilke’s poem has an expansive openness: its condition endures like an elevated pause.

The address opens with a lament on fame and the lack of public recognition of Rilke’s death;

When the news of the death of the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Germany, and on the following days, when one consulted the newspapers to see how this message was being received by German literary history – for, let us not deceive ourselves, today the process of fame is decided at this low level since, as far as literature is concerned, there is hardly any intellectual level above it – one found what I would characterize as an honorable second-class public funeral.

The address continues;

When I perceived how trifling the loss of Rilke was valued in the public reckoning – it hardly counted as much as a movie premiere – I confess that my first thought was to answer the question why we have come together today by saying : Because we wish to honor the greatest lyric poet the Germans have seen since the Middle Ages.
It would be permissible to say something like this, but at the same time it is not permissible.

Sculptor Auguste Rodin was fortunate enough to have as his secretary Rainer Maria Rilke. Two essays written in 1902 and 1907, were translated by Daniel Slager and released in 2004 by Archipelago Books, with the book also featuring an extensive introduction by William Gass (‘The Tunnel’, ‘Omensetter’s Luck’ and ‘Reading Rilke’) and stunning photographs of Rodin’s sculptures taken by Michael Eastman.

Rilke’s opening to the first essay (1902) also mentions ”fame”, as Musil was later to do at Rilke’s memorial.

Rodin was solitary before he was famous. And fame, when it arrived, made him perhaps even more solitary. For in the end fame is no more than the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name.
There are many of these around Rodin, and clarifying them would be a long, arduous, and ultimately unnecessary task. They surround the name, but not the work, which far exceed the resonance of the name, and which has become nameless, as a great plain is nameless, or a sea, which may bear a name in maps, in books, and among people, but which is in reality just vastness, movement, and depth.

The two essays by Rilke are beautiful to read, not a word “sinks below the level of the others”, a captivating and moving read, capturing the art of sculpture, the individuality of rocks, using an imagined biography of Rodin Rilke is able to sculpt a vision of a genius through his words on the page. I could quote any paragraph to demonstrate Rilke’s masterful approach. Here’s one about Rodin’s reading habits;

From Dante he came to Baudelaire. This was no tribunal of judgement, no poet ascending on the hand of a shadow to heaven. Here, rather, was a simple human being, a mere mortal who suffered like everyone, lifting his voice high above the divine, as if to save us all from destruction. And there were sections of these lyrics that stood out from the rest, passages that seemed to be formed more than written, words and groups of words that were molded in the hot hands of the poet, lines like reliefs to the touch, and sonnets like columns with twisted capitals, bearing the weight of troubled thoughts. He felt dimly that the abrupt ruptures of this art ran up against the beginnings of another art, and that it longed for this other art. He came to think of Baudelaire as a predecessor, an artist who refused to be led astray by faces but sought bodies instead, in which life was greater, more gruesome and more restless.

A thoroughly beautiful book that is worth adding to any collection and one that I will be revisiting, Rilke masterfully creating a vision of the genius sculptor, and a short twenty-five years later Musil was to deliver a heartfelt address at the memorial to such a writer.

More Musil is coming here, I know I promised something on his two novellas which appeared as ‘Unions’, I’ve just read another captivating essay by Musil where his brain is arguing with him about the structure, subject and form of ‘Unions’, so possibly that will come next on my Musil posting spree.

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More Musil, mathematics and machines

PrecisionSoulLet’s continue looking at Robert Musil and his references to mathematics.

