Elias Canetti - The Tongue Set Free

Rating 7.9

The die has been cast upon reading Gregor von Rezzori's The Snow of Yesteryear.

Struck by the literary spell of that excellent specimen of Central European memoirs, I decided it was just the right time to go ahead along the same golden vein.
Thus, I pick up The Tongue Set Free. This is the first volume of Elias Canetti's monumental autobiography and, probably, the one I'm going to like the most. I will explain you why in a minute.

To a superficial reader, Canetti and von Rezzori have much in common. Both authors were born in now remote corners of Central-Eastern Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, came from multiethnic and polyglot families, spent their childhood years moving from one country to another due to the First World War events, drammatically lost a family member, graduated in Vienna, and eventually chose German as their first language in writing.

However, for all the things they had in common (including the decision to publish their compelling memoirs in the 1980s), there is much more separating these two superb authors and intellectuals than what could meet the eye.

First of all, Canetti was nine years older than von Rezzori and came from a Jewish family. Whereas von Rezzori - despite or because of the antisemitism of his father - was fascinated by Jews and their culture to the point of learing yiddish, Canetti was essentially a cosmopolitan secularist who never accepted the notion of sacrifice attached to the roots of Judaism (Abraham being ordered to kill Isaac) and Christianity (Jesus dying for the sake of humanity) alike.

Not that von Rezzori flirted with zealous bigotry at any stage of his life; he actually led a rather worldly life playing in movies together with Brigitte Bardot, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as well as moving to Tuscany where he became an art collector.
And yet, compared with Canetti, von Rezzori was certainly more inclined to religious symbolism and spirituality (he was the author of The Death of My Brother Abel while his last work - published posthumous - is entitled Cain) and a more prolific novelist.

Canetti's reputation as a successful author and the chief reason why he became a Nobel laureate is largely due to his essays even though it's his only novel, Auto-da-Fè, which is considered his masterpiece. Let's face it: none of the eight novels published by von Rezzori never reached the fame of that single one by Canetti.

One may say that it's the subject each author studied at Vienna University that influenced his own literary career. The flamboyant, dreamy von Rezzori graduated in art (after giving up medicine and architecture), thus ending up as a creator of works of fiction, while the more pragmatical and politically involved Canetti graduated in chemistry, thus becoming an essayist and an expert of social studies.

Now this distinction is true to some extent.
The funny thing is that if we take into consideration their memoirs/autobiographies the less analytical and more prolix of the two authors is Canetti, the chemist graduate and essayist. The ability to draw together his childhood and young adult memories in a convincing and precise narration belongs to von Rezzori, the playwright, novelist and art graduate.

Mind you, this doesn't mean that the first installment of Canetti's memoirs is not a wonderful accomplishment for most of The Tongue Set Free is indeed a masterpiece. I just think that von Rezzori was better in recapping the early events of his life to their core so that he led me to be more emotionally attached to those pages.
Canetti's early life was as fascinating and eventful as von Rezzori's - if not more - and the writing is equally beautiful, but my impression is that the author does take himself too seriously once he hit his teenager years. Let's call it the Nabokov Syndrome, if you like it.

This said, The Tongue Set Free is a must have and a must read for all those who relishes the golden vein of literary memoirs in a linguistically rich and multi-layered cultural environment and I loved it. I'm just slightly concerned for what is due to come in the second and third volume of this autobiography where Canetti is likely to focus on his own cultural struggle and Viennese milieu rather than giving voice to those who lived around him. I hope to be proved wrong, though!


Gregor von Rezzori - The Snows of Yesteryear

Rating 8.0

There are plenty of good books which you gulp down and forget. And then there are those rare excellent books which are made and meant to stay so that you choose to take your time to read them. The Snows of Yesteryear belongs to the latter.

I'm not an avid reader of self biographies, but I'm always glad to read one of them when the name of the writer justifies it which is to say when the author did something in literature. (ok, I reckon how Open by Andre Agassi doesn't quite belong here).

