For World Poetry Day, excerpts from a few books on my bedside table

In honour of World Poetry Day (which at the moment, in my time zone, is still happening), I thought I would take a moment to look at some of the poetry currently on my bedside table. I sometimes write about the poetry I read, but do not feel equipped to formally review it. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying it, of course.

I read a lot of poetry in translation. It can, perhaps, be a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem in another language, but that’s not a reason to deny its worth. Poetry opens up worlds of experience in a way prose typically cannot. And when competing (or rather, complementary) translations emerge, I like to think of that as an opportunity to re-experience a piece of literature reflected through a somewhat different prism.

I have a fondness for collections, complete or selected, that allow me to sample a poet’s work across their career, and delight in the magic of opening a book randomly, finding words that strike home. The following pieces are taken from the works I have been spending time with lately:

Water binds me to your name.
Nothings is left of me except you.
Nothing is left of you except me—
a stranger caressing the thighs of a stranger.
O stranger, what will we do with what is left
of the stillness and the brief sleep between two myths?
Nothing carries us: neither path nor home.
Was this the same path from the beginning?
Or did our dreams find a Mongolian horse on a hill
and exchange us for him?
What shall we do?
What shall we do without exile?

—Mahmoud Darwish, from “Who Am I, without Exile?”, translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon, collected in Unfortunately, it was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press)

* * *

I’m a Child of this Century

I’m a child of this dreary century
a child who never grew up
Doubts that set my tongue on fire
burned my wings
I learned to walk
then I unlearned it
I grew weary of oases
and camels eager for ruins
My head turned to the East
I lie in the middle of the road
And wait for the caravan of the mad

—Abdellatif Laâbi, from Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems, translated from French by André Naffi-Sahely (Caranet Press)

* * *

Every day wakes up to some abuse
in my monologue is
embedded the legend of my sorrow,
with thousand year-old grief
I prevailed over my dirty life,
but not over the rationality of the winter cold . . .

In taprooms you rip off
the tattered shreds of your tragedy,
no forest, no merit, no archangel . . .

Above your poetry a swarm of birds mows
mows and mows a life imploring . . .
nothing for anyone
in the proximity of this dream,
nothing for worldly lovers . . .

Fruit of rottenness,
a wicked sun . . .
Temple ruins, broken pieces gathering
on the rediscovered shore . . .
in gloomy courtyards books opening . . .
Verses on abandoned walls . . .

. . . not the perfect one,
not the dead man, who drove you into the cities . . .
Trust in your song.
You plough the earth with your fragments,
cold begot you . . .
You, left behind by your creators . . .

—Thomas Bernhard, from Collected Poems, translated from German by James Reidel (forthcoming from Seagull Books)

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard – My Numéro Cinq review

I have written about Thomas Bernhard’s novels before, but faced with prospect of writing a longer critical review of a book containing four short stories I was faced with a dilemma: What does one say about Bernhard?

The question really is: How much familiarity with Bernhard should one assume? He is, most definitely, a singular writer. Those of us who count ourselves among the converted tend to have bulging bookshelves filled with a healthy supply of Bernhard’s novels, memoirs and poetry. Others are uncertain or fail to be immediately captivated. A bit of Bernhard primer is thus in order for those potential new readers, especially in this instance, because Goethe Dies, the collection at hand, offers a perfect opportunity to experience the magic of the master in miniature. A treat I argue for readers no matter their degree of prior acquaintance.

So in the following review published at Numéro Cinq earlier this week I tried to balance my general discussion of Bernhard’s prose style to provide a context for the appreciation of my analysis of the stories that would not be too redundant for the experienced or too vague for the novice.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. And while you’re there have a look around. There is another great issue shaping up at NC.

A Master Set Loose in a Small Space: Review of Thomas Bernhard’s Goethe Dies — Joseph Schreiber

Goethe Dies

Once acquainted with the work of the late Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, it is difficult to remain indifferent. One is either put off by his endlessly convoluted sentences, his bitter, misanthropic vision, and his fondness for digressive, contradictory and self-obsessed narratives; or one is swept up in the singular energetic flow of his darkly comic genius and never looks back. For those who find themselves in the latter camp, the announcement of a newly translated collection of four short stories originally published in periodicals in the early 1980’s is good news indeed.

