Thursday, March 31, 2016

Obituaries / Imre Kertész

Imre Kestész

Kertész obituary

Holocaust survivor who won the Nobel prize for literature

George Gomori
Thursday 31 March 2016 13.25 BST

To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote the German critic Theodor Adorno soon after the second world war. He later modified his statement by saying: “The main question is: can we go on living after Auschwitz?” This was the problem with which the Nobel prize-winning Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertész, a survivor of the Holocaust, grappled throughout his life and literary work, until his death at the age of 86.
Kertész’s first and most influential novel, Sorstalanság (Fatelessness, 1975), is the story of a 14-year-old boy, Gyuri Köves, who survives deportation to Auschwitz and captivity in Buchenwald, and, on his return to Hungary, finds it impossible to relate his experiences to his surviving family. The book was at first hardly noticed by Hungarian critics and only became a success many years later once it had been translated into German and then, in 2005, made into a film by the Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai. While lacking the biting irony of Tadeusz Borowski’s Auschwitz stories, Sorstalanság differs from most accounts of Nazi concentration camps in its relentless objectivity, and as such is a unique achievement of its kind.

Top 10 novels about unfaithful wives

Top 10 novels about unfaithful wives

From the class-crossing Constance Chatterley to Tolstoy’s enchanting Anna Karenina, here are 10 wives caught in flagrante delicto by their creators

Piers Paul Read
Wednesday 2 December 201513.00 GMT

Some years ago, at a performance of Puccini’s opera Tosca, I remembered a book I had read on the opera by a US historian that established just how inaccurate and partisan was its portrayal of the political realities of the time. The young revolutionaries Angelotti and Caravadossi, collaborators with the invading French, are shown as romantic heroes, while the loyal chief of police, Baron Scarpia, is evil incarnate – the sadistic agent of reaction who tortures Caravadossi and barters ruthlessly with Tosca: the surrender of her body for her lover’s life.
Can one perpetrate an injustice on a historical character? Could I, a British novelist, undo the calumny of an Italian composer? Little is known of Vitellio Scarpia. He appears in the histories of the time as a courageous soldier who took part in the popular uprising that drove the French out of Naples. It is said that, as a Sicilian, he was in an ambiguous social position in Rome. Did he have a wife or perhaps a lover? This was the age of Casanova and the Marquis de Sade; and, though the city was ruled by the pope, adultery was an accepted feature of life. The church might condemn it from the pulpit, but it was tolerated as an inevitable consequence of the frailty of human nature.
After the defeat of Napoleon, sexual permissiveness came to be associated with atheism and sedition, and society became less tolerant of unfaithful wives. Their transgressions, no longer peccadillos, inspired some of the finest novels in western literature – almost all of them, it has to be said, written by men.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tolstoy / Anna Karenina / The devil in the details

Anna Karenina – the devil in the details

Do we need another translation of Anna Karenina? Rosamund Bartlett explores the challenges of Tolstoy's vivid colloquial language

Rosamund Bartlett
Friday 5 September 2014 18.00 BST

Do we really need another English translation of Anna Karenina? This is a bit like asking whether we need a new recording of Beethoven's Ninth. There is no English translation of the 1970 Academy of Sciences edition of the novel currently in print. This version contained a host of small differences from earlier versions; these may not amount to much individually, but cumulatively they add up to a new reading. And just as conductors and performers can produce revelatory new interpretations after intense listening, so translators have the potential to allow the author to speak more clearly. It's all about the detail.

Why Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina transcends the ages

Why Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina transcends the ages

Five writers give their personal takes on the appeal that makes Anna Karenina a literary masterpiece

Jilly Cooper
Sunday 2 September 2012 00.05 BST

Francine Prose, author of Blue Angel and My New American Life

Anna Karenina is probably my favourite novel. More than any other book, it persuades me that there is such a thing as human nature, and that some part of that nature remains fundamentally unaffected by history and culture. I try to re-read it every few years. Each time, perhaps because I'm older and have experienced more, I find things I never noticed before. Not only is it a great source of pleasure, but I inevitably feel as if I'm getting a sort of pep talk from Tolstoy: Go deeper. Try harder. Aim higher. Pay closer attention to the world. It's orchestral, symphonic, full of distinctive melodies, parallels and variations that keep reappearing, some of which we notice, none of which we need to notice in order for them to operate on our subconscious. There are so many virtuosic set pieces (the skating party, the ball, the mushroom-picking expedition, and, my God, the race during which Vronsky breaks his horse's neck) but also small, powerful, resonant moments: I've always loved the scene in which Anna, having met the charming Vronksy, returns home to her husband and is struck by how unattractive his ears are. How could something like that not stand up to, and transcend, the so-called test of time?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

