Donnerstag, 31. Mai 2012

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Inferno tells the story of Dante's descent to hell and his journey through its nine circles. The book was written at the very beginning of the 14th century and is the first part of the famous Divine Comedy.
It is also the most impressive work of literature I ever read.
"I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightfoward pathway had been lost. Ah me! How hard a thing is to say, what was this forest savage, rough, and stern, which in the very thought renews the fear. So bitter is it, death is little more..."
I will probably not win a prize for originality by stating that Dante's language is absolutely sublime. I am not even a great fan of poetry, but these lines had something to them that made me read on and on, sucking in the colourful images they created. It was very strange, although I am not really religious these words evoked in me the vague feeling of something grand.
What I did not expect though was the vividness of the writing; hell arose before my eyes as if I was wandering through it myself.

Dante's hell is an enourmous creation: diverse and detailed and absolutely terrifying. I can hardly imagine how long the planning phase must have been, for it is thought-out to the smallest detail.
For every sin the souls are punished accordingly, the fortune-tellers for example have to walk with their heads turned backwards because in their lives they tried to see the future when they had no right to.
I did not always agree with Dante's division into circles, for instance I found it unreasonable that fraud is punished more severely than murder and in my opinion some souls, such as astrologers and alchemists, but more than anything the virtuous pagans who committed no other sin than being born before the time of Christianity, ought not to be in hell at all. Also, looking at sins such as greed and anger I could not help asking myself if any of us would not end up in hell.
Those were the moments when I had to remind myself that Dante lived in the Middle Ages and that his view of life was probably completely different from ours. Nonetheless the knowledge that this book determined the human idea of hell for hundreds of years impressed me deeply and never really left me while reading.

A big part of the journey through hell is made up by the stories which the damned souls tell of their lives and crimes. I was astonished that these souls were not invented by Dante, but all either real historic persons or characters from mythology such as Ulysses. The person who is in fact the reason for the whole journey (she sends Virgil to Dante to save him after he had lost the right path) is Beatrice, who died very young and is the object of Dante's eternal love. I cannot wait to finally meet her, but I am afraid she will not turn up until Paradiso.  Whenever someone I knew appeared I was amazed: Sophocles for example, Brutus or Helen of Troy, but there were many Italian noblemen I had never heard of before and although their names were explained in footnotes I think a better knowledge of Italian history would make me appreciate the book more. Another thing that took me by surprise is Dante's criticism of the church; there are more than a handful of popes and bishops suffering in his hell.

However, what surprised me most is how political the Divine Comedy actually is. Obviously Florence was in terrible uproar at that time, with fights between two parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. This conflict is featured prominently, probably because of Dante's strong involvement in it in real life. He was even expelled from Florence, his home which he (and many of the souls in hell) loved dearly and never returned to it until he died.

Did I understand everything I read? Certainly not. There were some lines whose meaning remained a complete mystery for me even though I read an annotated edition and others where I was not sure whether my interpretation was right or utter nonsense. I tried not to worry too much about that though: I know that I probably only understood a small percentage of the Inferno accurately, but I feel that the Divine Comedy is much too multilayered to be fully comprehended after  reading it just once. Most importantly, am enjoying it a lot, so onward, to the Mountain of Purgatory and into Paradise!

Montag, 28. Mai 2012

Read at once if convenient - If inconvenient read anyway

Almost two years after the original release Austrian television has finally performed the miracle of broadcasting BBC's Sherlock. Since I am really late to jump on the bandwagon (and also because they are exactly what everyone else is feeling) I am going to keep my emotions on the topic short. I have slowly travelled through three mental stages: first, doubt.
I guess this is obvious: when you think of Sherlock Holmes you think of a man brooding with a pipe over pages of handwritten and ink-stained notes, not of a texting guy with nicotine patches. Also, I had read some of the short stories before and always thought that "the Victorian feeling" made up quite a part of their charm.
Needless to say, I was completely wrong. Sherlock still lives, so the modernisation feels like the most natural thing in the world; which brings us to stage two, enthusiasm.
No explanation is necessary. This show is the best I have seen on TV for many, many years.

