15 July 2011

Thomas Bernhard - Old Masters

First published in 1985, Thomas Bernhard’s penultimate novel is a bitter indictment of what is widely considered ‘great’ European culture, particularly his native Austria’s relationship with it. It is set on a single day at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, where academic Atzbacher first recalls conversations with 82-year-old Times music writer Reger, who has sat for several hours on the same bench before Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man almost every day for thirty years, and then discusses the death of Reger’s wife.

With an epigram from Kierkegaard (‘The punishment matches the guilt: to be deprived of all appetite for life, to be brought to the highest degree if weariness of life’), Old Masters is deeply misanthropic but it is far from humourless. Subtitled ‘A Comedy’, it stands out within Penguin’s Central European Classics series, being the only one from a nation that never came under Soviet control: Bernhard targets the Habsburg Empire’s deeply conservative heritage, and the ‘Catholic National Socialist’ education system that upholds it, part of a line barely broken by the Anschluß, the collapse of the Third Reich and the establishment of the neutral Second Austrian Republic.

Vienna prides itself on its nineteenth century music, art and writing, and the values embodied within them. Reger systematically demolishes these, firstly by asserting that ‘perfect art is intolerable’ as it renders any further creativity stagnant – thus it is necessary to find faults with the most exalted works (‘even Mozart’ whose compositions were famously frictionless). Aware that having been placed within the museum, these old masters have been divorced from their original contexts, Reger then considers the impurity of their commissions: ‘All these painters were nothing but utterly mendacious state artists pampering to the vanity of their clients, not even Rembrandt is an exception’.

Albrecht Dürer is described as ‘that dreadful proto-Nazi’ who ‘put nature on his canvas and killed it’: Reger’s recollections are full of assaults on Germanic cultural icons. Bernhard’s novel is didactic, with many points italicised for emphasis and heavy repetition of key ideas. This is often humorous, with Reger’s loathing of art historians and curators serving as a comic motif, before page after page is devoted to Reger’s hatred of celebrated Austrian writer, poet and painter Adalbert Stifter, and then Heidegger, whom he despises even more. Then, Reger reveals that he is related to both, and his contempt for the pillars of Austrian culture and his self-loathing become inextricable.

‘Vienna is quite superficially famous for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories’ says Reger in one of Old Masters’ most noted, and notorious observations. Increasingly, Bernhard looks behind Austria’s grand appearances, and the cultural concerns of its intellectuals, gradually showing how the apparently joyless Reger has been affected by his wife’s death – he suggests that examining anything too closely will destroy it, telling the reader (and reviewer) to ‘beware of penetrating into a work of art’ for ‘you will ruin each and every one for yourself, even those you love most’.

Bernhard’s view of culture remains pessimistic throughout: Old Masters suggests the question of whether or not there is too much great art (Stendhal, writing 150 years earlier, noted that the succession of Renaissance works in the Louvre made him dizzy) or none, as everything is flawed, but ultimately decides that it does not need to be answered. The crux is that ‘great’ art fails us when we most need it: Shakespeare, Goethe and Michelangelo are too distant to alleviate our worst points of human despair, as Reger finds out when grieving for his wife, whose death he blames on the failings of the state which has devoted so much time and money to the preservation of its culture.

There is very little action in Old Masters, with virtually all of its revelations told rather than shown – Bernhard relies on the sheer force of Reger’s voice to keep his readers engaged. With its weariness about the ‘surfeit of art’, it feels akin to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, where Antoine Roquentin feels overwhelmed in part by the prevalence of physical objects, and Elias Canetti’s Auto da fé, in which Peter Kien, a philologist and private library owner who is destroyed after marrying his ignorant housekeeper, who tricks him out of his home.

It is strange, however, that amidst Reger’s disdain for Austria’s cultural tradition, the Modernists are completely absent: Robert Musil and Franz Kafka, the German Expressionist painters and playwrights, the Dadaists and the Vienna Actionists, all reacting strongly against the staid heritage that Reger loathes, never feature in his consciousness as an alternative. This is despite his nod to Walter Benjamin, that astute critic of the modern period, noting that mechanical reproduction has allowed mankind to put music everywhere, diluting its power as an emotive force.

Thomas Bernhard died four years after the publication of Old Masters. In his will, he forbade any further publication or performance of his works in Austria, a decision that troubled the nation’s intelligentsia more than the scathing attacks on its culture here and in Extinction, his final novel. It is no surprise that Bernhard’s novels were more popular outside his homeland than within it, given the vigour with which they targeted its key institutions and individuals, but by implication, Old Masters powerfully unmasks the proud cultural heritage of any Western European nation that became involved in the atrocities of the twentieth century.