There's more to Tolstoy than War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

There's more to Tolstoy than War and Peace

Although his huge stature derives almost entirely from two mighty novels, there are a lot of other books to recommend

Jay Parini
Wednesday 6 January 2010 10.22 GMT
This is the anniversary year for Tolstoy's death – a century ago he fled his ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana, and went on the road with a friend (his private doctor) to become a kind of wandering monk. He died only a couple of weeks later, in a remote railway station called Astapovo. He was estranged from his wife of nearly five decades, cut off from all of his children except one daughter, who had become a devoted "Tolstoyan". It was a strange end, and the story itself was (to me) so compelling that I wrote a novel about it, The Last Station, in 1990. It has now been made into a film, with Helen Mirren as the Countess and Christopher Plummer as the great man himself.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Is Tolstoy the greatest writer of all time?

Is Tolstoy the greatest writer of all time?

What do today's novelists think of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy?

The Guardian
Wednesday 6 January 2010 00.17 GMT
Philip Hensher

Geraint Lewis, novelist
 Geraint Lewis / Rex Features

I do think he is the greatest novelist who ever lived. I didn't used to, but I have grown into him with age. When I was a boy I used to groan at the farming bits in Anna Karenina – now I could read about farming all day. Thee is so much in his work that you don't understand, but you feel that one day you might.
What is great about him is that he lets his characters grow up – they change, act totally out of character, and yet they are recognisably the same people. In War and Peace, Natasha starts out as a girl bouncing around quite happily, and at the end she is this grumpy matron who doesn't want to see anyone – yet somehow you believe it's the same person. I don't know how he does that. He does such rounded people.
War and Peace is the book that stays with you, but I also love his very late fables. There are two unforgettable ones: How Much Land Does a Man Need?, about the greed for land, and What Men Live By, a fable or fairy story where an angel comes down to earth. He attained this perfect simplicity of expression towards the end, and he grew out of the novel. I don't think anyone else has ever done that. You can learn more from Tolstoy than any other writer – but as a technician, not as a moralist.

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 9 / Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)

The 100 best nonfiction books

No 9 

Dispatches by Michael Herr 


A compelling sense of urgency and a unique voice make Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir the definitive account of war in our time

Robert McCrum
Monday 28 March 2016 06.45 BST

espite every other kind of progress, humanity still lives and dies in conditions of either war or peace, a truth reflected in our literature. There is still a place for a great war book such as Dispatches. Like its precursors, from Homer to Hemingway, whose company it keeps, Dispatches seems to begin mid-sentence, plunging its readers into the war zone before they can take up defensive positions:

There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real any more.
As visitors to a place that could not be mapped (“for years now there had been no country here but the war”), Michael Herr’s readers must quickly acclimatise to the sur-real experience of Vietnam in 1967, as though they have no choice: there’s a war on.

Combined with the compelling urgency of Herr’s narration – every line set down as if it’s about to be interrupted by incoming shell-fire – there’s Herr’s mesmerising voice itself, perhaps the single greatest achievement of a book that, nearly 40 years on, offers the definitive account of war in our time, especially the Vietnam war – among the most terrible of the postwar wars. Inspired by the example of 1960s New Journalism, Herr’s voice (after Tom Wolfe) is his own shit-scared, or doped-out, interior monologue spliced with scraps of rock’n’roll and the everyday jargon of the “grunts”, the American GIs in the swamps, jungles and choppers of ’Nam in their search-and-destroy missions against “Charlie”, the Viet Cong:

