Franz Kafka – The Top (short story)

I recently read Kafka’s (unfinished) novel The Castle, which I had last read about thirty or so years ago. I thought The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis were the bees’ knees when I originally read them, and still do, but didn’t really think much of Amerika or the other short stories at the time. I think I didn’t like them much because they were not like The Trial etc., but my relatively recent re-read of Amerika showed me that it was worth attempting these other works without expecting them to be another version of The Trial.

The Vintage collection I read is split between ‘Longer’ and ‘Shorter’ stories, with some of the shorter stories being less than a page long; some were just fragments of stories and many were only published posthumously. Having finished the collection, I’m beginning to appreciate just how inventive Kafka was as a writer; he was trying out different styles, different themes all the time, for example in The Burrow Kafka is writing from the point of view of a mole in a realistic way—it’s difficult to see where Kafka could have taken it, and it does get a bit dull, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless. And the story, Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor begins in a Dickensian way but soon becomes more surreal when Blumfeld discovers two celluloid balls in his room that act autonomously.

Anyway, my aim here isn’t to review the book as a whole but to include one of the shorter stories in its entirety; it was one of my favourites from the collection.

The Top

A certain philosopher used to hang about wherever children were at play. And whenever he saw a boy with a top, he would lie in wait. As soon as the top began to spin the philosopher went in pursuit and tried to catch it. He was not perturbed when the children noisily protested and tried to keep him away from their toy; so long as he could catch the top while it was still spinning, he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away. For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself only with the spinning top. And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.

Translated by Tania and James Stern

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‘Weymouth Sands’ Quote by John Cowper Powys

Jerry had indeed something in him that went beyond Rabelaisianism, in that he not only could get an ecstasy of curious satisfaction from the most drab, ordinary, homely, realistic aspects of what might be called the excremental under-tides of existence but he could slough off his loathing for humanity in this contemplation and grow gay, child-like, guileless.

I wish I’d used ‘The Excremental Under-tides of Existence‘ as my Blog name.

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‘Aline and Valcour, Vol. 3’ by Marquis de Sade (Contra Mundum Press)

Image source: GoodReads

Volume Two of the Contra Mundum Press edition of Aline and Valcour ended with ‘Sainville’s Story’ and before we get to hear ‘Léonore’s Story’ Volume Three begins with a disturbance as the police arrive to arrest Sainville and a woman he’s supposed to have abducted. But it’s not Léonore they are there to arrest but Aline—this is M. de Blamont’s doing as he’s still trying to force his daughter into marrying Dolbourg. M. de Blamont has conspired with Sainville’s father to use a lettre de cachet (the very instrument that was used by Sade’s mother-in-law to imprison Sade) to get Sainville for his father and Aline for him. Count Beaulé manages to delay their arrest by promising to the officer that he’ll deliver them to him in three days time. Meanwhile it is revealed to those present that Sainville’s father is Count Karmeil and therefore Léonore is actually Mme de Blamont’s daughter—are you keeping up?

Anyway, the next 240 pages is taken up by Léonore’s story. Unlike Sainville’s story this is more of a picaresque tale as she meets up with Clémentine and travels about the world. Several times her story intersects with Sainville’s, such as when she was hidden away in the coffin in the hotel room and also when she ends up in Ben Mâacoro’s dystopian society. Unlike Sade’s later stories of Justine and Juliette the story of Léonore and Clémentine is a tale of two different women who work together and use their intelligence to outsmart those who are out to take advantage of them. Sade introduces some humour in Léonore’s tale, such as her adventures in Ethiopia, where she’s arrested, along with her ‘husband’ after being duped into seeing a local tourist attraction, namely Mohammed’s penis, which is just a ruse by the king to obtain victims to be tortured by impalement. When Léonore exposes her white backside in preparation everyone is thrown into a state of confusion as Lénore had been ‘blacked up’ and dressed as a man—they think she’s either a god or a devil. Ok, it’s a bit like a Carry On movie but it was amusing to read.

Soon after this escapade Léonore meets Clémentine, the beautiful wife of Dom Lopès de Riveiras. Léonore considers herself a virtuous, aristocratic lady but Clémentine is more of a free-spirit, more of a libertine. Sade, I feel, delights in having Léonore describe Clémentine; here’s a snippet of the description.

Clémentine viewed good deeds as trickery; sensitivity, a weakness from which we must protect ourselves; modesty, an error that always disadvantages the charms of one who’s pretty; sincerity, an idiocy that makes a fool; humility, an absurdity; temperance, a deprivation for the best years of one’s life; and religion, laughable hypocrisy.

