Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"The Tales of Hershel Summerwind" by Itzik Manger. 1935

A very generous gift of books from Yale University Press is making this project possible.  

Yiddish, German, and Austro-Hungarian literature are interrelated in many complex ways.  In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt takes as one of her central themes the idea that modern totalitarian forms of government developed as a result of vicious anti-Semiticism. If she is right, then it was the development of Nazism partially as a hatred from European Jewish culture that ended up destroying Viennese culture that produced  so many great writers and murdered most of the original readers of Yiddish literature.  Stefan Zweig moved to Brazil to escape the destruction of the culture he loved and shortly afterwards he and his wife committed suicide.

Itzik Magner's life mirrors the movements of many other Jewish writers attempting to escape from their Nazi controlled homelands.   Magnar was born in Czernonitz in the Ukraine in 1901, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as was Gregor Von Rezzori).  He moved to Warsaw in 1928 as it afforded him more publishing and theatrical opportunities for his dramas.  He was very successful but in 1938 to escape the Nazis he moved to Paris (as did Josesph Roth in 1933).  In 1940 he moved to London and became an English citizen.  In the mean time the Nazis burned all of works they could find and murdered a large percent of his readers.  In 1958 he moved to Isreal.  He was a tremendous success as a playwright there and when he died there in 1969 he was declared an Isreali National Poet with hundreds of mourners at his funeral.  Leonard Wolf's introduction to the Yale collection presents a marvelous portrait not just of Manger but of the era.

Leonard Wolf says under a surface simplicity Yiddish fiction and poetry is among the most complex and sophisticated in the world.  The authors were almost all very erudite, learned men (no female Yiddish writers of repute as far as I can see).  Manger intended to complete a book of ten short stories modeled on Bocaccio's Decameron.  He planned it to be told by Jews from ten different countries terrorized by the Nazis.  It was to be set in an undergroud bunger where they were all hiding out from the horrors of the Nazis.  Each person was going to tell the group a story to help pass the time.  Sadly he only competed two of the stories.  Wolf has thankfully included them both in the Yale Collection. One is "The Story of Hershell Summerwind" and the other is "The Story of the Nobleman's Mustach".  I shall post on both of these short stories and another unrelated story in the collection.  

Hershel Summerwind is eighteen.   His story draws on childhood memories and the very wide spread folk tale of a boy whose father remarries when the boy's  beloved mother dies.  The step mother treats him with great cruelly. His father wants him to "grow up".  The step-mother has a pet rooster who she thinks is the reincarnation of her first husband.  Hershel and the rooster hate each other and a lot of the fun of the story is seeing them battle it out.  On the day of his sister's wedding, his father sends him in a wagon to the father's best friend's house to get a barrel of twenty year old wine, a wedding gift.  Hershel has some great adventures and misadventures on this errand.  A flock of drunken birds takes him for a long flight in one hilarious segment.  This is a very good totally fun to read story.  


A story by Bob created at the Anjali House Writing Project

Sue Guiney's Introductory Post  - contains important links 

Today I am presenting the first of the literary works created during the Anjali House Writing Project directed by Sue Guiney.  All of the writers are in the early stages of learning English.  Bob (for privacy reasons, all the authors are using pen names) is twelve.  I think "Nike and the Elephant" is a very moving, deeply felt story I am proud to publish on The Reading Life.   Be sure and also read the author supplied biography. 

"Nike and the Baby Elephant"  by Bob

   John lives in Mexico. He has one dog. His dog’s name
is Nike. One day John travelled to Africa with his dog.
At night John slept in the tent, and his dog was sleeping
outside. Near John’s tent, Nike saw an elephant baby. He
was crying because he lost his mom. Nike helped the baby
elephant to find his mom. Now Nike and the baby elephant
started to go into the forest. On the road Nike and the baby
elephant saw a lot of things. There was a big tree, a tiger,
a lion, a snake that Nike never saw before. Then they went
to the waterfall and they found a big elephant. He was so
happy because the big elephant was the mother of the
baby elephant. Nike came back and lived with John happily
ever after.

