Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Sunday, July 15, 2018

“The Cake Tree in The Ruins” - A Short Story by Akihuki Nosaka - 2003 - translated 2015 by Ginny Tapley Takemori

“On 15th August, the war the grown-ups had started finally ended. The whole of Japan had been burnt to the ground and everyone was hungry, but amidst the ruins stood just one cake tree. It was always surrounded by children gorging themselves on its delicious leaves and branches, but the grown-ups passed right by without ever even noticing it was there.”

Post World War Two Japanese fiction is a World Class cultural treasure.  Underlying much of the tremendously creative and often profoundly wise literature is the impact of Japan’s defeat in the war.  When The Emperor addressed his subject on the radio on August 15, 1945 and told them Japan had surrendered and that he was not a god, the cultural basis for Japanese society was devastated.  Kenzaburo Óe has said the most valuable result of the atomic bomb attacks was in the wisdom the terrible suffering brought to the survivors and care givers.  Some writers,  responded by writing elegant accounts of a destroyed tradition, others shifted to very violent sexually graphic works representing a now limit free ethos, others to magic realism. Some, like Akiyuki Nosaka strives to capture the pain of ordinary Japanese.  

In “The Cake Tree”, set in a Kobe after it was firebombed in 1945
we are presented a very moving account of the daily existence of a group of children, ages five to ten.  These lines show the impact on the children 

“Adults were better at enduring these conditions, but it was really tough on growing children, especially since it was the grown-ups who had gone to war in the first place while the children were simply innocent victims. For those children between the ages of five and ten in 1945, it really was a miserable existence—they had never eaten anything tasty, while however hungry the grown-ups were now they could remember eating their fill of delicious food in the past. They would reminisce about the tasty eel in suchand-such a restaurant, and the mouth-watering tempura in another, especially the shrimp and vegetable fritters”

The search for food became the work of the children:

“Rice had been rationed since 1941, sugar was hard to come by, the cakes and candies that had once flooded into the ports had vanished, and by the end of the war the only sweets available were dried bananas and sweet potatoes. In order to survive, the children formed gangs to go scavenging for the tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and other vegetables people had started growing in the ruins. They knew it was wrong to steal, but survival was more important to them, and they could sniff out exactly where tomatoes were turning red or pumpkins were swelling up nicely. “Hey, what’s this tree?”

The tree’s story is just so beautiful, magic realism with the touch of a master.  I don’t want to tell the marvelous close of this story but I loved it.  Nosaka, drawing on his own experiences, in just a few pages bringing to life a world now largely forgotten

This is the title story in a collection of that name forthcoming from Pushkin Press. There are eleven other WW II era stories in collection, one about a whale that falls in love with a submarine and a very deep story about the relationship of an American POW and a little girl.

All into Japanese fiction, especially works about the war, need to add this to their to be read list.  I will be returning to these stories for more 

Akiyuki Nosaka was born in 1930 in Japan, and was a member of the yakeato generation, ’the generation of the ashes’, who survived the devastating firebombing of Japan during the Second World War. Nosaka was an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, essayist, lyricist, singer and politician. His adoptive parents were killed in the Allied firebombing of Kobe, and after he was evacuated with his sister, she died of malnutrition. These experiences inspired the stories in this collection, as well as one of his best-known works, Grave of the Fireflies, which was turned into a hugely successful Studio Ghibli film (called ’a masterpiece’ by the Guardian), and which is forthcoming in a new translation from Pushkin Press. Nosaka died in 2015. From Pushkin Press

Mel u

Saturday, July 14, 2018

George Sand by Martine Reid - 2013. Translated and introduced by Gretchen. Van Slyke - 2018

George Sand by Martine Reid 

Paris in July hosted by Thyme for Tea is a great event.  I Focus on literary works and nonfiction but you are invited to share your thoughts and experience on anything Paris related, from a great recipe, a favourite movie set in Paris, mine is Ninotchka, an account of your stay in Paris.  I hope lots of people join in.  Just be sure to  link you post on The event home page.

Already there are lots of very interesting posts from food bloggers, Francophiles, travel bloggers, as well as book bloggers.  Normally I don’t venture far from the international book blog community so for me this event is an excellent way to expand my horizons. 

