John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995) was an important American computer pioneer; his father was born in Bulgaria and came to the United States as a young boy. Due to his Bulgarian origin and some factors about which I will speak in this review, Atanasoff had a special relationship to the home country of his father, where he is held in high esteem - sometimes enthusiastically, but factually incorrect referred to as “the Bulgarian who invented the computer”.
The book "John Atanasoff – The Electronic Prometheus" by Blagovest Sendov (St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, Sofia 2003, translated by Maya Pencheva and Todor Shopov) is focusing on the “Bulgarian connection” of Atanasoff; while it is not a biography, it makes for the first time many documents and private letters of Atanasoff available, mainly the correspondence with the author of the book, a Bulgarian mathematician and computer scientist. In the last part, the book publishes Atanasoff’s own paper Advent of electronic digital computing, an account of his personal development and achievements as an engineer and scientist, a report that documents in detail not only the fascinating story of the ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer), but also the extremely long and difficult patent litigation that followed and that ended with an almost complete success for Atanasoff.
Atanasoff was a professor of physics and mathematics at the Iowa State College in the 1930’s, and one of his scientific interests was the solution of complex systems of up to 30 linear equations. Since these complicated systems of equations couldn’t be resolved in acceptable time by humans, and the existing calculators were also not able to process such complicated operations, it became clear to Atanasoff that he had to build a fast calculator himself if he wanted to get the job done. Together with Clifford Berry, a very talented graduate student, he worked in his free time on the development of such an engine. The two breakthroughs on the way to finally make the ABC operational were the decision to use binary code (with 2 instead of 10 as a base of the number system used), and to introduce electronic tubes instead of mechanic or electro-technical solutions.
Atanasoff started his work on the computer in 1937, first alone and later with Berry; in 1942, the ABC was operational. (Konrad Zuse’s Z3, a digital computer also on binary, but on electro-technical basis was already operational in 1941, more than one year before the ABC – a fact that was unknown to Atanasoff and Berry. Zuse’s computer was – contrary to the ABC - also Turing-complete. Strangely, Zuse is mentioned only once in Sendov’s book: “During WWII Conrad(sic!) Zuse built in Germany a computer too perfect for its time, which used switches.”)
In the period when Atanasoff and Berry were working on the ABC, a young professional, John Mauchley, got in touch with them; Atanasoff and Berry shared the basic concepts and the blueprints of the ABC with him during a visit of Mauchley that lasted several days; later it turned out that Mauchley used the design of the ABC as a basis of a computer he would build together with John Eckert: the ENIAC. In the patent documents they submitted, there was no mentioning of the fact that the basic concepts of ENIAC were indeed Atanasoff’s (and Berry’s), and not those of Mauchley and Eckert.
Atanasoff was for a long time unaware of this patent fraud, but an IBM patent expert visited him in the 1954 and promised him “If you will help us, we will break the Mauchley-Eckert computer patent; it was derived from you.” Considering his previous bad experience with IBM, Atanasoff declined, but in 1967 Sperry Rand Corporation started a law suit regarding the ENIAC patents, followed by a second one in 1971 (Honeywell vs. Sperry Rand). In both cases, Atanasoff – Berry had allegedly committed suicide, although the circumstances were somehow fishy - and his counterparts were heard as witnesses over extended periods. In 1973, a federal court in Minneapolis ruled that indeed the patent on ENIAC was void and that Atanasoff and Berry had built the first digital electronic computer and that the patented idea was Atanasoff's.
In 1970, when Atanasoff’s role in the development of the modern digital computer was not widely known even in the scientific community, he was contacted by Sendov, then a professor at Sofia University. What started as a rather formal correspondence between colleagues who share similar research interests, grew into a close personal exchange that included several meetings in the United States and also two visits of Atanasoff in Bulgaria.
For Atanasoff, it must have been an emotionally extremely touching and uplifting experience that his achievements were not only recognized by his Bulgarian colleagues – he was even made a member of the Bulgarian Academy of Science, a rather rare achievement for a scientist from a capitalist country, who had on top of it a long track record in working in the development of the nuclear and conventional arms industry of the United States. Particularly his 1970 visit in his father’s home village Boyajik near Yambol (his grandfather had been killed by the Turks in 1876), the Bulgarian hospitality, the opportunity to connect with his unknown relatives and an old colleague from his time as a student, the personal friendship he made with Sendov and a few other scientists not only from the field of computer science - it is all reflected in the later very warm and personal correspondence of Atanasoff.
The engineer and scientist comes across in this correspondence as a good-natured, friendly and open man with a variety of interests that included beside his family such different fields as agriculture - he grew his own fruits and vegetables, something for which he “blamed” his Bulgarian heritage - or the plan for the development of a new universal phonetic alphabet, an issue he liked to discuss with a Bulgarian linguist as well. His Bulgarian friends even lobbied in Stockholm for him, when he was proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Todor Zhivkov, the Head of State and Chairman of the Communist Party of Bulgaria wrote a support letter to get him the Marconi International Fellowship (both applications failed). The decades of battle in and out of court regarding the recognition of his and Berry’s invention in the United States were probably very disappointing for Atanasoff, and that the country of his father offered recognition, support and friendship meant for sure a lot to him.
I was of course wondering, if Atanasoff and Sendov had maybe second thoughts when they started their personal acquaintance that lead to such a close friendship, including also the families of both men. After all, it was the time of the Cold War, and it is difficult to imagine that the two of them moved completely out of the orbit of the intelligence services of both countries, for whom these meetings must have been extremely interesting. Therefore I wouldn’t be too surprised if one day documents related to that question would emerge from some archive. And I also wouldn’t be too surprised if the “Atanasoff story” would make it sooner or later into a Hollywood movie: it has all the ingredients a successful film needs.
Fazit: Atanasoff was a colorful person with a strong Bulgarian connection. Sendov’s book is the ultimate work on this topic (so far). Atanasoff was a very important computer pioneer, but not the inventor of the computer....more
In 1821, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe planned to visit his hometown Frankfurt am Main and the Rhine valley. After the death of his wife Christiane fiveIn 1821, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe planned to visit his hometown Frankfurt am Main and the Rhine valley. After the death of his wife Christiane five years earlier, he hadn't undertaken any visits far away from home, and his trip to Karlsbad and Marienbad 1820 was for medical reasons. Since Goethe was not in good health then, his doctors prescribed the mineral water of the Bohemian spas which had done the poet and statesman well on prior occasions. A bout of illness prevented the planned meeting with old friends in the West, and the by then 72 year-old Goethe followed the medical advice to go again to Marienbad.
The small book "Goethes späte Liebe" (Goethe's late love) by Dagmar von Gersdorff recounts what happened in Marienbad. Goethe arrived in Marienbad in good spirits; he was additionally lucky to meet an old acquaintance, the attractive Amalie von Levetzow, an energetic woman in her early thirties, twice divorced, and owner of a representative villa she rented out to guests from the aristocracy and high society. Amalie had married very early and had three daughters; the oldest one, Ulrike, then a 17-year old teenager, caught immediately Goethe's eye.