‘The Mathematical Man’ is an essay from 1913 (first published as ‘Der mathematische Mensch’ in ‘Der lose Vogel’, no 10-12, April-June 1913);

We may say that we live almost entirely from the results of mathematics, although these themselves, have become a matter of indifference to mathematics. Thanks to mathematics we bake our bread, build our houses, and drive our vehicles. With the exception of a few handmade pieces of furniture, of clothing, shoes, and children, everything comes to us through the intervention of mathematical calculations. All the life that whirls about us, runs, and stops is not only dependent on mathematics for its comprehensibility, but has effectively come into being through it and depends on it for its existence, defined in such and such a way. For the pioneers of mathematics formulated usable notions of certain principles that yielded conclusions, methods of calculation, and results, and these were applied by the physicists to obtain new results; and finally came the technicians, who often took only the results and added new calculations to them, and thus the machines arose. And suddenly, after everything had been brought into the most beautiful kind of existence, the mathematicians – the ones who brood entirely within themselves – cam upon something wrong in the fundamentals of the whole thing that absolutely could not be put right. They actually looked all the way to the bottom and found that the whole building was standing in mid-air. But the machines worked! We must assume from this that our existence is a pale ghost; we live it, but actually only on the basis of an error without which it would not have arisen. Today there is no other possibility of having such fantastic, visionary feelings as mathematicians do.

The essay appears in the collection ‘Robert Musil Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft) and covers a lot more territory including generals on battlefields, the passion of mathematicians, economics and even the plight of German literature.  

The rise of the mechanical age and the decline of religious beliefs also features in Musil’s work, the connection between machines and mathematics highlighted in a number of texts.

Let’s look at ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ (my edition the Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Mike Mitchell), Musil’s first novel, published in 1906, a novel which explores a young boy’s coming of age in a boarding school. The opening paragraphs highlight a move from innocence (and home) into the harsh reality of the present and a world polluted and corrupted by machinery.

A little station on the line going to Russia.
Four parallel iron rails on the yellow gravel of the wide embankment running endlessly straight in both directions, with the dark line burnt into the ground by the exhaust steam like a dirty shadow alongside each one.
Behind the low, oil-painted station building, a wide, rutted road led up to the loading bay, its edges indistinguishable in the trampled earth everywhere around; they could only be made out from the two rows of sad acacias whose withered leaves, choked with dust and soot, lined it on either side.
Whether it was these sad colours, whether it was the pale, watery light of the afternoon sun wearied by the haze, there was something apathetic, lifeless, mechanical about objects and people, as if they had been taken from the scene in a puppet theatre. From time to time, at the same intervals, the stationmaster would come out of his office, look with the same turn of his head up the long stretch of track at the little signal-box that still refused to announce the approach of the express, which had been subject to a long delay at the border; with the same movement of his arm he would then take out his pocket-watch, shake his head, and disappear again, in the same way that figures come and go when the hour strikes in old clock towers. (page 5)

As we can see in this vivid opening, we have the desecration of machines (trains) on the beauty of nature (acacias), a dark line is burned into the grass, trampled earth and dirty shadows. This is a gloomy picture indeed. This is then peppered with the mechanical behavior of the stationmaster, (lifeless, apathetic, mechanical), who repeats his looking for the train and checking of his watch (a machine) at regular intervals, he is compared to a figure in an old clock tower (a machine)!!

From these four paragraphs we can picture the foreboding of the mechanical world, a world where a young Törless is to venture, a place where he will come-of-age, psychologically develop and struggle with his emotions and sexuality.

A wonderful novel that predated the outbreak of the First World War and the rise of fascism, looking at it through the lens of a mechanical (mathematical) structure the riches are too great to share.

Given the popularity of my previous Musil post (the most popular post I have shared in the last two years!!) I will share more thoughts on his writing over the coming weeks, possibly a longer piece on his least accessible works, maybe not…

Robert Musil, mathematics and infinity

Torless

There is really no need to belabor the point, since it is obvious to most of us these days that mathematics has taken possession, like a demon, of very aspect of our lives. Most of us may not believe in the story of a Devil to whom one can sell one’s soul, but those who must know something about the soul (considering that as clergymen, historians, and artists they draw a good income from it) all testify that the soul has been destroyed by mathematics and that mathematics is the source of an evil intelligence that while making man the lord of the earth has also made him the slave of his machines. ‘The Man Without Qualities’ p 36 – Picador edition (tr. Sophie Wilkins)

Mathematics is a recurring theme in Robert Musil’s oeuvre, and as I have made my way through his catalogue, leading up to his unfinished “masterpiece” ‘The Man Without Qualities’, I have been intrigued by the frequent references to mathematics. As readers of ‘The Man Without Qualities would know, the central character, Ulrich, is a mathematician;