Bernhard in short form may lack the unleashed full force intensity afforded when a single paragraph is allowed to unspool over one or two hundred pages or more; but these minor works, if you like, offer a valuable and entertaining opportunity to observe a master at play in a small, contained space. As with the early stories of Prose and the micro-fiction of The Voice Imitator, the short pieces collected in Goethe Dies, recently released by Seagull Books, highlight many of the essential elements that lend Bernhard’s work such a distinctive, infectious voice. Consequently, they may be best appreciated against a certain familiarity with the author and the idiosyncratic features that characterize his novels.

Continue reading here:

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.

2015-11-24 20.04.02

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.

Listen closely now – The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

[one love affair]

THIRTEEN INSTANCES OF LUNACY
TWENTY SURPRISES
FOUR DISAPPEARANCES
TWENTY-SIX MURDERS
TWO INSTANCES OF LIBEL
SIX PAINFUL DEATHS
THREE CHARACTER ATTACKS
FIVE EARLY DEATHS
ONE MEMORY LAPSE
FOUR COVER-UPS
EIGHTEEN SUICIDES

With the list above, the cover of the University of Chicago publication of The Voice Imitator offers a warning to the potential reader of the themes that feature in the 104 stories that lie ahead. For seasoned readers of Thomas Bernhard none are likely a surprise, though it is quite possible to emerge at the end thinking, “were there only 26 murders and 18 suicides?” Chances are it feels like there are more. But that’s okay. Would you really expect less?

VoiceIf the thought of encountering a volume containing 104 stories sounds intimidating, be assured that this collection spans all of 104 pages. This is Bernhard in microcosm, all of the acerbic wit and dark charm one could want from the Austrian playwright, poet and novelist distilled into brief anecdotal tales, each recounted within the space of one page.
The longest fill the page, the shortest are no more than a few lines.

Drawing on newspaper reports, rumour, and overheard conversations, Bernhard exploits this condensed form of fiction to tackle his favourite targets, including, of course, his native country. Even in a confined space, he finds room to explore the foibles of human nature and contemplate the bitter ironies of life. There is a healthy dose of death – murder, suicide, accident – some, tragic, some absurd; and no small measure of madness. Featuring a familiar retinue of philosophers and professors, craftsmen and woodcutters, musicians and artists, freaks and loners; the stars of these anecdotes and fables are driven by conviction, thwarted ambition, disillusion, and disappointment. Just like, well, the rest of us.

The least effective pieces are the very shortest. A few more lines are often in order to set the scene, to draw the drama, to pull the the punch. But even then, the emotional impact can be striking with less than half a page:

“Sitting in the early train, we happen to look out of the window just at the moment when we are passing the ravine into which our school group, with whom we had undertaken an excursion to the waterfall, had plunged fifteen years ago, and we think about how we were saved but the others were killed forever. The teacher who had been taking our group to the waterfall hanged herself immediately after a sentence of eight year’s imprisonment had been passed on her by the Salzburg Provincial Court. When the train passes the scene of the accident, we can hear our own cries intermingled with the cries of the whole group.”                        (Early Train)

The use of the first person plural in the majority of these stories lends an intimate tone. One can almost imagine the narrator as one of those inveterate storytellers who always has an entertaining morsel at hand: a family legend, a piece of wisdom, a mini tirade to share. Bernhard’s language plays on repetition, relies on qualifiers like “so-called” – one can almost see the air quotes – and, in this shortened format, he delights in throwing a punch at the end, leaving the reader with a gasp, a nod, or an ironic laugh.