12 July 2011

Ota Pavel - How I Came to Know Fish

How I Came to Know Fish recalls some of the happiest times in the sad life of Ota Pavel – and his family. Born Otto Popper in Prague in 1930, Pavel grew up in Buštěhrad, remaining with his mother during the war after his Jewish father Leo and older brothers were transported to Terezin concentration camp, which they survived. On returning, his travelling salesman father Leo changed the family name to Pavel; Otto (who adopted the Czech forename Ota) became a sports journalist.

Covering the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Pavel had a bipolar episode, triggered by an argument with a member of Czechoslovakia’s ice hockey team who told Pavel, after he had said that third place was a respectable finish, “Jew, go and get gassed!” After Pavel absconded, torched a barn and then rescued the animals, the Austrian authorities detained him in a psychiatric ward. He was hospitalised sixteen times with mental health problems: How I Came to Know Fish, Pavel’s final book, was written in an asylum and published shortly before his death in 1974.

How I Came to Know Fish
is a short collection of autobiographical stories, arranged chronologically, largely concerning Leo Popper’s attempts to provide for his family before, during and after the Nazi occupation. ’Papa’ only gradually emerges as the central character: the first story, ‘Concerts’, describes with childlike wonder ‘Uncle’ Karel Prosek, who taught Pavel and his brothers to fish, as he had their father. Here, Pavel fleetingly refers to Czechoslovakia’s imperial past: as Prosek caught eels for a Dual Monarchy Count, he could fish anywhere – until the Empire’s collapse (recounted without bias, as the aristocrat simply ‘disappeared behind four foreign rivers’) meant that, like the other fishermen, Prosek may only fish with a rod.

‘My First Fish’ follows Ota’s attempts to win his uncle’s respect by making a catch. Prosek’s response, which checks rather than fuels Ota’s self-belief, provides a typically bittersweet conclusion: every moment of happiness or success is directly related to corresponding sadness or failure. These ups and downs always involve those closely related to the author, whose uncomplicated, ironic prose leads the reader almost unnoticed into winding emotional journeys.

One of the few pieces to end optimistically, ‘The Most Expensive Fish in Central Europe’ weaves a tale of revenge with the utmost subtlety. Characteristically, Papa looks to turn a hobby into a business opportunity, planning to buy a pond to breed carp for sale. The skill with which Pavel details his father’s dream, and how it affects his parents’ relationship before and after Papa realises that he has been conned, allows him to convince the reader that, in his father’s counter-fraud, two wrongs sometimes make a beautiful right.

Many of Pavel’s recollections are brief fragments, describing memorable instants that took a little more of his youthful innocence. At twenty-four pages, ‘In the Service of Sweden’ is one of the longest pieces, but is still written with absolute economy. With sceptical humour, Pavel charts Papa’s rise from unruly schoolboy to the most successful vacuum cleaner salesman in Europe, a career then complicated by Papa’s crush on the company manager’s wife. Papa’s struggle with director František Koralek appears weighted against the salesman, until he befriends a respected artist, Nechleba. Pavel’s nose-thumbing at social structures, and those powerful within them, always sits within a personal context: even as a child, Ota realises that the only reason why philistine Koralek wants to commission the artist is so that he can tell friends and subordinates that ‘Nechleba is painting my wife!’

Nechleba’s eccentricities bring the tale to a head, before Pavel closes with three short, cold sentences, further changing the story’s meaning by detailing the later Nazi attack on Nechleba’s work. The following stories cover the annexation: ‘Carp for the Wehrmacht’ explains its effect on the family’s fishing, as the Germans confiscate Papa’s pond and then send Ota’s brothers to Terezin. Bearing the Star of David, Papa takes his remaining child to help him steal his own fish, an act of heroism starkly contrasting with the faux bravery throughout Josef Škvorecký’s Cowards.

‘They Can Even Kill You’ offers a youthful perspective on the difficulties in knowing who to trust during the occupation. Pavel becomes terrified that František Zaruba, ‘the first Fish Warden I had ever known’, will denounce him if he continues fishing, especially when Zaruba calls him a ‘shitty Jew’. Again, the conclusion is unexpected, sudden and forceful.

