Friday, 16 February 2018

On the Road

“The notion that I had walked twelve hundred miles since Rotterdam filled me with a legitimate feeling of something achieved. But why should the thought that nobody knew where I was, as though I were in flight from bloodhounds or from worshipping corybants bent on dismemberment, generate such a feeling of triumph? It always did.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor is writing the above trying to make sense of his ever-constant zest, which, I suppose,  led him to flee England, when he was just 18, to cross Europe on foot - from the port of Rotterdam to Constantinople, in 380 days. Leigh Fermor is considered Britain's greatest contemporary travel writer, and his books have earned praise on their lyricism, rich vocabulary and the unusual way he portrays his thoughts. His narrative has the same pluralistic élan vital as he himself has as a character - when in 1966 he undertook to write a small article about the famous kidnapping of General Heinrich Kreipe, where he  led the team that in 1944 captured the German commander, Leigh Fermor gave a text of 36,000 words that almost caused his editor a nervous breakdown. I do not know if an extra-ultra abridged version of this went on to be published. The full text, however, became a book published for the first time in 2014, three years after his death.

"Abducting a General – The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete"  is written like a contemporary adventure. The liveliness and versatility of Leigh Fermor's prose, his spontaneous and crystalline inner perception of the situation create quite a thrilling text –  the scenes are switched in a stable, constant rhythm that promotes the plot; and lyricism is limited to the minimum by the action a resistance operation requires. There are also moments of fine, provocative, irony and fun but his bravery and seriousness –of his war record and his intellect– is undeniable. Reading it was like taking part in a spy film. No wonder, since P.L.F. has also written the screenplay for a film of the sort  that great John Houston directed, and his first travel book on Greece ("A Time to Keep Silence") was published by the small publishing house of Ian Fleming (that's right, the well-known "father" of James Bond).

The second travel book he wrote about Greece is "Mani".  Like the rest of his books, this is not an ordinary travel guide. Paddy, as the English call him, does not limit himself to a formal recording of a place but mixes, instead, his spirit and his impressions as a traveller with pieces of history, snapshots of mythology, and stories of the ordinary people of each place he visits creating thus an almost automatic sense of familiarity between the space/narrative and the reader. It must be the same feeling with that of the people who personally met him - for the Cretans, he was their Michalis or Filedem while the people of Mani called him Pandeli (> Patrick Leigh).

Leigh Fermor has also written a novel - "The violins of St. Jacques" has a distinctively intense lyricism and quite an elaborate vocabulary that really surprised me. No matter  how lyrical, adventurous or traveling Patrick Lee Fermor's prose is, it is indeed extraordinary, special. "Abducting a General...", as well as the rest of his work, is a wonderful reading experience.


Notes: The first photograph shows the author disguised as a shepperd while in the Resistance, in White Mountains, Crete (1943). The last one is Patrick Leigh Fermor's stamp with his signature in Greek. / Most of P.L.F.'s books have been translated in Greek. You can take a look of them here

Monday, 1 January 2018

Best Wishes


Peace, prosperity and ambition, 
good luck, persistence and curiosity, 
real interest and care for people, places, books



Note: The painting is by Ilya Gefter (from the series Shapes & Figures)

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Rustling of History

Not only rage, but art as well is what emerges from authoritarian times – rage, as a reaction to supression and uncertainty, is easily understood and more easily witnessed while art, although equally obvious, it is not as easily accomplished or perceived. The latter, combined with the political power, is the issue Julian Barnes takes on in his recent novel "The Noise of Time" – a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch, one of the most distinguised and prolific artists of a very tumultuous period – Stalin's rule in Russia.

Each of the three chapters of the novel captures a critical moment of Dmitri Shostakovich's life. The first is situated "On the landing" of a Leningrand appartment. It's 1937, Stalin is in power and implementing his Big Clearup – a massive operation of his regime,  in cooperation with the armed forces and the Russian Secret Service, to suppress "the enemies of the working class", using fast-track options. The composer is already in target – his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" has been called a confusing noise, and himself "a formalist, a leftish petty-bourgeois". Every night, Shostakovich stands
by the lift, "at his feet a small case containing cigarettes, underwear and tooth powder; standing there and waiting to be taken away." Afraid but still self-conscious, he wants to protect his family (wife and daughter) of the violence his arrest entails. While waiting, his mind wanders in the past – memories of his puberty, his first love, his marriage and his music, i.e. his life up until the moment comrade Stalin decided to go to the opera, and not like it.

