More Reading for Remainers

After the purge of a house move, the books that survive are in a random state. The lucky ones are shelved, but many lie in boxes only to be liberated if I think they may contain something I want. Flung aside they sit in jumbled piles on the floor, like the shifting  borders of mainland Europe. The boxes were labelled, but it turns out not precisely enough: “Fiction” could be anything from Jane Austen to Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The muddle does mean I unearth unexpected gems when I scrabble through, and some are from mainland Europe.

austen-to-zafonIf I wasn’t British I’d probably possess more books not written in my mother tongue or by non British authors. Other nations buy far more translated writing than we do, in part because their publishing industries risk more, and their authors do sometimes write in a second language.(Think of Conrad, Nabokov, Yann Martel, Eva Hoffman.)

Beata Bishop’s One Spoilt Spring 51gbphv3w7l-_sx373_bo1204203200_(I’m providing the US link showing the wonderful dustjacket) was written in English and published by Faber in 1960. Beata Bishop was a Hungarian who became a BBC journalist and her novel tells of a young woman involved in the resistance against the Nazis in Budapest. Of many works about Eastern Europe under the Nazis, probably the best known by a UK author is Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, filmed by the BBC as “The Fortunes of War”. But Bishop gives us the story from the Hungarian point of view. Sadly, this quote reflects much of Hungarian reality  today: “…every second person around her was a potential victim, certain to be persecuted the moment the political situation deteriorated.”

Also from Hungary, The Door was written by Magda Szabo in 1986 and translated in 1995. It’s the strange tale of the relationship between a writer and her employee, the difficult, disturbed, faithful Emerence. Where Bishop focussed on one season of one year, Szabo the-door-szabogradually reveals Emerence’s whole life story, during the siege of Budapest, the Nazi invasion and then under communism. Emerence is controlling and disagreeable, has suffered appallingly and through a mixture of hoarding and giving, withholding and nurture, is trying to make sense of a life smashed up, just as the book tries to make sense of ageing. The image of the door, kept locked, forced open, welcoming or rejecting, may be unsubtle on a psychoanalytical level, but it’s powerful enough to act as another character in the narrative. This is not a book for the faint hearted, but there is a dream like quality to the long sentenced prose. I remember thinking it wonderful but on returning to it for this post I was repelled: it’s one of those books, like Kafka perhaps or Stefan Zweig that meets your emotions  with a slug of uncomfortable recognition so you need all your strength to read it.

Sándor Márai was another Hungarian whose Embers, translated by Carol Brown Janeway embers(Penguin, 2003) is also a poetic, elegiac exploration of memory and age. I found it a delight to read – no, “delight” is too diaphanous a word, but a pleasure, with beautifully translated cadences and always enough simplicity to leaven the description. A look online showed me it breeds poetry in the readers too; I’ve seldom found such beauty and feeling in a set of reviews. (The reviews are polarized through: there’s some viciously expressed dislike, along the lines of ‘how dare you waste my time when you know I wanted a plot?’) And yet more doors: “Door latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them.”

Shall we go somewhere warmer? Most of the modern Spanish fiction I’ve read has been in bringasSpanish, but my language skills aren’t up to the verbosity of the classics. That Bringas Woman  is a wonderful portrait of sycophantic upper class society in 1860s Madrid. Never have aristocrats appeared such dinosaurs. Condemned in their pointless lives to ever greater display and unable to pay for it, their economic model should be unsustainable. Rosalia the heroine is forced into finding unpleasant solutions to the conundrum. This is dense and detailed but well translated with a helpful introduction and notes, which will appeal to anyone who enjoyed Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, Balzac or Dickens (although it’s much shorter). A detail that stayed with me years after reading it was the minutely described fashion for sewing pictures using the hair of loved ones instead of thread. Yes, you did read that correctly.

