Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests





Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Unholy Living and Half Dying" by Sean O'Faoláin. (1952)






 Sean O'Faolain is one of Ireland's highest regarded short story writers.  In 2013 I posted on his superb story about an unfaithful woman,  "The Faithless Wife", his very classic story, "The Trout" and "The Sinners".  


Sean O'Faolain (1900 to 1991-Cork City, Ireland) was the son of a policeman.   He fought in the Irish War for Independence,  1919 to 1921.    He received M.A. degrees from the National University of Ireland and Harvard.   He  was the director of a very prestigious Irish literary journal, The Bell.  His daughter Julia O'Faolain is a Booker Prize nominated author.   

This will be my last post for Irish Short Story Month Year Five.  I kept it a simple low key event this year, I just read a few wonderful stories.  

"Unholy Living and Half Dying" centers on a single man, working in a bank and living in a rooming house.   (Rooming houses, land ladies, neighbors and such played a big part in literary works up until at least the 1950s or so.) I really loved these opening lines:

"J A C K Y C A R D E W is one of those club bachelors who are so well groomed, well preserved, pomaded, medicated, cated, and self-cosseted that they seem ageless-the sort of fixture about whom his pals will say when he comes unstuck around the age of eighty, `Well, well! Didn't poor old Jacky Cardew go off very fast in the end?' For thirty years or so he has lived in what are called Private Hotels".

The story revolves around the relationship of Jacky, his land lady, his pub friends and the local priest.

I read this story in Classic Irish Short Stories edited by Frank O'Connor.

Mel u



Monday, March 30, 2015

"Gambara" by Honore de Balzac (1837, A Short Story, A Component of The Human Comedy)

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"Balzac’s most remarkable characteristic is a sort of exultant reveling in every kind of human passion, in every species of desire or greed or ambition or obsession which gives a dignity and a tragic grandeur to otherwise prosaic lives. There is a kind of subterranean torrent of blind primeval energy running through his books which focusses itself in a thick smouldering fuliginous eruption when the moment or the occasion arises. The “will to power,” or whatever else you may call it, has never been more terrifically exposed."  From "Balzac" by John Powys

"Gambara", sometimes published as "Gambar", is, along with "The Unknown Masterpiece", pretty close to Balzac's artistic manifesto.  The story begins, as do other of Balzac's works, with a well dressed man on a nocturnal stroll through a part of Paris known for prostituition.   I guess this probably would attract more readers than a story starting with a stroll the a part of town known for milinary.  From here we end up spending most of the story in the company of an aspiring opera writer.  Balzac clearly feels very strongly about his ideas on creativity, I think a a deep level they are, in his mind, tied in with male sexuality.  

Mel u

"The Fairy Goose" by Liam O'Flaherty (1927)







"For some reason, it was made manifest to them that the goose was an evil spirit and not the good fairy which they had supposed her to be. Terrified of the priest's stole and breviary and of his scowling countenance, they were only too eager to attribute the goose's strange hissing and her still stranger cackle to supernatural natural forces of an evil nature. Some present even caught a faint rumble of thunder in the east and although though it was not noticed at the time, an old woman later asserted that she heard a great cackle of strange geese afar off, raised in answer to the little fairy goose's cackle."

Liam O'Flaherty (1896 to 1984) was born in Inishmore on one of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland.  His cousin was the famous Hollywood movie director  John Ford.    Like Frank O'Conner and Sean O'Faolain he was involved in the Irish War for independence against the British (largely a guerrilla war)1919 to 1921.    It was a bloody war of brother against brother in many cases.   It ended in Southern Ireland becoming an independent country with largely Protestant Northern Ireland staying under British rule.    

O'Flaherty worked for a time as a teacher until he became successful with novels like The Informer (which his cousin made into a movie) .     O'Flaherty moved the USA around 1923 to live in Hollywood so he could work with his cousin, among other reasons.   He was for a time a communist but returned to his Roman Catholic roots in latter years.  He was deeply into the reading life with a passion for French and Russian literature.    Even though much of his adult life was lived in the USA, his  writings nearly all deal with Ireland.    I first read his work during what was then Irish Short Story Week in 2011.  

"The Fairy Goose", set in rural Ireland, is just a wonderful story, I cannot imagine anyone into the form not loving it.  Compressing a bit, the story begins when an older village woman's sitting hen died and she hatches a goose egg by the firre.  The Goose is strange, never gets more than half normal size, never loses its yellow down for the white coat of an adult goose, and does not hiss at strangers.  Soon many people in the village begin to regard the goose as a fairy.  The old woman charges others to have the fairy goose cure sick cows and such and gains the reputation as a wise woman.  I want to quote a bit from the story as the prose is just so beautiful.

"That was done, and then the gosling became sacred in the village. No boy dare throw a stone at it, or pull a feather from its wing, as they were in the habit of doing with geese, in order to get masts for the pieces of cork they floated in the pond as ships. When it began to move about every house gave it dainty things. All the human beings in the village paid more respect to it than they did to one another. The little gosling had contracted a great affection for Mary Wiggins and followed her around everywhere, so that Mary Wiggins also came to have the reputation of being a woman of wisdom. Dreams were brought to her for unravelling."

Of course the local priest hears of this, a wise woman in a nearby village informed him, and he comes to denounce the Goose Fairy.  The ending is really exciting and I will leave it unspoiled.  I for sure felt I was back in Ireland in 1927, far beyond the Pale.