Ulrike, who was attending a boarding school in France where she got a French education, had never heard of Goethe, and had therefore in the beginning no idea that the old gentleman she met was Germany's most important poet and at the same time Head of the Government of the small Grand-Duchy Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach - the Grand-Duke was also an old friend of her mother Amalie. Goethe took no offence and was obviously in the contrary smitten by the natural friendliness and attentiveness of the girl. Soon they went out for walks together, with Goethe introducing many to the girl new topics that covered a wide range of subjects (astronomy, geology, mineralogy, botany, but of course also poetry and literature). In the evening they would sit together on a bench in front of the villa talking vividly, reading or discussing copper plates Goethe had ordered. Also the younger sisters were involved, Goethe attended picnics and dinner invitations with them, danced and had fun.
While Ulrike's family treated Goethe like a family member, it was for most people in Marienbad a source for permanent gossip to see the transformation of Goethe. While at the arrival he made the impression of an old sick man, he was soon bursting with energy and was visibly rejuvenated; the reason for this transformation was easy to guess. Soon the gossip reached also Weimar, and Goethe's son August and his wife Ottilie, who lived with their children in Goethe's house in Weimar were not exactly delighted about the news. But once the summer was over, and Goethe went back to Weimar, things calmed down again, but from letters to his friend Zelter we know that Goethe felt the contrast between the cheerful atmosphere in Marienbad and the cold reception at home by his son and daughter-in-law as rather depressing.
Goethe spent also the summer of 1822, and then again the summer of 1823 in Marienbad. It seems that in 1822, his feelings for Ulrike became so serious that he considered a marriage proposal, despite the age gap of 55 years. When it became obvious to his surrounding, that the old man was serious, tout Weimar was bursting with gossip about this scandal. Schiller's widow, the Humboldt's, even Wilhelm Grimm, or Bettine von Arnim from Berlin were sending letters back and forth in which they secretly scolded the foolishness of Goethe. It was not the first time Goethe faced this kind of situation. Similar scandals followed his early relationship with Frau von Stein, and his running away to Italy for two years, leaving behind important state business and a whole town wondering what happened to their most prominent inhabitant (after the Grand Duke, Goethe's old friend and protector); the small town of Weimar also didn't accept the fact that Goethe lived for many years with Christiane Vulpius, a woman who was considered as socially inferior, a mesalliance - and on top of it they were not even married! Goethe seem not to have cared very much for gossip, but this time things were different.
August and Ottilie threatened Goethe to desert him and leave, together with their children - if a young woman would enter the house as Goethe's wife; especially the danger not to see his beloved grandchildren any more was a heavy burden on Goethe's soul. When the Grand Duke travelled to Marienbad to visit the von Levetzow family and to submit on Goethe's behalf a marriage proposal, the house at the Frauenplan was almost in a state of war. Cold and harsh were the words August and Ottilie exchanged with Goethe, and he started to feel like a stranger in his own house. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke had not only submitted Goethe's marriage proposal, he had also explained that in the case Ulrike would live in Weimar, also a house for her family would be built by the Grand Duke; Ulrike would be the First Lady at the court of the Grand Duke; she would receive a generous livelong pension and would be treated like royalty in every respect. Ulrike's mother made it clear that she would not interfere in her daughter's decision; while she was very sceptical because of the age gap, it was clear that the proposal was also an honor. Ulrike declined, especially since she sensed that this would affect the peace in the house of Goethe. And of course, we might say, her feelings were very different from that of Goethe.
Ulrike von Levetzow lived until 1899; in that moment she was the last person that knew Goethe personally. She never married, although she received many marriage proposals. A few years before her death, she wrote down a text in which she gave her side of the story. It was no love affair, she claims. Goethe was like a grandfather, a sweet, good-natured man, educating her on many subjects; and he saw in her only a daughter (or grand-daughter). She plays down the seriousness of the matter, but for Goethe, it was definitely much more. What exactly happened between them, we don't know; they kissed at least on one occasion; and how explicit Goethe made his wish to marry her in his conversations with her, we can only guess. While the decline of the marriage proposal was never formally voiced, Goethe still had hopes, a fact that is also very clear from his correspondence with the girl's mother. But when in October 1824, Ulrike and her mother were passing by Weimar without stopping to meet Goethe (whom they even saw on the street), we can easily guess that the old man was heartbroken. Still, he kept the correspondence going, and even shortly before his death his thoughts were with Ulrike as we know from letters.
It was an impossible love, no doubt. And deep inside, we can be sure that Goethe knew it. But still, this love brought him new energy and inspiration and the Marienbad Elegy, probably the most beautiful of his later works is one of the results of this love of an old man to a young girl.
The last stanza goes like this:
Mir ist das All, ich bin mir selbst verloren, Der ich noch erst den Göttern Liebling war; Sie prüften mich, verliehen mir Pandoren, So reich an Gütern, reicher an Gefahr; Sie drängten mich zum gabeseligen Munde, Sie trennen mich, und richten mich zugrunde.
(To me is all, I to myself am lost, Who the immortals' fav'rite erst was thought; They, tempting, sent Pandoras to my cost, So rich in wealth, with danger far more fraught; They urged me to those lips, with rapture crown'd, Deserted me, and hurl'd me to the ground.)
In the first volume of his autobiography Die gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free), Elias Canetti writes about his early childhood in the Bulgarian city of Ruse - Canetti uses throughout the book the old name Rustchuk -:
"Everything that I experienced later, had already happened once in Rustchuk...On any one day you could hear seven or eight languages."
Despite having spent only his first six years in the city of his birth - the family emigrated to Manchester in 1911 and Canetti came back only once for a visit in 1915 - Ruse and its unique multilingual and multicultural atmosphere at that time left a lifelong mark on the future writer.
A small book in Bulgarian language with the title In Ruse with Elias Canetti (В Русе с Елиас Канети) sheds additional light on this early period of Canetti's life, family background and social surrounding.
In the middle of the 19th century Ruse had developed into a thriving city. Located at the Danube it had by then attracted a lot of trading activities and the port of Ruse was the main artery through which goods were imported and exported from and to the whole region. An additional boost to the economic development was the fact that Ruse had a fast-growing Jewish (Sephardic) community which was one of the driving forces for Ruse's modernization; this together with a general economic boom in the then revived Bulgarian state (until the Russian-Turkish War 1877-78 it had been part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five hundred years) made Ruse the then most modern and truly European city in Bulgaria.
The authors give us interesting information about the origin and growth of the Jewish community in Ruse and trace back also the family background of Canetti's parents. Grandfather Elias Canetti (the namesake of little Elias) came from Adrianopel (Edirne) to Ruse and became a successful trader, first with his partner in Constantinople, later on his own. He reigned his firm and his family like a benevolent despot, a true family man that cared a lot for his grandchildren and particularly his oldest grandson Elias; but at the same time he expected that his sons gave up on their own plans and would be part of the future family business with branches in all other important Bulgarian cities.
For Jacques, young Elias' father, this was a source of permanent inner conflicts - he was a talented violinist and dreamed of a career as a musician in a chamber quartet. Also Mathilde, his wife and Elias' mother, was a talented amateur musician (she played the piano); there are photos that show the parents as musicians in a public concert in Ruse. Another photo shows Jacques, then a dashing young man, in a carnival costume - both parents who had spent years in their youth in Vienna loved the theatre and literature, things for which Grandfather Canetti had not much interest and which he might have considered at best as harmless hobbies, but as nothing serious.