It has already been mentioned that he was a mathematician, and noting more need be said of that for the moment; in every profession followed not for money but for love there comes a moment when the advancing years seem to lead to a void.  P16 (Picador edition) (tr. Sophie Wilkins)

However, I am not going to investigate the references to mathematics in his unfinished novel, but will look at his first book ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ (tr. Mike Mitchell), and his short stories published as ‘Unions’ and ‘Three Women’ (tr. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser). The collection of very short observations ‘Posthumous Papers of a Living Author’ (tr. Peter Wortsman) I will use for some other cross reference purposes in a later post.

In ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’, first published in 1906, the protagonist Törless is attending a strict boarding school;

An idea had suddenly occurred to Törless during the maths class.
During the last few days he had followed the lessons in school with especial interest, for he thought to himself:’ If this really is meant to be a preparation for life, as they say, then there must be at least a hint of what I’m looking for.’
It was maths in particular he was thinking of, after the thoughts he’d had about infinity. p81 (Oxford World’s Classics Edition)

This section of the novel then goes on to explore “imaginary numbers”;

‘Yes. It’s not that difficult. You just have to remember that you’re calculating with the square root of minus one.’
‘But that’s just the problem. It doesn’t exist. Every number, whether positive or negative, results in a positive number when it’s squared. That means there can’t be a real number that’s the square root of a negative one.’ P 81

‘…After all, how different is it from irrational numbers? A never-ending division, a fraction the value of which never works out to a final decimal place however long you go on calculating it. And parallel lines meeting in infinity, what do you imagine by that? Pp 81-82

A novel that explores Törless’ coming of age and his exploration of rational thought, the complexity of a world of mathematics, imaginary numbers, irrational numbers, infinity, adds the layer of the unexplorable, a “void” into Törless’ journey for the ultimate truth.

Earlier in the novel, Törless is stretched out on his back in the park, “in vague dreams gazing through the crowns of two trees” at the sky;

And suddenly he noticed – he felt as if it were the first time it had happened – how high the sky actually was.
He felt a kind of sense of alarm. Right above him an unutterable deep little blue hole was shining between the clouds.
It seemed to him as if you ought to be able to climb up into it on a long, long ladder. But the farther he went into it, pulling himself up with his eyes, the more the shining blue background receded. And yet it seemed as if you ought to be able to reach it and hold it fast with your gaze. The desire to do so grew intense to the point of torment.
It was as if his vision, strained to the upmost, were shooting looks like arrows between the clouds, and as if, however far away it set its aim, they always fell a little short.
Now T
örless thought about this, making an effort to remain as calm and rational as possible. ‘Of course there’s no end,’ he told himself, ‘things go on and on, father and farther, to infinity.’ Keeping his eyes fixed on the sky, he repeated that to himself, as if trying to test out the power of an incantation. But to no avail; the words said nothing or, rather, they said something quite different, as if they were referring to the same object, but to a different, alien side of it that didn’t concern him at all.
‘Infinity!’ T
örless knew the word from maths lessons. It had never meant anything special to him. It kept on cropping up, someone or other had invented it at some time in the past, and since then it has become possible to perform calculations using it that were as reliable as those using anything fixed. It was just what it counted as in the calculation; Törless had never looked for anything beyond that. Pp67-68

The concepts of infinity, parallel lines that will eventually meet, an epiphany for an unfinished masterpiece!?!

Five Women

‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ was followed by ‘Unions’ in 1911, a collection of two stories, ‘The Perfecting of a Love’ and ‘The Temptation of Quiet Veronica’. My edition appears as part of a collection titled ‘Five Woman’ released by Verba Mundi books, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser, which also features the thee novellas that made up Musil’s ‘Three Women’ published in 1924. Between ‘Unions’ and ‘Three Women’ he had written, and had published two plays.