Mel u

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Fever Dreams" by Clarice Lispector (1941, from The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson, forthcoming August 2015)



"Lavender colors hover in space like butterflies. Slender flutes extend toward the heavens and fragile melodies burst in the air like bubbles. The rosy shapes keep sprouting from the wounded earth. All of a sudden, thundering anew. Is the Earth bearing children? The shapes dissolve in midair, scared away. Corollas wilt and colors darken. And the Earth, arms contracted in pain, splits open into fresh black fissures. A strong smell of wounded earth wafts in dense plumes of smoke. A century of Silence" from "Fever Dreams" by Clarice Lispector 




"Fever Dreams" by Clarice Lispector is a very powerful evocation of a fever driven  dream.  The dreamer is a mature man who has left his family home in northern Brazil to go to the south to write, he lived in a rooming house.  In Brazilian culture the further south you go, the deeper into the tropics, tropics of the mind not just on a map.  The dream sequence is beautifully done, we see the man perhaps conflating sexual images of a "dark" girl who took care of him with the earth herself giving birth to amazing entities. We are not sure if the man had sex with her or not, nor is he. I have not read enough Lispector yet to comment much on this but to Brazilian upper class men, as the dreamer is, darker women are seen as somehow more appropriate and willing  targets for sexual urges than lighter skinned women.   This springs back, in part, to Brazill's days as a slave culture in which the only women available to Europeans were basically slaves. 

Look for many more posts on Clarice Lispector. 

(My publication date of 1941 is a guess, if you know the date, please let me know.

From New Directions Webpage

Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was Brazilian journalist, translator and author of fiction. Born in Western Ukraine into a Jewish family who suffered greatly during the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, she was still an infant when her family fled the disastrous post-World War I situation for Rio de Janiero. At twenty-three, she became famous for her novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and married a Brazilian diplomat. She spent much of the forties and fifties in Europe and the United States, helping soldiers in a military hospital in Naples during World War II and writing, before leaving her husband and returning to Rio in 1959. Back home, she completed several novels including The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star before her death in 1977 from ovarian cancer.

Mel u

Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Unknown Masterpiece" by Honore de Balzac (1831, A Short Story Component of The Human Comedy)





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"An Unknown Masterpiece" centers on a neophyte painter visiting the studio of a master artist.  In it are the deepest reflections I have yet found in Balzac about the nature of art.  Balzac clearly thought very deeply on theoretical questions about the nature of art.  The narrator of the story may have meant only the visual arts but I had to apply what was said to Balzac's fiction.  As I read more of and about Balzac I see a man driven at times to write as fast as he could, not just for the money he badly needed but by his inner demons.  I also see an artist of supreme talent who shaped the direction of the novel throughout the world.  

The conversations in "An Unknown Masterpiece" of the master painter show the intermingling of artistic creativity with sexuality. In Balzac's pre-camera era, painters of portraits could become super stars.  The master painter sees the portrait of a partially clad beautiful woman as seemingly almost sexually magnetic.  Pushed it seems there is a sexual element to creativity in Balzac's mind.  "The Unknown Masterpiece" very much depicts a male dominated theory of creativity.  The idea of a woman painter reacting to her work as the male painter does simply would not work.  We also have the deep rooted conflation of beautiful women with goodness.  I have talked about issues related to beauty in women as perceived by Balzac before and maybe I will again.

According to my post read research, this story influenced Picasso, Cezzane and new wave film directors in the 1930s.  

I have not yet included a mini bio of Balzac so here one is:



Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), one of the greatest and most influential of novelists, was born in Tours and educated at the Collège de Vendôme and the Sorbonne. He began his career as a pseudonymous writer of sensational potboilers before achieving success with a historical novel, The Chouans. Balzac then conceived his great work, La Comédie humaine, an ongoing series of novels in which he set out to offer a complete picture of contemporary society and manners. Always working under an extraordinary burden of debt, Balzac wrote some eighty-five novels in the course of his last twenty years, including such masterpieces as Père GoriotEugénie GrandetLost Illusions, and Cousin Bette. In 1850, he married Eveline Hanska, a rich Polish woman with whom he had long conducted an intimate correspondence. Three months later he died. In addition to the present collection, NYRB Classics publishes a translation of Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara. -from the webpage of The New York Review of Books


Mel u



Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Melmouth Reconciled" by Honore de Balzac (1835, A Short Story, A Component of The Human Comedy)




52 of 91



Melmouth the Wanderer, published in 1820 by Charles Maturin (Dublin, 1782 to 1824) was a once very influential Gothic novel centering on a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra  years of life.  He wandered the earth in search of someone willing to take over this pact.  Balzac considered Melmouth the Wanderer the equal of Goethe's Faust or Don Juan by Lord Byron.

"Melmouth Reconciled" is an odd kind of story with mixed elements.  Parts of it are suberb, parts formula Balzac.  Part of the story centers on a retired French army colonel.  He is an habitué of Paris street prostitues.  He is not at all a bad man.  One of the strengths of Balzac is his ability to create sympathetic and interesting  imperfect people.  My guess is that Balzac was probably well acquainted with Prostituion in Paris, and not just an observer.  One day the colonel gets tired of the risk and the crapshoot side of picking up girls on the street and sees a young girl he wishes to save from the life.

"But on the brink of the gulf of prostitution in Paris, the young girl of sixteen, beautiful and pure as the Madonna, had met with Castanier. The old dragoon was too rough and homely to make his way in society, and he was tired of tramping the boulevard at night and of the kind of conquests made there by gold. For some time past he had desired to bring a certain regularity into an irregular life. He was struck by the beauty of the poor child who had drifted by chance into his arms, and his determination to rescue her from the life of the streets was half benevolent, half selfish, as some of the thoughts of the best of men are apt to be."

