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Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

Penguin Modern Classics, 1986, 160 p.Translated from the Japanese Utsukushisa To Kanashimi To by Howard Hibbett. (First published by Chuo koronsha, Tokyo, 1961.)

Beauty and Sadness cover

Twenty-four years before the time of the narrative, when he was thirty, Oki Toshio had an affair with fifteen year-old Ueno Otoko. Her subsequent pregnancy led to a still birth and a stay in a mental institution, experiences Toshio, a writer, parlayed into his best-selling novel A Girl of Sixteen, much to the chagrin of his wife, Fumiko. Otoko meanwhile moved to Kyoto, has become a successful painter in the Japanese style and taken on a young pupil, Sakami Keiko. For New Year Toshio decides to hear the traditional bells from Kyoto at New Year’s Eve for himself and contacts Otoko to see if she wishes to join him for the celebration. She sends Keiko (who is also her lover) to greet him and has her accompany Toshio throughout his visit. But, as Otoko says, Keiko is “a bit crazy,” a trait which drives the plot.

Though I am not unfamiliar with Japanese fiction this is the first work by Nobel Laureate Kawabata that I have read. Beauty and Sadness is compelling and interesting but whether it is due to the translation or the fact the source is Japanese there is something distancing about the text, a barrier between the reader and the character’s emotions. We are told they are present but they somehow seem to be held behind a layer of reserve. Kawabata’s back catalogue is one I’ll look out for though.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing period at the end of one sentence, another appears on the line after its own sentence, exquisie (exquisite,) the word order of, “Balconies line the river banks for drinking and feasting” is a little awry, “‘It’s hard to believe you’re idea you’d come out to meet me,’” doesn’t need the “you’re idea”, and is immediately followed by “‘My kimono?’” which is a baffling non-sequitur, tidbits (titbits,) “had not sent a telegram to Otoko or Keiko” (to Okoto nor Keiko,) “quite apart from weakness of strength of will” (apart from weakness or strength of will,) “at they drove” (as they drove.)

Ancient Light by John Banville

Viking, 2012, 253 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ancient Light cover

Ten years after the suicide of his daughter Cass, Alex Cleave is looking back over his life and especially at his first love – and first sexual partner – the twenty years senior to him mother of his childhood friend, Billy. Apart from one mention towards the book’s end the woman concerned, since Alex failed to discover (or else to remember) her name, is only ever described in the narrative as Mrs Gray. This tends to give the relationship, which is otherwise described in the most intimate terms, a certain distance, though it was intensively felt by the young Alex, and in the older’s remembrance. The worldliness of ageing, the weariness, is, however, reflected in the sentence, “what is a life but a gradual shipwreck?” but nevertheless, for Cleave, “Other people’s motives, their desiderata and anathemas, are a mystery to me. My own are too.”

As always Banville’s writing is exquisite and the unusual affair would certainly have been enough to sustain a novel on its own but things take an odd turn when Cleave, a retired stage actor, is offered the lead part in a film portraying the life of Axel Vander, whom readers of Banville’s earlier book Shroud will know was the man with whom Cass spent the last weeks before her suicide. This authorial knowingness is emphasised by the casual dropping of names of now all but forgotten writers or film stars – most of whom I had to look up (Walter Pater? Betty Hutton?) – in which context the thought, “If I were to believe that a certain confluence of events was a special and unique phenomenon outside the ordinary flow of happenstance I would have to accept – as I do not – that there is a transcendent process at work above, or behind, or within, commonplace reality,” a metafictional statement which lays bare the artificiality of what we are reading. Yet it all feels visceral, real. Banville’s interest in things scientific (early works of his focused on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton) is demonstrated by a chance encounter with a stranger in a hotel bar which leads to Cleave being told, “light…. takes time… to reach your eyes, and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past,” an endeavour in which our narrator is all too involved.

Yet the past is not all it seems. Mrs Gray’s motives for the affair, Cleave’s recollections of it – memories are, after all, constructions as much as anything – are seen in a new light when towards the novel’s end Cleave once more meets her daughter.

A puff on the book’s front cover says, “Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?” Well, no. It didn’t need to be. But it is.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘at first I could not make head or tail of it’ (head nor tail,) wiling away the empty hours (whiling,) glary? “I had never been thus close up” (this,) “every aurate woman” (an aurate is a salt of auric acid!! I presume Banville meant golden or “having an aura”.) “Why does anyone do anything.” (is missing a “?” at the sentence end,) “Cass’s presence in Liguria [- paragraph break -] Cass’s presence in Liguria was the first link…” (I merely note this cæsura,) “had no hat, or umbrella” (nor umbrella,) “I had to leap up, like a leaping salmon” (do we need that “leaping”?)

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Serpent’s Tail, 2014, 341 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves cover

Firstly, this is a very good book indeed; and a consciously literary endeavour. Fowler’s first person narrator, Rosemary Cooke, frequently addresses the reader, digresses, makes asides, approaches her story obliquely, moves it forward and backward in time. She tells us in the prologue what she is about to do. Start in the middle. And later, in a cell, awaiting interrogation by the FBI she reflects on what she will say, “I would not only tell the tale but also comment on it.” Quite. By the end, though, she has decided that stories can begin and end anywhere.

When she was young Rosemary never stopped speaking. The reasons why, and why she gradually stopped doing so, are revealed over the course of the novel. Up until she was five years old Rose had lived with her mother, father, brother and sister. On returning from what she perceived as a banishment to her grandparents’ house she discovers her own family has moved house but it is her sister who has been sent away. This central circumstance is so essential to the novel that any discussion of it beyond generalities would reveal too much but it is its ramifications, the nature of her sister, Fern, and the effects both of these have on Rosemary and her brother, Lowell, which drive Fowler’s story.

Unsurprisingly, tensions abound. Rose tells us, “Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability. I believe the same can be said of many families.” This is most likely a nod to Tolstoy’s similar phraseology. Through Rosemary, Fowler tells us elsewhere, “In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly.” Incidentally, the Cooke family had a dog called Tamara Press. Quite why Fowler chose the name of a 1960s Russian shot-putter for this is obscure (to me at least.)

Much play is made of the unreliability of memory. Rose recalls an incident from her childhood where she remembers her father deliberately driving over a cat but he was not the sort of person to do such a thing. She both believes it happened and also that it didn’t and refers to it as her own personal Schrödinger’s cat. She also says that language “simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies” memories and remembers her father telling Lowell that language and communication are two different things. In a neat line connecting Rose’s use of contact lenses with her sister’s disappearance she says, “It’s what you do with disposables; you get rid of them.”

Rose twice emphasises her experience that, “Where you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail” and refers to the rift in the family as “A monkey on my back….” but in what seems an authorial interpolation, “When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy.” Her father was a researcher into animal behaviour and the book is run through with references to such research. “‘You can train any animal into any behaviour on cue if it’s a natural behaviour to begin with. Racism, sexism, speciesism – all natural human behaviours… triggered any time by any unscrupulous yahoo with a pulpit… Mobbing…Bullying. Empathy.’” The book is very much Rose’s story, her umwelt (the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.) Humans it seems are much more imitative than other apes.

For various (and different) reasons I was reminded of both William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

There are not many novels which go into detail on the concept of theory of mind or discourse on embedded mental states and imputation. Yet these discursions seem a natural part of the narrative making for a tremendously well worked out and impressively rendered novel.

Pedant’s corner:- A flock of seagulls were grazing (a flock was grazing,) hieroglyphic (hieroglyph.) Fowler does, however, receive plus points for culs-de-sac.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

The Many Lives of Amory Clay. Bloomsbury, 2015, 451 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Sweet Caress cover

While the subtitle might suggest a novel along the lines of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August or Life After Life this is a much more conventional tale of a life recollected from old age, if not quite tranquillity. Pioneer woman photographer Amory Clay’s first person narrative more or less follows a chronological order but there are the occasional interpolated scenes telling of her present day existence on the island of Barrandale (with its “bridge over the Atlantic” to the mainland) at the supposed time of writing in 1977. What renders the book unusual is the inclusion of reproductions of photographs illustrating Amory’s life (most of which are attributed to Amory.)

Sweet Caress is another of those books describing the life of someone through the Twentieth Century and in which they keep encountering significant events. It is of the essence then that war impacts on Amory. Her father was disturbed so much by his experiences in WW1 that he tries to commit suicide by driving himself – and Amory – into a lake, the man she marries has a dreadful memory of a post-Rhine crossing incident in WW2 with which he cannot come to terms, a later lover disappears presumed killed while she and he are in Vietnam. However, Amory’s contact with the great and the good is minimal – one glimpse each of the Prince of Wales (as Edward VIII was at the time) and Marlene Dietrich – more reflective of a normal life.

I note that the choice of name for his protagonist does allow Boyd to essay the pun “roman à Clay” about a book one of her lovers subsequently writes about their relationship. Similar games are played with subsidiary characters in the novel whose names nod to women who were relatively successful in their fields in the times he is writing about.

All her experiences lead Amory to feel, “not to be born is the best for man – only that way can you avoid all of life’s complications.” Later, “Any life of any reasonable length throws up all manner of complications ….. but it’s the complications that have engaged me and made me feel alive.” Through Amory, Boyd makes much of the ability of a photograph to stop time for a moment. She is also of the opinion that black and white photographs are art and colour photography somehow less true.

It’s all beautifully done – and the final chapter does supply a reason why Amory is writing her story – but Sweet Caress nevertheless kept bringing to mind the same author’s The New Confessions and (though less so) Any Human Heart, though in this regard the woman protagonist did make a difference.

Pedant’s corner:- Amory uses the word robot in 1924. Boyd just scrapes by here; but only by a couple of years at most. The location of Barrandale is unambiguously close to Oban – part of the estate of her now deceased husband. The house where they spent their married life is, though, supposed to be near enough Mallaig that school there might have been an option for their twin daughters had he not been an aristocrat yet their groceries were delivered from Oban. Fort William makes much more sense for proximity to Mallaig than Oban, which is hours away by road even now.
Otherwise we had:- vol-au-vents (surely the plural is vols-aux-vents?) Achilles’ (Achilles’s, not that it makes any difference to the pronunciation,) gin and tonics (gins and tonic – which does appear later!) take it on board (in the 1930s?) the Royal Air Force (during the war in conversation people said the RAF – they still do,) a missing “?” at the end of a question, the Palais’ (the Palais’s, again this appears later,) the church of St Modans a few pages later becomes St Monad’s and may have been an unlikely location for a divorcé to be remarried in those times,) the girls had “just done their A levels” (in 1965 Scotland? Highers, I think – unless private schools put their pupils in for English exams,) dark matter and dark energy are mentioned in 1977 (the first had been by that time, but dark energy was not named as such till 1998.)

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

William Heinemann, 2015, 290 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Go Set A Watchman cover

A now twenty-six year-old Jean Louise Finch, familiar to us as Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, returns from New York on an annual visit to her childhood home in Maycomb County. At first things seem as normal but she soon finds that in her absence things have changed. The local Negroes, encouraged by the NAACP*, have begun to resist the strictures that have held them in their place (“besides being shiftless now they look at you with open insolence”) and the white inhabitants – even her would-be husband Henry and, crucially, her father Atticus – are involved in an effort to keep them in it.

Within all this there are flashback scenes relating incidents in Jean Louise’s life in growing from childhood through adolescence. In these it is noteworthy that the famous trial from To Kill a Mockingbird (here mentioned all but peripherally) had a different outcome – and slightly different genesis – to the one Jean Louise remembers here. [Either way round, Lee was clearly not just writing her own life story but manipulating any source material to novelistic ends.]

Where Atticus was at the core of the earlier book here it is Scout’s Uncle Jack – who reveals himself to be mistrustful of government attempts to ameliorate people’s condition. He tells her the soldiers of the Confederacy “fought to preserve their identity. Their political identity, their personal identity,” not for slavery and, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman is his conscience.” He recognises her fatal flaw. She is colour blind. She believes, has always believed, in treating everybody with the same respect. She thought her father was exactly the same, regarded him as God for too long. In a striking sentence Jack says, “Prejudice and faith have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

I’m at a loss to understand the controversy and disappointment this book caused. Yes Atticus is revealed as flawed but the signs of that were there in the earlier book. He had the attitude then – repeated here – that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” (Well. All that can be said to that is who was responsible for the circumstance?)

Those of a nervous disposition may be upset by the use of the “n” word (Atticus is guilty here, among others) but that would be historically accurate.

The stratification of small town US Society – class-obsessed, a Negro is always a Negro, white trash always white trash, Scout’s Aunt does not think Henry a suitable husband for her even though he is Atticus’s protégé – is once again laid bare but in a contemporary (when written) setting. Perhaps it was this that led to the book’s rejection when first submitted.

Forget any quibbles. Go Set a Watchman is an entirely acceptable and very well written coming of age, time of changes, novel.

*I assumed this stood for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

Pedant’s corner:- “the small group were” (was,) waked up (this must be an Alabama thing, it was in Mockingbird too,) and again there was the “smell of clean Negro”, for goodness’ sake (goodness’s sake,)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2015, 398 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 A God in Ruins cover

It’s almost impossible for me to discuss this book without the possibility of spoilers. For nigh on 400 pages Atkinson relates the life and times of Teddy Todd, RAF bomber pilot and brother of the Ursula whose many lives were told in Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life, yet within a few pages of the end the author pulls the rug from under her preceding story in spectacular fashion. Yes, familiarity with the previous book bolsters the logic of what she does but that conceit was firmly established before the novel was fully under way. Here there is foreshadowing in Teddy’s nightmares about the war (“in nightmares we wake ourselves before the awful end, before the fall,”) the epitaph from Keats that Teddy reflects on, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and his thoughts in the care home where he is living out his days, “That’s what he’d always done, of course, what everyone did, if you were lucky,” but really this skirts close to the sort of thing that teachers warn against very early in anybody’s attempts at story-telling as being essentially unfair on the reader. Of course, alternative endings such as Atkinson gives us are not new to fiction (and Life After Life in a sense was a whole book of them) but they usually carry on from the events leading to them and do not vitiate what has gone before quite as completely as the one here.

That her tale survives this is, then, something of a wonder, the engagement she engenders not wholly undermined. I know all fiction is a combination of smoke and mirrors, but it isn’t usually so explicitly acknowledged within a text. It helps that A God in Ruins (in retrospect a very apt title) appears formidably researched. The wartime scenes are stunningly effective. The book stands as a eulogy to the 55,573 dead of Bomber Command, a lament for their never to be born children and grandchildren, a threnody to all of its aircrews – including the survivors “part of him never adjusted to having a future”.

I had early reservations, too, about some of the techniques employed in the narrative. The timeline jumps about – not only from chapter to chapter but within a section, sometimes within a paragraph. Some events are referred to or described more than once (and not always from a different viewpoint) and I thought I’ve been told this already.. In the context of the novel’s last few pages though these became more explicable.

Despite the chapters on Teddy’s later life and those focusing on his children it is the war that increasingly comes to dominate the narrative. “‘Sacrifice,’ Sylvie said, ‘is a word that makes people feel noble about slaughter.’” Teddy comes to the conclusion, “By the end of the war there was nothing about men and women that surprised him. Nothing about anything really. The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” Elsewhere, “Britain in the gloomy aftermath of war felt more like a defeated country than a victorious one.”

