A New Companion for My Bus Rides

Arthur Rimbaud: Poésies complètes. ISBN 978-2-253-09635-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ After Rainer Maria Rilke I have found a new companion for the time I spend on the bus or train to go to work: Arthur Rimbaud. For ecological reasons I use public transports whenever my schedule gives me a little flexibility. An excllent occasion to read French poems and a paradigmatic shift since I realized that every small initiative to protect our planet matters.

Leaving the trodden path – Rimbaud seems to be right poet to come along. I had read his poems as an adolescent. I had seen the rebellious element, but I had failed to a appreciate the emotional depth, the many allusions and the richness of Rimbaud’s language at the time. I am glad to discover all that now. His early works are hardly more than trial-and-error poems, they breathe too much the spirit of Romanticism, the nostaligia for ancient Arcadia, to be anything else than emulations of poets of the past. Rimbaud however quickly found his personal language, which, I must confess, I find singularly attractive.

“Le bal des pendus” and “Sensation” are two poems from 1870 that I immediately liked and had to reread them a couple of times. The first depicts a macabre dance, mirroring the Romantic fascination with death, but casted in a new, modern shape. “Sensation” again echoes some of my iwn longings, past and present. “Ophélie”, a poem inspired by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”, seduces mecsimply because it depicts Ophelia as a fragile and almost divine figure, just like I imagined her after I first heard Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s incidental music “Hamlet”.

“Le Dormeur du Val” shows Rimbaud’s cruel humour, not unlike Heinrich Heine’s power to disenchant the romantically inclined reader with the last verse, while “La Maline” stands for the poet’s benign humour and keen observation power. A poem like “Le Buffet” stands for Rimbaud’s nostalgia for times gone by, the innocence of childhood and the comfort a tightly knit family offers.

To any reader wishing to read Rimbaud in French I can recommend this edition, which has an excellent introduction by Pierre Brunel dealing with Rimbaud’s life, his education and, quite important, his relationship with Paul Verlaine. As for translations to German and English, I doubt anyone can really render Rimbaud’s spirit in another language than French, but there must be good translations.

A generation after Rimbaud’s a French composer of the name Darius Milhaud wrote an interesting String Trio (op. 274), which I highly recommend:

Parallel tonalities in a time of infighting and disarray

Voltaire and the Value of His Parables

Voltaire contes

Voltaire: Romans et contes. ISBN 978-2-070-10961-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Having explored the life of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, I was a curious about the man’s works, and since I am busy reading two other French poets, I decided to start with Voltaire’s novels. After all one should not judge people by their appearance or life style, but by their works. The present collection features among many others the three major parables “Micromégas”, “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme”. Faint memories from my time at school made the title “Candide” seem familiar – so much for the value of my French literature classes.

The best I can say about Voltaire’s novels is that the intention of the author is clear: to transport a message about tolerance, freedom of speech, a fair society and rational judgment. A message against idolatry, superstition, religious dogmatism and tyranny. Unfortunately, Voltaire’s narrative style has not stood the test of the time in my opinion. As with Rabelais, that I have covered in an earlier post, the pompous language and the repetitive pattern of the novels did not speak to me. I found them tiresome and boring.

I understand that Voltaire was under several constraints: the fashion of the day, his century’s ideas of aesthetics and censure. And for the readers of the 18th century, his language and his narrative style were just perfect. His books sold well, his theatre pieces were performed a lot, at least in those places were Voltaire had not made himself too many influential enemies. But what is the value of his novels today? And has Voltaire’s narrative style not become an obstacle to the transmission of his message?

For experts on French literature, Voltaire’s novels “Zadig ou la destinée” and “Candide ou l’optimisme” are memorials of the French Enlightenment, of a glorious cultural past. They will revel in it and condemn in a very un-Voltairian way those who dare have another opinion. For the common reader of today, I suppose Voltaire’s parables are a less thrilling experience, with the exception perhaps of those parts that show Voltaire’s cruel sense of humour and his hate for zealots. In “Candide” – please note the reference to optimism in the full title – the hero kills two Catholic priests and a “choleric Jew” over the span of a few pages.