Unfortunately there is stage three, desperation, lurking in the shadows. The Reichenbach Fall is the last episode left to be broadcasted and then there will be no more Sherlock for at least a year. In addition to the impending break, the reactions I have picked up online regarding the finale of Season Two have been somewhat traumatic. Oh yes, I am frightened. Thank God there is something to cheer me up:
It is about time I seriously started reading Sherlock Holmes! 
My latest acquisitions
In between the books you see a really beautiful  book mark I received from the owner of a bookshop in Grado, the Libreria Dante. He gave it to me when my mama bought a newspaper there and I shot longing glances at an Italian copy of the Divine Comedy. I explained to him in very broken Italian that I would love to read it, whereupon I had to promise him that I would come back and buy it once my Italian was good enough.
 As a substitute for Sherlock on TV and also as part of Allie's Victorian Celebration starting in June, I ordered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and A Study in Scarlet. Isn't the edition amazing? I usually don't like book covers with actors on them, but in Sherlock's case I am overjoyed. Thank you, BBC Books!

Mittwoch, 23. Mai 2012

A Room with a View or Help me!

The rain is pouring down outside my window and there is a blanket wrapped around my legs, next to a cup of hot tea on my desk. I am definitely back from Italy.
The good news is that I enjoyed my little vacation, from midday on it was hot enough to relax on the beach and even go for a swim (a really short one though, in order not to get frostbitten) whereas in the mornings mama and I dawdled through the charming city centre. Unfortunately I somehow managed to forget my camera in the hotel on all of those walks, so you'll have to rely on my word that the historic centre is truly picturesque.
The not so good so good news is that A Room with a View, which I read on the beach, enjoying the most beautiful view possible, left me feeling strangely dissatisfied. I liked it, but by far not as much as I thought I would and, what is worse, not as much as I think I could have.

I really appreciate novels which satirise narrow-minded society and from that point of view Forster didn't disappoint me in the least: I earned more than a few curious looks for chuckling over his glorious humour and chapter titles such as "How Miss Bartlett's Boiler was so tiresome".
However, authors usually have to draw a contrast to funny scenes in their books in order to keep my attention up, but again, I cannot complain of that either. Lacking depth is the last thing you could criticise about A Room with a View. I wholeheartedly agree with the way feminism is treated by Forster and I am actually amazed how he manages to express his disapproval of society's general opinion that:
“It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored.”
It is difficult to write a book about gender equality without sounding moralising and boring nowadays and I can only imagine how much harder it must have been a hundred years ago. For that I bow to you, Mr Forster! Oh, and Mr. Emerson is perhaps one of my favourite characters ever; he has the wonderful gift of combining wisdom with humour.

However, despite all the positive aspects I have just mentioned I could not really enjoy reading Forster's best-known work. All the time I had the feeling as if I was missing something, as if an essential part of the book's meaning was escaping me. I sensed that there was much more to it than the simple story of a girl's choosing the unconventional man instead of the one befitting her rank, but I could not quite grasp it. The feeling reminded me a lot of situations when you watch someone whose face you have already seen someplace before, but you cannot remember where, no matter how hard you try and whenever you come close to the solution it slips away from you again.

There was also something else that bothered me: while I really liked most minor characters I did not feel the same for Lucy and George. Not because they were not likeable, but because I felt that except for some scenes, like the one after Lucy fainted from seeing a man being stabbed and during which they both were radiant, I did not really seem to know them. I never got close to them, did not understand them and for most parts of the book they were more or less strangers to me. For example, when George kissed Lucy for the first time I was truly irritated because I did not understand where these feelings came from. Except for the scene mentioned above there never was any sign of his developing any kind of special feelings for Lucy and I could not help the impression that they were only falling in love because the author needed them to as a plot device.

I am definitely going to re-read A Room with a View, but not because I liked it so much. I will read it again in the hope of understanding it better. How about you? In case you have read the book, does my critique make any sense for you? Can you perhaps even help me comprehend and appreciate it to a greater extent?
For one thing is sure: A Room with a View is one of those books I ardently wish I would like more.