A hint to the mindset of an author of fiction is perhaps pointed to in the passages, “A whole life could be contained in a dinner service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away,)” and, “People always took war novels seriously.”

In what I believe I recall as an exchange which also occurred in Life After Life (deliberately ironical given that book’s premise) we have, “Nancy sighed. ‘Sometimes I wonder,’ she said, ‘about reincarnation.’ ‘No,’ Ursula said, ‘I believe we have just one life, and I believe that Teddy lived his perfectly.’”

A God in Ruins may not be lived perfectly but is, overall, an impressive achievement; better thanLife After Life. One that, principally due to the war scenes (see: I did take them seriously – though of course WW2 is a period in which I have long had an interest,) will live with me for a long while.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval (is mediæval – or even mediaeval – now a lost cause?)

The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2015, 318 p. Translated from the French Les Feux de L-automne by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1957. Returned to a threatened library.

 The Fires of Autumn cover

The Fires of Autumn begins in the bosom of the modestly comfortable Brun family, in that pre-First Word War state of well-being that is soon to be shattered. Thérèse Brun marries her doctor cousin Martial but he is killed when a shell hits his first-aid post. Bernard Jacquelain joins up as soon as he can but the war drives any delusions from him. “The world is despicable. Men are stupid, cowardly, vain, ignorant…. I learned lessons in the war that I will never forget.” His attitude to women is coloured by his experiences, “Everyone said (women) had become easy since the war started. But he thought they had always been like that. It was in their nature: man was made to kill and woman to…” His sentence is not finished. After the war he begins an affair with Renée, wife of Raymond Détang, who in turn brings him into the world of commerce and connections. He also sets his eye on Thérèse but she is still of the old pre-war ways of thought, lamenting, “Men don’t chase after women who turn them down. There are too many other women, and they are far too easy.” Still, Bernard gives up the high life and settles down with her to a life of domesticity and three children. But, for him, boredom soon sets in. When ten years later he encounters Renée again they restart the affair and he re-enters Raymond’s world of corruption and greed. When that all eventually falls apart he finds, “Connections were all powerful in times of success, but weakest when it came to failure,” by which time his son, Yves, thinks of his father as “part of an evil set that out of spinelessness, blindness or deliberate treason is causing the downfall of France.” Here, Némirovsky writes that when it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then can recognise the enemy and be horrified. In this context Bernard’s complicity in the shady deals whose consequence comes back to haunt him is perhaps a little too pat.

Though they are actually incidental to the narrative, The Fires of Autumn is a brilliant evocation of the effects of the Great War on France and the French and of the forming of the seeds of that country’s demise in World War 2. And those fires of autumn? In one of Thérèse’s dreams her grandmother tells her, “The fires of autumn purify the land; they prepare it for new growth. These great fires have not yet burned in your life. But they will.”

Pedant’s corner:- idoform (iodoform, x2,) once there was a Barnard for Bernard, Peach Melba is described as a “layer of smooth, warm chocolate” that “ covers a kind of hard stone of ice,” – that’s not like any Peach Melba I’ve ever seen, there is an opening quotation mark where no piece of dialogue follows, all powerful (all-powerful?)

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

Twelve Stories, Penguin, 2013, 195 p + 7 p Prologue. Translated from the Spanish Doce Cuentos Peregrinos by Edith Grossman. First published by Mondadori España, S A, 1992.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Strange Pilgrims cover

