February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: Blood Brothers (original German title Youth on the Road to Berlin)
Author: Ernst Haffner
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 15905 1704 8
Set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Blood Brothers was first published in 1932. Adolf Hitler is appointed German Chancellor a year later. The economy, already being crushed under the weight of WWI reparation payments, is devastated by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. (The Weimar government had received huge loans from the United States and, when faced with their own financial crisis, the U.S. called those loans in). By 1932, between five & six million Germans were unemployed.
All over Germany, but particularly in the cities, boys & young men ranging from age 14-18 formed gangs in order to survive. In Berlin these gangs were surprisingly well organized – each holding a specific territory (divided into “Rings”) and conforming to a rigidly structured hierarchy led by a “Ring Bull”. This organization is only loosely hinted at by Haffner – he prefers to focus on the correlation between the youths and vagabonds. We are introduced to the Blood Brothers of the title as they stand in line at the welfare office. They’re not there for aid. They have no papers and if they’re caught by the authorities they’ll be sent to youth detention facilities until they come of age.
The eight boys were able to capture a whole bench and serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They’ve spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather. Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals (detention centers). Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.
The Blood Brothers are led by Jonny. A sympathetic and likeable character, in the early chapters he is shown taking care of his crew – spending what little money the gang has on food and a place where they can sleep unmolested. He organizes the boys – making sure they move around the city in pairs so as not to attract attention. At this point in the story their focus is on the basic necessities of survival and Jonny is more a protective big brother figure and less a criminal Fagin.
This will change as Jonny and the Blood Brothers, under the guidance of Jonny’s lieutenant Fred, discover the benefits of a criminal lifestyle. Only two members, Willi & Ludwig (who are, notably, sepearted from the gang when it begins organized pick-pocketing), remain unconvinced and determine to leave the gang. These two pairs boys serve as moral contrasts – demonstrating the two paths available. The tone of the book, though, is not moralistic. Haffner doesn’t judge, instead he laments the society that allows these boys to slip though the cracks. Though “lament” may be too strong of a word. Blood Brothers is written in the odd, yet incredibly effective, style of a newsreel voice over. Or a YA novel. The gangs’ crimes range from prostitution & petty theft, to pick-pocketing and eventually breaking & entering – all described in a hearty narrative voice. I couldn’t get the word “sanitized” out of my mind. For example: Willi & Ludwig, out of desperation, sell themselves to two rich men. Men who, “Along with their silk-lined tuxes…stripped off their manners. What was left were two scrawny little men whose wallets allowed them to buy young healthy, if half-starved, boys”. The next morning when the boys wake the men are gone. ‘Details of the night just past swim into the boys’ consciousness. “Yuck!” says Ludwig. “Yes, it makes me feel sick. Never again…”‘ They then proceed to go out for breakfast and plan their future – the episode entirely forgotten.
There’s a lot to recommend Blood Brothers. It reads like a first hand account of the economic conditions in Germany that allowed the Nazi Party to come to power. For anyone interested in the Hitlerjugand and their counterparts, the Edelweiss Pirates (an underground youth movement that fought for the Allies) it has that added layer. In addition, Blood Brothers is extremely entertaining and easy to read. Haffner shows real empathy for these boys’ situation. There are elements of adventure, suspense and – perhaps most important – a sense of hope. Hope that these boys are victims of a broken system and not inherently bad. Despite the events that we know loom over Germany’s, and the boys’, future – events that Haffner had no knowledge of when writing the book – we are left incongruously hoping that everything will still work out.
*Very little is known about Ernst Haffner – some believe he was a social worker. A critic reviewing Blood Brothers at the time of its original publication refers to him as a journalist. We know that the book was critically and popularly successful when first published. That it was burned by the Nazis a year later and that Haffner & his publisher were called before the Cultural Ministry. That is where the trail ends. No picture exists. No record of whether he survived the war. The only reference I found of him was a chapter in a 1980 book (written in German) on the youth gangs: Wilde Cliquen : Szenen e. anderen Arbeiterjugendbewegung by Hellmut Lessing & Manfred Liebel and I’m not sure if it’s a excerpt from the novel or a separate article entirely.
February 10, 2015 § 2 Comments
Title: An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris
Author: Georges Perec
Translator: Marc Lowenthal
Publisher: Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)
ISBN: 978 0 9841155 2 5
At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?
Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades. If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life. I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped. Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book. The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surrealist moment if there ever was one) – these things speak to an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.