The two works in ‘Unions” are a mystical exploration of emotion to the exclusion of narrative, reviewed at the time as “half-lit, veiled, insubstantially transparent… the mollusk-like fabric of all that is living”, and a recent review at Kirkus reviews says; “Musil’s rather extraordinary, claustrophobic concentration on states of mind and feeling– the attempt to stabilize the most impalpable sensations, intuitions, thoughts, apprehensions.”, these are difficult stories to explore. However, the stories also contain the concept of parallel lines meeting in the infinite;

For although the ordered picture of the world continually crumbled away under her gaze, and although what she felt for things was only the avid love that a mother feels for a child she lacks the strength to guide, still, at times now her languor would begin to vibrate like a string, like a note sounding at once deep within the ear and somewhere in the world, rising in a great vault, kindling a light . . . a light and people whose gestures were a long-drawn yearning, lines extending far, far away and meeting far, far away in the infinite. ‘The Temptation of Quiet Veronica’ p199

‘Three Women’ published in 1914 saw the introduction of more stable narrative plot lines and the stories explore “the relationship between eroticism (generally unhappy) and transcendence” (‘The New Criterion’ February 1996) .The opening paragraph of one of the stories in ’Three Women’, ‘Tonka’ also references infinity;

At a hedge. A bird was singing. And then the sun was somewhere down behind the bushes. The bird stopped singing. It was evening, and the peasant girls were coming across the fields, singing. What little things! Is it petty if such little things cling to a person? Like burrs? That was Tonka. Infinity sometimes flows in drips and drops. P69

Posthumous

Musil’s collection of very short reflections and observations of minutiae ‘Posthumous Papers of a Living Author’ was published in 1936 and contains less mathematical references than these earlier works, however I will explore these short pieces in another blog post about Musil’s work sometime in the future. Possibly something on the art of writing.

I have not referenced Robert Musil’s 1913 essay ‘The Mathematical Man’, which appears in translation in the collection ‘Precision and Soul’ (edited and translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft), however I will visit that essay in reference to the perceived decline of humanity and the rise of machines, another recurring theme in Musil’s works.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the introduction, by Johnathan Lethem, from ‘The Man Without Qualities’;

Musil’s novel is the literary equivalent of what the ecological critic Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”, whose precise boundaries in space and time are impossible to measure, the question with a hyperobject is how to place ourselves in relation to it. Pviii

Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck (Translated by Susan Bernofsky)

GoWentGone

Author Jenny Erpenbeck and translator Susan Bernofsky, took home the last Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (‘IFFP’) in 2015, with “The End of Days”, the award merging with the Man Booker International Prize the following year, with the more well known prize pretty much taking on all of the eligibility criteria of the IFFP. “Go, Went, Gone” is the fifth time Bernofsky has translated Erpenbeck’s work (other titles are “The Old Child and Other Stories”, “The Book of Words”, “Visitation” and “The End of Days”), again resulting in a major prize longlisting.

Our protagonist, Richard, a University Professor, has retired, his wife is deceased, he has no children, how will he spend his newfound spare time?

The novel opens with two epigraphs, the first from Wolfgang Pauli;

God made the bulk; surfaces were invented by the devil.

Hinting that we need to look at what lies beneath. The book starting with various references to items below the surface, firstly a dead man at the bottom of a lake;

The lake is deep, eighteen meters. It’s lovely near the top, but in truth an abyss. All the local residents, including him, now gaze with a certain hesitation at the reeds, at the lake’s mirrorlike surface on windless days. He can see the lake when he sits at his desk. The lake is as beautiful this summer as in any other, but this year there is more to it. As long as the body of the dead man hasn’t been recovered, the lake belongs to him. All summer long – and now it’s almost autumn – the lake has belonged to a dead man. (p10)

Next the story of the subterranean catacombs under the Berlin Alexanderplatz, where people shopped whilst they waited for an appointment at the Town Hall;

Even then, unbeknownst to him, these hollow spaces were there beneath him, only a few yards of earth separating them from his feet. (p12)

An interesting history;

…the rubble-filled vaults beneath Berlin’s Town Hall escaped detection even by the Nazis, who contented themselves with flooding the subway tunnels in the final days of the war. Probably to drown their own people who had fled underground, taking refuge from the Allies’ air raids. There you go again, cutting off your nose to spite your face. (p12)

