Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Post-Office Girl: Something is Gone Forever

Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular writers of the first half of the 20th century and the most-translated German-language author of the 1920s and 30s, completed two manuscripts and sent them off to his publishers shortly before he and his second wife, living in exile in Brazil during World War II, took their own lives. The Post-Office Girl was found among his unpublished papers, "in considerable disarray," according to the eventually published Rausch der Verwandlung's afterward.

I mention this first since The Post-Office Girl as it is concludes in an open-ended manner; Zweig may well have intended a third part to the story that wouldn't leave the reader guessing.

The portion of the novel that we have tells the story of a pair of young people who have had their lives profoundly diminished by the Great War and its aftermath.

Christine, the postal clerk in an Austrian backwater, ekes out a living, sharing with her invalid mother what presumably would have been an attic storage room in earlier times --the war has left a housing shortage in its wake and few jobs. She was a lively, happy girl of 16 when the war started; twelve years later she is without father, brother, expectations, or youthful desires. When Christine is unexpectedly summoned to vacation in the Swiss Alps with an American aunt she's unaquainted with, she approaches the trip as "just more work and responsibility."

"She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness," the narrator tells us.

It is only upon arrival, after her aunt has styled her hair, outfitted her in becoming clothes and jewels, that Christine realizes that life has pleasures to offer and she transforms into a popular carefree beauty, Christiane von Boolen, with "sheet lightning in her blood," a presumed aristocrat who only has a snatched moment here or there to wonder who she really is.

Midway through the vacation, Christine's humble roots are exposed and her aunt, afraid that her own sordid past will be uncovered and her reputation damaged, abruptly tells Christine that in the morning she's being sent back to the provinces.

All night Christine sits motionless in the chair by the table, her thoughts revolving dully around the feeling that everything is over; not an actual pain so much as a drugged awareness of something painful going on deep down--the way a patient under anesthesia might be aware of the surgeon's knife cutting into him. She sits there in silence, empty eyes on the table, but something's happening, something beyond her benumbed awareness: that new creature, the manufactured changeling that had taken her place for nine dreamlike days, that unreal yet real Fraulein von Boolen, is dying in her. . . . The gloves on her hands, the pearls around her neck, everything belongs to that other one, that murdered doppelganger Christiane von Boolen who is no more, yet lives on. . . . All she knows is that something has been taken from her, that now she must leave that blissfully winged self to become a blind grub crawling on the ground; knows only that something is gone forever.

Life back home is worse than before; she knows what she's missing. Visiting her sister in Vienna, she meets Ferdinand, her brother-in-law's war buddy.

Ferdinand also knows what he's missing. Born to wealth that's turned to ashes, he wasted his own youth in the war and then in a Siberian prison, losing the use of two of his fingers in the process. His dreams of becoming an architect will never come to fruition; he cannot find more than odd jobs and the government has its ways of assuring he'll never receive any disability or financial assistance.

Drawn together by shared bitterness and lack of hope, kindred spirits Christine and Ferdinand eventually decide to take their own lives, but Ferdinand realizes they have another way out of their meaningless lives--if they're willing to risk failure:

. . . "Christine, we have to start thinking of everything now, I told you it won't be easy, the other way would have been easier. But on the other hand I've never known, we've never known, what it is to be alive. I've never seen the ocean, I've never been abroad. I've never know what life is--always thinking about what everything costs means we've never been free. Maybe we can't know the value of life until we are."

Whether Christine and Ferdinand take the risk, or in an unwritten portion of the book develop moral compuntions to counteract how justified they feel in acting, the reader just doesn't know.

The Post-Office Girl was my first exposure to Stefan Zweig, but it won't be the last. I'm thinking I may give his fictionalized biography of Marie Antoinette a try. . .

(cross posted at Slaves of Golconda)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Whistling past the graveyard

We'll just pretend I never said anything about making it till May to buy books, okay? That lofty aspiration was made before everyone started listing their favorite Persephone titles and well before we found out L. will be sans job the end of next month. It'll be easier to face the Austerity Budget from Hell with well-stocked bookcases--or so I tell myself now, before trading in my Amazon certificates for shipments of oatmeal and peanut butter becomes downright appealing.

(Insert delicate shudder here)

Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance

Emma Smith's The Far Cry

Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady

Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout

Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges

Andrew Crumey's Mobius Dick

Shale Aaron's Virtual Death

Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus

Muriel Spark's All the Stories of Muriel Spark

George Gissing's Sleeping Fires

Gil Adamson's The Outlander

Hazel Rowley's Christina Stead
Last Monday, Nicholas Hughes, son of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, killed himself. His mother was one of the world’s most famous suicides, and news stories have mentioned the tendency of suicide and depression to run in families. But this tragic inheritance is just part of a more complex story in which our lives are shaped by genes, environment — and unexpected connections between the two.

Much more than depression is partly inherited. Here’s a weirder fact: the genes you get from your parents partly determine your risk of being mugged. So do genes dictate our fate? Of course not — but they do have a say in who we become.

--Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang, "Mugged By Our Genes?"

Fascinating column.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Best Bad Book

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“What’s the best ‘worst’ book you’ve ever read — the one you like despite some negative reviews or features?”

When I was younger, it would have to have been Erich Segal's Love Story. It never failed to reduce me to tears, and since I went through a stage when I needed to be reduced to tears frequently, I read it a lot. The copy we had was technically my sister's, so I no longer have it on hand; probably a good thing.

