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review 2017-04-05 11:00
A Widower’s Grief: Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach
Bruges-La-Morte - Georges Rodenbach,Will Stone,Mike Mitchell
BRUGES LA MORTE - GEORGES RODENBACH

Women or men who need to come to terms with the loss of a loved one are popular figures in literature. Often, the grieving find new joy, maybe even new love by the end of the story and at first this also seems to be the case in the late nineteenth-century novel Bruges-la-morte by almost forgotten Belgian journalist, poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898). But he was obsessed with death and so it’s little wonder that his symbolist chef-d'œuvre first published in 1892 is a thoroughly gloomy piece of prose poetry, a short Gothic novel in the vein of his contemporary Oscar Wilde. The book focuses on the melancholy scene of dead or moribund Bruges in Belgium at least as much as on the woebegone protagonist who has chosen the city to indulge in his infinite sorrow after the death of his adored wife and in keeping her memory alive.

 

The central figure of Bruges-la-morte is the widower Hugue Viane who is forty years old and whom the author describes as prematurely aged by grief. In the opening scene, aptly set on a day in November, he has been living in Bruges for five years, i.e. ever since the day after his beloved wife had died. It was the bleak atmosphere of the mediaeval city with its many convents, dark canals and narrow streets that brought him there because it corresponded perfectly with his anguish and allowed him to get completely wrapped up in mourning. In the first edition of his short novel Georges Rodenbach included several black-and-white photos of the city to increase the effect of his very poetical though sombre portrait of Bruges. But he shows the city also as a place of deep religiosity and he makes Hugue Viane live on Quai du Rosaire (Quay of the Rosary!) where a big procession passes every year on Ascension Day. To the widower his house is less a home than it’s a shrine dedicated to his dearest departed. Above all, the drawing rooms serve him as places of adulation. With great skill and in great detail Georges Rodenbach evokes the feeling of two rooms crammed with all kinds of memorabilia of Hugue Viane’s late wife. Some of them can be called her relics with due right, notably the long blonde plait that, on one of the last days of her suffering, he cut from her head instead of just a curl and that he keeps under glass on her now mute piano. The plait is so sacred to him that he doesn’t even dare to touch it! As can be expected of an inconsolable mourner, he leads a withdrawn life following an almost monastic routine. Mostly, he stays at home in his room, but in the late afternoon, he likes to go out for a walk through the city that he loves at this time of day because it’s sad like him. During one of these solitary walks, a woman looking just like his late wife crosses his way. The encounter is so brief that he isn’t sure that he really saw her. Nonetheless, he begins to search her during his walks and one evening there she is again. He follows her into the theatre where she is a dancer. Not without hesitation he addresses her and he can’t help beginning an affair with the woman who seems a second chance for happiness with his wife resurrected. And thus fate takes its fatal course…

 

Overall, Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach is an impressive short novel that flows over with all kinds of most beautiful allegories and metaphors that not only allow but also inspire thorough analysis. I loved its poetical language that offers lots of remarkable images and that feels exceedingly precise in spite or because of the author’s frequent use of vague or ambiguous words or expressions. For me the read was a great pleasure and I can’t thank enough my friend in Belgium who surprised me with the book past year. It’s a shame that such a marvellous piece of fiction had to remain in the darkness of literary oblivion for a hundred years until someone thought of bringing it back to light… and to the attention of avid readers like me.

 

Bruges-La-Morte - Georges Rodenbach,Will Stone,Mike Mitchell 

 

Nota bene:

Since George Rodenbach died already in 1898, the original French versions of his work are all in the public domain and can be downloaded legally and free from sites like Ebooks libres et gratuits. If old translations of this impressive short novel exist, they might be in the public domain too, but all English editions that I found are of very recent date and therefore copyrighted.

