Thursday, 31 March 2011

Two Poems

from Territorial Song [Territorialsang, 1994]
by Pia Tafdrup


My blood has many relatives.
They never visit.

Yehuda Amichai

The eye in its cave turns the horizon round
birds circling in the air
Born in Warsaw, born in Budapest, born in Kiev
Born in Moscow, born in Berlin, born in Craiova
in Sofia, in Prague – they come to the city of David

A language they leave, letters from home
go up this generation or the next in smoke and oblivion
or vanish in the glowing ether’s sphere
In the light from wax candles they drown themselves out
and the family is only visited in dreams

The eye in its cave turns the horizon round
birds circling in the air
heavenly bodies glide in their paths
They live under evening-warm clouds now with desert mist and wine
cut bread in slices, eat figs and pomegranates
know the rocket shelter as well they do the prayers
they recite, and the songs of blood, milk and honey

They have cuddled one another wearing gas masks
children they lose in the war-
They celebrate holy days and will be buried here
to awaken the earth with their longing

The eye in its cave turns the horizon round
birds circling in the air
heavenly bodies glide in their paths
words intertwine and let go in winged song
Born in Warsaw, born in Budapest, born in Kiev
Born in Moscow, born in Berlin, born in Craiova
in Sofia, in Prague…


Like grains of salt held forth
Jerusalem sprouts
up from the mountain

Red and pink limestone
a desert all round
that obeys and flowers

is momentary
and millennial

Wind harp
shifting sand
evening sun

graze the ear
that scans the pain:

In the darkness under a hatch for fishing tackle
my father and his family in a cutter
across the Sound to Sweden

On the bottom of another boat my grandfather
and on a shelf in the engine room
my mother and her mother…

Count the many
see the one
nothing must be limited, no one be forgotten

Each consciousness its tell*
a memory
that keeps the dread awake

The day is great
as a stone of burden
I lean towards the silent paper

Spin a life-thread.

*tell - from Hebrew tel, a heap of ruins, a mound that forms an archaeological site.

0translated from Danish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Five Books

At TheBrowser, a literary website which announces that it is creating a 21st century library of Writing Worth Reading, Rory McTurk discusses five works on Norse culture and Old Icelandic literature, including Vilhelm Grønbech's The Culture of the Teutons, Sigurður Nordal's Icelandic Culture, and Preben Meulengracht Sørensen's Saga and Society. All the books mentioned in the interview are available in English translation.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

Siri Hustvedt’s recently-published novel The Summer Without Men (Henry Holt, Sceptre, hardback, also Kindle) tells the story of the survival of a 30-year-old marriage through a brief and sudden experience of loss and breakdown which leads to a realization of personal integrity. This happens not only in terms of individual experience but also in a broader context that encompasses the generations, from childhood to extreme old age. It’s a moving narrative that is unpretentious in its determination to get to the truth. The style is episodic, at times impressionistic, occasionally making a transition to poetry. It has a place for humour, irony and dry observation, yet also carries a voice that is straightforward and sincere. The evocation of Norwegian-American Minnesota, with it communities, its libraries, its care homes for the elderly and its study groups for children, is delicately and skilfully done. The central theme is the interweaving of life and art, of reality and fiction. At a book club discussion, the participants don’t distinguish between them, regarding “the characters inside books exactly the way they regard the characters outside books. The facts that the former are made of the alphabet and the latter of muscle, tissue, and bone are of little relevance.”

In a sense the book can be seen as a homage by Mia, the novel’s heroine (and by implication the author herself) to “that coy but passionate genius, the Danish philosopher who has been irking and unsettling and bewildering her for years.” As one of Mia’s anonymous correspondents writes: “Who would deny us the mere pantomime of frenzy? We, the actors who pace back and forth on a stage no one watches, our guts heaving and our fists flying?”

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Peter Weiss: Letters - 2

I’ve now finished reading the book* – it’s a fairly short work, and includes the text of 21 letters, with notes and bibliography. The letters themselves give a fascinating snapshot of the 24 year-old Weiss’s psychological, emotional and artistic situation in Alingsås, western Sweden, during the summer of 1941. In April of the same year, the Swedish poet Karin Boye, who also lived in Alingsås, and with whom Weiss may have had personal contact, committed suicide. It seems that this event drove him to seek psychoanalytic treatment, though it was some time before he could afford to undertake a proper analysis. In the letters there are references to an aborted analysis with a local doctor, Iwan Bratt, and a self-analysis conducted afterwards during a time when Weiss was still working as a darkroom technician in his father’s factory.