In my childhood home, there were many stories about Italy, then even more starkly divided into sophisticated North and poverty stricken South than now. I read Danilo Dolci’s To Feed the Hungry, a classic collection of interviews with Sicilians. Bread and Wine (revised 1955) by Ignazio Silone and Christ stopped at Eboli (1946) by Carlo Levi (also filmed) were both by opponents of Fascism living in internal exile.

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The opening pages of Christ Stopped at Eboli

The modern classic The Leopard (1958, also filmed by Visconti) by Guiseppe di Lampedusa begins during the Garibaldi uprising of 1860 but remains informative about the workings of Sicilian society today. In the 1970s and 1980s there was an outpouring of films to complement these books: The Tree of Wooden Clogs, set in Lombardy, Padre Padrone (Sardinia), Cinema Paradiso (Sicily again) heralded two decades earlier by Fellini’s La Strada. In some ways, with the publication of Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan novels, little has changed: we read of tumultuous, crime ridden, sun baked volcanic places whose inhabitants struggle with gross passions and strong, crude morals. Characters of great delicacy and potential do appear in all the works I’ve referred to, but it has to be said that the more brutish features prevail. Ferrante’s popularity, despite her often difficult, intense prose, suggests these are archetypes, and indeed one of her Communist activist characters quotes Dolci. (My daughter who recently lived in Palermo as part of her Italian degree, tells me they are less popular in Italy than in Anglophone countries, which may be because the mirror held up is hardly flattering.)

As long as there is no Dexit, Denmark remains a member of the EU. What a pleasure to unearth Peter Høeg’s Miss Smila’s Feeling for Snow (1992). (This seems to be available in two differently titled translations.) Høeg taught me about the quiet crime novel, no less menacing for the intelligent, controlled nature of its excitement. If it isn’t too much of a contradiction, it’s narratively rich in colourlessness, noiselessness, isolation and loneliness. Miss Smilla also provides an introduction to minority ethnic Greenlanders. The film of the same name did it justice, I thought, and may have been what inspired all those BBC4 Scandi noir commissions..

Finally, anyone who’s enjoyed listening to Mac the Knife, and been led from there to the The Threepenny Opera, will appreciate The Threepenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934). It’s witty, exuberant, cruel and sharp like the stage work and the prose rattles along like  a Berlin tram. If you want ways to tell modern bankers what you think of them, consult Brecht! Much more cheerful, if decadent and cynical, than the last item in that particular box, which I don’t have the courage to reread but which shaped my early ideas of justice and equality when I was a teenager. Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, originally written in French about Ernie Levy, the designated “just man” of his generation, who died at Auschwitz in 1943.

This was of necessity a random selection. A few more months, a few more open boxes and who knows where we’ll travel on the blog? Or maybe it would save disturbing them if I go browsing for some more recent titles.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

Viva Virago!

Who loves the dark green elegance and quality of Virago Modern Classics? They took paperback design to a new level but not just the design, also the content. I didn’t realise how much their publication matched my own coming of age as a reader, until I caught a BBC4 documentary about them on iplayer (at the time of posting this is available for 12 more days).

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Beautiful covers

In the 1970s and 80s I worked in academic holidays in my father’s bookshop, usually in paperbacks. I know there are conventions nowadays about how specific genres should look, but in fact it was easier then to second guess a book by its cover. Picadors – loved by hippies, tending towards fantasy and allegory – were white and seemed taller. Penguin Modern Classics were a pale grey with fine art reproductions on the front. (My career aim at 17 was to emulate Germano Facetti, their designer. What better job than reading books, then searching in art galleries for pictures to represent them? Naively I thought that was all it amounted to, but biographical material about him shows there was a lot more to it.) Penguin Classics were mostly black, crime green, modern fiction had an orange spine. A brick shaped book with a shiny cover was probably  down market, an “airport novel”., especially if it had gold or silver lettering. Sphere books were thin, printed on cheap paper with narrow margins. Everyman Classics were accessible hardback editions of wonderful works, cheaper even than Penguins and so kept with paperback ranges.

