‘The Tongue Set Free’ by Elias Canetti

canetti_tongue-fcx-700pxThe Tongue Set Free was originally published as Die gerettete Zumge: Geschichte einer Jugend in 1977 and translated into English in 1979 by Joachim Neugroschel. It is the first of three autobiographical works by Canetti, the second being Die Fackel im Ohr published in 1980 (tr. in 1982 as The Torch in My Ear) and the third was Das Augenspiel published in 1985 (tr. in 1990 as The Play of the Eyes). I read all three books back in the early 1990s and can’t remember much about them except for young Elias talking to imaginary characters in the wallpaper (see below) in the first volume. I remember preferring The Tongue Set Free over the other volumes and in fact I sold my copies of the other volumes, keeping only this volume for a later read.

Canetti was born in Ruschuk, Bulgaria (now known as Ruse) in 1905 into a Jewish merchant family descended from Sephardim expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century. The Tongue Set Free begins in 1905 with Canetti’s earliest memory.

My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: “Show me your tongue.” I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: “Not today, tomorrow.” He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket.

It turns out that the man is the maid’s lover and was trying to prevent the young Elias from blabbing their secret to others. The first part of this book, which covers these years in Ruschuk, is my favourite as Canetti describes his family and the local inhabitants. Little Elias loves the stories that the servants tell him, especially fairy stories involving wolves, werewolves and vampires. This early period consists of his wonderment at visits from gypsies, watching a man chopping wood, the births of younger siblings and the family struggles and feuds that went on, especially between his two grandfathers who hated each other. Canetti’s parents loved each other dearly and had married in opposition to their parents’ wishes. Canetti was a polyglot but he explains that that was nothing unusual in this city as nearly everyone knew several languages.

People often talked about languages; seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid. Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s own life or the lives of other people.

Canetti tells of an incident whereby he attempts to murder an older girl, whom he had previously been besotted with, when she refuses to show him her schoolbooks which contain her writing from school—he’s five years old and he tries to kill her with an axe.

But both his parents find life in Ruschuk stifling; his mother wants to live somewhere more exciting and his father needs to escape the influence of his own father. Both have artistic interests, especially in the theatre, and they find their family’s indifference to anything other than business insufferable. And so they head to Manchester, England where Canetti’s father takes on a job in a relation’s firm. Life in England opens up a whole world of books for Elias as his father brings home book after book in English for little Elias to read. But it is rather solitary for young Elias and he is left alone for too long in the nursery.

At home in the nursery, I usually played alone. Actually, I seldom played, I spoke to the wallpaper. The many dark circles in the pattern of the wallpaper seemed like people to me. I made up stories in which they appeared, either I told them the stories or they played with me, I never got tired of the wallpaper people and I could talk to them for hours.

But he is caught talking to the wallpaper people and he has to be weaned away from these ‘unhealthy tendencies’. As the book progresses Canetti’s tendency to become obsessed over certain things arises again and again, but it is also an example of his natural ability to make up characters and to tell stories. After this incident he settles for telling stories to his younger siblings.

Tragedy strikes as his father suddenly dies. Elias had loved his father but had been rather indifferent to his mother. From now on as they move from Manchester to Vienna and then to Zurich a bond forms between Elias and his mother but it’s a relationship that is different from the loving relationship with his father. He becomes protective of his mother and jealous as well, especially when she attracts suitors such as a Viennese professor who repeatedly takes Elias’s mother out to the theatre. Elias is only happy when they finally escape from this danger by moving to Zurich. But in Zurich the Canettis have to get used to what they see as a more puritanical lifestyle, though Elias secretly prefers it to Vienna. Elias also has his first encounter with anti-Semitism at school. During this period the family begins to break apart as Elias’s mother moves to Arosa, whilst his brothers live in Lausanne; Elias stays in Zurich and continues his education. Much of the last section of the book is about his studies and his teachers, at times this part gets a little dull but Canetti doesn’t dwell on any specific too long before moving on.

The book ends in 1921 with Elias having to reluctantly leave Zurich, which he has grown to love when he’s summoned by his mother to join her in Germany. In the last chapter Canetti’s mother really lays into her son for being content and complacent living in Zurich and warns him that he’s rotting away there. She ridicules just about everything he has grown to love, these are very often things, such as an interest in the theatre and books, that she had earlier urged him to pursue. The war has changed her.

The only perfectly happy years, the paradise in Zurich, were over.

Canetti would return to live in Zurich for the last twenty years of his life.