She’s also voluptuous. Léonore feels that she might be corrupted by her. When they are captured by the soldiers of the cannibal tyrant, Ben Mâacoro, Léonore and Clémentine discuss their fate.

   “I’m infinitely less afraid,” she told me one night, “of serving this monster’s pleasures than being his main course at dinner.”
   “Not me! I’d prefer a thousand times to be eaten than satisfy his disgraceful lust.”
   “Don’t you think that’s taking virtue too far?”
   “No, it’s only to cherish the man I love.”
   “When things calm down a little, you’ll explain to me such délicatesse. I still don’t understand it.”

They manage to escape from Ben Mâacoro’s clutches by convincing him that love is infinitely more pleasureable than lust and then tricking him—this was Léonore’s plan. Later on the couple fall in with a band of Bohemian Gypsies led by Brigandos. They just happen to be devil-worshippers and thieves, and indulge in a little bit of murder when it’s absolutely necessary; apart from that, they’re decent enough. At least they’re better than the Inquisition, whose hands they fall into next.

Once ‘Léonore’s Story’ is over the narrative returns to the attempts to thwart M. de Blamont getting his hands on Aline. And they have to now try to annul the lettre de cachet. In this last section Léonore reveals herself to be rather a cold, calculating creature; she’s materialistic and, to the horror of Mme de Blamont, an atheist—she is, in fact, more like her father, M. de Blamont, than her mother. Mme de Blamont does not really like her new-found daughter. And so, Sade presses on with the plot, introducing more complications and on to the end — misery and death for everyone.

Aline and Valcour is an excellent novel, which surpassed my expectations. I still find it astonishing to think that Sade stopped writing 120 Days in Sodom in order to start writing this novel—two very different books. But then there was no hope of getting ‘120 Days’ published and maybe he felt that he was now a good enough writer to be published, and wanted to be published. Aline and Valcour is still pure Sade though, with libertinage as the driving force behind the tale, only without the explicit sexuality of his ‘libertine’ novels, proving that he could write a more mainstream book.

It’s a shame that it took more than two hundred years to be translated and published in English but I’m glad that it finally has. Thanks go to the publisher ‘Contra Mundum Press’ and the translators, Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons. The books are beautiful objects with a great design, top quality paper and to top it off they include extensive notes and the original engravings. However, the decision to publish the book in three volumes is a bit strange; I would have thought a single-volume version preferable, on the other hand if the book is to be split then it naturally splits into four-volumes, which is how it was originally published in French, I believe. There were also a large number of typos, such as this one on lines 5-6 on page 691: ‘They said you resemble Aline: too bad for her if she were she as ugly as you.’ Oh well, I’ll stop quibbling.

Time to yield, Valcour. Life henceforth offers you none but thorns. Unite your soul with those of your friends. Once more: read on, I say, and go to your grave.

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‘Aline and Valcour, Vol. 2’ by Marquis de Sade (Contra Mundum Press)

Image source: GoodReads

Volume One of the Contra Mundum Press edition of Sade’s 1795 novel, Aline and Valcour was covered here. That volume ended with the arrival of the mysterious young couple Sainville and Léonore; Sainville claims to be returning to his regiment in Calais but the company at Vertfeuille suspect they’re not telling the truth. Volume Two consists of a single letter from Déterville to Valcour recounting Sainville’s story—that’s a 216 page letter! I also like Sade’s footnote for this letter which reads: Any reader who would take what follows as a pointless episode, to be read or passed over at will, would be making a grievous error. Just in case we were thinking of skipping this volume.

So, Sainville tells his story which begins three years before: he and Léonore are a young couple in love, and, as with Aline and Valcour, their parents are opposed to their union. Léonore’s family has arranged for her to marry Count de Folange but as she refuses to marry him she is sent to a convent. Similarly, Sainville refuses his arranged marriage—it’s worth noting here that Sade’s marriage was arranged for him, against his will, between his father and his future mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil. With the help of an aunt Sainville manages to get into the convent, dressed as a woman, and hatch an escape plan with Léonore which involves Léonore posing as a statue of a saint. This is quite an amusing episode in the novel and shows that Sade can be quite frivolous at times. The couple marry themselves in the eyes of God and head for Venice where they spend an idyllic few months before disaster strikes. One day when Sainville goes sight-seeing on his own Léonore is abducted by several men in gondolas. Sainville is prevented from searching for her straight away as he is arrested, but following his release he begins his search for his lover. Sade creates another bizarre scene where Sainville, who is staying in a hotel room before embarking on his journey, observes through a hole in a wall a man open a coffin, which contains a young woman; the man is pleased to find that she is still alive. Sainville can’t watch any more as he has to leave to board a ship, but little does he know that the woman in the coffin is Léonore.

Believing that Léonore is on a ship bound for the Cape, Sainville pursues her, ends up lost in Africa and is captured by a tribe of Butuans, a savage race of cannibals, who are ruled over by a tyrant, King Ben Mâacoro.

On the altar steps before my eyes was the most horrible scene. The King had just committed a human sacrifice; this palace was also his temple. His just-murdered victims were still palpitating at the feet of the idol. Lacerations covered the wretched victims and blood flowed everywhere, with heads separated from bodies—all of it combined to chill my senses. I flinched from horror.

Sainville manages to survive only because King Mâacoro believes he can be of use to him. So, Butua is a dystopia, ruled over by the tyrant king; all his subjects are of little worth to the king, especially women who are treated like cattle or slaves. Sainville learns about Butuan life from a cynical Portuguese man, Sarmiento, who has managed to survive there for several years. Butua is in decline, its population is decreasing, it is constantly at war with neighbouring states, and its industry is negligible. In this section Sade is able to voice his opinions, through Sarmiento, of his ideas of moral relativity, and the benefits of sodomy. It’s strange how Sade often uses the most odious characters to put forward what are presumably his own views, and to mix them up with other views that he, presumably, didn’t hold.

Sainville eventually escapes from the Butuans and then travels to the South Pacific where he comes across the utopian land of Tamoé, ruled by the philosopher-king, Zamé. Zamé explains to Sainville how Tamoé is organised; in contrast to Butua, Zamé considers himself a First Citizen rather than a king. Property is held collectively, people are free to marry whoever they like and divorce is legal. There are few laws and no prisons as punishing people is anathema to the Tamoéans; shame and exile are their most severe judgements.

For any citizen who does wrong you must have but one objective. If you wish to be fair, let his punishment be useful to him and others; anything that deviates from that aim is infamy.

For the reader dystopias are usually more interesting than utopias, although we’d probably rather live in the utopia, even if it is more dull. But as I was reading this section I couldn’t help but wonder how Sade would cope in this utopia he’d created; I’m sure he would have found it all incredibly dull. We have to remember that he wrote Aline and Valcour whilst in the Bastille, he finished it around 1788 but didn’t get it published until 1795, after he’d been released from prison again, following his arrest under the revolutionary government. Sade mentions several times in the footnotes, which were presumably added after the revolution, that he’d written it before the revolution whilst he was imprisoned by the ancien régime. The reader in 1795 is presumably supposed to think of Butua as the ancien régime and Zamé as the ideal revolutionary state, yet to be achieved.

On leaving Tamoé Sainville’s adventures continue as he manages to escape the Spanish Inquisition; he finally finds Léonore, who is working as an actress in Bordeaux. We are told at the beginning that they were re-acquainted three weeks earlier.

It’s now time for Léonore’s story but Déterville reveals that there are policemen banging on the doors so we’ll have to wait until volume three.

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‘Aline and Valcour, Vol. 1’ by Marquis de Sade (Read Indies – Contra Mundum Press)

Image source: Publisher’s website

By 1785 the Marquis de Sade had been working on the sulfurous novel, Les 120 journées de Sodome, for three years. For some reason he decided to pause, or abandon, this book and switch to a different type of novel, one that was more orthodox, and therefore more publishable. Before beginning this new novel, Aline et Valcour, Sade produced his ‘back-up’ copy of ‘120 Days’ on a ‘scroll’ of paper; it is this scroll which was hidden away in his cell in the Bastille and was finally re-discovered and then printed in 1904. Aline et Valcour, however, was first published in 1795, after the Reign of Terror, and after he had been released from prison yet again, and it was to be the first work that was published in his own name. However, it had not been translated into English until the 2019 Contra Mundum Press edition which was translated by Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons. Being a long work, as many of Sade’s works are, the publisher has decided to split it into three volumes; this is a review of the first, and shortest, volume, Aline and Valcour, or, the Philosophical Novel, Vol. 1.