For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye. She was a product of the modernist period in literature.* In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City. At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of “focus group” and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions. Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention. The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.
Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se. There are no character arcs. No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.
What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing. There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss. Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.
…goodnight to the old lady
Goodnight noises everywhere
In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep. The gradual loss of consciousness. Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.
The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People passing, dogs, pigeons, church bells, streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be an absolute boor. There is no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas. None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time. When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up. Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window. The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance in the text something to look forward to. And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.
The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.
Lights come on in the cafe.
Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.
A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.
A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.
people people cars
An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat
The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls
A woman with two baguettes under her arm
It is four thirty
As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards. Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.
*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later. The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.
December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely
Published by Pushkin Press, London (2014)
Historical fiction is strange. We approach it with the understanding that what we are reading is and is not true. We contract with the writer to accept his (or her) interpretation of events without requiring he take on the burden of proof. The situation become even more convoluted when we deal with historical figures, versus fictional characters placed in historical settings. For better or worse, Philippa Gregory’s Boleyn sisters have supplanted the historical Ann & Mary in her reader’s minds. Personally, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s versions – but the point is that both portraits are flawed and filled with inaccuracies due to the limits of the historical records. The facts that are represented – dates, portraits, whatever written documentation remains – are true. The mannerisms, the inflections of the voice, the emotions and motivations, events that took place behind closed doors – all this information is fabricated by the author to add depth to the narrative. But it raises the question: if history is, as Voltaire said, “fables that have been agreed upon” what then, are historical fictions?
Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days attempts to understand the last days of the author Stefan Zweig and his young wife Lotte, who will kill themselves at the end of the novel.
During his lifetime Stefan Zweig was one of the most celebrated and translated authors in the world. But while he was commercially successful, he is considered by critics to have been a minor author at best. It was an opinion he accepted, perhaps even shared, showing extraordinary humility. When his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 he is reported to have called it an honor to see them thrown into the same bonfires as the works of great men like Einstein, Freud and Mann.
The Last Days skips over most of Zweig’s life and goes straight to the year 1942. Stefan & Lotte are attempting to make a home in Petrópolis, Brazil after fleeing from Austria to England, then England to New York. Zweig is presented as a man dealing with middle age (he was 61) and – a bit like the varsity football player who peaked in high school – obsessed with the golden days of a Vienna that no longer existed.* Lotte, half his age and in awe of his celebrity, finds herself living a life of exile and self-imposed isolation that is very different from the glamorous existence she fantasized. The Last Days is a complicated novel – contemplative & thoughtfully written in a way that is uniquely French.
Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation moves readers towards the couple’s death gently – the cadence of the writing slow and sad and achingly beautiful. Zweig seems aged past his actual years and is actively disengaging from the world. Many of his friends are dead. Those who managed to escape are pressuring him to take a political stand condemning Germany.** His world is shrinking – geographically and intellectually. Something those around him are beginning to recognize.
“It’s funny to notice how the choices you made as a writers reveal your true inner nature. Mann opted to write about Goethe, while you chose to focus on Kleist and Nietzsche. You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country, with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, Meanwhile, Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone else revolves. Whereas you have escaped to a place where nothing happens and have reached a point of no return. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world. Mann is busy building a statue to himself, while concealing his true nature. Mann will never own up to his pederastic inclinations. Mann conceals anything that might compromise his public image. Mann sees himself as peerless. Mann looks for light and finds it in Thomas Mann. On the other hand, here you are doing your utmost to disappear.”
Seksik uses Ernst Feder, as he uses everything in his novel, as an opportunity to psychoanalyze these two people. He has a hypothesis that he is working through on the page. It is fascinating to watch – though I couldn’t help wondering if reality wasn’t as tidy as he would like us to believe. Zweig’s suicide was, in fact. not entirely surprising when viewed in retrospect. He had a history of depression (something his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz, confirmed in her memoir about their life together after his death) and something Seksik only alludes to.*** Lotte, in my opinion, provides much more complicated subject matter. She was hired by Friderike to act as Zweig’s secretary. They began an affair. Zweig eventually convinced Friderike to divorce him, and he and Lotte were married. She was completely devoted to the both the man and the world famous author. But Seksik is insightful enough to understand that a young wife might not have been entirely content with their life in Petrópolis. Seksik’s portrait of Lotte, his interpretation of her psyche, is fascinating and troubling at the same time. She’s a pathetic creature willing to diminish herself in return for his love, and yet there are sparks of rebellion. They amount to nothing, but their brief existence prevents the character from becoming two-dimensional.
On the whole neither Stefan or Lotte Zweig are sympathetic. They are isolated, from society and each other, by the fog of depression. Yet Seksik manages to channel that depression into a semblance of life. His characters are made of blood and bone. When husband & wife venture out with friends to celebrate Carnival Lotte wears a new red dress. In the crowds Stefan loses sight of her and Seksik describes his initial panic and his reaction when he finds her again.
He had lost hold of Lotte’s hand. He looked around frantically. The thought that she might have drowned in that human flood terrified him. Pushing his way through the pandemonium, he began screaming out her name, a cry that was lost in the midst of that racket. Everyone around him was lost in jubilation. A man wearing a skeleton costume and a skull mask roared in his face. He felt oppressed by the crowd and began thinking he’d lost her for good. A group of women wearing open bodices surrounded him, their bodies dripping with sweat as they shook in a sort of primitive dance. He saw himself as rather grotesque, lost in a ragged crowd wearing a white linen suit. A man wearing a fake beard jumped towards him and stole his Panama hat from his head. He stood motionless, petrified. Then, just as quickly as the crowd had assembled, it dispersed. All of a sudden, he caught sight of her, covered in ticker tape, swaying her hips in front of a man playing maracas. He lingered for a while observing the scene, in the middle of that frenzied outburst, keeping his gaze obstinately fixed on his wife. She appeared to be floating before his eyes as if in a dream. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
While Zweig’s popularity has waxed and waned in the decades since his death, European additions of his books have continued to be widely read. He is currently experiencing a revival – the beneficiary of the public’s nostalgia for the Edwardian period fueled by the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, as well as films like Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s film was, in fact, inspired by Zweig’s novels). The New York Review of Books & Pushkin Press have recently reissued, between them, almost his complete catalog of books – translated into English to moderate success. There have been reviews and articles in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The NY Times Book Review, to name a few. His suicide has been of particular interest, we humans are by our nature somewhat morbid. Seksik has managed to elevate the conversation, gleaning beauty from tragedy. Discovering truth in the absence of facts.
*The Youtube video below provides a sense of what that lost world was like.
**Fellow Jews who had fled the Third Reich took Zweig’s pascifism in life & eventual suicide to be an almost personal betrayal. Mann wrote after learning of Zweig’s death: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.”
***I can’t help seeing parallels to Virginia Woolf’s suicide at the beginning of the war. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, in his amazing biography tells how the Woolfs planned to commit suicide should there be a German invasion. Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and rumors had already begun to spread on the fate of the Jews under Hitler. Bell attributes the stress of a possible invasion, along with the loss of their London home and the Hogarth Press offices during a Blitz as contributing to her final breakdown.
October 29, 2014 § 1 Comment
Author: Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
Translator: Martin E. Weir
Publisher: Melville House, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 61219 300 7
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s novel The Colonel, translated in 2013, assumes the reader has a basic understanding of Iranian history. Thirst, his third book to be translated into English, goes a step further and assumes a cultural awareness as well. Dowlatabadi remains a modern anomaly in that he does not cater to an American – or even a Western – audience. His novels are written in Persian and, with the exception of The Colonel, published to be read by his countrymen. The resulting aesthetic is very different from what many of us are accustomed to.
Thirst, like The Colonel, is set during the Iran-Iraq War. An Iraqi author is being pressured by an army Major to write a propaganda piece. (What that entails isn’t entirely clear, but seems to involve a report about a fabricated murder committed by POW’s meant to somehow demoralize the Iranians and inspire the Iraqi army). When the author fails to produce the Major threatens his family. The author begins telling the Major a fable set in the desert. Writing it has distracted him from the Major’s commission.
Any number of shells have rained down. But the water tank still remains standing in one of the valleys between the hills up ahead. In all likelihood, it has shuddered several times from near misses, causing the water inside to spill over and run down the outside of the tank, but it’s still standing in the same gulley, seemingly immune to all gunfire. The tank should be safe for the time being, as it’s not in the enemy’s direct line of sight; unless, that is, their troops crawl out of their trenches, charge down the hill and happen upon it. But it seems that they have not yet been given the order to do so; if they d id advance down the hill, they might find themselves trapped in the same gulley as the water tank, in plain sight and within range. Which would mean that anyone who opened fire could kill as many of them as he had bullets. So the hope is that, at least until this intense bombardment is over, the water tank will remain unscathed, while those soldiers who have fallen on the path leading from the tank to the trenches will also stay where they are, dead or alive. In the distance, between the bow of the hill and the water tank, some enemy soldiers have fallen dead or dropped to the ground: some of them before reaching the tank and some on their way back with full water bottles, some of which may still be intact, dangling from their necks and shoulders. But we can also assume that many of those flasks will be mangled and riddled with bullet holes. Now anyone who tries to fetch water will first have the difficult task of finding and quickly gathering up any empty, intact flasks before dashing down to the tank to get water.