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review 2017-02-01 11:00
Saint Augustine and His Abandoned Concubine: Vita Brevis by Jostein Gaarder
Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder
Das Leben ist kurz = Vita brevis - Jostein Gaarder

During much of European history men shaped the world of things and thought as they believed right and passed over women in silence, if they didn’t hold them in contempt. Highly revered Fathers of the Christian Church like Saint Augustine of Hippo Regius further institutionalised this contempt of women… and of earthly pleasures altogether as shows his autobiography titled Confessiones. In this theological key text he admits that before his conversion to Christianity in 385 he was a man who tasted life to the full. For over ten years he lived with a concubine (probably law forbade a formal marriage) and had a son with her, but in retrospect he regrets this sinful and immoral relationship because it kept him from true love of God. In Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine (also translated into English as The Same Flower) the Norwegian writer, philosopher and theologian Jostein Gaarder gave this abandoned woman a voice.

 

In 1995 in a second-hand bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jostein Gaarder comes across an old manuscript in a red box titled Codex Floriae. Its first sentence shows that it’s the letter of a certain Floria Aemilia to Augustinus Aurelius, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa (today: Algeria) who was later to become Saint Augustine. When he translates another sentence, it occurs to him that Floria Aemilia might be the saint’s long-time concubine whom he mentioned in his Confessiones without ever revealing her name. Of course, the author doesn’t know if the seventeenth-century copy is of an authentic letter, but it intrigues him that it might be and he buys it. Back home he makes a copy of the entire letter and sends the original to the Vatican Library for inspection. The Codex Floriae gets lost and the author decides to translate the Latin text from his copy and to publish it as Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine. So far in brief what Jostein Gaarder says in his introduction about the actual letter of Floria Aemilia that makes up the major part of the book.

 

As it soon turns out, the author was right to assume that Floria Aemilia is the concubine of Saint Augustine. The exceptionally intelligent and self-assured woman from Carthage read the Confessiones of her former lover and obviously felt the urgent need to comment on them, notably on the passages dealing with their life together in Northern Africa, Rome and eventually Milan and with the emotional bonds between them that he tries to reduce to sexual desire. But she doesn’t only give her point of view of events (sometimes drifting into bitterness or mockery seeing how religious frenzy distorted his memories and opinions). Thanks to thorough studies of philosophy, theology as well as rhetoric during the years since Augustine sent her back to Carthage, she is able to challenge his notions of (original) sin and morality with great dialectical skill. Above all, she can’t agree with his attitude towards women who are for him the seducers leading men astray from the way to God and Eternal Life. Augustine postulates that all pleasures on Earth are sinful and should be avoided in preparation of life after death, while Floria Aemilia is convinced that pleasures are God-given and that denying them means to deny God’s creation. She supports her arguments with many quotations from classical Greek and Roman sources that Jostein Gaarder points out and explains in footnotes if necessary for understanding.

 

All things considered, Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine isn’t so much a book about Floria Aemilia than it’s about Saint Augustine, his biographical background and above all his philosophy that helped to marginalise women not only in the Christian Church, but in Christian society altogether for more than one and a half millennium. Alone for the critical examination of the Confessiones from a female point of view, it’s a worthwhile read. In addition, it’s well written and easy to follow despite the complex philosophical argument.

 

Many have wondered, if the Codex Floriae really exists or if the “feminist manifesto” of Floria Aemilia is an invention of Jostein Gaarder. As it seems, the author always refused to clearly answer the question. I think that the book is a gorgeous work of fiction.

 

Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder 

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review 2016-11-01 11:00
When a Woman Loves a Man: The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer
The Jib Door - Marlen Haushofer
Die Tapetentür - Marlen Haushofer

It’s a well-known truth that love has the potential to make blind for anything unpleasant involved and at all times writers gladly took up the theme to dwell on the tangle and the suffering that results from it. In the history of literature there are scores of novels – all-time classics and probably many more forgotten ones – surrounding ill-matched couples whose relationships are doomed from the start however much they try to bridge the factual, emotional, social or psychological divide. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer is an impressive, though often overlooked example of an Austrian novel dealing with passionate love leading into a marriage that is based on the desperate longing to escape loneliness in a “normal” life with a husband and self-denial. First published in 1957, the primarily male critics of the time showed all but enthusiasm for the book because they had neither an interest in nor an understanding for what might be called the female condition in a patriarchal society.