He soon takes up housekeeping with the girl.  She becomes used to a comfortable life style and begins to put a serious overload on Castanier's pension.  Things get worse when she finds out he is married.  Now the storyline connects to Melmouth, who in this story is English.  He gets himself in terrible financial shape speculating on stocks and such and he meets a sinister man who offers to solve all his problems, for a slight price, of course.  He is facing prison for embezzlement so he is desperate.  I thought Balzac did a great job portraying the sinister Melmouth.

"Melmouth the Wanderer" is worth reading as a stand alone work.  It is "pure Balzac".

Mel u


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"The Women" by William Trevor (2013 in The New Yorker, republished in The O Henry Stories 2014)





William Trevor (1928, County Cork, Ireland) is for sure one of the two, along with Alice Munro, greatest living short story writers.  I have read and posted on way to few stories by these writers, maybe because their stories need time to seep down into the depths of your consciousness.  

"The Women", first published in The New Yorker and included in The O Henry Prize Stories 2014 is an amazing story that shows the slow unraveling of an old family secret.  There are two central characters in the story, an affluent refined businessman and his daughter.  His wife left him for another man when his daughter was two and he raised her alone, with hired help.  Everything in the girl's life stays the same, she is comfortable and happy though lonely with no real companions but her father, a very good man, the household help and the tutor who home schools her.  Her father periodically takes her on nice weekends to Oxford or Csmbridge and on vacation to Paris, Venice, and Rome.  The father decides she needs regular contact with other girls so he sends her to a fine boarding school.  She hates it at first and wants to go home but in time she makes friends, settling in.  I don't want to spoil the main plot development for potential readers but it does involve a pair of very close rather odd fifty something year old women who start to come to the ice hockey games.  

The ending really makes you think about the collisions of worlds, the coincidences that can define personal histories.  The contrasting worlds of the life of the father and his daughter and the two strange women is really brilliant.

"The Women" is a simply wonderful story which I am so glad to have read.

Do you have a favorite Trevor story?

Mel u

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"A Pinch of Salt" by Adam Szymánsky (1904, trans. by Else C. M. Benecke and Marie Busch)


"But no! those deserts, equal in extent to the half of Europe, are only the purgatory, not yet the real Siberian hell. You still find woods there, poor, thin, dwarfed woods, it is true, but where there is wood there is fire and vitality. The true hell of human torture begins beyond the line of the woods; then there is nothing but ice and snow; ice that does not even melt in the plains in summer—and in the midst of that icy desert, miserable human beings thrown upon this shore by an alien fate."



Adam Szymánsky is one of the great chroniclers of Polish life under the last years of the Russian Czars.  He was born and educated in Warsaw, studied law and classical literature.  He became active in Socialist groups and for this in 1882 he was sent to Siberia, returning to Warsaw in 1885. He is most now read for his collection of stories about his experiences while in Siberia, Siberian Sketches, in which "A Pinch of Salt" first appeared.  

There were degrees of punishment by Exile to Siberia.  Some were just taken to a town there and not allowed to leave for a proscribed period.  Some were sent to labor camps, places of terrible suffering.
The narrator of the story was just made to live in a town there.  (Part of the idea was that many exiles would end up settling in the sparsely populated region.). He and a group of fellow exiles hear a close student days friend of one of the exiles has been released from a  camp in the worst part of Siberia and is passing through their town on the way back to Warsaw. The fact that he survived exalted them and gives them hope.

"A passionate desire seized us to look upon that life out there in its unveiled nakedness, its horrible cruelty. This curiosity meant more than narrow selfishness; it had a special reason. The fact that a human being had been able to survive in that far-distant world, bore witness to the strength and resistance of the human spirit; the iron will and energy of the one doubled and steeled the strength of all the others."

 They plan a great feast in his honor, much labor and expense goes into the event with a magnificent sturgeon as the center piece of the meal.  On the big day, the man can eat none of the food.  I will leave the end untold.  "A Pinch of Salt" can be read in just a few minutes but many could probably be found in Warsaw who read it decades ago who still remember the story well.  I will seek out more work by Adam Szymánsky.

You can read this story and several other late Czarist Era Polish works by going to Manybooks.net and search on the term "Polish".  Two now in the public domain collections of translations originally published by Basil Blackwell can be downloaded for free.  This is the third work I have read from this source.

Mel u

The Outpost by Boleslaw Prus (1886)







Earlier this month I read an excellant short story "The Recurring Wave" by Boleslaw Prus, one of Poland's highest regarded writers.  Set in rural Poland, it depicts a time of coming social change and different social classes in rural society. 

The Outpost is one of four major novels by Prus.  It is also set in rural Poland in a time where the people are unsettled by changes they see coming and fear.  There are basically four sorts of people in the world of The Outpost.  There are the peasants, almost all illiterate and just a generation or so from being bound serfs, the gentry, the Jews who control much of the trade, and the newly arriving Germans.  I tried to decide how I should take the treatment of Jews in the novel, there is no rampant hatred but they are consistently dealt with in a negative way.  I really could not come to any conclusions concerning this.  The Germans arrive in droves, trying to buy up land at higher prices than the old market, financed by Bismark who has his hidden motives.  Poland was under the Russian Czar at this time and I enjoyed it when the lead character talked about how much a better man the Czar was than the Kaiser. Of course the irony is the Czar could care less about Polish peasants.   The peasant whom the novel centers on will not sell his land no matter what.  Everything is further unsettled as there are land reformations coming that are said to place more land in the hand of the peasants.

Prus did an excellant job with the lead character, his wife, his family, and his home. We even get to know the names of his cows!  Soon we learn a railroad is coming through.  The family suffers a lot of terrible hardships.  It was very sad when Lyza, one of the cows, had to be sold to a butcher.  Peasants still very much depend on the local squires for work, income, and directions.  It creates a great social gap when the local squire sells his land to the Germans and moves to Warsaw.

