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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 2016-02-04 11:00
Confession of an Infatuation: Letter from an Unknown Woman by Stefan Zweig
Letter from an Unknown Woman - Stefan Zweig
Brief einer Unbekannten und andere Meistererzählungen - Stefan Zweig

In his time Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most famous and most successful German-language writers, but when – despairing at the political situation in his country of origin (he was Austrian of Jewish descent) – he took his own life in Brazilian exile, he knew that he was a relic of The World of Yesterday as he had perpetuated it in his autobiography. The works of the prolific author are classics of literature today and many of them have never gone out of print here in the German-speaking world, but their English translations seem to have fallen into oblivion to be rediscovered only recently. The novella that I’m reviewing today counts among Stefan Zweig’s most important and superb ones. It’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (Brief einer Unbekannten) first published in 1922 and adapted for the screen several times, e.g. one from 1948 directed by Max Ophüls.

 

It’s 1918 and a flu pandemic ravages in Europe killing tens of thousands of people. Upon his return to Vienna after three days of rest in the Austrian mountains, the renowned novelist just referred to as R. finds in his mail an envelope containing two dozen pages in a lady’s hand without name or address of the sender. From this letter he learns for the first time that he had a son and that he just died. The mourning mother, who is sick herself and just waiting for death to reunite her with the deceased boy, reveals to the self-centred and philandering novelist the story of her long infatuation for him and of her life. She first knew him at the age of thirteen when he moved into the house where she lived with her widowed mother in the apartment opposite his. For her it was love at first sight, but she didn’t only fall for the bachelor’s good looks and his charms. His refined and extravagant way of life and his writing attracted her also. Through the spying hole in the door she watched with pleasure elegant women come at night and go in the morning, until her mother remarried and they moved to Innsbruck. However, she could never forget R. When she was eighteen, she found herself a job and returned to Vienna in the hope of meeting him. So they did. He didn’t remember her and she didn’t remind him of their previous acquaintance. They had dinner together and passed three passionate nights together before he left Vienna once more for extended holidays. Although she soon discovered that she was pregnant, she never had any intention of telling her lover and forcing him into marriage. She had the child, a boy, but as an unmarried mother any decent job to earn a living was barred to her. Thus she decided to use her beauty and sell her body to rich men becoming their mistress for one night or longer stretches of time. On a night out she met her beloved R. again. He had completely forgotten her and she left it at it wishing to spend another, a last passionate night with the love of her life knowing well that she’ll be gone from his mind as soon as she will have left.

 

The epistolary novella is a skilful double portrait of the anonymous woman and the bon vivant novelist that displays both of them in great psychological depth and entirely true to life. The voice of the feverish mourning mother confessing her life story to her ignorant lover is full of despair about her loss and yet not at all sentimental or even bitter, but it’s gripping and touching. For the rest, Stefan Zweig’s language is that of an extraordinarily well educated, highly cultured and much travelled man of his time that today feels a bit old-fashioned or even odd at times, but it flows lightly and is therefore a great pleasure to read.

 

Letter from an Unknown Woman - Stefan Zweig 

 

You liked what you learned about Letter from an Unknown Woman? Read also my long review of Stefan Zweig’s Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany.

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review 2015-12-17 11:00
A Boy and a Red Lama on the Diamond Way: Kim by Rudyard Kipling
Kim (Wordsworth Classics) - Rudyard Kipling

Worldwide most reading lists for children contain at least one book written by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1907 “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author”. Without doubt The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book are the most popular and most widely read ones of his children’s books along with Just So Stories, but also his 1901 novel Kim uses to be classed with the classics of children’s literature although the author wrote it for adult readers really.

 

In fact, Kim is a gripping adventure and spy novel surrounding the orphaned Irishboy Kimball O'Hara who is thirteen years old when his story begins in the streets of Lahore, India. Rudyard Kipling set the boy’s almost savage existence against a colourful and vibrant backdrop of India around 1900 that includes many details of daily life, customs, society, politics and not least religion that children or less informed adults may not fully grasp nor be interested in. Even Kim only understands part of what is going on. He is too young and he never knew the life of a European Sahib, but grew up like any Indian boy in the poor neighbourhood. He never learnt to write nor to read. Moreover, he speaks the local languages better than English. Kim is a clever boy, though, with many friends and perfectly able to look after himself, when

 

“… there shuffled round the corner, from the roaring Motee Bazar, such a man as Kim, who thought he knew all castes, had never seen. He was nearly six feet high, dressed in fold upon fold of dingy stuff like horse-blanketing, and not one fold of it could Kim refer to any known trade or profession. At his belt hung a long open-work iron pencase and a wooden rosary such as holy men wear. On his head was a gigantic sort of tam-o'-shanter. His face was yellow and wrinkled, like that of Fook Shing, the Chinese bootmaker in the bazar. His eyes turned up at the corners and looked like little slits of onyx.”