The final story, ‘Rabbits with Wise Eyes’, is the saddest, developing the often intimate relationship between Pavel’s family and nature in the absence of genuinely trustworthy human beings, even in peacetime (the post-war Communist authorities never feature). Papa, having retired early and struggling financially, starts breeding rabbits, investing hope and love in them, whilst the author sees only detachment in their eyes. Papa prepares them for show, only for the judges to dismiss him: Papa’s furious response and abandoning of the rabbits who try desperately to stay with him, his favourite following him the furthest, is heartbreaking; Papa’s subsequent reconciliation with his long-suffering wife provides a moment of optimism, then brutally crushed.

Papa’s anger here at perceived anti-Semitism becomes even more resonant when reading the Epilogue, where Pavel describes his experiences with the Austrian police. With typical humanity, Pavel discloses that, emotionally, his experiences proved harder for his loved ones than for him, before explaining that his treatment – being removed from society and assailed by doctors with pills – only exacerbated his madness.

Refusing to say that he ‘suffered like an animal’, he felt moved to document his beautiful experiences with creatures and their surroundings, yearning for the freedom from human existence they appeared to enjoy. The resultant book is thoroughly tragic, but always light and funny, and for all Pavel’s suffering, never self-pitying or forgetting its belief in the human spirit.

10 July 2011

Sławomir Mrożek - The Elephant

Best known for his Absurdist dramas, Sławomir Mrożek remains one of post-war Poland’s most celebrated writers. Beginning his career as a political journalist, Mrożek published his third volume of short stories, The Elephant in 1957, just as new Communist Party leader Władysław Gomulka was liberalising Poland after succeeding the Stalinist Bolesław Bierut.

The Elephant was a domestic bestseller as Polish culture flowered during Gomulka’s ‘thaw’. Andrzej Wajda’s films and Stanisław Lem’s metaphysical science fiction gained Western recognition, but alongside the works of Witołd Gombrowicz, finally allowed publication in Poland by the government, Mrożek’s internationally acclaimed stories (translated into English by Konrad Syrop, who headed the BBC’s wartime Polish Service) contributed most to a sense that Gomulka would grant Poland’s artists more freedom – within limits.

Although it would be a mistake to read all of these stories through the lens of high politics, as they often mock wider human foibles, Mrożek often deploys his acerbic humour against Poland’s ruling United Workers Party (of which he was a member). Sympathetic to socialism, Mrożek satirises the regime’s officiousness and joylessness, particularly its use of language, more than its central ideology. His stories feel close in spirit to those Russians who attacked Stalinism in oblique, even surreal terms – Mikhail Bulgakov, Daniil Kharms and Vladimir Mayakovsky – but the social conventions it targets are visibly Polish.

The miniatures in The Elephant subvert the didactic stories favoured by the government’s cultural policy. In, ‘The Trial’, Mrożek envisions a world where authors are regimented by genre and given a uniform, defeating ‘the obscurity and ambiguity of art … once and for all’. The narrative is absurd: a single writer who cannot be categorised throws the system into crisis, triggered by a rogue ladybird which covers his insignia, changing its meaning. Daniel Mroz’s foreboding pencil drawing (one of many that illustrate the collection, similar in feel to Josef Lada’s for Švejk) anticipates the serious conclusion – that no writer dare represent another for fear of being implicated in some imagined crime.

The title story, written in typically unfussy prose, mocks those who attempt to please the Party for personal gain. The individualist zookeeper, on hearing that the ‘gaps’ in his menagerie are ‘being filled in a well-planned manner’, suggests that their long-awaited elephant be a rubber inflatable, in order to save money for the workers. Inevitably, his economy proves false, and the people’s losses are spiritual as well as financial: as adults, the children who witnessed the debacle have become alcoholic criminals, and worse, ‘they no longer believe in elephants’.

Mrożek frequently uses young people as outsiders whose innocence and idealism are punctured by governmental paranoia. In ‘Children’, the regime’s complaints that the youths’ innocuous snowman has been designed to mock individuals and institutions cause so much resentment that they build another one that deliberately does just that: the state creates subversion, and subversives, where they did not exist before.

‘The Giraffe’ also uses an animal as a symbol, but as in ‘The Elephant’, its non-appearance is crucial. Young Joe wants to know what this creature looks like: he asks one uncle, whose implausible description is delivered with considerable aggression, and he turns to his other uncle, a newspaper editor, for a better answer. But as no giraffe is mentioned in Anti-Dühring, Notes for Lecturers ‘or even Das Kapital’, Joe’s uncle cannot acknowledge their existence – the transition from Stalinism to more liberal socialism means that rather than lie to its subjects, the state dispensers of information apologetically refuse to admit the existence of anything that does not fit their ideology.

