Sunday, 3 December 2017

 In her diary

Morrell wrote: "I found Conrad himself standing at the door of the house ready to receive me.... [His] appearance was really that of a Polish nobleman. His manner was perfect, almost too elaborate; so nervous and sympathetic that every fibre of him seemed electric... He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner.... He was dressed very carefully in a blue double-breasted jacket. He talked... apparently with great freedom about his life – more ease and freedom indeed than an Englishman would have allowed himself. He spoke of the horrors of the Congo, from the moral and physical shock of which he said he had never recovered..."

Note: Lady Ottoline Morrell was an English aristocrat and socialite who befriended writers. He visited Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, in August (or September) 1913 in his home in London, and the above is an extract of her impression on the Polish-British author. / The caricature is sketched by David Low in 1923.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Those who lived
in parallel

Dangerous times make us confront History. Pierre Assouline, one of the most significant contemporary French writers, shows us how he does it – in "Sigmaringen", the low-key novel he wrote in 2014, he enters the dark side of French history with every intention to investigate. And he does raise some quite interesting questions about value systems and the act of resisting.
The novel is set in 1944, early September, right after the Allies and General De Gaulle liberate Paris. The Vichy Regime is moving fast out of the country and into the neighbouring Sigmaringen, a town in southern Germany known for its castle – Schloss Sigmaringen is the seat of government for the Princes of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. The castle becomes immediately the seat of the Vichy Regime, and Marshall Philippe Petain and his cabinet (with their families, lovers, attachés and servants)  occupy all three floors of the castle as the Hohenzollerns are forced out of it. Their German service, though, remains to cater for the newcomers who have the impression that they will return to France soon and so, they keep on governing, plotting and living in political flexibility over maps. Despite the lack of supplies (we are still in a war period and food and other basic amenities are hard to get) the daily life in Schloss Sigmaringen follows the usual protocol. Julius Stein, the butler, makes sure of it. Ηis immaculate professionalism and discretion, though, are not appreciated much. In fact, this very attitude gets on the nerves of both the French and the SS officers, the latter reserving a room on the ground floor as their headquarters.

A literary critic, a journalist and an acclaimed author, Pierre Assouline has an undeniable flair for writing. Historical novels, in particular. However, this time, the events seem to take control of the narration – the quick succession of scenes does not leave enough time for the reader's imagination to assimilate the many details of the people and their living. The author probably wanted to avoid the usual literary pitfalls since the novel expands well out of the walls of the castle and into the surrounding town, dealing at the same time with an aspect of French history that goes beyond commonly accepted perceptions. Best intentions set aside, the development of the characters is reserved and the novel resembles a simple registry of events, at least in the beginning.

A more balanced pace is achieved gradually and the author manages to create a story filled with empathy, perceptive observations and subtle nuances; delightfully witty dialogues, twists and revelations. There are also quite a few thrilling aspects: Julius's emotional world and his attitude towards Nazism, his passion for Schubert's lieders, the discreet affair with Jeanne Wolfermann; the small exaltations of his thoughts upon the advent of the Allies and the return of the Hohenzollern family in the castle. Even more thrilling are the questions the author poses about the limits of professionalism and of one's own conscience; and about how strong the sense of belonging and obedience can be, and where they can lead.

"Sigmaringen" marks a trend of our literary times: to explore WWII and the (French) Collaboration extensively. Αnother recent novel to prove this is "Monsieur le Commandant" ("A Wartime Confession") by Romain Slocombe – a riveting narration of a French bourgeois on his collaboration with the Nazis, against his own family. There are certainly other novels that fill the picture which started to evolve from "La Place de l'étoile" (Gallimard, 1968) – the very first novel by Patrick Modiano who had investigated the Parisian files of the WWII period, even before the French historians, and dared to use two unconventional characters in it: a Jewish anti-Semite serving in the French Gestapo and a Petainist (the protagonist's former professor). 

Nowadays, there is a load of material that signifies the intense interest for this period and Pierre Assouline gives us an idea of those that helped him frame his novel – apart from the relevant academic studies, he went through film and TV productions, journal records and books, all listed in an appendix at the last pages. I found it unnecessary as it limits the dynamics of the story - the knowledge of specific television and film productions (with the visual stimuli they provide) trap the reader's imagination in specific settings. On the contrary, the notes Marisa De Castro, the translator, adds to the text provide you with information and clarifications necessary to link fiction and reality. Along with the short section informing us about the fate of the Vichy French government –its officers and accomplices– these two elements give the book a worthy sense of documentary.

I read the novel relatively quickly. I suppose I must have mistook
,  to some extent, the quick pace of the narrative with my anticipation for every next  page – anyone who has read "Lutetia" knows what I mean. "Sigmaringen" is not less interesting a book but I still got the sense of the imperfect editing of the Greek translation. To give you an example: the frequent and slightly elaborate use of colon interrupted the flow of the reading and made me wonder about the meaning of a sentence and its coherence.

