Heat wave: Summer Resort by Esther Kinsky

It’s summertime, somewhere in the vast Hungarian plain, and this one’s a scorcher. The heat presses down on the residents of an unnamed village and threatens to reduce the river—the refuge and solace toward which the winter weary turn to enjoy what little holidays they can scavenge—into a fetid stream. But at the nearby üdülő, the local holiday site with its beach and bar and holiday homes on stilts, seasonal activities will not be curtailed:

On weekdays it was still quiet in the üdülő, but the bar already smelt of what had been left behind from the weekend: spilt beer, sweat, the girls’ summer perfumes, the exhaust clouds of the motorcyclists and helpless chlorine bleach with urine. Around midday clouds appeared over the bend in the river. The sky turned white, the river dark, the heat did not abate, became dense, bright, the poplar leaves rustled, sounded like whirring metal scarecrow strips. The small boats lay pale grey by the bank, motionless, congealed into a river panorama, from which only a powerful gust of wind or the hand of a wrangler or rower could awake them.

On the beach and back in town this will be a summer filled with drama, heartache, and melancholy—business as usual, but with a twist. This year there is a stranger in their midst, the New Woman, who has arrived from afar and settled in with Antal, the mason, who has in turn abandoned his wife and son. Such is the basic outline of Esther Kinsky’s first prose work, the novella, Summer Resort, a short, playfully poetic fable filled with a seemingly endless cast of tragicomic characters and bursting at the seams with striking and delightful wordplay.

With the attention that has come with the publication of River (see my review at Music & Lietrature), Kinsky’s only other translated work to date is likely to attract renewed interest. Compared to River, this earlier novel lacks the emotional resonance and meditative depth that one looking backward might hope for, but what it does offer deserves to be appreciated in its own terms, as an exuberant display of highly-charged linguistic energy, and a clear indication of the animated imagination, attentiveness to nature and the astute eye for detail that will characterize the prose in her longer, more serious work.

Summer Resort is an exercise in tight, contained story telling peopled with eccentric characters. Many exist almost as caricatures, like the Kozac boys who maintain a certain status in town and at the beach—admired, tolerated and resented in turn—the Onion Men, and the generic Marikas and Zsuzsas in their bikinis and glitter sandals. Others fall into closer focus. Lacibácsi the scrap yard dealer who runs the bar at the üdülő each summer aspiring to be a “manbytheriver, a poplarshadowman, a confidant of drunks,” his wife Éva (christened Ruthwoman by the New Woman) and Krisztí, the leather-clad woman who settles herself at the bar, a welcome if uninvited assistant. But at the heart of the story are Antal, his ex-wife Ildi, and son Miklós who each take a brief turn directly narrating pieces of their lives, now forever changed by the insertion of the mysterious New Woman into their midst.

More than anything though, this village and its inhabitants serves as a broad tapestry for Kinsky to weave her poetic magic. Her characters are the ordinary folk, the policeman, the railwayman, the small-time hustlers, the day labourers and the farm workers. Victims of shifting economies, closing industries and faded hopes. The üdülő is a place to lose themselves, to play and dream, but this year of heat and drought, is marked by fires, a shrinking river, and restless bodies tossing between sweat soaked sheets. There is an affectionate sadness that rolls across the surface of the narrative, and a quiet resignation that seeps into the dialogue. But the language is fierce, the imagery vivid: “Katica’s mouth was rose red with lipstick, there was so much red on it that it stood out in the üdülő like a wound.”

This is a startlingly sensual work. Here we find the elements that will later become so essential to the absorbing intensity of River. Kinsky has an unwavering awareness of detail, colour, scents, and sounds. Nature contains both the beautiful and the bleak, the lighthearted and the devastating. As is the case with the river that here, on this flat, unforgiving landscape, is a primal force:

What belongs to the river, what to the land? The floods come swiftly and silently. The river swells up, in the course of a night it casts of the sham cloak of gentleness, bursts its banks, spills over tops of embankments, carries off objects, animals, people. The undertow and thrust of the water changes the landscape. Sky, water, destroyed treetops, helpless house roofs as far as the eye can see. Then the river creeps back into its gentle course, trickles sweetly between the devastated rampant undergrowth of the bank which sticks this way and that, reflects the sky and sun, has long ago secretly discarded in the bushes what it has snatched away, where it is transformed, missing persons first become foul impediments, the vermin of the riverbank and water meadows gathering around them in great clouds, then pale, hollow bodies, through which the wind blows the quiet music of melancholy, which always lurks here in the undergrowth.

Esther Kinsky is a German poet, writer and translator. She has translated literature from English, Russian and Polish, including works by Olga Tokarczuk and Magdalena Tulli. Folkloric tones, reminiscent of some of their work come through here, perhaps, as does a pure poetic sensibility. A restless incantation for the loves and lives that collide in the course of one brittle, unrelenting summer, Summer Resort is a work well worth visiting for anyone interested in tracing the headwaters of River. And anyone else who simply enjoys a good tale.

Summer Resort is translated by Kinsky’s late husband, Martin Chalmers, and published by Seagull Books.

Closing out the old year with December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

So, my first post of 2016 is a look at the last book I read in 2015. In truth I read it throughout the last month of the year, although not a little each day as intended, my father’s illness has interfered with all of my best laid reading plans of late. However I could not allow the year to draw to a close without finishing this book of calendar stories marking a passage through the month of December in the unique and inimitable style of Alexander Kluge, complemented by the haunting wintery forest scenes captured by Gerhard Richter.

2016-01-01 17.29.52This slim, elegant volume is my first encounter with the work of the German writer and film maker Alexander Kluge. The 39 stories, many less than a page long, are presented in a straightforward manner with a humour so subtle and wry that it simmers below the surface, blurring the perceptual line between history and speculation. Kluge offers a chronicle of an alternate reality so close to our own that it can catch you off guard. A flimic sensibility permeates each entry.