Mrożek’s Catholic education led him to sign an open letter to the Polish authorities in 1953 in support of three priests condemned to death (but never executed) on groundless treason charges, and several of these stories address religious themes. ‘Siesta’ draws most heavily on Mrożek’s complicated relationships with Christianity and socialism, exploring the awkward compromises that a Marxist priest has made with the regime, sacrificing his ideals for the sake of an imagined future.

‘Modern Life’ is the most focused attack on Party language. The bold opening statement, ‘Being a loyal citizen I have decided to spend one whole day entirely in the spirit and letter of official exhortations’, is testament both to Mrożek’s hatred of the regime’s colourless communication and Gomulka’s willingness to tolerate criticism. In just two pages, the tone jumps from flippant to deathly serious – a technique that Mrożek employs repeatedly, to startling effect. However, the regime’s inability to cope with spontaneity is best exposed in ‘The Monument’, where the people’s desire to honour the Unknown Fighter from the failed Russian revolution of 1905 without any State directive terrifies a Party official.

Sometimes, Mrożek rejects the very idea of didacticism, quietly building stories to the point of a moral conclusion which he then refuses. ‘From the Darkness’ depicts a village governed by superstition and ignorance, where creativity leads people to dreadful ends. But the mounting horror climaxes only with a pig staring at the narrator: perhaps an allusion to Orwell’s Animal Farm, but all the narrator concedes is that ‘Things are different here’ – the atmosphere is most important. ‘My Uncle’s Stories’ peaks with an argument between the narrator and his missionary cousin Bernard: the subtext-heavy line that triggers the conflict betraying Mrożek’s dramatic leanings. At its end, the narrator admits that he has no idea what became of Bernard, lamenting that ‘The uncertainty is killing me’.

The final story, ‘The Chronicle of a Besieged City’, ends pessimistically, reminding the reader that for all Mrożek’s wit, the co-option of communism by an aggressive and humourless state is not a laughing matter. This wryness makes Mrożek’s volume stand out amongst those works that charted the Eastern bloc’s transition from post-Dual Monarchy conservatism to oppressive state socialism. Above all, The Elephant captures that fascinating year of 1956, when Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ and Gomulka’s thaw gave hope to the other countries still under Stalinist rule: hope that was brutally crushed in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising that October.

8 July 2011

Josef Škvorecký - The Cowards

Set in a time of social chaos but published in an age of political orthodoxy, Czechoslovakia’s Communist government immediately banned Josef Škvorecký’s debut novel The Cowards on its publication in 1958. The book, having been written in 1948-1949, was eventually reissued with a preface, in which Škvorecký felt obliged to clarify the meaning of his politically charged coming of age story, telling his audience that central character Danny and his friends ‘do not insult the revolution, but mock the bourgeoisie play at making one’.

After epigraphs from Romain Rolland, Hemingway and jazz musician Milton ‘Mezz’ Mezzrow, The Cowards opens with the line, ‘Well, it looks like the revolution’s been postponed for a while’, immediately below a portentous date: Friday 4 May 1945. The book is set over the following week, each day given a chapter in which young Danny’s thoughts, desires and actions amidst the chaotic collapse of the German occupation of Prague are explored in considerable detail, without compromising the novel’s fundamental ambiguity.

Despite the surrounding chaos, however, teenager Danny’s main concerns are sex and music: his thinking about who will fill the power gap is coloured by his frustration that the opportunistic ‘heroism’ of those around him (particularly those worried about how they will be judged once the old order re-asserts itself) stops his jazz band rehearsing or performing. Because of this, the band is hardly mentioned after the opening pages – where it is established that trumpeter Benno has just escaped a concentration camp, and the discussion focuses on the factory workers’ self-interested riot that followed the Reich’s demise.

This sets the tone for an irreverent novel, in which Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, about a man who muddles through the First World War by playing the fool, is explicitly referenced twice: once by Benno, and once by a sergeant on guard against spoiling tactics. The characters are definitely anti-German, but unsure of whom to be for: Danny’s love of jazz informs his affinity for the Americans, but he never expects them to retain power in Czechoslovakia, and during the novel’s timeframe, is more concerned that the Germans may not leave than about the Russians seizing power.

The Germans’ reluctance to leave provides much of the novel’s rising tension, particularly as the maverick acts of ‘bravery’ continually threaten to destroy their carefully stage-managed exit strategy. One person’s crazed charge at the German Army, pulling back on the frontier, sparks a potential uprising, ultimately frustrated: Škvorecký holds the interest by constantly postponing their departure, and by demonstrating the complicated ethics that their continued presence necessitates. It emerges that Sabata saved Vahar’s father from the camp by drinking with the Gestapo; the reader is left to imagine what compromises this ‘heroism’ entailed.