So far I have posted on

  1. “A Yiddish Poet in Paris” by Blume Lempel, 1978
  2. Vagabond by Colette, 1904
  3. Lost Times - Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czafski -translated and introduced. by Eric Karpeles - 2018
  4. “Her Last Dance” by Blume Lempel - 2018
  5. Gerorge Sand by Martine Reid

July 1, 1804, Amantine Lacile Aurore Dupin was born into a Nobel family.  She was called “Aurore” by friends and family.

1822 Marries Casmir Dudevant, they have two children, seperate in 1835 and begins a series of affairs with well known men, most famously Frederic Chopin (1837 to 1847)

1831 -published the first of fifty novels

1832 - Published Indiana and begins to use the pen name George Sand under which she will be for ever famous 

George Sand by Martine Reid is a decent informative book on a writer who, i am guessing, is most now known for using her pen name, dressing as a man, smoking cigars and for her ten year affair with Frederic Chopin.

Reid details her childhood and her up formative years.  One of her grandfathers was the illegitimate son of a Polish King.  She was raised in affluence.  Reid for sure helped me understand the childhood of Sand, something many literary biographers often skip over.  

Reid goes into depth about why Aurore, Reid calls her that, assumes a male name and dressed as a man.  In part it was that women writers were assumed to be lacking in depth.  Also as Reid explains dressed as a man Aurore could go about in Paris than an unescorted woman.  We also see gender blending aspects of her psyche.

Reid devotes a good bit of space to the Chopin romance.  We learn a good bit about Chopin also.

Reid places Sand in context of 19th century French literature.  Sand had intellectual relationships with Balzac and Flaubert.  Both admired her talent but neither saw her as a peer.

Reid relies heavily on Sand’s autobiography.

I think anyone interested in 19th century literature will be glad to have this book as am I.

The kindle price (for an under three hundred page book) is $22.95.  I do  not find myself able to recommend this book to anyone but a specialist in the field at that cost unless price is not a concern.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

“Her Last Dance” by Blume Lempel - initially published 1986 - translated. from Yiddish 2017 by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Taub

Paris in July

“My older brother watches over me, telling me what to write in Yiddish. I can’t very well ask him not to speak in the language of exile. Blessed with the gifts of a prodigy, he knows what I’m thinking. Yiddish is not a language of exile, he answers my unspoken words —it is mame-loshn, our mother tongue. I have tremendous respect for my brother. He believed in the goodness of man, the goodness of all. He met with a double disaster —disappointed first in his faith, then in himself. Now he watches over me, directing my stories from beyond the grave with a sure touch. This is how it was. This is what happened. So must it be recorded. Each according to his ability must convey what he saw, what he lived through, what he thought, what he felt. You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated.”.  From The Yiddish Writer by Blume Lempel

Paris in July hosted by Thyme for Tea is a great event.  I Focus on literary works and nonfiction but you are invited to share your thoughts and experience on anything Paris related, from a great recipe, a favourite movie set in Paris, mine is Ninotchka, an account of your stay in Paris.  I hope lots of people join in.  Just be sure and link you post on The event home page.  There are already lots of fascinating posts.

I was gratified when my post on a story by Blume Lempel “A Yiddish Poet in Paris” drew attention from event participants.  Many thousands of Eastern European Jews immigrated to France in the 1930s, hoping they would be safer from the Nazis.  

Blume Lempel

Born 1907 in The Ukraine

Moved to Paris in 1929, to be near her brother who lived there.

While in Paris she worked as a furrier and attended night school.

1939- having married and had two children, her Family moved to New York State, out of concern over rising anti-Semiticism.  (Many in her extended Family died in The Holocaust as would she and her Family had they not left.  In 1942 French authorities in a compromise with the Germans, agree to arrest and turn over to the Germans all foreign born Jews. 

I am currently reading a fascinating work focused partially on Jewish culture in Paris in the 1930s, THE ARCHIVE THIEF The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust by LISA MOSES LEFF.  This quote from her book will help us understand Yiddish Paris:

“The highly politicized, culturally dynamic milieu that Szajkowski found in Paris was an important hub in the vast global diaspora of Yiddish-speaking Jews that formed in the turbulent 1920s and ’30s. This meant that many of the same political and cultural ideas that Szajkowski had encountered as a boy in Zaromb—Communism, Jewish socialism, Zionism, and diaspora nationalism—also shaped life among the 90,000 immigrants who formed the majority of Paris’s interwar Jewish population of about 150,000. In those years, antisemitism and economic hardship pushed many Eastern European Jews to migrate across the globe, as they sought new situations in which they could support themselves and live their lives in peace.” 