As Richard visits the Alexanderplatz there is a hunger strike by desperate refugees, he doesn’t notice the protest, it is a metaphorical blind spot, the educated not seeing the plight of the desperate. Here the references to the underground start to flow thick and fast;

Under the earth there is only more earth. What comes after that, no one knows. (p24)

What makes a surface a surface? What separates a surface from what lies below it, what separates it from the air? (p31)

…the earth is more like a garbage heap containing all the ages of history, age after age there in the dark, and all the people of all these ages, their mouths stopped up with dirt, and endless copulation but no womb fertile, and progress is only when the creatures walking the earth know nothing of all these things. (pp20-21)

Meanwhile the narrative remains quite simple, Richard finally awakes from his slumber and befriends a group of African refugees, men who are living in Germany, men who are asking for the right to work but are denied such as their route into German was through Italy so it is in Italy where the “human rights” obligations lie.  A subtle change from the oblique references to the underground and the surfaces then happens, where the topic now becomes “borders”. The obvious reference being the former Berlin Wall, with Richard being a former resident of the East, but there are also numerous other references in relation to the refugee crisis.

At the border between a person’s life and the other life lived by that same person, the transition has to be visible – a transition that, if you look closely enough, is nothing at all. (p39)

Early on this novel uses short meticulously crafted sentences, ones rich in meaning as we explore the surfaces, underground, and borders. The experience requires a measured reading. As the exploration of the uninhabitability of Europe for refugees comes to the fore, and the meshing of the West/East Berlin story with the balance of excesses (food, knowledge, reading, sheer volume of goods) against the bare essentials of those who are eternally wandering, the story becomes murky.

With references to the Iliad, Apollo, Hermes, and Johann Sebastian Bach, the story moves from one theme to another, and then the impersonal approach of our protagonist Richard, a person involved with helping the refugees, but at the same time divested, it all starts to lose its focus.

Clunky sentences, for example, “Just as initially, when the men were still living in the suburbs, he’d considered their cell phones a luxury (though admittedly a luxury of the most modest sort), he also couldn’t understand why each of the refugees required his own transit pass.”, that require re-reading suddenly make this book a bit of a chore.

Whilst exploring grand ideas and the current refugee crisis, this book does question your own fundamental beliefs;

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be: battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness. (p209)

The title a mish-mash of irregular verbs and highlighting language differences, however it does also have a more pertinent reference in the book;

…it occurs to Richard – it’s occurred to him many times now – that all the men he’s gotten to know here (these “dead men on holiday”) could just as easily be lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean. And conversely all the Germans who were murdered during the so-called Third Reich still inhabit Germany as ghosts, sometimes he even imagines that all these missing people along with their unborn children and the children of their children are walking beside him on the street, on their way to work or to visit friends, they sit invisibly in the cafés, take walks, go shopping, visit parks and the theater. Go, went, gone. The line dividing ghosts and people has always seemed to him thin, he’s not sure why, maybe because as an infant, he himself came so close to going astray in the mayhem of war and slipping down into the realm of the dead. (pp221-222)

Starting with a wonderful premise, themes that could balance nicely against the reality of the current refugee crisis, this book is ultimately disappointing, slipping late into cliché and preaching. It promised a lot but delivered little. A fine writer, but for mine not a book that should be in discussions for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.

Behind The Station – Arno Camenisch (translated by Donal McLaughlin)

behindStation

Earlier in the week I reviewed Swiss writer Arno Camenisch’s “The Alp”, the first part of his “alpine” trilogy that was released in English in 2014. The second part “Behind The Station” was also published by Dalkey Archive in 2015 and three years later the final installment in the trilogy “Last Last Orders” is about to hit the shelves.

Unlike the third person distant prose of “The Alp”, where the four main characters are the nameless dairyman, swineherd, farmhand and cowherd, this book follows the actions of a pair of young brothers in the alpine village, using the personal narrative of one of the young children.