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‘Malina’ by Ingeborg Bachmann

bachmann_malina-fcx-700pxI first read Ingeborg Bachmann for GLMIII with her short-story collection, Three Paths to the Lake, which contained a good mix of stories and was an interesting read. Since then I had been meaning to read some more, especially her only novel, Malina. Malina was published in 1971, two years before her death, and is a modernistic, experimental novel which is often compared to the novels of Virgina Woolf and Samuel Beckett et. al. The techniques adopted with this novel consists of stream-of-consciousness, letters, dialogue, fables and music; and although these techniques were not in themselves overwhelming, I have to say that I didn’t really like this book and it has been a hard slog to get to the end. Please be aware that I will reveal details from the novel that you may wish to remain ignorant of if you are intending to read the book yourself.

The book had really appealed to me; from short descriptions and others’ reviews on GoodReads etc. it looked like it would be a great, if intense, read. Just take a look at the blurb on the back of the book:

Malina is a work of sharp, unforgettable images and an irresistible narrative. Here is the story of lives painfully intertwined: the unnamed narrator, haunted by nightmarish memories of her father, lives with the androgynous Malina, an initially remote and dispassionate man who ultimately becomes an ominous influence. Plunging toward its riveting finale, Malina brutally lays bare the struggle for love and the limits of discourse between men and women.

So, ok, it’s the job of the blurb-writer to make the book sound interesting but I find it amusing reading this having read the book as I barely recognise the book from the blurb. So, it is true that the story is told from the point of view of the female, unnamed writer, and this is often fragmentary and opaque. We are drip-fed bits of information but at such a slow rate that it soon becomes extremely frustrating to read. The narrator shares an apartment in Vienna with the somewhat nebulous Malina and appears to have a relationship with the Hungarian man, Ivan. It transpires that Malina and the narrator have known each other since they were young but it is unclear whether they are lovers, brother and sister or just roommates. Malina is a steadying force on the narrator as he offers advice and generally helps out around the flat. In the second part of the novel, in which the narrator describes her harrowing experiences of her father via her nightmares, Malina acts as a confidant, watching over her as she sleeps and he is there as a friend when she wakes. The relationship between Malina and the narrator is alluded to in the text quite early on:

There are people who think that Malina and I are married. We never considered that we might be married, that such a possibility could exist, nor even the idea that other people might think that we were married. For the longest time it never crossed our minds that, like other people, we appear as man and wife wherever we go. This was a complete surprise for us, but we had no idea what to make of it. We laughed a lot.

This is helpful but it still doesn’t clarify their relationship. By the third part of the novel Malina takes on a more active role and by the end of the novel it seems that he is in fact a manifestation of a part of the narrator; as the narrator descends into madness and disappears into a crack in the wall it is only Malina that’s left in the flat. Early on in the novel the narrator had cryptically stated the following:

Ivan and I: the world converging.
Malina and I, since we are one: the world diverging.

The narrator has a relationship with Ivan, who is divorced and has two children, Béla and András, they meet at the flat for coffee and cigarettes and they are constantly on the phone to each other when separated. As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that, although Ivan visits the narrator’s flat, he never has any interactions with Malina and this is made clear at the end of the novel when Malina answers the phone to Ivan who is unaware of Malina’s existence. Where Malina is a shadowy character, Ivan is tangible if a little dull. The telephone conversations between the narrator and Ivan are often inconsequential such as this one.

How was it? Very interesting.
Oh right, so-so, and you
Nothing much, it was interesting
You be sure and go to bed early
You’re the one who’s yawning, you should go to sleep
I’m not going to, I don’t know yet
No, but tomorrow I have to
Do you really have to tomorrow?

Ivan mildly reprimands the narrator for dwelling on the darker aspects of life and at times Ivan’s positive mood affects the narrator, such as when driving through Vienna or when they go on outings with Ivan’s children. But by the end it is the narrator’s negative moods that affects Ivan’s rather than the other way round. In the third part of the book Ivan and the narrator have the following incredibly vague conversation whilst lying on the bed.

Ivan begins: I have to talk to you. Do you remember? I once said there are some things I won’t tell you. But if I…what would you, if I?
If you? I ask. It can hardly be heard.
And if you? I repeat.
Ivan says: I think I have to tell it to you now.
I don’t ask: What do you have to tell me? Because otherwise he might go on talking. But even if I stay silent a little longer he might ask: What would you…

And nothing is asked; nothing is resolved. Which is what makes this novel very frustrating at times, but it is probably what happens in reality more often than not. By the end of the novel it is Malina who appears to be more tangible and Ivan who is a more shadowy character. It is with Malina that the narrator can have meaningful conversations but it is with Ivan that she can have fun.

