24.9.14

Isaac Bashevis Singer - Love and Exile

Rating 8.0

Given that the latest book by Isaac Bashevis Singer I read turned out to be a big disappointment, I didn't lose my trust in one of my favourite authors overall.

With Love and Exile the good old I.B. I knew came back to send his regards from a very special time: his formative years.

Although the cover of the book boasts that this is 'An Autobiographical Trilogy', what we have here is an account of the first thirty-five years of Mr Singer's long life. This means that the size of the book is a manageable 352 pages which won't put off any eager readers but with limited time on their hands.

On a personal note, I would have loved if Isaac Bashevis had written even more about his early years than he did here. Not to mention including something on his following fifty-three years. But I noticed how many great authors who flirted with their memoirs were somehow reluctant to include their more mature and successful years in those books. Vladimir Nabokov, Stefan Zweig, Gregor von Rezzori,  Gyorgy Faludy, Witold Gombrowicz and Stanislaw Lem come to mind and I.B. Singer joins the club.

So, let's talk about what Isaac Bashevis chose to tell us. Yes, let's talk about Love and Exile which is a very carefully chosen title indeed.

First comes love.
You might not know or suspect this but young I.B. was no short than a womanizer. If you can picture a penniless, skinny, poorly dressed, red haired proofreader playing the Don Juan in Warsaw in the late 1920s this is what Mr Singer was. Some of his conquests were women who could have been his mother, others were communist tomboys, and others were nevrotic and opinionated beauties who were just looking for a cultivated lover.
By reading about this women, I could recognise the hectic behaviors and sexual perversions of many a female character narrated by I.B Singer in novels such as Enemies, The Slave, Shadows On the Hudson and - alas! - even from that awful King of the Fields. 
True, Isaac Bashevis Singer wasn't only going from a bed to another one in those turbulent years for him and for Warsaw alike. He was also talented a writer for his young age, but in the Yiddish-Polish circles of his time there were dozens of authors who had published more than him gaining money and reputation.

The Union of Jewish Writers and Journalists of Warsaw membership card of Isaac Bashevis Singer 
One of the shining stars of Yiddish literature in Warsaw was another Singer, Israel Joshua (I.J.) who happened to be Isaac Bashevis' elder brother. It was I.J. who brought home novels by Hamsun, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky along with scientific publications, newspapers. It was I.J. who contested the status quo of the Singer's household engaging in theological arguments with his father, a pious rabbi portrayed by Isaac Bashevis as a holy man twice removed from modernity.
It was I.J. who introduced his younger brother in the Warsaw literary scene finding him the post of proofreader in the magazine where he was editor in chief. And again, it was I.J. who became the Polish correspondent for an American-Yiddish newspaper while Isaac Bashevis soon found out that he wasn't made for journalism.

The respect, admiration and awe that the future Nobel Prize for Literature felt for his elder brother are  expressed umpteen times thorough Love and Exile. Young Isaac Bashevis knew very well that he lived in the shadow of Israel Joshua's success to the point he was often confused with him and yet in this book one can only find words of gratitude for this brother.

Second comes exile.
The exile from a country, Poland, that both the Singer brothers loved in a way, but that they couldn't fully perceive as their homecountry. Isaac Bashevis explains that he could read books in four or five languages (including Polish), but that Yiddish was the only language he spoke well admitting that 'women in Warsaw were constantly correcting my Polish'.
Now I can certainly relate with such a statement myself, but I'm a foreigner while I.B. was born and bred in Poland. Well, bred to some extent as he spoke Yiddish at home, attended cheder instead of Polish school and later never went to university. The author here makes crystal clear that he's at the same time proud of his Jewish heritage and ashamed for having not had the possibility of learning Polish well which I've found touching.

Anyways. Let's go back to the exile.
Guess what? It was Israel Joshua who moved first to the US and it was I.J. who sent his brother an affidavit to come and join him in New York City. Isaac Bashevis arrives in the United States with only one published book in his portfolio - Satan in Goray - and out of fear for what he feels will happen to the Jews in Poland. As far as we know, he never looked at the US with keen or curious eyes before. Among the novelists he read the most, the future Nobel laureate mentions Aleichem, Peretz, Hamsun, Mann, Rolland, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, not a single American one, save Twain.

