THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve, 1947.
Published by the excellent Pushkin Press, in its first English translation, by Sam Garrett, 2016

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I am currently reading The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (Gerard Kornelius van het Reve, 1923 to 2006).

This is an early, outsider-novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’  (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written….’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem.
The novel is set in 1946, presumably in Amsterdam. There is no TV, no record player or records; there is  a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
Of course no internet, iphones….
And everyone is bored out their heads.

Note that, ye critics of today’s youth.

And so the chief character, 26 year old Frits van Egters, entertains himself by needling everybody. This ‘entertainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I had the distinct impressions of Billy Liar, by Alan Sillitoe, but no.

And so I am struggling with it; struggling to keep up the interest.
Because…. ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’.
Exactly.
The date, see: 1946.
The best minds of the generation before were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, the transports. The best engineers, mechanics, workers, had been trucked off for the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, physically malnourished, spiritually dead.

And Frit’s generation were beginning to stir, wake, shake themselves, look around. And what did they see?
‘He looked at her’ (his mother), ‘:  the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around the mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought.

 – Is it me, or is it always the woman is the easy target? That she must maintain a static, constant, role, appearance, demeanor, for the narrator/character.
Woman as a distant, uncomprehended being; woman as an inhabitant of the same world, also – but surely she cannot feel what we chaps feel, how we feel. She goes on doing that house stuff as though nothing else mattered, or had happened.
Only, Frits wakes one night, to sounds in his parent’s room. He entered, to find his mother shaking and sobbing. His father, isolated in his own wrecked existence, excuses it as one her nervous attacks.
There is an unwritten novel in that, certainly. In her side of the story.

Frits looked around his world, and saw people holding onto the known and trusted traditions, but they now seemed little more than threadbare habits:
‘”Who’d like a pickled herring?…”, “”No, please, no.” But he does.
‘“… there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing…” , “…Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the uninitiated.”

The book starts off well, with a sly, dry, ironic humour as Frits woke early one Sunday morning. Early: good, despite the bad dreams, but time to make something of the day. Then we see him every few minutes clock-checking, and the opportunities flounder, die, as the day wears on.

The story is set in late December. Even the Winter was a disappointment: the ice on the canal melted early; there was no real snow; plenty of drizzle, yes, but nothing with any energy or excitement to it.
The intention was there, but it is as though the life had been drained out of people, the world, even; the spark to ignite a creative fire, dampened.

‘“Tom ta tom tom, tom ta tom,” Frits sang to himself, “nothing ‘s good, but everything’s fine.”
– There’s definitely a modernist technique at work here. There is certainly an echo of Doblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in the use of vernacular, in the internal monologues, thesinging.

*

The novel is structured on ten evenings, of increasing frustration with a fruitless life, and world. Each chapter charts the route taken by the tacking and manouvering of a clumsy, mostly empty, boat.

No, the novel is a not a ‘Ulysses’; it may share some of the self-absorption of Joyce’s classic, but the scale and scaffolding are pointedly small-scale.
After the previous period’s vacuous claims to new world orders, new worlds, great futures, this is a pointedly and purposely humdrum conception of humanity.
When you build, you must build from proper materials: people as they are – and not cloud cities, a reich, built from vacuous guff shored up with people’s real blood, guts, lives.

We see Frits attend the school re-union; his peers were trying to adopt the old role of getting on, making something of themselves. Frits, perversely, does not.  It is not as definite as that, or as a much a stance. His life has no heroic gestures, statements, no focussed disavowal of old values. No, he rumbles on in a diffuse scepticism.

And it is here where the book’s strength lies.
It does not succumb to cliche, or stereotype. Frits is disagreeable, but not hateful. The story charts  the hinterland that is his life: he does not veer far from the main path, and certainly not off into the dubious byways, side roads, the district beyond the tracks.

The immediately pre-War writers grouped under the banner of Forum, were preoccupied with the relationship of man to society. The War changed all that; the War brought the Nazi regime’s Kultuurkamer and its prescription of everything other than National Socialist writing.
Reve’s book was the first one of impact to be published in that aftermath.