The Outpost is very much worth reading, not just an item of historical interest.  It kept me interested throughout.

If you want to read this go to Manybooks.net and search for "Polish".  Two very good collections  from 1924, originally published by Basil Blackwell, can be downloaded for free.  
 
The Doll, set in Warsaw in the 1880s, is considered the author's masterwork and I hope to start it soon.

Mel u

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Yellow Leaning to Gold" by Shauna Gilligan (2015). - A Short Story by the Author of Happiness Comes from Nowhere






My Q and A Session with Shauna Gilligan (includes links to more posts by and about her)

I first became acquainted with the work of Shauna Gilligan during Irish Short Story Month in March, 2012 and I have been following her work ever since then.  I loved her highly regarded debut novel Happiness Comes From Nowhere,  she kindly did a guest post on Desmond Hogan and I have posted on several of her wonderful short stories.

I was happy to see Gilligan has a short story in a just starting literary journal The Lonely Crowd:  The New Home of the Short Story.  (There is a link at the close of my post).     My main purpose here is to let my readers know of the opportunity to read "Yellow Leaning to Gold" and to journalise my continued reading of Gilligan.

The brief story centers on five years passing in the marriage of a prototypically ordinary married couple.  As the story opens the man has just proposed marriage and tried to be  proud when his wife told him she was changing her name to his, "Brennan".  You can see Gilligan's elegant charged prose in these opening lines:

"It was a name which was neither specific nor personal. Brennan could have belonged to any male in Ireland, at any time.

When Eileen married him and took his name, Brennan desperately wanted to feel flattered. He tried the angle that women were not doing this sort of thing any more. But Eileen just laughed, told him she loved him. She kissed his cheek.

‘Besides,’ she said, ‘Eileen Brennan works.

With a crackle of clarity, Brennan realised that like him, the beautiful Eileen would be condemned to a life of mediocrity."

We next meet Brennan five years later.  It is his fifth wedding anniversary and he is on his normal forty-five minute train ride home.  He has a decent job.    I loved the scene where he watched a woman put on her make up.  It is kind of a metaphor for his life.  The subdued closing brings him full circle.  We see what begins as a blessing can return as a something very different,  


You can read "Yellow Leaning to Gold" by Shauna Gilligan at thelonelycrowd.org


Official Author Bio 


Shauna Gilligan‘s short fiction and reviews have been published in places such as The Stinging Fly (Ireland), New Welsh Review (UK) and Cobalt (USA). She holds a PhD (Writing) from the University of South Wales and teaches writing as part of the Arts Council of Ireland Writers in Prisons Panel. Her first novel, Happiness Comes from Nowhere (London, Ward Wood: 2012), was described by the Sunday Independent in Ireland as a ‘thoroughly enjoyable and refreshingly challenging debut novel.

Mel u


Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Iron Kingdom - The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600 to 1947 by Christopher Clark (2008, 800 pages)



I offer my great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to read this book



Normally I am reading from three to six books.  I try always to have at least one non-fiction work in the mix.  I have been reading a lot of German language fiction (in translation) of late so I wanted to learn a bit more about German history.  I have read a number of works dealing with the Holocaust in the last few months and I wanted to see if  Joseph Roth was right when he said that Prussian culture and tradition reach their culmination in Nazism.   This is the big question for me at least.

Iron Kingdom The Downfall of Prussia 1600 to 1947 by Christopher Clark is a first rate work of serious scholarship that also serves the needs of the general reader.  It focuses a lot on military affairs and the personality of the rulers rather than on the daily life of the average person.  I would have enjoyed learning more about the lives of the common people.   There is a lot of material on Prussia's relationships with other German states and with neighboring countries.  Lots of Fredericks  here!  We learn about the role of the Prussian aristocracy, the Junkers, in Prussian affairs. The most famous Junker was Chancellor Otto von Bismark who basically turned Prussian and from that Germany into a powerful military state.  Clark goes into how Prussia was a culture of obedience to the state and the social consequences of this.

In the closing chapters Clark talks about the role of Prussian Junkers in Nazi Germany.  Many Junkers were still in the period 1933 to 1945 old school aristocrats who looked down on Hitler and the kind of people he surrounded himself with as persons they simply would not voluntarily even socialize with.  Junkers were behind several plots to assassinate Hitler.  This was not so much because they hated his ideology but because they thought he would end up destroying the Prussian state.  On the other side, Clark tells us that many, probably most, Junkers were enthusiastic supporters of Nazism.  Many were involved in top military positions and in the management and administration of the Holocaust.  

This is the first large scale book on Prussian history which I have read.  I am glad I read it.  

Of the 800 pages of this book, 220 is devoted to footnotes, acknowledgements, bibliography and such.  I know this is part of the requirements of serious academic writing but these pages run up the price of the book.  I wonder if authors could instead create online files of at least the refrence foot notes and just include a link to them in the book for those interested.  Just a thought.



Mel u

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"A Tale of Jerusalem" by Edgar Allan Poe (1831, 4 pages)


By: Yitzchok Tendler

"It comes as no surprise that America’s writers and poets of the 19th century touched heavily on Biblical themes. They were, after all, overwhelmingly Christian. Far more surprising, and scarce, are instances of their references to Rabbinic Literature.

