‘The Women at the Pump’ by Knut Hamsun (1920 Club)

When I first started looking for books from 1920 I knew I would have to read Knut Hamsun’s The Women at the Pump. Other possibilities would have been re-reads of Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, both which I enjoyed reading eons ago. Another re-read choice would have been some H.P. Lovecraft stories, such as The Statement of Randolph Carter—but I read some Lovecraft for our 1924 Club Year so decided against it this time. So, The Women at the Pump was published in 1920 (of course) which was the year that Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His superb book, The Growth of the Soil, which was published in 1917, was cited as being instrumental in the prize being awarded to him. As is often the case with authors I like, he had some dodgy political views, such as supporting the Nazi regime; he even gave Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift. I don’t actually know much about his life but would certainly like to read a biography; I know of at least one that is available in English—Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson. My copy of The Women at the Pump was published by Souvenir Books (now owned by Profile Books), who have several of Hamsun’s books available, and was translated by Oliver & Gunnvor Stallybrass in 1978.

The events of The Women at the Pump take place in some unnamed Norwegian coastal town in some undefined period presumably before WWI, as the war is not mentioned or even hinted at. There is little plot, as such, which seems to annoy some people (at least it does on GoodReads), but a lot of character studies, which I always enjoy. Throughout the book the focus switches between many of the inhabitants of the town, but the main focus is on Oliver Andersen and his family. But there is also Jørgen the fisherman; Johnsen of the Wharf, a double Consul; Carlsen the blacksmith; Mattis the carpenter; Olaus, a loafer; and a doctor, a postmaster etc. And as the book progresses there are sons and daughters of these characters, and more. I must admit I love this type of book with a multitude of characters. So Oliver Andersen (who it should be noted is blue-eyed) gets a job on a ship, called Fia, which is owned by the consul C.A. Johnsen. It is, however, only a few months before Oliver returns home crippled; he’s lost a leg and claims that he was crushed under a barrel of whale oil. Life is tough on his return; he lives with his mother, and his girlfriend, Petra, is unsure whether to resume their relationship.

As we get to know Oliver over the course of the novel we see that he’s a bit of a rascal, and a scallywag, but overall he’s a good(ish) sort. He’s not violent, or a drinker, or a gambler; he loves his wife and his children and he has a bit of a sweet tooth; but he’s not adverse to lying, or breaking the law if it might benefit him, and his family, in some way. We get the feeling that Hamsun has a bit of a soft spot for Oliver. Here are a couple of descriptions of his character, which mostly appear near the end of the novel.

Now as before, as nearly always these last twenty years, Oliver’s life is partly within the law, partly on the borderline, occasionally a little outside.

Oliver was made of sterner stuff, less delicate and sensitive, more carefree, in short, the right human clay; he could endure life. Who had taken a harder knock than he? But a tiny upward turn in his fortunes, a lucky theft, a successful swindle, restored him to contentment.

Oliver no longer begins anything anywhere, beginning things is not his business, he stays where he is put, uncrushed by human thought, unconverted by the women at the pump. Naturally life, fate, and God are damned high-class questions and very necessary questions, but they will be solved by people who have learned to read and write; what use are they to Oliver? If a brain like his starts busying itself with the why and the wherefore, it will go into a tailspin, and then Oliver will be unable to continue with his work, to enjoy his food and candy, to be fit for what he is. Leave getting above oneself to others!

Oliver has ups and downs throughout his life, and his relationship with his wife, Petra, is stormy. At times they seem to hate each other. Here’s Petra’s view of him at one such low point.

Petra doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at him, she is so weary of his talk and of his person. Oh, that lump of fat in the chair—it breathes, it wears clothes that someone has sewn, it has buttons on its clothes; on its upper end it has a hat, tilted at an angle. She knows it all inside out, the sprawling wooden leg that projects into the narrow room and blocks the way, his conversation, all the lies, the bombast, the voice that grows more and more like a woman’s, the lusterless, watery-blue gaze, the mouth that is perpetually moist. Year by year he seems to be going to pieces; only his appetite remains intact. And there isn’t always enough to eat.

Still, Oliver and Petra have two boys, Frank and Abel, and three girls. Throughout the book it is clear that there is more to Oliver’s injury than he lets on and although it’s pretty clear to the reader what the problem is, the rest of the characters seem oblivious, and at times Oliver and Petra themselves seem unaware.

What is especially enjoyable about this book is the humour and the compassion that Hamsun has for the characters, indeed all the characters; there is no-one that is wholly bad or contemptible, no-one that the reader ends up hating. The postmaster can’t stop talking about metaphysics to uninterested listeners, the doctor is a misanthrope, Oliver’s son Frank is studious but dull, his other son, Abel, is in love since an early age with Little Lydia, who is totally uninterested in him, Oliver has a long-lasting feud with the carpenter over some doors and much, much more. And the women at the pump? Well, we’re never allowed to listen in on them directly but we do hear, throughout the book, what is being discussed by the women at the pump and what they think. Anything that is worth knowing is known by the women at the pump and known before anyone else.

Human beings push against each other and trample on each other; some sink exhausted to the ground and serve as a bridge for others, some perish—they are the ones least fitted for coping with the push, and they perish. That can’t be helped. But the others flourish and blossom. Such is life’s immortality. All this, mind you, they knew at the pump.

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‘Timbuktu’ by Paul Auster

I recently read Paul Auster’s brilliant novel, The Music of Chance, as my contribution to AnnaBookBel’s Paul Auster Reading Week. It was fun reading all the blog posts on Auster’s works, some I’d read, but some I hadn’t. Timbuktu was one of the few of Auster’s earlier novels that I hadn’t read so I was very pleased to find that I won it as part of Annabel’s giveaway at the end of the Auster week. I was between books when it arrived, I read the first line, and as is often the case with Auster’s works, I couldn’t stop.

Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it.

Mr. Bones is a dog, Willy’s pet and companion. Willy’s full name is Willy G. Christmas and he is on his last legs. They have recently arrived in Baltimore in search of Willy’s old teacher, Bea Swanson, the only problem is that he’s not sure where she lives, or if he can make it there. Willy has two things to accomplish before he dies, firstly he needs to find a new owner for Mr. Bones and secondly he needs to find someone to whom he can bequeath his only valuable possessions, his manuscripts; although Willy has been homeless since the death of his mother, he is also a writer, and Bea is the only person he trusts. That he fails in both of these goals is typical of Willy.

Willy’s sidekick was a hodgepodge of genetic strains – part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle – and to make matters worse, there were burrs protruding from his ragged coat, bad smells emanating from his mouth, and a perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes.

The story is told from Mr. Bones’ viewpoint; as Willy likes to talk and Mr. Bones likes to listen we find out about Willy’s life. Born in 1947 (the same year as Auster) as William Gurevitch, he was brought up in Brooklyn by his Polish immigrant parents. When his father died just after Willy’s twelfth birthday he was brought up by his mother alone. At university Willy took a lot of drugs and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. After he was released he switched from drugs to alcohol, which stabilised him a little, and he then had the experience that changed his life: one time whilst watching late-night T.V. he had a conversation with an on-screen Santa Claus, who convinced Willy to ‘ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.’ Willy changed his name and had a tattoo of Santa on his right arm. His relationship with his mother was strained and it was at this point that Willy began to spend the summer months wandering around the country only to return to his mother’s apartment in the winter. He also resumed his writing. But the years went by and Willy felt the need of a dog, both for companion and protection. So he got Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones loved Willy and Willy loved Mr. Bones. Indeed, Willy believed that Mr. Bones’ body contained the soul of an angel.

When the narrative turns back to the present, an exhausted Willy has come to a stop on the steps of a building. Willy enters into a brilliant monologue about his life and then falls asleep. Mr. Bones curls up against Willy and falls asleep, then events get a little confusing.

That was when he dreamed the dream in which he saw Willy die. It began with the two of them waking up, opening their eyes and emerging from the sleep they had just fallen into – which was the sleep they were in now, the same one in which Mr. Bones was dreaming the dream.

Ok, it’s a dream within a dream, which is nothing new, but it’s done well, and when they both wake up events follow a similar course as the dream, with Mr. Bones fleeing from Willy, whom he believes to be dead, and fleeing from some policemen, whom he believes will take him into a ‘shelter’, something which Willy has warned him about. Mr. Bones now has to make his own way in the world and the narrative becomes a bit more of an adventure story.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the ending in this paragraph.
Mr. Bones has some bad times and some good times but as we get near the end of the book we realise it’s not going to end well for him. After being adopted by a loving family he is then left at a kennel whilst they go on holiday, he escapes, only to find himself out in the snow, ill and exhausted, much like Willy was earlier. He ends up running into oncoming traffic to commit suicide—an ending very similar to the ending of The Music of Chance. It made me think that both novels have similar themes: aimless/lost wandering; characters with a lack of purpose; the death of a close companion or friend; being trapped in an almost inescapable situation; escaping from situation only to commit suicide. This is not meant as criticism of Auster as I often like writers who work away on their obsessions, each time from a slightly different angle, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed the similarity between both books if I hadn’t read them so close together. Timbuktu is another excellent novel by Auster and I’m glad I finally got round to reading it.

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‘Incest’ (Eugénie de Franval) by Marquis de Sade

This Hesperus Press edition was originally published in 2003. It is a novella-length story of 89 pages translated by Andrew Brown. The original story was published as Eugénie de Franval in what was to be the only collection of Sade’s stories to be published in his lifetime, Les Crimes de l’amour in 1800, a collection which consisted of eleven stories and one essay, in four volumes. It is believed that these stories were written between 1786 and 1788 when Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille. Different translations of Eugénie de Franval are available in English, such as David Coward’s translation in the Oxford University Press 2005 collection, The Crimes of Love, which includes seven of the original stories along with the essay on novels. The original collection, Les Crimes de l’amour, does not contain the explicit material for which Sade has become infamous, and as such was published under his own name. But the material is still quite risqué as it invariably includes libertines as main characters who are not afraid to voice their opinions and act on their desires. Last year I read Virtue, which was another story originally from Les Crimes de l’amour. I have also set up a page on Sade’s shorter works which may be of use to anyone who is trying to make sense of the English translations currently available. More recently Alma Classics published an edition of this translation with a less explicit cover.

M. de Franval is a young, handsome libertine. When the question of marriage arises and he makes it known that he wishes to have a young wife, then the fifteen year-old, beautiful, Mlle de Farneille seems a perfect match. Her mother, Mme de Farneille, who is still only thirty-two years old, has ‘intelligence and charm’. Within a year of their marriage Mme de Franval (née Mlle de Farneille) gives birth to a daughter, Eugénie.

M. de Franval, who, the minute this child saw the light of day, no doubt conceived the most detestable designs on her, straight away separated her from her mother.

And so, Franval takes Eugénie away from her mother despite the protests from his wife and mother-in-law. Eugénie only meets her mother for the first time when she is seven years old. Eugénie is fed well, has an excellent education and is allowed to play with other children as well as attend theatres, but she is ‘protected’ from the influence of religion by her father. Franval tries to inculcate in his daughter his own views on morality and religion.

