Posts Tagged ‘modern european writing’

OAMENI ŞI MARIONETE/ MEN & PUPPETS by DANIEL DRAGOMIRESCU. Orizant Literar Contemporan, Bibliotheca Universalis, 2017

This is a dual-language publication, produced by the excellent and indefatiguable Contemporary and Literary Horizon, of Romania. For their background, see:

https://revistamulticulturala.wordpress.com/

http://contemporaryhorizon.blogspot.co.uk/

Every so often a book comes along that makes you feel good to be alive. This is one of those.

The best books broaden and deepen our sense and understanding of the world. I was going to go on and write ‘and add destinations to our bucket list.’ But no, these best books have already taken us there; we feel we know the places, the people, with our hearts. The place? North-eastern and central Romania.

I feel privileged to have a copy of Men and Puppets, by Daniel Dragomirescu. The book is a collection of reminiscences, autobiographical snippets, and is well worth the time and effort in getting hold of. Elegantly presented, and well translated, this is part of a series of books by Orizant Contemporan Literar. All are dual-language, and by writers from many countries.

Daniel Dragomirescu grew up in the north-eastern Vaslui region of Romania, in the 1950s and 60s. He writes of life from the inside; the autobiographical angle gives a necessarily limited view of the times, limited to one’s interests, activities, and to the villages and small towns of the time.

Big Politics, the State, the Eastern Bloc, are not words or concepts of everyday life. He does come up against them (A Meeting with Cerebrus); they are also, on another level, a basic part of that life. Yet they are everywhere, especially for the generations from before the War, his parents’ and grandparent’s generations. It is they who have to watch what they say.
We see the unquestioned fate of pre-War bourgeois families, in their disgrace (Sandals). All is accepted as a part of life. The State restrictions have their circumnavigations, but they can be suddenly enforced due to the arbitrariness and fickleness of officials (At the Nadovari Camp). But they are not ‘officials’, they are people one’s father might know from school, from ‘before’ – their fickleness is the fickleness of everybody, everywhere.
We read also a first-hand account of a devastating earthquake hitting Bucharest. People at their most vulnerable. We read also the hidden threats made by people themselves.

One of my favourite stories, Marilena, has its own ways of handling the hopes, passions and lost opportunities that are always with us. And this is one of the heartening aspects of the stories: how love, hope of love, arranged love that could grow into itself, are always a part of our lives, our world. These things are instantly recognisable, and they go to the core of who we are.

What becomes clear through the reading is the seamless identity we all wear and are part of: here we all are, with all our hopes, woes and lapses of understanding. The details may differ, but the responses are so very recognisable. And because we can identify, our hearts are also in these stories, as we respond to the same things they did.

The last chapter, Typewriter, brings the whole book into focus. I had begun to wonder at the book’s title, Men and Puppets. Well, here it was, spelled out.
I wrote, above, how the fickleness of officials is the fickleness of man; there is the fickleness of officials themselves, though. I also wrote of the State being just the background to people’s lives. So it was, but as they took on more responsibility, became adults, the State became a major interference in their lives. Take Ceausescu’s decree that all typewriters should be officially registered.
It smacks of a Nazi-era dictat, and it is little surprise we find a militia chief admiring Nazi-era tactics.
After the Fall of Ceausescu, the militia excuse themselves as puppets of the regime. Officials, militia, puppets, anything rather than just ordinary people.

Daniel Dragomirescu has a masterful technique. The use of the motif of his meeting with a stray dog in a cemetery, in A Meeting with Cerebrus, becomes the key for opening up the whole part of his life at that period. It is this mastery that is the secret, it works behind the scenes to bring the chapters to life.

A most enjoyable book, full of the fears, hopes, loves and doubts of lives.
I will certainly be re-reading this one.

THE FLOATING CASTLE, by Karen Margolis, 2012. £3.59.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Floating-Castle-Karen-Margolis-ebook/dp/B008A661LI/

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The Pretoria Castle

This ebook is a must.

I invite all to spend time with the wonderful, warm Litinsky family.
A modern Jewish family relocates from their early life in South Africa to London. It was the beginning of the 1960s: This country is no place to bring up children… after Sharpeville.
And already we see the bigger picture, the extra dimensions: we do not live our lives in isolation. Ever.

The book begins with the young family moving from Cape Town to the Transvaal. It ends with the family arriving in Portsmouth, and moving onto London.
They start new lives each time, with all the wrenching upheaval, the breaking away from years laid down in the memory, and to learn new ways of living, speaking, thinking even, this entails.
But more, the books begins and ends with the gathered family remembering itself and  celebrating the Passover ceremony in each new home. Who remains? Who has gone?

And what is the main prayer of the Passover? Next year, in Jerusalem.
One has to learn to fit in, integrate, yet all the time some part keeps one separate – we witness the attitudes of the new Church of England school in London belittling the Jewish holiday traditions, where a holiday  is indeed a holy day.
But there are also the challenges of new ideas and ideals as left wing politics, feminism, find homes in the hearts and minds of the growing children.