Beside this latent conflict between Jacques and Elias Senior, another quite open conflict clouded the childhood of the future Nobel Prize winner. Mathilde's family, the Arditis, were against the marriage of their youngest daughter with Jacques Canetti. The Arditis, one of the oldest and high-ranking Sephardic families could trace back their origin until the 13th century when some of their ancestors were astronomers and doctors at the courts of the Kings Alfonso IV and Pedro IV. After 1492, the family settled in Livorno and later in the Ottoman Empire, where several of their members became famous rabbis, kabbalists and scientists; the Arditis were among the first Jewish families in Ruse and looked down on Elias Senior and his family as upstarts, who had just arrived from the Orient and were no match for the famous and cultured Arditi family. One of the remaining (and traumatic) memories of his early childhood in Ruse was for Canetti a visit in Grandfather Arditi's house. This grandfather, who never paid much attention to Elias and never gave him a present, asked his grandson on one occasion, which of his grandfathers he loved more - Grandpa Canetti or Grandpa Arditi. When the poor boy said "Both!", he was immediately called a liar and hypocrite by his maternal grandfather.
One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on the artistic talent of Canetti's parents, especially that if his father. Ruse had quite an active social and cultural life, and much of it was initiated and kept alive mainly by its Jewish citizens. Ruse has a beautiful theatre that regarding its size and architecture could be as well in Vienna or Budapest. During Ruse's best times, many famous international troupes visited the Danubian city, the same goes for many musicians and orchestras. There were amateur theatre groups and concerts that raised funds for the education of poor but talented Jewish children, the Bnai Brith Loge played an important role in the social fabric of the Jewish community, and there were also some of the first Zionist organisations in Bulgaria which had their headquarters in Ruse. Other chapters cover the donations made by Canetti's grandfather and father, the efforts of Jews from Ruse to support the war effort in the Balkan Wars and WWI, either as soldiers or by financial support. Another short chapter describes how Canetti learned some folk rhymes and stories from young Bulgarian peasant girls, stories he later found again in a German book about Bulgarian fairy tales and folk stories and that left obviously a deep impression on him. Philately, the role of the different newspapers in the Canetti household (in Ladino and in German), and the comet Halley are also covered by short but instructive chapters.
The Orator is the title of the longest chapter of the book, and it deals with Canetti's relationship with one of the most colorful members of the Canetti-Arditi family, Elias' cousin Benjamin 'Bubi' Arditi (Canetti calls him 'Bernhard' in a letter addressed to him that is reproduced in the book). Bubi, just a few years older than his cousin, was for some time a strong influence for Canetti and he is explicitly mentioned in the second volume of Canetti's autobiography Die Fackel im Ohr (The Torch in My Ear).
After Canetti's parents moved to Manchester with their three sons (Elias, Nissim and Georges), Elias saw his cousin during both visits in Bulgaria; in Summer 1915 in Ruse and in 1924 in Sofia. During this period Bubi had became a fervent Zionist and public speaker. Elias was so impressed by his cousin who engaged himself with all his energy in something much bigger than himself, a cause for the Jewish community, that we find traces of The Orator also in Masse und Macht and in his Aufzeichnungen. For a short time, young Elias seemed also to have considered to become a Zionist. Bulgarian Jews were in those days frequently targeted by the terrorist IMRO (today this extremist right-wing political party that is still proud of its criminal and antisemitic origin and which propagates quite openly violence against ethnic minorities and refugees is part of the Bulgarian Government!), which openly threatened to kill those who didn't pay hefty sums to them; blackmail, collection of "protection" money and contract killings were the main financial sources of this "patriotic" group (today, being part of the Bulgarian government, they use means that are only slightly more subtle) that was in its high time considered the most ruthless group of assassins in Europe. - When Canetti fell in Vienna under the spell of an even greater orator, Karl Kraus, this interest in Zionist politics faded away completely.
The book reproduces several letters of Canetti to his cousin Bubi and to people in Bulgaria who got in touch with him in his later life. He found touching words for his attachment to Ruse and the importance of the city for himself and his development as a writer.
This small book is not only very informative, it is also an important document of the renewed connection of the writers' birthplace with this extraordinary son of Ruse. Canetti's daughter visited Ruse for the first time in 1998 and initiated together with Penka Angelova from the University Veliko Tarnovo and other supporters the International Elias Canetti Society, which is now very active to promote the literary work of Elias Canetti, and the values for which he stood. The three engravings that show Old Ruse and that were among Canetti's most treasured belongings, are now back in Ruse - a donation by his daughter. And there is a chance that not only the former building of the trading house Elias Canetti (Senior) in Slavyanski Street 14 in Ruse will be revived, but maybe also that the author's birthplace at Gurko Street 13 will be turned into a museum one day. (Interestingly, the English Wikipedia page about Canetti, claims that the building at Slavyanska is his birthplace - a building that the author has rarely ever entered, since it was an office and a warehouse, not a residential building.)
While the book provided me with interesting, new to me information and is written with real love and devotion to the subject, I have to mention two points with which I had a problem.
The book contains many reproductions of photos and other documents; that's a good thing since it adds considerably to the quality of the given information and makes the book even more interesting and readable. However - and this really unforgivable - the book mentions absolutely no sources of any of the photos and documents, and therefore also not of the owners of the copyright of these illustrations. That is highly disappointing and doesn't correspond with the standard of a book publication; it is even infringing the copyright - something that is considered in Bulgaria unfortunately as no offence at all by many people. For me it is a question of honesty and intellectual integrity not to disregard in such a shameful way the intellectual property of others, and it is a real pity that such an otherwise recommendable book has such a very serious flaw.
I had also a problem with a question regarding a detail in the chapter devoted to The Orator. Bubi Arditi, a lifelong supporter of the revisionist Zionist Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, the Irgun, and other right-wing groups, was also politically involved with the last Czar Simeon II (and later Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski).
Simeon launched a long time ago a campaign to depict his father Boris III as the "saviour" of the Bulgarian Jews during WWII, a claim that has been a long time ago discarded by serious historians. In the contrary, Boris III was the main Bulgarian responsible for the extermination of the Jews in the annexed territories in Macedonia and Thracia. I don't want to go into the details here regarding this topic, but it is important to know that Bubi Arditi wrote a book that supports Simeon's revisionist theory.
After referring Arditi's position that Boris III was the "saviour" of the Bulgarian Jews and his blaming the "Jewish communists in Bulgaria" that they are liars, the book claims surprisingly that Canetti shared his cousin's opinion on this question. But while there can be no doubt about the fact that Canetti rejected the communist system in Bulgaria with harsh words, he was never a supporter of the thesis that Boris III was the "saviour" of the Bulgarian Jews and the reproduced letter proves - if anything - the opposite. The rather ambiguous wording of the authors in this particular context leaves room for the interpretation that they think that Canetti shared his cousin's opinion. But Canetti was never ever a supporter of revisionist ideologues and I was rather annoyed by this passage in an otherwise very recommendable text.
P.S. In case you wonder, the French actor Pierre Arditi is also a member of the Canetti-Arditi family. His father Georges and Elias were cousins....more
It is interesting how my reading patterns and interests are changing over the years; for example I am reading nowadays much more poetry and short prose as I used to. The short and the very short prose is a little bit of a step child of modern literature. It seems that today everyone wants to read (and write) novels, particularly long novels. But I prefer a small collection of short short stories over most long novels, especially when the prose is crisp and the stories tickle my imagination. Such as most of the pieces in the book In the Shadow of the Moon by Assen Assenov, a book that is only available in a bi-lingual German/Bulgarian edition (original title: Im Mondschatten/В сянката на луната) .