By the age of fourteen Eugénie loves her father and despises her mother and it is at this age that Franval decides to act. Having groomed his daughter since birth he talks to her as a lover and Eugénie replies likewise, she wants no other man. Although the narrator ostensibly condemns this relationship, he dwells on the details and tries to make it sound like a beautiful relationship between equals. In his ‘libertine novels’ incestuous and paedophilic actions occur frequently and violently; here Sade is still trying to transgress contemporary morality but more insidiously. Unaware of the relationship between father and daughter, Eugénie’s mother announces that a M. de Colunce has asked for Eugénie’s hand in marriage. Franval puts his foot down and tells his wife to tell Colunce that his ‘daughter was born with certain defects which are obstacles to the bonds of marriage.’ Franval’s wife and mother-in-law become suspicious as they know this not to be true and they call upon the help of a priest, M. de Clervil.

Sade now has Franval and Eugénie renew their love for each other and has them speak like any other lovers in novels. Eugénie’s mother, grandmother and Clervil now try to get her to marry Colunce, whom she doesn’t love. If Eugénie was in love with anyone else we would see Clervil et al. as the ‘baddies’ trying to force her to marry someone against her will. Franval, being a libertine, is not scared of using dirty tactics and so he decides to get Valmont, a fellow libertine, to seduce Mme de Franval and blackmail her, with forged love letters, into leaving Franval alone. It is Valmont who reveals Franval’s and Eugénie’s true relationship to her.

With events running away from her Mme de Farneille, Franval’s mother-in-law, asks Clervil to talk to Franval and Eugénie. Clervil and Franval spar: when Clervil states that happiness cannot be found in crime, Franval gives the Sadean reply that all crimes are relative and so all happiness is relative.

‘No, Monsieur, no, there is nothing real in the world, nothing which merits praise or blame, nothing worthy of being rewarded or punished, nothing which, though it is unjust here, is not legitimate five hundred leagues away—no real evil, in a word, and no constant good.’

Clervil, who has been advised against referring to scripture, uses a pragmatic argument that transgressing local laws will lead to further crimes and incur punishment.

‘Furthermore, the habit of overriding ordinary constraints soon leads us to break more serious ones, and, from error to error, we end up committing crimes which are properly punished in every country in the whole world, and properly inspire dread in all reasonable creatures which inhabit the globe, under whichever pole it might be.’

Franval argues that Eugénie freely chose to be his lover and that he did not force her. Clervil says that Franval put the thought into her head for selfish reasons. Franval tries to use the forged letters to convince Clervil of Mme de Franval’s unfaithful behaviour but Clervil knows them to be fakes. When Clervil tries to convince Eugénie of her error she throws herself, nakedly, at him and tries to create a scandal; Clervil withdraws. This dialogue is interesting in that Clervil’s arguments against Franval (Sade) are valid and as justified as Franval’s; neither man is seen to ‘win’ the argument.

From here on the plot gets complicated and melodramatic as it involves double-crossing, kidnapping, murder and suicide. As this story was meant for a general readership, Sade has Franval and Eugénie repent for their crimes. The final scene is suitably gothic with castles, lightning, coffins, corpses and suicide.

Although not as explicit as his libertine novels, Incest is still quite shocking for the modern reader, as it must have been for the contemporary reader. It is clear that Franval intends to control and manipulate Eugénie until she is of age to become his lover. Sade disliked the influence that religion had over society and certainly disapproved of girls being brought up uneducated, unaware of sex and then married off at an early age to a man she does not love. Was Sade trying to show that Franval’s methods of bringing up Eugénie were no less controlling, no less manipulative and no less selfish than the way girls were brought up by church and state? Sade may argue that at least with Franval Eugénie had an education and was allowed to, and capable of, making a decision on whom to love and that she would have had no choice if she had been raised as her mother wished. The modern reader would surely say that Eugénie was groomed by Franval for his own sexual gratification and that she had no choice at all and that both scenarios are bad for Eugénie. It is always difficult to know if Sade is trying to make a serious point or whether he is just out to shock the reader. He always undermines any point he is trying to make by having his characters act abominably, even in these ‘mainstream’ works. Still, I believe that Incest would be a good book to read for anyone wishing to get a ‘flavour’ of Sade’s writing but who are wary of reading his more sexually violent works.

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‘The Music of Chance’ by Paul Auster

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out.

The Music of Chance was originally published in 1990 and it is one of my favourite books by Auster. I had intended to read 4 3 2 1 for Annabookbel’s Paul Auster Reading Week but I didn’t plan ahead, so I thought I’d re-read an old favourite instead.

Paul Auster usually starts his books with a great opening sentence, and The Music of Chance is no different—see quote at top of page. Over the next few pages we discover that Jim Nashe had inherited two hundred thousand dollars from his father, whom he hadn’t seen for over thirty years. This inheritance arrived at a pivotal time in Nashe’s life as his wife, Thérèse, had recently left him and his daughter was now living with his sister. After paying off some debts, he bought a new car and went on the road for two weeks, driving for seven straight hours each day and staying in motels at night.

Every morning he would go to sleep telling himself that he had had enough, that there would be no more of it, and every afternoon he would wake up with the same desire, the same irresistible urge to crawl back into the car. He wanted that solitude again, that nightlong rush through the emptiness, that rumbling of the road along his skin.

He returned to work but soon decided to leave his job, sell all his possessions and go on the road for good. He had no plans but he thought he’d soon get bored with it, only he didn’t, instead he criss-crossed the country, occasionally dropping in to see his daughter, Juliette.

The thought of just disappearing, or running away, from one’s current life must occur to everyone at some point in their life. But, if we had the money to do so, would we act on it? Most, likely not, but the characters in Auster’s books often do act on these impulses and it is what makes them compelling to read.