December is divided into two sections. The first part contains a series of dated entries, one story, or a cluster of stories, for each day. The years assigned to the dates vary. Many of the scenarios are set in or around the years of the Second World War. Others tend to be placed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. But there are forays far back into prehistory and looking off to a distant future. Characters wander in and out from historical factual reality, war themes of conflict and destruction recur, as do images drawn from concerns about climate change and the fallout from the economic collapse of 2008. The ageless question of the nature of good and evil is a prevalent theme – “evil proves to be good displaced or straying in time” – as is the measure of the passage of time itself, whether measured on a global scale or at a much more personal, intimate level:

“The uncertainty, above all the lack of influence on whether and when someone will be struck down by the war, makes the soul bold. There is nothing to be lost any more.

So, after an air raid in 1944, which went on for hours, Gerda F. did not save herself up any longer. No thought of waiting for one of the returning warriors, whom she still knew and who would ask for her hand. She  didn’t want to get to know any better those left behind in the armament factories of the place. All were looking for closeness. She took a man who was passing through town up to her room. They never saw each other again. There was nothing about it that she regretted.”

The second, shorter section is titled “Calendars are Conservative”. They form a series of reflections on the way time – days, months and years – are recorded, calculated, and, as in certain situations such as during the height of the French Revolution, manipulated and distorted. The revolutions of the earth on its axis and the passage of the planet around the sun may be measurable with relative consistency, but that has not kept humankind from trying to understand, articulate and contain the progress of time, again in both the macro, political sphere and in the individual philosophical context:

“What manifests itself in my story, the story of a living person, is not COMPLETED PAST (what was, because it no longer is), also not the prefect tense of what has been in what I am but instead the OTHER of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

2016-01-01 17.32.15To spend a month, dipping in and out of the stories, anecdotes, and reflections Kluge has assembled to mark the end of the year is a treat. Although the images are often sombre, the atmosphere is contemplative. Gerhard Richter’s accompanying photographs enhance the measured tone. If you have ever experienced a day of heavy and unexpected snowfall, those days in the Northern Hemisphere that can bring all but the most essential services to a halt, granting a welcome reprieve from school or work for many; you will know how time can slow to a leisurely pace while the thick blanket of white muffles the day to day noise of the city. That is the sensation captured in the muted monochrome images of snow laden branches in silenced forests. This is the December we hope for but, caught up with the demands of year end and pressures of the holidays, frequently fail to achieve. A time to contemplate the past, for better or worse, speculate about the future and pull another calendar year to a close.

Translated from German by Martin Chalmers, December is published with the expected fine attention to detail by Seagull Books.

A look at two winter treasures from Seagull Books

It may not be winter by the calendar (yet), but here, where I sit, north of the 49th Parallel and west of the Rocky Mountains, it is a perfect wintery day. The snow has been falling, no too much to be fair, but the wind has been playing with it, sweeping it into drifts and coating the roads with ice. A good day for a good book.

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In recognition of the German Literature Month reading project that is drawing to a close this week (a growing list of over 120 reviews contributed by participating bloggers can be found here) I wanted to call attention to two very special books that not only feature German authors, but celebrate the book as a work of art. Both have winter themes and are published by Calcutta based Seagull Books.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale by Thomas Bernhard is a short fable lavishly illustrated by Sunandini Banerjee. Listed in the Seagull catalog as “Children’s Literature”, I would suggest that this is, aside from being an opportunity to introduce a child to Bernhard early (and who would not want to do that?), a book to speak to the child inside. The story is essentially classic Bernhard. On a cold winter’s night, a physician crossing through the forest on his way to see a patient, stumbles, quite literally over a man lying in the snow. This man with the improbable name of Victor Halfwit is legless as the result of an accident and now, most unfortunately, his wooden legs have “snapped in the middle, as wooden legs do”, leaving him helpless and facing a miserable end. He had been on an ill-conceived attempt to win a bet with a miller who had wagered that he, Mr. Halfwit, would be unable to make his way from Traich to Föding, through the snowy forest, in just one hour, on his wooden legs. The faint chance of winning 800 schillings – the price of the finest pair Russian leather boots, something he had long desired – was too tempting, so Victor took the bet and nearly proved the miller right. Almost. But then, even a happy ending would not be without it’s bitter dark irony. This is Bernhard after all.

Taking a sentence or two at a time, this tale is presented in the company of rich, glorious collages. Drawing inspiration from famous artworks, medical illustrations, Indian imagery, playful designs and so much more, each page turned presents a new, original background to compliment the passage in quite unexpected and infinitely wonderful ways. I will confess that I ordered this book without paying much attention to the description. I knew it was Bernhard, I knew it was illustrated, but I was completely – and happily – caught off guard by this large, most gorgeous book when it arrived in the mail. I had expected something special, but honestly I had imagined something more modest. As a gift for a Bernhard fan or a lover of visual arts, or for yourself, let’s be honest, I would heartily recommend this book.

December is a take on the tradition of calendar stories that pairs 39 short texts by German writer, film director and critic, Alexander Kluge, with 39 haunting photographs of wintery forest scenes by Gerhard Richter. Included in this collection is a story for every day in December. Some are set during the war years, others in the 2000’s; some appear to have a straight forward historical tone, others seem more experimental in form. I can’t actually say because I intend to read this book throughout the month of December. Each entry is short, no more than a couple of pages at most. I bought this book with a gift card my daughter gave me for my birthday, thinking that it would be a welcome companion for the dark days – in a practical and an emotional sense – of December. Like many, I find it to be one of the most difficult times of the year and I look forward to exploring this work as the month unfolds.

Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale and December are both translated from the German by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.