Although Aline and Valcour is less explicit than Sade’s more well-known works, it covers similar themes and is still obviously a work by Sade. Unusually for Sade, it is an epistolary novel, a form of novel that was very fashionable in the late eighteenth century. The titular heroes are young lovers who have been separated by Aline’s father, Monsieur de Blamont (a.k.a. “The President”) who is determined to marry off his daughter to his friend, Monsieur Dolbourg. But, as is typical in Sade’s works, M. de Blamont and M. Dolbourg are both libertines, and as Sade tries to make them as repulsive as possible he also makes sure that their professions are as repulsive as possible too—repulsive to Sade that is—Blamont is a judge, whilst Dolbourg is a banker. In order to physically separate Aline and Valcour Blamont has proposed they spend their summer at Vertfeuille. However, they can still write to each other clandestinely and, luckily for Valcour, Mme Blamont likes him and is prepared to thwart her husband’s plans; also present at Vertfeuille is Valcour’s friend, M. Déterville. In an early letter to Valcour, Aline sums up the situation.

   My dearest, we must stop seeing one another.
   There they are—cruel words. I put them down without dying. Follow me bravely. My father spoke as the master who demands to be obeyed. A convenient match appears, and that suffices. He didn’t ask if I agreed but took into account only his own interests, wholly sacrificing my feelings to his caprices. Don’t implicate my mother—she said and did all she could, and imagines doing still more. You know how much she loves me and you must be aware of her tender feelings for you. Our tears flowed together. The barbarian witnessed them but was not moved.

In the early letters, mostly between, Aline, Valcour and Déterville, we learn of Blamont’s intransigence over the proposed wedding between Dolbourg and Aline and then we find out more of Valcour’s history. Valcour was born into a distinguished family and grew up to be arrogant and angry; when war was started he was quick to join the army, as an officer, of course. Valcour fell in love with Adéläide Sainval but their marriage was forbidden by Valcour’s father, and so the couple separated, though both still loved each other. Later Valcour killed Adéläide’s brother in a duel and had to leave France for Switzerland, where he met Rousseau and became captivated by literature and the arts. Thus Valcour is of royal blood, but also an impoverished artist; M. Blamont wants Aline to be married to money. It’s interesting to note that much of this description of Valcour’s early years is similar to Sade’s own.

If the story is a bit pedestrian up to now then it really kicks off with ‘Sophie’s Story’; I won’t be able to go into the details but will give a taste of what happens. On one of their walks in Vertfeuille they come across a distraught young woman, who has just given birth, and who is fleeing her captors. She has been held as a sex slave, along with another woman, Rose, by two men Delcour and Mirville. Sophie had been ‘married’ to Mirville and Rose to Delcour. It is soon suspected, and then proved, that Delcour is in fact M. Blamont and Mirville is Dolbourg. Years earlier Blamont and Dolbourg had impregnated two sisters at the same time and hatched the plan where they would both have each child raised separately so that when they were old enough (about thirteen years old) each would take the other’s daughter as their mistress—this is pure Sade just without the explicitness. However the plans weren’t executed properly and there was much confusion over babies being mixed up etc. At one point it is believed that Sophie and Aline are sisters, especially as they look so similar but in the end this is erroneous. Sade concocts a convoluted plot which becomes even more confusing when Valcour and Déterville try to uncover the truth about Sophie, Blamont and Dolbourg and try to decide what to do with Sophie and the proposed marriage between Aline and Dolbourg. Mme Blamont is aware that the evidence they have regarding Sophie can be useful against M. Blamont but she knows that the cards are stacked in his favour. As a libertine he is used to arguing his case and as a judge he knows the law and has connections, and besides any damage to his honour will also reflect on her, and Aline. In the end M. Blamont is able to muddle things enough so that all they agree on is a delay of three months to the marriage.

In a letter to Valcour, Déterville makes the following comment on depravity in general, but concerning M. Blamont in particular.

Man’s greatest fault is to buttress his vices with doctrines that, once elaborated, serve to legitimize his conduct; everything that would be condemned in the heart of another will be forever engraved in his own. That’s why a young man’s wrongdoings are insignificant: he betrays principles but returns to them. An older man sins only after reflection; his faults emanate from his philosophy, which foments and nourishes them by erecting principles on the debris of his childish morality. And in these inflexible so-called principles he discovers the laws of his depravity.

Volume One ends with Déterville recounting the arrival at Vertfeuille of a young couple, Sainville and Léonore, whose story takes up the whole of Volume Two.

Aline and Valcour, Vol. 1 was read as part of the ‘Read Indies’ month.

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‘The Sunday of Life’ by Raymond Queneau (ReadIndies – Oneworld/Alma)

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Raymond Queneau’s novel, Le dimanche de la vie, was first published in 1951. It was translated by Barbara Wright as The Sunday of Life in 1976, and was originally published by John Calder, with this revised edition being published by Oneworld Classics in 2011. It has since been published by Alma Classics.