As previously mentioned I found this incredibly frustrating to read, especially the first part which consisted of 116 pages and contains a lot of pointless telephone conversations with Ivan, letters written to a Herr Schöntal and a fairy tale called The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran. Part Two was a lot more impressive as it consists of the narrator’s memories of her brutal, sadistic father. Her recollections of her father become increasingly surreal as her father becomes almost like a demonic being and he even subsumes other men’s personalities as well as the narrator’s mother’s physical appearance. I felt that this second part would have been a great short-story. The third part of the book follows on from the first but was generally better, especially the last few pages. But again I felt that the first and third parts would have worked better as a single short-story, especially if the first part had been heavily edited. But reading over these sections now whilst writing this review I am wondering if it is a book that would benefit greatly from a second-read. I think part of the problem was that it was quite different from the book that I was expecting it to be, and though I don’t think it will ever be one of my favourites I think it is probably better than I feel it is at this moment in time. In the Afterword Mark Anderson says that the book was originally criticised for being ‘overly fragmented’ or ‘subjective’ but has since become more appreciated. He also suggests that there is a lot more going on in the novel than I have mentioned, for example he says that it is ‘composed like a musical score’, that the characters reflect the structure of postwar Vienna, that sections allude to the Holocaust or Dante’s Hell etc. but such interpretations are beyond me. Have you read Malina?

I read Malina as part of German Literature Month VI.
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‘The String of Pearls’ by Joseph Roth

In the spring of the year 18——, the Shah-in-Shah, the great, exalted and holy monarch, the absolute ruler and overlord of all the lands of Persia, began to feel a sense of malaise of a kind he had never experienced before.

And so begins Joseph Roth’s novel, The String of Pearls. If it seems like the beginning of a fairy tale, or folk tale, then its original title, Die Geschichte von der 1002en Nacht (The Tale of the 1002nd Night) would probably support that. For me the beginning of this novel felt so much like a Maupassant story that I wondered how Roth was roth_string-of-pearls-fcx-700pxgoing to spin it out for the whole length of a novel. But Roth is playing a different game here; what it is I’m not quite sure, but he’s certainly playing around with our expectations of how the story is going to proceed.

So, the story begins around 1870-ish, with the Shah of Persia deciding to visit Vienna as a means to improve his physical and psychological health. After some amusing delays (you will have to read it to discover these) he arrives in Vienna and is treated with respect by the authorities and great interest by the populace. We are introduced to Baron Taittinger, Captain of the Ninth Dragoons, who has been seconded to assist with the running of the Shah’s visit. The Baron is a bit of a loveable idiot who likes to split human beings into three categories: ‘charmers’, ‘so-so’s’ and ‘bores’; there are too many bores around for the Baron’s liking. Meanwhile the Shah is treated to all sorts of entertainments, and it is whilst attending a ball that he is smitten by the Countess W. Bored with his harem of 365 wives he wants to fall in love with a Western woman.

He had come to Europe to enjoy the singular, to forget the plural, to trespass on individual property, to break the law, just once, to experience the pleasure of unlawful possession and taste the particular, sophisticated pleasures of the European, the Christian, the Westerner.

Used to geting what he wants the Shah demands that the countess is brought to him that evening. So what can the Austrian courtiers do? The Countess can’t be treated like a common prostitute and the Shah will feel snubbed if they refuse him his wish. It turns out that the Baron, who had been involved briefly with the countess before her marriage, had also had a brief fling with a girl, Mizzi Schinagl, daughter of a shopkeeper, who looks as if she could be the twin sister of the countess; it’s decided that she should ‘stand-in’ for the countess and be presented to the Shah. Mizzi, who is currently working in a brothel, is persuaded to do this and everything goes to plan. As a gift, the Shah gives Mizzi a string of pearls.

It is here that the focus of the story becomes more fluid as we now follow Mizzi Schinagl and her relationship with the Baron and the brothel owner Frau Matzner. We have already been told how Mizzi had given birth to a son by the Baron; the Baron however had no interest in the boy and it was left to Mizzi to bring him up. Frau Matzner advises Mizzi to marry Xandl, her longstanding fiancé and to put money into the haberdashery that had been bought for her by the Baron. But Mizzi is in love with the Baron—her love for the Baron persists throughout the novel, despite the Baron’s apparent indifference. Mizzi sells the pearls and ends up losing the money and going to prison over a scam. The String of Pearls has an enormous number of characters for such a small book and it is from this point in the novel that it became a bit disorienting for me as I was no longer sure who was the main focus of the book; we switch from Mizzi to Matzner to the Baron to a writer called Lazik and back to the Baron. In the end the book is about the Baron’s and Mizzi’s relationship, but being rather an unconventional one, we are taken on a circuitous journey. Roth’s description of the Baron is rather entertaining:

He took the Captain as he was, and was fond of him, with his cheery heartlessness, his incapacity to think beyond a couple of thoughts, for which his skull was far too roomy, his insignificant love affairs and childish infatuations, and the pointless and unconnected remarks that came out of his mouth, seemingly at random. He was a mediocre officer, who didn’t care about his comrades, his men, his career.