Bob, age 12  

When I was 11 I did a lot of things with my grandmother like growing eggplant, banana, mango and a cucumber. My grandmother died in December 2011. My family felt very sad. My father never forgot about some things he did with my grandmother and until now my family couldn’t forget things that we did with grandmother.

Mel u

Friday, November 29, 2013

Stefan Zweig - two short stories - "The Invisible Collection" (1925) and "Forgotten Dreams" (1927)

I am very grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, translated by award winning Anthea Bell.   That being said there are some serious things wrong with this book.  First of all "collected" does not always mean complete, so what is this book, is it all Zweig's stories or just some of them?  Reading all of a writers short stories is important to many people, including me.  I prefer to read them in publication order but I am not rigid on this.

Secondly why is Pushkin Press so cheap or lazy as not to include at least a brief introduction? Thirdly, I really think short story anthologies should include first publication date and place of first publication information.  I know Anthea Bell has easy access to this information but it is not to be found in this collection.      

There are 22 stories in the collection.  I have already posted on his "Mendel the Bibliophile".  I loved this story beyond all objectivity.  Yesterday and this morning I read two more of his stories, one was kind of disappointing cliched romantic story and the other was a great story about the devastating impact of hyper-inflation on Germany in 1925.   

"Forgotten Dreams" is pretty much standard man runs into woman he loved years ago who would not marry him but who now is going to marry a wealthy count for a luxury life story.  The prose is high romantic bright fluorescent.  It disappointed me but if I am into a writer I take the good with the average. 

"The Invisible Collection" is a very interesting story.  The subtitle of the story is "An Episode of the German Inflation of 1925".   In 1925 German currency was in a terrible period of declining value.  Life savings that could have once easily supported people for decades were reduced to often less than one percent of former value.  When people got any money, they first bought food on the black market and with anything left they bought things that they thought would hold value.  However, even this did not store value as if you later sold the items the money you soon got for them soon lost much of its value.  As the story opens an art dealer talks about how many of their old customers had to sell their treasured just to survive.  He plans a visit to a very old long term customer of the firm, hoping maybe he will sell some of his treasures.   The man lives with his wife and middle aged daughter and is now blind.  He can no longer see his treasured collection of etchings and prints inluding a Rembrant etching.  I do not want to spoil the plot to much as it is so moving.  The wife and sister have been forced to sell all of his collection just to survive and have replaced them with blank paper.  The elderly man does not realize what has happened and still treasures his collection. To me this story brought home the reality of the German hyper inflation.  

I look forward to reading the rest of the stories.

I am really glad I decided to once again participate in 
German Literature Month November 2013.  I thank Caroline and Lizzy for hosting this great reading event.

So far I have read and posted on these works, all but Kafka are new to me writers. 
The Tin Drum-by Gunther Grass
"The Judgement" by Franz Kafka
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque -very powerful war novel 
"A Letter from an Unknown Woman" by Stefan Zweig. 
The Death of the Adversary by Hans Klein - a work of genius
"The Job Application" by Robert Walser 
Chess Game by Stefan Zweig-I will read much more of his work
"The Battle of Sempach" by Robert Walser
I have also listed to podcasts of "Basta" and "Frau Wilkes" by Robert Walser
The March of Radetsky by Joseph Roth I hope to read all his work

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori amazing work of art.

"Flypaper" by Robert Musil

"Mendel the Bibliophile" by Stefan Zweig - I totally love this story.

"The Dead are Silent" by Arthur Schnitzler an entertaining work from 1907

"There Will Be Action" by Heinrich Boll a very good short story by Nobel Prize Winner

Transit by Anne Seghars 1942 very much worth reading

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig - an elegy to a lost culture. 1942

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. 2001. 