Now, Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and Witold Gombrowicz's Polish Memories are both superb books. On the same subject, I've reasons to believe that I will enjoy those three self-biographic volumes by Canetti as soon as I have enough time to dig into them.

The thing is, Gregor von Rezzori did a better job than Nabokov and Gombrowicz in writing about his childhood. Mark my words.

One of the chief reasons why I liked The Snows of Yesteryear so much is that von Rezzori doesn't focus on himself as much as Nabokov (quite obviously) and Gombrowicz did. That and the fact that the author chose to select his memories very carefully thus giving the book a very distinctive frame were beautiful writing goes straight to the point and every unexpected detour does lead to a specific episode.

The Snows of Yesteryear is shaped by people, spiced up by places and smells of history.
Von Rezzori here baked a delicious madeleine which brings back to life the five most important characters of his childhood: his mother, father, sister, wet nurse and governess.

Whereas it's the opening poignant lines of the chapter dedicated to his sister which cannot left anyone untouched, I believe that von Rezzori is particularly masterful when writing about his 'savage' wet nurse, Cassandra, and on his teacher/governess, Mrs Strauss - also known as Bunchy.

There you have an oddity. The emotional detachment von Rezzori felt for his long bygone mother and father when he wrote this book as an elderly man is less noticeable when the author remembers about Cassandra and Bunchy. As a matter of fact these two women did have a deeper influence on the future novelist's early life than his parents who were either overworried about him or hopelessly distant.

At a first glance, Gregor von Rezzori certainly had a privileged childhood. Son of a rich man of distant Italian origins but who praised his Germanness and a proud servant of a collapsing Habsburg Empire, von Rezzori grew up in a world of country houses, city mansions and holidays in spa towns or by the Carinthian lakes. His mum was a fashionable woman ruling over a half dozen servants while his father was a dedicated hunter who enjoyed conversating in Latin (and, accidentally despised the Jews).

And yet, the von Rezzoris didn't fit the usual Belle Epoque picture of an uptown bourgeois Austro-Hungarian family giving parties, going to the opera, blaming the Versailles Treaty and - alas! - flirting with antisemitism.
Living in multicultural but troubled Bukovina, the family was forced to leave their home and belongings behind more than once during young Gregor's childhood. Suffice is to say that in the short span of thirty years, von Rezzori's hometown of Czernowitz passed from Austria to Romania to Soviet Union only to become an Ukrainian city back in 1991 under its current name of Chernivtsi.

The Snows of Yesteryear is much more than family history and an elderly novelist reminiscing on his childhood, it's a document of extraordinary importance to understand why a single town is known by six different names: Czernowitz, Chernivtsi, Chernovtsy, Cernauti, Czerniowce and Czernopol.


Antal Szerb - Journey by Moonlight

Rating 7.7

The first time I've heard about Antal Szerb was no more than two months ago. Since then, I managed to put my hands onto all the novels by Szerb translated into English, whose number equals to three.

I had the luck to make a good catch while visiting an Oxfam charity shop in lovely Bath, UK.
Bless the kind reader who donated Szerb's novels to Oxfam!

Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág), published in 1937, is widely considered as Szerb's masterpiece, but I must confess that I liked The Pendragon Legend - his first novel - a hint more.

Nevertheless, this novel came very close to the intellectual pleasure I felt while reading Szerb's previous work and is considered a milestone of Hungarian literature.

Antal Szerb had the rare talent to combine serious and farcical elements into his novels. What we have into this one is a post-wedding personality crisis of a Hungarian man - Mihaly - who is still tied to his adolescence, prone to womanising and cannot really cope with the social and moral responsabilities brought by adulthood.

From the very first sentence of the book, we know that something odd is going to happen to Mihaly. He's travelling through Italy on honeymoon with his newly-wed wife Erszi, a pretty but rather boring socialite whom he took away from her previous wealthy husband out of an extramarital fling.