virago-ferrier-braddon

But when Virago Modern Classics came along, initially shelved alphabetically with the rest of the fiction and then on a special revolving display stand of their own, they upped the ante. We tried to keep them facing outwards because they were so beautiful – an astute marketing exercise as well as (at the time) a revolutionary concept. The BBC4 programme tells me the art director of Virago actually did do what I thought Germano Facetti did: browsing in art galleries (fun) and establishing copyright ownership of the pictures she wanted to use, or could afford (not fun). Virago (initially called Spare Rib press like the magazine that started the same year) had already existed since 1972 when they began the Modern Classics imprint in 1978. Their first books were non fiction feminist history and sociology – now themselves classics. Our daughters have much to thank them for.

Why was Virago needed? These three statements give an idea. Carmen Callil, the founder, quotes from the New Yorker: “Women generally – especially women writers – have no use for destiny. They wouldn’t compose a Hamlet if they could.” She remembers the Inland Revenue’s header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.” Margaret Atwood quotes a letter to Alice Munro: “Well, you might be a good short story writer but I wouldn’t go to bed with you.” 

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Publishing was a man’s world – my literary agent, who started work for WH Allen in the 1980s, remembers women only present as secretaries. Although my father’s bookshop was a place of liberal debate, he also for a time banned female members of staff from wearing trousers (he found the shape of one member of staff displeasing). Despite Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, it was harder for women to get published and once published, harder for them to remain in print. Their books were considered of less value, parochial, unimportant. Virago – whose first offices were above a massage parlour in Soho’s Wardour Street – changed all that.

virago-smithConsider the names published by Virago: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Michele Roberts, Sarah Waters, Linda Grant, Maya Angelou… These were and are contemporary writers, but  Virago also rehabilitated many fading gems: Rosamund Lehmann who wrote delicately of unwanted pregnancy; Susan Ferrier who wrote in 1818 (!) and Mary E Braddon (1862) of unhappy marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)and Emily Holmes Coleman (1930) put postnatal depression and insanity at the heart of their fiction. On a lighter note, did you know that Dodie Smith of The Hundred and One Dalmatians fame also produced the enchanting I Capture the castle? You have a treat in store!

The lists (fiction and non fiction) were diverse: Paule Marshall wrote of a Barbadian girl growing up in New York (1959) and Zhang Jie of life in 1970s China. Amrit Wilson threw a stone into a rippling pond with Finding a Voice, about the lives of Bangladeshi women in the East End (1978). Maya Angelou was published in the US in 1969, but UK publishers showed no interest until Virago took up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1984 and had an immediate huge bestseller. In 2001 Virago as part of the Little, Brown group published the Somalian model Waris Dirie’s memoir Desert Flower, one of the first books to describe what was then called female circumcision.

During various house moves, I jettisoned books. Some I don’t regret: at a certain point the greasy yellow mustiness of old books becomes unpleasant. I’m interested to find the few Women’s Press editions I’ve kept have lasted better than most, pages still quite white and crisp, and the covers of the Viragos have withstood time better than the insides (I’m sneezing from musty spores as I type this). But I’m sorry now that I threw some of them out and I keep my charity shop eye open for replacements. Watching Carmen Callil, the indefatigable founder of Virago, climb ladders in her elegant late seventies to run her finger along the spines of her collection, I feel very jealous. Do visit the Virago website for details of all 687 Modern Classics and their other lists. And do watch the documentary while you can – the nostalgic enjoyment of writing (and hopefully reading) this blog post wouldn’t have been possible without it. It’s not only about nostalgia though: long may Virago continue to give women a voice and let’s hope it’s heard in the White House.

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©Jessica Norrie 2016

Hiroshima – Carps, cranes and camphor trees

Hiroshima was included on the tour. We were to stay in Tokyo, Hakane (a beautiful lakeside hotel where we’d see Mount Fuji in the background, if the “shy lady” was showing her face), and then, on 10th and 11th September, we would stay in Hiroshima and finish in Kyoto.