The Emperor's Tomb By Joseph Roth 1938 

"Flower Days" by Robert Walser 1907 (no post) 

"Trousers" by Robert Walser -1909 (no post)

Medea By Crista Wolf

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor Von Rezzori 

"Forgotten Dreams" by StefanZweig (no post)  

Leviathan" by Joseph Roth

"The Legend of the Holy Drinker" by Joseph Roth

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Anjali House Writing Workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia - My introduction to many great stories and poems

Today begins  a project on The Reading Life in a way very different from my normal focus on literature but as I read the wonderful stories and poems written by the young people who participated in Sue Guiney's Anjali House Writing Workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia I slowly began to see these stories almost as if literature was being rebuilt from Year Zero, a phrase with a terrible echo in Cambodian history.  Short stories and poems can liberate people and even ultimately save lives.  Thousands of years ago these vehicles helped  created the great faiths of the world that are the bedrock of human culture. Pal Pot wanted to destroy all human culture, to take Cambodia back to Year Zero.  These stories represent the triumph of the human spirit or maybe even its recreation. As Sue said in her must read introductory post, a command of English may one day allow an Anjali House student to be able to go to law school instead of peddling trinkets to tourists.   Cambodia is a known destination for pedophiles and maybe a young girl who can speak quality English will end up in medical school instead of in a brothel.

I know many know the terrible history of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge but not all do.  

In 1975, Cambodia was taken over by a group called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pal Pot. He had a vision of turning Cambodia into a purely agrian society, starting over at "year zero".  He ordered all residents of cities to vacate.   Under armed guard, often themselves children, millions were forced out of their homes to work in agricultural projects. Iintellectuals, ethnic Chinese, business people, those who wore glasses, those who gave the slightest resistance were executed.  This continued from 1975 to 1979.  It was in large part the destruction, destabilization, and atmosphere of terrible fear and suffering created by the senseless American bombing of Cambodia which created a society where this could happen.  About two million, twenty five percent of population,  died from disease, starvation, exposure and execution from 1975 to 1979.  It ended when the Vietnamese, the traditional enemy of the Cambodians, invaded the country in 1979

Almost all of the children benefiting from the programs of the Anjali House were brought up by survivors of these terrible events.  You can see this in the stories we will read as we hear of drunken abusive fathers, broken grandmothers, a longing for travel, tales of travels through the forest, a longing for a better life. We see the threads of fear and violence in these stories.  We must acknowledge some of the children's parents (perhaps as children themselves, participated in the killing fields and guarded slave camps.)  These conditions made it hard for their parents to trust others and you can see that in the stories.  But above that you see the children building hope, taking pride in their creativity and exorcising deeply buried demons.  

The stories and poems the children of Anjali House will be sharing with us are from the heart, deeply moving very honest works.   There will be at least twenty posts of literary works for this project, a specially commissioned poem by a well known Irish writer, and hopefully some guest posts.  


"Master" by Angela Carter 1995

                1940 to 1992. UK

I am very glad to have at last read a story by the great English author, Angela Carter.  I have access to one more of her stories and hopefully will read it soon.  

"Master" is a multidimensional work with many thematic veins one could mine.  

There are only two on stage characters in "Master".  One is a totally horrible man who loves hunting, not for the sport allegedly involved but for the sheer love of killing, of inflicting murder, not for trophies or for food.  We learn little of his history.  When we meet him he is in Africa.  He kills any animal he can, leaving their bodies to decay.  His passion is for killing big cats. He purchases a young girl, begins to serially rape her and he insists she call him "Master".  His pleasure in having sex with her derives from the pain it causes her.  The story is told  as a dark fable.  I see the master as a symbol for colonial exploitation and accept this is tied in with a love, often buried very deeply, for killing, a hatred of beauty and serenity.   The story also deals with received images of masculinity and feminity.   There is a very interesting turn in this story I will leave untold. 

I read this in an excellent anthology of stories by  women writers that I have been slowly working my way through The Story:  Love, Loss, and the Lives of Women -One Hundred Short Stories edited by Victoria Hislop.

Stories by Young People from the Anjali House Writing Workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia -directed by Sue Guiney

          Sue Guiney’s Introduction to the Cambodian Young People of Anjali House  Writing Workshop
It happened quite by surprise – I fell in love with a place I knew nothing about. In 2006, we went on a family trip to Cambodia. We did volunteer work, criss-crossing the country’s dirt roads by bus, building houses in poor villages and working with children. It was meant to be one of those ‘learning experiences’ for our teenage son, but I was the one whose life was changed.

