Europe In Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic (translated from the Croatian by David Williams)

Europe in SepiaDubravka Ugresic’s second collection of essays to be translated by Open Letter, Karaoke Culture, enjoyed quite a bit of success on its release in 2011.  Since then Dubravka Ugresic’s fans have been rabidly awaiting the release of her next book.  Though I haven’t read Karaoke Culture… yet. It’s a lapse that will soon be corrected.  A copy was downloaded even before I finished Europe In Sepia.

To truly appreciate the popularity of Ugresic you have to experience her voice.  Direct, ironic and slightly irritated.  As a citizen (or should I say former citizen? what is exactly is the proper terminology?) of the now defunct nation of Yugoslavia she can legitimately claim the status of consummate outsider.  And so she does – with gusto – spending more then a few chapters focusing on the strangeness of her personal situation.   There is an unanticipated absurdity that comes with being a woman without a country.  Ugresic gets to explore something she calls “Yogonostalgia” in one breath and comment on the quasi-fascism of Starbucks in the next.  In a way she’s the Dennis Leary of essayists – raising an eyebrow at her readers as she describes  the idiocy she gleefully observes happening around her.

When a bouncy young Starbucks barista asked my name for the first time,  I articulated it with conviction and clarity.

“Say what?!”

“Du-brav-ka,” I repeated.

“Say whaaaat?!”

I said it again, and then again, just louder. The people in line were already bitching. A short while later, a plastic cup with “Dwbra” scribbled on it arrived. I relayed the episode to a countryman who lives in Los Angeles, where my Starbucks initiation had occurred.  That was twenty years ago.

“Jesus, what a dumbass! Who told you you’ve got to give your own name?!”

To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me not to.

“I always say Tito!” he fired.

“And?”

“And nothing. I just love hearing: Titoooo, your coffee’s reaaaadyyyy!”

I took his advice and tried using Marx and Engels, but the Starbucks crew didn’t get the message I was sending.  In the end I chose a regular name.  At Starbucks, I’m Jenny.

There’s so much I love about that passage that has nothing to do with the joke (though I love that too): its overall rhythm; the fact that all of Tito’s sentences end in exclamation points; the 3+3 syllabic beats in the closing sentence.  (David William’s translation makes it seem impossible that Ugresic ever meant to express herself in any language other than English). And the fact that the particular essay from which it’s taken is about the career challenges Dubravka Ugresic has dealt, perhaps still deals, with: her name, her gender, her nationality, the fact she’s still alive (dead authors command more respect). All inspired by an innocent question from a child.

Great writing.  Wickedly entertaining.  Not necessarily what you’d expect from a book of essays.

Ugresic  covers all kinds of topics, from Zuccotti Park, to a sketch from the Muppet Show, to the need for a women’s literary canon.  She has a talent for handling serious subjects lightly without trivializing them. The essays on writing, literature and translation were my favorites, but that’s just where my tastes lie.  Europe in Sepia is organized into three sections, dishing out a little something for everyone.  The first section, the titular Europe In Sepia, focuses on the author’s Eastern European ties.  The second,  My Own Little Mission, is oriented more towards pop-culture and social criticism.   In the second section you’ll find an excellent essay Who Is Timmy Monster? (the theme of which is: we are our own worst enemies).  And another on preparing for food shortages –“Thank God I’ve got a copy of the Croatian translation of the famous Apicius cookbook. Flamingo was one of the greatest delicacies on the ancient Roman table and luckily Amsterdam Zoo is full of the elegant pink birds…” – which spurred me to re-read sections of Johnathan Swift’s infamous A Modest Proposal.  Endangered Species, the third and final section, is where the essays on literature are gathered.  Of course there is overlap – all the essays are told from and relate back to the unique Eastern European in exile perspective that is Ugresic’s trademark.  Even Who Is Timmy Monster? is a reference to a Muppet Show sketch that featured Zero Mostel, an American comedian of Eastern European Jewish descent. Europe in Sepia is also  firmly grounded in contemporary culture (something that has me wondering if it will feel dated ten years from now) – Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Clinton and E.L. James all get a mention.  As does a former dictator.  And vampires. And (my personal favorite), she takes a dig at Quirk books classics* series.

You will become a Dubravka Ugresic fan after picking up one of her books.  Don’t bother fighting it.  It’s as inevitable as passing a Starbucks in Manhattan.