(It should be noted that not all French Jews self identified as Yiddish, many had been in France for centuries but this is complex matter.)

Lempel came to love Paris and became fluent in French. Shortly after she and her family  left France her brother was killed by the Germans as a resistance fighter.

1943- begins to publish, starting with a Short Story

All her writings were in Yiddish.  In part this was her way of defying those who wanted the magnifcient Yiddish Cultural tradition destroyed.

In 1950 the Family locates permanently in Long Island.  I was happy to learn she lived 92 years and continued to publish well into her eighties.

1999 passes away.

I could not find much sbout the details of her life in Long Island, there is a great bio or novel in this for someone.

“Her Last Dance” was published in English translation in a collection of her work, Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, named for one of the stories, translated and introduced by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Taub, assembled from two Yiddish language collections published by Lempel.  In my prior posts on Lempel there are links  to two very good lectures by the translators. I thank them for bringing Lempel to the Yiddish lacking literary world.

This story is set in Paris, the allies have just landed in Normandy.  Our chief character Simone  is the mistress of the Nazi selected French chief of police for Paris.  She has a dangerous secret.  Her lover has no 
Idea her parents are Yiddish speaking immigrants from Lithuania.  She has died her hair blond and has learned to get by on her looks and a willingness to trade sexual accomodation for comfort and luxury. Simone begins to wonder if she is trapped, how can she survive when the now obviously worried Germans leave Paris?  Lempel  takes us to a café gathering of Nazis.

“Among the full and empty glasses on the table were scattered newspapers in various languages. It was the summer of 1944. The Allies had landed on the golden beaches of Normandy. This new situation placed the bleached blond mademoiselle in a dilemma. The worm of doubt that lurked within every turning point had crawled into her pampered soul. Simone did not believe in principles; she led her life by caprice alone. In fact, one could say that principles played no part in her life at all. She relied on her intuition to take her from one stage to the next, even into the bedroom. Now her intuition was whispering that it was time to turn over a new leaf.”

Now the Gestapo bosses of the mayor begin to think, very incorrectly, that she may be a spy for the resistance.  Simone begins to wonder how can she escape being labeled a collaborator once the war is over?  All she ever wanted was to get by on her looks and help her parents, who dont really approve of her life style but these are dark times.

Simone begins to help downed fighter pilots get out of France:

“This very morning she had carried out a daring mission. She had smuggled out an R.A.F. flier who had escaped from custody and delivered him to the Resistance. She had hidden the flier in her maid’s attic quarters, dressed his wounds, provided him with civilian clothes and a false passport, and driven him in her car to his destination. Simone Bonmarchais worked only for prominent men, wanting nothing to do with ordinary people. She was the ideal mistress for her lover, as she asked no favors of him. Underlings did the preparatory work, providing her with the passports and warning her of danger. She rewarded them with higher positions and better pay. With an aesthetic outlook, she dismissed the rumors of mass murder. In her bleached blond head, such outrageous stories could not take up residence. The scope of the atrocity was so far beyond human comprehension that lies were more believable than truth.”

She likes to help pilots as they are exciting figures.

I will give Lempel the last word on the fate of Simone, now in the custody of the SS

““My dear fraulein, you’re too charming to argue with. But an order is an order.” He took her by the arm and led her outside. Two S.S. men were waiting. They settled the fraulein into the car and drove from the Champs-Élysées to the Place de Concorde, passing the elegant restaurants where she and M. Legrand had once been so happy. From there the car turned deeper into the woods, where a single bullet dyed her blond hair a hideous shade of red.”

“Her Last Dance” is a very deeply perceptive story.  It feels like a plot for an exciting movie.

Yesterday I was given a Review copy of A German Officer in Occupied Paris 1941 to 1945 - The Journal of Ernst J Ünger. Únger was a famous German writer, his primary job in Paris was to read French publications looking for anti-German Ideas.  I hope to post on this soon.  

Mel u

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Lost Times - Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czafski -translated and introduced. by Eric Karpeles - 2018

Paris in July hosted by Thyme for Tea is a great event.  I Focus on literary works and nonfiction but you are invited to share your thoughts and experience on anything Paris related, from a great recipe, a favourite movie set in Paris, mine is Ninotchka, an account of your stay in Paris.  I hope lots of people  participate. Just be sure and link you post on The event home page.  