Assenov, born 1942 in Varna, lives since the 1970's in Germany. For many years, he was the managing editor of the renowned German literary journal Litfass. Litfass was in the last decades of the existence of two German states one of the few outlets that was open to writers from East and West Germany, and therefore it was an important place of communication between writers and intellectuals of both Germanies. Assenov, who works also as a literary translator, published several collections of his own short prose. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany's most famous (and most feared) literary critic wrote favourably about Assenov's prose.
Some of the prose pieces (most of them are less than one page long, the longest cover up to four pages) are focused on (auto-)biographical experiences of the author's alter ego Velin: the description of a journey to Monte Carlo, a holiday with his future wife, a meeting with her years after they have divorced, a letter his ex-wife is writing him after her new partner has died in an accident. But while the events sound ordinary, even banal at times, there is always an element of surprise, something unexpected that stands for the contingency of life and that may in some cases even come as a shock to the readers; such as in the story Until Noon (Bis Mittag), in which a housewife is making the breakfast for her husband, cleans the dishes after he leaves for work, waters the flowers, deposes the garbage, cleans the shoes, dusts the book shelves, until at noon she opens the window and jumps...Most relationships that are described in the book are unhappy and we as readers see them frequently from the viewpoint of one of the involved parties (like in Next Year, in Novel or in Waiting). Dreams are in some cases the basis of stories (such as Winnetou, or Help); the life of the emigrant between two countries and cultures is an implicit topic of many of the texts. Some use the form of the anecdote, some that of the poem; more than a few drift into another, fantastic reality and reminded me sometimes of Kafka (In Line, or Old House). Writing, one of my favourite texts in the collection, may be considered as the credo of its author:
"Word by word I pick up my life. - How many stories do we have to live through, until we make an experience? How many times must something resonate in our consciousness until you realize it, until you understand it. Until you describe it! - I live in a world, in which almost nothing of what surrounds me, was surrounding me during my childhood. Not the people, not the smells, not the language. What I wanted, I have achieved. But it was not, what I needed. - ...Locked into a circle of stories, of a Bulgarian mother, an Austrian wife, a German daughter. Stories that define me. The wish to bring order into my life by writing, to break the circle, to finish the stories." (My translation)
Assen Assenov is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but a collection of his short prose would find its readers!...more
Sir Henry Rider Haggard was one of the most successful writers of adventure stories in the late 19th and early 20th century. His most popular novels are King Solomon's Mines (first published in 1885), which I am reviewing here, and several sequels which describe other adventures of the hero/narrator Allan Quatermain.
Quatermain is a British hunter/adventurer who spent most of his adult life in the wilder parts of South Africa, a region that had recently gained much public interest at the time the novel was published, following the media hype around the Livingstone/Stanley encounter, and also as a result of the growing tension between the British and the Boer settlers who had created their own republics in South Africa. The novel we are reading is disguised as a report of Quatermain to his son, who is studying medicine in England.
While we learn en passant a bit about Quatermain's life as an elephant hunter - he is killing them for the ivory -, it becomes soon clear that the meeting with the Englishman Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain John Good, and the adventures the three men will encounter, are the core of the book.
Sir Henry's only brother and living relative has disappeared in an unexplored area in South Africa, while searching for the legendary mines of King Solomon, where according to some old legends and a dubious map by an old Portuguese explorer, an incredible wealth of diamonds is waiting for its discoverer. After some deliberation, Quatermain agrees to guide the men across the desert and the mountain range that isolate the valley in which the mines are supposed to be located, from the region from which the group is embarking; with his knowledge of the area and its dangers, his experience in logistically planning such an endeavour, and his knowledge of local languages and habits of the different indigenous tribes, Quatermain is the only man at hand to guarantee at least a dim chance to find the missing brother of Sir Henry and the legendary diamond mines. After the necessary equipment is bought and several locals are hired as support staff, the expedition into the unknown starts. (A rather odd fellow, Umbopa, is joining them in the last moment, and - as becomes clear later on -, he has his own hidden agenda.)
What follows are encounters with wild and dangerous animals, with extreme heat and cold, lack of food and life-threatening thirst and many more adventures, such as the uncanny encounter with the skeleton of the old Portuguese explorer in a cave. But finally, the group is descending the mountain range and is entering a "Lost World", an indigenous culture that was obviously exposed hundreds of years ago to the influence of a highly developed culture from the North, but that has completely lived in isolation ever since. Finally it is revealed that Umbopa is in fact the legitimate contender to the crown of Kukanaland, Ignosi, which is now governed by the cruel and despotic King Twala, his uncle. Twala, together with his even more cruel son Scragga and the old witch Gagool have established a rule of exemplary cruelty, and a bigger part of the novel is describing the preparations and the execution of the big witch hunt festival that every year leads to the arbitrary killing of many innocent people.
Quatermain, Curtis and Good are drawn into the conflict between Umbopa/Ignosi and military units loyal to him and those part of the armed tribesmen that remain supporters of Twala. A fierce and bloody battle ensues between the two parties, which ends in a blood bath but finally Umbopa/Ignosi gains the upper hand and can finally establish his legitimate rule. The journey to the Mines of King Solomon is still ahead of the group, and the question of the fate of Sir Henry's brother remains still to be resolved. More adventures are waiting for the men, and you better read about them by yourself...
Did I enjoy the book? Yes, because Rider Haggard knows how to spin a yarn and how to keep the interest of the reader. In my younger years, I read a lot of such adventure stories, and although the reader knows already in the beginning that the book ends well (after all, Quatermain obviously survived the adventure, otherwise he couldn't have written the account for his son in Engalnd), the book contains quite a number of surprises and unexpected twists and turns that will keep you entertained. There are also humorous moments, for which mainly Captain Good with his eye glass, his starched white collars, and white legs is responsible. Although Quatermain's world is a man's world, there is also an encounter with a young local beauty, Foulata, but the unfolding love story with Good ends tragic.
Rider Haggard who had lived himself several years in South Africa, was of course a Victorian and an imperialist. The superiority of the White Race, and particularly the British over the local tribes is expressed implicitly and explicitly. But by late 19th century standard, Rider Haggard may be described as a rather benevolent man in his attitude regarding the natives, and all three main 'white' characters show remarkable empathy on more than one occasion. Umbopa especially, who is not only of royal blood but also in other respect a very remarkable man, is accepted more and more as an equal, and the high degree of social organisation Quatermain and his companions encounter in Kukuanaland provides also some interesting lessons for the British, for example:
"Indeed, in Kukuanaland, as among the Germans, the Zulus, and the Masai, every able-bodied man is a soldier, so that the whole force of the nation is available for its wars, offensive or defensive."
Yes, even from such primitive tribes, the British could learn a thing or two, seems to be Rider Haggard's message to his readers here...
Another paragraph that made me cringe was the description of a massacre of an elephant herd; while on a quest to find Curtis' brother, they encounter a large group of elephants, and Quatermain decides to hunt them, because it would be 'unethical' not to do so...yes, not to kill as many elephants as possible would be 'unethical' - I had to read that revolting paragraph twice...
As for poor Foulata, who so devotedly took care of the seriously wounded Good: Quatermain, who speaks highly of the qualities of the girl, seems to be quite relieved that she died - imagine the complications if she and Good would have started a relationship! (As an aside: I am not sure how many readers at Rider Haggard's times were consciously aware of the obvious homoerotic attraction between Quatermain and the younger men.)