Europe In Sepia is rare in that it contains complex examinations of human nature and still somehow manages to be funny (and never sanctimonious).  This book lingered with me long after I put it down. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to it weeks after finishing, flipping through the pages looking for a passage that’s been teasing at your brain. That’s the whole purpose of a good essay collection – to captivate readers; to make them laugh (if they’re lucky); and, hopefully, to  get everyone thinking about the things that matter.

 

 

Publisher: Open Letter Books, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 89 4

 

*In full recognition of my own dorkiness: I just made air quotes at my computer screen. 

 

 

 

 

A Voltaire for the New Millenium

Title:  Cairo:  Memoir of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

The questions that are being settled on the streets of Egypt are of concern to everyone. The paramount one is this: can a people’s revolution that is determinedly democratic, grassroots, inclusive, and peaceable succeed?

Cairo erupted during eighteen days between January 25th and February 11th, 2011.  It was one of the first in what became the string of global protests that were held in 2011 & early 2012.  That chain included the Tunisian “Jasmine” Revolution; America’s Occupy Wall Street (the OCCUPY banner of which was taken up by groups in England, Germany and Ireland, among others); the 15-M Movement in Spain and the protests in Italy and Greece.  Most of these movements continue barely acknowledged by the media.  The common cause of the protesters: income inequality.   In the West this was and is represented by the banking system and finance industry – the ubiquitous 1%.  Government corruption are also being targeted.  And while most of these protests began peacefully, few have ended so.

Ahdaf Soueif is perhaps best known for her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love; and her marriage to the late author Ian Hamilton. She is also a journalist, translator, and political activist who calls both London and Cairo home.  Her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, is a filmmaker and a founding member of the activist media collective Mosireen.  Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed expands on her earlier account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Cairo:  My City, Our Revolution, published in 2012 by Bloomsbury UK.  This new edition includes a final chapter entitled “Eighteen Days Were Never Enough”.

What happened during those original eighteen days?  The Egyptian people, led by the Egyptian youth (Shabaab) , descended on Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak step down and Democratic elections be held.  The political factions – and they were many – formed a temporary truce in support of the greater good.  The Egyptian Army stood with the protesters.  At least for a time.  Mubarak’s people sent wave after wave of attacks, sometimes covertly through saboteurs who infiltrated the Square.  Many young people were injured or killed.  Their leaders were imprisoned.  Throughout this time, Tahrir Square was transformed.  Much like Zuccotti Park in NYC, it became a campground, a festival and a political stage.

Both books seem to be based on the journals and notes Soueif kept as events were happening; she frequently refers to her determination to act as a witness  But her writing is more polished, more novelistic, than a simple journal entry.  Her words lack the immediacy of a true, first hand report.  Ms. Soueif narrates in over-ripe prose; managing to capture all of the romance, exuberance and child-like euphoria of those early days of revolution.  Every moment is saturated with portent and emotion.  Her family members stride, godlike across the pages – often appearing and acting as a collective.  The scenes where she describes them coming together take on the characteristics of the magical realism genre.  As in the scene where they celebrate her nephew’s release from prison and the birth of his son (the newest member of this tightly knit family).

We swept and cleaned the house I’d refurbished in my mother’s orchard. We laid out tables and chairs and strung up colored lights and strings of Egyptian flags. We set up a barbecue, and all our family and friends and friends of friends came and brought lots of food. We played music and danced and carried Khaled in a satin-lined sieve into every room and into all the dark corners so he would know his wa;y and know there was nothing,ever, to be afraid of, and we sprinkled the seven seeds in his path so he would always have plenty, and we sang to him the old instructions to obey his mother and father and added that he must never ever obey SCAF or a government. My mother’s orchard was teaming and buzzing and radiating love and light. And just before midnight, we all drove to Tahrir – the biggest family home in the world.  And despite the dark days, Tahrir was full of hope and joy, and there was music and song and a church choir and people all the time gathering around Alaa and talking talking talking about the future and what we need to do.*

This isn’t meant as a negative criticism – quite the opposite. Cairo is the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from the political book.  The novelistic quality – the over exuberance – of Soueif’s narrative voice is precisely what makes it so accessible and addictive.  It balances the obvious care taken revising and re-editing the text.  There is even a post-modern element – Soueif is very aware that the present in which these words are being read is different from her present.  That her readers exist in an uncertain future.

And so we follow the author as she moves between Tahrir Square, the various homes and offices of her family and the news studios from which she sends out dispatches to contradict the “official” reports being released by the government.  There is an emotional investment in what is happening – remember, these are her children and this is her city. Souef’s son, nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors all play a part.  Her worry and pride is palpable, stirring the same in her readers.  While her generation is involved,  the 2011 Revolution is primarily led by the  Shabaab.  They are the front line.  And there are times when the streets surrounding the Square were a war zone.