From a philosophical point of view, Voltaire’s subjects of fate, the opposition of free will and necessity is interesting. The German philosopher Leibniz had put forward the idea that God being a perfect being could only have created a perfect world. Leibniz also thought that every effect has a necessary cause, ruling out randomness or the idea that life as such could be absurd, meaning that Man would need to give his life a meaning.

Voltaire violently attacked the idea of the best possible world as he saw a world full of misery, intrigue and fighting. How could such a world be perfect? Where does it leave Man’s freedom? In “Zadig”, Voltaire shows how human disasters can reveal a positive effect, hidden to the common mortal, but visible to those who believe. The way Voltaire narrates the adventures of his (anti-)hero Zadig makes it however clear that he mocks any such argument.

Candide, the hero who lend the novel his name, is an eager debater and thinker. He survives countless adventures that demonstrate how cruel life on earth is, showing that there is plenty of meaningless suffering (i.e. slavery), episodes that make him openly question Leibniz’ postulates. His way out: “Allons cultiver notre jardin!” Let’s go gardening! Candide’s concluding words can be interpreted in two ways. In a literal way, Candide actually wants to work in his newly acquired garden and achieve personal happiness through manual labour – working heard without reasoning or debating. In a more figurative way Voltaire extolls us to deal with present-day problems, making this planet a better place on the basis of rationality.

Whatever one may think about the form of Voltaire’s novels, he puts forward a key question that may occupy our minds today just as it occupied Voltaire’s mind: To what degree is Man truly free? He may no longer suffer under the tyrannical policy of a king or the oppression of religion, but is he free? The many down-sides of a globalized economy, the manipulative power of social media, the fast degrading of our environment put Man’s freedom to control his destiny to a severe test. No, we are not living in a perfect world, and we should not ignore the many challenges humanity faces or try to explain them away. And Voltaire’s answer is still valid: to fight for a better world on the basis of sound and fair judgment.

François Couperin, French grandmaster of the harpsichord and composer of the French Royal Court under Louis XIV, was a contemporary of Voltaire. And you may judge yourself whether Couperin’s piece “Le Parnasse, ou l’Apothéose de Corelli” has stood the test of the time better than Voltaire’s language:

Italian Infiltrators at the Court of Versailles

Voltaire – A Genius, a Slave of his Passions

Max Gallo: “Moi, j’écris pour agir” Vie de Voltaire. ISBN 978-2-253-12894-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I seem to develop a certain passion for highly ambiguous people from the past: the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the Czech writer Franz Kafka and now the French poet and philosopher Voltaire. Interesting. Perhaps I am beginning to discover that most people who “made a difference” had to confront and overcome internal conflicts and a hostile environment to accomplish their mission? Perhaps I am beginning to realize that excellence always comes at a very high personal prize?

Compromise is a word I do not use very often, moderation is not a virtue of mine, my ambition is well-hidden. Voltaire did not compromise on his personal goals – becoming rich, influential and famous. He would not moderate his opinion, though he would often deny to have written what he had indeed written. And his ambition was obvious to anyone in Paris and beyond, obvious to the courts of Louis XV and Frederic II, who played him as they pleased. Voltaire in turn served the French and German monarchs and betrayed them at the same time.

Voltaire, born François Marie d’Arouet, brilliant writer of poems, essays, novels, plays, pamphlets and scientific treaties – what a man! Voltaire, liar, lackey, lover – what a life! Max Gallo, one of the most acclaimed French historians, has written an impressive biography of Voltaire. Profound knowledge coupled with a magnificent narrating style – a pleasure to read from beginning to end. If you can read between the lines, you will find out that Gallo is in love with his subject. And without making himself any judgment, Gallo leads the reader to play the role of the prosecutor, the advocate and the judge of Voltaire.