I would like to invite you  to meet, spend time with, Isaac and Verena Litinsky, their twin daughters Davida and Sarah, younger siblings spoilt Raphael, and Alicia. But then, of course, there are the extended families of both mother and father’s side, their own experiences of a shocking century.

The family unit is a wide and internationally based web of relationships.
The family unit touches the people they live among, with, beside. In the Transvaal there are the black Africans working in the household: Susan, the nanny, who cooks the specifically Jewish food, and lives by choice apart. Her wedding…. No, you must read for yourself.

Father Isaac flew to London earlier to find work and look for accommodation. The family followed later, by boat.
Here we see where book title, The Floating Castle, begins to throw wider and wider shadows and shapes on the canvas of our reading.
We see how the family arranges itself into at times autocratic, at times capitalist and democratic relationships; we see how other cultures, the travelling companions, the ship-board relationships, impinge, threaten the stability of the family unit: is Verena really taken with that other man? What of Davida’s developing relationships outside the family unit?

At times the Jewish ceremony can seem as strange to the children as the others around them. They visit a Christian Church in Johannesburg with their nanny. Sarah concludes that it’s bunk, if the messiah had really come then they would all be in paradise by now, and they are plainly not.
We see the characters from the inside, through unreliable narration like this. It gives us insights, it provokes empathy. The tone of voice is caught seemingly effortlessly

The background stories fill in, and we see the sense in madness, the folly in sense, as ordered and disordered lives worked themselves out to unforeseeable conclusions. Human, all so human.

The book shifts locale and time giving us the later stories of the character’s lives, and their earlier experiences. And how they reflect in each other.
It gives us, for instance: What does it cost to borrow a ride on a bike? Enough to say, Nanny Susan saved dignity, and the day.
We read into this how one learns bargaining; how the body can be a bargaining counter. Here is the beginning of gender politics, body consciousness; it shows how natural curiosity can devolve into objectification, given a background of gender inequality.

‘Faith’, we say easily, and yet we discern in this story, how the word goes deeper. We discern here how it can permeate every part of one’s being, one’s experiences, one’s interactions with the world. It can colour one’s whole view:
The London Jews… They’re not real Jews, not in the way we understand.’ was Isaac’s verdict.
But we also see Isaac’s Jewishness held up for examination, where the holes show through, and the patches.
We should have gone to Israel, he said, we have lost something staying too long in London, We have stretched the thread of tradition too far.
But Israel, itself, volatile, threatened, and threatening: was that a place for the children? We see Aunt Masha after her parent’s died, living perpetually alone. She was a constant fount of vitality, but duty and  tradition tied her heart, hand and foot.

And on the other hand there’s Molly. She was a member of the Black Sash Movement in South Africa, a fighter for black rights. Molly is a splendid character; she is full of the contradictions of her place and time: comfortable and white interloper fighting for the impoverished and black indigenous peoples. She is passionate, brave, puts herself on the line constantly.

The book is strong and yet flexible, the characters all well realised, warmly depicted, and all so likeable. For all their faults, short-comings. The writing is finely nuanced, crafted; a joy to read.

I have really enjoyed my time with the Litinsky family.

I really must go back and re-read from the beginning.

 

1
When we consider modern Danish poetry three names come uppermost: Henrik Nordbrandt, Inger Christensen and Pia Tafdrup.
Why these three in particular? It is probably because their work has met with the best response from European readers.

They also define three main directions of modern Danish poetry.
The late Inger Christensen worked within the wide field of textual experimentation. This field is, in many ways, the most challenging; it calls into question, through its reassessments of concrete language the meaning and value of the self, of society, ideas of progress, the intrinsic possibility of reform, change, improvement etc. Her use of structure is very original, employing rationales and bases from outside the literary field.

With Pia Tafdrup we meet a writer very much a part of a feminist exploration of the world. Hers is a sensuous and taboo-breaking poetry. Her European best seller Spring Tide (1983) explored an erotic, sensuous awareness of the body in and through nature.
Her prize-winning Queens Gate (2001) further explored the author’s myth-making nature, while with her later long single poem Ark, written for a Nordic Prize occasion, she breaks out of the short lines and breathless rhythms, into a much longer line and more extended cyclic structure.

Christensen and Tafdrup both look to France for ideas: Christensen to writers like Mallarme, Valery, for their focus on the text, and further, to the writings of Barthes and the Semiotic movement. Her name is often connected with the French Oulipo group (Queneau, Perec, Calvino etc) of text experiments.
Tafdrup can be seen to respond to the feminist body-consciousness and language ideas of Cixous and Kristeva. Nordbrandt, on the other hand, shares some of the awareness of the musical possibilities of language inherent in Mallarme and Valery, that Christensen also applied to her own work.