Rider Haggard was a child of his time, and some of his views are for readers of today rather unsupportable; but that's actually true for a lot of the literature of the past. And once you as a reader accept this limitation, you can still feel entertained by his writing. So, all in all, this was not my most favourite book of all times, but it was OK as a quick read without great literary pretensions in between plenty of more ambitious books on my TBR shelf. ...more
Hear the Wind Sing is Haruki Murakami’s first book. The short novel was published in 1979.
The story takes place in August 1970 when the nameless narrator is in his early twenties. He is spending his time mostly drinking beer with his friend, the Rat (we never learn his real name) and the barkeeper J (we also never learn his real name). There is also a girl – you guessed it already: her name is never revealed – who has only nine fingers, with a mother she doesn’t like (we never learn why), and a twin sister to whom she is equally not close (not surprisingly also the reason for this remains a mystery). She works in a record store, and this leads to some references to mostly popular music of that time. The music plays a big role, there are also conversations with a radio DJ with a hiccup, and a letter of a hospitalized girl to the DJ from which is quoted extensively. Apart from that, there is a random meeting with a woman in a bar who drinks several gimlets, makes several phone calls, and goes to the bathroom several times. For some reason, the narrator and the Rat talk about books although the latter is not a reader. Containing no sex scenes and having no one in it who is dying are considered as the main characteristics of a good novel (for which reason they consider this as important is, you know it by now, not explained). The girl has an abortion, and disappears later completely. The narrator mentions the three girls with whom he had sex previously and who all committed suicide. Oh, and there are also some sentences about the pulp fiction writer Derek Hartfield and his bizarre suicide in 1938.
When this blog post seems like a mess to you, it is not my fault. Most of the things happening in this book seem to me completely pointless and not connected to each other. I didn’t understand why things were happening or what was the function of a single of the described events. The characters are shallow, the dialogues bad Hemingway. Maybe it was the intention of the author to show these young people as representatives of a counter-culture, a generation that had no intention to become part of the mainstream Japanese post-WWII society with its salarymen and consumerism. But if that was the idea, it would have been a good thing to describe a little bit more realistic characters with some depth that would have been able to attract some interest and empathy from the side of the reader, and not the flat placeholders without names in this to me pointless narrative.
This is a book for you if you are a big fan of Haruki Murakami. For all the others I can’t recommend it. Fortunately, it is a short book, I read it in one sitting. There is a sequel, Pinball, 1973, which I have also on my shelves. Not really sure if I want to read it.
It is a strange thing. So many people are raving about Haruki Murakami and his writing, he is every year on top of the list of the most probable candidates for the next Nobel Prize for Literature. But to me he seems not to be a remarkable author of literary fiction, although I tried by now already quite a considerable number of his books. The only work by him that greatly impressed me so far was his non-fiction Underground, which I have reviewed here: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=1270...more
"Once, when I looked out of the window during the Lord's Prayer instead of looking at the crucifix, my mother hit me in the face, so that the blood was running from my mouth and nose, and I did not get anything to eat and had to kneel on the ground during the meal." (Als ich einmal beim Vaterunser statt auf das Kruzifix zum Fenster hinaussah, schlug mich die Mutter ins Gesicht, dass mir das Blut zu Mund und Nase herauslief, auch bekam ich nichts zu essen und musste während der Mahlzeit am Boden knien.)
This is a comparatively mild form of physical abuse and violence that Lena Christ, the author of Erinnerungen einer Überflüssigen (Memoirs of a superfluous woman) had to endure during a big part of her childhood and youth by her mother. Verbal abuse of the most aggressive and malicious form, savage beatings not only by hand but with all kind of instruments at hand that resulted in several hospitalisations and suicide attempts; this is what Lena Christ received from her mother instead of love and care. Even more than a hundred years after the publication of this book, it is difficult and heartbreaking to read these memories of a woman that had to endure so much rage, hatred and violence from her own mother.
Lena grew up at the end of the 19th century in rural Bavaria and had a comparatively carefree early childhood in the home of her grandfather and step-grandmother. The illiterate grandfather, a kind and emotionally supportive person, and also the grandmother who was also taking care of several foster children, gave the young Lena obviously enough space to develop herself. Christ is describing the typical village childhood with pranks of children, village and church festivities, almost idyllic. Like most children, she has a keen eye for what's going on around her and gives interesting characterisations of villagers she knew and anecdotes from this happy period of her life. The parents of Lena are absent: the father dead - his ship sunk when Lena was two -, the mother in Munich, who turns up only very rarely and who speaks not at all with her daughter when she comes for a short visit.
Lena was born out of wedlock, a so-called illegitimate child. The fate of such children was frequently rather sad. They were - like Lena - seen as a shame, and what is more: a permanent living reminder of this shame. Frequently they were subject to verbal and physical abuse, and had usually a very hard life. But while Lena's fate may to some degree be considered as typical, the sometimes insane hatred of her mother is extraordinary.
After the first years with the grandparents, Lena's mother sends a message that will change Lena's life forever: she has married and from now on, Lena is supposed to live with mother and stepfather in Munich. But while the stepfather, a few years younger than the mother, shows a certain kindness and understanding for Lena on several occasions, the mother knows no limits for her rage directed at Lena, which almost costs the girl's life. No wonder that she is running away on several occasions. Once, she convinces the bigoted mother to allow her to enter a convict, but also this experience was not a lucky one. (The Catholic church and their representatives had their fair share in Lena's suffering, and the author mentions on more than one occasion the bigotry of priests and nuns.) Surprisingly, Lena is homesick. And who knows, maybe things have changed at home at least a little bit...but that's an illusion as she has to learn very soon the hard way.
To avoid a wrong impression here, I should mention that Lena is despite all her bad experiences described as a quick-witted and rather self-confident young person who rules efficiently over the cuisine of the restaurant that her father is managing with growing success. Lena's family is not poor and well-respected and a growing number of (legitimate) children is also proof for a seemingly "normal" family which is slowly climbing up the social ladder. From a certain age on, Lena attracts also a considerable number of suitors, but when a young man from an allegedly wealthy family proposes to her, she accepts although she doesn't know the boy; she is just happy to get away from her mother - who not surprisingly curses her in even by her standards very harsh words.
Lena's marriage is described only in comparatively summarily form: the husband turns out to be a drunkard who is permanently abusing and raping his wife (because as a husband he has legally "the right" to do so...). He is going bankrupt and becomes mentally insane, and leaves Lena with several children alone and homeless. Lena finds a temporary shelter and work as a secretary. With a slightly optimistic note that Lena tries to prove that she is a more than a superfluous, unwanted person, the book ends.
Lena Christ wrote this book in 1911 and published it after she got a very positive feed-back by the author Peter Jerusalem, who read the manuscript. Jerusalem became her second husband. Other Bavarian authors, like Ludwig Thoma and Korfiz Holm encouraged Lena Christ and helped her to find publishers for several volumes of stories and two novels she wrote. But it seems that she was haunted by nightmares and that her childhood abuse by her mother left her soul scarred for life. She left her second husband for a much younger man, started to forge paintings and got in conflict with the law. She committed suicide in 1920, only 38 years old. The cyanide was provided by her estranged husband, who later lived mainly from the royalties of Lena Christ's writings. It seems that he more than a bit distorted the image of her personality, giving the impression that she was insane. He created a kind of legend and it took a very long time until serious research had a second look at Christ, whose work could as well be considered as an early example of feminist writing in difficult times.