 

As it turns out, the man is an old Red Lama from Tibet called Teshoo on a pilgrimage to find Buddha’s legendary “River of the Arrow” that frees from the “Wheel of Things”. Out of curiosity and because Kim feels that the old man will need help to get along in a country full of crooks, he joins him as his disciple. At the same time Kim thinks that wandering about with the lama will give him the opportunity to look out for the great Red Bull on a green field that – as his late father always told him – would come for him with the Colonel riding on his tall horse and nine hundred devils. To raise money for the travel Kim accepts to secretly take a letter to an Englishman in Umballa for his Punjabi friend, the horse-dealer Mahbub Ali, and thus first gets involved in espionage in colonial India where local powers still try to shake off British rule and regain sovereignty. Before long, both Teshoo Lama as well as a British officer in charge of recruiting spies see to it that Kim gets some formal education and he becomes a St Xavier's boy in Partibus at Lucknow for nearly three years. Then he resumes his wanderings with Teshoo Lama to be initiated as a spy afterwards, but he is pushed into the trade much sooner than expected…

 

All things considered, I enjoyed reading Kim very much. It’s true that from today’s point of view the novel must be called a children’s book rather than adult fiction, and yet, it offers such a vivid and detailed picture of Indian cultures and religions that it amazed me. In addition, it is a testimonial of Indian history from the point of view of an Englishman whose great intelligence and exceedingly sound education show through every line.

 

Kim (Wordsworth Classics) - Rudyard Kipling 

 

Nota bene

Since Rudyard Kipling has been dead for so long, it goes without saying that his works are in the public domain and can legally be downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks.net just for instance. A expertly made-up free edition of Kim is available on Feedbooks.

 

* * * * * 

 This review is a contribution

 

to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015,http://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com/2014/12/announcing-back-to-classics-challenge.html

namely to the category Children's Classic.

 

»»» see my post for this challenge on Edith's Miscellany with the complete reading list.

 


http://readnobels.blogspot.com/ &

 

to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
 
For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my challenge post on Edith's Miscellany!
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review 2015-12-10 11:00
A Novel – Almost – Like A Fairy Tale: Helen by Maria Edgeworth
Helen - Maria Edgeworth

As an English-Irish woman writer Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was among the first to earn general recognition in the world of literature. Her novels were bestsellers at the time, but her star began to fade as soon as Jane Austen and her later contemporaries rose to fame (»»» read my notes about Women Writers on my book blog Edith's Miscellany). Maria Edgeworth hasn’t been completely forgotten since although that’s how it feels scanning the classics shelves in a bookshop today. Unlike the novels of Jane Austen or George Eliot hers never saw a true revival. Published in 1834 Helen is the last and most modern novel that Maria Edgeworth wrote. At first sight, it seems just a typical romantic comedy of the time revolving around love and marriage in British high society. Having a closer look, though, it reveals an unusual psychological depth that makes it kind of an early precursor of psychological realism.

 

The heroine of the story is – of course – Helen, an orphaned woman of eighteen years who has had a sheltered and carefree life until her guardian’s death. The author shows her as blessed with all virtues that a young woman of her rank should have, but boundless honesty, generosity and trust make her blind for the true nature of people around her, notably of her friends. In other words, she is inexperienced and naïve. When her recently married childhood friend Cecilia invites her to live with her at her husband’s estate Clarendon Park, she is happy and grateful. She doesn’t know that Cecilia has in mind to marry her to her husband’s ward Granville Beauclerc. Unlike other novelists of the time, Maria Edgeworth doesn’t make them fall in love at first sight, though, but it’s Cecilia who interferes putting at ease or encouraging the shy as well as reluctant lovers with a well-meant little lie every once and again. The scheme seems to work out fine because at last Helen and Granville fall in love. The trouble is that one of Cecilia’s lies prevents them from confessing their love to each other! This problem solved and a date for the official betrothal fixed, a secret of Cecilia emerges from the past and threatens her happiness with General Clarendon. In her despair Cecilia asks Helen, who knows everything about it, to help her save her marriage. Despite her Helen gets entangled in Cecilia’s secrets and lies, moreover she is compelled to support them. As a result, instead of Cecilia it’s Helen who is publicly compromised. Although Granville – like General Clarendon – suspects the truth, he has no choice but to break off their engagement leaving Helen unhappy, shunned by society and wrestling with her conscience to the point of falling seriously ill. The author skilfully shows the emotional turmoil of Helen learning her lesson about human nature, while Cecilia clings to her harmful habit until she too has to accept at last that she needs to tell the truth to her husband. And all’s well, that ends well.