Twelve years later, Dmitri Shostakovich is "On the plane" returning from New York where he took part in a Cultural and Scientific Convention for Peace representing the Russian regime. Once again, filled with fear and shame for his being so timorous, he recalls what has just happened: in the Convention, he read the speech he was given
in a “muttered monotone”, he replied to the poignant questions of the American journalists in an equally awful manner, and he was publicly humiliated by the anti-communists demonstrating outside his hotel. What's more, he met his  much admired role model, composer Igor Stravinsky, only to receive his contempt.

In the third chapter of the novel, we move to 1960. The regime has become less person-centred since Nikita Khrushchev has come in power and he is now implementing his own strategic plan – the De-Stalinization of the country and the rehabilitation of the victims of the previous regime. Shostakovich is an elderly,
sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven car, trying once again to achieve a balance between the moral objections to his bitter compromise and the authoritarian reality. Despite the reasons and justifications he draws from his childhood, the guilt he feels is not softened.

All three periods have two things in common: a “Conversation with Power” – i.e. interrogation by the NKVD –, and a dickensian opening line: "This was the worst of times". It was, in fact, the time when, according to Anne Applebaum in her latest book, the Stalinist system was perfect for creating large groups of people who did not like the regime and knew that the propaganda was all lies but, still, felt obliged to collaborate.  Dmitri Shostakovich was one of those "reluctant collaborators" and he, despite all –doubts, guilt, disagreements– complied with whatever the regime suggested:  he represented it in public events, he denounced fellow-artists (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Zakharov, his dear Anton Chekhov) and, in the days of Khrushchev, he became a member of the party thus breaking what could oppose the permanent sense of personal defeat: the feeling that he lived and worked, for so many years, without being one.  
The title of the book is borrowed from the memoirs of Osip Mandelstam – a Russian poet, one of the most outspoken critics of Stalin's regime and therefore, arrested and displaced to a labour camp in Siberia. In contrast, Shostakovich –throughout his life– did not rebel against the regime and enjoyed the specially conditioned freedom it provided him with. Having accepted his weak nature, Shostakovich transcribes all of his gloomy thoughts and feelings into irony, often becoming self-sarcasm, and music – Shostakovich composed numerous concerts, operas and soundtracks for films and ballets, and gave concerts not only in Russia but also abroad. This continuous creativity makes me think that Sostakovich did react afterall – subconsiously, as his music was not always according to the comrades' taste. He even wrote a number of jazz opuses – as a genre, jazz was considered odious at the time.

In the last pages of the book, Julian Barnes writes that the novel was based on an extensive literature on the composer. However, "The Noise of Time" is not an entirely historical biography hence, taking some license, he changed some particular details of his life.  For example, in the novel, Shostakovich appears to have more friendly relationships with women when, in fact, male friends were very important to him. What's more, the author casts some light to intimate aspects of the composer's life that are not so obvious to a historian: Dmitri Shostakovich did have a social life, even though limited, a family life, an extramarital one and many happy moments with his children. He had a sports life, too – as a certified football referee that he was,
he took part in quite a few matches and sporting events. He had, also, attempted to commit suicide but he was too naive to succeed. 

Shostakovich, as we read, lived under a continuous internal conflict. The author uses interior monologues interchanged with a third person narration to emphasize the ruthless way the composer critised his integrity and self-consiousness. It works fine – the intimacy created between the narrator/Shostakovich and the reader is imposing. Julian Barnes, who has skillfully authored biographies before (> "Arhtur & George", "Flaubert's Parrot" and, the preceding of both, "Porcupine") takes a deep look in Shostakovich's cowardice giving a rare, sober, picture of the Russian composer. He combines historical facts and fiction masterfully, pointing out on one hand, the personal cost of compromise; and on the other, the relation between power, artists and their work.  

What we read is a powerfull novel of remarkable detail on the burden of not-resisting and compromise and the way it does not thrash the artistic survival of a creator. 


Note: In the first photograph, an extraordinary piece of cloth woven by Nadia-Anne Ricketts – it depicts the sounds of Piano Concerto No.2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The photograph of Dmitri Shostakovich in the early '70s is drawn from here and the one of  the author from here.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Bird of Christmas


    (... ...)
    The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
    And then, they say, no spirit
    dare stir abroad;
    The nights are wholesome;
    then no planets strike,
    No fairy takes, nor witch hath
    power to charm,
    So hallow'd and so gracious is that time.

  William Shakespeare
(Act One, Scene One)


Note: The title of the extract is "Bird of Dawning" / In the photograph, there is a goldcrest (Regulus regulus) or the "king of the birds" as it's called in European folklore; it was taken by archaeologist bird-watcher and photographer Kiki Birtacha // Have the best of Times!

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".