In this regard, a relatively obscure short story by Edgar Allen Poe, A Tale of Jerusalem, stands entirely in a league of its own. The breadth of familiarity with Rabbinic Literature and Temple protocol, the extent to which this narrative is so replete with abstruse Talmudic references, is, frankly, astounding. Poe goes far beyond mere Talmudic reference; he actually adopts its idiom and syntax, employing free use of Hebrew and Aramaic to color his characters."  From ThinkJudaism.com 



Since I began my blog in July 2009 I have read and posted on a few of Edgar Allan Poe's (1809 to 1849) sixty-nine short stories.   In almost every article or book I have read on the history of the modern short story Poe is treated as one of the originators of the form, especially the Gothic, horror and detective story.  This is as true not just for America but Ireland, Japan, and France. Poe defined a short story as a work that could be read in one sitting.  He lead a tumultuous way too brief life and there is much use of macabre, violent and disturbing images in his work.  

I decided to read one of his stories just on an impulse and I picked "A Tale of Jerusalem", because it was quite short and because the title kind of intrigued me, the same way it probably did readers The Philadelphia Saturday Courier where it was first published.   I was, though perhaps I should not have been, shocked by the apparent depth of Poe's knowledge of Jewish traditional literature and history exhibited in this story.  First I will briefly recapitulate the plot and then I will talk a bit about what my post read research revealed as I found it very interesting. 

The leaders of the temple have lowered down to the Romans a bucket with silver coins to pay for a sacrificial animal.  The Romans say they treat all the religions of their conquered nations the same.  As the leaders begin to pull up the basket they marvel at the weight, thinking the Romans have sent a great ram or fattened calf.  To their horrowing the animal is a hog, an animal repudiated by their religion.  There is a very big display of arcane lore in the story.  It seems Poe got his details from a very popular at the time four part novel, Tales of the Holy City by Horace Smith.

I hope to read through all the stories eventually.  

Mel u

"A Journey" by Colm Toibin (2007, from Mothers and Sons)






Colm Tóibín  (Ireland, 1955) is one of my favorite fiction writers and a master interpreter of literature. I first read his excellant novel based  on the London years of Henry James, The Master, then Brooklyn about an Irish woman who moves to the New York City area, then the unique Testament of Mary and lastly his most recent book Nora Webster.  I also read his monograph, Lady Gregory's Toothbrush as well as several of his short stories.  I have profited from his essays on Henry James.  

This year's Irish Short Story Month is a lower key event than in the past but there are still stories yet unread in his anthology, Mothers and Sons so I decided to include his "A Journey" in this year's Irish Short Story Month.

The story begins shortly after a married couple has had, after twenty years of marriage, their first child, David.  They never expected a child after twenty years but he did not upset their comfortable routine as much as they feared.  Compressing a bit, we flash twenty years forward.  The father Sheamus is very sick, probably going to die soon.  The mother has gone to pick their son up from a mental hospital where he was treated for problems we never quite understand.  He rides in the back seat of the car and tells his mother he does not want any questions.  She is bringing him home to live.  She wonders if she can summon up the unselfishness to take care of them both.

This is a very moving story anyone who ever had a wonderful self-sacrificing mother will cherish.  It depicts how women are sometimes pushed into the role of caregiver.  

Mel u

The Boxer by Jurek Becker (1976, translated by Alessandra Bastagli)

I owe my great thanks to Max u for the Amazon Gift Card that allowed me to read The Boxer



The Boxer by Jurek Becker (born 1937 in Lotz, Poland, died Thumby, Germany, 1997) is about a concentration camp survivor and his relationship to his son.  The man's wife, he was Jewish, was taken away, his two year old son put in a children's concentration camp, where survival rates were incredibly low, and he himself spent six years in a slave labor camp.  Upon his release he receives a pension and priority housing as a form of reparation, he goes to work as a bookkeeper for a big time black market operator, he has two long term affairs, he makes a close friend who kills himself and he goes to an office that helps people try to find out what happened to individuals last known to be in camps.  Miraculously he finds his son, now eight.   Not long ago I read a nonfiction book about the emotional impact their years in the camps had on survivors.  Becker's book covers this in the case of one person brilliantly.  The man, he was once a boxer, tries to relate to his son and his girlfriends and they to him. Everyone is damaged in some way by the Holocaust years. 

The Boxer is very understated but it is very moving and deeply insightful.  The story is structured as if it were a government interviewer taking down the man's story, part of the drama of the novel is the man, now in his late sixties getting to know the much younger interviewer.  It covers over twenty five years in the life of the man and his son.  The relationship of the man, he had his son trained to box when he was bullied at school, is not easy to understand and is full of sadness.

I have previously read and posted on Becker's Jacob the Lier and The Wall and other Stories.  Jacob the Lier is the best selling of his books, per Amazon, and I would suggest you start there.

The Boxer is a first rate novel focusing on an important aspect of the Holocaust, the fate of survivors.

 
The kindle edition of this book has numerous run together words.  It was obviously never proof read after conversion to the kindle format.  Jurek Becker deserves more respect than this and so do book buyers.  
 
Mel u



Friday, March 20, 2015

"The Illustrious Gaudissart" by Honore de Balzac (1833, a short story, a component of The Human Comedy)





"The Illustrious Gaudissart" centers on a traveling salesman.  You name it Gaudissart can sell it. The opening  sections of the story in which Balzac talks about the work and the life of the salesman, especially his encyclopedic knowledge of the delights of the shady side of Paris are just great, among the best of Balzac.  I can kind of tell when Balzac really puts his heart into his work and it is here in parts of this story.  The weaker aspect of the story is in his long sales call on a country gentleman, called in my translation from the 19th century by Katherine Wormerley, "an imbecile". Gaudissart tries to sell the man insurance annuities of some sort as well as subscriptions to a journal and the imbecile ends up getting the better of him.