Like the first instalment, “Behind The Station” was originally written in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German, and this work has a number of references throughout to the Romansh language, our protagonist not understanding German.

We take a short cut. After the highest pylon, the smallest, we lift the bar and jump down into the deep snow. The man in the chair lift behind us goes crazy. He waves his hands, shouts and curses in German, but we don’t understand that here. Here, we understand only Romansh, and not always that either. (p77)

There are also recurring images from instalment one, a crucifix with a hand missing, a radio with a bent aerial, have these items made their way from the alpine farms into the village or are they coincidentally similar? This use of imagery allows the short work to have a broader reach than simply the story of young boys growing up in a village.

My father asks have we fed the bunny rabbits. We say we’ll feed the bunnies in a minute, just need to do something first. My father says, we need to clean the hutch out again soon too. We nod. My father looks strict and shows us his finger. On his finger is white paint. He’s wearing overalls. His overalls are white with splashes of paint. My father’s a painter. On his shoes are splashes of paint. He’s got soap for that that we’re not allowed to use. Hands off, my father says, it’s poisonous, not for the likes of you. Drink that ad you’ll end up with a hole in your stomach. We don’t want holes in our stomachs so we keep our hands off. (p8-9)

It is through this simple, subtle, gentle language that the small village’s introspection comes to the fore. And we see this tiny community through the innocent eyes of a child;

Place on record, my brother says. By the time we’re through the whole village, we’ve counted twenty-five houses, eight hay barns, one car garage, one motorbike garage, the station with the post office, two fountains with the year on them, Nonno’s workshop and storeroom, a phone box, Mena’s kiosk, and four refuse containers. When we reach the other end, we go through the village again, counting the people who live in the village. We can’t count Marionna from the village shop who doesn’t live in the village and not Toni Maissen either who stands at the counter in the station but doesn’t live in the village either. There are forty-one or forty-two residents. We don’t know whether Bollock Tini is one person or two. We need to find out. There are three restaurants in the village, the Crusch Alva where Silvana lives, the station restaurant at the centre, which is closed, and the Helvezia. The Helvezia is my aunt’s. There’s Marionna’s village shop, Gion Bi’s Usego store, Giacasep’s screws shop, the bakery and the hairdresser’s. (p18)

Whilst “The Alp” presented the events of a single summer, high in the mountains with cows, sheep, pigs and goats, this book occurs over a single winter where the day to day activities, like riding a bike or shovelling snow are the main motivators. However, it is not through the actual physical events that the richness of this work is revealed. Using the innocent eyes of youth the book highlights prospects for the future, although similar to “The Alp” where a lament for loss of a simple lifestyle and language is subtle, here is comes more to the fore.

We also have the social implications of living in a small village, the provincial politics and the hierarchy and influence of the various players:

The band is practicing marching. They’re practicing for Sunday and are standing in uniform on the village street. The flag bearer’s at the front and right behind him is Pieder, the conductor. He has a proper conductor’s baton with a cork handle. As soon as he swings the baton and says march, they all begin to move in the direction of the Helvezia and start playing. The musicians are wearing beautiful uniforms. The trousers are dark green with an orange stripe at the side, the jackets are orange with golden button and dark green brushes on the shoulders. The musicians don’t have hats, not even Pieder, who would’ve had the nicest hat with huge white feathers. It’s not as if we’re Indians, Gion Baretta said, we’re not putting the hats on. No one wanted to put the uniforms on either, no one likes them, we almost have to wear them though if the artist from the next village has already paid for them, cost a fortune after all, he says to my aunt. He’d offered to pay for the uniforms if he also got to choose them so of course everyone agreed, saying, he’s a nice guy, it won’t be that bad, and now we’ve this disgrace on our hands. He’ll not be involved very much longer though, and once he’s kicked the bucket we’ll go back to our beautiful old uniforms, with the caps too, that is, the works; the way it should be. (p60)

This section showing how the innocent eyes of the child sees the uniforms as beautiful, but through internal influences moves to “disgrace” with the old now being “beautiful”. Progress and the resistance of such, always bubbling along quietly in delicate ways.