For those who only know Soueif as a novelist, Cairo is a vivid reminder of her roots in journalism.  She possesses the ability to step back and recognize the larger implications of what is happening in her home country.  And so she interrupts herself (in a chapter called, appropriately, “An Interruption”.  Interjecting from 18 months in the future to report on the current state of the Revolution.   The format is the same one she uses throughout the entire book.  The narrative loosely organized into days and hours.   But the exuberance is momentarily gone.  The movement’s leaders, many of the same nieces as nephews who we stood in the Square with a few pages ago, are now being accused and arrested.  Fissures are forming between the different political parties.  The population of the city is growing weary of the interruptions to their lives.   A lot has changed.  Soueif acknowledges that even more time has passed for the reader.  That even more changes of which she is unaware will occur.  “You… are in a future unknown to me”.  And of course she is right.

In the present we know that Mubarak was forced out, that general elections were held and Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president.  In June of 2013 public protests were held calling for his resignation and in July he was forcibly removed by a military coup.  Adly Mahmoud Mansour was appointed interim president.  The military has in recent months begun a crackdown on leaders of the 2011 revolution and Morsi is facing charges of incitement of murder, violence and of espionage.  A police station in Mansoura was bombed on December 24th and the government is declaring the Muslim Brotherhood responsible (despite the group’s denials).  They’ve been labeled a terrorist organization in Egypt.  The network that ran Mubarak’s security state, by many accounts, is back.  Violence swells, breaks and recedes for a time, only to swell again.  And readers outside of Egypt are left trying to sift the news for truth.

“This book is not a record of an event that’s over; it’s an attempt to welcome you into, to make you part of, an event that we’re still living.  And there are two problems in the writing of it.  One is that while the eighteen days are locked into the past, the revolution and the fight to hold on to it continue, and every day the landscape shifts.  THe other is that you – my reader – are in a future unknown to me, and yet I want to tell a story that will ease the leap you need to make between where this book stops and where Egypt is as you read.”

For those interested in learning more, the New York Times publishes up to date news on events in Egypt here. You can follow Ahdaf Soueif on Twitter @asoueif and her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, @ORHamilton.

* To clarify: Khaled is the infant

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 307 90810 0

Two Short Works of Non-Fiction by Readux Books

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction.   Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories.  Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.

A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books.  Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.”  The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists.  The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible.   Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages.    And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves.  This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.

The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history.  Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline.  The changes in writing styles are much more drastic.  Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013).  The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time.  It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.

Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator.  He was a member of the German artist community.  His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name).  Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp.  He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.

But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII.  His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining.  In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time.  The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.

… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask.  “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina.  Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc.  I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette.  “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado?  That’s where the real bedlam’s at.  You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you?  Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.”  But in the end we decide on something completely different.

If you’re in Germany you can buy a set of (4) posters featuring Readux covers.

In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it.  He is a modern-day expatriate.  Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books.  His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized.  Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A.   “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind.   “Angst” is another.  Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.

The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order.  I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them.  After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place.  They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.

Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites.  That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting.  Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.

The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.

Publisher:  Readux Books, Berlin

In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN:  978 3 944801 01 8

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN:  978 3 944801 03 2

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To Salinger, With Love & Squalor

SalingerOn September 6th a documentary on J.D. Salinger, called simply Salinger, will be released in theaters. For Salinger fans this is a big deal.  The television rights have already been sold to PBS.  A book full of photographs will be in stores September 3rd.  Those attending advance screenings of the film, or who have been given access to the book, have signed non-disclosure agreements.  Of course, tons of information has leaked out.  (You have to wonder how Salinger managed to keep his secrets for decades, when the Weinstein’s couldn’t manage it for a few weeks).  That Salinger was in the intelligence service during WWII, possibly suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was a jerk to the women he dated (well, that wasn’t necessarily news) and that we may be seeing new works in the next 5 years –  has all been revealed over the past weekend. So I’m looking forward to seeing the actual film next week if only to find out what surprises – if any – are left.