The Sunday of Life begins with the foul-mouthed shopowner, Julia Segovia, chatting to her sister whilst watching the twenty-something private, Valentin Brû, walking past her shop. Julia has decided to marry him and, with her sister’s help, proceeds to put this plan into action. And she’s going to marry him whether he wants to or not. Luckily enough Valentin is about to leave the army and has little ambition apart from becoming a road-sweeper. Valentin is listless and aimless but he is young, handsome and neither an alcoholic nor violent. As it turns out Julia and Valentin get on well together as both seem reasonably content to drift through life. After their marriage Valentin suggests a honeymoon but as Julia can’t, or won’t, close her haberdashery shop they decide that Valentin should go on their honeymoon alone! Valentin travels from Bordeaux to Paris, where he has trouble with the metro, taxis and his luggage, and from Paris to Bruges and then back to Paris, where, rather bizarrely he bumps into Julia who is attending the funeral of her mother’s boyfriend.

At times it’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on as it can be a bit opaque and some of the dialogue a bit cryptic but it’s a fun novel. Two more characters that feature prominently are Julia’s sister Chantal and her husband, Paul. Paul is a civil servant and is the target of much of Julia’s ire, but he’s not a bad sort—in fact none of the characters are horrible, but they all have their quirks. Valentin, for example, is rather naive and hasn’t really got a head for business, he’s quite a daydreamer, and later on in the novel he acquires the habit of trying to catch time by watching the clock in the picture-frame shop he now runs—during this ‘clock-watching’ he seems to have prophetic visions. Here is a conversation that Valentin has with Jean-Lackwit, a sort of simple-minded broom seller/beggar.

   “I still can’t manage to watch the big hand for more than four minutes,” said Valentin, indicating Poucier’s clock with a look.
   The other, following the movement of Valentin’s eyes, remained open-mouthed; but he turned smartly back to Valentin when the latter continued:
   “After that time, either it’s as if I was falling asleep, I don’t know what I’m thinking any more and time passes and escapes my control, or else I’m invaded by images, my attention wanders, and it comes to the same thing; time has run out without my feeling it melt away through my fingers.”
   Jean-Lockwit nodded understandingly.
   “Pra, pra, pra, pra,” said he, “pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra, pra.”
   Dreaming, he repeated this phrase once again.
   “I watch time,” said Valentin, “but sometimes I kill it. That isn’t what I want.”
   The other raised his arms into the air, and let them fall again with lassitude and compassion.

I very nearly abandoned the novel after a few pages as I wasn’t really in the mood for anything frivolous but I ended up quite liking this absurd, silly novel and its equally absurd, but likeable characters. Queneau manages to maintain the silliness without going totally overboard. I really should read this again when I’m in a more favourable state of mind. It’s my first Queneau book but won’t be my last as I still haven’t read Zazie in the Metro.

Read as part of the ‘Read Indies Month’.

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‘Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne’ by Roland Topor (#ReadIndies – Atlas Press)

Image source: Publisher’s website

After my recent reading of Roland Topor’s The Tenant I thought I’d seek out what other books by Topor are available in English—there’s not much apparently. There’s Joko’s Anniversary, which was written in 1969, translated in 1970 and published by Marion Boyars (and may be another Read Indies read if I can get my act together) and there is Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne, originally published in 1978 as Portrait en pied de Suzanne, translated by Andrew Hodgson, and published by Atlas Press in 2018. I think there is a play and a rare collection of stories as well, but there’s not much else that is readily available in English. A full list of publications can be found on the French Wikipedia site for anyone who’s interested.

Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne is a short work, about sixty pages long in this edition, and illustrated by Topor himself. It also has an introduction by the translator, Andrew Hodgson. Like Trelkovsky in The Tenant the narrator of ‘Suzanne’ is a loner, adrift from society. The narrator is a large man, with a huge appetite, he’s from Paris but he now lives in an Eastern European city called Caracas (not Venezuela), but he doesn’t speak the language and no-one speaks French. He spends his days wandering around sketching the decaying buildings. But he’s hungry…always hungry (I’d take a lack of God over a lack of food any day.), and he’s disgusted by his own body.

I pace up and down from one wall to the other talking to myself like a patient in a mental hospital. That naked body I catch sight of every time I pass the mirror makes me feel like throwing up. The grey flesh with its covering of black hairs somehow attracts me and disgusts me at the same time.

But things get worse when he goes out during the night trying to find somewhere where he can get something to eat. Because of the language problems he ends up at some sort of late night shoe shop and after making an ass of himself he buys a new pair of shoes out of embarrassment. He throws his old ones away and walks home, but the shoes are too small and they rip his feet apart. By the time he gets home there is a gaping wound on his left foot and blood everywhere. And, of course, he’s still hungry because he didn’t get any food when he went out.