   I was writing my first novel and had no idea that I would ever want to write about Cambodia. But after Tangled Roots was published, the idea for A Clash of Innocents popped into my head. Fast forward to 2010 and you will see that novel being published. I am a writer. I write stories about people I make up. So that should have been the end of it, right? Wrong.

After A Clash of Innocents was published, I knew that I wanted to use the fruit of my inspiration to help the people who inspired me. I was told about a shelter for street kids in Siem Reap called Anjali House I knew enough about the country to know that facility with English is the key to employment. I thought I could set up a workshop to teach those kids to write poems and stories in English. The director of the shelter thought I could, too, but with one caveat. I couldn’t come once, show the kids a different world and then turn my back on them. Starting this program would be an on-going commitment. Without even realizing what I was committing to, I said yes. I have now returned to the kids at Anjali House three times. Each time I stay longer and longer. Each time I have to drag myself away.

What do I actually do there? I teach the kids to write creatively in English, we publish a literary magazine, and then we hold a party where they stand in front of a room of supporters and read from their work. But all that is a pretext. What I’m really doing is giving permission – to think, to imagine a life beyond selling flutes at the temples, to believe they can and must play a part in the reconstruction of their country, still scarred by the 1970s genocide led by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Through writing, I am helping the children of Cambodia find their places in the future, find a future for their country, find their own self-esteem and exercise their otherwise untapped abilities in conceptual thinking. I believe these are the antidotes to poverty and corruption.

   The first time I ran the workshop, the stories were all about ghosts in the forest. The poems were about the beauty of Angkor Wat. And that was fine. But as you read their latest efforts, you’ll see something different. Now the kids are writing about fathers getting angry and drunk, mothers being worn out by work, grandmothers dying of broken hearts. There are poems filled with empathy responding to photos I’ve shown of troubles existing outside their borders, things like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, poverty in Africa, forest fires in Australia.  Their world is a bigger place. They are beginning to see that language can help them understand and affect that world.
   Believe me, I don’t take credit for all this. But I do believe that the work we do together is making a difference. I know it’s made all the difference to me.
The second novel in Sue Guiney’s Cambodian trilogy, Out of the Ruins, will be published by Ward Wood in January 2014
You can learn more about Sue’s work at and via her blog  She can be followed at and on twitter @sueguiney

Sue’s life has taken her from a childhood in New York, to student life in Connecticut and Boston, to adulthood in London where she still lives with her husband. Her two grown sons are now off on their own journeys. Her work reflects her travels with much of it now focused in Cambodia, both as a writer and teacher.

Sue has founded a Writing Workshop for street children at the shelter Anjali House in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where she teaches for a portion of each year.

end of guest post.

I am honored to be able to share with my readers some of the wonderful stories that came out of Sue's Workshop.  

I will shortly attempt my own introductory post in which I try to relate this to the themes of my blog.

I expect this event to last from three weeks to a month.  There will be brief autobiographies of the authors.   In order to protect the privacy of the writers, all will be given pen names.  

I am very proud to be presenting these stories and poems.  


"The Legend of the Holy Drinker" by Joseph Roth 1939 - Roth's Final Fiction

Joseph Roth (1894 to 1939) - The Stages of a Life

Thirty days ago I had never heard of Joseph Roth.  After now having read five of his works I regard him as one of my favorite writers, it feels like I should have been rereading him from decades ago.  One of the very sad facts of The Reading Life is I know I will die never having even heard of 100s of wonderful writers.  I am just thankful on this Thanksgiving Day that Joseph  Roth is not among them.  

In the translator's after note to Three Novellas by Joseph Roth Michael Hoffman tells us that "The Legend of the Holy Drinker" was Roth's last work of fiction.   He knew he did not have long to live, he was terribly addicted to alcohol and living, as he did for many years, in a cheap hotel.  Hoffman tells us that Roth was at this point in his life writing at a frantic pace for money but he slowed down and took the last four of five months of his life to prefect "The Legend of the Holy Drinker".  Hoffman says Roth knew he was producing his final masterwork and took great pride in its construction. 