Once we fanned over a little village that had just been airstruck and the words of a song by Wingy Manone that I’d heard when I was a few years old snapped into my head, ‘Stop the War, These Cats Is Killing Themselves’. Then we dropped, hovered, settled down into purple lz [landing zone] smoke, dozens of children broke from their hootches to run in towards the focus of our landing, the pilot laughing and saying, ‘Vietnam, man. Bomb ’em and feed ’em, bomb ’em and feed ’em.’
As well as the relentless jeopardy and the unforgettable voice in Dispatches, there’s also Michael Herr’s profound sympathy for, and grasp of, the psychology of men in combat. Thanks to his reckless immersion in the war at one of its craziest moments – working as a magazine journalist during the Tet offensive of 1967 and its aftermath – he catches the mix of humour, madness and drugs, setting it all down on the page with a rare combination of precision and compassion so that, as the reader, you think: I was there. Finally, as if all this were not enough, Herr in Vietnam (sadly, never since) is an excellent writer:

In Saigon I always went to sleep stoned so I always lost my dreams, probably just as well, sock in deep and dim under that information and get whatever rest you could, wake up tapped of all images but the one remembered from the day before, with only the taste of a bad dream in your mouth like you’d been chewing on a roll of dirty old pennies in your sleep.

Michael Herr: ‘Sitting in Saigon,’ he wrote ‘was like sitting inside the folded petals of a poisonous flower.’
Photograph: Jane Bown

Some of Herr’s best and most quotable passages read like hallucinations, and some simply are just that: descriptions of being stoned on the front line, like a character in Apocalypse Now, a film classic whose script Herr also contributed to:

Just lying there tracking the rotations of the ceiling fan, reaching for the fat roach that sat on my Zippo in a yellow disc of grass tar. There were mornings when I’d do it before my feet even hit the floor. Dear Mom, stoned again. In the Highlands, where the Montagnards would trade you a pound of legendary grass for a carton of Salems, I got stoned with some infantry from the 4th…
Herr can be funny, too. Describing the US mission, he writes that “At the bottom was the shit-faced grunt, at the top of a Command trinity: a blue-eyed, hero-faced general, a geriatrics-emergency ambassador and a hale, heartless CIA performer”. Namechecking an in-country spook, Robert “Blowtorch” Kromer, Herr drily adds that “if William Blake had ‘reported’ to him that he’d seen angels in the trees, Kromer would have tried to talk him out of it. Failing there, he’d have ordered defoliation”.
Dispatches is not just painfully vivid, it knows that it’s part of the historical record, and is grounded in history, even if no one can be sure precisely where to locate the origins of the Indochina tragedy. Herr again: “Mission intellectuals like 1954 as the reference date; if you saw as far back as War 2 and the Japanese occupations you were practically a historical visionary.” For the US, it mainly started in 1961, or 1965, after the Tonkin resolution; for Herr it started in 1967 when he became Esquire’s war correspondent based in Saigon. “Sitting in Saigon,” he writes, “was like sitting inside the folded petals of a poisonous flower, the poison history, fucked in its root no matter how far back you wanted to run your trace.”
And Saigon was “beyond berserk”:

… young Americans in from the boonies on TDY [temporary duty], charged with hatred and grounded in fear of the Vietnamese; thousands of Americans sitting in their offices crying in bored chorus, ‘You can’t get these people to do a fucking thing, you can’t get these people to do a fucking thing…’
Herr hooked up with an English war photographer, Tim Page, and Errol Flynn’s son, Sean, who would later go missing on assignment, and went chopper-hopping round the war zone, taking huge risks, getting stranded in Khe Sanh in the winter of 1968 during its infamous siege (a brilliant set piece at the heart of Dispatches), surviving against the odds. Herr stuck it out till 1969, then came back to New York City with a heap of notes, a file of Esquire pieces, and a bat cave of toxic memories. Within 18 months of coming home, he was in the midst of a near-disabling depression, and perhaps the writing of Dispatches became part of his route out of hell.

The upshot was a book, published in 1977, which every journalist and writer – from John le Carré to Robert Stone – who had ever been in a war zone wished they’d written. Comparisons were made with books like The Red Badge of Courageand All Quiet on the Western Front, but this was different: it was by a writer not a soldier, and it was the writer’s sensibility that made his book captivate a whole generation of readers. Another celebrated New Journalist, Hunter S Thompson, spoke for the profession when he said: “We have all spent 10 years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived – but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts the rest of us in the shade.”
Here in the UK, where Herr lived for a while during the 1980s, British war correspondents such as my Observer colleague Ed Vulliamy would make a point of getting an introduction: “Every writer who has tried his or her hand at war journalism,” wrote Vulliamy, “would go to meet Michael Herr rather like a student of the cello would approach Mstislav Rostropovich. Apart from learning by listening, the gratifying thing is to find that one’s own follies and fears are echoes of Herr’s; one almost feels validated in one’s quirks of judgment in the aftermath of war.”
Now in a new century, and a new geopolitical landscape, it’s as though everything, and nothing, has changed. As Herr writes, in another of his most haunting passages, the US army “took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.”