Unlike his wife, it's the first time that Mihaly visits Italy and he's deeply fascinated by the country due to its glorious past rather than because of what he sees around him. To Mihaly, Italy means first and foremost Goethe, the Renaissance and the Ancient Romans' deeds in a dramatic and sentimental manner that brought to my mind Peter Camenzind by Herman Hesse.
But whereas Hesse really meant what he wrote writing his idyllic postcards from a non-existent Italy (with an involuntary comic effect) Szerb is able to cast some clever observations on Italy in the 1930s between the lines thus stressing out the absurdity of Mihaly's behaviour in being tied to a Grand Tour-shaped past.

Art, food, sensual pleasures and architecture aside, what Mihaly really pines for is wondering and wandering around the alleyways of Venice, the hills of Tuscany and the forests of Umbria preferably by night and in a state of self-indulged introspective stupor which leads him to take impulsive and absurd decisions.

Erszi is rather tolerant of her husband's recurring oddities but all the same she doesn't care a bit to catch him when Mihaly - unaware and aware at the same time - leaves her behind by boarding a wrong train. From this point on, Szerb focuses on Mihaly's identity crisis and the interesting people and the former acquaintances he meets through his Italian adventure. Some of these encounters happen by chance, some others not but all leave a mark in Mihaly's tormented story.

The author shows us a man who rebelled against a petty bourgeois life, but poor Mihaly doesn't quite know what led him to rebel and what he's inclined to pursuit and how. By writing so, Szerb tells us about the protagonist's personal defeat and evokes the topic of suicide which is a taboo much dear to his fellow Hungarians.

And yet, don't look at Journey by Moonlight as your dark and depressing novel spiralling downwards to the abyss of human nihilism as Szerb's peculiarity and ability is that he always knew how to cheer you up with a touch of lightness. Go and read yourselves.


Halldór Laxness - The Fish Can Sing

Rating 7.1

Reykjavik today is such an interesting place. Half spartan northern outpost, half ambitious capital of a scarcely populated but not diminutive country, the biggest (and some say only) town in Iceland welcomed your humble reviewer in style.

Bygone the hectic days of the financial and real estate bubble followed by the economic crisis that lead the local currency to lose a good deal of its value overnight and the national government to fall, Reykjavik is slowly recovering. Quite reluctantly, many Icelanders have to reckon that tourism turned out to be a damn good goldmine for the country.
According to the Visitor's Guide handed over by the Tourism Office in Ingolfstorg (a main square shaped by burger joints and marauded by skateboarders), 278,000 people visited Iceland in 2002, while 672,000 did it ten years later. Given the importance and the position of the capital - not to mention the proximity of Keflavik, the only international airport - I have reasons to believe that 9 out of 10 of these tourists passed through Reykjavik (sorry Akureyri folks!).