The Baron is a bit of a blockhead who just breezes through life but as his money runs out and he is forced to resign from the army, due to a scandal over some dodgy literature, he has to depend on others. But it’s too late for any drastic changes to be made to his life. In telling this story Roth avoids giving us what we want, instead he veers away at the last minute from doing so. For example, near the end of the book it looks like the Baron realises that he loves, or at least cares for, Mizzi and contemplates making an honest woman of her…but then he doesn’t do anything about it; he appears to just forget about it. We expect the Baron to realise the errors of his way of life but he does no such thing, instead he misses the army life where he was happiest and tries to turn the clock back.

This crazy book is the kind of book that only begins to make a bit more sense once we’ve finished it. What seemed quite random at the time makes a bit more sense now that I’ve completed it. But it was a fun read full of strangely compelling characters and bizarre scenes. In his introduction the translator, Michael Hofmann, sums the book up brilliantly:

The String of Pearls is a strange book: frothy, highly decorated, full of money and costumes and ambience and light, a pitiless morality with the cruelty of fable. The novelist keeps skipping ahead of the reader, into ever more distressing and constricting settings and situations—but he never stops skipping. Its scenes and images live in the memory: in this short book there is enough for many books.

It’s certainly packed with a multitude of characters and memorable scenes that it will be difficult to forget. The novel comes full circle with another visit by the Shah but this time the Baron is in disgrace. The last paragraph contains a comment by a writer that could easily be Roth’s justification for writing the novel.

I might be capable of making figures that have heart, conscience, passion, emotion and decency. But there’s no call for that at all in the world. People are only interested in monsters and freaks, so I give them their monsters. Monsters are what they want!

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‘The Invisible Collection’ by Stefan Zweig

german-literature-month-viI am having trouble getting started with my reading for GLM VI, what with prior reading commitments, work and general weariness/laziness. But in order to get things going I thought I’d re-read a story by Stefan Zweig that I read earlier in the year and one which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was one of my favourites in the Pushkin Press collection, Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. It was originally published in 1925 as Die unsichtbare Sammlung. Please be warned though that this review contains spoilers. I also reviewed another short story from the collection called Mendel the Bibliophile.

The main story involves an antique dealer who tells the narrator the troubles he’s been having recently—the story was written in 1925 and is presumably during the period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. He mentions that in order to stimulate trade he’d fallen back on lists of old customers. He was just returning from one such customer, an octogenarian, whom his firm hadn’t heard Zweig-Collected-Storiesfrom since the outbreak of World War One even though he had been a regular customer for the previous fifty years or so. The antique dealer reckoned that it would be worth paying the gentleman a visit as either the old man or his heirs may be willing to sell some of his pieces. He discovers that the old man is still alive and as he has few visitors he is happy to talk to the antique dealer. Upon meeting the old man the dealer realises that he is now blind, which slightly unnerves him. The old man is not stupid and realises that the dealer is there to try to drum up business from his old customers but they nonetheless get on well together and the old man looks forward to showing the dealer his collection and talking to someone who knows the subject. But just when the old man calls for the key to his collection of artworks and engravings his wife attempts to put him off until after lunch when his daughter, Annemarie, can be present. The old man accepts grudgingly.

When the dealer has finished his lunch at the hotel he is visited by the daughter, Annemarie. She is flustered and explains that her father’s collection is not complete anymore as several items have been sold due to hard times. She tells the dealer how they attempted to get by without touching the collection but in the end they had to, without, of course, her father knowing. Every day he would ‘look’ through his collection not realising that most of it had been sold and replaced with cheap reprints. The daughter pleads with the dealer to play along and not to enlighten the old man.

“Maybe we have done him an injustice, but we couldn’t help it. One must live, and human lives, the lives of four orphaned children as well as my sister, are surely worth more than sheets of printed paper. To this day, what we did hasn’t taken any of his pleasure from him; he is happy to be able to leaf through his portfolios for three hours every afternoon, talking to every print as if it were a human being. And today…today would perhaps be the happiest day of his life; he’s been waiting years for a chance to show a connoisseur his darlings. Please…I beg and pray you, please don’t destroy his happiness!”