Despite the technicalities, "Sigmaringen" succeeds in portraying the dual reality of a war, the power of history to move ahead and our need for an enhanced collective memory. It leaves you with a melancholic aftertaste, like a piece of classical music fading out; and the indelible image of a mild character who has a strong sense of professionalism, and the integrity to resist the attitude of apathy and homogenisation that the strict performance of his duties calls.

Bottom line: "Sigmaringen" is an unexpectedly enchanting novel.

Notes: The novel is not translated in English (not yet, I hope). // If you can read Greek, you can take a look at a more extensive post where I comment on the plot and characters more specifically. //  The first art piece is a painting by Victor Hugo. The spectacles (in the photograph drawn by Le Monde) belong to Franz Schubert. The author's photograph is drawn by Le Point. The detail of a male's hand is taken from a painting by John Singer Sargent. // You can watch here Madame Destouches (appearing in the novel) giving a short tour of Schloss Sigmaringen and the Portuguese Gallery where she practised ballet every day. It is, also, where Jeanne Wolfermann accompanied Julius on the piano for his favourite "Nacht und Träume".

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Pres and an Officer

by Harold Pinter

Pres. ruminating. Officer reading Washington Post.
P OK. Get me Strategic Air Command.
O Yes. Mr P. Anyone in particular?
P Who do you think?
O Well, I –
P The Commander. The Commander.
O Yes Sir.

O Commander? The President of the United States.
P Hi there – who’s this? Yes, I know you’re the Commander, but which one? Do I know you?

Charley! Of course I know you, Charlie.
How you doing?

Good. Good. And the folks?

Great. That’s good news. Now hear this. This is a Presidential Command and I want it deployed forthwith. Get me? Nuke London.

Silence. Voice.
That’s right. London. That’s right.
London. Straightaway.

Congress? Fuck Congress. What are you talking about?

What International Community? Are you joking? Listen, I’ve said it once and I’ll [say] it just one more time. Nuke London. This is a Presidential Decree.

Okay. Good. And let me know how it goes.

Phone down.
You know what I’d really like? A double Jack Daniels on the rocks. But of course I gave up booze for God. The whole world knows that.
O You just gave instructions to nuke London.
P You bet. They’ve had it coming to them for a long time. What do you think?

(Rubs his hands)
They’ve had it coming to them and boy are they going to get it?
O But I’m just mildly surprised that it’s London.
P Those cheapskates. Those horizontal pricks. Those scumbags. An elephant never forgets. Nor does a President.
O But I thought they were on our side.
P Our side! Traitors. Stinkypoos. Can’t speak a damn word of English.
O They can’t speak English? Why not?
P Because they’re French, you fool. They live in Froggy land. Well, the Froggy Circus is over. Jesus. I think I’ll have a drink. I know God won’t mind. He’s very fond of me.
O London in England.
P What?
O London is the capital of England. They are our allies. Our best friends. Our only friends.
P London? What do you mean?
O London is not in France. Paris is in France. Paris is the capital of France.
P I thought Paris was the capital of England.
O France.
P You mean I’m nuking the wrong place?
O Afraid. So.
P Call Charley. Tell him I revoke the order.

O dials
O Commander. The Pres. says revoke his last order.

Thank you. (To P) London is being nuked at this very moment.
P But can’t somebody explain to them? I just got it wrong, that’s all. Don’t we have an Embassy over there, in London.
O They’re all dead. London has gone.
P OK. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. The bastards. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Give me the Commander.

Charley? It’s the President. How are the folks?

Good. Great. That’s good news. Now listen. They’re not going to get away with this. The bastards. Nuke Paris.

• © Fraser52 Limited, 2017. All rights reserved


Note:  The play is an original and it was drawn from this article where Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter's wife, describes how she came across it.  Reading it, it was a pleasure to realise Harold Pinter still remains contemporary. / The photograph of Harold Pinter was edited by me and drawn by the playwright's official website.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The sleep of

political correctness

The basic function of literature, apart from being an entertainment, is to raise questions with the aim of both forming the social and private identity of people, and developing their thinking and linguistic expression. This is the reason, in brief, that it has been included in school curricula and is at the heart of the Humanities. You would, therefore, expect that such practices* would be applied widely, particularly in countries such as the US, where there is a strong need for dynamic narratives and guidance against inequality and racism.

On the contrary. According to this article, ten days ago, Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" was banned from the reading list of a junior's high in Biloxi (Mississippi) because of a word which "makes people uncomfortable". This word is "nigger" – an extremely offensive term used by white people, esp. in the US, to insult and humiliate a black person. Because of its racist use, this word has been gradually deleted from the American pop culture. However, it still appears in great works of classic American literature and it, still, sparks controversy. Last year, this word was the reason that Lee's book, along with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", were removed from classrooms and school libraries in Accomack County, Virginia. It came after the mother of a mixed race child said at a school board meeting: "I'm not disputing that this is great literature, but there is so much racial slur in there, and offensive words that you can’t get past, and right now we are a nation already divided." She adds: "What are we teaching our children? We are confirming that these words are acceptable. They are not acceptable. We are really divided. We will lose our children if we continue to say that's okay, that we value these words when we should not."

