Sunday, September 30, 2012

Christopher Isherwood's Mr Norris Changes Trains

When one has read a bit about Christopher Isherwood's life and particularly his memoir, Christopher and His Kind, delving into a book like Mr Norris Changes Trains becomes an experience of comparing life to fiction. There are lots of intersections between the story in his memoir and the fictionalized story written 40 years before.

The temptation, of course, is to give unnecessary emphasis to the politics of the time in the memoir, looking back with the luxury of hindsight, but Isherwood resists this and in both stories, the political situation in 1930s Berlin is there but only on the margins and when it is used as a core part of the story, it's done with humour.

And there is definitely humour in Mr Norris Changes Trains. Isherwood creates a character (in Mr Norris) who is fairly unique: highly emotional, fastidious, uptight, nervous, vain, but also charming. The narrator (as most of Isherwood's narrators tend to be) is distant, aloof, and we learn very little about him or his internal life. Again, though, what I admire about a tale such as this one is how the politics operates mainly off-stage. It's there. It affects the lives of the characters, but it's not the driving force of the plot. Like Sally Bowles, the story centers around one character and his means of survival in a hostile world.

There are colorful revolutionaries (who, for the most part, seem more interested in sleeping with one another than in actual politics), young Nazi ruffians, and suggestions that key characters may be spies or double agents or just corrupt charlatans. But Isherwood is mainly interested in the portrayals and interactions between his main characters: the ways they manipulate each other, the secrets they hold, the lies they tell. One very much gets the feeling that that book is not tied to its setting and could easily have been written/set 50 years earlier or 50 years later with only minimal changes.

That said, the book definitely represents in time and place insofar as Mr Norris is such a unique (and very British) character. It's a lovely little book and the kind of book one can read in a single afternoon without interruptions.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Montreal by Words, Episode Two

Rebroadcast of our interview with Montreal writer, Daniel Allen Cox, on the publication of his novel, Basement of Wolves.

Daniel Allen Cox
Some reviews of Cox's excellent novel are here:

Vancouver Weekly

Publishers Weekly

Quill & Quire

And this excerpt from The Nervous Breakdown:

Each of Cox's novels have bristled against the ruthlessness of time: his comic debut, Shuck, proceeds as a "found diary" from a year in the life of a gay model, perpetually on the hustle and constantly aware of the catty-quick-diva-snap where the next big thing becomes been-there, done-that. Cox's follow-up, Krakow Melt, super-imposes incendiary moments from world history while staying grounded in the seriously odd and oddly affecting affair between a queer male artist and a straight female poet, Radecki and Dorotka, the pair stuck in the diminutive by a repressive, old world Poland. As part of their immediate hooks, each of these novels provides their own theme music: Shuck cranking Duran Duran's awesomely over-the-top "Ordinary World" from a beat-up Walkman and Krakow Melt geeking out to an obscure, fetishized vinyl copy of The Floyd's Atom Heart Mother.

The novel is a fascinating read and explores issues of fame, celebrity and success. I know it's not supposed to matter, but the blurb on the outside is written by Sarah Schulman, one of my favorite writers (an aside: she should be a superstar).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Käthe Kollwitz

"Like most of the socially conscious artists of her time, she lived in a world of conflicting social patterns and of individual reactions to them. The ethic of her social conscience was a personal evaluation of right and wrong and not a tactic of organized mass movements, it was social justice and not the economic interpretation of history."  - Carl Zigrosser from the Introduction to Prints and Drawings of Käthe Kollwitz.

The Weavers' Revolt (1893-98

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sally Bowles by Christopher Isherwood

So small it fits in my back pocket
Why can't North American publishers make more pocket books? In Japan, most books are small enough to fit into your pocket. In France, Livres de poche dropped into a jacket pocket are the best way to always have something to read on hand.

Apparently, English publishers used to design books this way. Case in point: this adorable little hardbound edition of Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles I bought yesterday downtown. It's the second printing of the book, from 1937. In excellent condition (though no paper jacket cover as it no doubt once had).

