Sonntag, 29. Dezember 2013

A New Beginning

Sometimes there are too many things happening too fast. Although that is exciting, it often also means that you forget to take time for the things you love, such as reading, thinking and blogging.
And that's when it is time for a fresh start.

After almost a year of inactivity I am finally admitting that I am not continuing this blog.
However, I want to make blogging about the classics a part of my life again, simply because it makes my life better... and also because I felt myself becoming more and more uneducated each day during my hiatus!

So, from now on I will be blogging about Life and Literature from West of the Moon, East of the SunIn case any of you are still interested in reading what I think, please go and follow my new blog. I am excited to start anew!

Montag, 4. März 2013

The Heart of a Lion

There is a gorgeous cake in our kitchen, complete with delicious icing and cherries on top. It is my grandfather's birthday cake. He turned eighty-eight two days ago, but since we decided to put off celebrating until Sunday the cake is still untouched.
My grandfather has been old for all my life. I cannot remember a time when his hair was not white as snow, but I've been told that it used to be red and gold, just like mine. I have never been able to talk to him easily because he has been heavily hearing impaired for years, and to be honest I was more than a little afraid of him when I was small because he did not understand what I said and, since he had no idea how to talk to a little child, I could not make anything of the strange things he said either.
But thankfully that has never stopped him from telling me stories of his life, from trying to connect with me despite all hopelessness of the attempt. And as soon as I was old enough not to be intimidated by his age anymore I learned to appreciate this; appreciate it very much indeed.

For most younger people the second World War is nothing but a collection of dates and names from history lessons, but not for me. For me it is a collection of stories. Born in 1925 my grandfather was recruited when he was barely a man. He was already lined up with dozens of other young men destined to go to Russia, to fight in what would be the battle of Stalingrad, when someone asked if any of the recruits could work as a tank driver. Without having any idea of panzers, my grandfather volunteered and was sent to Egypt instead. After only a few months in combat his division was captured and held in war captivity until the end of WWII. While many other soldiers tell nightmarish stories of captivity, my grandfather was once again saved by pure luck: the son of the British general commanding their detention centre had studied in Austria and on top of being naturally easy-going and well-meaning, the general was especially fond of Austrians. Therefore, the war stories I have heard contain quite a few light-hearted, even funny episodes between the dark, brutal ones. His sarcastic, almost black sense of humour is another thing I have inherited from my grandfather, or so they say. One story I have heard so often that I could not forget it even if I wanted to: His division was stationed just outside a city and while all the other young men went into the bars and clubs of the city at night, my grandfather drove his tank into a shallow river and spent the whole evening cleaning it - that is how much he loved his vehicle.

After the war ended he returned home and became a police officer, quickly rising through the ranks even though he had only been to primary school. My grandpa fighting against crime and injustice: that is one of the things which have always made me proud to be his graddaughter. The others are for example the fact that he was respected as the best shot in town or his incredible craftmanship; even though he was already so old he repaired everything and had his own professional workshop in the basement where he crafted toys for us children and a collection of beautiful metal objects such as gongs and little bells.
It was another characteristic of his that brought me really close to him in spirit, though: he has always been an insatiable reader, devouring books at an almost unearthly speed. It did not take his stories of how he - just like me - read at night under his blanket when he was a child to win my whole heart for him although we did not see each other very often.

Unfortunately the downside of having such an old grandfather is the shadow of illness and death always lurking in a corner. During the last few years he has had considerable trouble breathing because of a pulmonary emphysema, which came as no surprise since he used to be a heavy smoker. While we were always afraid that he would simply suffocate one day, it never happened. He was so often just an inch away from dying, beginning when he should have walked into doom at Stalingrad and ending at several hospitalisations with problems from which he theoretically should not have recovered.
My grandfather survived death for so long that I lived in the impression he was immortal.
I was wrong.
His lion's heart stopped beating today in his sleep, a few days after he was rushed to the hospital.
On February 28, when he was hospitalised with severe cardiac pain he apparently still asked the doctor jokingly if it had to be exactly that day, because it was his son's birthday. Nobody expected him to die now of all times.

I did not visit him in the hospital and my last words to my grandfather were actually spoken on the phone to my grandmother who promised to relay them to him. They were as mundane as "Happy Birthday" and she told me he would be so glad I had remembered.
This is the first time ever that somebody close to me has died. It feels utterly unreal as if my grandpa simply can't be gone because he has always survived everything.
He doesn't die.
At the same time I feel bad for every day I could have visited him and did not and ache for every conversation that will now never be held. But nothing hurts more than looking at the splendid birthday cake and knowing who will never eat it.

Donnerstag, 28. Februar 2013

A Modern March

I admit, I am not exactly early in signing up for this event, but the heaps of snow weighing down on the landscape here have made March seem very far away. Apparently Austria is experiencing the coldest winter in twenty years; it's foggy, not a single snowdrop has fought its way through the frozen soil yet and I am very close to developing a serious case of seasonal affective disorder.