Voltaire – what a strange man he was! He could not shut up when it was prudent to stay quiet. He angered and defied his few protectors and made himself an easy prey for his innumerable enemies. He had a certain conception of truth and personal freedom he would never betray, no matter how dear he paid for it. More than once he was imprisoned, beaten, abused, more than once he had to flee abroad. His offensive defense of freedom of speech came a century too early for Europe, but Voltaire was unable not to raise his voice. Is that obsession? It is. Is it vanity? It is. And still, I have to admire him in a way: this stubbornness, this intransigence, it reminds me of someone. Voltaire, how familiar he seems to me. Surrender is not an option.

Voltaire was a man of passion. He had the passion to write, to live, to fight for the ideas of the Enlightenment, the passion for arts, the passion for a philosopher’s life. And his passions led to a great deal of personal suffering. Voltaire quickly enriched himself, he saw his personal wealth as a guarantee for his personal independence. What a delusion! He never achieved true independence because he needed the recognition by France’s aristocracy, the Prussian and the French king and the applause of the audience – a self-chosen dependency, a self-chosen source of misery.

Et l’amour dans tout cela? Voltaire would not have been Voltaire if he had not had a passion for women too. Torn between his infatuation with his niece Marie-Louise Denis and the long friendship with the Marquise de Châtelet, mistress, soul mate, friend, confident, Voltaire’s way with women left at least three people unhappy. It made Voltaire vulnerable emotionally and in terms of social recognition. Both Voltaire and Emilie de Châtelet harboured rather liberal ideas of how an unmarried man and married woman can spend their time together. Had the word “scandal” not existed before, it would have had to be invented for them. Voltaire was looking for trouble and he found it.

This said, provocation was not a goal in itself. Not for Voltaire, he was way too intelligent for such a move. He did provoke with all his passion: the Jesuits, the Catholic clergy of France, the Calvinist clergy of Geneva, his fellow-philosopher and rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau, corrupt judges and prosecutors, witch-hunters, writers siding with the clergy and tyrannical noblemen. He carried the torch of the Enlightenment and he was not afraid to carry it into the darkest corners of France.

Voltaire was a man of extreme contradictions, just like Shostakovich and Kafka. As a young man he had embarked on a quest for Truth, yet his life was marked by falsehood, his own falsehood and the falsehood of the society he lived in. Voltaire had looked for depth of thought and sought the company of the most superficial individuals in the Kingdom of France. Passion had made Voltaire blind for reality, him an admirer of rationalism. And vanity had turned him into a slave of his own obsessions.

At the same time Voltaire had noble ideals – a liberal and free society. Towards the end of his life, he had the financial means to realize a small-scale social project, to improve people’s living conditions on his estate near the Swiss border. It wasn’t all just talk, Voltaire took action to improve society. He was ahead of his time as a Frenchman, for the French Revolution would occur only after his death. But Voltaire prepared the ground. His violent campaigns against the lack of freedom, justice and fairness softened the enemy, and when the French took to the street, the monarchy quickly fell apart. Despite his obvious personal shortcomings, Voltaire was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century.

The discrepancies between ideal and real in Voltaire’s life reminded my of one of my favourite composers, Franz Schubert. Death, in the shape of syphilis, hang like Damocles’ sword of the life of both geniuses. What would Voltaire have thought of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor “Death of the Maiden”? He might have shivered, incredulous.

Composing while Death is Knocking on the Door

Books of the Past I Had Forgotten (About)

I did some digging. In my past. In my memories. As I had promised in my first post dealing with books of the past that were important to me. Funny how I had forgotten about them. Some of them were actually more important than those that sprung to my mind while I was compiling the first list. Now, if you continue reading, brace yourself. You are signing up for a couple of confessions!