"The Legend of the Holy Drinker" is about the final days of a vagrant living in Paris under the bridges of the Seine.   He came to Paris long ago when he heard in his native Ukraine that France needed coal miners (I flashed to Germinal).  He worked for a while at this until he killed the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.  When he emerged from two years in prison, a bit of a light sentence but maybe normal or maybe Roth is making a point about the value of life, he was a broken man.  He lived from what ever day work he could find.  One day a well dressed stranger approaches him and asks him if he needs money.  The Holy Drinker is not without integrity and he hesitates telling the man he can make no clear plans to pay him back.  The man tells him he too has had troubles.  All he asks is that if he ever has the two hundred francs to spare he gave him he is to give it to a priest at St. Teresa's Cathedral to aid the poor. This money changed the drinkers life. He did not become a saint.   He drank with it, he hired prostitutes from cheap bars (I admit I wondered if this story was partially autobiographical as it is clearly a scene Roth would have known well).  We follow along as his live changes and we are there when he dies.  I will leave much of the marvelous story untold.

There is deep wisdom and terrible sadness in "The Legend of the Holy Drinker".   Hoffman tells us Roth died from suicide by alcohol.

There is an excellent essay by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker that gives a very good overview of Roth's life and writings.¤tPage=all



Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World- by Greg King with Sue Woolmans, St. Martin's Press, 2013

About four years ago I read and posted on The Man Who Killed Rasputin: Prince Felix Youssoupov and the Murder That Helped Bring Down the Russian Empire by Greg King.  I have long been very interested in the final decades of the Romanovs and Gregory Rasputin and I found this book fascinating.  In  research on Ruffington Boussweau  I have found he was a close friend and often a travel guide for the fabulously wealthy Prince Felix.  I will in 2014 hopefully be posting on a soon to be republished classic by Boussweau detailing his visit to Japan with Prince Felix and the then Prince Nicholas.    Boussweau was also intimately acquainted with many in Viennese society as readers of his travel guide, Vienna:  The Manliest City in Europe can attest.   

In 1914 three  great empires dominated Europe, Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungaria. All the royal houses were related.    By 1918 all of these empires had been destroyed, millions had died, and the stages were set for World War II and the Holocaust.  WW I has to be among the most senseless of all wars. It started in Sarajevo in 1914 with the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian Archduke by a Serbian national.    (Boussweau served as a an honorary admiral in The Royal Morocan Navy- asked after the war if he had seen any action in Casablanca, he enigmatically smiled, said the royal prince Marandansrichin had told him to say if ever asked, "what happens in the Casbah stays in the Casbah" and laughed in such a delightful way that it drowned out for all who heard it the horrors of war.)

Franz Ferdinand, Archduke, was the heir presumptive when on June 28, 1914 he was assassinated by a Serbian national.  This is all most people ever learn about him.  Greg King brings the man, his wife who he married in the face of imperial disapproval, their very real love, their family life and the world in which they moved very much to life.  Under Hapsburg protocal a heir to the throne could only marry a member of a reigning or formerly reigning imperial European family.  His wife, Sophia was a countess from a minor Germanic line but upon marriage she and Franz suffered much from his parents rejection of her though he remained heir presumptive.  King lets us experience all of this in his very detailed work.  King is in deep sympathy with Sophia and Franz Ferdinand.  Franz was by most accounts of contemporaries a coldly aloof man (I guess being raised to think you have a divine right to rule over millions might produce this), without much cultural depths whose main private interest was hunting.  He and his children lived in a world of great wealth and privilege.  It ended for at least one of his children in a German concentration camp. 