When I visited the place - at the end of the summer of 2013 - I couldn't help but finding the wonderful Harpa a shiny blackish convention centre cum opera house straight on the waterfront, slightly overdimensioned for a town the size of Reykjavik. Especially considering how, the capital of Iceland already had a Opera House. Ok, the building has just won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award 2013 which is to say the Nobel Prize for Architecture and is labelled as 'Reykjavik Latest Landmark'. But still.
The Harpa in Reykjavik (2011) by Henning Larsen Architects
Personally, I've found the building bearing many a resemblance with the new Royal Library in Copenhagen (aka The Black Diamond) and the Utrecht University Library. But I'm no architect indeed.
Some Icelanders would have rather preferred, say, a new hospital for their capital - the one I saw was in a pretty bad shape - or those 164 million Euros to be invested elsewhere. Completed and open to cultural business on 2011, two years later the building does still look like the proverbial cathedral in the desert as no money were left for a development project including a 400-room hotel, luxury apartments, retail units, a car park and the new headquarters of an Icelandic bank (ironically). Which, your reviewer believes, it's a positive thing.
The Royal Library in Copenhagen (1999) by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
One must not forget that Reykjavik is still administred by a comedian playing the mayor. And sometimes it shows. Formerly a misdiagnosed retarded child, a punk rocker, a cab driver and founder of the self proclaimed Best Party (Besti flokkurinn), Jon Gnarr was dismissed as 'not very entertaining' and a disgrace by all the locals I spoke with.
I mean, where else in the world you have the most popular weekly flea market in town being hosted in the ground floor of the National Customs House? Isn't that ironic? I mean not even the bohemian likes of former playwright and Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel could have made it better.
(for some additional awe-inspiring fun, just check the Icelandic phonebook which is one for all the country and has people listed on it alphabetically but by their first name).
The sober Mayor of Reykjavik (in pink) taking a walk out of the Town Hall. Watch out, Boris Johnson!
Anyways, the Reykjavik that you can find in The Fish Can Sing looks centuries away from the one I saw. And yet, merely one hundred years have passed by as Laxness set his novel at the beginning of 20th century. At that time, Reykjavik was the capital of a poor, remote and backwardish Danish province with none of the cultural, technological and environmental zest of contemporary Iceland.
The town itself gravitated around a couple of long streets, the church, a main square and the Danish Government building (formerly a prison). A bunch of shopkeepers with Danishised surnames and toying with Latin mottoes were the bourgeoisie. The price of jet-set commodities such as books and cream cakes was compared to the one of sheep and cows. Cottages still had turf-made roofs. And all that came from Copenhagen - save preachers - was fashionable.
Charming Reykjavik in the 1860s, well before Mr Gnarr and tourism took over
This is the Reykjavik were the orphan Alfgrimur Hansson (a surname meaning the son of Him and thus given to children with no parents) grows up fishing lumpfish with his adoptive 'granddad' Bjoern of Brekkukot, being chased by the plump daughter of the greatest shopkeeper in town and wearing the shoes of the opera singer Gardar Holm, the man who sung for the Pope and made Iceland known worldwide.

Holm is a masterfully built and elusive fictional character who is suddenly appearing and disappearing in town baffling the local authorities and bourgeoisie who always try to give him a kingly welcome. When reading about Holm and his idiosyncrasies, I thought that Laxness was partially talking about himself - just change the profession of singer with the one of writer - and that could be true. At the same time, this Gardar Holm who is reluctantly playing the ambassador of Iceland in Paris, Rome and New York is exactly what Bjork became for her country in the 1990s (and Sigur Ros in the 2000s): a celebrity detached by his/her homecountry due to their talent, but later pining for a return back home with world weary eyes hoping to be left in peace by the media.
A shot of Reykjavik's Hafnarstraeti in the 1910s. Trade was spreading up, but the Danish Crown still ruled over the island. 
To be honest, not that much happens in The Fish Can Sing, but for those who are interested in how people lived, thought - and what they dreamed - in Reykjavik one century ago this novel has a historic significance. The coming of age of the protagonist is not that compelling, but it works as well.

Laxness himself was a communist (but driving a Jaguar) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 due to his portrayal of rural Iceland - go and read Independent People! - and hated any foreign influence in his homecountry. If he were still alive, I'm not sure the author would have liked the fact that all of his books in their English translation are easily avaialble in every bookstore, duty free shop and fuel station of Iceland today. Including The Atom Station where Laxness attacks the presence of a Nato base of Keflavik which is exactly what has recently been converted into the only international airport in Iceland.
Laxness himself indulging in my favourite pastime
The Fish Can Sing is not Laxness at his best. But this novel does have its charm, includes some decent Icelandic-like humour and I would go for it if you went or are planning to take the next flight to this magnificent and crazy country. Perhaps, if you are lucky, you could get a ticket to see Bjork or Gardar Holm performing at the Harpa seeking for the one note, the same note Alfgrimur Hansson was looking for.