Reinder P Meijer, in his’ Literature of the Low Countries’ (Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd, 1978) writes, ‘The dreariness of the subject matter recalls the work of the nineteenth-century naturalists, of whom Van de Reve may be regarded as a descendant.’
The directness of Gerard Reve’s depiction, though, is the main factor: ‘Van het Reve offers no explanations, no comments, no psychological key.’ (: Reinder P Meijer).
Gerard Reve also employs ornate speech – the interactions between Frits and older brother Joop, and associates, reads – as his response to the use of vernacular, above, shows – as an arch, ornate, edging-towards-parody of earlier high-flown literary styles.

It is not Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the book shares kinship with, but perhaps Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’. They both explore the ennui. Sartre’s book has the definite stance, raison, backstory even, in the opus of Being and Nothingness. Reve eschews those grand gestures, definitions, concepts, in favour of the individual vision.
Where Sartre argues for the individualistic response, Reve gives it.

*

Gerard Reve hit the headlines again with his 1970’s quartet of books ‘Dear Boys,’ ‘Sweet Life,’ ‘I Loved Him,’ and ‘A Circus Boy,’ where he explores gay sex, with a brutal edge. It is the style, also, that grabbed attention. The books are written with a blend of fact and fiction, in the form of written letters, and fantasy, but not the standard epistolary format.  Reinders P Meije again: the books stand out because of their ‘firm structure and … skillful way(s) of preserving a precarious balance between reality and the fairy-tale elements… introduced in his later novels…’.

But I’m still stuck.

ts

Leaving the city for the student quarters
postponing grief, holding off horror,
by all the arts study finds emotion capable.

That night’s examination we were heads down,
ours the unquestioned rights to question,
and our right to right

woke to outrage,
found time had stolen our innocence;
witnesses unable to act, found space
had made us impotent.

Made old that morning by the escalation
between immediate loss, and the long,
slow, discovery of loss.

tiananmen_square1

TIANANMEN SQUARE, NIGHT OF 4TH JUNE, 1989

SELECTED POEMS/POEZII ALESE by Richard Livermore
Copies available from the author, http://www.chanticleer-press.com/contact-page.html
£8.00 each, plus £1.00 p and p

This is a very handsome book.
Printed in Romania as part of their contemporary literature series Orizont Literar Contemporan, the production values are high. This is a book of which to be proud.

The cover carries a copy of a Munch painting, Melancholy. A gloomy subject? But the background colours are lovely: blues, olive, yellows, and a moment of white. The colour scheme of the cover uses this as its base, an overall black is banded with blue, and the main focus of white script.
On the back cover is a photo of Richard. Look closely, here again we see a similar mood, pose, and the colours in the background, out-of-focus, once again capture the overall range of the Munch.

Inside we have a Profil cultural, rather than biographical details. The focus is different, away from self, and towards how the writer has responded to place and time. The emphasis is on where self and cultural world interact. This is healthy, and does not engage with writer-status or celebrity.

What we are presented with here is a selection of Richard’s poetry from 1973 up to 2016. It is dual language book, with Ioanna Agafitei translating poems 1 to 12, and Elena Tapean 13 to 29. So, a dual-translator, dual-language book.
Richard certainly puts them through their paces at times. On page 23 for an instance, he gives Ioanna ‘…only when life is a was will it be.’ The poem is written in 5 quatrains with occasional end-rhyme and much alliteration and assonantal play. To cope with maintaining argument and form’s playful use of language, she gives us a 9-line stanza, combining the last two quatrains, and capturing the connotations.

***

If you were to send a message to Romania, knowing what happened in 1989, Christmas day 1989… what would you send? This is a generation on, but the question remains: what would you send?
What we now know of Romania, apart from tennis players, the old guard poets, are EU open borders, workers bringing their own interpretations of what they find here.
What can we say to them? More important, how can we say it, where would be the weighting and emphases fall? This is the West – what stories did they have of us? Officially degenerate, of course.
Whatever it was, it was fairy-tale.
For people to travel all that distance for work here, and to find austerity, closing borders, scratching round for low-paid jobs….
What can we say to them?

And this is where Richard Livermore judged his selection well, for what he sends are messages of recognition, of struggle, disappointment, of the value and worth of the person caught up in the machinery of time and place.