So of course the dealer agrees to keep the secret and returns with her to her parents’ apartment. The old man begins to lovingly show his Dürer prints and Rembrandt sketches to the dealer, gazing at them and touching them, caressing them as he describes them in detail and how he acquired them, not realising that they were cheap copies. Although at first disconcerted, the dealer begins to play his part of the enthusiastic art lover and exclaim when each piece was presented.

And so that headlong, eloquent recital of his triumphs went on for another good two hours. I can’t say how eerie it was to join him in looking at a hundred, maybe two hundred blank sheets of paper of poor reproductions, but in the memory of this man, who was tragically unaware of their absence, the prints were so incredibly real that he could describe and praise every one of them unerringly, in precise detail, just as he remembered the order of them: the invisible collection that in reality must now be dispersed to all four corners of the earth was still genuinely present to the blind man, so touchingly deceived, and his passion for what he saw was so overwhelming that even I almost began to believe it.

The old man is so pleased with showing his treasures to someone who knows their true worth that he doesn’t want it to end. Reluctantly he accepts that the dealer must leave to catch his train. The women look towards the dealer with gratitude that he has made the old man happy with his complicity. The dealer feels a little ashamed that he was being thanked when his original intentions had been to try to obtain a few good items to sell.

And I felt—I can’t put it any other way—I felt a sense of reverence, although I was still ashamed of myself, without really knowing why.

This is a beautifully simple story. I’m sure that most of us have been praised for something that has turned out well but where our original intentions weren’t so benevolent. Zweig’s clear, simple style is a joy to read; it reminds me of writers like Chekhov but also of Ingmar Bergman’s style of telling a story, at least his earlier works anyway, where there is no clutter, no side stories or tricks, just keep the story simple and keep to the point. Everyone should try Stefan Zweig at some point—I’m glad I have.

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‘A People’s Tragedy’ by Orlando Figes

Figes A People's TragedyThe Russian Revolution is one of those pivotal events in world history. Did anyone see it coming? Did anyone, at the time, realise the implications for Russia and the rest of the World? I doubt it very much. I studied the Russian Revolution at school but have read surprisingly little about it since then, but I had always wondered how it was that the Bolsheviks in particular managed to gain power over such a vast country; after reading Figes’s book I think I have my answers: luck, brute force and lack of a coherent opposition. It took a long time to get to this answer though as the book is physically large and runs to over 800 pages (+100 or so pages of notes) and due to its size I could only read it during weekends as it is too bulky to read on my workday commute; as such it took me nearly three months to read—but it was a fascinating three months and I would recommend this book as a brilliant one volume history of the Russian Revolution.

The full title of the book is A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 and in the introduction Figes justifies starting his narrative in 1891 as this was when ‘the revolutionary crisis really started, and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the tsarist autocracy.’ And he ends it in 1924 with the death of Lenin when the revolution was basically over. At first I thought that Figes was spending too much time on the early period but I soon began to appreciate the time spent on this preliminary material. Part One, of this four part book, covers Russia under the Tsarist regime; and if we think that life during the revolution was hard and brutal then we only have to refer back to these early chapters to realise just how brutal life could be for the majority of people under the Tsars. Russia was basically a medieval society for the peasantry where the lifestyles of the urban aristocrats would have seemed totally alien to them. Figes summed up this split in Russian society thus:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

Figes devotes time to describing the nature of Tsarist Russia, especially to Tsar Nicholas II’s reign. Figes portrays Nicholas as a man who was unsuitable to run Russia, especially during such turbulent times. He could be described as an ineffective ruler but he still believed in his autocratic right to rule; he was wary of competent ministers and any form of democracy and worked against these whenever he felt he could.

In a sense, Russia gained in him the worst of both worlds: a Tsar determined to rule from the throne yet quite incapable of exercising power. This was ‘autocracy without an autocrat’.

Of course, we find out about the Tsar’s household, Rasputin etc. But an interesting chapter, ‘Red Ink’, was on Russian literature during this period, how Marxism came to Russia and Lenin’s involvement in the Social Democratic Party and subsequent split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. From the outset Lenin proposed ‘a centralized and conspiratorial party of professional revolutionaries’. Although it’s more complicated than this, the essential difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is that the Mensheviks were more pro-democracy and were happier to compromise with the liberals and bourgeoisie whereas the Bolsheviks were more intransigent and bullish. Once the revolution had started these differences became more marked. In fact, reading this book made me aware of just how much Lenin orchestrated events. I had assumed beforehand that he was more of an opportunist but instead he had a plan, or rather a method, to gain power and hold onto it by whatever means necessary.