Henriette Itta Blumenthal, like several other of Weiss’s close friends during this period, was considerably older than him, and had also trained as an analyst. Unlike Weiss, she emigrated to the United States. Weiss’s letters to her bear the character of a personal confession, and reveal much about his troubled sense of personal, ethnic and national identity, his relation to his parents, his affairs with women, his attitude towards homosexuality, his increasingly political interpretation of the role of resistance in psychoanalysis, and many other themes which eventually became merged into his later literary works, especially the "Erzählung” Abschied von den Eltern (1960), and the novels Fluchtpunkt (1961) and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (1975-1981) There is also a good deal of detail about his activity and aspirations as a painter and visual artist, and the book gives an insight into his concept of “world theatre” (Welttheater) as a meeting-place of the personal and the public, which would later become important in his work for the stage and screen. The descriptions of life in a small Swedish town during wartime, with its gossip, its hostility to foreigners and its undisguised anti-Semitism, are sharply and vividly drawn.

In their notes, the editors of the volume have tried to be as precise, inclusive and informative as possible, and this is very welcome. Their introductory essay also serves as a useful summary of the rest of the text. One has the impression, however, that the editors are not quite at home in Swedish, and this is a pity, as the letters are written in a curious linguistic style that hovers somewhere between German and Swedish, occasionally producing some strange and subtle shifts, not all of which are literary, and which require some detective work on the part of the reader.  In one case when Weiss writes that he has been out with friends picking rosehips, and uses a “Germanized” form (Nippon) of the Swedish word nypon, the notes flag this as “Unklar: Es gibt eine Pfingstrose namens »Nippon Beauty«. Möglicherweise auch ein Übertragungsfehler.“ (p. 151) Where Weiss spells the name of the journal Månadstidningen in a mixture of German and Swedish which probably reflects his state of mind in exile, as "Monatstidningen", in one instance the notes go even further, and reproduce the title as Månatsdidningen (p.71). On a more general level, many readers could probably dispense with notes that inform them that Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter, or that Diego Rivera was a Mexican one.

But these are minor matters, and ones which it would perhaps not be hard to set right for a second edition. Readers who are familiar with Weiss's prose work, especially the Ästhetik, will find much of interest in this book as it provides documentary background material and in some cases a confirmation of certain themes and facts that are only hinted at in the prose fiction. It is also a highly enjoyable read, and a worthy addition to the volumes of Weiss's letters that have already been published (most recently his correspondence with Hermann Hesse and Siegfried Unseld, the late head of Suhrkamp.)

* Peter Weiss: Briefe an Henriette Itta Blumenthal, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin, 2011. 175pp.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Christer Kihlman reassessed

Hufvudstadsbladet’s Pia Ingström has been rereading the novels of Christer Kihlman (b. 1930), Finland’s doyen and former enfant terrible of “confessional literature” who was at his most productive in the 1960s and 70s, but whose literary activity subsequently became more sporadic.  Kihlman’s breakthrough novel Se upp, Salige! (1960) has  been reissued in a new edition by Söderströms, though readers of English will have to wait.  Four of his novels are, however, available in English versions, and one wonders whether the renewed interest in his work may also extend to the English-speaking world. Certainly, as Pia Ingström points out in her column, Kihlman’s work is not short on interesting, contemporary and universally human themes, whether it be marital conflict, family breakdown, homosexual prostitution, alcoholism or drug addiction – “Frågan är om inte Kihlman är bättre ju värre han är” (The question is whether Kihlman is not better the worse he is), she writes, and there may well be something in that, for he was probably at his best as a writer when exploring what Gunnar Ekelöf called the “bottom” (botten) of human nature and  experience. At all events, one looks forward to seeing the republication in Swedish of more of Kihlman’s controversial but surely not superannuated output, much of which has been out of print for a long time. After all, in the intervening years since the 1970s confessional literature has never entirely gone out of fashion in the global literary market, and may even be on the way back to prominence again.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Peter Weiss: Letters

News that Berlin publishers Matthes & Seitz will this month release a new edition of Peter Weiss's Letters to Henriette Itta Blumenthal, written mostly from Alingsås, Sweden, between 1941 and 1943, before the beginning of Weiss's first proper psychoanalysis.

Update: the book is now published, and I have a copy. I'll post a short review here in due course.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Thor Vilhjálmsson 1925-2011

It's reported from Reykjavík that the Icelandic poet, novelist, essayist and translator Thor Vilhjálmsson has died at the age of 85. Among his better known works are the essay collection Fljótt, fljótt sagði fuglinn (1968) and the novel Grámosinn glóir (1986) which won the 1988 Nordic Council Literature Prize and was translated into English by Bernard Scudder (Justice Undone, 1998).

Update: Shortly before his death, Thor Vilhjálmsson was interviewed on video by Icelandic novelist and critic Einar Kárason.