I guess this work is mainly for those reading through The Comedie Humaine but it is a decent story.

51/91

Mel u


Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabohov by Paul Russell (2011, 376 pages)



I offer my great thanks to Max u for the gift card that allowed me to read this book.



The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov by Paul Russell is a very interesting book, in segments a great work of art.  It is based on the life of tne younger brother of Vladimer Nabokov.   To me the most intriguing parts of the novel were the settings and the historical personages we meet, especially the sections set in Paris in the artistic Russian emigre community.  Sergey was gay and as depicted here, so were many of the cultural and ecomonic elite of old Russia.  One of Sergey's uncles was an aggressive near pedophile with an anal fixation who used his position of power to molest Sergey and any of the servants he fancied.  We are in a time when servants are transition from household serfs to employees and the uncle feels it is his sexual privilege to bully servants boys into sodomy.  It looks like the same thing happened to Sergey.  Russell is such a good writer that the uncle almost comes across as a sympathetic character.  His family view this just as a "quirk".  The sections in old Saint Petersburg were magnificent.  I felt I was there and maybe I kind of wished I was.

The Nabokov family prior to the Russian revolution was very rich and the novel focuses a lot on the difficulties Sergey and his famous brother had adjusting to the loss of wealth.  In Paris we see some ex-aristocrats were smart enough to have moved a lot of their wealth out of Russia before the revolution.  Many had to adjust to being without mansions, servants, and elegant meals.  We meet a lot of celebrity characters in the Russian community in Paris.  The Bousweau family was very well connected in this community and I admit I was thrilled by the mention of Ruffington Boussweau's friend and traveling companion, Prince Yousapoff.  

The novel flashes back and forth in time from Russian in the 1910s, to Paris in the 20th to Berlin in 1943.  While in Germany Sergey had to live in fear of the gestapo because he was gay. There are small touches that make each era seem very real.  

If there is a weakness in this novel, it is maybe in the minor characters, the love interestes of Sergey, are not that well developed.  The sex is quick and furtive.  Homosexuality is seen by most of the era as a disease.

Most of the sex acts are fast  handjobs through clothing.  Anal sex is more for domination than pleasure, especially in the school sections in Russia.

Overall I highly enjoyed this novel.  The historical research, I Googled a lot of the names of Russians in Paris, is meticulous and marvelously deployed.  

For now  the Kindle edition of this book is for sale for $1.95, marked down from $12.95  

See Paul-Russell.org for biographical data and information on Russell's other books.

Mel u







Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Clarice Lipsector - Her First Short Story "The Triumph" (1940, in The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lipsector, to be published August, 2015, translated by Katrina Dodson, edited and introduced by Benjamin Moser)


A New Project    --  The Short Stories of Clarice Lispector


Clarice Lipsector, born in a Shetl in the Ukraine, at age one moved with her family to Brazil. She wrote in Portugese and became a Brazilian citizen.   She would go on to be widely considered the most important Jewish writer since Kafka and Latin America's greatest female writer.  I was very pleased to be given an advance review copy The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lipsector by New Directions Press.  There are 86 stories in all, arranged in publication order.  I have decided to read all the stories and post on a number of them.  One advantage of this is you can see the artistic development of the author.   I have done this with a number of writers and found it a good idea.

"The Triumph" kind of reminded me of a Dorothy Parker story, only harsher.  It is told in the first person by a woman whose boyfriend has just left their house after a fight. He has left before and returned.  She wonders if the neighbors heard them fight.  She knows in the past they have heard them have sex after a quarrel.  Her boyfriend, maybe it is her husband, is a writer, a man of culture and sophistication, probably a bit haughty.  She looks all over for a note.  She at last finds one in which he explains he cannot write while living there.  She sees this as meaning he will return, he is venting.


I am looking very much forward to reading the remaining 85 stories.  I hope to go deeply into her work and cultural background.  

Mel u




Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Death" by Wladyslaw Reymont (1906, from The Peasants)




I recently decided I needed to expand my reading into works by authors from Eastern Europe.  Luckily I have recently found  two anthologies of older short stories by Polish writers online.  I have already read a great story by Boleslaw Prue and for sure I will be reading more of his work.  There are two stories by  Wladyslaw Reymont, the 1924 Nobel Prize Laureate, centering on the lives of people in villages, people once called "peasants".  If "Death" is an example, Reymont's vision is very dark.  

"Death" is set in a village.  An old man is on his death bed, his daughter screams at him to get out of her house, she does not want him dying there.  It seems he has left his 15 acre farm to his other daughter so she hates him.  She decides to move him out to the pigstye, of course she kicks him a few times.  Compressing a bit, and the action is just one nasty thing after another, the father died in the pigstye.  His son in law says he won't pay for the funeral.  The other daughter shows up and a terrible fight breaks out between the two women.  The funeral is just so hilariously nasty.  

This was a really good story, better than I expected.

You can find it in the collection at this link, along with other stories.

http://manybooks.net/titles/variousetext058pltl10.html

Mel u

Monday, March 16, 2015

Going to the Dogs - The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner (1931, translated by Cyrus Brooks)


I offer my great thanks to Max u for the gift card that allowed me to read this book



Going to the Dogs:  The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner is set in Germany in 1929.  (In my post read research I learned that he was the only author who showed up on a day when the Nazis officially burned his books.  Unlike many other such writers, he self censored his work and remained in Germany.)  The novel does a great job of showing us the growing poverty and despair in Germany in the last days of the Weimer Republic.   The main focus of the work is on the sexual behaviour of people in the era.  All sorts of once decadent activity becomes a way of escaping from the day to day misery of life.  Poverty eats away at self esteem and old style values.  The biggest spotlight is on the increasing sexual aggressiveness of women.  Prostituition becomes the dominant mode of interaction between the sexes.  In one of the all short chapters Kâstner takes us inside a brothel for women stocked with young men.  It was great to read of the sheer role reversals in this situation.  It is all very visually and at times funny at times horrifying.  In one horrific  segment a graduate student in his fifth and final year is told by an acquaintance that his dissertation, a work of literary criticism, has been rejected by his professor.  The man kills himself in despair.  We later learn that this was just intended as a joke and in fact the dissertation was praised as a work of genius and was to be published by the university.  