One commentator, Ian MacFadyan, called Richard’s work ‘dark star poems… shot through with bright images of wonder….’ And they are.
In form they are short, rarely over a page in length, and often two or three stanzas each. In structure we find full rhyme, alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme. Rhythmically tight, with not a syllable wasted and yet not stifled by that; the freedom comes from the audacity of image and movement.

They are supple, as well as subtle. If you look for heritage then think of Kant’s antimonies – the form lays down the argument, but then it pivots into an unexpected image, which unlocks its depths of meanings. And as you read you become aware of richness, of exploration, insight, thought. The antimonies give you the argument and conclusion, then present you with an alternative one you had not thought possible.

‘Here we are locked/ in a prison of words’, ‘Here’ begins (did you think of Dylan Thomas?), and ends ‘here life is reprieved.’ How it gets from beginning to end is through the vehicle of language, image and sound. Yet it is aware that this is a vehicle, for it is to the inner movement that our attention is drawn. This is where people meet, in their inner experience of the world, not the immediate-demand response.

We feel locked into our habits, cultures, socially trapped. In ‘Pi’ he writes ‘I know very well/ what  it is to be  Pi/ for they keep reining in// my potential as well.’ Who cannot empathise with that? How can we move from this position? The structure, use of modern knowledge systems, are subject to the mind’s capabilities. Quantum effects, he gives us, open up other possibilities to us.

Yet don’t think all the poems use this stance – there are tender poems, see ‘Engraved In the Stars,’ and poems of mythic proportion, ‘Hidden Agendas,’ and playful poems, and poems of serious play.
There are riches to be found here.

One of the many riches is in the glorious sound textures Richard Livermore creates. How translatable are they? Take, for instance, the following from the first poem, ‘Wind/Vant’:
the burly, brusque bull-whale/ of a wind with it’s buffalo’s/ biffing and bellow, billowing…‘ Notice how the use of the line’s pause steers the rhythm, creating excitement. The translation can capture the checked flow that holds and then lets go, but cannot mimic this alliterative dynamic. Elsewhere the translation gives, rather than takes, texture; in ‘Prophecy’ we have:
What is the cloud doing/ storming the sky/ and why does it want//to bring down the moon… The Romanian has: Ce face norul/ furtuna cerul/ si de ce doreste// sa darame luna –I cannot reproduce the accents.
The line length is shorter, the metre changed, end-rhymes introduced, and the lines’ internal chiming of sounds changed.
The structure on the page informs how we read: this is poem structure, and in each case we read for the line because syntax and rhythm instruct us to do so. I leave out the vexing discussion of whether the translation is an entirely different poem, or an extension of the source-poem.

‘I don’t see why  words/ should always wait table‘ he writes in ‘Words Running for Cover’, the last poem in the book. Words, language, are the vehicle for exploring self and world, but only a vehicle. Our engagement with, our  living in, the world is the real subject. Always.

This is a book that you will go back to, often, and discover new riches each time.

For a period of time I was caught up in Elizabeth Kostava’s big-selling novel, The Historian.

Ok, I am well aware of its failings, that denouement in the crypt for one – I could not believe how perfunctory it was. And I hated that creaky, clumsy Darling Daughter postcard episode.

What kept me reading (twice!) were the descriptions of the east European villages, towns, cities.
The opening up of eastern Europe.
And there was the eastern European angle on the Dracula story. Got me scurrying through maps of Lake Snagov in Romania; to Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains, and following the route of the monks with their ‘cargo’.
One aspect of the story sees Vlad Tepes learning of the way of vampirism from a book. The book came from what was to prove Dracula’s/Tepes’ one weak spot, a monastery in the Pyrenees.
Now where could that be? If it really existed, and was not a mash-up of many.

The monastery in the book is Saint-Matthieu-des-Pyrénées-Orientales:

theHist

Then I came across this one. The Basilique St-Just de Valcabrere, in the Haute Garonne.

BstJ
What is important about this place is it has a legend. The legend suggests this it was to this town that Herod Antipas, King Herod’s son, was exiled and died. Exiled due to his ‘association with the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus.’
It is not, of course, historically accurate by any means.
But what a hook!

On the other hand Pontius Pilate himself was said to have died in Vienne, Isere department of the Massif Central.
His body would not rest, and is said to have been relocated several times. The last to the tiny Oberlap lake on Mount Pilatus, Switzerland.
pilatus

Take your pick.
Admit it, France and environs are rich in legends and inspiring sites.