A signature sentence

“I went through that thing a number of times and only got a fast return on my fear once, a too classic hot landing with the heat coming from the trees about 300 yards away, sweeping machine-gun fire that sent men head down into swampy water, running on their hands and knees towards the grass where it wasn’t blown flat by the rotor blades, not much to be running for but better than nothing.”

Three to compare

Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961) 

David Halberstam: The Best and the Brightest (1972) 

Neil Sheehan: A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988)

Dispatches by Michael Herr is available in paperback from Picador (£9.99).

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Tolstoy / War and Peace / The 10 things you need to know (if you haven't actually read it)

War and Peace: the 10 things you need to know (if you haven't actually read it)

Who is the hero? Can you skip the boring bits? How long will it take to read? A guide to a book that is not just great, it is the best novel ever written

Philip Hensher

Friday 22 January 2016 13.00 GMT

1 People change. The characters in War and Peace endure extreme experiences, and emerge at the end as quite different people. The miracle of the book is that the Natasha who falls in love with anyone and everyone in the ballrooms of the opening is recognisably the same woman who withdraws from society at the end.
2 There is no hero and no heroine. This is the story of a group of people living within a society. Andrei Bolkonsky is not Tolstoy’s hero, and Natasha is not a romantic heroine. It forgives ideas of heroism, most beautifully in the last words any character speaks in the book, as Andrei’s son thinks of his father at the end of the First Epilogue. It understands and sympathises with those ideas but it excuses itself from repeating them. The book will try to understand why people behave as they do, and it may make the best case possible for some strange actions, but it won’t make apologies for anyone and won’t pass a final judgment. Don’t expect to be able to predict what happens. Even the characters won’t be able to explain why they do what they do, perhaps until weeks or months later. The subject of the book is the wildness of possibility, and how the world can be changed by one woman saying, for no particular reason that she can explain, “I have had so little happiness in my life.”

Friday, March 25, 2016

My hero / Berthold Lubetkin by Marina Lewycka

Lubetkin's penguin pool at London Zoo. Photograph: Chris Gascoigne/View Pictures

My hero: 

Berthold Lubetkin by Marina Lewycka

Lubetkin became my hero when I discovered that he had built some of the finest council housing in London, as well as tthe now-abandoned penguin pool at London Zoo

Marina Lewycka
Fri 25 Mar 2016

ear where I stay when I’m in London, behind the junction of Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue, is a strange boxy building set behind wonky green railings – it looks a bit like a stranded spaceship that has landed in someone’s front garden. A sign identifies it as Finsbury Health Centre. One day, curious, I stepped inside. On the wall, I found a tribute to the Georgia-born Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin, who built it in 1938. Some of Lubetkin’s sketches were displayed, with notes on his design. A joyful atmosphere would be achieved, he said, by “an entrance hall flooded with light, through a wall of glass bricks, clean surfaces and bright colours to produce a cheerful effect.” This is in striking contrast to the fusty, gloomy Victorian redbrick piles of the past with their labyrinthine corridors and poky corners.

Lubetkin wanted buildings to empower people. “Architecture can be a potent weapon,” he wrote, “a committed driving force on the side of enlightenment, aiming however indirectly at the transformation of our present make-believe society, where images outstrip reality and rewards outpace achievement.”
The health centre is now a listed building, which sits awkwardly within our semi-privatised NHS. The GP practice based there cannot afford the repairs, and the building looks shabby with peeling paintwork. Six years ago it was almost closed and sold off, but public protest forced the health trust to think again.
Lubetkin became my hero when I discovered that he had also built some of the finest council housing in London, as well as two spectacular private blocks in Highgate and the now-abandoned penguin pool at London Zoo. He may not have understood the needs of penguins, but, unlike some of our present politicians, he did understand that, in his words, “nothing is too good for ordinary people”.
 The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka has been shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize.