The District Without Qualities?

So I’m back in the UK. For good now. Most of this week has been taken up with house-hunting, arranging vans etc. More on that soon. I don’t like to count my chickens before they’re hatched.

However, I was tidying up the folders on my computer this week, and found these miscellaneous photos of Vienna from February. I have been visiting Austria often for work since 2010, and know Vienna pretty well by now. These are all little details from back streets of Landstrasse- District III, an area of Vienna next to the Danube. It’s not so far out from the centre, but it’s more of a normal residential area than a tourist one. I was teaching as a guest teacher in a school there, and on sunny days preferred to wander back rather than go directly to the U-Bahn station opposite the school.

These looming WWII-era flak towers in Arenbergpark are now used as storehouses for the art museums. When they were built, they essentially functioned as a modern version of a castle keep- housing a radar station and air raid shelters.

I wasn’t buying a great deal of ice cream in February.

This street in the Weißgerber neighbourhood of Landstraße had a blue plaque showing it was where the writer Robert Musil lived until he was forced into exile by the Nazis. (A few months later I also happened to go to his birthplace in Klagenfurt via work). The stress of having to flee caused him to have a stroke and die at the age of 61. I don’t think he’s as well known in English-speaking countries as some of his compatriots despite being nominated for a Nobel Prize, but I can well recommend The Man Without Qualities, a long novel exploring life at all levels of society in Vienna on the eve of the First World War. A good companion to his contemporary Stefan Zweig‘s The World of Yesterday.

Diana Wynne Jones zine

I have a zine of articles about children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones (of Howl’s Moving Castle et al) I wrote this zine in 2011, also managing to interview her before she sadly died (you can also read the interview online here). The original edition was 1/6 of an A3 sheet, made on a Risograph machine. This was great when I still had access to an A3 Riso machine, but after I didn’t it was very expensive and difficult to reprint, so it went out of print. Recently I did a new edition, with all-new illustrations, in a much more convenient standard A6 size.

The zine is available here on its own for £3.50 (currently around US$4.50 or €4.20) or as bundles with my Japan zine or a Fire and Hemlock inspired print.

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Miyazaki’s Reading List

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I think everyone knows Studio Ghibli‘s magical films. Howl’s Moving Castle is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, one of my favourite authors (who I also have a zine of essays about). The film follows the basic outline and characters of the book, but differs in a lot of ways (for instance Howl is Welsh in the book, and the secret black door leads to suburban Wales). No-one really cares though, as it preserves the spirit of the book, and all the changes work well with the story and it’s a wonderful film. You can see some of Diana’s thoughts about it in this interview I conducted.

When I was in Japan I went to the Studio Ghibli Museum just outside of Tokyo. Sadly pictures were not allowed inside, but I wrote about it in my zine of the trip. I highly recommend the museum, it’s magical. The bookshop was also stocked with Miyazaki’s own favourite books, as well as books related to the studio’s films. I didn’t buy anything, as they were all in Japanese, and it would take me forever to read anything, but I noted down a lot of less well-known books I saw in the shop to compile a reading list (helpfully the copyright tends to list the author’s names in roman text rather than try to make it fit katakana). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to write down the Japanese author’s names in most cases as reading unknown names written in kanji is very tricky. However Miyazaki made a list of classic children’s books (including a lot of the usual suspects like The Secret Gardenelsewhere which also includes some Japanese recommendations.

Polly’s reading list

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(Fire and Hemlock print available here)

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, based on the folk tale Tam Lin and Eliot’s Four Quartets, is one of my all-time favourite books. The gifts of classic books that the protagonist Polly receives from Tom, the other main character, are an important part of the plot, but not listed anywhere in the novel. I made this reading list of the books for the zine of essays about Diana Wynne Jones that I made. You can find it here. You can also read my interview with Diana here, and my account of attending her memorial service here.

The books Tom sends Polly are an important part of Fire and Hemlock. Tom tries to hint at his situation through the choice of books (in particular East of the Sun, West of the Moon; The Golden Bough and The Oxford Book of Ballads) but also inspire Polly’s imagination, and teach her about magic, the difficulty in knowing what you want and being careful what you ask for, heroism and fighting injustice. The physical evidence through the gift of books that someone cares about Polly, and the love of reading they incubate in her keep Polly going through her difficult childhood, and help to give her the strength of character she needs when she’s older to save Tom (your mileage may vary as to whether cynically created by Tom as a calculated lifeline or not). Even Polly’s tutorial topic, Keats, continues the themes of the book, and Ode to a Nightingale sums up her feelings at that point:

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,  
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains”

(The Belle Dame Sans Merci would also be pretty appropriate here).

Fire and Hemlock is a book of patterns. Themes and events cross over from beginning to end, and patterns shown in the stories of the books Polly reads and the poems the book is based on are inverted and turned round in the main narrative of the story,

I’ve read all of these that are possible, except Henrietta’s House. The books in brackets are entirely fictional. T.S. Eliot is mentioned nowhere in the novel, but his Four Quartets are as much of an underpinning to the story as Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer. I have listed the books in the order they appear in the story. As well as linking to the books on Goodreads here, somebody else has also made a list of the books on the site.

This Means Nothing To Me

 

(A photo I took in Salzburg a couple of years ago)

(Not just a cheerful travelogue- politics and history and the life and death of Stefan Zweig)

I have been in Austria for a week and a half now for teaching work. I meant to update last week, but some brutal 7.30 am start times, heavy snow, a lot of planning to do outside the classroom, and a diet of pure stodge in a small town with few dining options (and even fewer options for vegetarians) tired me out. It feels strange to be in small-town Austria, where not much tends to happen, while political turmoil with dire consequences for many vulnerable people goes on around the world.

The UK does not feel like a good place to be right now, but I can’t stay away forever. I will not be back for more than a few days until April at the earliest anyway. I’m now in Steiermark, the start of the Alps, and the snow is all gone, and there is rain much the same as an English winter. For my job I get sent to run workshops in schools in towns few tourists visit. Apart from next week in Vienna, I’m criss-crossing Austria on the train to various small towns dotted around. I enjoy lengthy solo train trips in the mountains with suitable music and snacks, but I don’t enjoy lugging a suitcase filled with 5 weeks worth of supplies, even if it does have wheels.

When people picture Austria, they have an image of Vienna, elegant, full of opera houses, art museums and slightly kitschy Mozart souvenirs, and the Alps, full of charming wooden chalets, drifts of powdery snow, and hearty people in lederhosen (and probably adding an imaginary background of mountains to Vienna).

The east of Austria (where Vienna is) is actually mostly flat. I’ve been in Vienna overnight two Saturdays in a row now, but was either at a work training event, or leaving early the next morning for further travel. I’ll be there for a full week from Sunday anyway and will take full advantage of my afternoons off to see some exhibitions. I have been to Vienna many times before, and frequently at times of year with better weather.

There’s something a little bit low-key seedy about Vienna outside of the grand buildings on the tourist routes (although it is a very safe city). Run-down little shops that seem to have been there forever, rotting art nouveau stations with no staff on the green Ü4 line, decrepit looking branches of Norma and Pennymarkt supermarkets with peeling beige lino tiles and flickering neon lighting that make Lidl look luxurious and which close on the dot at 6pm. Indoor smoking is still legal (and very prevalent). The Danube is not as central as you might expect. German TV often picks a Vienna accent for small-time crook characters. There’s the Vienna schmäh, the mix of charming manners and snide humour. And the (increasingly familiar) accent, where people mumble yet draw out the vowels at the same time.

