There’s More to Life Than Books You Know Pt I

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So, long time, no see. I’ve been work­ing very long hours at the day job, and I have also been without a computer. That should hope­fully be sorted by next week though. Today I’m visit­ing my family, so I can add text-based things here, but no photos. There’s quite a back­log of photos running. I managed to break my phone, do some­thing very pain­ful to my shoulder and have my laptop spon­tan­eously die in the space of 3 days. I’m a disaster zone for hire. If you want anything spoilt or broken in the near future, let me know, my rates are reas­on­able.

I haven’t had much time to draw or make things or wander or much of the other things I like recently, much to my chag­rin, but I have had a lot of time to read. Here’s a list of what I’ve been read­ing recently, with some comments. I’ve split it into a couple of parts, because the first 5 alone come to about 2,000 words, and it would be too long other­wise. Life is hard when you’re long winded. I wrote so many words, and still don’t feel like I’ve said exactly what I wanted to say.

1) Crime and Punish­ment– Dostoyesky
2) Das Parfum– Patrick Süss­kind
3) Die Verwand­lung– Franz Kafka
4) The Napo­leon of Notting Hill– G.K. Chester­ton
5) The Man Who Was Thursday– G.K. Chester­ton
6) Me– Kath­ar­ine Hepburn
7) Salt– a World History- Mark Kurlansky
8) A Moun­tain of Crumbs– Elena Gork­hova
9) The Victori­ans– A.N. Wilson
10) A Book of Dreams– Peter Reich
11) The Poet­ics of Space– Gaston Bertaud
12) Invis­ible Cities– Italo Calvino
13) A World without Ice– Henry Pollack
14) Exer­cices de Style– Raymond Queneau
15) Exer­cises in Style– Raymond Queneau trans.
16) Jeru­s­alem: a History– Simon Sebag Monte­fiore
17) The Secret Life of Bletch­ley Park– Sinclair McKay
18) Bitter Lemons of Cyprus– Laurence Durrell
19) The Summer Book– Tove Jans­son
20) Why Be Happy, When You Can Be Normal?– Jeanette Winter­son
21) Inde­pend­ent People– Halldór Laxness

1) Crime and Punish­ment- Dostoyesky

There are few things I like more than a nice long depress­ing Russi­an book or film. I thought it was about time I filled in the gaps in what I’d read of Dostoyevsky- only Demons left to go now.

Dostoyevsky was writ­ing right after the free­ing of the serfs – and it’s always slightly strange read­ing about top hats and parlours and sofas and other bits of Victori­ana in the same breath as serf-owning and feud­al fealty. Someone like Pushkin is writ­ing early enough that you don’t register it quite the same, because every­one travels by troika and wears breeches, and people like Chek­hov are later on, once people had got used to the idea of serf­dom being gone, but Dostoyevsky just happened to be writ­ing at the exact moment of the strange juxta­pos­i­tion. I remem­ber read­ing somebody’s opin­ion a little while ago that Dostoyevsky is one of those writers, like Dick­ens, whose work could only have been produced in one partic­u­lar time, due to the social and histor­ic­al context shap­ing their writ­ing concerns so strongly. I wish I could remem­ber where it was. I should take notes of these things, or at least procras­tin­ate less when writ­ing book reviews, so it’s still fresh in my mind.

Anyway, I can see that with Dostoyevsky. If you are living in a time where basic struc­ture of how people relate to each other has dramat­ic­ally changed overnight, in so much as one minute you have a system where the major­ity of the popu­la­tion are owned by someone else, required to stay in one place, and know how their lives will turn out pretty much from birth, and that has been how things are for hundreds of years, and then suddenly it’s no longer the case, and people’s lives could turn out all sorts of ways, and the whole system and certainty is gone, you will prob­ably be very concerned with explor­ing the psycho­logy of people’s rela­tion­ships to one anoth­er, and their social face compared with their secret, real, inner thoughts. (Although I can’t say I agree with him that the solu­tion is through reli­gion . . .)

Some­times I get impa­tient with the way Dostoyevsky’s prot­ag­on­ists tend to be either saints (Alyosha and Prince Mishkin, I’m look­ing at you) or lowlifes, and also impa­tient at the thought processes of his scum­mi­er char­ac­ters such as Rodya and the Under­ground Man, but it’s actu­ally the fact that those thought processes are shown at all, and the psycho­logy of the main char­ac­ters explored so thor­oughly that makes me enjoy the books so much.

2) Das Parfum- Patrick Süss­kind

The Perfume is one of my favour­ite books, but some­how I’d never got around to read­ing it in the origin­al German, which is a little silly when I speak the language. So I did. The English trans­la­tion is pretty decent, but it’s defin­itely worth read­ing in the origin­al if you can, because the writ­ing style loses some­thing in trans­la­tion. Due to vari­ous features of the language, you can create dense, convo­luted sentences in German very easily, and the gener­al writ­ing style, and choice of (not always satis­fact­or­ily trans­lat­able) vocab adds to the over­all baroque and foet­id atmo­sphere. I ended up read­ing parts aloud when I was alone. Not recom­men­ded on the train.