The book was the inspiration for the movie Cabaret though I wanted it because it is set in Berlin of the 1920s. And such a quick read: between 30 minutes on the sofa last night and the metro ride to work this morning, the entire story could be enjoyed and pondered.
Isherwood's creation

Sally Bowles: an early incarnation of Holly Golightly, the vague and slightly suspect narrator (named Christopher Isherwood), the drinking, the nightclubs, the shady characters all out for themselves. Just what this chilly autumn morning required.

It strikes me that the object of this book, just as much as the story, was an enjoyable part of reading it. I loved sitting on the metro train with it in my left pocket, a clementine in the other. Now that I'm done with it, though, I have to lug out the oversized trade paperbacks per usual which means I need to bring a bag. Ugh.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Joseph Roth and his Berlin reportage

As noted in an earlier post, I have been looking around the last few weeks for some books set in Berlin. I got some excellent recommendations (thanks, everyone) and then on the plane from Paris, I suddenly recalled that I had a book of Joseph Roth articles somewhere in my book room (yes, I have an entire room full of books which isn't something I am proud of. I've been trying to fob them off on anyone/everyone for the past year to free up more space which I am NOT replacing with more books!).

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933
Once I was back home, I scanned all the shelves until I found it. Perfect and exactly what I wanted to read after a whirlwind trip through Europe and in the mood for something historical set in Berlin: What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 is a collection of journalistic pieces that Roth wrote for several German newspapers while he was living in Berlin. They are absolutely fascinating and chronicle the daily lives of average Germans: its immigrants, its poor, its working class, prostitutes, pimps, and homeless.

It's amazing to me how I can read something (I bought the book when it first came out because I've been a fan of Joseph Roth since the reissue of his 1932 novel, The Radetzky March) but then pick it up eight years later and have nearly forgotten it all. I was left with impressions, mainly of what a superlative writer Roth was. Take paragraphs such as this one:

Evening comes, an overhead light goes on. Its illumination is oily and greasy; it burns in a haze like a star in a sea of fog. We ride past lit-up advertisements, past a world without burdens, commercial hymns to laundry soap, cigars, shoe polish, and bootlaces suddenly shine forth against the darkened sky. It's the time of day when the world goes to the theater, to experience human destinies pm expensive stages, and riding in this train are the sublime tragedies and tragic farces, the passengers with heavy loads. (Translated by Michael Hoffman).

Joseph Roth, 1894-1939
More than just the beautiful writing, Roth is interested in the underclasses of Berlin life: not its influential citizens or its bedecked women, not its upright Burgers or society ladies. He is interested in the shop girls, the maids, the omnibus drivers, the rag pickers - and at a time when these stories were so often swept aside. Not only was he a top notch journalist, he had the heart of a truly compassionate truth-teller. The characters he presents are individuals with passions, emotions, pains and loves.

To me, this is the best part of travelling: discovering (or rediscovering) writers whose work you may not know but whose connection to a city or country or region suddenly open up that place and make it a real land full of real individuals, contextualizing its history, giving a glimpse of the lives out on its streets or behind its stone walls.

Lucky for me, I have another Joseph Roth collection (which contains one of the most fascinating short stories I've ever read and one I most certainly do remember: his last story, written just before his death in Paris, called The Legend of the Holy Drinker).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Chad Harbach and the Baseball Novel

I must admit that I am not a huge sports fan. I have been to baseball and basketball games and had a perfectly fine time. When I lived in Seattle back in the 90s, I followed the Mariners and rooted for them at the occasional home game. I have developed an interest in hockey after being in Montreal a number of years, but I've never been much on "the baseball novel" or the sports novel.

Yet last week in Berlin, I found myself anxiously looking forward to seeing American writer, Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, probably one of the best-reviewed "baseball" novels in a generation or more.

The room was huge and though the attendance could have been better (probably under 150 people were there, in a space meant for four times that number), those lucky enough to attend were, I think, pleasantly surprised at how charming and affable Harbach was on-stage.

Interviewed by Priya Basil, Harbach initially rolled with the contention (Basil's) that the pairing of the book's main themes, sports and homosexuality, was an odd choice. He seemed sincere in explaining how it happened organically throughout the long process (the book took 10 years to write) of developing it.

A young Australian woman told me after the show that she had seen Harbach interviewed in Sydney by a terrible interviewer who seemed woefully unprepared (note to those who want to do interviews or host events: be prepared! We often refuse to use an interviewer again once they give off the appearance of ill-preparedness during a Festival event.). Basil is a good interviewer if she is a bit stiff at times. Her thorough lack of baseball knowledge (she spoke about it as if it were some exotic 19th century sport played by coolies in a desert) was charming though and added humour to her interaction with Harbach.

One aspect of Basil's approach is to tell Harbach what a critic has said about his book (often something off the wall) and then get his reaction. A little of this goes a long way but Basil definitely chose the right quotes to throw at the writer who happily answered in a thoughtful and very intelligent way (the references to Homer were an absolute thrill and so effortless by Harbach). What I really do appreciate about Basil is her thoughtful questions which reflected, I think, a close and thoughtful reading of Harbach's book.

A baseball novel, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily something that would strike me as my cup of tea, but after listening to the discussion, reading some fascinating reviews (not all glowing, by any means), and hearing Harbach read from the book myself, it's definitely on my must-read list over the next few weeks.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Etgar Keret at Berlin

I have long been a fan of the work of Etgar Keret. His short story collections are funny and charming and I tend to carry them around with me for months, pulling them out and reading one or two stories whenever I have some down time. His latest collection, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, is typical of him: his stories so often contain very little set-up or exposition. We are immediately pulled into the action by a phone call, knock on the door, question from a child, or some other reminder of daily life.

What struck me about Etgar Keret this time is his perfect blend of self-deprecation, humour, and vulnerability. He says that he'd "rather have [his readers] hate him than feel neutral" about him, though he isn't one for blustery comments such as this usually. He talked about Israel, about growing up with two parents (Holocaust survivors) who each spoke five or six languages but worked hard to only speak Hebrew to the young Etgar. A natural story teller, in the space of an hour, Keret managed to work in at least three stories in his attempt to explain the hows and whys of his approach to storytelling.

If you are a fan of Keret or haven't read him at all, I highly recommend doing so: he is as modern and wry as David Sedaris, and funny as Woody Allen, and as focused as Lydia Davis.

He's been to Blue Met before but we may just have to send him another invitation if he keeps cranking out these lovely story collections.

Embrace on the Brooklyn Bridge

On Wednesday night, I saw an interesting event as part of the International Literature Festival of Berlin, on stage discussion between Egyptian writer, Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, author of the (as far as I can make out) yet to be translated into English novel, "Embrace on the Brooklyn Bridge."

Egyptian writer Ezzedine Choukri Fishere
The event was in Arabic and German, so I missed bits here and there, though I am surprised at how much I did manage to get (I studied German as an undergraduate and still retain a reading knowledge). The discussion referenced two other well-known Arab writers (and also Egyptians), Alaa al Aswany and Ahdaf Soueif, and the moderator, Stefan Weidner, clearly has a background in the culture and languages of the Middle East. The discussion touched on Choukri-Fishere's writing, his novel (which was short-listed for the most recent Arab Booker Prize), his career and his life in Egypt, France and Canada.

Choukri-Fishere's book sounds fascinating: it has eight protagonists, all Arab-Americans representing different backgrounds and classes, on their way to attend a party in New York City, this allowing the writer to explore the relations between "integrated" Arabs into Western society.

One thing Berlin tends to do which is different to our Festival is that they hire actors to do the readings. I like this idea for many reasons though the limitation here is often that writers on their international list can't read German (so no one would want to hear them read in that language anyway!). The translating back and forth slows down the discussion and limits the spontaneity of it to some extent, though the audience was engaged and the discussion was lively.

On the whole, it was an event I enjoyed and I hope someone will take on translating Choukri-Fishere's book into English.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rebroadcast of Episode One of Montreal by Words (and off to Europe!)

We are rebroadcasting Episode One of Montreal by Words which looks at the historical novel, The Goodtime Girl, by Montreal writer, Tess Fragoulis. We also talk to Vancouver writer, Peter Tupper about his piece from the spring 2012 edition of Maisonneuve Magazine. The piece considers the life of Maria Monk and the shocking tale she told about the depraved life behind the walls of a 19th century Montreal convent.

In the meantime, I am off to Europe for 10 days, visiting Paris, Munich and ending~up in Berlin to see events and meet with people at the International Literary Festival in Berlin. I will try blogging from the road so stay tuned.