INCIDENT 10

Posted: May 28, 2017 in Chat
Tags: , , ,

In the raised brimming glass of the moon,
in the empty beaker of the day

in the sad, bedraggled evening
hot and bothered at the end of play

two bats met above the town’s rooftops
colliding on the air’s highway:

a long-eared bat in a cassock of black
and a short-eared bat with its collar turned back

collided above the rooftops
of the chic new shops in the centre of town.

And I ask you members of the jury, now,
which one of them had right of way?

Reprise

 Beyond the busy gabbling of the air waves,
the shot-off arse of time’s clearway

 in the last relinquished evening
of the not-very-bothered last day

 two bats met above the conflagration
jostling in heaven’s doorway:

 a free-tailed bat turbaned with black
and a pipistrelle with cassock on its back

 elbowed and jostled above the conflagration
in a time out of time on the edge of time.

 And I ask the jury: In this instance,
to which, if any, would you give admittance?

Not to spill unnecessary words all over grief and hurt.

Warning: Contains Spoilers.

sttrain

This was one of Graham Greene’s first novels to win great acclaim.
Published in 1932, it is still a gripping read. His list of characters is wide, varied, and their depictions, like the overall storytelling, accomplished.

It does have major problems, especially for the modern reader. Remember the date of publication.

It is a classic ‘Orient Express’ story: characters trapped on the great journey to Constantinople, as it was then: a three day journey.
The book opens after the ferry crossing, in the Ostend dock yard, as passengers shuffled through rain to the train. We met there the main characters. The ferry purser wondered after their passing whether a big story had just passed him by. This sets us up: something is afoot.

Passengers joined, and left, as the train travelled through pre-World War II Europe. Chapters take us from Ostend, to Cologne, Vienna, Subotica, then Constantinople.
Who are they? Why this journey?
Graham Greene makes several attempts at giving credible female characters. The best perhaps is Coral Musker. She is a dancer, going the whole journey to join up with the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe. She does not reach there. Her journey was long and winding. The cold, for a start. Her background, for another: remember the date. Impoverished, underfed, thin and alone. Then she collapsed on the train from the cold. Weak heart, the doctor said.
Here we have a story in itself: a dancer, with a weak heart.

She was offered a bunk for the night, she could not afford one herself. She accepted; the man slept outside. In the morning she woke to the implications. There would be a price to pay; this was her life, as accessory, as a woman alone. And yet, we learn, on paying the price it was her first time. The man was aghast, after all, he had expected….
He hoped he had not hurt her – because, of course, at the time he would not notice the pain, blood; he would be enjoying himself.
And here Graham Greene gives her a classic line: ‘Well, it was no picnic.’

There is an anomaly in the story-line: Richard John, the schoolmaster, had joined the train at Ostend. He attended to Miss Musker when she collapsed. And yet he then joined the train in Cologne. Had he got off for a snack, and most importantly, a newspaper? It is not clear; he had been drifting off to sleep at the end of the previous chapter as the conductor announced the station arriving: ‘Koln, Koln, Koln’.

One of Graham Greene’s greatest failings is his naivete in certain matters. One of those matters is Mabel Warren, British journalist, based in Europe. It is she who recognises the person behind Richard John.
The problem here, you see, is that Mabel Warren is gay. A later conversation with her companion journeying to meet her uncle, centres on ‘But what can she do, a woman like that?’
The male prurience.
‘Kissing.’ Answers her companion, ‘Endless kissing.’ This sense of impotence is assumed of gay love.
And yet, it is also in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the fair youth, the sense of physical need but complete lack of means. Shakespeare, as the 1920s, was fully aware of the possibility of a complete gay relationship.
Graham Greene shows a degree of squeamishness with the physical. He counters this with a slightly over-the-top worldliness; but here, as we see, he was out of his depth.

So, what of Richard John, schoolmaster? And where exactly was he travelling?
He said Vienna, but Mabel’s news nose told her, Belgrade. And his real name was Dr Czinner. A medical doctor, hence his aid to Coral Musker, but one who had realised the people of his country needed greater help than medical. They needed political help.
The threat that was turning Europe upside down was the recently established Soviet Union. It was still  in its internationalism phase.
Richard John/Dr Czinner was returning to head an uprising. Only, it had already happened, and failed, he discovered in his newspaper. And he was trapped on this train heading into who knew what reprisals.
For Mabel here was a front page story.