Donnerstag, 17. Mai 2012


On the floor next to me is a half-packed suitcase filled with suncreme, swimsuits and my Italian textbook.
I myself am filled with excitement, because despite the fact that it's just a short trip and I will be back Sunday evening, I will still be on the road again and travelling always amazes me.
My mama, my little brother and I are spending the long weekend in Grado, Italy, to take a short break from our lives which have been more than busy recently. Grado is a little town situated on a peninsula of the Adriatic Sea and famous for its beautiful historic centre. It's in the north-east of Italy and only about three hours' drive away from here which is a reason to worry because the weather here is not too fine at the moment. Hopefully it will be better once we're there! Anyway, even if we probably won't get to swim much it will still be fabulous to relax on the beach and enjoy the Mediterranean lifestyle.

For my packing (of which a great part still has to be done I'm afraid): I am taking E.M. Forster's A Room with a View with me, because what could be more appropriate than reading the story of a girl touring Italy while you're in Italy? It's my first Forster and I have great expectations, so I hope I won't be disappointed.
Another book I'm bringing I will be basically taking home, for it is The Divine Comedy, Italy's most successful work of literature ever. Contratry to A Room with a View I have already started Dante's magnum opus, in fact I am almost through with Inferno, and it has sparked a desire in me to improve my very, very poor Italian in order to be able to read the original. I am usually not a great fan of poetry, but Dante's language has something to it that makes me turn pages as anxiously as if I were reading a cheap romance. 
Nonetheless, reading about a travel through hell in the sun on the beach surrounded by happy tourists will be an experience all of its own and so I am not sure how much I truly will progress with this one.

I wanted to take Les Misérables with me since I completely neglected it after my disappointment with it in April, but then I decided that it was decidedly too heavy to be carried in my handbag. Instead I have chosen a book which definitely belongs to the "guilty pleasure" category: it's Blood of the Fold by Terry Goodkind and part of his Sword of Truth series. As you may have guessed from the title it is high fantasy, and a very good example of that too. I think after travelling through medieval poetry about the underworld and Forster's social critisism I can afford to delve into a novel full of swordfights, epic magic and forbidden romance.

My open suitcase is starting to alarm me, so I am going to finish packing now. I'll be back Sunday afternoon, hopefully with lots of beautiful memories. How about you? Any holiday plans coming up? Did you read A Room with a View or The Divine Comedy? If yes, did you like it? 
I am wishing you all a nice weekend, whether you're staying a home or not!

Samstag, 12. Mai 2012

The right Book

I am sitting here surrounded by piles of books. There are at least thirty books I haven't read yet stacked on my desk, on my cupboards and even on the floor; they range from Oliver Twist to The Catcher in the Rye and I have bought all of them because I knew I would enjoy reading them. How come then that during the last few days I picked up every single book, started reading it and found not one that appealed to me?
Yesterday I ventured out at my parents' shelves, almost desperate to find a book I would want to read and came across The Divine Comedy there, which instantly fascinated me, so my dilemma is already sorted out, but it left me wondering why some books sometimes just don't feel right.

I think everyone has already experienced that a book which seemed boring or even bad at a certain point in your life turned out to be absolutely amazing and intriguing when you gave it another try some years later, or the other way round. Human beings tend to be only interested in things they can at least remotely relate to and usually we like a book the better the more we can identify with its characters and their situation. A very good example of that is my experience with Jane Eyre, which came just at the right time: for most parts of it Jane is a young woman, strong-willed but socially unskilled and unversed in interpreting her own feelings and those of others. I doubt I would have loved this book so much if I had not been able to relate so completely to her position.
We do not stop to develop and mature until we die, in fact at fifty years we are not even the same persons we were when we were twenty and so it is obvious that one and the same book affects us differently at different stages throughout our lives.