More recently, I've enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, the Harry Potter series, Wally Lamb, and if I'd've paid attention to the customer reviews at Amazon, I'd have taken a pass on Julia Glass's I See You Everywhere earlier this month.

Booking Through Thursday

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Just as the sky turned green she passed the conservatorium, white as an ocean liner, with its two high palm trees flying like flags. She stopped on the slope of the lawn and stared up at the lighted first-floor windows: they were open, and three students, each in a separate room, were practising: a piano, a violin, a clarinet. The threads of melody, never meant to combine, mingled and made a pleasant, meaningless discord.


'Hang on,' said Philip. 'Excuse me, Athena. Listen. I like your song. Look, I'll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows "It always happens this way" or "I went in with my eyes wide open." Cut that stuff out. Just leave in the images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between what you understand and what you don't. Between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don't chew on it. Don't explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.'

--Helen Garner, The Children's Bach


. . . And the blue days were further and further apart, and the greens were more and more varied, until a time when it became quite clear that the fundamental colour of the sky was no longer what they still called sky-blue, but a new sky-green, a pale flat green somewhere between the colours which had once been apple and grass and fern. But of course apple and grass and fern looked very different against this new light, and something very odd and dimming happened to lemons and oranges, and something more savage and hectic to poppies and pomegranates and ripe chillies.

'You are a born storyteller,' said the old lady. 'You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one. And the special wisdom to recognise that you are under a curse -- which is also a blessing -- which makes the story more interesting to you than the things that make it up. There are young women who would never have listened to the creatures' tales about the Woodman, but insisted on finding out for themselves. And maybe they would have been wise and maybe they would have been foolish: that is their story. But you listened to the Cockroach and stepped aside and came here, where we collect stories and spin stories and mend what we can and investigate what we can't, and live quietly without striving to change the world. We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don't have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.'

--A.S. Byatt, "The Story of the Eldest Princess" in The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye


Not even Pallas, even Jealousy,
could find a flaw in that girl's artistry;
but her success incensed the warrior-goddess.
Minerva tore to pieces that bright cloth
whose colors showed the crimes the gods had wrought;
a boxwood shuttle lay at hand--with that,
three and four times she struck Arachne's forehead.
That was too much: the poor girl took a noose
and rushed--still bold--to tie it round her neck.
But when she saw Arachne hanging there,
Minerva, taking pity, propped her up
and said: "Live then, but, for your perfidy,
still hang: and let this punishment pursue
all who descent from you: thus, you must fear
the future--down to far posterity."
That said, before she left, the goddess sprinkled
the juices of the herbs of Hecate
over Arachne; at that venom's touch,
her hair and then her eyes and ears fell off,
and all her body sank. And at her sides,
her slender fingers clung to her as legs.
The rest is belly; but from this, Arachne
spins out a thread; again she practices
her weaver's art, as once she fashioned webs.

--Allen Mandelbaum, Book VI, The Metamorphoses of Ovid

Monday, March 16, 2009

Literary genres aren't like beers

It’s true the world doesn’t need more novels of any kind. The act of writing them can sometimes feel like trucking sand into the Sahara, but we have an innate desire not only to repeat the same stories, but to hear variations on them again and again. It’s probably a survival instinct, designed to ensure we remember the one about not poking the sleeping boar with a stick. If you’ve already read an English family drama that doesn’t mean you won’t thoroughly enjoy reading The Northern Clemency, and if you’ve read Foer’s book (which has a similar plot and structure to The Lazarus Project) that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read Hemon’s. Literary genres aren’t like beers from around the world, to be crossed off one at a time until the bartender presents you with a valkyrie helmet.

--Kevin Guilfoile, in today's commentary on the Tournament of the Books

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Movie Potential

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What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?

Or, What book do you think should NEVER be made into a movie?

Some of the best movies come from short stories--Breakfast at Tiffany's, Brokeback Mountain--but of course my mind went totally blank when I tried to think of other stories that would work well on the screen. Maybe I'll think of a few later in the day.

Novels that I would like to see on the screen:

James Meek's The People's Act of Love (I just checked and there is going to be a movie made of this. Hurray!)

James Howard Kunstler's World Made By Hand

Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows

Julia Leigh's Disquiet needs to be made by someone who can channel Hitchcock

Gerard Donovan's Julius Winsome

And hands down, I would most like the people that made a miniseries out of David McCullough's John Adams to give the same treatment to Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton.

Booking Through Thursday

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Best Books You've Never Read

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We’ve all seen the lists, we’ve all thought, “I should really read that someday,” but for all of us, there are still books on “The List” that we haven’t actually gotten around to reading. Even though we know they’re fabulous. Even though we know that we’ll like them. Or that we’ll learn from them. Or just that they’re supposed to be worthy. We just … haven’t gotten around to them yet.

What’s the best book that YOU haven’t read yet?

Oh, there are still tons of books from the canon that I haven't gotten around to yet. Off the top of my head:

Ulysses. James Joyce (heck, I haven't even finished Dubliners yet)
In Search of Lost Time. Marcel Proust (only two volumes in)
The Idiot. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison
The Charterhouse of Parma. Stendhal
Germinal. Emile Zola
anything by Anthony Trollope
The Ambassadors. Henry James
Orlando and The Waves. Virginia Woolf
Paradise Lost. John Milton

Booking Through Thursday

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...