King does focus on the couple and their love.  King is a romantic writer not above a touch of hyperbole and over enthusiasm for his subjects but that does help him have a deeper insight.  This book is not just the story of a family and its demise, it is a portrait of the end of an era.  Thankfully Ruffy survived and had many happy hours in old imperial Vienna.  Upon his return from Morocco he very cagily asked his house boy "who won" before drinking his first toast to the victors.  Of Franz Ferdinand, whom he met once, he would only say, "well his wife was nice".  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Highway to Hell by Matt Roper 2013 (nonfiction)

Brazil's 2700 miles long national highway BR 116 is the main north south road in Brazil.  In Matt Roper's deeply disturbing book, Highway to Hell,  we learn the very sordid truth that has lead this road to be called "The Highway to Hell".  It is they story of exploitation of thousands of girls, some as young as nine, as roadside and brothel prostitutes.  It is also the story of the result of the destruction of local culture by international commerce and the terrible impact this has had on the most vulnerable people in this society, young girls.  It is also part of the price to pay for massive deforestation and destruction of small homesteads. The people who have lived along this road for generations (many child prostitutes were the third generation in their family to work the road many were pushed into the business by their grandmothers) are ethnographically a mixture of descendants of Brazilian Indians and African slaves.  They are the products of 100s of years of vicious rapine exploitation.  

Prostitution is legal in Brazil but child prostitution is not.  Maybe some of the girls in on BR 116 will end up in an expense sauna in Rio but I think it is only a very few.  As depicted by Roper, prostitution has become so prevalent along BR 116 because of all the long haul truck drivers.  The descriptions from the girls Roper interviewed of climbing into trucks are chilling and every girl knew someone who disappeared working the road.  Maybe she just moved on down the road with a trucker.  Maybe.  When asked why they prostituted themselves many girls said it was to buy fancy cell phones and cheap imitations of fashionable clothes.  This shows the insidious reach of consumerism.  In a kind of circle of death, forests and small farms were destroyed forcing people into shacks along the road.   This was done to make the rich richer.  Then the desperately poor totally uneducated people along the road are bombarded with ads for stuff they cannot afford.  The ads are calculated to appeal to teens.  Then long haul trucks carrying the goods of brazil, often hardwood being shipped out, come along and a market is created for commercial sex with thousands of ready workers.  In the worst families, working the road is seen as the normal thing for a 13 year old girl to do.

The "plot" of the book centers around the efforts of Matt Roper and a friend and their spouses to help as they can some of the girls working the road.  Of course the road prostitution is spreading aids throughout the region as almost all the clients are married.  Child prostitution requires the police turn at least a blind eye and brothels, which often essentially hold girls in bondage, require police and political protection.  This is not an academic sociological study.  It is an up close look at something very evil.

We do meet older women, in their early twenties who survived the road and we meet Brazilians trying to help.  We get to know some of the girls and part of the heartbreak of this book is how normal they seem.  Imagine a world where your mother pushes you to get a summer job, not in the mall but sexually servicing truck drivers (truck drivers in Brazil come off really poorly here) you meet while standing out on the road.  By no means are all the girls pushed into it, many hear of the big to them money they can make and willingly do it.  We meet a heart broken father with no means to stop his teenage daughters from working the road.  

A few girls can be helped by efforts of good people like Matt Roper but I do not personally see any real changes coming.  

I was provided a review copy of this book 


The Leviathan by Joseph Roth -1940- translated by Michael Hoffman in 2011)

When November began I had never heard of Joseph Roth (born 1894 in the Ukraine, died 1939).  Now after reading three of his works and learning what I could about his life I consider him one of my most cherished writers.  For sure I plan to read all of his work available in English in Kindle Format.  There is no biography of Roth available in English but there is very valuable and deeply felt remarks on him by his award winning translator Michael Hoffman to be found in some of the works he translated.  Roth life was dominated in the last decades by alcohol.  Hoffman and others call his death at 45 suicide by alcohol.   He lived the last 12 years of his life in near poverty in hotels.  He loved living in hotels.  He was partially supported for a number of years by Stefan Zweig.  Even when destitute, whenever he got any money, he gave much of it away to those less fortunate than himself.  He left his beloved Vienna the day the Austrians opted for unity with Nazi Germany and never returned.  He loved the cultural depth of Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was deeply hurt by its destruction.  

