Saturday, 18 September 2021

“The Magician" by Colm Tóibín - review

 “The Magician“ by Colm Tóibín:

Soon into the very first pages of this book I knew I had successfully hit on another, so very rare, book that right from the start to its end will be a joy to read. Not such a big surprise, since I have been admiring Colm Tóibín for a long time and had never once been disappointed.

This is an enormously ambitious book and it is the second time Tóibín has used fiction to imagine his way into the mind of a great novelist of the past. In 2004 he ventured inside the mind of Henry James in The Master. Now it is Thomas Mann, writer, essayist and Nobel laureate, in The Magician. Both men had elder brothers who were also respected authors (William James, Heinrich Mann) and with whom they secretly competed in complex relationships. Both spent long periods of their lives away from their homelands, voluntarily or involuntarily. Both expressed and wrote about homosexual desires in their work but did not acknowledge this trait in themselves, at least not publicly. Both men were cosmopolitans with social connections all across Europe and broad intellectual interests. 

Tóibín’s novel is mainly a portrait of the artist as a person and family man, there is some but not too much about Mann’s development as a writer or about his status in the literary world, which makes the book even more endearing to me. Events, ideas, and relationships are highlighted, rather than long excursions and reflections into the development and history of Mann’s writing process. In The Magician Tóibín beautifully evokes, resurrects even, the person behind the famous name, shows him to be human, lets us see his struggles, trials and tribulations, his anxieties and demons. He lets us understand how out of the interchanging dynamics of art, desire, decline and decay, great art can arise.

Young Thomas Mann hides his artistic aspirations from his father and his homosexual desires from everyone. At the age of only 25 he published, with instantaneous enormous success the Buddenbrooks, a semi-autobiographical novel. He marries the daughter of one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich, Katia Pringsheim, a complex and extraordinary person, has six children with her, although his infatuation really lies more with her twin brother, Klaus Pringsheim, a talented musician and composer. Tóibín’s depiction of Katia as a strong-willed woman who defies conventionality shows how instrumental in the developing of Mann’s voice and perfecting his art she was. She was a loving and understanding supporter of her husband’s and children’s diverse sexualities.

Many a time there are young men at whom the Thomas Mann of Tóibín looks as longingly as Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach looks at Tadzio in Death in Venice. He never touches them but turns desire into art. He becomes the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Mann opens windows into which we can look and see the lives of others unfold. His ability to detach himself from social and class categories and imagine and inhabit the lives of others is that of a magician. 

And so is Tóibín. He follows a life which spans almost half a century. And what difficult, tormented, demanding, tragic times those were (World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Cold War). Mann has to flee Germany, goes to Switzerland, France and then, his last stop, to America, living first in Princeton and then in Los Angeles. 1952 he moved back to Switzerland where he died in 1955. This is as much a story of changing times as a man changing with and against his times. 

Along the way we meet cameos of Berthold Brecht, W. H. Auden, Gustav Mahler, Gustaf Gründgens and other contemporaries.

Queerness ran in the family. His sons Klaus and Golo and his daughter Erika were queer. Erika and Klaus were active in the anti-Nazi-movement. Both, too were writers of plays, stories and novels and acted on stage, both sometimes shared lovers. Erika was married to Gustaf Gründgens and later married the poet W. H. Auden, also gay, quite pragmatical for British passport access. 

Suicide was another family theme. Both of Thomas Mann’s sisters and his sons Klaus and Michael committed suicide. 

I liked The Master, Tóibín’s excursion into the life and mind of Henry James very much and thought it a great achievement. Here in The Magician Tóibín has outperformed himself, again. His prose is, as always strong, warm, vibrant and beautiful, perfect and worthy for such a grand writer as Mann. Tóibín is a true magician himself.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Friday, 17 September 2021

The observer creates reality

 Reality is created by observers in the universe:

Thus first and prominently speculated John Archibald Wheeler (July 9, 1911 – April 13, 2008), famous theoretical physicist, in his theory of the Participatory Anthropic Principle.

A thought that I've always found very attractive: It was not the cosmos that created us but life instead, who created the cosmos. According to biocentrism, time does not exist independently of the life that notices it. Even if intuitively this does not make sense to us, since we are used to perceive time only running in one direction. 

According to the Biocentric Universe Theory everything was in a state of uncertainty before life appeared. Only when an observer appeared for the first time on stage did he force the cosmos to decide on a specific state, just like in the well-known double slit experiment, in which a particle only then decides to adopt a specific state and to pass through a specific gap when it is being observed.