‘It all began with bread’—and so the February revolution errupted. As with other revolutons and wars details of events are very complicated with rapidly changing allegiances and power struggles. An added complication was that the revolution occurred whilst Russia was at war with Germany and her allies in the First World War. A Provisional Government was established which lasted until October when we had the Bolshevik take over. Figes explains why and how the Bolsheviks were succesful:

Everybody cursed the Bolsheviks but nobody was prepared to do anything about them.

But the crux of the Bolshevik success was a two-fold process of state-building and destruction. On the one hand, at the highest levels of the state, they sought to centralize all power in the hands of the party and, by the use of terror, to wipe out all political opposition.

As if the revolution and the Bolshevik takeover wasn’t enough there was then a civil war that lasted several years. This was an incredibly brutal war between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, national groups, Whites, Social Democrats, peasant groups etc. The Bolsheviks used whoever they could to gain power and turned against them as soon as they felt they were safe enough. Terrible atrocities were carried out by all sides and Figes lists a whole load of tortures and abuses; the Bolshevik secret police organiation, called the Cheka, was particularly brutal and sadistic in its activities and had such a level of independence that even Trotsky didn’t feel safe from them, however, Figes points out that many of the Cheka’s techniques were borrowed from the Tsar’s police force. Of course whilst reading about the chaos and suffering involved in the Russian Civil War it was difficult not to draw comparisons to what is going on currently in Syria where it is equally difficult to see how any diplomatic solution can be succesful.

One criticism of the book is that I didn’t really find out much about the main Communist leaders, Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin; early on in the book Lenin was portrayed as a cowardly clerk who seems to be absent whenever the important events are occurring but then turns in to a tyrant once the revolution is imminent; Trotsky has power but seems to be unpopular with everyone and Stalin appears only near the end of Lenin’s life to take over. It’s probably unfair to expect Figes to cover a lot of biographical information but I felt that it would have been useful to know what they were doing during the important events. Another criticism is that I had little understanding of how the decisions were made during this early period of rule. At times it appears that Lenin issues orders to everyone whilst other times decisions were made at Politburo meetings.

I think it’s fair to say that Figes doesn’t particularly admire many of the people who were involved in the events in this book as they are often portrayed as violent and/or incompetent but the one exception is undoubtedly Maxim Gorky, the writer and early Bolshevik supporter. Excerpts from Gorky’s letters and books are used throughout the book; his comments on events, his criticisms of the Tsar, Lenin and revolutionary abuses are very humane and often prescient. He not only wrote articles and books but he often tried to help people through his connections with Lenin or by giving people food and shelter during these difficult times. In the end the civil war was too much for him and he had to flee Russia. His words in a letter to Romain Rolland in 1921 sum up his feelings:

I feel very tired: during the past seven years in Russia I have seen and lived through so many sad dramas—the more sad for not being caused by the logic of passion and free will but by the blind and cold calculation of fanatics and cowards…I still believe fervently in the future happiness of mankind but I am sickened and disturbed by the growing sum of suffering which people have to pay as the price of their fine hopes.

If you can cope with the constant descriptions (and photographs) of brutality then this book is a brilliant one-volume book of not only the Russian Revolution but the whole period leading up to it.

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‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 2) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkFollowing on from my earlier post on two of the stories from The Neon Wilderness I thought I’d comment on some of the others. The opening story, the captain has bad dreams, is an amusing piece; it’s not really a story as such, rather it consists of a parade of petty criminals coming before the police captain and verbally sparring with him. They have to stand under a bright light and make a sort of confessional before the cynical captain. The criminals’ explanations are generally amusing, and the captain’s replies just as funny.

    “She fell down. I went to help her up, so her pocketbook opened up. I was helpin’ her to pick up the t’ings.”
    “You’re always helpin’ women pick up their things, somehow. We got six warrants for you from New York for helpin’ out there.”

    “You ever been arrested before?”
    “No sir. This is my first time.”
    “The first time this week, you mean.”
    “Oh, I been arrested in Michigan. I thought you meant in Illinois. I never been arrested in Illinois. I never did no wrong in Illinois.”
    “What good does that do you?”
    “It don’t. It’s just that I love my state so much I go to Michigan to steal,” he explained with an expression almost beatific.

And they keep on coming, one after another…and they haunt the captain in his sleep as well as when he’s awake.