The moral dilemmas within The Cowards are more complicated than the Soviets desired. Feelings frequently overshadow ideology, with many of Danny’s acts performed to impress Irena, who does not return his love. Danny remains convinced that he would rather live than die for his country, or communism, and he strongly suspects the motives of anyone saying otherwise. His feelings for Irena are circumstantial – Danny loves her ‘because there wasn’t anyone better’ – but he comes to hate her boyfriend, Zdenek, more than any army in Czechoslovakia, and when he joins the fight, it is because he is conscripted on an absurd technicality, and disarmed without seeing conflict.

Danny has no real way of knowing who is guilty – that is, whose actions can be excused given the circumstances and who willingly collaborated. However, he feels bad that others suffered more than him during the war, which provides the other motive for his futile acts of heroism. In one of Škvorecký’s strongest scenes, Danny, ‘acting like a movie hero’ (in what often feels like a highly cinematic novel) fires at a German tank, knowing that doing so presents little real danger. Immediately, Benno reproaches him for his stupidity, and Danny’s response is to consider how much more this would have impressed Irena. Eventually, the Soviets close the ‘farce’ (Danny notes that ‘this was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘comrade’ used seriously’, which cannot have impressed the censors) and impose their order onto Prague, but Danny’s final concerns remain his romantic frustrations and the possibility that his band will never play together again.

The Cowards is a realist, if not Socialist Realist novel, with Škvorecký’s dissection of the end of the war contrasting markedly with Karel Čapek’s formal exuberance in tracing its origins in War with the Newts. Deeply humanist, it prioritises emotion above stylistic innovation: at times, Škvorecký’s prose feels akin to Salinger’s in The Catcher in the Rye, if Holden Caulfield had something serious to worry about. An important moment in the line of Czech culture that ran from Švejk and Čapek to Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains and the flowering of Czech cinema in the Sixties, The Cowards remains a brilliantly detailed explication of the moral complexities of the war’s end, and its suppression a stark reminder of the circumstances that generated the Prague Spring, ten years after its publication.

7 July 2011

Emil Cioran - A Short History of Decay

A Short History of Decay is a book that could only have been written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Written in French and first published by Gallimard in 1949, its core message is ‘believe in nothing’ – philosopher Emil Cioran’s response to the ideologically motivated destruction wrought across Europe.

Born in Romania in 1911, Cioran studied at the University of Bucharest. There, he became an advocate of Trăirism, which merged existentialism with tenets of Fascist ideology. Spending time in Berlin between 1933 and 1936, he supported Hitler and advocated both The Night of the Long Knives and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, aligning himself with Romania’s Christian right-wing Iron Guard organisation. Moving to Paris in 1937, he disavowed the Iron Guard when it became implicated in the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. Shortly after Cioran’s final visit to Romania in 1941, the Guard attempted a coup, swiftly defeated by Ion Antonescu, who was then toppled three years later.

Cioran remained in Paris as his homeland became Communist. Paris was a popular refuge for Romanian intellectuals: Lettrist poet Isidore Isou, Surrealist fellow traveller and dramatist Eugène Ionesco, a close friend of Cioran’s from their studies in Bucharest, all settled there. Cioran also befriended Samuel Beckett, an alliance which ended as Beckett considered him too pessimistic.

First translated into English in 1976 by poet Richard Howard (subsequently awarded the PEN Translation Prize), A Short History of Decay contains barely a note of optimism. A scan of the telegrammatic contents that introduce the first essay, ‘Directions for Decomposition’, promises such reflections as ‘Magnificent Futility’ and ‘The Obselete Universe’. At times, it reads as if Nietzsche had been walked through the ruins of Berlin and told that his ideas were indirectly responsible. Although Cioran’s writing stylistically resembles Nietzsche, composed of pithy aphorisms, he dismisses the German’s oeuvre as ‘nothing but a hymn to power’, rejecting both his main philosophical influence and, implicitly, his support for Romania’s religious right.

Retaining Nietzsche’s contempt for religious influence over human values, Cioran’s problem is not that God is dead – rather that He is dull. For Cioran, only the ‘naïve or the retarded’ do not contort the idea of God to suit their own needs. This manipulation has made Jesus Christ an ‘indirect dictator’, the symbol of one of many false Absolutes used throughout history to subjugate people. Cioran feels that the most regrettable aspect of Christian theology is the Resurrection: the concept that man can be redeemed through belief, he suggests, is one of the most dangerous ever circulated.