And now things start to get a bit weird as ‘Topor the Surrealist’ starts to have some fun with his creation. The narrator flips between feeling sorry for himself and angry at the world. At times he feels feverish and wonders if he has an infection, so he goes to a pharmacy to see if they have anything that can help. When the pharmacist rubs some ointment into his wound he begins to feel an intense pleasure. Later, when he’s at home the thought comes to him that his foot is Suzanne, his old girlfriend.

By all accounts, my left foot has something very feminine about it. It’s curvy, like Suzanne. The flesh is milky, and the skin is delicate just like the skin on Suzanne’s temples, with the veins clearly marked in blue. The nails are pearly, the toes long and dainty like fingers. The instep has none of the unattractiveness so evident in other parts of my body. It has an elegance shared only with Suzanne.

My left foot is the best part of me.
It’s Suzanne.

But, as there are ups and downs with any couple, so there are with the narrator and Suzanne. And love can be difficult when you hurt your back when you try to kiss.

So, Topor’s mixture of alienation and surreal humour may not be to everyone’s taste but I really enjoy this strange mixture—a bit like Kafka, Beckett or The League of Gentlemen — dark, strange and funny.

From now on, I shall only have eyes for my right foot!

Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Atlas Press) was read as part of Read Indies 2021.

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E.T.A. Hoffmann: ‘Master Flea’ (Feuding Telescopes Excerpt)

I had hoped to post a full review of Hoffmann’s riotous novella, Master Flea, and maybe I still will, but Lockdown Lethargy has taken root and a blogging weariness has set in. However, to save this blog from going into complete hibernation I thought I’d share this brilliant excerpt from the story; it’s too complicated to explain in detail but in summary two rival scientists, Leuwenhoek and Swammerdamm, have encountered each other in the hallway of a house—and a feud ensues.

…Swammerdamm drew a small telescope from his pocket, extended it to its full length, and assailed his enemy with a loud cry of: ‘Draw, you scoundrel, if you have the courage!’
   Leuwenhoek promptly had a similar instrument in his hand, likewise extended it, and shouted: ‘Come on, I’ll fight you, and you’ll soon feel my power!’ The two put the telescopes to their eyes and fell upon each other furiously with sharp and murderous strokes, lengthening and shortening their weapons by pulling the extensions in and out. There were feints, parries, turns, in a word all the tricks of the fencer, and they seemed to grow ever more infuriated. If one of them was hit, he screamed, leapt into the air, and performed the most wonderful caprioles, and the most beautiful entrechats and pirouettes, like the best solo dancer in the Paris ballet, until the other focused the shortened telescope on him. If the same thing happened to the other, he behaved similarly. Thus they alternately displayed the boldest leaps, the wildest gestures, the most furious outcry; the sweat was dripping from their foreheads, their bloodshot eyes were protruding from their heads, and since no cause for their St Vitus dance was visible, save that they looked through the telescopes in turn, one was obliged to conclude that they were lunatics escaped from the madhouse. For the rest, the duel was a most pleasing sight.

This translation is by Ritchie Robertson from the Oxford University Press edition of The Golden Pot and Other Tales first published in 1992.

Below is an illustration of the event from an edition of the novella available on Project Gutenberg.

Image source: Project Gutenberg

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‘The Tenant’ by Roland Topor

Image from publisher’s website

The Tenant, by Roland Topor, was originally published in 1964 as Le Locataire chimérique. It was made into a film by Roman Polanksi in 1976, and for many of us, at least in the English-speaking part of the world, this is our introduction to Topor’s work. I only watched the film about ten years ago and thought it was excellent, as most of Polanski’s films are, and similar in theme to his 1965 film Repulsion. When I discovered that it was based on a novel I sought out more information on the author and the novel but in typical fashion I never got round to reading it. When Valancourt Books published a new edition at the end of last year I decided the time had come to read it. However, even that was difficult as getting a copy here in the UK was a bit of a struggle. This Valancourt Books edition was published in 2020 and originally translated by Francis K. Price in 1966.