The book has to my knowledge never been translated into English. One reason might be the language. Lena Christ's book is written in a language very close to the real, spoken language of the people among whom she grew up. The Bavarian dialect that is present on almost all pages of the book may be a real challenge for any translator. But these memoirs have also a tremendous charm; Lena Christ had a great natural talent to tell her story, and the book is not only valuable as a witness of a certain historical period but is also proof that someone with comparatively little knowledge regarding literature can be an excellent author.
Emerenz Meier, Franziska Reventlow, Elisabeth Castonier, Marieluise Fleißer - these are some more remarkable female writers from Bavaria from that period. They should not be forgotten and should be read more frequently. And why not in English translation?...more
The Seventh Well by Fred Wander is a book in the tradition of the works of Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz, Elie Wiesel or Julius Fučík about the Holocaust. Although it's a novel, it is an only slightly fictionalized account of experiences of its author as an inmate in no less than twenty Nazi concentration camps in France, Poland and Germany.
The book consists of twelve comparatively short chapters. The chapters as well as the events reported in them are not always in chronological order. The book – and this was a wise decision in my opinion – does not aim at being an exhaustive report of all the sufferings of its author/narrator; it rather focuses in each chapter on one or a small group of inmates, their characteristics, background, bits of information about their life “before” – when they were just ordinary people with all their strengths and defaults, dreams and obsessions, family life, political convictions, religious creeds, with their love of money, sex, alcohol, or literature and story-telling. And indeed, the title of the opening chapter is How to Tell a Story, and I must quote the very first sentences here:
“In the beginning was a conversation. Three weeks after the conversation, Mendel died.”
What follows this almost Biblical entry is a portrait of the above-mentioned man, Mendel Teichmann, a middle-aged Jew who would tell every other Sunday afternoon stories to the other inmates who gathered to listen to him. These first eight pages set the tune for the whole book. The other vignettes in the book are similarly impressive.
While the SS guards and their willing local helpers are indiscriminately called “jackboots” throughout the whole book and almost none of them is identified by a name or some individual characteristics (contrary to many recent books and movies about the Holocaust that are indulgent in their portrayal of sadistic, demonic and somehow charismatic Nazis, while the victims don't play an important role; the most extreme case that I know of is Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a book that I find highly problematic – but I digress…), the prisoners of the camp in these approximately 150 pages gain an individual stature and profile. While many things we know about the camps - the selections, the arbitrary violence and killings, the role of the Prominenten and Kapos, prisoners who made themselves useful to the SS guards and became part of the system that kept the work in the camps going, the hasty evacuation and Todesmarsch (death march) from one KZ to the next, the slow physical and psychological decline of the inmates, the permanent exhaustion and starvation to name just a few -, there are several reasons why The Seventh Well stands out in comparison to other works.
The Holocaust was such a monstrous crime, the number of victims so huge, and the extermination was organized in such a bureaucratic, industrialized and cunning manner that there is a danger that the individual victims are easily forgotten. By remembering a few of them, the author/narrator gives them a face, a fate, a story to remember. These are not anonymous victims, these are people from different countries, Jews, Christians, Jehova’s Witnesses, Atheists; there are communists or other leftists; homosexuals and Russian POW’s; people with a working-class background and intellectuals. And they all struggle to keep their human dignity against all odds by acts of resistance: for example by forming a literature club, by singing an Italian opera aria or Spanish songs from the Civil War, by protecting a fellow prisoner who is in bad physical shape from discovery, by not committing suicide, by fighting to keep their younger brothers alive (the last chapter Joschko and his Brothers is particularly touching), or – by telling stories.
The episodic character of the chapters makes it easier for the reader not to get overwhelmed by the subject matter. While some of the chapters could be stand-alone stories, others have more the character of essays. The translation of Wander's sparse, but beautiful prose by Michael Hofmann is excellent.
I cannot say that I “enjoyed” this book – for obvious reasons. But I am very glad that I read it. The Seventh Well is a truly humanistic book, because it helps us to remember the humanity of at least some of those who perished and suffered in the Holocaust.
A post-scriptum: In Germany, Fred Wander is probably less well-known than his (second) wife Maxie Wander, author of the celebrated interview book Guten Morgen, du Schöne (Good Morning, Beautiful), and her posthumously published diaries. He wrote also an autobiography Das gute Leben (The Good Life), which I plan to read as well – maybe for next years’ German Literature Month, who knows?...more
Penguin's Little Black Classics Series introduced me to number of authors I hadn't read before; among them Edith Wharton - admittedly a rather embarrassing omission from my reading list until now. The Reckoning, a small booklet, contains apart from the story of the same name only one more piece, Wharton's first ever published story Mrs Manstey's View.
Mrs Manstey's View appeared 1891 and marked the beginning of the career of one of the most important American author's of the first half of the 20th century, and although Wharton was later very critical regarding her early stories - most of them are not reprinted in her Collected Stories -, it is of course very interesting to get a first-hand impression of her writing before the novels that made her famous, following the publication of The House of Mirth.
Mrs Manstey's View is one of the most devastating portraits of lonely widowhood I have read. When the view from the window of her rented room in a boarding house to which the title is referring and which is her only joy is threatened by the construction of an extension building, the elderly Mrs Manstey, practically forgotten by her daughter who lives far away and considered as mad by her few social contacts because of her obsession about her view and her inadequate attempts to stop the construction work that will destroy this view for good, comes up with a last desperate idea to put a halt to the extension plans, an idea with catastrophic consequences...
While the language and the setting of the story are rather conventional, and while the story is too short to get a really deep inside into the character and psychology of the protagonist, this piece works nevertheless well as a short story, and although the more mature author found certain flaws in her early stories, it is already with this first work that appeared in print that the author made a mark in literary circles in 1891, the date of the first publication.
The Reckoning, first published in 1911, shows Wharton already at the height of her powers as an author. It is considerably longer than the first story, and is also more elaborated in more than one respect.
The story's main character, Julia Westall, is married to her second husband Clement since ten years. Her marriage can be considered a "modern" one: in a time when divorce was - especially for a woman - a social stigma, Julia has left her first rich husband without regrets. Too socially awkward, too "impossible" was John Arment, and the friends of the Westall's, among them the upper-class Van Sideren's consider this, together with Julia's obvious disinterestedness (her second husband is moving slowly upward the social ladder, but is not a really wealthy man) as something that makes an otherwise in such circles scandalous divorce acceptable. When Westall, a verbal advocate of "modern" ideas also regarding the institution of marriage, takes a serious interest in the daughter of the Van Sideren's, Julia finds herself from one moment to the next in a situation where her orderly and seemingly happy life collapses. The surprising climax of the story sees Julia in the home of her first husband. But I will not reveal more details here...
With its six more elaborated characters, and especially with a heroine that has considerably more depth than the protagonist of the first story, The Reckoning is a really fascinating story. It is also a strong, almost brutal analysis of the power balance between men and women in the society in which Wharton was living. Once a husband decided to discard his wife, it meant for her usually that she lost everything, including her position in society (which considered women mainly as an adornment of their husbands). What is additionally tough for Julia is the fact that she doesn't exactly understand why it happens, the marriage having been over ten years a happy one (at least by superficial standards), and her visit at her first husband is acknowledging the fact that now she knows that he also didn't understand what happened when she left him ten years ago...