The sex scenes are a lot of twisted fun.   The characters are interesting and I could feel the poverty and despair eating away at the souls of all.   Of course know one in 1929 knew what was coming for Germany but Kastner has depicted a society ready for a change of any kind. 

Going to the Dogs:  The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner is very much worth reading, both for historical value and for sheer enjoyment.  



Erich Kästner (1899–1974) was born in Dresden and after serving in World War I studied history and philosophy in Leipzig, completing a PhD. In 1927 he moved to Berlin and through his prolific journalism quickly became a major intellectual figure in the capital. His first book of poems was published in 1928, as was the children’s book Emil and the Detectives, which quickly achieved worldwide fame. Going to the Dogsappeared in 1931 and was followed by many other works for adults and children, including Lottie and Lisa, the basis for the popular Disney film The Parent Trap. In 1933 the pacifist Kästner was banned from German publication and subsequently found employment as a film scriptwriter. After World War II , he worked as a literary editor and continued to write, mainly for children. (From New York Review of Books Webpage)


Mel ü


"An Irish Problem" by Edith Sommerville and Martin Ross (1908?)





Edith Sommerville and her cousin Violet Martin (who wrote under the name Martin Ross) were to Anglo-Irish writers famous for their stories portraying the life of the Irish.  The stories tend to mock the Irish in accord with standard stereotypes of the English and I think they are not very much read anymore.  I know from Q and A sessions I have done that some find their stories offensive and not without good reason.  They do provide us with a look back at a colonial mentality and if you can step back from your politics, they are well written, interesting and often fun though the fun is at the expensive of the Irish.  I have posted on a few of their stories and I enjoyed reading them.  Declain Kiberd in his landmark book, Inventing the Nation-Modern Irish Literature devotes a lot of time to their novel, The Real Charlotte, explaining the impact of colonial rule on Irish literature.

"An Irish Problem", from Sketches on an Irish Shore, is set in a courtroom in an Irish speaking part of the country, meant to indicate a "less civilized" area, where one man is suing another for the loss of a sheep.  The man suing claims the other man's dog harassed his sheep so much that it went into a lake and drowned.  Everyone in the court knows each other and the sheep is claimed to have a value anywhere from half a crown to ten crowns, to be maybe one year old to maybe fourteen.  Each claiment shows of the exaggerated verbal skills the Irish were said portrayed as having as well as their readiness to stretch the truth.  In a way, the story whether the authors had such thoughts or not, depicts how the weaker position of a colonized person forces the development of the skills of "trickery" which are deemed contrary to proper honorable manly behaviour by the ruler.


Yes we are back!  Ruprect, Rory and Carmella


Mel u




Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Androcles and the Army" by Frank O'Connor (March, 1958, in The Atlantic)







After having  read and posted on two Irish short stories over the last two days, I decided I would reinstate for my own purposes Irish Short Story Month, Year V March 2015.  This year I will just keep things simple and I will try to post on at least ten Irish short stories.

Frank O'Connor from County Cork Ireland is widely considered one of the 20th century's greatest short story writers.  His war stories like "Guests of the Nation" are his most famous but all of his work seems to focus on the life of ordinary people.


"Androcles and the Army" packs a great deal in a few pages.  Written in a comic tone, it centers on a lion tamer in a small Irish circus who decides to join the army to fight the Germans.  There are no dates in the story but I think this story is set in around 1914 as in World War II the Irish were neutral.  The story tells us how the long time lion tamer masters his charges with kindness and love.  When he decides to join the army, the circus owner is distraught.  He has to put the brutish strong man in as lion tamer.  In the climactic scene in the story, I will leave the ending untold, the lion tamer is in training at an army base in Ireland when the circus comes to the town near the base.  The reunion is just too great and totally hilarious.  There are great thematic and symbolic minefields in this story.

I read this story in the collection below


Over 700 pages long,  I think it is your best way to get into Frank O'Connor.  It does not give the dates or first publication data or have any sort of introduction, which it should but it is a very valuable resource.  (I was given a free copy)

Please share your favorite lesser known Irish short stories with us.

Mel u



   

"Saturday, Boring" by Lisa McInerney (2013, in Town and Country, Irish Short Stories, edited by Kevin Barry)









Every March for the last four years I have read and posted mostly on Irish short stories.  I have done Q and A sessions with lots of Irish writers.  My respect for Irish literature is tremendous.  Galway, Ireland is one of the world's most productive literary cities.  This year I am reading a lot of European classics, works from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, Balzac's Comedie Humaine, Eastern European Literature as well as continuing on in Post Colonial Asian Fiction but I have far from forgotten the Irish.  I might wander away but I will always return.

Yesterday I was looking an excellent collection of short stories edited and introduced by Kevin Barry, Town and Country - Irish Short Stories for something to read.  Happily for me I read "Saturday, Boring" by Lisa McInerney, from Galway.  "Saturday, Boring" centers on two fifteen  year old girls, best friends, out of the house for a Saturday afternoon.  The conversation centers on the decision of one of the girls to have first ever for her sex with her boyfriend.  Having three daughters 16, 19, and 21 this story hit home for me as being about the very last things a father wants to contemplate.  It makes me think of all those no-school days when the girls are going out with their friends and their mother or I would ask them where they were going and they would simply reply "Out".  When asked what they are going to do they, of course, reply "Oh, nothing".