I was apprehensive about Hiroshima. In New York, I avoided Ground Zero, and I didn’t do the tour of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, although I did once pay my respects to Allied POWs at the river Kwai war cemetery in Thailand.  I don’t watch videos of Aleppo, but I do donate to those who try to alleviate the misery there. I know what I think about war and nuclear weapons, I’ll sign any petition going and attend demonstrations – but face the evidence? Since having children (and that was a long time ago), I prefer not to.

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a souvenir pencil case for the committed Carps fan

But the British (Scottish) guide said: “You’ll love Hiroshima! The people have the best sense of humour! It’s always so lively! And the night we’re there, the Carps are playing!”

The local Hiroshimaniac (really) guide met us at the station, fresh from the zooming bullet train. Mitsu was tiny, with a hat like Chico Marx, and carried a red flag with a picture of a carp so that we could see her. Mitsu knew what we had come to see. But what mattered to her that day was the Hiroshima Carps game. They were to play the Tokyo Giants in the baseball league, and if they won it would be the first time they’d topped the league for 25 years.

As we went down an escalator, a small child coming up the other side with his parents shouted excitedly “Gaijin! Gaijin!” (a slightly pejorative word for “foreigners”). He was quickly shushed and we bowed and waved, no doubt grotesquely. Nobody had given us a second glance in Tokyo.

All four syllables of the name “Hiroshima” are stressed equally, which makes you say it very thoughtfully. And it has two World Heritage sights. We visited the older one first, about 35km away.

Do you have a mental image of old Japan? It may be the kimono’d geisha of Kyoto (where they are not called geisha). Or it may be the O-Torii gate on Miyajima. This beautiful island  is home to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples built in the water and the forest. Despite the scaffolding (they’ve been maintaining these buildings since 1186) and the tourists (who included ourselves, after all – why do tourists always despise each other?) Miyajima was serene, a place for meditation. A minute away from the main sights were quiet woodland footpaths. The sun shimmered on the Seto Inland Sea.

o-torii-miyajima-2

In the evening our plan was to eat okonomoiyaki, another of Mitsu’s local passions, and view the hypocentre site by night. We walked past coolly fashionable shops with few customers, but the bars were all full of red shirted baseball enthusiasts. In a slightly emptier one, we watched the chefs selecting fresh vegetables from a beautifully displayed pile, slicing and grilling them to perfection, creating small artworks served with an endearing mixture of diffidence and panache. A hapless colleague who spoke some English was called in from the street outside to deal with us. Thinking the Carps had won, we kept the poor man chatting while we finished our meal, but we’d misunderstood. On leaving the restaurant the atmosphere hit us! A large crowd, including our poor waiter as soon as he decently could, was glued to a large screen mounted above the door of the bar opposite. The match wasn’t over and it was very close! My partner could just about work out the rules of baseball, and as he explained what was happening even I – not a sport watcher – was infected with enthusiasm. We craned our heads: more people arrived behind us. Immediate, die hard Carps fans, we joined in the rising whoops of joy and the slow gasps of disappointment. A taxi tried to get through, the crowd parted courteously, the taxi crawled away. Some people at the front of the increasing mass turned round, gestured like conductors to an orchestra, and the entire crowd flowed silently into a sitting position on the immaculate pavements. Baseball bewilders me, but I knew when something bad happened (well, it was good for Tokyo) and we sighed as one. Then something good! Hooray! – and something else – and we’d won! The Carps had hiroshima-best-carps-win-picturewon the league for the first time in 25 years. How we cheered!

I was in Rome in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup and the atmosphere was similar: joyful innocence with no aggression at all. In Hiroshima fans celebrated by throwing beer over each other rather than drinking it, but as we walked past, the beer throwers stopped to allow us through, as long as we returned their ferociously muscular high fives. It was the most controlled delirium I have ever seen (and next morning not a trace of spilled alcohol remained).