I wonder: Won't they lose them if the children don't learn to think on their own so they can evaluate the words and not just repeat them by heart? A simple word that was used in Spanish, in a neutral mode, to describe people with dark skin has come to incorporate in its definition the whole life (i.e.:
ethnicity, well-being, the quality of being "black", the supremacy of "white", social cohesion, social inclusion / exclusion, etc.) of African-Americans (both as social capital and as bearers of an identity) for more than half a century. This is why it carries a particularly significant value. It is precisely this collective memory, according to Natacha Polony, that children must be taught in order not to lose themselves. If children don't read about their past, how will they learn that the world was not always as it is today? That it became much better owing to the struggles and bloody fights of the previous generations? How will the children learn to react in the face of authoritarian attitude of ignorant, uneducated people? How will they contribute to their community if they don't read/ask-questions about and discuss the other side of things? Speaking of which, why is it called dark?

Last year, a committee was set up to assess whether these books should be banned on a permanent basis - apart from racist words, Lee's book contains extensive references to violence, sex and rape. I took for granted that they would consider these issues (and many more that arise) and will, ultimately, set things on their proper frame, backing up the role of a teacher and the important use of literature in it.  However, Virginia's Accomack County decision, where 37% of its 5000 pupils (= 1850 children) are coloured, was to ban the book from both the curricula and the local school libraries.

This year, it was an administrative and department decision, and it is the same. Those who should set an example with their strong stance
against stereotypes, inequality and racism and in favour of pluralism in knowledge and literacy, chose the most convenient, fast-track, solution. "... we can teach the same lesson with other books. It’s still in our library. But they’re going to use another book in the eighth-grade course.” the vice-president of the Biloxi school board said.

I do not know why I'm writing about these incidents - the literature of belonging doesn't seem to relate to us here in Greece, in Europe. Unfortunately, however, it does and this is why, adding considerably to the notion that one-dimensional, linear, thinking is powerful and diffuses extremely easily.  So, I couldn't help it: more than children, adults are those who should be taught that reading literature is not just reading aloud the words.

* A conference held by the University of Thessaloniki, Greece, examining the ways of reading literature at home, at school and in communities/society.

Notes: In both cases, the teachers –and some thoughtful, open-minded parents, I suppose–  objected strongly to the ban. In Virginia, they succeeded in withdrawing it. // The photograph is a screenshot of the novel's adaptation for the cinema in 1962, two years after its publication. Gregory Peck, who starred, won one of the three Academy Awards the film got.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A bright view
of hills

The Swedish Academy has made a stunning choice, once again: the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2017 is awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world".

An author of great integrity who still remains versatile and up-to-date, Kazuo Ishiguro has created an aesthetic universe all of his own – a unique mixture of  Jane Austen and Frantz Kafka with a little bit of Marcel Proust is how the Permanent Secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, described it.

"The Remains of the Day", "The Unconsoled", "When we were orphans", "Never let me go", "The Buried Giant" are some of the laureate's novels that have been published in Greek. His narrative style is characterised by his attempt not to redeem the past but, instead, to explore that which we have to forget in order to survive - as an individual and as a society. This subtle feeling even permeates the film whose scenario he wrotemono no aware is the term in the Japanese cultural tradition that describe the pathos of things, or a certain sensitivity to ephemera that transcribes in the, so distinctive, melancholy in Ishiguro's pages.

"The world is in a very uncertain moment and I would hope all the Nobel Prizes would be a force for something positive in the world as it is at the moment," he said. "It's a magnificent honour, mainly because it means that I'm in the footsteps of the greatest authors that have lived, so that's a terrific commendation." That translates to an award "flabbergastingly flattering".

An author of eight books which are translated in 40 languages, Kazuo Ishiguro loves music – he has admitted that it plays a significant part in his writings. You can clearly read it in the 
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. But that's not all. Ishiguro has also written the lyrics for some songs of the Αmerican jazz singer Stacey Kent. (In two of her albums, actually). 

Following Bob Dylan's award, this year's Nobel Prize in Literature combines narration and music again and it somehow shows that the Swedish Academy knows their way in multiple territories. It certainly does offer a timely and insightful recommendation for the present of the things.


Notes: You can watch the announcement here. The coloured portrait of the author is painted by Niklas Elmehed, the Swedish artist and illustrator responsible for the official portraits of the Nobel Prize Laureates (2011 - 2016). It is drawn from the official page of the Prize.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Last night

"Although The World is full of suffering, 
it is also full of overcoming suffering."