And yet, because Israel Joshua migrated to the US - not before having his novel Yoshe Kalb translated into Polish: quite an accomplishment - Isaac Bashevis goes with the flow and leaves Europe behind.
The chapters regarding the trip to the US by ship are among the most interesting ones in this book. The sense of claustrophoby and discomfort felt by Mr Singer on board is described very well. He only pines for loneliness and gets discriminated for his asking to eat alone and for being a vegetarian. These pages are poignant and disturbing at the same time. One cannot help but asking themselves what I.B. Singer did for being treated so badly by the crew and the injustice of this treatment hurts.

The final part of the 'trilogy' depicts the arrival and the first years of the novelist in the US being hosted by (I bet you know by whom)...his brother Israel Joshua.
Once more, it's I.J. who finds Isaac Bashevis a job in the newspaper he has been writing for and buys him an Yiddish typewriter. And later on I.J. will even rescue his younger brother from a writer's block crisis by helping him to put an order and give a sense to the drafts Isaac Bashevis is working on.  

Unfortunately, Love and Exile ends up before two crucial events in the life of I.B. Singer: the sudden death of his elder brother at the age of 50 and the publication of The Family Moskat a masterpiece that will be dedicated to Israel Joshua, mentor and model for Isaac Bashevis.

The Singer siblings portrayed by Hazel Karr. From left to right, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Esther Kreitman Singer (who was herself a writer), and Israel Joshua Singer.

17.9.14

W. Somerset Maugham - The Painted Veil

Rating 7.6

It was a pleasure reading my very first book by W. Somerset Maugham. This guy knew how to write and - what's more - didn't show off. There's not a single superfluous word in 'The Painted Veil' and every character here speaks with a very distinct and entirely believable voice.

For what is particularly masterful and consistent through this novel is the high quality of dialogues which are just pitch perfect.

Given this as well as the flawless sobriety of his writing style, I find fascinating that Mr. Maugham's mother tongue was actually French, as he grew up in Paris. Furthermore, during his school years in Canterbury young William was teased by his schoolmates due to his shaky English later developing a stammer that stayed with him til the rest of his life.

You might reckon how it's hard to picture someone with such issues in using spoken English writing as well as Maugham did.
In the introduction to the edition of this book I own, the author states that he got his 'mastery of technique and ease in writing dialogue' by translating Ibsen. Now, I had no idea that W. Somerset Maugham knew Norwegian and, in fact, I couldn't find any proof that he actually did, but whatever the reason, he certainly became a master himself.

The bygone demi-decadent colonial atmosphere of 'The Painted Veil' brought other British novelists to my mind: first and foremost Graham Greene, but E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling as well. Even though the latter two were almost peers of Mr Maugham, I'd daresay that he was well ahead of his time as this work reads as something Mr Greene could have written thirty years later.

'The Painted Veil' was published in 1925. At first the novel meant a lot of trouble for W. Somerset Maugham due to its setting - Honk Kong - some random but unfortunate choice in naming the characters and, last but not least, the plot itself. The author was forced to replace Hong Kong with a fictional Tching-Yen and even had to change the surname of the protagonist from Lane into Fane because of some people bearing that surname in HK who wanted to sue him.
In my copy of the book Hong Kong has been reinstated as the main setting of the novel, but - oddly enough - Mr and Mrs Fane were not rechristened Lane. I bet the grandchildren of those angry Lanes in Hong Kong are happy.

Anyway, so here we have a woman, Kitty Fane , who is certainly not a likeable character being, in fact, unfaithful to her husband, coquettish, capricious and rather shallow. No point in hiding that Kitty's affair is with some top-notch guy in Hong Kong as Maugham himself makes that crystal clear from the very first chapter.

But it's what happens later that I won't reveal and that is an excellent plot indeed.
As Monty Python would put it, Kitty Fane will eventually find out that her charming lover is so effing pompous and hasn't got any balls. But it will take some unexpected twists and turns in the story for Kitty to gain that awareness as well as the strength she needs to leave behind the airhead she used to be.