Another subtle work from Arno Camenisch, peeling back more layers of a remote area on our planet, similar to “The Alp” we have another short contemplative book, expertly capturing the isolation and remoteness of the region and its inhabitants, a grand sweeping canvas where the offered picture is only a snippet of the grander image. This work being another piece of the bigger puzzle, through two books we have the workers and now the children, next up the drinkers!!! I can’t wait for the final installment.

The Alp – Arno Camenisch (translated by Donal McLaughlin)

theAlp

“The Alp”, published by Dalkey Archive in 2014, is the first part of Arno Camenisch’s “alpine” trilogy, with part two, “Behind The Station” being published in 2015 and the final instalment “Last Last Orders” due for release in the coming months.

Originally written in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German, this is a very short novel, set in the Swiss Alps, on a single property, in the Surselva District, one of the few regions that is mainly Romansh speaking.

Surselva_Trun

By Adrian Michael (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The book is set over a single summer;

Shoulder to shoulder, peak after peak rises, marking a border, as if – on the other side of this great border – there was nothing else. (p39)

Isolated, our main protagonists are unnamed, they are simply known as the dairyman, swineherd, farmhand and cowherd. They live in the alpine region over summer with a number of other named characters coming into and out of their sphere. The book is written in distant factual detached prose, but it is through these small factual vignettes and anecdotes that the characters slowly become human;

The sun gradually warms the humid, clear air and the last scraps of white cloud vanish. The swineherd removes the cowpats from the yard with the manure shovel and tips them into the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow has a handle missing and its flat tire squeaks. (p14)

Through these seemingly detached vignettes, a whole canvas of rural life, slowly being encroached upon by the tourist industry, comes into view. The four simple lives are juxtaposed against this outside world;

The sun casts the shadow of the photographer from tourist information onto the dirty slabs outside the hut. The flies buzz around his fisherman’s hat. The hut door opens and in the doorway stands the dairyman in his flowery herdsman’s shirt, with his red cheeks and red socks and red laces in his boots. His boots are shining with milking grease. The magnificent head of hair beneath his decorated hat is dripping. He wipes his hand on the seat of his trousers and offers it to the photographer with the camera bags around his neck, and a tripod. With a well-aimed kick, the dairyman chases the goat down from the wooden bench with the engraved plaque outside the hut, then calls the farmhand. The farmhand appears in the doorway with the cheese knife in his hand. His hands are full so he can’t come, he says, and the two herders are off somewhere. The two herders, in their overalls, are lying on their stomachs on the hill above the hut and can hear the dairyman running around the hut and cowshed, cursing them, while alongside the tripod, now set up, complete with camera, its fat lens focused on the mountain backdrop, the photographer unfolds the tourist information leaflet on alpine costumes. (p16-17)

The hints of nostalgia, as the area moves from dairy, and cheese production, pig and sheep farming, to tourism, are kept to slight references; “They have it good these days.”

Through the simple factual paragraphs, that may not even be linear, the reader becomes slowly immersed in their isolated world, outside of dairy work, swine or sheep keeping, is there anything else? This stark prose brings to the fore this isolation, and the seemingly insignificant events slowly build a character study of uneducated men, simple labourers, their loneliness and seclusion. Are these forgotten, insignificant people, individuals merely eking out an existence?

It is the contemplative prose that enriches this book and gives the landscape a much broader perspective than simply using a word count. The expansiveness of the valley, the ruggedness of the Alps, the remoteness being captured through the meditative use of language.

The four main characters, due to their lowly positions have been reduced to functions, not even having names and at times, especially early in the work, they are indistinguishable, however, slowly we see moments of tenderness, humility and humanity shining through the bravado and brutality. Finding an old discarded book and contemplative reading, or lying in meadows observing the clouds, as a reader you do not know what these men are thinking but you do know that their characters are more complex than the simple functions they perform.