But what it all the flasks are full of holes?
‘Al-atash, atash … atashaan.‘*
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. As the soldiers lay hallucinating in the hot sun, cut off from their supplies, desperate for a drink – one by one they volunteer to crawl to the tank to fill the flasks with water. The volunteers are shot by soldiers in the opposing army and left (by necessity – those attempting to reach them will in turn be shot) to die in the scorching sun. An impasse – condemning the men in both armies to a slow, horrible death by dehydration.
There is a cinematic quality to Dowlatabadi’s books – influenced, perhaps, by his experiences as an actor. The book opens with a wide shot (see the passage above) that takes in the entire battlefield, and then slowly zooms into a master shot of three men. A Lieutenant attempting to inspire and save the single, remaining soldier under his command and their wounded prisoner. Cut to the author of this tableau who, in a post-modern cameo, “lights up his cigarette and writes: ‘Under no circumstances should prisoners be killed! They are your captives, and are completely in your charge.'” We (the readers) hear a knock at the door. Enter the Major, demanding his report. The writer doesn’t have it. He begins to talk about the fable he’s been writing instead. Cut back to the Lieutenant in the desert.
Thirst is written entirely in present tense, much like a screenplay and regardless of which character’s perspective we’re being given, making for what should be jarring transitions between the fable set in the desert and the writer’s confrontations with the Major. Instead, one scene shifts seamlessly into another in a way that can be momentarily confusing, but also very compelling. Without warning we’re pulled into the Lieutenant’s hallucinations. And then, suddenly, we’re back in the room with the Iraqi author as he attempts to distract the Major with his fable. Parallel narratives are created: one in which the author tells the fable and one in which the Lieutenant (within the fable) is experiencing those events. Realities merge, tear apart, and slowly merge again. Thirst is a sophisticated piece of literature that is a joy to read.
The things that make Thirst such an incredible book are the same reasons why it might not be for everyone. In addition to the complicated structure, readers contend with unfamiliar cultural references. The book’s original Persian title is Besmal, which is “the supplication required in Islam before the sacrifice of any animal”. The term would be familiar to Iranian readers, identifying the novel as an anti -war treatise. Besmal is a motif/theme that’s frequently repeated and referred to in the story. The translator includes a footnote (which is what is in the quotations), but how much can such a short explanation actually impart?
There are multiple references to a lioness suckling her cubs, or a man transforming into a dove, – the symbolism behind both is probably as obvious to Persian readers as references to the tortoise and the hare are to us. Antithetically, perhaps the lioness and dove have no culturally specific meanings at all. Lacking a frame of reference makes knowing the difference difficult. (For example: last year I spoke briefly with Sara Khalili, the translator of Censoring An Iranian Love Story. I asked her about the dwarf who appears and reappears throughout that novel. Is it a reference to Arabian Nights or some other Persian folk story? She laughed. No, it’s just Mandanipour playing a joke). Sometimes translated literature becomes a puzzle to solve. And not everyone wants that kind of complexity.
Thirst also abandons the more traditional plotting of Missing Soluch (Dowlatabadi’s first novel translated into English) and the breathtakingly evocative prose of Tom Patterdale’s translation of The Colonel. Martin Weir’s translation of Thirst is vibrant and fluid, but very different from Patterdale. A good thing in my opinion. The story itself is so strange, almost allegoric – there seems to be a progression towards more the experimental in the author’s writing – that here less is more when it comes to individual sentences. Weir’s plain, straightforward prose holds the book in balance.
I wouldn’t recommend Thirst to someone just discovering Dowlatabadi. Despite how much I enjoyed it, new readers would be better off starting with one of his other two novels. But for those of us who already know and love his work, and who recognize Mahmoud Dowlatabadi as one of Iran’s most important contemporary authors, Thirst is a challenging and exciting addition to the canon.