 

Language and style of nineteenth-century novels can sometimes be tediously verbose and flowery, but this is not how I felt about Helen. Plot and character studies are so rich and captivating that they almost made me forget the wording. Of course, I’m no native speaker of English and therefore I may not always be aware of the fact that a certain expression is no longer in use… Overall, it has been a very enjoyable read and less sentimental than I feared.

 

Helen - Maria Edgeworth 

 

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution

 http://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com/2014/12/announcing-back-to-classics-challenge.html

to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015,

namely to the category 19th Century Classic.

 

»»» see my post for this challenge on Edith's Miscellany with the complete reading list.

 

 

http://www.peekabook.it/2014/12/2015-women-challenge.html &
 
to Valentina's
 
To know more about this challenge and my reviews for it
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review 2015-12-03 11:00
The Incorrigible Innocent Rogue: Liliom by Molnár Ferenc
Liliom a Legend in Seven Scenes and a Prologue - Ferenc Molnár
Liliom: Vorstadtlegende in sieben Bildern und einem szenischen Prolog - Ferenc Molnár,Alfred Polgar,Otto F. Beer

On Austrian stages including the famous Burgtheater in Vienna, Liliom by celebrated Hungarian playwright Molnár Ferenc (1878-1952; better known here as Franz Molnár) keeps being one of the most regularly performed plays from the early years of the twentieth century. First put on the stage of the Vígszínház in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (today: Hungary), in December 1909, it left the audience puzzled… and failed. Three years later its German translation by the dramatist’s writer friend Alfred Polgar (1873-1955) paved the way for the lasting and global success that it achieved in the years following the Great War of 1914-18. Already in the 1930s the play was adapted for the screen by Fritz Lang and in the mid-1940s Richard Rogers and Oskar Hammerstein made its English translation from 1921 into the successful musical Carousel, the best of the twentieth century according to TIME magazine.

 

The story of Liliom is simple. The protagonist from the title is a charming rogue working as a barker for the owner of a merry-go-round in an amusement park on the outskirts of Budapest. As the author makes clear in the first scene, he is a handsome young man who loves to flirt with the servant girls spending their leisure time and their money there. One of them is Julie who is determined not to let herself be bound in the chains of marriage, but she takes fun in flirting with Liliom. His boss, Mrs. Muskat, disapproves of Liliom’s behaviour towards the servant girls and Julie in particular. It doesn’t become quite clear if this is only because his taking liberties with the female clients can get her into trouble with the authorities for being immoral or also because she too has a secret crush on Liliom. Since Liliom is stubborn and refuses to send away Julie, Mrs. Muskat dismisses him from his job. He doesn’t care. He’s a happy-go-lucky and leaves with Julie who knows that she will lose her job too for not returning home in time. In the following scene Liliom and Julie are a married couple living in a shabby hut in the backyard of Julie’s relatives running a photographic studio close to the amusement park. Liliom still is without job and, what is worse, he drinks, he gambles with petty criminals and he beats Julie who turns out to be pregnant. What follows is predictable: one of his criminal friends convinces him to join him in an armed robbery and Julie can do nothing to prevent it. The robbery fails and Liliom is killed, but this is not the end. Liliom is taken to a court room in Heaven and years later back to Earth to meet his daughter…

 

Adding to the otherwise entirely realistic plot two post-mortem scenes in a Heaven as the protagonist expected it all along, seems to have been quite daring when Liliom was first put on stage. On the other hand, I feel that in a way Franz Molnár just continued and adapted for his purposes a technique used by Austrian authors like Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nepomuk Nestroy in nineteenth-century popular farce. Also in other respects it’s a puzzling and thought-provoking play. It leaves much room for interpretation from very different angles. In other words, it’s just what I like – and it has lost none of its lively topicality.

 

Liliom a Legend in Seven Scenes and a Prologue - Ferenc Molnár 

 

 

* * * * * 

 

http://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com/2014/12/announcing-back-to-classics-challenge.htmlThis review is a contribution to the
Back to the Classics Challenge 2015
,

namely to the category Classic Play.

 

»»» see my post for this challenge on Edith's Miscellany with the complete reading list.

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