Some might see this as an introduction to Bernhard for those uncomfortable diving into, say, a single-paragraph 200 page novel. But it works even better, one might argue, as a treat for those who are already acquainted with some of Bernhard’s classic works. Each little anecdotal story stands like a glimpse into the windows of Bernhard’s world… the themes, characters, and images that feature in his longer works shine, isolated for a moment, in the space of a single page or less. Contained in this way, his rhythm, his cynicism, and acerbic wit ring through. Bite-sized Bernhard to marvel at and enjoy.

glm_vThe Voice Imitator is translated by Kenneth J. Northcott. This stands as my first contribution for the German Literature Month reading challenge.

Wrapping up a month of healing with Thomas Bernhard and Wittgenstein’s Nephew

As I look back on a month which began, at least as I can best remember, in a hospital bed on the cardiac unit, it seems oddly serendipitous that my final read for August is a book that begins in the chest clinic of an Austrian hospital. I did not know much about Wittgenstein’s Nephew in advance beyond the fact that it dealt with madness, one of Bernhard’s common themes. I had ordered it, in all honesty, to reach the free shipment minimum on an Amazon order for a quality adaptor for my trip to South Africa. It’s long been on my wish list so I just tucked it in. I picked it up off the pile on my coffee table yesterday and could not put it down.

nephewBernhard is a favourite. I always find him, in his characteristic vitriol, to to be funny and wise. But this book is less caustic and more sentimental than I could possibly have anticipated. It is also a tribute to his real life friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, in truth a relative of the famous philosopher. In one singular paragraph that extends over a mere 100 pages, the narrator, one Thomas Bernhard, orchestrates a grand meditation on health and illness, sanity and madness, and the singular power of a friendship grounded in common interests and mutual intellectual respect.

As this novella opens Bernhard is recovering from surgery to remove a tumour from his thorax. While he lies in his hospital bed tormented by his roommates and ignored by the nursing staff, he comes to learn that his dear friend happens to be confined to the mental ward of the same facility, ironically in the Ludwig Pavilion. Paul, who may well have suffered from manic depression, is given to recurring bouts of madness. For Bernhard, the causes and courses of their conditions are analogous:

“Paul went mad because he suddenly pitted himself against everything and lost his balance, just as one day I too lost my balance by pitting myself against everything – the only difference being that he went mad, whereas I,  for the selfsame reason, contracted lung disease. But Paul was no madder than I am: I am at least as mad as he was, as he was said to be, though I have lung disease in addition to my madness. The only difference between us is that Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness; one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine. Paul never controlled his madness, but I have always controlled mine – which possibly means that my madness is in fact much madder than Paul’s.”

A blend of fiction and memoir, fans of Bernhard’s trademark crankiness will still delight in his rants against psychiatrists, German newspapers, simple minded people, literary prizes, actors and in the end, the cruel inevitability of death. But the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s Nephew is an ode to the life sustaining value of a true friendship. Paul is remembered as “the only man I had ever been able to talk to in a way that was congenial to me, the only one with whom I could discuss and develop any topic whatever, even the most difficult.” They shared a passion for music, an inherent restlessness of spirit, and a love of philosophical discussion and debate. A most rare and precious bond.

Ultimately, especially after the death of his wife, Paul’s spirit deteriorates. He starts to die long before his final breath is drawn, and as his friend witnesses this decline he finds it increasingly difficult to be in his presence. Bernhard pulls away, a rejection driven perhaps by the fear of dying engendered by those on death’s doorstop. This slender volume is a eulogy to a man of wisdom and spirit who could not maintain his grip on a world that is perhaps more mad and unstable than he ever was.

Thanks to the fallout from the clot sitting in my lung and the cardiac arrest it triggered, I am presently experiencing a faint taste of what chronic sufferers of lung disease like Bernhard might have known; yet, like Paul, I have also been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. At one point, Bernhard talks about returning home from the hospital and the reckless urge to do more than one is physically capable of managing. This leads to a rant about how the healthy fail to understand the chronically ill. This is an unfortunately valid observation, one that is especially true when the illness is psychiatric. A year ago this spring I suffered a serious manic break after 16 years of stability and although I am still “technically” employed, no one from my former workplace is allowed to contact me. I am a leper. Admittedly I have built a new community of support since that time, but I have had many more offers for assistance after my recent health problems than I can handle. It is quite a contrast. Last year I was prone to a few rants of my own about how I suspected that my employers would have been much more sympathetic had I had a heart attack.

A month out now from an event that still haunts my thoughts and emotions, I am gaining strength each day. Sometimes I overdo things and have to rest. A high level of smoke in the air from distant forest fires kept me housebound for week causing me to feel a little edgy. But I have read a decent number of books, including a few that may be among my best of the year thanks to the Women in Translation challenge. Winding up August with this heartfelt ode to friendship is perfect, after all there a couple long distance calls to South Africa on my cell phone bill. There were a few moments in those very early days in the hospital that there was only one voice I needed to hear.

Originaly published in 1982, this translation from the German by David McLintock was first published in 1989.

Releasing words from the page

In the opening pages of Teju Cole’s Open City, his narrator, the young medical resident Julius, introduces the reader to his own reading habits, setting perhaps the tone and frame of mind for the recollections and encounters that will unfold over the following pages. He explains his fondness for internet classical music stations, commercial free broadcasts from countries where the foreign languages of the announcers blend into, rather than distract from the musical tapestry. Settled with a book on the sofa he confesses that:

“Sometimes, I even spoke the words in the book out loud to myself, and doing so I noticed the odd way my voice mingled with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcers, or with the thin texture of the violin strings of the orchestras, all of this intensified by the fact that whatever I was reading had likely been translated out of one of the European languages.”

Assuming I am not in a public space where others would likely look on in askance I am likewise inclined to read aloud to myself at times. Meditative, less conventional, writing forms itself especially to this practice, not only obvious writers like Cole or WG Sebald, but wonderfully spare and introspective works like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room or the experimental The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves. And Thomas Bernhard, even though I cannot read him in the original German, flows with energy and intensity against JS Bach. I often stop and read a few pages out loud when I feel that I may be losing my moorings in the book long paragraph structure of his novels. Similarly José Saramago and Javier Marías are authors that more people might be able to connect with by inhabiting the language through reading portions out loud.

I have also had the experience of coming to appreciate a piece of literature in an entirely new way through hearing an author’s reading. Last year I read All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian author Miriam Toews, the story of two sisters, one deeply depressed and suicidal, and the other faced with the dilemma of if and how to assist her beloved sister in achieving her goal. Being much closer to my own recent breakdown and knowing that Toews had drawn on the tragic history of suicidal depression in her own family, I read it seeking insight into the suicidal sister’s perspective. I was disappointed. But hearing Miriam read from her work and having the opportunity to meet her last fall, I suddenly realized that I was expecting something the story could not deliver and had, consequently, missed the self-deprecating black humour in this challenging, compassionate tale of unconditional sibling love.

Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening"
Cliche shot of a favourite poem, WH Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”

So if the experience of prose can, at times, be enriched by being read out loud, poetry would seem to be an obvious aural experience. Poetry readings have a long standing literary history, joined now with the likes of slam poetry and rap. What a surprise then to have someone on another readerly space I frequent declare that he is against reading poetry aloud. Assuming he was not typing with tongue in cheek, for who can tell, my immediate response was one of disbelief. Excuse me? I cannot imagine not reading poetry out loud. I even make an effort to commit the poems that I find especially powerful to memory, to recite them, to myself and, on occasion, to others. Hearing authors read their own work has a special value and impact. Listening to a poem shared aloud by a passionate reader can allow the words to be transformed and re-interpreted in a new and personal context.

Have you ever encountered a piece of prose or a poetry so breath taking that you had to stop and re-read it, mark or circle it in the text if you are so inclined, copy it into a journal or print it out to keep close at hand? Do you feel compelled to repeat the words out loud to yourself, inspired to share them with others? For me that is the beauty of being in love with language. Sometimes words just have to spill out beyond the confines of the printed page and be granted a full existence in the world.

Channeling Bernhard in the Balkans: The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis meets Bernhard’s Gargoyles

SonThere comes a moment in Andrej Nikolaidis’ novel The Son where the unnamed misanthropic narrator, confronted with a hideously deformed family of lepers who have taken up residence in an abandoned car park in the Montenegrin city of Ulcinj, imagines that he is “a piper with a funny Tyrollean cap, which Thomas Bernhard would find laughable, and (…) dressed in green knickerbockers with suspenders like Heidegger used to wear” who proceeds to march through the streets of his home town gathering a following of the wretched, desperate, and diseased denizens of the streets, dark corners and hovels and leading them right down to the seashore, where he proceeds, walking out across the water, while the “grisly army” he has amassed disappears beneath the waves.

The Son is a dark, unrelenting journey into all the misery and disappointment that life and, those who claim to be your friends, family and lovers can bring. Our anti-hero is not a warm, generous soul. Admitting to his own perverse, gruesome obsessions in the early pages, he reports that his wife has just left him and he is bitterly alienated from his father. He perseverates about the cruelty of the forgiveness his father repeatedly bestowed upon him regardless of the destructive nature of his actions. He manages to vent anger at everyone he encounters, remarking at one point that he was “reminded once again that the nicest things we can say about a person is that one day they will die and cease to bother us.” As readers we are swept along on a scotch fueled odyssey into the heart of the city where a series of old acquaintances and disreputable characters seem to fall into his path where they are treated with a curious mixture of revulsion, pity and disdain. He is, in essence, the most vitriolic Bernhard monologuist transported from Austria to Montenegro and boiled down to the meanest bare essentials. By contrast, my current Bernhard read, his early break through novel Gargoyles, seems airy and light.

LosersPublished in 1967, Gargolyes was given its title in the English translation (the original German translates closer to something like distress or disturbance) presumably drawing attention to the grotesque series of characters encountered by the narrator, a son home from school, as he accompanies his father, a rural doctor, on his rounds to a series of isolated, ill and mentally unstable patients. The themes of madness, isolation and suicide recur as they make their way to Hochgobernitz where the aging Prince Saurau takes centre stage for the second half of the book, embarking on an increasingly intense monologue, mourning his own estranged relationship with his son who is away studying in London, and philosophizing about the hopeless and inevitable destruction and collapse of human society.

For my money, the characters that inhabit the pages of The Son are every bit as grotesque as those in Gargoyles, if not more. In both cases they serve as extreme, cartoon-like voices for exploring themes that are in turn horrific, humourous and deeply human, pivoting coincidentally around the relationships between fathers and sons. Amidst the rants against man’s inhumanity to man and musings about the madness and disease of modern society; a desperate compassion comes through. That is the compulsive beauty of reading Bernhard and, for those curious but afraid of the endless single paragraph style typical of most of his work, Gargoyles is a perfect introduction. For his part, Nikolaidis seamlessly transports the energy of Bernhard to the post Balkan War reality of a country he clearly loves passionately. As with his earlier book The Coming, it is also a dark meditation on Montenegro’s rich, complex past and uncertain future.

In a guest blogpost for Winstonsdad’s Blog (a great resource for works in translation), Andrej Nikolaidis reflected on his love for Bernhard and the influence he has had on his own work. Upon his first encounter with The Loser, (also my first introduction), the Balkan war was raging and he could see timely parallels in Bernhard’s existential analysis of Austrian society in a state of decay and collapse. He also finds in Bernhard the prose response to poet Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Fugue of Death’ or ‘Todesfuge’. He hears the rhythms of Bach ring through the works of both men – and Bernhard was a musician first – envisioning Celan as a character who could have walked out of a Bernhard novel. With The Son, and a sound track updated to incorporate the noisy sound styling of Sonic Youth, Nikolaidis’ work carries the banner forward.

The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis (trans Will Firth) – Istros Books                                     Gargoyles by Thomas Bernhard (trans Richard and Clara Winston) – Vintage Books