The GET-Between: A review of “Burning Secret” by Stefan Zweig.

Burning Secret, published by Puskin Press and translated by Anthea Bell.

Burning Secret is a finely-crafted gem of a novella by the Austrian-born master, Stefan Zweig.

Published in 1913, it is set in an Austrian mountain holiday resort. A young man, a minor aristocrat and civil servant, arrives on holiday. Early on we are told that he is bored when he just has himself for company, and only really feels alive when he is with others. And when he feels most alive is with women. This is a ladies’ man and no mistake.

Initially things don’t seem very promising, but in the dining room he soon identifies a lady in whom he spots plenty of conquest potential, despite Zweig being at pains to point out that she is in the final flushes of attractiveness before beginning the inexorable slide towards ‘past it’ status.

The woman is on holiday with her 12 year-old son, who it transpires is recovering from a protracted bout of illness. Rather than the child being a passion killer, Herr Baron sees him instead as the first means towards his erotic ends. Since the lady initially declines to return his flirtatious glances in the dining room, he decides to strike up a friendship with the boy as the way to get close to his mother.

Things go swimmingly at first, and the boy is besotted with this friendly and garrulous young man with whom he shares jokes, conversations and pleasant walks. Once he has found a way into the mother’s attention’s, however, the Baron pays no more attention to the boy.

This is a bad move, since this is a very bright 12 year old. Hero-worship soon turns to confusion, which turns to anger and ultimately a desire to find out just what it is- this ‘burning secret’- which the two adults share, and which means they want to spend so much time together and ignore him entirely.

Of course we know what the secret is, but the boy doesn’t. And as the Baron circles his female prey ever closer and moves in for the romantic ‘kill’, things don’t necessarily reach the climax you might be expecting.

This is an extremely good story. It’s not exactly a coming of age/ loss of innocence story like L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”, and in a way the central child character struck me as being more psychologically convincing than in Hartley’s book.Or at least, this is a child of inquisitiveness and spirit that he struck more of a chord with me than the almost wholly pure and gullible child Hartley depicted.

Rather than being a victim, he is more of an empowered figure., and if it’s meant to be symbolic of any particular change we go through on the road from childhood to adulthood, I think Zweig has tried to make this book epitomise the realisation we all come to that human relationships can be very confusing, and that the art of reading between the lines is very difficult to master indeed.

If you have read Zweig and want to read more, this is well worth searching out. Best of all this story is not very long at all, and the pace and skill of Zweig’s story telling means you’ll probably finish it in a sitting.

 

 

 

 

A Very Wise Guy: A review of “A Man Without a Country” by Kurt Vonnegut.

I recently re-read this book by Kurt Vonnegut. In fact it was the first book of his that I ever read, and though I’ve naturally gone on to read most of the others, this is a book I keep coming back to because it is a bitter-sweet delight.   It only takes you a couple of hours to read, but I think Vonnegut’s thoughts and ideas stay long in the mind afterwards.

Subtitled “A memoir of life in George Bush’s America” this book will delight those who still revile that odd character who did impressions of the President of the USA.

There’s much more to this book, however, including as it does Vonnegut’s wry, cynical, exasperated and very funny observations on everything else worthy of ridicule, from the more vapid aspects of culture (in both his native US and elsewhere), semi-colons, Western man’s love affair with fossil fuels and even the pros and (mostly) cons of early Saab cars. In fact the passage on Saabs had me coughing and spluttering with laughter as much as the engines in these cars. There is a man near me who drives an old green Saab of a certain vintage, and every time I see it I can’t help laughing. People passing me at the time must think I’m odd, but I don’t care. You see, at those moments I’m with Kurt, and he makes you laugh at the absurd in life, and that’s a very good thing.

Written in a delightfully laconic and earthy style, this is the equivalent of passing a lovely afternoon with someone older, wiser and far funnier than yourself. It reminded me of Spike Milligan at his best. Like Spike, Vonnegut is a master of adopting an unexpected perspective on things, in order to expose some of the absurdities of life and thereby prove that, in Milligan’s phrase,  “nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living”.

“Out There” by RS Thomas.

Out There

It is another country.

There is no speech there such

as we know: even the colours

are different.

When the residents use their eyes,

it is not shapes they see but the distance

between them. If they go,

It is not in a traveller’s

Usual direction, but sideways and

out through the mirror of a refracted

timescale. If you meet them early,

you would recognise them by an absence

of shadow. Your problems

are in their past;

those that they are about to solve

are what you are incapable

of conceiving. In experiments

in outbreeding, under the growing microscope

of the mind, they are isolating the human virus and burning it

up in the fierceness of their detachment.

 

 

This year is the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth, and while I like some of his stuff, I prefer the work of Wales’s other Thomas, R.S.

Both men are great poets, and as such their work can be described and assessed in many different ways. One superficial description will do for this post for now, however. If the more familiar works of Dylan Thomas are verbally rich and dense, then the work of R.S. Thomas is lean and heavy.

That’s heavy in the hippy sense of being very, very, very serious. A lot of his verse has the quality of a zen riddle. I’ve blogged about R.S. Thomas before (click here if interested) and mentioned that for this reason I can only read a little bit at a time. Most of his poems are on the shorter side, and I always find that a little goes a long way.