Anyway, since it is almost March despite what the weather says it is high time I announced my participation in Allie's Modern March. As the name implies, this literary event focuses on Modernist writers, which I find especially exciting because to my shame I hardly have any experience with them. But to be honest I am a tiny little bit apprehensive at the same time since my attempt to read Virginia Woolf last year didn't go too well. Mrs. Dalloway seemed interesting enough, but unfortunately I did not understand a word of it. Whenever a personal pronoun was mentioned I was at a complete loss because I had no idea who was being referred to. I'll try again in the next few weeks, but don't expect stream-of-consciousness and me to become friends anytime soon.

Apart from Mrs. Dalloway I have To the Lighthouse on my shelves, which I will probably read to give Virginia Woolf a second chance. And, if all else fails I still have Kafka's The Metamorphosis waiting for me in its original version: the privilege of a German reader.

Last but not least I am looking forward very much to a first encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald. My copy of the iconic Great Gatsby has finally arrived and I cannot wait to start it. As always when I am about to read such a famous and well-loved classic I am even a little nervous.
Here's to hoping that March will be exciting (and warm)!

Samstag, 23. Februar 2013

Tristan by Thomas Mann

Tristan was an assigned read for my German literature class and a merciful attempt of my teacher to familiarise us students with Thomas Mann without expecting us to read his most famous and dreadfully long book, The Magic Mountain.
It is a novella which already introduces most of the themes that appear in Mann's later works, most prominently the conflict between life and death and in consequence between reality and art.
While I don't usually enjoy the texts I have to read for that class I was surprised how interesting  I found this short work: it is challenging mostly due to Mann's naturalistic style. While very descriptive, his style is strangely detached and so neutral that it makes you almost forget the author behind the narration.

Set in a sanatorium and following the model of Tristan and Iseult, the story explores the growing relationship between Mrs von Klöterjahn, the moribund wife of a wealthy and lively merchant and the writer and fanatical aesthete Mr Spinell. Their love is never consummated and serves only as the framework for a comparative study of the artistic and the bourgeois mind; one of them orientated towards the ideal of beauty in death, the other towards the less noble but more human idea of living a fulfilled life.

What makes this work truly fascinating is the way in which Mann deals with the artistic quest for beauty: Mr Spinell is the exaggerated personification of an idea we have all come across countless times in literature and the arts; the idea that a beautiful, a poetic death at the right time is preferable to a long, ordinary life full of vulgar imperfections. He destests reality because of its uncouthness and loves only beautiful ideas, such as the shadow of Mrs Klöterjahn as a young woman who is too fragile and special for life and therefore consecrated to death. To his mind her death is the only truly beautiful solution because the continuation of her life would only make her common; a fat, wrinkled housewife and mother.

This mindset is (subconsciously) all too common in every type of art, be it poetry or cinematics, but Thomas Mann is the first writer I have ever read to openly address it. I cannot say if he personnally criticises this romanticised death-wish or simply wants to bring attention to it; his style is non-judgmental and at the end of his narration Mr Spinell as an example of the morbid artist and Mr von Klöterjahn as an image of the fun-loving but crude burgher are equally dislikable.
The struggle between a sublime death and an ordinary, but long and happy life is an idea that is as old as the art of storytelling itself, with examples ranging from the Arthurian legend to, for instance, Wuthering Heights and after my first encounter with Thomas Mann one that will probably occupy me for a little while to come.

Dienstag, 19. Februar 2013

The Beginning of my Library

I would like to claim that I spent the day reorganising my bookshelves, but since my books have never been in any kind of order before that would be a complete and utter lie. Instead it would be more accurate to say that I laid the foundation of my own little library today.

Since I decided to start reading the classics in November 2011 more and more books have been accumulating in my already stuffed room. There has never been a plan behind my acquisitions: whatever catches my eye and is affordable usually ends up in my possession. So Dickens slowly joined Harry Potter and Tolstoy landed in a pile together with Twilight. The problem with this is obvious; there is no system and you never find what you are looking for (and the floor is covered in stacks of books to the point of my room being no longer traversible). Nonetheless I never felt like I had enough classics to give them a place of their own, after all I am still practically a novice to classic literature. Anyway, just out of curiousity I decided today to pile all my classics up and see if there are enough of them to give them their own shelf. Can you imagine my surprise when I realised that they do not only fill a shelf but a whole bookcase? That I have in fact enough classics to sort them by century?

The result of my work, sorted by century with the ancient Greeks on top left and the Modernists on the bottom right

To this day I have collected exactly 70 books by classic authors, some of which I loved, some which I did not like too much (I'm looking at you, Faust!) and some that I have yet to read. I know that those two shelves contain only a tiny percentage of world literature, but I have hope that this percentage will continue to grow at the same rate for many, many years to come. By then I will hopefully have moved into a giant manor with my books, otherwise I see no way to accommodate all of them!