Vehemently opposed to the notion of progress, Cioran opens with an attempt to separate man from ideas. This feels disingenuous, as all ideas are man-made, and his initial suggestion that people without values cannot be corrupted falls with the knowledge that the leaders of the French Gestapo (for example) were not ideologues but thoroughly amoral individuals who were willing to uphold a criminal society that let them pursue their own interests unfettered.

Cioran refines this: if nobody subscribed to ‘false Absolutes’, then history’s worst atrocities would never have occurred. The biggest problem has been the development of ideas into doctrinaire works that inspire the oppressed to become oppressors. Four years before The Rebel, Cioran anticipates Camus’ famous ‘A slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown’ with ‘Truths begin by a conflict with the police and end by calling them in’.

Nietzsche wrote that each great philosopher had only one thing to say: Cioran’s world-view is encapsulated in his sentence ‘Give life a specific goal and it immediately loses its attraction’. Although the relentlessly pessimistic text is best consumed in short bursts, it contains plenty of humour, and the influences of Beckett and particularly Ionesco feel as important as the existentialists. Cioran suggests that the ‘history of decay’ has led European civilisation to the point of utter absurdity: the logical conclusion is an auto-da-fé of all Europe has conceived during the last two centuries of overly serious thought.

Praising the frivolous streak in French intellectual culture, running from Molière and Diderot to Jarry and the Dadaists, Cioran echoes Theodor Adorno in proclaiming the death of the Enlightenment. ‘In order to escape sterility,’ he writes, ‘we must wear Reason’s mourning’ – but for Cioran, the best release from the self-imposed pressure to find meaning and thus cope with continued existence is the idea of suicide, historically repressed by theological institutions, who asserted that it barred access to the afterlife , to uphold their power.

Ultimately, ‘society is not a disease, it is a disaster’, and the fact that people continue to live in it is a ‘stupid miracle’. Fixing the boundaries of social acceptability via the nebulous concept of ‘madness’, the best defence man has found against futility is the necktie – a symbol of humanity’s attempts to redeem itself in productivity. The ongoing ubiquity of the necktie ensures man’s enslavement: as Cioran notes, society has evolved so that any attempt at escaping work for others will end in starvation.

On aesthetics, Cioran likens the failure of philosophy to the inability of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé to create a work to change the face of art. Those influenced by Mallarmé, such as Paul Valéry and Stefan George, are ‘geniuses we have no need of’: their work, for all its inventiveness, is not insidious. For Cioran, poets such as Shelley, Baudelaire and Rilke are ‘agents of destruction’, their intimate writing changing his consciousness. Bleak as it sounds, the highest compliment I can pay A Short History of Decay is that several times during my reading, his poetic prose triggered nightmares: testament to the force of his transfiguration of the Hell of wartime Europe, in which Cioran provokes thought, but never prescribes it.

6 July 2011

Karel Čapek - War with the Newts

Best remembered for coining the word ‘robot’, Karel Čapek became one of Czechoslovakia’s most prominent intellectuals after the nation’s ascension from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918. Establishing himself with R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), co-written with brother Josef in 1920, Čapek filled the void left by Good Soldier Švejk writer Jaroslav Hašek’s untimely demise in 1923 – and, less appreciated then, Franz Kafka’s premature death a year later – with a series of works combining science fiction with sharp satire.

War with the Newts, published in 1936 and first issued in English the next year, was one of Čapek’s most imaginative and ambitious texts. Čapek posits the eponymous conflict, which begins only in the last four of its 26 chapters, as the product of colonialism, Enlightenment rationality and intellectual pseudo-science, racism and nationalism, and the ineffectiveness of self-regarding international diplomacy.

Formally, War with the Newts is restlessly inventive. The core of the book, a long chapter called ‘Along the Steps of Civilisation’ which charts the newts’ rise from submarine life to an intelligent species, constructs its narrative through skilful parodies of newspaper articles, minutes from meetings and scientific reports, using appropriate typography to lend realism to Čapek’s deft pseudo-historiography.

There is no clear protagonist, with the increasingly homogenous mass of newts constituting a key character, but all the people who unwittingly facilitate their rise to global domination are Czech. In an opening that recalls Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Captain van Toch – Čapek’s finest comic character – discovers the newts near Sumatra. Convinced that they will respect his moral code, he persuades industrialist G. H. Bondy to use them in pearl farming. This leads to the formation of the Salamander Syndicate to regulate newt trade, then to their rebellion: something for which porter Mr Povondra repeatedly credits and then blames himself, simply because he let van Toch into Bondy’s office.