           Mrs Joseph Roth

Leviathan, (to me it feels like a short story but it seems to be called a novella so I will accept that) seems to be his last published work of fiction, first coming out the year after he died.

Michael Hoffman says Leviathan is kind of a cross between a short story, a fable and a parable. He says it feels like something Tolstoy might have written.  

It is the story of a coral merchant deep in the interior of Russia in a small town beyond whose borders he had never traveled.    Coral was very desired as decorative jewelry and he cherished his corals thinking of himself as almost a great leviathan protecting them.  He longs to see the ocean and when a sailor from Odessa comes to town on a visit he befriends him and the sailor invites him to visit his ship. The merchant, Progrody Nissan is married, childless to his regret and no longer has much interest in his lost her looks wife.  He never cheats on her but he enjoys having 12 beautiful girls working for him in his coral shop.  He goes away for three weeks and a disaster occurs while he is gone. A merchant opens a shop in the neighboring town selling beautiful but artificial  coral at a price well below his offerings.  I want to leave it open for people to discover what happens in this work for themselves so I won't relate the fascinating and ultimately horrible events that follow.


Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse 1932 - Orientalizing and Hesse

It has been a long time since I have read a novel by Hermann Hesse, at least forty years.  I can still recall the spiritual journey of Shidhartha.  I can bring up a lot of the ultimate counter culture novel, Stephenwolf and I would still enjoy playing The Glass Bead Game.  Based on my recollection, a lot more works by Hesse have been translated into English since I last read one of his novels.  This is a very good thing as his ideas are much more complicated and subtle than they appear at first.  

I wanted to read a novel,by Hesse as part of my participation in German Literature III.  I also wanted to read one that was not terribly long.  Journey to the East is only 128 pages in my edition and carries on his concerns with the decay of Western culture and his belief in what he sees as the wisdom of the East.  At some point, I don't doubt this has been pondered by academics, I need to step back and wonder how much of his opus is based on Orientalization, the ideas of Jung and Spengler, and whether or not I enjoy reading him for his intrinsic interest and how much of my pleasure in reading Journey to the East is nostalgia.  I will read more new to me Hesse and may reread my old Hesse.  

Journey to the East is not the master work my three classics are but it is for sure worth reading as a fourth Hesse.  Like his other works it focuses on "secret wisdom" obtainable though a profound study of the teachings of eastern masters.  1932, when it was first published in Germany, was a very difficult year for Germany and much of the world.  Huge numbers were out of work, many people were deeply dissatisfied with received forms of wisdom, cults were every where and the darkest one of all was soon to take over Germany. The underlying ideology of Nazism was also a form of a journey to a fantasy of the wisdom of the ancient east.  It also focused on guru like great leaders and extraordinary teachers of opaque and obscure wisdom, just like Journey to the East and other core Hesse texts do. Hesse kind of also, in my opinion, plays on the vanity of his readers who see themselves as penetrating beyond the thought patterns of ordinary people.  In all of his works I have read there is a contempt for the mundane world and a sense of elitism based on a grasp of secret teachings.  

Journey to the East is told from the point of view of a man who is a member of an ancient league seeking wisdom through a real and virtual journey to the east.  Among the members have been Rilke, Don Quixote, Plato, Pythagoras, Mozart, Tristram Shandy and Puss in Boots as well as the ferryman from Shidhartha.  When one joins the league, you are sworn to secrecy.  The central character of the novel is confused about the league, is it necessary to physically go east to find true wisdom or is the east all around us.  He decides to write an exposé on his experiences with the league.  There is also some interesting plot lines involving a missing lowly servant who turns out to be the president of the league.  There is a scene at a league meeting in which we first learn the servant is the league president when he appears in magnificent garb.  (I admit when I read the description of the garb and the meeting I did not think divine teachings I thought this just might be silly).

It is hard to pin down this work, and the rest of Hesse, as "meaning something". Just when you have a theory, Hesse undercuts you.  

What Hesse work should I next read?