 

The Jib Door is a short novel set in Vienna of the late 1950s that covers a period of only twelve months in the life of thirty-year-old Annette. To tell her story the author skilfully alternates third-person narrative focussing on the protagonist and diary entries that allow a more personal look into her soul. Above all the latter show Annette as a very intelligent and well-read young woman (she likes Kant and Schopenhauer) who despite all contents herself with an unchallenging job as a librarian. From the beginning the novel’s tone is melancholic which corresponds perfectly with her sad past and dull present. Of her family there’s nobody left but her much adored uncle Eugen who raised her together with his rather rigid late wife Johanna. Her mother died when she was two years old and her father, who couldn’t cope with the situation, fled to South America some time later. For years she has been living on her own in her little Viennese apartment enjoying her independence and even being alone. She has many friends with whom she meets regularly and in her adult life she already had several love affairs, but they all ended in boredom and disappointment. Her current relationship is no exception and when her lover leaves her for a job in Paris, she feels relief rather than regret. Then one day she receives a letter from the solicitor Gregor Xanthner because her father has died and she needs to sign papers. To her he seems the paragon of health and happiness, and yet, she doesn’t feel attracted to him at first. However, the more Annette sees of him, the more she falls for him although her friends can’t stand him and she knows that he’ll inevitably hurt her. Annette becomes Gregor’s lover and when she gets pregnant, she gives up her job, her apartment, her independence to marry him and share his life. But he isn’t interested in her as a person and Annette feels increasingly lonely. Moreover, she knows that he betrays her with others when he doesn’t come home for dinner at night. She still clings to him hiding her knowledge and all the while her belly is growing rounder and rounder…

 

In this second novel of hers – that like her other works gives the impression of being at least partly autobiographical – the author paints a very sensitive, psychologically deep and impressive portrait of a young woman in post-war Vienna who longs for love and slides eyes wide open into a relationship that brings her despair and pain instead. Consequently, the protagonist’s pointed reflections on men and love turn out to be rather resigned and gloomy. The Jib Door by Marlen Haushofer definitely isn’t a cheerful book, but thanks to its simple and unpretentious language it was despite all a mere treat to read. And it deserves a much wider audience.

 

The Jib Door - Marlen Haushofer 

 

This Austrian writer’s best remembered and most acclaimed work to this day is a rather impressive dystopian novel that she wrote in the early 1960s. It’s titled The Wall and in June 2014 I reviewed it here on Edith’s Miscellany .

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review 2016-08-04 11:00
The Torments of an Arrogant Outcast: By the Open Sea by August Strindberg
By the Open Sea (Penguin Classics) - August Strindberg
Am Offenen Meer (German Edition) - August Strindberg

Multi-talented and restless as he was, August Strindberg (1849-1912) never limited himself to only one trade. In his life he was active as painter, photographer, natural scientist, and sinologist, but his lasting worldwide fame is based on his writing that was too controversial in his own country – Sweden – to earn him one of the early Nobel Prizes in Literature as many expected abroad at the time. Today the author is best known for his more than 60 plays of which a considerable number keeps being performed regularly on stages around the globe. And yet, they are only part of a much larger and more versatile œuvre. August Strindberg also wrote poems, essays, autobiographical works, narrations… and last but not least, ten novels that were mostly acclaimed by critics outside Sweden. One of these novels is By the Open Sea that first appeared in print in 1890.