The Tenant begins with Trelkovsky looking for a new flat in Paris, having been told to leave his old flat—no reason for this is given but right from the start Trelkovsky is described as an ‘honest, polite young man in his early thirties’ who holds a steady office job so we don’t expect any foul play. The apartment consists of two gloomy rooms with peeling wallpaper but as apartments in Paris are scarce and he needs one soon he can’t afford to be too choosy. He’s not even fazed when the concierge gleefully informs him that the previous tenant, a young woman called Mlle Simone Choule, threw herself out of the window; she’s not dead but she’s in hospital and in a bad way. Trelkovsky can’t be choosy and he needs an apartment so he goes to see the owner, M. Zy, who lives in the building on a lower floor. Trelkovsky manages to haggle with Zy but he’s warned that they don’t like noise in the building, so no parties, children or animals are allowed.

Leaving the building, pleased that he’s got the apartment but worried about his position if the former tenant returns, he decides to visit Mlle Choule in hospital. One of Simone’s friends, Stella, is also visiting when Trelkovsky arrives. Simone’s face is heavily bandaged but Trelkovsky notices a missing incisor tooth. Simone has only recently come out of a coma and stares into space but when her attention is drawn to Trelkovsky and Stella she lets out a moan which builds to a scream. Time to leave. Trelkovsky and Stella go for a coffee and then to the cinema. Simone dies later that evening. Trelkovsky is ready to move out of his old apartment.

Already at this point in the novel Trelkovsky comes across as a loner, who has an active imagination and is rather finicky and straight-laced, perhaps neurotic. Throughout the novel Topor mentions times when Trelkovsky needs to urinate, fart and vomit. At one point, when walking back to his old apartment just prior to moving he’s ‘playing a game’ whereby he farts with every step only to be embarrassed when an old man frowns at him. Later on in the novel, at Stella’s flat, he has a vomiting fit—he feels disgusted with himself but at the same time he feels free.

When packing for his move to his new flat he experiences a sense of loss that he has to move from his flat, he feels that a part of his own self is contained within the walls.

He had lived so many years in this room that he still could not quite grasp the idea that now it was finished. He would never again see this place which had been the very center of his life. Others would come into it, destroy the order of things that existed now, transform these four walls into something he would not even recognize, and kill off forever any lingering assumption that a certain Monsieur Trelkovsky had lived here before. Unceremoniously, from one day to the next, he would have vanished.

So Trelkovsky moves in and before long he’s having trouble with the neighbours. When he has a house-warming party a neighbour complains of the noise, when he tries to move furniture about they bang on the floor, when he has the radio on low they bang on the walls. Trelkovsky, being timid, is worried about how he appears to his neighbours much to the amusement of his friends who think he should tell them to go to hell and mind their own business. In an amusing episode where Trelkovsky is taking out his rubbish to the communal bins he ends up spilling bits of rubbish on the stairs and when he empties out his rubbish he’s aware that his rubbish is not as ‘neat’ as the other tenants’ rubbish. He even feels ashamed about his rubbish.

When he lifted the cover of one of the trash cans, before emptying the contents of his own pail into it, he was always astonished by its neatness and order. His own trash was the most indecent collection in the entire building. Repugnant and despicable. There was no resemblance between it and the honest, day-to-day trash of the other tenants. That had a solid, respectable appearance, and his did not.

And so things start to get a little strange: people knock on his door but disappear before he can answer it, the rubbish he drops on the stairs is cleared away before he returns; he finds a canine tooth wrapped in cotton wool in a hole in the wall and just why do the people spend hours in the toilet staring at the wall—the toilet window is opposite Trelkovsky’s apartment window.

As the novel progresses Trelkovsky’s sense of paranoia grows and he feels his own identity fragmenting. He imagines that the other tenants drove Simone Choule to jump from her window and soon believes that they are trying to turn him into Simone. When he has a fever the lines between reality and paranoid fantasy become even more blurred, especially when he sees a bandaged Simone Choule through the toilet window. Later, when he is walking through the streets his fellow Parisians appear as if in a dream.

He strolled through the streets unhurriedly, observing the passing crowds. The ranks of faces filed steadily, almost rhythmically, before him, as if their owners were standing on some kind of endless, moving sidewalk. Faces with the great bulging eyes of toads; pinched and wary faces of disillusioned men; round, soft faces of abnormal children; bull necks, fishlike noses, ferret teeth. Half closing his eyes, he imagined that they were really all one face, shifting and changing like the patterns of a kaleidoscope.

As the novel progresses there’s an inevitability about the ending but Topor still has a couple of surprises up his sleeve. Topor’s brilliant novel is both creepy and amusing; it’s scary being in Trelkovsky’s head, we know he must be going mad but anyone who has lived in an apartment block will recognise some of the petty rules and the squabbles that can erupt into more.