When a property of a particle suddenly switches from possibility to reality, some physicists say its wave function has collapsed. What accomplishes this collapse? Just messing with it does the job. Measure it with a bit of light for example, in order to take its picture. Or just looking at it. Experiments suggest that mere knowledge in the experimenter’s mind is sufficient to collapse a wave function and convert possibility to reality. 

Only when I observe something and perceive it in my mind does it become real. I create my own reality. And as I do it on my own subjective, personal level so life and consciousness do it on a universal level. 

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Thursday, 16 September 2021

“Educated" by Tara Westhoff - review (sort of)

 “Educated“ by Tara Westover:

This is the autobiographical story of the author who grew up in a restrictive, dysfunctional survivalists mormon family in the mountains of Idaho, isolated from mainstream society and finally succeeded to break with her family on her quest for knowledge.

Although I admire the author for successfully “making it" in the end and do understand the need and will to share her story, I did not like the book and stopped reading it after one third through the book. 

Although the writing is good, her emotionally detached, objectified perception and descriptions also, I just could not see why I should follow a life through hardship and suffering (and empathize with it) when the message of the book is clear right from the start: Education is the key to the world. 

Since I already know that, the book was not for me. I have read too many “misery lit“ and don’t need more of that at the moment. It made for an interesting, lively discussion, though at my bookclub and I am sure for a lot of people the book will provide entertainment and, not least, encouragement.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

“A Year of Marvellous Ways" by Sarah Winman - review

 “A Year of Marvellous Ways” by Sarah Winman:

It is 1947, Marvellous Ways, an 89-year-old woman, who lives alone on the bank of a Cornish creek by the sea, waits for something to arrive because “the image is still incomplete“. And arrive it does, in form of a young man, Francis Drake, recently returned from the war trenches of France. He was on a mission to deliver a last letter to the father of a dying soldier who made him promise to deliver it personally. Somewhere on this mission he got lost and washed up by Marvellous’ caravan. Drake is very much in need of healing and Marvellous, in her age-old wisdom, is the person who can just do that. She takes him in and coaxes him back to life, rejuvenates him with her stories, teaching him how to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, teaches him to be able to marvel again at life. 

Slowly she reveals glimpses of her life, told in beautiful, poetic, magical prose and we also get to know some of Drake’s history. And as the stories unfold they begin a strange, marvellous life of their own which is part reality, part magical realism, part fairy tale, part enchanted past. It is a gentle twist, though of the knob of reality, a gentle kind of magic and I enjoyed the beautiful prose and its slowly weaving and wafting together a remarkable warm, human story of loss, of hardship, of love, life, nature. and hope. The mingling, the mix, of the literal and the metaphorical is quite rewarding if one is willing (as one should when reading literature) to suspend disbelief. It makes a rich textured, atmospheric read, a beautiful poetic tale.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Sunday, 12 September 2021

“A Month in the Country" by J. L. Carr - review


“A Month in the County“ by J. L. Carr:

This book caught my eye and attention with its cover. I had just finished “The Offing” by Benjamin Myers (published 2019) with a very similar cover, depicting a rural picturesque countryside and I was hooked. Later I learned that it was published in 1980, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Guardian fiction prize,  was made into a film and is considered a small masterpiece. 

The cover proved to be not the only parallel. 

In both books a war has just ended (World War One in “A Month in the Country“,  World War Two in “The Offing“).

In both books the main character sets out on a journey to the countryside of England. 

In both books the country life, the landscape, the resplendent golden summer, nature, the local people, all set in motion a turn of states, a revelatory or healing process after which life for the narrator will not be the same again.  

Both books touch on great themes of literature: life, death, love, art and loss. 

Both books at times read like an elegy to an England now gone, an ode to nature. 

Both books are quiet, undramatic, contemplative, often lyrical. 

Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran, arrives in the village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire where he had been offered the job of restoring a medieval mural, recently discovered in the local church. Tom suffers not only from the physical and mental wounds the war dealt him, he must also come to terms with his recently broken marriage. Tom is very much in need of healing. 

In the village he meets another war veteran, Moon, an archaeologist in search of a lost grave. Tom resides in the bell tower of the church while Moon lives in a tented pit in the field. Both men are marked by war and bitter experiences of sex, but where Tom is right from the start welcomed by the villagers, Moon does not get the same treatment. 

The days move on, summer proceeds and finally comes to an end, both men finish the task they were asked to do, Moon finding the lost grave and its surprising content and Tom successfully restoring the lost mural.