1977 – 1982

Jack Hambleton: Flieger überm Busch (Forest Ranger) I inherited this youth novel, published in its 3rd edition in 1956, from my dad. Bill Hanson and Bun Higgins, two friends, a young and a more experienced bush pilot, chase bandits setting Canada’s woods on fire. I loved this book. I still love it. I don’t have my dad’s copy anymore, I gave it to one of my cub scouts when I resigned as an assistant cub scout leader. I immediately regretted it and got hold of a vintage copy. I just wanted to possess it. Decades later I passed this copy to my daughter. She liked it too. She presented it to her school class. Imagine, a book published more than half a century ago! Pretty cool.


1982 – 1989

Heinrich Heine: Sämtliche Gedichte (Complete Poems) Those familiar with my music blog will know that Heine is my favourite poet. Quite a few composers have set his poems to music. I fell in love with Heine at school, despite an incompetent teacher. But incompetent teachers had stopped impressing me. It was the same teacher who made me learn part of a novel by heart as I mentioned in that earlier post. The way Heine plays with language, his irony wielded like a rapier, his political Romanticism – I just love it!

Anne Frank: Tagebuch (The Diaries of Anne Frank) I had always been fascinated by World War II. I was worried about my fascination for the German side. Hic sunt daemones… One of my teachers, a human rights activist, understood my worries. He warned me about being lured to the dark side, but he offered no rescue. I had to find it myself. Anne Frank was a revelation. Very moving, very disturbing. I understood Hitler’s idea: People like Anne have to die for Germany to live. Anne was for more sympathetic than this man with his ridiculous moustache and his bad haircut. Never mind the cool planes flown by the Luftwaffe, I knew where I stood. On Anne’s side.

Richard Bach: The Bridge Across Forever Men and women and the question of love. Meeting a soul mate and taking care of a relationship. Exploring what love can mean – for myself and the girl I was in love with. I was 17 and I had no clue about all of the above. The book helped fill a few voids not covered by the biology book. It’s still a good read. My copy is full of annotations by myself and my former girl friend. She was equally impressed. The right book at the right time. Soon afterwards we decided we were not made for each other. We were devastated, but it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t ready to take up the challenge of a true partnership. I hadn’t grown up yet. It would take many more years unfortunately.


1989 up to now

Ken Follett: The Key to Rebecca I think this was the first of many spy novels by Ken Follett that I read. It certainly was the one that fascinated me most. A World War II spy hunt in the exotic setting of Egypt, under British control, but threatened by the evil designs of a Nazi master spy. Thrilling! I like anything linked to codes and cryptology since my early childhood, when I made invisible ink from lemon juice that reveals itself only when heat is applied. I gave my copy of Follett’s novel to a fellow student in Munich and forgot to claim it back. Shame on me! That’s why I had trouble remembering some of the best books I had read. I gave them away to share the pleasure and…  bye-bye! It’s unbelievable!

Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen I must confess that it was the cover of the German edition that initially compelled me to grab this book at the bookstore. Once I had read a few lines – still in the bookstore – I had found a better reason. What a strange book, I thought. The lives of women in Japan, their hopes, their disappointments, the subject of sexuality – I never had asked myself these questions. The novel had a strange effect upon me: bewilderment, curiosity, fascination, compassion… I wonder whether it would not be a good thing to read it once more!

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings I read this breathtaking novel during my last days as a student. My flat was being painted, I stayed with a friend, I had a job contract in my pocket, but since I was to start working only a month later, I had no money at all. I checked my friend’s bookshelf, found Tolkien’s great achievement and didn’t bother to go outside for three days. I even forgot to eat. That was… unheard of.

Biljana Srbljanovic: Familiengeschichten. Belgrad (Family Stories – The Belgrade Trilogy) After having spent a week in Sarajevo in 1998, I was keen to explore not only Bosnian literature but also Serbian contemporary works. These two dramas truly shocked me. They depict dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic families, serving as an allegory for a dysfunctional, violent and mysogynic society. Srbljanovic condenses the long-term psychological effects of Tito’s dictatorship, the Balkan civil wars and the complicated history of Serbia searching for its identity in two powerful theatre pieces in a language trying to accommodate love and destruction at the same time.