Altogether, The Reckoning is a remarkably fresh story that resonates long in the mind of the reader.
I am glad that I started my personal Edith Wharton Reading Challenge with this teaser; now I am curious to read not only her most accomplished novels but also her Collected Stories!...more
Automn 1909 in Vienna. The famous actor Eugen Bischoff has invited a few friends to his villa for a Hausmusik evening (a tradition in many cultured German and Austrian homes). Together with his wife Dina, her brother Felix, his friend Doctor Gorsky, and the narrator Rittmeister von Yosch the amateur musicians play several pieces from the classical repertoire. A rather late arrival, the engineer Solgrub interrupts unintentionally the music performance, and the friends are starting to ask Bischoff about his new role, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bischoff retires briefly to a garden pavilion pretending to need a short preparation time for giving his friend a short performance to show them how he understands this role. Suddenly, two shots are heard from the pavilion. When the alarmed company rushes to the place, they find Eugen Bischoff dead.
Was it suicide? Was it murder, as Solgrub believes? But then, the door of the pavilion was locked from the inside…Had the narrator a hand in it? After all he had a motif: four years ago, he had an affair with Dina and was madly in love with her. While Dina and Felix suspect at least an indirect involvement of von Yosch in the death of Eugen Bischoff, Solgrub points at several similarly mysterious suicide cases in the recent past. While all four male characters start – sometimes individually, sometimes together – to investigate about what's behind the mysterious death of Eugen Bischoff, it turns out that more shocking events are going to happen. The key to resolving the mystery seems to be an old manuscript from the 16th century that tells the tale of an Italian painter, known as the Master of the Day of Judgment, a tale that gives an uncanny explanation to the mysterious events unfolding in the Vienna of the year 1909.
It would spoil the fun to read this book if I would give away more details here regarding the plot. I enjoyed this book tremendously, for several reasons.
Perutz writes a very elegant prose, and this together with his ability to depict situations, people and the few unexpected twists and turns in the story made me devour this book in one sitting. I found it unputdownable (I like this English word!). Perutz knew the milieu about which he was writing very well, and I had the impression that he had a fine ear also for social differences and how they affect the way how people speak in the book – the use of dialect of a taxi driver; the switching to the familiar ‘Du’, but adding the for non-Austrians funny ‘Herr Rittmeister’ by a former army officer unknown to von Yosch when he is talking to the narrator, based on the simple fact that they served in the same military unit; the servile approach of the people working in the pharmacy; the extremely polite way of speech of the Sephardic money-lender; these are just some of the pleasures of this book.
Another thing that I liked: it is difficult to say to what genre this somehow hybrid book belongs, and I think this is one of its strengths - it so unlike most of other genre books you will read. It borrows elements of the mystery genre; it is also a variation of the locked door mystery; there are elements of horror that let me think of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, or even Stephen King. And it has also elements of a historical novel. Additionally, the narrator is a character with more facets as meet the eye in the beginning. Below the surface of the cultured, book and music loving man with a rich emotional life, is also someone who is strictly following the military code of honor, and to him the killing of a man in a duel for a rather trifling matter is not a big deal, a fact about which even his friends have no illusion.
And one more thing: the novel is also to be read in the tradition of the literary sub-genre "The Perpetrator as Investigator" that is quite popular in German literature: the main character is investigating a crime that he himself has (possibly) committed - Heinrich von Kleist's Broken Jug, Heinrich Spoerl's The Muzzle, or Heimito von Doderer's Every Man a Murderer come to mind.
The last chapter, the remarks of the person who found von Yosch's manuscript, give the text again a new possible interpretation. The story can be read as a mystery or fantasy novel; but the biggest mystery, as the novel advances is hidden in the souls of the characters of this book, and their obsessions with the horrors they faced in a certain moment of their lives, and with the feelings of guilt they experienced in traumatic situations. To quote a word by Edgar Allan Poe: “I maintain that terror is not of Germany (or in this case: Austria – T.H.), but of the soul.”
I read the book in German, therefore I can’t say anything regarding the quality of the translation.
Leo Perutz was born in Prague in 1882; he attended the same school as Max Brod and Felix Weltsch, two close friends of Franz Kafka, who were slightly younger than Perutz. Later he worked in Trieste (in a time when James Joyce and Italo Svevo lived there) as a mathematician for the same insurance company as Kafka. A compensation formula he worked out was for a long time used in insurance business all over the world (the ‘Perutz’sche Ausgleichsformel’). Just like Robert Musil, who left a mark outside the literary world (he invented the ‘Musil color top’), he was a man with more than one talent. Perutz was very successful as an author in Vienna in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but his Jewish origin made publication after 1938 impossible, and his emigration to Palestine where he felt cut off from the culture and language to which he belonged, made his life difficult. Additionally, he was opposed to the creation of the state of Israel and was supporting a bi-national solution for Palestine as a home for Jews and Arabs as well. In the 1950’s he started to travel to Austria again frequently. He died in 1957 in Bad Ischl, while visiting his old friend Alexander Lernet-Holenia.
If you haven’t read anything by Perutz, I can heartily recommend his books. And if you don’t trust me, trust Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Graham Greene who loved his books. Also Theodor W. Adorno, Ian Fleming, F.W. Murnau and Alfred Hitchcock were fans of Perutz. My personal Perutz favorite is By Night under the Stone Bridge, but also The Master of the Day of Judgment is excellent in my opinion.
Riccardo and Emilia are happily married for two years in post-war Rome. While Riccardo, the intelligent and likeable, though slightly narcissistic and delusional narrator, works as a journalist writing film critics to make a living, his dream is to become a serious writer and novelist. His beautiful wife Emilia, coming from an impoverished family, dreams on the other hand of living in their own house and of creating a comfortable nest for them, something much better than the rented room in which the financially struggling couple lives. When Riccardo is offered work as a screenwriter by the film producer Battista, he decides to accept this work despite serious reservations. He considers this kind of work as a waste of time and talent, but since it is comparatively well paid, he can fulfil his wife’s dream and buy a small flat; at a later stage, also a car, another sign of his growing success in the eyes of society. But on his way upward in the social hierarchy, something happens to the relationship between Emilia and Riccardo: Emilia becomes reserved and grows cold toward her husband, love turns into indifference and even into hatred and contempt. Contempt is also the title of the novel by Alberto Moravia that I am reviewing here.
Moravia has been praised for his elegant prose, and I can see why, even when I read the book in German translation. The prose is flowing effortlessly, the dialogues of the tormented Riccardo who wants to find out the reason for the growing estrangement between him and his wife, and Emilia sound very real and convincing. Another thing I admire especially in this book is his talent to keep the reader’s interest in a seemingly rather trivial story of alienation between husband and wife by adding some other interesting aspects.
One of the issues that play a major role in the novel, is the relationship between success and money, and the real needs and wishes of people; the characters are forced to do things that are in contrast with what they really want in order to make a living, or to satisfy the (vain) dreams of their partners, or to be perceived as successful and dynamic in a capitalist society. That’s not only true for Riccardo and Emilia, but also for the other two major characters of the novel, Battista and Rheingold, a German film director who is commissioned by Battista to make a monumental movie adaptation of The Odyssey. (In Jean-Luc Godard’s film based on the novel, this character is played by Fritz Lang!)