The girl's conversation rings totally true.  McInerney handles the dialogues perfectly.  The friend quizes her friend as to why she wants to take this big step.  As to be expected, it is not a well thought out plan.  They talk about what it will be like and how the boy will act toward her after it is over.  A big fear is that he will tell what happened all town, especially at school.  The girls talk about their limited sexual experiences.  The friend tries to offer advice and tries to get the other girl to promise to tell her all about what happens.

McInerney in just a few pages lets us see into the families of the girls, their home life and what can happen on a boring Saturday.  I very much look forward to reading her forthcoming debut novel, The Glorious Heresies soon 

Author Data


Lisa McInerney was born in 1981 and just about grew up to be a writer of contemporary fiction. 

In 2006 she started a blog about working class life in a Galway council estate, ‘Arse End of Ireland’, through which she cultivated a reputation for documenting modern Ireland with her own particular brand of gleeful cynicism. In the same year, Haydn O’Shaughnessy in The Irish Times called her “…the most talented writer at work today in Ireland”, and journalist and author Belinda McKeon said that “she takes the Celtic Tiger by the scruff, and gives it a sound kicking in prose that sears”. Nominated for Best Blog at the Irish Blog Awards for three years running, she took away the Best Humour gong in 2009, which came as a surprise as she wasn’t aware she was being particularly funny at the time.

Lisa went on to write regularly for award-winning entertainment site Culch.ie, prominent feminist site The Antiroom, and Irish news site TheJournal.ie, taking a frequently acerbic look at social issues. She’s spoken at literary festivals both at home and in the US discussing new media, its effect on traditional publishing, and its possibilities for writers.

In 2013, Lisa’s short story ‘Saturday, Boring’ was published in Faber & Faber’s ‘Town and Country’ anthology, edited by Kevin Barry. Seeing as this was the first short story Lisa had ever written, she was rather chuffed and has since assumed there will be a similarly disproportionate award for her second – dinner at the White House or something. Though inspired by writers like Melvin Burgess, Irvine Welsh and Hubert Selby Jr, years writing for an online audience means she also draws from the humour and wordplay of the internet's hive mind.

Lisa lives in Galway with a husband, a daughter, and a dog called Angua. She learned the word “sporadically” from Clueless, and has endeavoured to use it sporadically ever since. 

Lisa's debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, will be published by John Murray in April, 2015. (From publisher's webpage)








Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Liberation of the Camps - The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath by Dan Stone (forthcoming May 2015)





Seventy years ago Russian, American, and British troops liberated the German concentration camps.  Dan Stone says, and I fully agree, that the attempt of the Germans to wipe Jews from the face of the earth is the lowest depth to which humanity has yet sunk.  In reading Stone's beautifully  done book, The Liberation of the Camps I learned a great deal about the Holocaust and I learned a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong.   I also came to see that the consequences of the Holocaust are still today a very powerful factor shaping the dynamics of international politics.  

Stone, a leading Holocaust scholar, focuses on the process of liberation of the camps, the immediate reaction of inmates, the devastating impact the horrors they saw had on often very young allied soldiers, the manipulation of media presentation of the liberation of camps,the terrible difficulties inmates,many captives for years, had returning to freedom when all those they knew had been killed, and the long term political consequences of the Holocaust.

I was under the impression that a majority of those killed by the Germans died in gas chambers in the camps.  This is wrong,  more were shot in the forests of Eastern Europe than died in the camps.  I also did not know that in the closing days of the war the Germans took inmates on forced marches designed to kill most of them and to keep the allies from discovering what they had done.  There were rumors throughtout the war of mass killings of Jews but no one quite believed it.  Stone  offers several elegant accounts of young soldiers entering the camps, many were impacted for life.  He also talks about the claims of Germans that they, of course, had no idea what was going on in the camps.

One of the common false notions about the liberation of the camps is that joyous crowds of inmates welcomed arriving soldiers as heroes.  In fact, most were in such degraded condition as not to be able to understand what was happening.  For propaganda purposes, the Russians made movies depicting such scenes several weeks after liberation and they were shown worldwide in movie house newsreels.

Some inmates snapped back rapidly, others died waiting to be processed out of the camp.  Others had terrible life time physical and mental problems. Stone explains all of this in a very cogent and elegant fashion.  

There was much political turmoil over how released inmates should be treated.  Many returned to their former homes they once owned only to find others living their and all they knew dead.   Memoirs of the Holocaust tended to be written by those who coped best upon release, who went on to become very successful in the USA or Isreal, not by people who never recovered so most people including me do not really understand the horrible long term consequences to survivors, the guilt, the hatred, the loss of any faith as the most damaged don't write books.

Many released Jews ended up in Isreal.  The horror of their experiences lives on in the mantra "never again" even though few of those in the camps still live.

There is much more in Stone's  book.  It is horrifying in sections but it is a horror from which we should not turn away.

One of the ways to see the Holocaust is to see it as a war on a people deeply into the reading life.  

I recommend this book  to anyone interested in the Holocaust and its continuing relevance.   

I was kindly given a copy of this book by the publisher.



Dan Stone is professor of modern history, Royal Holloway, University of London. He has published fifteen books on the Holocaust, genocide, and twentieth-century European history, including most recently Goodbye to All That? The Story of Europe since 1945. He lives in London, UK. (From Yale University Press)

Mel u