And then we come to Carleton Myatt. Myatt was travelling all the way, on business. He was wealthy. Well, he would be, because Graham Greene takes every opportunity, and more, to tell us that Myatt is… A Jew.
I expected… I had to check the date of publication several times… that the atrocious Nazi race propaganda was at work here, seeping through into every aspect of professional life. But 1932, and written 1930-1?
Myatt cannot help his race’s splayed hands gesture, we read; he catches himself at it. At the end of the book he is asked to be charitable, he answers to the effect that I am a Jew, Charity is a Christian virtue.
What utter and obnoxious nonsense is this?
So why did he give his bunk, indeed his First Class ticket, to Coral Musker at the beginning? She assumed there was a price. That particular price. Because that was what was expected of a poor working woman. But he did not expect it; companionship would have sufficed. All to do with reading social expectations.
But what did Graham Greene give us with Myatt? A caricatured stereotype. He attempted to get inside the man, but could not get around this gargoyle he had made, and was busy shoring up.
More importantly, why did Myatt pay over the odds for a car journey back to Subotica, to search for her?

Because Coral, and Dr Czinner, were arrested at an out of the way station near Subotica.
Subotica was just over the border into Yugoslavia/Serbia. Next stop was Belgrade. The military were waiting for him. He saw them coming and slipped a letter to Coral. It was seen.

I suspect we are to read that Coral goes out of the frying pan into the fire, at the end. She is rescued, but by the newly deserted Mabel. Mabel wants the exclusive on the news story, naturally. But she was also quite taken with Coral.
Good luck to them, I say.

And that is an indication of how deeply the reader invests with the characters. So when we get such a crass caricature like Myatt, we either react against book and author, or we wonder about the moral responsibilities of the writer of realist fiction.
The anti-semiticism, I read elsewhere, is to reflect attitudes prevalent in Europe at the time. And yet the internal dialogues Graham Greene gives us is of one who’s very essence is based around this attitude.
Are we to read sociologically, here: is it that it is one’s environment makes one? It is difficult to determine how much of the public attitudes to his Jewishness en route is Greene, and how much observation.
Then what of Graham Greene’s Catholicism? It is shoe-horned clumsily into the story at points, that stretch credibility, like shoe leather. Does it make a fit?

That we are to read it sociologically is backed up by the character of Dr Czinner. He was the one who described Coral as having a bad heart. His reaction we then read in hindsight. She had a bad heart partly through poverty, poor and irregular meals, the circumstances of her trapped position in life. All these had turned him from a doctor to a political fighter.
It is from that initial kindness of his that she took the smuggled letter. She was subsequently held, questioned, and was to be deported. Back to the clamouring for bit parts again at stage doors. As it is….

There are humourous interludes in the book. One led to a brief legal case: was the character of cockney popular writer Q C Savory originally a poke at J B Priestley? He thought so. The character was re-written later.

Graham Greene described the book as a deliberate attempt to make money by tailoring it to popular reading, and film, taste. In succeeded on both counts.
Such a motive does indeed work in your favour sometimes.
We also read here the dangers of courting popular tastes: did Graham Greene reflect what he saw, or further promote bigotry by writing about it so pointedly, and without any form of condemnation? Once again, the question of responsibility.

The writer, publisher and all-round good man Richard Livermore has very pertinent comments to say on this issue:
There is nothing in the rule-books which says that to appreciate a good novel you have to be in agreement with the ideas expressed in that novel. In fact, you can even think the ideas are insane and yet thoroughly enjoy the novel in question. What’s important is the quality of the writing and the presentation of the characters and also the situations within it. Never forget that you are reading a work of fiction and as such it requires a suspension of disbelief. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth or reality requires it. Outside of the novel you can be as sceptical as you like, but if the novel holds your attention and makes you believe in it while you are reading it that is all that finally matters. That goes for whether you agree with the point of view of the author or not. Louis Ferdinand Celine was a Nazi, but Journey To The End Of The Night is nevertheless a really good novel.

For more on Richard Livermore, and I urge you to go, see: http://www.chanticleer-press.com/contact-page.html