Elias Khoury: La porte du soleil (Gate of the Sun) My dream was to work as a political editor for a newspaper and I was able to make this dream come true. The Middle East was one of my traditional fields of interest, and Khoury’s novel, set in Lebanon during its disastrous civil war, opened my eyes to the plight of refugees and the religious and ethnic plurality of this country. A sad excursion into a fascinating society.

William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Imagine a spring morning in central Scotland. The sun just had gone up, it was cold and I stood at a bus stop. I felt miserable. I felt lonesome. I had hardly any money left (I have an issue with money, it would seem!!!). I wanted to stay in Scotland and I longed for home. I had fallen in love with a girl and she had left. I had hung around with another girl who had left too. I had had a wild night with a third girl whom I had left once I was sober again. I desperately looked for a kind illusion. I had it in my backpack. Once I had started to read at the bus stop, the cold air, the empty belly, the lack of funds and the broken heart were forgotten. Thank you, William!

Final remarks

What I take away from this post – a real intellectual effort started today way past midnight and finished on a morning bus – is two-fold: First, exploring foreign cultures like Serbia, Japan or Lebanon somehow seems important to me. My cosmopolitan side, I guess. Second, the perspective of female authors intruded into my life. Well, it’s never to late, is it? And finally, reflecting this second selection, I realized that books reconcile me partly with this world. Just as music does. That fills me with joy.

Behind the book and inside the story

A fellow blogger, Uwe Kalkowski, who likes to sit in a Kaffeehaus, gave me the idea: A post about books that have had a lasting impact on me, books that shook me and prevented from a good night’s sleep. Books that stirred intense emotions, both good and bad. Now, wouldn’t it be fun to compile a list and see what books I would include and why? Here we go, the books of my life, organized in three sections corresponding roughly to my childhood years, youth and adulthood. All deserve ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️!

1977-1982

Dschungelbuch

Rudyard Kipling: Das Dschungelbuch (The Jungle Book) German is the first foreign language I learned at school, and accordingly, the first books I read were either German books or translations into German. Being a cub and later a boy scout, the Jungle Book exerted a huge fascination upon my mind and became one of my ethical reference points. It served me well then and it still serves now.

see abenteuer

Enid Blyton: See der Abenteuer (Sea of Adventure) I inherited this novel from my mother and, after having read it, I was craving for more from Enid Blyton. Of all her books, I liked the adventure series with Philip, Dinah, Jack, Lucy and the parrot Kiki best. And this specific novel had a powerful impact upon my fantasy – it painted a picture of a  wild landscape, beaten by winds and the sea, a landscape I later found in reality, on the Scottish Orkney Islands. Ultimate happiness!

klassenzimmer

Erich Kästner: Das fliegende Klassenzimmmer (The Flying Classroom) Being lonely at school, being lonely in life, even if surrounded by people, was a feeling I experienced from early childhood on. Being the odd boy out never felt very good. Kästner experienced something similar in his childhood, and this generally amusing children’s novel has its dark moments that made me cry silently when I read it.


1982-1989

caine

Herman Wouk: The Caine Mutiny  I suspect this book was the first of many that touched a subject that keeps haunting me: men and the identity of men. William S. Keith is a young, well-educated and spoiled man from a rich US family who joins the US Navy during World War II. He is confronted with autocratic superiors, lazy subordinates, the dull routine of any military system, a typhoon, a court-martial and a kamikaze attack. The novel retraces how a boy becomes a man. The “Caine Mutiny” was also the first novel I read showing in detail how things between men and women go wrong and why. A lot to digest for a 15-year-old. I read this book at least 20 times since then.

schimmelreiter

Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse) This novel was compulsory reading at high school, and I remember the book very warmly. I had to learn parts of it by heart as a disciplinary sanction, but I had my revenge on the teacher in a test, when I stole a couple of ideas from the editor’s afterword to answer a question. It was the first time I read an editor’s note about a novel. It was actually the first time I understood symbolism in literature. The experience unlocked a door to a world I haven’t left since.

fracasse

Théophile Gautier: Le Capitaine Fracasse An alternative role model to the sailor William S. Keith: An impoverished French nobleman joins a theatre troop to give his life a meaning. He is gifted and loyal to his new friends, and, romantisme oblige, there are a lot of occasions for heroic duels and Romantic love. Gautier’s detailed and evoking descriptions, his amazing command of the French language – a true delight! I loved it then, I love it now.