Swiss writer Arno Camenisch, apparently writes in both German and Romansh and it would be intriguing to know how much of this work is in each language, is the modern encroaching upon the traditional in the presentation of this work? Not simply through changes where tourism is taking over the traditional lifestyle but the German language slowly infiltrating the region. The Census of 2000 showing that of the 21,231 residents of the Surselva District, 59.4% speak Romansh and 34.5% German.

A short contemplative book, which expertly captures the isolation and remoteness of the region and its inhabitants, a grand sweeping canvas where the offered picture is only a snippet of the grander image. A work that sets up further exploration of the area in the later titles, the second, “Behind The Station” I will look at here in the coming days.

August – Christa Wolf (translated by Katy Derbyshire)

August

My second review of a book titled “August” for Women In Translation month, this one from Germany and Christa Wolf, beautifully and eloquently translated by Katy Derbyshire, whose translation work I have come across before when reading the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlisted “Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer.

As the publisher, Seagull Books tells us:

August is Christa Wolf’s last piece of fiction, written in a single sitting as an anniversary gift to her husband. In it, she revisits her stay at a tuberculosis hospital in the winter of 1946, a real life event that was the inspiration for the closing scenes of her 1976 novel Patterns of Childhood. This time, however, her fictional perspective is very different. The story unfolds through the eyes of August, a young patient who has lost both his parents to the war. He adores an older girl, Lilo, a rebellious teenager who controls the wards. Sixty years later, August reflects on his life and the things that she taught him.

This is a beautifully presented book, as are all of the Seagull Books titles, as Tristan Foster pointed out in a recent review of Georg Trakl’s “Sebastian Dreaming” at Asymptote Journal.

It is not possible to discuss a Seagull book without discussing Seagull Books. Since 1982, this Kolkata publishing house has been salvaging literature which time may have otherwise cast aside. Not only do they pluck from obscurity, they also present literature with a seriousness and gravitas befitting an era preceding our sales-obsessed one. Their books are less consumer goods than they are artefacts: house designer Sunandini Banerjee’s sensitivity and skill result in hardbacks with covers that bloom like rainforest flowers.

“August” is no exception to this observation. The only criticism I have is that it is a very (very) short book, a short story of 74 pages, and the text populating only half of each page, and once you are immersed in Christa Wolf’s work you feel like reading more. Maybe the book could have contained a few short stories.

Stunningly stark, the haunting loneliness of being hospitalised and ostracised from such a young age, is conveyed through the simple prose, you feel as though each word was perfectly chosen;

August doesn’t like the outskirts of cities. The huge, ugly shopping centres with their oversized carparks. The car showrooms outbidding each other’s advertising claims. The fast-food restaurants that August never sets foot inside. He usually brings his own sandwiches along, although they’re not as lovingly made when Trude was alive. He’s not hungry yet. He has to concentrate on the motorway near the city, which gets more and more crowded with every year, on the building sites that never end, only change position. On the traffic jams they cause, which makes the journey longer. August keeps his cool. He never gets impatient. You have the patience of an angel, Trude used to tell him. He never loses his temper. His workmates appreciate that. Sometimes, he knows, they think he’s a bit boring. Come on, say something for a change, they used to nudge him in the beginning when they sat together in their lunch break. But what did he have to say? He had no reason to complain about his wife. No separation to report on. No arguments with the children to moan about. They didn’t have any children. It has simply turned out that way. There’s been no need to talk to Trude about it first. They wanted for nothing. And when Trude died two years ago he certainly couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

A simple life told through a simple tale, I am (yet again) reminded of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize Shortlisted “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins), however in this case the simplicity of a simple life is barer.

Dipping into familiar territory of an unreliable memory, the ageing process and the march of time, the simplicity of August’s life still shows through as emotionally complex, and fraught with ignorance:

…there was a good reason why God gave us the power to forget.

Simple, a work that can be read in a single sitting, and given it was written in a single sitting it is probably the preferred way to approach this book, but also very moving and touching, it makes a great introductory work into Christa Wolf’s oeuvre, even if it contains her only male protagonist, and it is her last written piece!!!

Kudos to Seagull Books for bringing this work to the attention of English language readers, a “women in translation” writer we should be discussing more often.