Montag, 18. Februar 2013

Time flies

Yes, my blog has once again been on hiatus and I am terribly sorry, but the last few weeks were simply crazy. I thought I knew what being stressed meant, but this end of term has taught me better: before receiving my certificate last Friday I had to write so many tests, complete so many assignments and hand in so many papers that the idea of a full night's sleep became a ridiculous fantasy. Obviously being in the second last year means that they want to prepare us for our A-levels by giving us a stress-induced heart-attack...
Anyway, the reward for surviving this torture is one glorious week of semester break that has just begun.

Reading-wise I don't have many news since the only thing I had time to read was the assigned The Best Little Girl in the World, which is a young adult novel about a girl with anorexia and therefore not exactly what I usually read. Over the semester break though I have to finish both Jean Anouilh's The Lark (a play about Jeanne d'Arc) and Thomas Mann's Tristan, so I will have some literature to write about soon enough.
Oh, and on a side note: I have finally seen Les Misérables and now simultanously love and hate this movie as well as Victor Hugo. I definitely have to get around to reading the end of the book!

Unfortunately and contrary to my wishes the world does not stop turning simply because I am busy and neither does anyone stop blogging only because I have no time to read their posts. So, in addition to having to catch up with all your blogs I have missed the Classic Clubs awesome Classics Spin, which makes me really sad because it seems so much fun. But, thank God, the rules in the announcement post state clearly that we should "feel free to rebelliously break the rules at our leisure" and I am taking them at their word; so I  will just post a list of 20 titles now and use this random number generator to choose which book I will be reading. While I pretend to belong you will simply have to trust me not to cheat because that would be kind of pointless.

Five books I am a little bit afraid of:
1. Don Quixote, de Cervantes
2. Clarissa, Richardson
3. Moby Dick, Melville
4. The Faerie Queene, Spenser
5. Anna Karenina, Tolstoy

Five I can't wait to read:
6. Emma, Austen
7. Peter Pan, Barrie
8. The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood
9. The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald
10. Gone with the Wind, Michell

Five neutral titles:
11. Henry VIII, Shakespeare
12. Moll Flanders, Defoe
13. Beloved, Morrison
14. The House of the seven Gables, Hawthorne
15. Catch-22, Heller

Five books I have attempted to read before and never managed to finish:
16. Les Misérables, Hugo
17. Oliver Twist, Dickens
18. Mrs Dalloway, Woolf
19. The Divine Comedy, Alighieri
20. The Perks of being a Wallflower

That's the list, now fate will decide...God, I'm nervous!
And the randomly chosen number is: 
Which means the book I will have to finish until April 1st is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I know virtually nothing about it, so I am very curious. I hope it will turn out to be amazing and that everyone else is happy with their chosen book. Good luck!

Donnerstag, 17. Januar 2013

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

As this view outside my window suggests, winter has come back suddenly and with force. The whole country is covered in at least 30 centimetres of snow and while everyone else is enjoying the unexpected winter wonderland I have been lying in bed with the flu for the past week, unable to move because everything is hurting. I have had a lot of time to sort out my thoughts though (especially since I'm trying not to think of all I am missing at school) and so I am finally able to write something about The Hobbit apart from "It is the most wonderful book!" and "Go read it immediately if you haven't already!".
“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

I think in a way this quote from The Hobbit sums up perfectly what my trouble with writing this review is: if I dislike a book or find it mediocre it is all too easy to dwell on its flaws and explain why I did not like it or which parts of it I found bad, but what if I completely and whole-heartedly love a book? Then there is not much to say except that it is very wise and beautiful.

Next to Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings the little Hobbit is almost always overlooked and underrated, but that is a grave mistake. Even though they are both set in the same world and feature partly the same characters those tales could not be more different from one another. The Hobbit possesses nothing of The Lord of the Rings's epic grandeur; it does not deal with the impending destruction of the world and conquering evil, nor are its characters heroes. It is simply the story of a little fellow's journey through a wide world. There and back again, nothing more.

However, in my opinion it would also be a mistake to dismiss it as a children's book just because it was written for Tolkien's own children. Yes, on the surface it as an adventure story (and a very good one, after all it was exciting enough to keep me reading through the whole night), but there is so much more behind that.
The book is told in a very light-hearted way with a subtle and wonderful sense of humour, but still there is a deep wisdom hidden in the apparently simple story. Tolkien must have been an admirable judge of character, for in his fantastic book are incredible realistic descriptions such as this, when the dragon Smaug notices that a little golden cup from his vast treasure has vanished:
“His rage passes description - the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”
And the miracle with Tolkien is that he always manages to teach you something, but never in a lecturing or patronizing way. So, whether you have liked The Lord of the Rings or not, whether you have seen the movie adaptation or not and whether you think you will enjoy reading The Hobbit or hate it, I can only recommend one thing to you: leave aside all your expectations and try it. You might find yourselves surprised.