 

The protagonist of By the Open Sea is Axel Borg who is in his mid-thirties and on his way to one of the tiny islands of the archipelago off the coast of Stockholm where he was assigned fisheries inspector. From the very first he provokes the hostility of the local population because he behaves like a bureaucratic know-all from the city. His arrogance, however, isn’t based on his rank in society, but on the concept of the world that his father instilled into him. Borg firmly believes that ridding himself of base desires to give unlimited room to pure reason instead and gaining knowledge to act according to it has risen him above most people in evolution. All his past efforts can’t prevent him, though, from falling in love with Maria who comes to the island with her mother for summer holidays away from the city. For him every woman is unreasonable by nature and this “girl” (who is only two years his junior) confirms his chauvinist ideas by appearing particularly childish and stupid. Nonetheless, he chooses her as his wife-to-be because he is lonely and convinced that he can teach her to accept her natural inferiority to him (and every man). Although lowering himself to Maria’s level exhausts him increasingly, they get officially engaged. Then Borg’s new assistant arrives on the island. His name is Blom and contrary to Borg he is an engaging young man who enjoys socialising. Maria begins to flirt with Blom and as can be expected Borg gets jealous. And yet, he soon realises that it’s actually a relief that he no longer needs to pass all his time with Maria…

 

Although the language of By the Open Sea is often highly poetic, the novel paints a very sombre and also somewhat sober portrait of a young man caught in his own limited world and ever more despairing at the mediocrity, not to say stupidity of others. Borg is shown as a highly educated, highly refined and highly sensitive person, thus as a Übermensch in the Nietzschean sense, but his father’s as well as his own exaggerated regard for everything intellectual left him with poor social skills. Certainly, his obvious introversion (»»» read for instance The Introvert’s Way by Sophia Dembling that I reviewed) and high sensitiveness (»»» learn more about it from The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron for example) add to his inability to adapt to life in a community, especially a small one where everybody knows each other and where you can’t hide as easily as in the anonymity of a big city. In brief: Borg’s intellectual ideals combined with his nature doom him to a life in loneliness that eventually changes into paranoia, i.e. madness. The psychological depth of the descriptions of the protagonist’s inner life makes it very likely that August Strindberg himself had many of Borg’s character traits. From own experience I can tell that they are extremely authentic. As for the misogynistic tone of all passages concerning women, it clearly corresponds with the author’s known sexism that may still have been shared by the majority of men in the late 1800s and that would be completely unpardonable today.

 

Admittedly, By the Open Sea by August Strindberg is on the whole a rather depressing read that requires a stable frame of mind to be able to enjoy it, but its merits as a psychological novel cannot be doubted. And it’s beautifully written, at least the German translation of Else von Hollander is. Sidenote: I couldn’t help wondering if Borg might not have served as model for Mr. Spock in the Star Trek series because they have quite a lot in common although the cool Volcanan is definitely more sympathetic…

 

By the Open Sea (Penguin Classics) - August Strindberg 

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review 2016-05-28 11:00
A Woman Longing for Peace: The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda
Church of Solitude the - Grazia Deledda,E. Ann Matter
La chiesa della solitudine - Grazia Deledda

So here's a classical novel dealing with a very serious topic. This time it's breast cancer. Its author is the Nobel laureate in Literature of 1926 who suffered from breast cancer herself. She died in 1936, the same year when the novel was published.

 

However, The Church of Solitude isn't just the author's attempt to cope with her own fate. Far from it! Like all this writer's novels it offers a very interesting as well as first-rate portrait of rural life on Sardinia, Italy, during the 1930s. Moreover, its plot surrounding a female protagonist who suffers from breast cancer and who longs for nothing but peace and quiet so she tries her best to keep at bay her suitors is touching as well as gripping. I enjoyed the read and hope that the novel will be to your taste too!

 

If you'd like to know about this novel by Italian Nobel laureate, please click here to read my review on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany or you can find its duplicate here  Read the Nobels.

Source: edith-lagraziana.blogspot.com
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