There is more to it, though. A good book creates a certain atmosphere, it evokes a special feeling within us. It has a distinctive ambiance which makes us feel like coming home whenever we turn its pages after having read it once. These feelings are hard to put into words, but I am convinced that every passionate reader understands what I mean. Sometimes a novel fails to captivate us simply because it is not in line with our current mood.
Even the season makes a difference at times, in summer I am usually drawn to other books than in winter.
Another important factor is the amount of concentration we are prepared to spend on a book: now and then we want a light read because we only want to drift with the flow of a story without anylysing too much, but at other times we need something demanding that fully absorbs our concentration.

Not all is lost if we surprisingly dislike a book we expected to love, sometimes it is just that the time is wrong. For now I am content with The Divine Comedy and I know that soon I will again be in the mood to pick up a book I dismissed as boring only yesterday.

Montag, 7. Mai 2012

Norwegian Wood and the Poetry of Life

Ideally the years you spend at university are the best part of your life: you have survived the teenage troubles, you are free from school, you are living on your own for the first time, you are young, life is exciting and the world is only waiting to be conquered by you.
Unfortunately reality tends to differ from the ideal; the lives of young people aren't amazing and carefree, they are imperfect, some less, some more. Toru Watanabe's life certainly belongs to the latter category and Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood is a book about learning to live not only with imperfection, but also with seemingly unbearable tragedy.

The German title of Norwegian Wood is Naokos Lächeln, which means "Naoko's Smile" and the subtitle is "Just a love story". I am really mad at the publisher, because nothing could be less true than reducing this book to a mere love story. Yes, a big part of the novel is devoted to describing the development of Toru's relationships with Naoko and Midori, but the focus lies on another relationship: his relationship with life.
At the beginning of the story in 1969 he is eighteen, he has just moved to Tokyo, but he has no ambitions at all; he is studying, working, moving forward, but he avoids thinking of the future. Toru is barely starting his life and yet he has no dreams left: dreaming has proven too dangerous in a life that can turn against you as quickly as a game of billiards. 
The whole book is drenched with bitter-sweet melancholy, but the journey of Toru's growing-up is also very powerful: he is experiencing so much loss for someone so young, not only the loss of beloved persons but also of his convictions and ideals. He has to accept that sometimes there is no explanation why horrible things happen and that he cannot save anyone, because his love alone is simply not enough.

I devoured all 400 pages on the weekend and loved it. What amazed me most was that although it is a sad book dealing with what is perhaps the most tragic subject ever -suicide- there are a lot of very funny parts. Maybe it should not have surprised me so because after all the great challenge Toru faces throughout the book is mastering the art of staying alive and humour plays an essential role in that.
I was also enchanted by Murakami's style of writing, reading it reminded me a little of dreaming. There is a lot of subtext and much weight on little gestures and symboles. It is hard to explain, but every now and then we have dreams during which we know that we're dreaming, but somehow that doesn't make the dream feel less absorbing or less real. Whenever I opened Norwegian Wood I had a similar feeling.

I was intrigued by all characters, but I found the opposites of Naoko and Midori especially fascinating. At first I thought that Midori was simply a lively and a carefree young girl, whereas Naoko had already lived through great pain, making sadness an unescapable part of her life, but that is not true. Midori has had more than her share in pain too; the difference between the girls lies in their characters and in their decisions.
Midori is able to go on despite all tragedy, she has understood that "the dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living", but Naoko is not. She ultimately chooses death to follow the two people she loved most.
And Toru? Toru chooses Midori even before he hears of Naoko's death. With her he chooses life and the moment he chooses it is the moment he decides to grow-up, because "only the dead stay seventeen forever". Of course that does mean that they live happily ever after, but:
"All of us (by which I mean all of us, both normal and not-so-normal) are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world. We don’t live with the mechanical precision of a bank account or by measuring all our lines and angles with rulers and protractors.”
Without imperfections and irregularities, however painful they may be, there would be no art, no music and no such wonderful books as Norwegian Wood. We all have to come to terms with the fact that the poetry of life sometimes consists of melancholy. Thank God that its other part, like Haruki Murakami's novel, is made up of laughter.