A similar story is a bottle of milk for mother, but in this story it’s just Bruno Lefty Bicek being interrogated by the police. He’s accused of ‘jackrollin’ a drunk and killing him. Bicek denies this and innocently says he was just getting a bottle of milk for his mother when the police arrested him. But the police put pressure on Bicek to confess; he maintains that he hadn’t intended to murder the drunk but just to shoot him in the foot to get him off of him as they tussled. Bicek has to accept that he’s going to prison for manslaughter at least and the story ends with him in a prison cell. Although algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe dialogue is as snappy as the captain has bad dreams this story has little humour—it’s a more serious piece. In the story depend on aunt elly Algren shifts his attention to a female character. It concerns Wilma who gets arrested for prostitution and after paying a fine is re-arrested and faces three years in prison, or some sort of correctional facility—Algren is often unclear about details. She manages to get out before her time is up by agreeing to pay her ‘Aunt Elly’ (actually a corrupt prison guard) a fixed sum each month. On the outside she shacks up with, and marries, a ‘flat-faced clown’ called Baby Needles. Things look good for a while but Wilma doesn’t tell her husband about the payments to Elly and then things start to go wrong and Elly catches up with Wilma. Although the story is downbeat it’s not depressing, it’s just that there’s an inevitability about their lives, they only have momentary release from the oppression of poverty and the law; they have to break the law to survive—until they’re caught.

Another stand-out story includes the face on the barroom floor, which is basically a story of a barroom brawl between the ‘mild-mannered youth’ Fancy and Railroad Shorty who got his legs chopped off by a train. Goaded on by the other drinkers the fight ends with Shorty pounding Fancy’s face.

For the face on the floor was no longer a face. It was a paste of cartilage and blood through which a single sinister eye peered blindly. The broken mouth blew minute bubbles of froth and blood.

In design for departure we are introduced to a couple of drunks, Sharkey and his latest woman called ‘the Widow’. But the focus of the story turns to Sharkey’s daughter Mary whose aim in life is to find a quiet room of her own with no doors where she can escape from the world. Although her father and the Widow are not abusive they are uninterested in Mary and don’t notice when she stops going to school and probably don’t notice when she leaves home for a dingy roominghouse and a job wrapping bacon.

Thus she lived in a twilit land between sleep and waking. And in sleep saw the terrible maze of the city’s million streets. Saw a million friendless faces, all going one way down a single avenue, each alone. Saw herself among them, touching strangers’ faces curiously, touching many hands; yet always untouched by any man’s hand and befriended by no woman.

As with Wilma in depend on aunt elly Mary encounters a man (Christy) who is good to her but who runs a protection racket and introduces her to drugs. But it’s when Christy is arrested and goes to prison that Mary’s life descends into a dreamlike insanity where she believes that she’s the Virgin Mary and Christy is Jesus Christ. It sounds bleak but there is some excellent writing here; at times Algren reminds me of Zola, Dickens or Dostoyevsky, and at other times he’s more like Kerouac, Céline or Bukowski. Here’s a great example from design for departure which evokes the lives of the inhabitants of the roominghouse:

Along the pavement-colored hall doors stood half open on either side, all the way down; each one was numbered in bright bald tin, each one stood just so much ajar in the gas-lit corridor. Just enough to reveal half-dressed men and women waiting for the rain or about to make love or already through loving and about to get drunk; or already half drunk and beginning to argue about how soon it was going to rain or whose turn it was to run down for whisky or whether it was time to make love again or forget it for once and just wait for rain.

What I find significant about Algren’s characters is that there are very few that you would call ‘bad’, let alone ‘evil’; they quite often do ‘bad’ things, usually as a consequence of a life of poverty. Algren doesn’t offer that as an excuse but instead forces us to try to understand the lives of these inhabitants of the urban underworld.

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‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 1) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkAs I was trying to decide what to read for the ‘1947 Club’ two books jumped out at me; both were books I’d read before and which I’d been meaning to re-read for quite a while. As I’ll probably only have time to read one for this group I’ll have to ditch the other one, which was going to be Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest, and instead just concentrate on The Neon Wilderness which is a collection of stories by Nelson Algren (1909-1981). Nelson Algren is a favourite author of mine but he seems to be largely forgotten or ignored these days. He is most famous for the books The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) which is about the morphine addict Frankie Machine (played by Frank Sinatra in the film version) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) which, like most of his books, is about the urban lowlife such as prostitutes, drunks, addicts etc. n.b. despite the Lou Reed song it has nothing to do with transvestites or transexuals. I think of Nelson Algren as a ‘pre-Beat’, one of those writers whose work must have influenced the Beats to some extent, even though he doesn’t get mentioned much by them. This post is going to concentrate on just two of the stories as they’re two of my favourites (of any author) and I’ll hope to post on some of the others during the rest of the week. The two stories are how the devil came down division street and stickman’s laughter. BTW In my edition all the titles are lowercase; I’m not sure if that was the case in the original edition but it seems to suit Algren’s style, and I like it, so I’ll stick to that in my posts.