The narration is detached throughout, with Hašek’s influence seen in the way Čapek uses humour to keep readers onside when the story seems slow or rambling. One highlight of Švejk is a chapter in which Hašek’s soldier mistakenly marches in a giant circle, seventy of the funniest pages in modern literature: two scenes here in which ditzy Hollywood actress Li outlines her idea for a film with the newts, including a whole page of her friend Mr Abe’s successive thoughts in parenthesis, feel close to Hašek in spirit, their exuberant comedy of retaining trust in the author as he deviates from the crucial socio-economic developments.

The most memorable aside is ‘Of the Sexual Life of the Newts’, the Appendix to Book One. Anticipating the trivial yet inevitable question of how the newts reproduce, Čapek references Utopian writers, naming H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley amongst the ‘relevant literature’ on the subject. Structurally, War with the Newts resembles Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World as Čapek calmly explicates the social changes in mock-scientific terms before the underlying terror explodes in its final third.

The novel contains numerous stabs at the media, whose desperation for stories lubricates the disastrous newt integration into human labour, before their conviction that the public is bored with the lizards leads journalists to ignore them just as they turn from curiosity to threat. When the press does address their ascent, it focuses on the wrong things, using the Newt Communist Manifesto to spread fear despite the newts themselves utterly disregarding it.

There are plenty of barbs at inter-war culture too: ‘Along the Steps of Civilisation’ presents a number of quotes from famous figures about the newts’ spiritual life. Čapek’s mock George Bernard Shaw is amongst his more brutal strikes: ‘They certainly haven’t got a soul. In this they agree with man.’

Čapek does not just mock intellectuals, but Mae West’s flippant ‘They have no sex-appeal. And therefore they have no soul’ feels far warmer than his parodies of prominent thinkers. In ‘Wolf Meynert Writes His Masterpiece’, detailing a philosopher’s joy in the collapse of modern civilisation, Čapek shows no mercy for writers such as Oswald Spengler who delighted in The Decline of the West. Avant-garde artists who proclaim the salamanders as the future and the anonymous reactionary whose pamphlet urges humanity to arm itself against them are placed side-by-side as the conflict deepens: by now, all Western culture appears irredeemably absurd.

Čapek satirises the onset of the First World War as much as the Second: the incidents that foreshadow the atrocities recall the Agadir crisis of 1911 as much as the rise of Nazism. As old values become ever more impotent to address the new political reality, Čapek pictures a world that has refused to learn from its mistakes and faces a terrible future. Through Mr Povondra’s complacent reflections, Čapek saves his final attack for the Czech people, specifically their belief that Czechoslovakia’s neutrality will save them from any war.

Finally, the narrator talks to himself, refusing to spare humanity the consequences of underestimating the newt threat. The novel ends on a deeply uncertain tone – more poignant with the knowledge that Čapek died in December 1938, just after the Munich Agreement allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland. His brother Josef survived him, arrested as the Germans completed their conquest of Czechoslovakia and dying in the Bergen-Belsen camp in April 1945.

A fascinating and often furiously funny historical document, the novel feels strangely prescient in the light of 9/11, as Čapek notes that the newts’ lack of a state or recognised government makes it difficult for international diplomacy to attack them. The Chief Salamander’s chilling despatches that outline his demands only emphasise this resonance. Sadly, we can only speculate about what Karel Čapek might have seen in post-war Czechoslovakia, but War with the Newts remains a vibrant example of the range of his vision.

5 July 2011

Gyula Krudy - Life is a Dream

Originally published in 1931, and newly translated into English by John Batki, Life is a Dream collects ten short stories written by Gyula Krúdy in Hungary during the Twenties. The earliest in Penguin’s Central European Classics series, Krúdy’s warm, humanistic miniatures chronicle the attempts of peasants, proletarians and the petit bourgeois to escape poverty in the deeply militaristic society that succeeded the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The chaotic politics of inter-war Hungary seldom enter Krúdy’s world. The Empire, which collapsed after Austria-Hungary’s Great War defeat in 1918, is mentioned just once, whilst Béla Kun’s short-lived Soviet Republic and its displacement by Admiral Miklós Horthy’s authoritarian regime a year later never feature. These pieces often seem nostalgic for a simpler, calmer age, but his satires of Hungarian class conventions deftly appeal for a more democratic future.

In form, Krúdy’s stories are simple: neither German Expressionism nor Russian Futurism, the main Modernist movements in the nations surrounding Hungary, clearly influence his prose. Stylistically, he leans towards magic realism, with the sublime found in local taverns – specifically in their food and drink, and the manners in which they are served.