But Tom realizes that his soul, too has been given a restorative touch, a healing has set in and he leaves this place, always later thinking gratefully of it as the point from where his life began to leave the atrocities of war behind and took on a hopeful, optimistic view on life.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Friday, 10 September 2021

“The Offing" by Benjamin Myers - review

 “The Offing“ by Benjamin Myers:

In this quiet touching lyrical tale, set in rural England just after Second World War has ended, a man looks back at a single summer and remembers the life-changing unusual friendship he found then. 

16-year-old Robert Appleyard, in an act of “escapology and rebellion”, leaves his Durham village in the north in search for any work that isn’t coal mining and sets out on a journey that takes him to the east coast where, in an old cottage living alone with her dog Butler, he encounters Dulcie Piper, a woman three times his age. Soon an unlikely symbiotic relationship evolves between the two. He tends to the house and garden, she provides food, shelter and intellectual nourishment.  

Dulcie is an imposing, many-faceted character, foul-mouthed and eloquent, aesthetically inclined, a worldly and sophisticated woman with a past, a woman who embodies fearless independence and strong will, all of which she freely shares with the boy and encourages him on his way to find his calling and his true self. 

The cottage is situated at the coast, at a place called The Offing, which is “the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge”, a perfect place for the transition of a boy into a young man and Myers enticingly portraits in lyrical, almost baroque and old-fashioned prose, the lucid coastal landscape, the lights, the sounds, the fauna and the flora. Almost on every page we find endearing little gems of descriptive words, such as “The fish were still held close to my face. I looked into the ruined mirrors of their pupils and saw the deep green and magnesium striped pattern of their lean but muscular flanks, their bellies the colour of molten lead.”

The total of the book emanates a slight melancholic warmth which is really a sensual pleasure compared to so many books out lately who eschew emotionally tinted language (i. e. Rachel Cusk) and strive to be “cool”.  

Dulcie plays mentor to Robert’s poetic talent, tells of her lost companion who was also a poet and played a very important part in her life. She coaxes him gently to recognise his dormant talents and to choose a life for and believe in himself, regardless of family tradition.

This is a warm, positive, optimistic book for dreamers or those who once had a dream, for swimmers against the current, for worshippers of nature, of life, for distrusters of authority, for believers in the Good and lastly for all those who still believe in the transcendent power of art and love. It is a reminder that “permanence is an impossibility and that everything is in flux”. 

“After all, there are only a few things worth fighting for: freedom and all that it brings with it. Poetry, perhaps, and a good glass of wine. A nice meal. Nature. Love, if you’re lucky.“

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Thursday, 2 September 2021

“Dictation" and “Antiquities“ by Cynthia Ozick - review

 “Dictation“ by Cynthia Ozick:

In this “delightful“ little short story, one of four which make up this book that seems to concern itself with the lost worlds evoked by languages, we follow the female secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, Theodora Bosanquet and Lilian Hallowes, as they engineer a cunning little literary conspiracy to save themselves their own little mark of immortality in their masters' work.

When the two authors, who where indeed friends for a while and exchanged ideas, meet on a fine day in 1910 in Henry James’ club in London, the two secretaries by chance meet, too and set in motion their plan.

In convincingly evoking the epoch of Henry James, in mannerism, dictation and language, Ozick paints an amusing little sketch of a bygone world.

“Antiquities“ by Cynthia Ozick:

This is the latest book by Cynthia Ozick and maybe I should have read some of her earlier work first. As it is, here I wonder, after reading this short novel and enjoying the style, what have I really gained from it. 

A grumpy old widower, formerly working in the law trade, well respected member of society and heir of a distinguished wealthy family, now lives retired, in a senior’s residence, the same building which, in his youth, he lived in as a young boarding school member.  He spends his days in writing his memoirs and so the book takes us on a journey between the present and the past. 

It’s all very well written, the prose is immaculate, the characters are finely sketched, it is even humorous and amusing to follow the story up until the end and the tale sometimes takes on a fable quality. Yet, it left me quite unfazed at the end.

The fault lies not in the novel then but in me, who read all too many novels before this one which all  deal with the specific hothouse atmosphere a boarding school quite naturally provides and provokes. There is a certain, indistinct law of how things might, should and are evolving in such a setting. There is friendship, comradeship, there are the one or two outsiders who have to endure the scorn and cruel injustices of the rest, there is one intimate and emotionally confusing encounter with a fellow pupil and then everything turns into adulthood, is quickly forgotten and only later, at the end of life, resurfaces as dear innocent memories. 

Well, very well done, but alas, to me, of no great surprise and consequence.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

“Bewilderment" by Richard Powers - review

 “ Bewilderment“ by Richard Powers: “Dad! Everything is going backwards.“  This frustrated outcry of a nine-year-old to his father is the ...