Then the Peace Park, quiet and dark. The looming hulk of the A-Bomb dome, once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building at the hypocentre to survive, is now maintained exactly as it was on 6th August 1945. A few people walking about, stopping in appalled silence to read the information signs, gazing at the empty window sockets and the ruined dome, or simply on their way home from a late night at work. A homeless (perhaps) man, rooting in the hedge behind his bench. The moon on the river and and faint sounds of continued cheering  a few blocks away. That was then; this is now.

hiroshima-the-only-building-left-standing-2

The Peace Park by daylight, very calm. The children’s monument is just one of many. It was erected in memory of Sadako who survived the blast aged two, but nine years later developed leukaemia. In hospital she tried to fold 1000 paper cranes, in the traditional hope of one wish being granted. Now the monument is surrounded by a semicircle of murals made from thousands of tiny folded cranes sent from around Japan and the wider world. President Obama visited in May, the first serving US president to do so. He couldn’t come as close to the monuments as we did, for security reasons, but one of the paper crane murals shows him with a rainbow background. These now hackneyed hippy images still carry all their original weight, in Hiroshima. Mitsu reiterated that, whatever the US is doing elsewhere in the world, this was a hugely meaningful visit for the people of her city. You are invited to participate in the Paper Crane project here.

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Children’s memorial, with Obama mural far right

 

hiroshima-from-the-epicentre-to-the-far-bank
The present day view from the A-Bomb dome across the river where many people died trying to cool their burns.

Lots of the victims were teenagers, who had been drafted into school based work gangs. Their job, ironically, was to help demolish old buildings to prevent the spread of fire after bombardments. Many are remembered in the Peace Museum. Display cases hold their burnt uniforms – one with a note to say she had sewn it herself, their satchels, books and sandals. The poignancy of those displays was heartrending that day and I find recalling it for the purposes of this piece quite overwhelming, cutting through my normal stylistic showing off and careful punctuation which feels just trivial. Though you could argue it’s a cause that deserves well crafted persuasive prose more than most.

Shinichi – just a toddler really, three years old – died playing on his tricycle in the yard. He was buried there, with Kimi, the little girl from next door, as their parents couldn’t bear the smell of bodies being burnt.Years later when they moved house and wanted to rebury the children, the iron tricycle was found intact with their bones. They donated it to the Peace Museum and the story can be shared with children you know, in Shin’s Tricycle. Shin would be 74 now, and no doubt an avid Carps fan, if he had survived.

Our guide Mitsu’s parents and grandparents survived. The Japanese government pays survivors a life pension at various levels depending on the severity with which they were affected, and according to Mitsu has looked after them well. (In contrast my father in law, a POW in Singapore, had to wait four decades for recognition from the MoD that his health had been affected.) Her aunt was badly burnt and disabled for life, although the friend she was walking next to was unharmed. Her grandmother had just time to grab a small Buddha from the shrine, and run outside. Her parents, fortunately, were both working outside the city, and immediately joined rescue parties, but the family did not know who had survived for many days or weeks. However in 2016 she and her parents were able to watch the Carps match together on TV. I may be labouring the contrast between past and present, triumph and tragedy, but on (as it happened) September 11th in Hiroshima it was very marked.

Rescue efforts and rebuilding began immediately, despite no power and extreme danger. (I wondered whether the Japanese, a nation of earthquake survivors, were more resilient and practical than other nations would have been. Fortunately there has so far been no way of knowing, but since 1945 scientists have developed nuclear bombs with more than 3,000 times the power of that unleashed on Hiroshima.)

And the camphor trees? hiroshima-camphor-treesAfter the bomb, people thought there would be no life again. Then, in the spring, the camphor trees came into leaf. This one’s a few metres west of the A-Bomb dome. They became a symbol of new life in Hiroshima. Many new trees were donated, but there are still around 170 that were A-bombed. They’re called Hibaku Jumoku, “survivor tree”, and identified by name plates.