Last year I read The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, the memoir by the Austrian writer who was an international star between the wars until his persecution by the Nazis (and topic of this weirdly personal bit of vitriol by Michael Hofmann here). He had been neglected until lately in the UK, until the release of the Grand Budapest Hotel (loosely based on several of his stories) caused his books to be reissued, and in particular The World of Yesterday to be translated by one of my favourite translators, the incomparable Anthea BellThe World of Yesterday covers his upbringing in 1890s Vienna, the shock of the First World War and the rise of Fascism, and ends with his escape to Brazil (and eventual suicide).

Stefan Zweig discusses how in fin-de-siècle Vienna, discussion or education about sex was forbidden, yet brothels and porn were everywhere you went. Boys at his school were barely allowed to speak to girls their own age, yet got themselves into terrible anxieties by leaving their wallets (with their ID card inside) in brothels and dreaded being blackmailed that the managers would tell their parents. No wonder this was also the era of Freud and Kafka, and psychoanalysis, As an adult in the 1930s, he’s absolutely relieved that aspect of the era is over. No-one cared about sports or football, teenagers were obsessed with actors and poets, and poets were like rock stars. As a respectable secular Jewish family in Vienna, the Zweigs felt comfortably accepted in society- these things can change or be changed any minute.

After the Anschluss, and the increasing restrictions on Zweig, the fact that he could practically see Hitler’s house in Berchtesgaden from his own house on a mountain outside Salzburg only rubbed it in further. His success and international respect as a writer could do nothing to change it, and he and his wife ended up having to leave Austria for Brazil (via the UK and USA). Being a German-speaking writer, whose work was eventually banned in every country that spoke his language, and an internationalist who now could barely visit or communicate with any of his writer friends dotted across Europe drove him to despair.

Something that also sticks out in the current political climate of increasing nationalism, calls for closed borders and countries turning away Syrian refugees, is Stefan Zweig’s (and others) utter outrage at the closing of national borders and introduction of passports in WWI. Until then all borders were open, and anyone could travel anywhere, and passports and border controls felt like a loss of freedom and a scary imposition of control (for the record, I am 100% pro open borders).

“‘People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and America without a passport and without ever having seen one’. The Great War and its aftermath increased what Zweig calls ‘a morbid dislike of the foreigner, or at least fear of the foreigner…. The humiliations which once had been devised with criminals in mind were now imposed upon the traveller, before and during every journey. Thereafter, everyone required official photographs, certificates of health and vaccination, letters of recommendation and invitations, and addresses of relatives and friends for ‘moral and financial guarantees’ … His Austrian passport became “void,” as he puts it after the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. He was forced to ask British authorities for an emergency white paper, ‘a passport for the stateless’. He came to understand what an exiled Russian acquaintance had once told him: ‘Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being’..” (from this article)

Defeating the To Read pile

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I’ve spent most of this afternoon sorting out my books, and making a pile of the unread ones. It turns out I have 84 unread books. Over the next six weeks it looks like I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands, unless a new job or a large chunk of money magically presents itself, so I’ll try to get through a good chunk of these.

Here is a list of the books, arranged alphabetically by author:
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Charity shop finds

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I haven’t found as many good charity shop items lately as over the summer, but there’s been the odd few things. I got this vase for £2, which I’ve planted an aloe vera in, for my own plant version of Sideshow Bob.

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This box of Chris Ware stories, which hilariously was put in the children’s section as a board game for £7. Definitely not suitable for young children.

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This bananagrams game for £2. This one is suitable for all the family.

Book reviews: the birds and the bees and T.H. White

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As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve arranged the book reviews in groups loosely on the same theme. Here’s the first set. More to come.