In the Prologue Why Twelve, Why Stories, Why Pilgrims? Márquez describes the genesis of this collection in a series of notes for 64 stories – some of which became newspaper articles or films – and their final conception as a thematic whole. After many false starts, vicissitudes and throwings-away it came to the point where, “Sometimes I felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.” Most of the twelve concern South Americans adrift in a continent inhabited by those strange people with their strange ways, Europeans.
The opening story, “Bon Voyage, Mr President”, features a deposed President in search of medical treatment in Geneva, where he is recognised by a countryman. They come to regard each other warmly. South America is said to be, “A continent conceived by the scum of the Earth without a moment of love: the children of abductions, rapes, violations, infamous dealings, deceptions, the union of enemies with enemies.”
In The Saint, a man spends twenty-two years in Rome trying to secure the canonisation of his daughter, who had died of an essential fever. When the cemetery back home was relocated to make way for a dam her exhumed body was found to be uncorrupted and weightless.
The narrator of Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane is waiting for his flight when he catches sight of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in the lobby of Charles de Gaulle airport. She turns out to be on the next seat to him on the plane but not a word is spoken between them.
I Sell My Dreams is the story of the strange intersections its narrator had with a Colombian exile in Vienna who had a talent for dreaming who uses this to make her way in life. Whether or not the talent was charlatanic is up to the reader to decide.
In “I Only Came to Use the Phone” a woman’s car breaks down. She is desperate to phone her husband to tell him she’ll be late. She finally gets a lift from a bus but unfortunately its destination is an asylum.
The Ghosts of August sees a family visit the castle in Tuscany built by Ludovico, who killed his lady in their bed then turned his dogs on himself. The bedchamber has been preserved, bloodstained bedsheets and all. Nevertheless they stay overnight.
Maria dos Prazeres is an old woman who has a dream she will die and spends the next three years preparing for it. Among other things she teaches her dog to weep.
In Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen, after her husband dies, Señora Prudencia Linero makes a journey to Rome to see the Pope. On landing in the country she does not like Italy nor the prospect of the seventeen Englishmen in the lobby of the hotel she is shown to. She dines elsewhere.
The Tramontana is a days-long wind which blows through Cadaqués, the effects of which (even the prospect of which) drives people to suicide.
Despite her surname, the Miss Forbes of Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness is a German governess hired to look after two boys spending summer in the Island of Pantelleria. She is strict and they resent it.
Arising from a chance remark about the poetry of household objects Light is Like Water (“You turn the tap and out it comes”) is a very magic realist tale of two boys transforming light into the ocean of their dreams.
The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow is a tragic tale of two young lovers, Billy Sánchez and Nena Daconte. At a reception on arriving in Spain on their honeymoon she pricks her hand on a bouquet of roses. At first this does not seem serious but the bleeding will not stop. When they eventually reach a hospital – in Paris! – he is not allowed to accompany her and told there is no visiting except on Tuesdays, six days away.
These are tales of misfits, delusion and misunderstandings mostly seen from aslant. Good stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- organdy (organdie,) detact (detect,) spit (spat,) carabineriere (carabiniere?)

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Harvill Secker, 2009, 588 p + iii p introduction. Translated from the German Die Blechtrommel by Breon Mitchell. First published by Herrmann Luchterhand Verlag GMBH 1959.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Tin Drum cover

The Tin Drum’s first words are, “Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution,” – about as clear a marker of an unreliable narrator as you’re liable to find. This voice wanders randomly between Oskar and I to describe his experiences, often within the same passage, even the same sentence. Of uncertain parentage, “I” never quite decides if he is Oskar Matzerath or maybe Oskar Bronski. The book’s starting scene predates his birth with the conception of his mother, under his grandmother’s skirts in a potato field near Danzig, by a fire-raiser, fugitive from justice, who adopts a pseudonym. This concatenation of circumstances and attributes is typical of the novel as a whole, which is by no means an easy read but will repay the attention a dutiful reader gives it.