Józef Czapski

Born April 3, 1896 in Prague into an aristocrstic family

Dies January 12, 1993 in Maisions-Laffitte, France

He was an author, critic and painter

1917 he moved to Poland

1924 moves to Paris

1932 returns to Poland

1939 - while serving as an officer in Polish Army he was captured by Russians and sent to a Gulag prison camp.   He and his fellow officers, in order to keep up morale and promote unity began to give lectures to fellow prisoners.  Czapski knew Proust and French literature intimately, working purely from memories he gave a series of lectures on In Search of Lost Times.  

1945 he returns to Paris and becomes involved in a circle of Polish artists and mingles with French Cultural luminaries.

He remains a resident of Paris from then on

(Drawn from several online sources and the introduction of Eric Karpeles)

Czapski was very much a Parisian, after his return to Paris he continued reading in Proust.  

““Lost Time is a transcription of the talks he gave about Proust to his fellow officers. Having read À la Recherche in French, he strove to recall it in French, and so gave his talks in French. Two friends from among the assembled listeners agreed to transcribe his talks some time after the lectures had been given to the larger group. Czapski dictated an abridged version to these two scribes. “In our canteen, in the great monastery’s refectory stinking of dirty dishes and cabbage, I dictated part of these lectures under the watchful eye of a politruk [a roving Soviet informer] who suspected us of writing something politically treasonous.” Technically speaking, the book in your hand was not written by Józef Czapski.”  From The Introduction

Eric Karpeles has given the Anglophone literary world access to Czapski’s lectures.  As he says the magnificence of Czapski’s lectures is in letting us see how his memories of Proust’s masterpiece kept him whole during a period of terrible darkness.  In the horrors of the camp knowing humanity had produced such a work helped sustain his will “Freezing, exhausted from overwork, on the brink of starvation, the men hardly thought of themselves as survivors. Referred to by the camp administration as “former officers of the former Polish army,” they struggled to keep their spirits alive and their morale strong, actively resisting the ceaseless attempt to break them down and convert them to the Bolshevik cause. To inspire positive thinking in the face of such relentless misery, the men devised an ongoing series of talks to be given in the evenings before bunking down, each speaker choosing a subject dear to his heart. History, geography, architecture, sport, and ethnography were among the offerings by specialists and amateurs in their respective fields.”

It was very moving to me to imagine the Polish officers, filthy, hungry and knowing the Russians could kill them at anytime eagerly assembling to hear Czapski’s lectures. This is truly a book about the 
strength reading great works of literature can give those devoted to them.

Proust is, of course, in part a reflection on memory.  I loved these lines from the introduction by Karpeles:

““Opening his mind to the narrative’s flow, whole scenes from Proust’s novel eventually resurfaced, in many instances nearly verbatim. Pulling passages out of thin air, Czapski re-enacted the very endeavor of À la Recherche. “After a certain length of time,” he wrote,” facts and details emerge on the surface of our consciousness which we had not the slightest idea were filed away somewhere in our brain”

I will give Czapski the last words:

“And Proust ends with a sublimely poetic sentence which I’m incapable of repeating to you word for word: “And all night, in all the illuminated windows of the bookshops of Paris, his books, open three by three, kept vigil like angels with their wings unfurled over the body of the dead writer.” The death of Bergotte and the long illness that precedes it is forever tied in my memory to the death of Proust.”

I think all lovers of Proust will adore this book. It should be added to list of all serious readers of French literature. Even if you have not yet completed your first read of Prousf this is a tremendously informative book.  

Here is a link to a wonderful article by William Friedkin on his attempt to follow Proust’s footsteps in Paris

A Fellow of the Czeslaw Milosz Institute at the Claremont Colleges, Eric Karpeles has given the Amon Carter Lecture on the Arts at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, worked as a volunteer ambulance driver, spoken on Proust at Berkeley and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, walked from Bath to Oxford, interviewed composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim onstage, and collaborated on a book of mathematical equations and Hebrew references used as a prop in a film by the Coen Brothers.

Karpeles studied at the Art Students League of New York as a boy and was awarded a residency at the Cité des Arts in Paris as a young man. A voracious reader whose idea of hell is being on public transportation without a book, he likes to cook, or, perhaps more tellingly, he likes to eat. He once had tea with Indira Gandhi and has lived with the same man for forty years.  

I was kindly given a review copy of this book.

Mel u