H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald
The Bees Laline Paull
The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, #1) T.H White
The Witch in the Wood (The Once and Future King, #2) T.H White
The Ill-Made Knight (The Once and Future King, #3) T.H White
The Candle in the Wind (The Once and Future King, #4) T.H White
The Book of Merlyn (The Once and Future King, #5) T.H White

H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald

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(Photo of H. Macdonald from the Times)

When Helen Macdonald’s beloved father dies suddenly and unexpectedly, she feels totally adrift, and looks for a challenge to pull her out of her increasingly unfulfilling life as a academic. Growing up, she loved birdwatching and the books of T.H. White, and as an adult became an accomplished trainer of birds of prey. Recalling White’s The Goshawk, where he has a nervous breakdown, and decides to quit his teaching job and become a hermit in order train a goshawk (a bird with a wild and feral reputation), but makes a complete mess of it due to lack of experience, turning the book into an epic struggle against himself and his troubled psyche as much as against nature and the bird, she decides to try training a goshawk, using her experience to make a success of it this time. Expecting to totally lose herself in a battle of wills against a fearsome unknowable creature like T.H. White did, she ends up with friendly Mabel who likes watching tv and chasing rabbits, and the battle is with grief and sense of identity. The book also entwines Macdonald’s story with a biography of White, a strange and tortured man, with astonishingly awful parents. Scarred by his traumatic and emotionally cold upbringing, and struggling with his sexuality in a repressive era, his main bond was with animals. The writing of the book is beautiful and austere (and one of the best books I’ve read this year), and really immerses you in the strange turns both Helen Macdonald and T.H. White’s lives take.

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Danmark & Sverige

Öresund bridge photo(Öresund Bridge photo from Wikipedia)

Tomorrow I’m going on holiday to Copenhagen for 5 days, somewhere I’ve never been before. I’ve visited Iceland, Finland and Estonia before, the outliers in the Nordic group of countries, and all in the winter, but I’ve never visited the core three Scandinavian countries in their famous long-dayed summers (although I’ve been in the Highlands of Scotland in the summer before, which is very similar). Copenhagen is within a short train ride of Malmö in Sweden (in fact Scania used to be in Denmark at one time), so I’ll kill two birds with one stone and visit Sweden too. As well as Copenhagen, I’m going to try to visit Roskilde, the Louisiana Art Museum and Elsinore, which are all nearby. (I’m not going to Legoland because it’s at the other end of the country, and I’ve been to the UK one loads for work anyway).

There has been a bit of a craze the last few years in the UK for Denmark. It’s a neighbouring country that we already knew for having excellent pastry and bacon (although I don’t eat bacon), and in the last few years Danish tv shows like the Killing, Borgen and the Bridge have been massive hits over here. Probably most people in the street would recognise a photo of Sarah Lund from the Killing. Newspapers wrote articles about how Denmark is a well-run country with excellent social services that usually comes out top in life satisfaction studies, and a lot of British people were suddenly interested in moving there, especially as the UK has been a bit depressing in the last five years or so and Denmark’s not very far away. At one point the northern half of England was ruled by Danish vikings as the kingdom of the Danelaw anyway, so maybe it was time to return the favour.

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Penguin Little Black Classics

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(photo from the Penguin Books website)

I bought some of these tiny 80th anniversary Penguin books the other day. Each book is around 50 pages long, and has short stories, poems or extracts from writers from around the world. The perfect size to keep in a bag for spare moment reading. There are 80 different ones to choose from, and each one costs a bargain 80p. In picking the books, I went for authors I had never heard of, or writers like Cavafy I’d heard of but never checked out. Hopefully I’ll discover something I really like. The full list of titles can be seen here.

Here’s the ones I picked:

As Kingfishers Catch FireGerard Manley Hopkins
Wailing GhostsPu Songling
Three Tang Dynasty Poets
A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry TreesKenko
How to Use Your EnemiesBaltasar Gracian
How A Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s DogJohann Peter Hebel
Of Street PiemenHenry Mayhew
A Hippo BanquetMary Kingsley
Remember, BodyCP Cavafy
The Life of a Stupid ManRyunosuke Akutagawa
The Old Man of the MoonShen Fu
A Pair of Silk StockingsKate Chopin