Oskar is a precocious baby, able to understand things while newly born, in particular his mother’s promise to buy him a drum for his third birthday. On this happy event he decides to stop growing, staging a fall down the cellar stairs (blamed on father Matzerath for leaving the door open) to account for it. He also has the ability to shatter glass by screaming, a tactic he frequently employs to avoid being separated from his beloved drum. When Oskar’s first day in school ends less than well (shattering the teacher’s glasses and the school windows) he never goes there again. Part of the scene’s translation is rendered as, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Though the couplet’s wording may indeed have arisen around the time, a variation on an older rhyme, I would be interested to know what the original German was. Oskar goes through unnumbered amounts of his red and white tin drums in the course of the book, being able to affect people’s actions through his drumming. This is only one of the many aspects of magic realism which pervade the novel, another example is that of a green ship’s figurehead which is somehow a bringer of doom. Oskar pretends to be unable to speak but gets some education from a neighbour who reads to him from books on Rasputin and Goethe, the twin poles from which he views the world. Later, from opposite walls of the flat where Oskar is brought up, pictures of Hitler and Beethoven glower at each other.

The perspective allows Grass to approach Oskar’s life and encounters with the world at an oblique angle. Given the times he was writing about this is perhaps as well, the distorting effect, its layering of grotesquerie, in part shielding the reader from the full impact of events which might otherwise be too disturbing. For Grass knows what he is doing. The text’s meanderings and reflections underline the madness of the times. As might be expected from such a full-on literary endeavour there is a full measure, here, of love, sex and death. Too much focus on sex apparently, when the novel was first published. Sexual encounters in the book are frequently bizarre and are often described with their accompanying far from romantic nitty-gritty. (I note here that even in between-the-wars Germany it seems a Scout Master – later subsumed into the Hitler youth – could be overly “fond” of his charges.)

Though Oskar’s life is related almost linearly in retrospect from the viewpoint of his thirty year old self lying in bed in the mental institution, within The Tin Drum’s pages there is cycle and recycle, events being come back to again and again, emphasising the predilections of Oskar’s life. Time seems to be fluid yet static, streaming past Oskar, yet carrying him headlong. Events rush past him but he instigates them too.

Along with Oskar’s story we are also provided with a history of Danzig, its many layings to waste, the stories of the peoples of its hinterland plus the degradation of Germany in the mid-twentieth century. “An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the Gasman.” Of the war situation there are sly references to “improving the army’s situation with planned withdrawals,” and a soldier is said to be, “spending time in Courland.” After the war Oskar I restored to growth (another blow on the head as the catalyst.) He is misshapen but manages to make a living from drumming. He, “discussed collective guilt with Catholics and Protestants, shared that guilt with all who thought: Let’s get it over with now, be done with it, and later, when things get better, there’ll be no need to feel guilty.”

Oskar observes variously, “Even bad books are books, and therefore holy,” “You have to keep the Muses at a distance, otherwise the Muse’s kiss will start to taste like everyday fare,” “Lost wars seldom if ever provide a museum with trophies.”

There is an afterword where Breon Mitchell writes about the translation process, saying original texts remain fresh but translations fade with time. Grass cared about translations and for each book gathered his translators together to discuss them and answer questions on their texts. This new translation of Die Blechtrommel apparently preserves all the sentence lengths from the German, and tries to replicate its awkward syntax, which the first translation didn’t. To translate such a complex novel is undeniably a difficult task and Mitchell’s achievement is commendable. Nevertheless there are entries for Pedant’s corner:- All that was left to me were (all was,) fleur-de-lis (fleur-de-lys,) gas metre (meter,) at one point Oskar tells us the tin “rusted” (tin will corrode but does not form rust; only iron rusts,) a vicar ran the Catholic journeymen’s club (a vicar? Surely a priest?) Eight-comma-eights (in English these 88 mm [8.8 cm – rendered in German as 8,8 cm] anti-aircraft guns – but used particularly effectively as anti-tank guns – were known as eighty-eights,) sitz bath (my dictionary has sitz-bath,) doughboys (is a USian term for World War 1 enlisted men, not a German usage I’d have thought.) The Platters sing “The Great Pretender” in 1944 (The group didn’t form till 1952, that song wasn’t released by them till 1955.)

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