Reading The Cather in the Rye was not a world altering event for everyone.  Some of us prefer Salingers short stories particularly those about the Glass family.  After reading Nine Stories; Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction; and Franny & Zooey I was so enamored that I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get my hands on anything he’d ever written. What did I discover?  That there wasnt much out there to discover.  Some uncollected short stories on microfiche at the New York Public library; a copy of The Way of the Pilgrim (the source of the Jesus Prayer that Franny takes up in Franny & Zooey);  In Search of J.D. Salinger, a.k.a. – Ian Hamiltons Hail Mary attempt to see a return on years spent researching the Salinger biography he wasn’t allowed to publish; and a small 1960’s paperback collection of essays on Salingers work (more on that later) discovered in a second-hand shop.

I had and have no interest in reading Joyce Maynards memoir. Im still on the fence regarding the book written by his daughter.

I also haven’t read Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, which came out long after I’d resigned myself to waiting patiently for the subject’s death.*  (I made the calculations… being 55 years younger than Salinger, barring a horrible accident, the chances were pretty good that I’d live to see the posthumously published works).  And, anyway, I was never really interested in learning about J.D. Salinger the man.  I wanted more of the Glass family.

The 1963 collection of essays, edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald and entitled simply Salinger: A Critical & Cultural Portrait, is the book which provided the foundation of my Salinger research.  Originally published by Harper & Row in 1961, mine is the small Pocket Books paperback edition. It includes a number of essays published by the likes of John Updike, Alfred Kazin, Joan Didion and contains an introduction by the editor.  It was from this little book that I learned about Hapworth 16, 1924, the last short story Salinger ever published.  It’s a strange little story (which I can’t imagine the magazine agreeing to publish if the author hadn’t already received so much critical attention) that takes the form of letter home from camp written by a young and precocious Seymour Glass.   Salinger: A Critical & Cultural Portrait also contains the TIME magazine article which states that “a friend reports that Salinger intends to write a Glass Trilogy” and provides a brief overview of Salinger’s military career – a period Slawenski’s biography seems to have covered and the new documentary expands upon.  Less exciting (for me) was the information that the Caulfield family had a cycle of short stories, similar to the Glass family which were cannibalized and consumed by The Catcher in the Rye.  There are about four of these – two only accessible to the public through Princeton University Library – and they all seem to contain major discrepancies from the final novel: name changes, variations on the cause of Holdens younger brothers death (heart condition, drowning, and finally leukemia) and some timeline issues.  For Salinger the two families, Glass and Caulfield, were a constant work in progress.  He couldn’t let them go.

The fact that Salinger continued to write in isolation shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in the author.  The real surprise would have been learning that after all these years of waiting he had left behind no manuscripts whatsoever.  Or that he’d left instructions to burn the manuscripts.  *shudder*  Rumors of his continued work have been persistant.  Even my little 1963 paperback mentioned House of Glass – the supposed working title for the epic Glass family history that’s apparently been years in the making.  So the New York Times article published over the weekend regarding the release of new works between 2014-2020  is mildly exciting but for those of us who have been waiting patiently it raises a lot of questions

If David Shields, Shane Salerno and Slate.com are to be trusted, and there’s no reason at this point to believe otherwise, we have confirmation that there are 5 books and instructions as to when they are to be published.  And that among these manuscripts is a novel The Family Glass.  But how much of the work will be entirely new?  Is this novel a re-working of the early Glass stories – like what happened with Caulfield stories in the writing of The Catcher in the Rye – or a continuation?  We’re also told that there will be more stories featuring members of the Caulfield family. We’re told definitively that these will include new stories, as well as the re-packaged older stories. Have the continuity issues been resolved or will they be preserved?

Which leads to the next logical question:  who will act as editor?  Considering most of the famous short stories were published in The New Yorker and edited by William Maxwell this is of real interest to fans.  Or it should be.

OK, I lied.  This is all more than mildly exciting.

It’s been three year since J.D. Salinger died and I’m still making mental calculations.  If the timeline is right I’ll be under 50 when the last of the new books is published. Hapworth, 16, 1924 appeared in The New Yorker close to a decade before I was born.  I’ve been waiting since I was 14 years old for a new book or story to see the light of day.  That seems strange. (“Sad!” my husband says, looking over my shoulder). And inexplicable. Because I’ve read better authors. There are plenty of books out there with more sophisticated plots. Yet I continue to love Salinger’s stories.  I still want to know what happens to the characters.  So do a lot of other people! (I yelled that last bit back at my husband).

If you’re one of them I’d love to hear why. Are you planning to see the documentary? Are you Team Glass or Team Caulfield? If you’re looking forward to new books and stories, do you have any expectations? Or do you think Salinger was a big phony? Comments are open below… and it looks like we have at least two more years to fill them.

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*Don’t you judge me!