Then, after just over a year on the road, he meets Jack Pozzi, a twenty-three year old poker player, and this chance encounter knocks his life into another lane. Nashe meets Pozzi hitchhiking, his clothes are all bloody and he looks dazed; it turns out that he’d just escaped from a beating after a poker game turned violent after he was suspected of hustling them. He was trying to raise some money for another poker game with a couple of millionaires, whom he likens to Laurel and Hardy, in just a few days’ time. Nashe gets to know Pozzi, and although he’s brash and cocky, Nashe realises he is a good poker player and makes the proposal to fund Pozzi ten thousand dollars for a fifty-fifty split of the winnings. This is nearly the last of his funds.

Bill Flower and Willie Stone are a strange couple; they won their money on the lottery a few years earlier and now live in the same mansion albeit in separate wings. Stone’s wife had died, whilst Flower’s wife had left him, neither had re-married. They both enjoy playing poker but have other interests, which become significant later on in the novel; Stone is building a scale-model of a city, called ‘The City of the World’, which he intends to spend the rest of his life working on, whilst Flower collects all sorts of objects, especially the stones of a fifteenth-century castle from Ireland which he’d bought, dismantled and shipped to America. The intention is to build a wall with the stones.

Now, halfway through this novel they begin their game of poker. Pozzi is confident as he had beaten Flower and Stone a few years ago. The two millionaires, however, have been coached by a well-known poker player and are confident also.

Things don’t go as well as expected for Nashe and Pozzi and they have to pay off their debt to the millionaires. If you are intending to read this book it may be a good idea to stop reading here as I’m going to reveal some details about the end of the book.

When I first read The Music of Chance many years ago I found it an amazing book, very nearly perfect, except for the ending. I expected that Nashe would never pay off his debt and he’d end up performing a Sisyphean task; if not building, dismantling, rebuilding the wall, then something similar, another task maybe; but Auster just cut the story off with a suicidal car crash. I remember feeling a bit ‘cheated’ by the ending, but now, after a second reading, I’m not so sure, and I think maybe Auster was right in ending it the way he did. Nashe’s year-long driving spree could be seen as a long slow suicide attempt; maybe suicide was an unconscious goal all along and now that he gets control of his car once again he can finish the job.

Pozzi had been beaten up, possibly killed, after trying to escape and Nashe may have felt that he also had no way out of the contract. But he kills himself, as well as Murks and Floyd, just when he is celebrating being clear of his debt. Does Nashe believe, like Pozzi did, that he isn’t really going to escape from his debt, or is it the freedom that he finds unendurable? I must admit that I like this violent, destructive ending more than I did before.

A film was made of the book in 1993 which was directed by Philip Haas and starred James Spader, as well as a cameo by Paul Auster. I have seen the film and have a feeling that the ending was changed. I shall have to watch it again as I remember really liking it.

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‘Cider With Rosie’ by Laurie Lee

Following on from my recent read of Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning I thought I should actually get round to reading Cider With Rosie. I know I’m reading them the wrong way round but I can’t see that it really matters. I watched the BBC adaption a few years ago and I think I’ve seen one of the earlier film versions but, hey, you can’t get enough of a good thing. I was surprised to find that the novel is not told in a chronological order but is instead divided into thematic chapters, which I quite liked.

Instead of reviewing the book I wanted to share a few quotations from it that appealed to me. The first is a description of the family’s kitchen, a kitchen landscape.

That kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, was scruffy, warm, and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled around each day. A black grate crackled with coal and beech-twigs; towels toasted on the guard; the mantel was littered with fine old china, horse brasses, and freak potatoes. On the floor were strips of muddy matting, the windows were choked with plants, the walls supported stopped clocks and calendars, and smoky fungus ran over the ceilings. There were also six tables of different sizes, some armchairs gapingly stuffed, boxes, stools, and unravelling baskets, books and papers on every chair, a sofa for cats, a harmonium for coats, and a piano for dust and photographs. These were the shapes of our kitchen landscape, the rocks of our submarine life, each object worn smooth by our constant nuzzling, or encrusted by lively barnacles, relics of birthdays and dead relations, wrecks of furniture long since foundered, all silted deep by Mother’s newspapers which the years piled round on the floor.

In the second quote, which appears near the end of the book, Lee compares how adolescents are treated in the city with the country; he says: ‘The modern city, for youth, is a police-trap.’ He then takes a rather rose-tinted view of crime and punishment in the country; it’s a wonderful quote though.

Our village was clearly no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it. We certainly committed our share of statutory crime. Manslaughter, arson, robbery, rape cropped up regularly throughout the years. Quiet incest flourished where the roads were bad; some found their comfort in beasts; and there were the usual friendships between men and boys who walked through the fields like lovers. Drink, animality, and rustic boredom were responsible for most. The village neither approved nor disapproved, but neither did it complain to authority. Sometimes our sinners were given hell, taunted, and pilloried, but their crimes were absorbed in the local scene and their punishment confined to the parish.

And I may as well end with a quote from the scene which gives the book its name. Sex and cider with Rosie in the summertime.

Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again…

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‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ by Laurie Lee

I first read this book about twenty-five years ago when I was little older than Laurie Lee was in this memoir. It begins in 1934 with Laurie embarking on a journey from his home in the Cotswolds where he heads eastwards along the south coast of England and then towards London. He is young, clueless and naive, but therein lies the appeal of the book. The young Laurie is looking for adventure but doesn’t quite know where or how to find it. Coming to the end of a labouring job in London Laurie decides to travel abroad and when he notes that he knows the Spanish phrase for ‘Will you please give me a glass of water?’ he decides to get a one-way ticket to Spain. Arriving in the north-west city of Vigo he walks slowly southwards, with his fiddle-playing being his only source of income. By the end of the book he has made his way to the southern coastal town of Almuñécar where he stays for a while working in a hotel. However the civil war breaks out and Laurie ends up being evacuated back to Britain. The novel ends with Laurie making his way back into Spain across the French Pyrenees.

This is a wonderfully poetic book about youth and the joy of living. I decided to re-read it at this point because I noticed on the GoodReads page that it was first published on 12th December 1969—exactly fifty years ago today. I’ve tried to verify this date but have not had much luck, so I’ll choose to believe it until proved otherwise. The publication date is especially significant to me as it was also the day that I was born.

It was 1934. I was nineteen years old, still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune. I carried a small rolled-up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle biscuits, and some cheese. I was excited, vain-glorious, knowing I had far to go; but not, as yet, how far. As I left home that morning and walked away from the sleeping village, it never occurred to me that others had done this before me.

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‘Witiko’ (Book Three) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

And so, on we go with Book Three of Stifter’s Witiko. Book Two ended with Witiko preparing, over the winter months, for the coming war in the spring. Book Three begins after the recent battle at Mt. Branis in which Prince Wratislaw’s troops have been repelled by Witiko’s forces. Over the next few days Witiko’s forces meet up with Wladislaw(W)’s forces, as well as receiving reinforcements from elsewhere. Witiko renews his oath to Wladislaw(W)’s cause.

   “Witiko,” the duke said, “give me your hand.”
   Witiko extended his hand to the duke; the latter took it and said, “As I press your hand, I am and hope to remain always your friend. Be devoted to me throughout the coming years, if I deserve it.”
   “Your Grace,” Witiko replied, “I came to you because I considered you the rightful duke; I gladly served you because you are are a good duke, and I have grown to love you because you are a just man.”

It is not long before both sides are ready to go to battle again.

Desolation, destruction, annihilation was the order of the day between two peoples who should have been living in harmony under the same ruler.

Wladislaw(W) is, once again, triumphant as the city of Znaim surrenders. They bury the dead and tend to the wounded of both sides. Wladislaw(W) tries to avoid committing any atrocities against the enemy, especially as this is a civil war and he sees both sides as his people. Within a few months all of Moravia is back under Wladislaw(W)’s control.

So, job done! Witiko returns home and visits the construction site of Heinrich’s castle (Heinrich is Witiko’s father-in-law-to-be). Witiko goes aroaming again and brings his mother and family to his home in Pric. Once he has confirmation that he has been enfeoffed with the regions promised to him he begins to construct his own castle, starting with the well. Now he is a lord and will soon own a castle he feels he can formally ask for Bertha’s hand in marriage; so off he goes to see Heinrich. This all takes quite a while, of course, as there are a lot of formal procedures to get through. Bertha, unsurprisingly, agrees to the marriage and they go off for a walk to the stone seats in the meadow where they first met.

   “Here is the spot,” Bertha said.
   “You stood here with the roses,” Witiko said.
   “And you stood over there with the sun shining on the rocks, and then you walked toward me,” Bertha said.
   “I was startled when I saw you wearing the forest roses,” Witiko said, “because in my country they are often revered.”
   “It was fate to take the roses on that day, and we must honor them,” Bertha said.
   “We must honor them,” Witiko replied, “and they will always be a symbol for me.”

But the warring is not quite over. Wladislaw(S) and his supporters make an appeal to Duke Wladislaw(W) that he, Wladislaw(S), should rightfully be the Duke of Bohemia and Moravia, thereby re-hashing the initial succession debate that was voted on and then fought over. After listening to the appeals Wladislaw(W) unsurprisingly rejects them. However, he does not punish them but allows them to retain their lands. There is peace for a while but more trouble is brewing.

Before the leaves of the birches turned yellow and the beeches’ leaves red, the building with its scaffolding rose like a tremendous four cornered tower above the forest visible from far away.

Meanwhile, Witiko’s castle is completed and his marriage to Bertha can proceed. There is a lavish celebration beginning with a ‘courting procession’. There is much feasting and many gifts are exchanged.

   After twelve days of festivities, Witiko’s friends and other guests departed with wishes for his happiness and praises of Bertha and the forest.
   When all were gone, Witiko stood with Bertha on the southern balcony pointing out the meadows and mountains he had told her of on the stones of the lonely meadow near her father’s forest home.

In the new year there is an uprising of princes in Moravia including Konrad von Znaim, Wratislaw and also Wladislaw(W)’s own brother Diepold, who had helped with Wladislaw(W)’s defence of Prague. Events begin to be a bit rushed now in Stifter’s narrative. Konrad von Znaim and Wratislaw are excommunicated, Diepold repents. Wladislaw(W) goes on a crusade (Second Crusade of 1146) but Witiko doesn’t. The narrative turns to Friedrich, Holy Roman Emperor, who is about to embark on an Italian campaign against Milan, which has revolted against his rule. In order to enlist Wladislaw(W)’s help he crowns him as King of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many that object to this but Wladislaw(W) gets his way; I guess it solves the succession problem. They go off to lay siege on Milan and eventually succeed and return triumphant.

So, after nearly 600 pages, or 300,000 words, of Stifter’s Witiko was it really worth reading? The short answer is ‘no’. Its style is so stilted and stylised that it is quite boring to read. Stifter’s other novel, Indian Summer, is similar, but there was a pay off, I felt, as in that novel the descriptions of the houses and landscape were often beautiful, the conversations about art and science were at least interesting and there were different characters, even if they were all of the same type. But in Witiko the prose is flat, almost dead, there are no discernible characters as everyone is the same and all conversations are formal and stiff. The conversation between Witiko and Bertha quote above is about as free as it gets. There are no thoughts, banter, sex, ribaldry, passion, personal opinions or humour…definitely no humour. Presumably the topic itself would be a bit of a problem for many historical novelists but most would, I believe, try to inject some humanity and passion into the narrative; Stifter tries, and succeeds, in sucking out anything of the like so that we are just left with this dried-up husk of a novel—an anti-Romantic historical novel.

I am intrigued enough, though, to wonder what Stifter’s motives were for writing this book, especially as it seems so different from his other novellas, most of which are set in contemporary Germany/Austria. Witiko was originally published as three separate books between 1865 and 1867. As the Prussian-dominated unification of Germany happened in 1871 maybe Stifter was concerned that Bohemia would be incorporated into this united Germany, even though it was still part of the Austrian Empire. Or maybe Stifter was anticipating the break-up of the Austrian Empire and the possibility of an independent state for Bohemia and Moravia—maybe he was trying to supply it with some historical gravitas: See how we ruled by ourselves in the past. My knowledge of this period is too patchy to make any further comments but it would be interesting to read more. Unfortunately I know of no biographies of Stifter available in English and although there are some critical studies of his work available in English they are all pretty expensive. One that I would like to read is Adalbert Stifter And The Idyll: A Study Of Witiko by Barbara S. Grossmann Stone and published by Peter Lang.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Crowds and Power’ by Elias Canetti (GLM IX)

Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a book I first read many years ago and one that I had intended to re-read for quite a few years now. With my reading of Stifter’s Witiko taking place only at the weekends I thought Crowds and Power would be a great book to read during the weekday commute; it’s non-fiction, which I sometimes find easier to read on a crowded bus, and it’s split into small chapters. Given that I’d considered Crowds and Power to be a favourite of mine when I first read it, I was surprised to find I was less enamoured with it second time around. Still, its positives outweigh its negatives and I would still recommend it to anyone at all interested in the subject.

Crowds and Power was first published as Masse und Macht in 1960 and was translated into English by Carol Stewart in 1962. It was the first significant work published by Canetti since his novel Auto da Fe in 1935. Canetti settled in England in 1938 but I don’t know when he started to work on Crowds and Power. Given the period in which he was writing, with the rise of totalitarian states, we might expect Canetti to concentrate explicitly on such states but they barely get a mention. Instead Canetti takes a more literary, symbolic approach to the subject and he relies on examples from history and anthropolgy rather than more contemporary examples, presumably in order to highlight that the analysis applies to humanity in general rather than the specific cases of Nazism and Stalinism. Crowds and Power is not a textbook on crowd psychology but is more the analysis of a largely ignored topic by an intelligent man.

The book covers a lot of ground and a full review is, quite frankly, beyond my capabilities, however, I would like to give a taste of what is contained within it. Here is the first paragraph:

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless flesh of the victim.

Canetti introduces us to the different types of crowds, including some that we might not have even thought of as a crowd, such as the dead. Other adjectives used to describe different types of crowds are: open, closed, stagnating, rhythmic, slow, invisible, baiting, flight, prohibition, reversal, feast. Canetti introduces the concept of a ‘crowd crystal’ which serves to precipitate crowds. He also makes use of ‘crowd symbols’ throughout the book as well as ‘national crowd symbols’. At one point Canetti declares that money is a crowd symbol and that inflation is a crowd phenomenon.

What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity. The crowd it is part of starts growing and, the larger it becomes, the smaller becomes the worth of each unit. The millions one always wanted are suddenly there in one’s hand, but they are no longer millions in fact, but only in name.

It is in this section that Canetti makes one of his rare comments about Hitler and the Nazis. Canetti compares the depreciation of the German mark during the Weimar Republic with the ‘depreciation’ of the Jews under the Nazis.

The world is still horrified and shaken by the fact that the Germans could go so far; that they either participated in a crime of such magnitude, or connived at it, or ignored it. It might not have been possible to get them to do so if, a few years before, they had not been through an inflation during which the mark fell to a billionth of its former value. It was this inflation, as a crowd experience, which they shifted on to the Jews.

Canetti now shifts his attention to power, beginning with the brilliantly titled chapter, ‘The Entrails of Power’ which includes one of my favourite sections of the book, ‘On the Psychology of Eating’. Canetti draws the connection between eating and power and makes the point that the man who can eat the most is a ‘champion’ and in older socities a potential leader. Here is a great quote on eating in general; Canetti is very much thinking of meat-eaters here.

People sit together, bare their teeth and eat and, even in this critical moment, feel no desire to eat each other. They respect themselves for this, and respect their companions for an abstemiousness equal to their own.

In this section Canetti also makes this comment on laughter and power.

A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it. Laughter is our physical reaction to the escape of potential food.

In the chapter, ‘The Survivor’, Canetti connects power with survival, but where the ordinary individual wishes to survive, Canetti points out that to be the lone survivor is the real goal of all leaders and the final claim to power; and to be the lone survivor one needs to kill others. He makes the following blunt statement:

It is those who devote themselves to killing who have power.

He then goes on to make the following case.

The deception is complete. It is the deception of all leaders. They pretend that they will be the first to die, but, in reality, they send their people to death, so that they themselves may stay alive longer. The trick is always the same. The leader wants to survive, for with each survival he grows stronger. If he has enemies, so much the better; he survives them. If not, he has his own people. In any event he uses both, whether successively or together. Enemies he can use openly; that is why he has enemies. His own people must be used secretly.

Canetti uses examples of tyrants and despots throughout history, some are well-known, whereas others virtually unknown. But it is unclear sometimes whether he is making the claim that all leaders, even those of democracies, suffer from the same delusions. Given the times that he had lived through maybe he was sceptical of democracies surviving. Maybe Canetti felt that this ‘natural’ grab for power would always come to the fore. His summary is certainly pessimistic as the ‘survivor’ now has access to the nuclear bomb which he can use in an instant. He may be able to survive but for how long?

Power is greater than it has ever been, but also more precarious. Today either everyone will survive or no one.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book Two) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

The first book of Witiko ended with Wladislaw(W), together with Witiko, retreating to Prague after the inconclusive battle at Mt. Wysoka. Wladislaw(W) allows free passage to those that do not want to fight alongside him, but those that stay must prepare for a siege and a battle. Wladislaw(W) holds counsel with those that decide to stay. Stifter seems to enjoy writing these formal meetings where important decisions are made as several have appeared in the book so far; he loves the formal structure of them, I feel, and he portrays them being held in a controlled manner—I’m convinced they would be more raucous than he portrays. After giving a summary of his leadership and his aims for the battle, Wladislaw(W) decides to visit King Konrad in Germany to ask for assistance in the coming siege. He is reluctant to call on outside help but feels it is necessary. Witiko is to accompany him on this misssion, whilst the defence of Prague is passed to Wladislaw(W)’s brother, Diepold.

It is not long after Wladislaw(W)’s departure before the enemy troops arrive headed by Konrad von Znaim. The siege begins but Diepold organises some attacks on enemy troops beyond the city. They know the local terrain better than the enemy and in one midnight attack they hope to draw the enemy into some marshland.

After some time they found three men standing in the grass. The men were surprised and taken along as prisoners. Soon they reached some campfires and the challenge came: “Konrad!”
They charged the enemy shouting “Wladislaw!”
The guards posted there were slain as were others nearby. They advanced to some tents, slaying or dispersing all who emerged or leaped up from the ground. Screams spread through the camp. Diepold forbade his men to set anything ablaze so they wouldn’t be illuminated by the glare. The numbers fleeing increased; whenever a group resisted, many were slain, others pushed back. Diepold was always hot on their heels, slashing with his sword. No space was permitted to arise between the pursued and the pursuers. Diepold charged into the enemy’s confusion like an ocean wave raging against the sandy shore, sweeping everything before it.

Diepold and his men manage to return to the city. The enemy soon start to attack the city with catapults, burning arrows, and other flammable materials whilst Diepold attempts more nightime attacks on the enemy. Here is another quote of the fighting during a raid.

They fought man to man with their swords, even their sword grips; they thrust, stabbed, hacked, striking at limbs and bodies with axes, clubs, spears, and poles. The shadow of death descended on many eyes; its darkness overtook many who would never again see father, mother, sisters and neighbours, while others sank down in the hurly-burly with shattered limbs or other severe wounds.

Meanwhile Wladislaw(W) entreats Konrad of Germany for help. Stifter gets another chance to describe all the formal conversations that this involves, the arguments and counter-arguments, but in the end Konrad agrees to help. Diepold manages to withstand the siege and on the arrival of Wladisalw(W) and Konrad of Germany the enemy armies disperse so that no further fighting is required…for now.

Before he can return home there is a small matter of a trial for Witiko; earlier on he had let some enemy troops escape when out scouting; he is not found guilty of treason but he did transgress military law. He gets a small fine and a slap on the wrist. Witiko then returns to Plan. At home he embarks on loads of visits to all the people we met in Book One. There is also a romantic interlude where he proposes to Bertha, whom he also first met in Book One, and they kiss. But Witiko has to prove himself as a worthy man first, by fighting in the battle expected the following year. Much of the rest of Book Two is taken up with Witiko’s wanderings; he leaves Heinrich’s house, he is ambushed, he accompanies Bishop Zdik to the city of Passau, he travels down the Danube to Vienna where he meets his mother, who is a guest of the Margrave of Austria. Witiko returns to Plan and through the winter months he prepares an army in order to be ready for battle in the spring.

Stifter’s style can sometimes be maddening; we get no psychological insight to any of the characters, not even Witiko, but we also have no idea, when he goes wandering, where he is heading to, or why. Sometimes an explanation, of sorts, comes after the events. Also, the conversations are all so stilted, or if we wish to be kinder we may say they’re stylised. In the formal assemblies and counsels this may be understandable but all of the characters speak like it all of the time. What follows is an example of his prose and dialogue. Stifter certainly captures the pedantic, boring language that was, most probably, used in a medieval courtroom. Many such sections of text are contained in Witiko, so if you’re tempted to read the book it would be useful to see if you can cope with this without falling asleep. I must admit I found it quite amusing.

Gervasius rose from his seat, and the duke resumed his.
From his chair he said, “Say the words I gave you to tell Konrad, Duke of Znaim and of the Premysl Line.”
Gervasius spoke, “You said: Konrad, lay down your weapons, submit to Duke Wladislaw, son of Wladislaw, ask for pardon for your guilt and you shall continue unmolested as a legitimate branch of the sacred Premysl Line.”
“Who heard those words you have spoken?” Wladislaw asked.
“The men you gave me as an escort, Zwest, Wecel, Zdelaw, Bohuslaw, and Casta heard the words I have spoken,” Gervasius said.
“Those men should speak,” Wladislaw commanded.
“I heard his words,” Zwest attested.
“I heard his words,” Wecel added.
“I heard his words,” Zdeslaw said.
“I heard his words,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“I heard his words,” Casta spoke.
“What words did Konrad, Duke of Znaim reply?” Wladislaw asked.
“Konrad, Duke of Znaim, replied,” Gervasius said, “I have been elected as the legitimate Duke of Bohemia and Moravia by the high nobles of these lands and must carry out my office. I shan’t submit to being slain, blinded or imprisoned in some castle by Wladislaw.”
“Do the other men also attest that Konrad, Duke of Znaim, said these words?” Duke Wladislaw asked.
“He said them,” Zwest attested.
“He said them,” Wecel added.
“He said them,” Zdeslaw said.
“He said them,” Bohuslaw spoke.
“He said them,” Casta spoke.
“Chancellor Bartholomaeus, write these words on the parchment,” Wladislaw ordered.
There was silence for a while.
“Have you written these words?” Wladislaw asked
“I have written them,” Bartholomeaus replied.

So, Book Three to go. I’m expecting more fighting, more wandering, more scintillating dialogue and maybe a wedding.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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‘Witiko’ (Book One) by Adalbert Stifter (GLM IX)

Witiko was originally published in three volumes between 1865 and 1867. The three-volume edition I am reading was translated by Wendell Frye in 2006 and was published by Peter Lang. Each book is about two hundred pages long; but it’s a large format book so it’s probably more like three hundred pages of a normal-sized book. It’s so big that I decided just to read it at the weekends so I don’t have to carry it to and from work on my daily commute. I’m hoping to get all three books read during this month, which is of course, German Literature Month.

Witiko is an historical novel that takes place in 12th century Bohemia and concerns a succession struggle that took place involving Witiko of Prčice. Although Stifter studied and lived in Austria for much of his life he was born in Oberplan (now Horní Planá), Bohemia which is in present day Czech Republic but was, in Stifter’s time, part of the Austrian Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having read several of Stifter’s books I was attracted to this massive novel but I had reservations, after all, I know next to nothing about the history of Bohemia in the middle ages. But, so far, this has not caused any major issues as the story seems pretty much self-contained. The occasional reference to an historical atlas or Wikipedia is all that is required as extra reading.

The story begins with a description of the landscape around the city of Passau and then we are introduced to a lone traveller who is making his way in this landscape. The year is 1138, Sobeslaw I is the duke of Bohemia and the traveller turns out to be Witiko.

The man was actually still a youth. He had a light mustache and beard encircling his chin, more yellow than brown. His cheeks were rosy, his eyes blue. You couldn’t tell the color of his hair since it was completely covered by a bowl shaped leather helmet made of such a firm solid material that even a rather strong sword’s blow couldn’t penetrate it. It rested on his head gathering all his hair inside; over his ears and toward the back was an extension to ward off a blow to the neck.

Stifter starts slowly; we are introduced to this young traveller who appears to others to be a knight though he says that he isn’t. He cares for his horse himself when staying at inns rather than have some stranger do so. On his travels he comes across a group of young men on horseback headed by a man dressed in scarlet. They mock and tease Witiko but eventually they talk. The ‘scarlet knight’ gives a long, confusing, account of all the past Polish and Bohemian kings and dukes and the wars they fought, leading up to the current duke Sobeslaw. The ‘scarlet knight’ reveals that he is Wladislaw, the nephew of the Duke Sobeslaw.

The story skips on a couple of years; it is now 1140 and Sobeslaw is gravely ill. Witiko, who is now employed by Sobeslaw, is summoned by him and given the task of finding out who the barons are intending to support as successor to Sobeslaw; there are two contenders, Wladislaw or Wladislaw. Yes, it gets tricky with the names here—there is Sobeslaw’s son Wladislaw, who I will write as Wladislaw(S), and Sobeslaw’s nephew, Wladislaw, the scarlet knight from earlier, who is the son of the Old Duke, called….you guessed it, Wladislaw. I will write the Old Duke as Wladislaw(D) and his son, Sobeslaw’s nephew, as Wladislaw(W). So Witiko travels to Prague and manages to sit in on the discussions in the Wysehrad over the succession of Sobeslaw. Stifter covers this in his slow, pedantic style, which could be quite dull, but I found it quite interesting to see how this early form of parliament dealt with such an important issue as the succession of a duke—how much of it is historically accurate is another question though. In the end Wladislaw(W) is elected to succeed Sobeslaw. On his deathbed Sobeslaw accepts the decision and asks his son, Wladislaw(S), to submit to Wladislaw(W) as he wishes to avoid a future civil war over the issue. However, after Sobeslaw’s death and the succession of Wladislaw(W), Wladislaw(S) flees Bohemia. Wladislaw(W) invites Wladislaw(S) to return, promising that no harm will be done to him or his family and that he will be ‘richly equipped and enfeoffed’.

After the death of Sobeslaw, Witiko returns to one of his mother’s farms in Plan. He helps out and then goes wandering about meeting local landowners.

He watched the villagers at their work and tried to get to know their ways: how they made their stores and divided them for consumption, how they bred their animals and made tools for the field, plows, harrows, rakes, shovels, as well as weapons, tubs, baskets and the like. He watched them making repairs and improving their houses with saws, hammers, and axes, or bringing wood to their homes by the easier method of using sleighs, or satisfying the other necessities of life in their few trades.

Because we never know what the characters are thinking we very often have to take everything at face value. These visits of Witiko’s are not random, they are planned; he is forming friendships and alliances that will be useful later on; he is networking. When a message arrives that Adelheid, Sobeslaw’s widow, has died we are unsure what to make of it; has she been murdered by Wladislaw(W)? Witiko attends a meeting of barons and is invited to further ones which he doesn’t attend. The barons are plotting against Wladislaw(W) and aim to support Wladislaw(S)’s claim to the throne.

It is now 1142 and war seems very likely. We are unsure who Witiko will support, probably because Witiko is also undecided. In the end he reasons thus: Wladislaw(W) was elected at the Wysehrad, Sobeslaw gave his approval of the decision and Witiko feels that the barons were opposed to Wladislaw(W) because of self-interest as Wladislaw(W) was helping protect the common folk against the oppression of the barons. Book One ends with a bloody battle in which Witiko and his men excel; but neither side wins, and so Wladislaw(W) decides to retreat to Prague to regroup and plan for an offensive.

This was read as part of German Literature Month IX.

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