I’ll start with the opening paragraphs of how the devil came down division street:

Last Saturday evening there was a great argument in the Polonia Bar. All the biggest drunks on Division were there, trying to decide who the biggest drunk of them was. Symanski said he was, and Oljiec said he was, and Koncel said he was, and Czechowski said he was.
    Then Roman Orlov came in and the argument was decided. For Poor Roman has been drunk so long, night and day, that when we remember living men we almost forget Poor Roman, as though he were no longer really among the living at all.
    “The devil lives in a double-shot”, Roman explains himself obscurely. “I got a great worm inside. Gnaws and gnaws. Every day I drown him and every day he gnaws. Help me drown the worm, fellas.”
    So I bought Poor Roman a double-shot and asked him frankly how, before he was thirty, he had become the biggest drunk on Division.

The narrator has to supply him with more drinks before he’ll unburden himself with his story. Roman’s story is a short story of a childhood of poverty which has a very Dickensian feel to it, especially when Roman relates how they found out how algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe previous tenant of their flat, who they believe is haunting them, had beaten his wife to death and then committed suicide. But, if we think that Poor Roman was traumatised by this then we’d be wrong; in some ways it brought the family together as they prayed for the man’s soul and they gained the respect of the local neighbours and priest for being so compassionate. But as Roman’s father stops going out at night it means that Roman is left without anywhere to sleep in the crowded flat and so ends up sleeping during the day and going out at nights: ‘And at night, as everyone knows, there is no place to go but the taverns.’ And so he began to spend the whole nights in a tavern awaiting dawn, the bitterest hour. In a way it’s a silly story, but it’s the story of a drunkard trying to wheedle money out of the listener—and that opening is pure brilliance.

The story stickman’s laughter concerns the poor weak-willed Banty Longobardi who has a thing for gambling. The story begins:

Banty Longobardi trudged up his own back steps; his cap was in his hand and his pay on his hip. He’d take the old woman to the Little Pulaski—triple horror feature with blue enamel ovenware to the ladies and community singing.
    But the door was locked and the woman was out, so he went down the steps again. She ought to know better than to go visiting on a community-singing, free-ovenware night.

So what does Banty do now? He goes out to the gambling rooms; but he only bets a dollar, he’s just passing time until his woman gets home…and he’s lucky…he wins…and wins again…and leaves the establishment up by forty dollars. But when he returns home his wife is still not home, he can’t stay at home all alone so he goes out again, this time to the bar to waste some time.

Then he had three shots, to relieve the ache further, and began wondering how long he’d been gone. He didn’t want to drink up too much of the extra pay roll; but he’d give her plenty of time to get home and miss him a spell too.

Banty starts to get argumentative with the bartender, who tells Banty to go home and tells him he’s just seen his wife walk past on her way home. But instead of going home he finds himself back at the gambling room. He’s in a fuddled state, he wins money, he loses money, but he’s only betting with his previous winnings. Of course, his winnings disappear and facing the stickman’s laughter at his predicament he gambles all his pay as well—and loses everything.

And so Banty returns home, shamefaced; he hopes his woman is asleep so he won’t have to explain the stituation but she calls out to him from the bedroom. There’s no escape.

    “Are you coming to bed or are you going to stand there on one foot all night?”
    When she saw him shuffling toward her she switched off the light and lay back waiting for him in the dark. When he reached the bed he had only to wait for her to take his head on her breast.
    That’s the kind of old woman Banty had himself.
    “My fault,” she assured him softly, like a storyteller making up stories to put a child to sleep. “I knew it was payday but I went out just the same. No supper for poor Banty either. Poor Banty. Lost all his money and no supper either. Wanted to go to community singing and got hisself drunked up instead.”
    She felt his tenseness lessening. Felt his tears between the shadowed valley of her breasts. And knew that they were for her.

Yes, Poor Banty indeed. He’s just like a child, unable to stay at home when his wife isn’t there, unable to stay away from the gambling rooms. I have a bit of a soft spot for weak characters, that is, as long as the author doesn’t get too mawkish. But what is brilliant about the story is the compassion and forgiveness that his wife shows him, even though he’s lost all his pay. I mean it’s not really a very realistic ending as in reality it would most likely end up with a blazing row with most people—but they don’t and that’s what makes the story great.

I’m enjoying getting reacquainted with Algren’s work and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the stories. I feel like re-reading some of his novels as well now.

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