Monday, November 25, 2013

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holena 1933

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia is an interesting set in Vienna novel in the noir mode.  I found the first third or 
so of the novel well done but after that I thought it went seriously down hill.   

The story is told in the first person by a cab driver.  One fine day he picks up a fare, an ordinary seeming m
man, well dressed is all he noticed.   When he arrives at the man's requested destination he discovers 
man is dead, having been shot several times.   At first he thinks he must of course report this to the
police.  Then he decides that if he goes to the police and tell them he did not notice a man being shot
several times in his cab they wil see him as a suspect.  He goes through the man's pockets and finds
out he is Jack Mortimer, an American.  In the next phase of the book the author takes us to the 
American west in cowboy country on the border with Mexico to learn about the real life of Jack
Mortimer.  Clearly the author knew nothing about American cowboys other than what he saw in 
movies of the 1930s.  The novel takes a turn for the stupid as it enters Mexico and Jack falls for
a beautiful señorita.  The longer the novel stays in America, the worse it gets as the author tries 
to set up a plausible reason why Jack Mortimer was murdered in Vienna.  Once we return to Vienna
it was interesting to see the narrator's angst as the police to begin to see him as a murder suspect.  

Overall I am glad I have read another book by an author from Vienna but I do not endorse
reading until you have read higher regarded Viennese writers like Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. 

I want to try to be fair to this book and I admire Pushkin Press for the many books they have 
published in translation so I am quoting their description of the book below.

"The cast of this brilliant thriller ... are pure Raymond Chandler ... but the Viennese setting gives it an extra, stylish twist. It's excellently written and fearsomely gripping." The Times A taxi-driver in 1930s Vienna impersonates a murder victim-with unsettling consequences "One doesn't step into anyone's life, not even a dead man's, without having to live it to the end." A man climbs into Ferdinand Sponer's cab, gives the name of a hotel, and before he reaches it has been murdered: shot through the throat. And though Sponer has so far committed no crime, he is drawn into the late Jack Mortimer's life, and might not be able to escape its tangles and intrigues before it is too late... Twice filmed, I Was Jack Mortimer is a tale of misappropriated identity as darkly captivating and twisting as the books of Patricia Highsmith.Alexander Lernet-Holenia was born in Vienna in 1897. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War and became a protégé of Rainer Maria Rilke. During his life he wrote poetry, novels, plays and was a successful screenwriter. His uneasy relationship with the National Socialist Party resulted in his removal from prominence in 1944, but after the end of the Second World War, he again became a vital figure in Austrian cultural life. He died in 1976."

In reading the works of German and Austrian authors who were adults during the Nazi era I do
want to know how they dealt with the times.  I know this does not impact the artistic value of
their work but it interests me.  Here is Wikipedia's account of our authors activities.

Lernet-Holenia participated in the Invasion of Poland as a reactivated and drafted lieutenant of the reserve, an experience on which he based his 1941 novel Die Blaue Stunde (The Blue Hour) which after the war became known under the title Mars im Widder (Mars in Aries). It has been called "the only Austrian resistance novel" because the plot features an ideologically troubled central character, hints at the existence of active political opposition, and because the Nazi government banned and quarantined the first edition of the book.

Although Lernet-Holenia made himself a lucrative business as a popular screenplay writer during the Third Reich, he was one of the few accomplished Austrian authors who kept his distance from National Socialism, and refused to endorse the Nazi political system or to participate in its notorious blood and soil literary efforts. However, to stay in business he had to make arrangements with the regime, which included becoming chief dramaturgist at the "Heers-Filmstelle" (the audiovisual media center of the Wehrmacht in Berlin, charged with producing propaganda films for military cinemas) after the Polish campaign. Robert Dassanowsky has stated that "[Lernet-Holenia's] early actions in the Reich were confused, appearing to vacillate between naiveté and the often clumsy, often shrewd acts of a survivalist ... a unique but not incomprehensible position." Lernet-Holenia became more outspoken as the war progressed. After his removal from his public position in 1944 he escaped service on the Eastern combat theatre through contrived illness and the help of the resistance network.