What is of particular interest is that Écriture feminine places “experience before language…” (Showalter).
This is also one of the great appeals of Inger Christensen’s writing method, her part in the ‘systematic poetry’ movement: where Tafdrup takes the pressure from the solely textual concept of writing and focuses it on the intent, the ‘desire’ of language: not so much Barthes, more Derrida, Christensen mediates language through the interpolation of artificial forms. The poetry of both is enabled by the use of non-poetic structures, whether of thought/theory, or of form. For Nordbrandt the non-poetic enabler is the objective life, in effect, his peripatetic lifestyle.

2
With Henrik Nordbrandt we have a finely tuned classicism, a classicism against which other experiments in poetry measure themselves. His is a gay, slightly exotic presence, reporting back from Istanbul, Greece, the Mediterranean, to the northern, and by necessity of geography, and climatology, buttoned-up sensibility.
With a number of his Danish contemporaries still tangling with the strictures of Christian belief, Nordbrandt must represent something slightly pantheistic.
He has been greatly influenced by the mood and temperament of Cavafy in Alexandria, and like him writes an exquisite line, full of snatched joys and melancholy.

Robin Fulton as admirably translated Nordbrandt for Dedalus Press.
Nordbrandt’s China Observed Through Greek Rain in Turkish Coffee – the title itself, with its digressive clauses, is as much a précis of his poetic style as it is an example of his characteristic wit – is on one level a poem concerned with the resourcefulness of the imagination, how it can bend time and space, and through the image of the semi-willow pattern figure within the cup, take us further from the humdrum into the possibility of hope:

…the Chinaman
sees the sun appear through a green leaf
which has fallen into the cup

the cup whose contents
are now completely clear.
(ibid)

The cup can be said to symbolise the insularity of the self, a self reliance – which in itself is a commentary on a state of emotional poise, a pause between the pull of desire, and the fall of loss, that brief state of self possession.
A Greek rain falls into the cup, displacing the contents, revealing the Chinese figure: this encapsulates Kantian ideas of the self and the world each in their separate sphere, as well as demonstrating the classical objective correlative of Eliot, but taken on, made Nordbrandt’s own.

In another reading, this is a poem ultimately of loss, using the standard pathetic fallacy of rain as tears. Again, he takes it further: the rain overflows the poised cup of the self, self possession becomes the loss of the possession of the other. Just as the narrator’s self is absent as a persona from the poem, so, by extension, is ‘the other’ absent as a presence.
The old man in the cup, with long white beard and eyes either burned to cinders or self absorbed, reflects a possible future as a survivor of desire, an ascetic in his self sufficiency. (Odd how many who claim to have sublimated desire are of an age when desire tends to die down naturally.)

Fullness and emptiness are two of the possible readings, and map out Nordbrandt’s particular developing metaphysic, as elaborated upon by Lars Arndel:
“…double consciousness… on the one hand actual presence is a constant point of reference. The other presence becomes most conspicuous and authentic when it is withdrawn…”
Gerald Rosch notes: “ (Nordbrandt)… conjures up a world where loss and fulfilment occur simultaneously. Presence, arrival and possession cannot erase absence, departure and loss… man is on the move without knowing where to”. We can see this clearly in the very fine poem below:

After having loved we lie close together
and at the same time with distance between us
like two sailing ships that enjoy so intensely
their own lines in the dark water they divide
that their hulls
…………………………………………………………

But there are other nights, where we drift
like two brightly illuminated luxury liners
lying side by side
…………………………………………………………………….
And the sea is full of old tired ships
which we have sunk in our attempt to reach each
other.

: Sailing

Nordbrandt has developed an experiential system of values; the active imagination is capable of bridging memory and time. This is the motif behind his award-winning book Dream Bridges, which won him the Nordic Literary Prize in 2000. Memory cannot be trusted, any more than time itself, to record and hold human values.

The summer is over.
It was like the other summers
as much as they were like each other
and were different

and as the Easter Island statues
opened their eyes
the moment one turned one’s back on them.

And each summer
remembered more than what happened.

: Portrait Of The Heroine, Far Out At Sea
(Off-Shore Wind, 2001)

One reference point is the Swedish writer Gunnar Ekelof. We can see Ekelof’s influence in the epigrammatical concrete form capturing a metaphysical content:

No matter where we go, we always arrive too
late
to experience what we left to find.
and in whatever cities we stay
it is the houses where it is too late to return
the gardens where it’s too late to spend a
moonlit night

…………………………………………………….
that disturbs us with their intangible presence.

: No Matter Where We Go

This is especially prominent in the later poetry:

The light stands flickering in its column, that
bears nothing.
.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
I asked for water and you gave me sour wine.
I drank from a corroded cup beneath dark icons
I asked to die, you gave me gold to stay.
I asked for a story, you gave me my own.
…………………………………………………………………..
Each day here costs us a century in the kingdom of
death.
: Near Lephkas

Nordbrandt and Tafdrup look to the language of desire, a predicated use of language.