8.9.14

Marek Hłasko - The Eighth Day of the Week (Ósmy dzień tygodnia)

Rating 7.5

After a long chase that went on through three countries and two languages, I finally managed to get a (second hand) copy of The Eighth Day of the Week. Upon reading this novella, I'm happy to say that the chase was worth for Hłasko's book is a good catch indeed.

I'm writing this review sitting at a diminutive table in the tiny kitchen of my little sixth floor flat in the Varsovian district of Praga Połnoc. From the window on my left hand side I overlook a vast empty space left in the middle of the neighbourhood. Down there some bald-headed guy is fixing up the carburettor of his motorcycle. Next to him a bunch of kids is playing hide and seek among the bushes punctuating interconnected communal courtyards. Above them, at the top of a grey-coloured apartment block, two guys in white t-shirts are installing (or removing) the umpteenth satellite dish. In the pale blue sky of an early September morning a lock of white doves is drawing spirals around the red-bricked buildings in various state of disrepair stretching along Brzeska street. 

I wouldn't have annoyed you with all these details had The Eighth Day of the Week not been set in this very same area of Warsaw, fifty-eight years ago. The road where I live is even mentioned once and I confess how reading that name gave me a thrill. Back then, Praga Połnoc was probably the dodgiest place in Warsaw and it's no surprise that Marek Hłasko chose it as the background of this very bleak and very pessimistic novella. Not that the neighborhood is all wealthy and glossy right now. Actually, many a Varsovian I spoke with couldn't believe that I moved here of all places in town. But then again I met several people who live or lived here at some stage of their lives and love the area as much as I do. 

True, the dimly lighted and drunkard patrolled Praga Połnoc popping up leafing through the pages of The Eighth Day of the Week is quite different from the one where I live and that's a relief. However, you don't need to be a historian to picture that bygone atmosphere nowadays if you walk past some hidden and half-forgotten corners of the district. Perhaps the fact that I can relate with the places Hłasko wrote about here makes me a biased reviewer, but that doesn't matter. 




I liked this novella very much even though you have to be in the right set of mind to appreciate it. As I said before, this book is quite pessimistic to the point it sounds almost nihilistic in some of its parts. All characters here cannot see any hope in their present and future existence alike and thus behave like there's no tomorrow. In fact everyone here despise drunkards, but drink to a stupor nonetheless as drunkenness seems to be the only way to be sane in Warsaw A.D. 1956.

Where Marek Hłasko excels is in dialogues which are no short than masterful and imbibed with dark humour as well as with a good deal of fatalistic sarcasm. Agnieszka, the main character of the novel, develops her sense of morality through the story to the point it's hard to recognise her at the end. And yet, she always keeps consistent in not giving a damn about life, Poland and mankind in general. 
Grzegorz, Agnieszka's brother, will become your favourite pessimistic alcoholic philosopher in town and is the perfect author's alter-ego no doubt expressing Hłasko's point of view on many a subject.

Pity that the other characters here are much less focused than the protagonists. 
Agnieszka's father is an oddball who enjoys walking on his hands (!) and endlessly pines for fishing; his spouse got a sort of nervous breakdown which made a perennial complainer out of her. Zawadski, the lodger at Agnieszka's flat, has potential with all of his passionate temperament and his POW camp stories, but ultimately turns out to be a rather passive moron. Piotr, Agnieszka's beloved, is the greatest disappointment of them all being neither tough nor romantic, but only someone who gets ridiculed by the events.

No surprise that this book got banned in then socialist Poland as it is more than a mere J'accuse by its author, but portrays a bleak country where even young generations grew up to be cynical, harsh and disillusioned.  
All in all, The Eighth Day of the Week is an interesting, if monochromatic, snapshot on some of the darkest and most desperate days of the Polish People's Republic: quite a contrast with contemporary Poland.

PS: I wrote about Mr Hłasko and this novella (in Italian) also here, just in case you're interested.