Some members of the group we were with commented that the Japanese had also acted appallingly. In fact there’s a notice at the Peace Museum declaring they were wrong to attack Pearl Harbour. But that isn’t what the Peace Park and Museum are about. They’re about promoting peace, now, and remembering the horror of nuclear attack so that it will never happen again. If ever I have the chance to visit Nagasaki, I shall go.

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Please share this post or at least this image, as the card I picked up in the museum asks visitors to do.

The A-Bomb dome is the second World Heritage site in Hiroshima, and Mitsu said they were proud to have it. What can it be like to walk along the beautiful, tragic river every day to work or explain the monuments to your children? How can it be, now, to have the Peace Monuments as your main tourist attraction and a major source of revenue for a successful modern city? The Japanese don’t on the whole do therapy; they keep their troubles to themselves, work hard, and face forwards, so Hiroshima now gives the impression of a thriving, cheerful place I’d happily return to – partly to ride the fleet of trams from around the world, that brighten up the streets enough to convert anyone to tram spotting!

Although Mitsu said of course there had been long term mental health implications (and even had she not said that we would have known), Japan may have dealt with this disaster as well as any group of humans could. Let us hope no one need deal with it again.

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

Has anyone seen my glasses?

On a creative writing course that I describe here, we were asked to write about a precious object, a talisman. Some people chose jewellery  – one had a wonderful wedding ring, full of mystery, that she’d bought (they’d bought) on eBay! But my Talisman is my glasses.

tartan galsses

I have worn glasses since I was 16. At first I tried to avoid them, shamefacedly extracting them from my bag to check the bus number as it approached the stop. Later I had to put them on more, and now almost all the time. Instinctively, I usually remove them when eating. And also since getting an electric toothbrush, as I spatter them with Colgate, and I’m not the sort of person who can ever lay their hands on any of that special lens cleaner that organised spectacleers have.

Without my glasses my world would be less and yet over the years I have made my glasses less too. My statement style shouted “Here I Am!” in the 1980s: I had stripy frames and bright pink frames and lenses like the dog with waterwheel eyes in the Hans Anderson fairy tale. But now they’re inconspicuous. I don’t want to feel them on my nose ridging the skin red and sore; I don’t want them hiding my eye colour, my lashes (which due to the side effects of some medication are growing! Bat, flutter, bat flutter – a bit grotesque but funny too.) I want my expression to be visible. No dissimulation nowadays, no false confidence. What YOU see is what you get.mumand ros with glassesMy all singing, all dancing varifocal’d shatter proof surface protected lightweight tinted lenses darken in the sun, which is when my expression does become impenetrable. A school child told me my dark glasses make me look like a detective and I like that, for they do enable me to see what’s afoot. Add a trench coat and a pipe and I’d be set to go.

peacock glasses 2In our house we don’t shout goodbye when we leave for work or study in the morning. Instead the last I hear from my “children” (they are so grown-up and so much taller than I am) is: “Your glasses are on the piano / your glasses are in the bathroom,” or simply: “Fruit bowl!” If they don’t call I am lost, for without my glasses on I cannot find my glasses. Now, oddly, I can find no photos of me wearing them with which to illustrate this post. Perhaps I’m as vain as this peacock.

Two years ago I was diagnosed with glaucoma in both eyes at exactly the same age as my mother before me. She went blind. Treatments have moved on and I shall probably not go blind (although at the rate my eyelashes are going they may soon screen the world) but it was a sign of ageing, a pointer to depression and suddenly I became aware of how sight based my day is. I wake and look around the messy room in dismay; I read a book; I browse my bloody phone; I read my emails; I wander to the shops (or drive); inspect the garden, and if the gods of fate are on my side I write some prose using a screen. How without sight will I find new ways to see?

Fruit bowl with glasses