Battista and Rheingold have strongly opposing approaches to the movie and Homer’s epic. While Battista wants to produce a monumental adventure movie, Rheingold on the other hand is only interested in the psychological conflict that he sees as the reason for Odysseus (Ulysses) participation in the War of Troy, and his delayed return to Penelope. According to his Freudian reading, Odysseus participates in the war because he wants to escape an unhappy relationship: he feels not loved by his wife. For the same reason, it takes him many years to come home. While Riccardo rejects Rheingold’s in his eyes simplistic psychoanalytic approach to Homer’s work, he understands reluctantly that what Rheingold says for the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope is like a mirror regarding his own and Emilia’s relationship and the reason for the obvious alienation between the partners may be a very similar one.
While Moravia is showing us a rather bleak picture of the modern Western world, where money, success, and sex serve as substitutes for a more meaningful existence, his reference to Homer seems to say that it has in principle been always like this. Emilio’s (and Moravia’s) membership in the Communist Party may be more inspired by a vague Utopian hope of a better future than by a real wish for a social revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat. In the meantime, it is best to acknowledge the mechanisms of the inherent contradictions of capitalist society. If Riccardo would have had more time to resolve the basic conflict and predicament of his life with Emilia, it would have been best to divorce and focus his future life on what he really aspires to be, a novelist and serious author. A sudden blow of fate spares him from actively taking this decision on his own.
Moravia knew the film business well; he worked also as a script writer and met probably people very similar as those described in his novel. Contempt describes an at that time thriving film industry in Italy as he experienced it, and the picture he is painting is not a particularly flattering one. Moravia had also a house on Capri similar as the one owned by Battista in the novel, where the final crisis takes place (the Godard movie was shot partly at the Casa Malaparte, another rather famous villa on Capri). And it is also known that at the time he published Contempt, his own marriage with novelist Elsa Morante was in a crisis that ended in divorce a few years later. So, while the novel is not a strictly autobiographic one, Moravia knew about what he was writing and was able to transform this into a rather short, fascinating novel. While some other so-called “existentialist” novels have not aged very well, Contempt was a surprisingly fresh book to me, and I guess I will soon read more by this author.
A word about the movie Le Mépris by Godard, which I have mentioned above: overall a good movie in my opinion, and the fact that Godard made a few major changes compared to the novel doesn’t distract from the quality of the film. The setting, particularly the scenes at the Casa Malaparte, is next to perfect for this movie. However, I had the impression that Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance were not really the right choices for two of the major roles (while Michel Piccoli is brilliant); therefore, it is for me a good movie, but not the masterpiece it could have been with a more adequate cast of characters.
Contempt was also published in English as A Ghost at Noon....more
Der Titel macht neugierig. Das Unbehagen beginnt allerdings schon, wenn man den Verfassernamen liest. Dass jemand, der bisher hauptsächlich durch seine - oft von seinem Adlatus befeuerten - FB-Pogrome und ein paar Artikel in einer Zeitschrift ("Heisse Luft" oder so ähnlich) hervorgetreten ist, wo ihm mit schöner Regelmässigkeit genau die Kategorienfehler und logischen Trugschlüsse unterlaufen, die er anderen gerne mit inquistorischem Eifer und schwer erträglicher philisterhafter Arroganz vorhält, ein Buch darüber schreibt, wie man mit einem bestimmten Personenkreis diskutieren soll, macht stutzig. Dass ausgerechnet dieser Autor, der gerade diesem Thema so ganz offenbar überhaupt nicht gewachsen ist, von einem renommierten Verlag eine grosse Bühne bekommen hat, und dass dieses weltfremde, inhaltlich sehr dünne und in teilweise sehr verschwurbeltem Stil verfasste Werkchen uns Lesern dann noch von einem Teil des deutschen Feuilletons als brilliant verkauft wird, sagt viel über den Zustand des geistigen Lebens in Deutschland aus, fürchte ich. "Wenn die Sonne der Kultur tief steht, werfen selbst Zwerge lange Schatten." (Karl Kraus)...more
Since I am right now living and working in the Republic of Moldova, it will come probably not as a surprise to you, dear readers, when I am trying to get my hands on any books written by Moldovan authors that are translated in a language that I am able to read. There are indeed a few quite interesting authors whose translated books I will feature here in the future.
Today I am writing a few lines about a rather humorous book by the British comedian Tony Hawks: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. At the beginning is an eccentric wager: Tony is betting with a friend (after they watched the Moldovan football team in TV losing against England) that he can beat every member of the Moldovan National team in tennis. (It should be mentioned that a short time before his Moldovan adventure he won a bet that included his traveling around Ireland - with a fridge!)
"All I knew about Moldova was the names of eleven men printed on the inside back page of my newspaper. None of them sounded to me sounded like they were any good at tennis..."
So, the bizarre quest is simply: tracking down the country's football team, challenging them one by one to play tennis with him - and win! (Maybe I should mention that the loser of the bet is supposed to sing the Moldovan National anthem on a crowded street in London - with his pants down...)
What follows is the hilarious report of Tony's adventures mainly in Moldova, with a visit in Northern Ireland (where the football team has a match that would give Tony the opportunity to challenge some players he hadn't met yet.) and an exciting trip to Nazareth where things seem to go wrong for Tony...
The guiding principle of the book, the tracking down of eleven football players reminded me of course a bit of The Twelve Chairs. There is plenty of action, unexpected turns of fate, meetings with the Moldovan underworld, gypsies, and every day challenges such as power cuts, huge manholes in the almost unlit streets of the capital Chisinau, adventures in the public transport, but also encounters with plenty of helpful people, especially his guest family with which Tony created a bond of friendship for life.
A good part of the humour of the book is based on the clash of culture between an over-optimistic Englishman and a local population who seem to be a bit reserved and not particularly surprised about Tony's plan. In a country where almost everyone is focused on surviving the next day, that is probably not surprising. (The book was published in 2000, but things have not changed a lot and Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe.)
Usually, I am a bit reserved regarding the genre "Humorous Travel Books". Too frequently, the humour in the book is of a condescending and disrespectful nature; the content of this kind of books can be described as "Foreigner from a wealthy Western country travels to a poor country about which he doesn't know anything and doesn't want to learn anything, with the sole purpose to poke fun at the hapless and primitive natives, in order to entertain other prejudiced and obnoxious foreigners from wealthy Western countries." The travel prose of AA Gill and some other hacks belongs to that category. I don't like that at all.
Fortunately, Tony Hawks is a different kind of person. His humour is self-depreciating, and he is genuinely interested in getting to know and understand the Moldovans. He is even questioning if he is doing the right thing with his bizarre adventure, which seems to him rather frivolous as time is passing, considering the living conditions of everyone around him.
Of course I am not telling you here if Tony was successful and was really able to beat all players. You have to read it by yourself, and I can assure you, it is a very entertaining book. And since there not many books about Moldova, it is still a must-read for anyone who travels there.
50% of the royalties of this book go into a fund that supports a local children's health centre in Chisinau, the Tony Hawks Centre. Tony is still traveling regularly to Moldova and is doing additional fundraising for the good cause. If you want to learn more about the Tony Hawks Centre, or about Voinicel, another NGO in Chisinau that supports children with special needs and their parents, visit their respective websites. And maybe you consider also if you can make a donation - it is for a good cause!...more