A lot of his poems are about a specific subject (as a clergyman, many of his poems are meditations on religion and the nature of God for example). However, he often writes in a different mode, something approaching allegory, where the subject matter is open-ended. While on one level it can be frustrating if you are in the mood for clear cut descriptions and meanings, on the other it’s perfect if you want a challenge and like to make the meaning for yourself.

 

Review of “In a Glass Darkly” by Sheriden le Fanu.

Irishman Sheriden le Fanu is perhaps the doyen of Victorian  ghost story writers, and his five-story collection “In a Glass Darkly” is a superb introduction to the writer’s work. These are classic unsettling stories in the British/ Irish tradition, in that they are largely subtle tales that unfold slowly but surely, and usually climax with a suitably macabre, and sometimes truly horrific, ending.

The neat narrative framework for this collection is that they all purport to be papers from the collection of German physician Martin Hesselius. Hesselius is German doctor, prevented from going into practice by an injury to his hand. Instead he branched out into a different area becomes something of a specialist in afflictions of a more supernatural nature.

Though an intriguing character in his own right, Hesselius exists more of a framing device in the story. Each story is a ‘case history’ taken from his files. He only appears as a participant in the first story, the unsettling “Green Tea”, a tale of a clergyman whose studies in occult lore and love of said beverage bring on the unwelcome attentions of a particularly sinister creature that starts plaguing his existence.  But is it a real visitation or a hallucination? Is the clergyman mad or truly damned? As a doctor, Hesselius can only speculate as to the cause, something he does in each of the stories.

This pseudo-medical/ psychiatric aspect of the stories is interesting. Of course Le Fanu was writing well before the development of modern psychiatry and psychology, and some of Hesselius’s attempts to explain the various phenomena in the stories struck me as being quant or downright odd. They do help lend the stories a convincingly studious air nonetheless, and with his detached and determined air, Hesselius comes across as a true investigator, so much so that you could imagine his character being resurrected and used in stories set in the modern day.

Even without Hesselius’s comments, however, each story provides the intrigue, shocks and thrills you’d expect from good ghost/ horror fiction. Le Fanu is an inventive and original writer who is capable of producing some genuinely original plots. That said, perhaps the most famous story in the book is the final one called “Carmilla”, where he makes use of one of the oldest horror legends of all. One the great vampire stories, it was apparently an influence on Bram Stoker. Carmilla the female vampire is a fascinating character, and this story of her (literal and figurative) attachment to the other lead female character is justly seen as a classic of the genre.

If you read it for yourself you may come away with the impression, as I did, that a rather knowing Le Fanu got away with quite a lot with regard to the story’s sexual subtext. Not all Victorians, it seems, were as straight laced as they would have wanted us to believe, and just like us they liked a good scare now and then.

A review of the novel Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Austerlitz, which I first read shortly after it came out, is like much of the author’s work, not an ‘easy’ book.  However, you don’t have to be an academic or look for the serious in literature to get a lot out of it. In fact I found that once it got going, the novel’s main story is fairly simple and very engaging.

The main thread of this story concerns the eponymous character Austerlitz, who is in the process of slowly piecing together the facts about his very early life in pre-War Europe. Austerlitz is a jew, and was sent to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport programme in order to escape Nazi persecution. Much of Sebald’s other writing concerns the nature of memory and how it helps inform and shape our identities, and Austerlitz is in large part another essay in this vein.

However, Sebald also maintained that one of his main concerns as a writer was with Germany and its place in Europe and European culture. Of course this also meant that the crimes committed by the Nazis cast their shadow over his work, whether he alluded to them directly or not. By the time of “Austerlitz”, he finally engaged with the subject of the persecution of the Jews, by making his eponymous main character into someone touched directly that persecution.

Some complain about Sebald’s style, and certainly you have to bear with him, for a lot of the sentences are quite long (I don’t mean to patronise anyone in saying this. It’s just that tight, short syntax is so much the norm these days, from mainstream writing, to websites and daily papers, so that longer, snaking sentences take a while to get used to again). He’s also a very allusive writer, making reference to a myriad different cultural and historical facts and points of interest. If you read this novel then hopefully not only will you be engaged by the actual story, but you will also come away having learned a lot of other fascinating tidbits of information too.

There are actually two different edition of Austerlita in circulation (new and second hand) in the UK. Starved since the author’s death in 2001 of any new substantial ‘product’ to sell, you could accuse Penguin books of cashing in by reprinting “Austerlitz” in a ‘tenth anniversary’ edition a few years ago. Certainly those familiar with the work should think twice about buying this, since the text is the same. However, the anniversary book contains a very good introduction, which is long on insight and common sense interpretation, and aimed at our good friend General Reader rather than just at students and lecturers. This renders Sebald’s work more accessible to all, and in fact it’s useful not only as an introduction to this book, but also to the writer’s whole body of work. Overall I’d recommend this book as a good place to start with Sebald for those new to his work.

As I stated earlier, this is not an ‘easy’ book, because of the demands it places on the reader’s concentration and because of the weighty subject matter. However, the rewards are there if you put the effort in. “Austerlitz”, unfortunately, became something as a memorial to Sebald, since he died shortly after its publication. In it’s own way, however, the book also stands as a memorial to the suffering of so many. For once the hype was justified: Sebald is one of the great European writers, and this is a seminal work in our shared cultural heritage. This edition and Wood’s intro help to put all this into context.