It’s easy to see why the novel appealed to Polanksi and, having watched the film again after reading the novel, I think he did a brilliant job of putting it on the big screen—it sticks very closely to the events in the novel. Polanksi himself plays Trelkovsky and is suitably meek, nervous and tormented throughout the film. The film is visually very dark, it’s either mostly at night or in Trelkovsky’s dark, dingy flat. So, I would suggest you watch the film AND read the book; it’s up to you which one you do first.

See below for a slideshow of images from the film. n.b. this may not be viewable on all devices.

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‘Bloody Wedding in Kyiv’ by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (GLM X)

Bloody Wedding in Kyiv is based on a real person and real events, Olga, or Olha, of Kiev (b.890?-925?, d.969) though what is actually real is not known as it has been embellished in its re-telling over the centuries. Sacher-Masoch was obviously attracted to the tale of a beautiful, cruel, imperious woman exacting revenge on her husband’s murderers. I’m not going to concern myself with what is, or isn’t, true, or with any inaccuracies in the story but just concentrate on the story as a work of fiction.

Image source: publisher’s website

This edition actually comprises of two stories by two authors: Bloody Wedding of Kyiv (1866) by Sacher-Masoch and Kniahynia’s Comb(2015) by Petro Haivoronskyi. The full title is Bloody Wedding of Kyiv: Two Tales of Olha, Kniahynia of Kyivan Rus and was published by Sova Books in 2016. The translator is Svitlana Chornomorets and the beautiful cover is by Nikola Nevenov. The book also contains some illustrations of the events from The Radziwiłł Chronicle.

The story begins with Kniaz Ihor (or Igor of Kiev) having his chess game interrupted by the arrival of some diplomats from Derevlia. Ihor reluctantly agrees to see them. Their leader, Mak, asks Ihor to remove the levies that he has placed on the Derevlians claiming that they are crushing his people but Ihor, who doesn’t believe that they can’t pay him, refuses to retract the levy and threatens to collect it himself. His beautiful wife, whom Mak is besotted by, says that they shouldn’t be let off so slightly but should be tortured instead.

So Ihor goes to collect his tribute from the Derevlians. They meet and escort him to their capital, Iskorosten where he will be based. His soldiers meet resistance when they try to collect the tribute and it erupts into an uprising. This infuriates Ihor even more and when he personally goes out to assist he is confronted and killed by Maz. Ihor is buried outside Iskorosten and his troops return to Kyiv.

The Derevlians decide that it would be advantageous if Mak were to marry Olha which would bring Kyiv under their control. Also Mak is attracted to Olha. So Mak sends some diplomats by ship to Kyiv to offer Olha his hand in marriage. Olha tricks them and has them captured then they are buried alive, together with their ship, in a huge pit that has been dug. Another group of Derevlian diplomats, who are unaware of the fate of the first group, are burnt alive in a bathhouse, much to Olha’s delight. Olha then goes to meet Mak, ostensibly to marry him, but in fact to get revenge; she agrees to the marriage but it must be in Kyiv. When Olha is told that Mak is handsome she replies:

“He is handsome and noble,” added the Kniahynia, reflecting, “but his hands are awash with blood. The blood of my master, my husband – and a warrior demands revenge! I could love him, if I did not have to hate him with all my heart.”

So Mak arrives in Kyiv, prepared for marriage but curious as to what happened to his diplomats. There is a big feast and the Derevlians get drunk. When Mak approaches Olha in the wedding chamber she attacks him and with help from her guards they bind him. Meanwhile most of the Derevlians are massacred but for those that were involved in the murder of Ihor ‘inhumane tortures’ are invented. Limbs are chopped off, some are burnt alive, some buried alive.

Olha then takes up arms and completely subjugates Podillia, the land of the Derevlians. Villages are burnt and people massacred. On her return she decides on Mak’s cruel punishment.

And the cruel woman ordered that the Derevlian Kniaz’s arms and legs be severed. For the rest of his life he was to stay under her table and gather the breadcrumbs with his tongue.

Olha rules on behalf of her son, Sviatoslav, until he is old enough to rule himself. Olha is christened in 955.

The Kniahynia’s Comb by Petro Haivoronskyi is also based on Olha. In present day Ukraine some archaelogists discover a coffin from the tenth century which still contains a corpse. In the coffin there is a silver comb which has two names inscribed on it: ‘Prekrasa’ and ‘Vedmid’. ‘Pekrasa’ was Olha’s original name and ‘Vedmid’ was an early admirer of her. The story tells how Vedmid sacrificed his life to save Olha from assassination. The discovered comb appears to have some healing properties.

Bloody Wedding in Kyiv was read as part of ‘German Literature Month 10’.

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