The opening story, Last Cigar at the Grey Arabian, did not feature in the first edition, added to the volume when it was reissued in 1957. Last Cigar and its companion piece, The Journalist and Death, tell two sides of a story in which a Colonel arrives incognito at a tavern to spy on a journalist who has insulted him in print, ahead of a duel which he feels certain to win. It immediately betrays Krúdy’s obsession with food – how it is prepared and eaten, and how these rituals indicate social class – with the narrator quietly mocking the Colonel’s anticipation that his journalist will be so impoverished that he eats ‘his evening meal of crackling with his fingers, from a paper bag, the salt kept in a vest pocket’.

Last Cigar efficiently establishes Krúdy’s distinctive narrative voice, maintained consistently throughout Life is a Dream. He quickly sets his audience against the Colonel, explicitly undercutting his ham-fisted attempts to infiltrate civilian space by mocking the military man’s ignorance of local conventions. But Krúdy skilfully prevents strong identification with the barman, János, making it clear that János is ‘not a writer of short stories who anticipates the thoughts inside a Colonel’s head’, inviting the adoption of the narrator’s world view rather than that of any of his characters.

Krúdy slowly builds tension until the Colonel, struggling to determine if the well-dressed young man at the bar is his target, draws an opulent Havana cigar. Then the resolution: fast and brutal. Then the story is told again, this time following the journalist, who, we are told, dreams of prizing Hungarian literature from aristocratic control. After Last Cigar, the reader already knows how the journalist’s duel with the Colonel finishes, Krúdy ensuring that we remained concerned with the democratic future of Magyar writing.

In The Waiter’s Nightmare, Krúdy shifts effortlessly between the hazy, often intoxicated reality of Budapest’s downtrodden and the somewhat banal dreams of a frustrated waiter. A patron who insists on eating every dish on the menu, absurdly telling the waiter that ‘a duck, even if it is a drake, should always be considered feminine … For only a woman can pitter and patter … in puddles as comfortably as a duck’, explicates another of Krúdy’s main concerns – the absurdity of post-Empire gender roles.

These are explored further in The Landlady, or the Bewitched Guests, which again uses food preparation to show how deeply conservative ideas of what work should be undertaken by men and women were embedded in Hungary. Aranka, the wife of the innkeeper, has internalised the aristocratic scorn for females and femininity, making an unexpected, and thoroughly reactionary, romantic choice as Krúdy effects a typically light-feeling yet deeply painful conclusion.

Krúdy’s posthumous critical revival in his homeland owed much to Sándor Márai’s Szindbad Comes Home, a fictionalised account of Krúdy’s final day, published in 1940. The Undead showcases Krúdy’s Szindbad cycle, which began with The Adventures of Szindbad, first published in 1911. It demonstrates Krúdy’s preoccupation with death, presenting it mainly as a ruse to escape the trials of life. As with many of Krúdy’s stories, such as the Romantic-feeling Apostle of Heavenly Scents, the final twist is heavily ironic, wittily exploiting the prior uncertainty around whether or not Szindbad been conscious through the ordeals inflicted upon his body.

Betty, Nursemaid of the Editorial Office feels the most nostalgic story in the collection. Once more, Krúdy uses a bohemian author as his protagonist, whose reverence for Hungary’s revolutionary national poet Sándor Petőfi is made clear. Writer and editor Sortiment’s philosophy, apparently formed in the taverns (where else?) is that ‘only what we eat is truly ours’. The stark, sudden end he meets prepares us for The Green Ace, a novella which pitches teetotallers against revellers, a conflict launched by the suicides of two down-and-outs.

Here in particular, Krúdy’s women sensitively transcend the virgin/whore binary: indeed, it is men in Krúdy’s world who appear dualistic, broadly divided into fighters and drinkers. In The Green Ace, the women are bored with the men, finding amusement primarily in subverting their stereotypes and stretching their social boundaries.

The brief concluding stories, One Glass of Borovichka and Its Consequences and The Ejected Patron reaffirm that Krúdy is firmly on the side of the drunken, studying how alcohol complicates everyday relationships with unmasked affection. The Ejected Patron closes with a delightfully non-judgemental moment of optimism, as Mr Draggle gets to live the high life without being held to account. Here, as throughout, there is such joy in every anti-authoritarian gesture, no matter how small, or bitter-sweet its consequences, that Krúdy’s demand for sympathy with the donwtrodden becomes impossible to resist: the most ordinary lives become otherworldly dreams.