3) Die Verwand­lung- Franz Kafka

Kafka is anoth­er one who’s diffi­cult to trans­late, but for the oppos­ite reas­on. His sentences are often short and sparse, with perfectly picked words, often with double mean­ings in German. For example the open­ing sentence of the book is “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhi­gen Träu­men erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem unge­heuren Ungez­iefer verwan­delt.”, which is usually trans­lated in English along the lines of “When Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams, he found himself trans­formed in his bed into an enorm­ous cockroach/​beetle”, which gets the basic mean­ing across, but isn’t totally satis­fact­ory. Unruhig liter­ally means unpeace­ful, but it normally means agit­ated, fitful, turbu­lent, unsettled. Unge­heuer is huge or monstrous as an adject­ive, but monster as a noun. Ungez­iefer doesn’t actu­ally mean cock­roach, but is the singu­lar of vermin. The story never outright describes Gregor as a cock­roach, it just skirts round it with descrip­tions of legs and shells. Ungez­iefer hints far more at his pois­on­ous self-disgust. All put togeth­er, everything is un-, it’s all wrong, and unge­heuer + Ungez­iefer are a double dose of disgust­ing and wrong (with the alit­er­a­tion to boot). The story is called Die Verwand­lung- the trans­form­a­tion, and the word appears in the very first sentence, and reappears a few more times too, which is much harder to do with the usual English trans­la­tion “the Meta­morph­os­is”.

When I was at univer­sity, I took a year of German courses as part of my degree. I star­ted out doing joint Clas­sic­al & Modern Languages, but even­tu­ally switched to just Classics/​Ancient History. I took Itali­an and German in the first year. The Itali­an class was pain­ful. There was supposed to be a fast-track class for people who already knew a Romance language. However, there were only 8 of us in that situ­ation, so they put a few old ladies in the class to make up the numbers, who had done French at some time in school in the 1940s. It didn’t go well. There was a lot situ­ations where people would be going “Ah! the past tense in Itali­an works much the same as in French. That’s conveni­ent.” and the old ladies would be going “Excuse me. What’s the differ­ence between le and gli again?” 8 weeks in. I dropped that class as soon as humanly possible. It was pain­ful.

The German class was pain­ful in a differ­ent way. I was signed up to the post A-level course. You had to have done 5-6 years of German before­hand, and have a fairly high level. As well as a gram­mar class, there was a liter­at­ure and culture class, and a debate/​discussion session. You would think that people who had chosen language courses all the way through school and then signed up for 4 more years of noth­ing but languages would perhaps be inter­ested in things like travel or culture. You’d be wrong. In the first week the teach­ers asked why they’d chosen to study German and the major­ity of the other students said some­thing along the lines of “because I got good grades in my school exams”. The debate class was pain­ful. No-one had any opin­ions. It wasn’t because they were shy about speak­ing German, their language was fine. They just didn’t have anything to say for them­selves. The culture class was also pain­ful. One 10 week term was spent on the culture of the Weimar Repub­lic. We watched vari­ous Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietriech films, and learnt about the Bauhaus, Expres­sion­ism, the rise of the Nazis etc by read­ing contem­por­ary histor­ic­al sources. The other students didn’t like the films because they were “weird and boring”, “I don’t like old films because they’re black and white” etc etc and didn’t  show the slight­est interest in the culture. The other term we read vari­ous Kafka stor­ies. If Metro­pol­is was too weird, Kafka was beyond the pale. Give them a gram­mar work­sheet on the intric­a­cies of konjunkt­iv II however, and they were off, keen like grey­hounds. I could have contin­ued doing German with the Clas­sics stuff, but it was a relief to spend my time in class with people who had signed up because they just genu­inely were inter­ested in the Greeks and Romans.  I hope all the other students from that German class later turned into not-expressly-said-cock­roaches. It would serve them right. It’s a good thing I don’t have magic powers.

4) The Napo­leon of Notting Hill- G.K. Chester­ton
5) The Man Who Was Thursday- G.K. Chester­ton

You don’t read G.K. Chester­ton books for the plot or char­ac­ters, or at least I don’t. The plots make no sense, and the char­ac­ters are usually pretty thinly drawn. I like them for the wit, and the imagery and the logic games. I’ve writ­ten a whole list down of things I want to draw from these books, but don’t currently have time to do (that list is sadly constantly grow­ing, at least when I have spare time again, I won’t have to worry about lack­ing inspir­a­tion . . . ) – such as “Have you ever seen his books? All Greek poets and medi­aev­al French and that sort of thing. Have you ever been in his rooms? It’s like being inside an amethyst. And he moves about in all that, and talks like a turnip”.

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