1989 up to now

steppenwolf

Hermann Hesse: Der Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf. A novel) “Steppenwold” was an almost traumatic experience that marked the culminating point of my first identity crisis. I must have been 22 or so. Men and the identity of men once more. Ugh. Men and their relationship with women. Ugh-ugh. Men and their selfishness. Nooooooo! I passed several bad nights after having read this book, I felt sick and nauseated. I cried and I was desperate. I never took up the book again. It’s an excellent book, but I had become afraid of… a text.

kierkegaard

Sören Kierkegaard: Entweder – Oder (Either/Or) No other writer has stimulated me so much during my studies as the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. I explored both the Bible and French existentialism having Kierkegaard within reach. His works, and most importantly “Either/Or”, triggered some of my most intense reflections about religion, about giving life a meaning, about leading a good life. In a few years I will schedule a second exploration of his numerous works as I am sure I have missed 95% of what Kierkegaard meant to say.

quiet don

Mikhail Sholokhov: And Quiet Flows the Don I read this  book when I lived in the former GDR, where Sholokhov was well-known. It helped me connect with the East Germans I worked with, lived with and discussed with on long evenings in their homes or in a pub. The novel narrates the story of a Cossack soldier during  World War I and the Russian Revolution and presents an amazing sketch of the transition from Czarist to Communist Russia. The Soviet author was rewarded by a Nobel prize; but Sholokhov most likely did not write the novel himself. The publication of the book was a Soviet propaganda effort orchestrated by intelligence agents. Still, I remember the book as a real page-turner and I am tempted to pick it up once more.

fingerpost

Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost Four narrators, for versions of a turbulent story taking place at the University of Oxford, steeped in intrigues and rivalries. The setting, the plot, the philosophical ideas – Medieval metaphysics versus scientific methodology – and of course Pears wonderful way to tell a story made me buy a second copy after I had given the first to a friend – just in case I felt like reading it a second time. It is waiting for me on the shelf and time will come…

harry potter

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Stranded in a Beijing hotel room, without money (not my fault!) and 72 hours to kill before I was due to head home… Harry Potter was a lot of value for little money and one of the greatest literary pleasures I had. I loved all seven volumes, and during those 72 hours I read the first three. I didn’t mind the dull hotel room, the icy winds on Tiananmen Square and the fast food I had to rely upon. I had Harry Potter and he saved my stay in China!

Iran

Christopher de Bellaigue: In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs De Bellaigue’s book was the beginning of a deep interest in Iran, its glorious history, its difficult and ambiguous modernity, its culture and its people. Such a promising nation, kept prisoner by religious zealots, welded together by hardship, traumatized by a civil war, uncertain of its future. May others demonize Iran – they don’t know what they are talking about. If ever a Middle Eastern Muslim country has been ripe for a free and democratic state, based on the rule of law, high-level education and a sense of destiny, it is Iran.

zauberberg

Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) I read it twice and I am looking forward to read it a third time. There is so much in it. Philosophy, poetry, psychology and the German language, oh the German language! Mann was, is and always will be a master story-teller, never mind the impossibly long, entwined sentences with the utmost complex grammatical constructions ever to be written by man (Mann!). The first time I didn’t understand much, the second time was an exploratory tour and the third time will be an exquisite, five-star literary dinner with champagne before, after and in-between.

Final remarks

I was amused and surprised about a few choices myself and I am still at loss to explain why there is a huge lack of relevant books for a period of almost 15 years, my journalist years. I read a lot during that time, I spent most of my salary on books, mostly non-fiction, books about politics, military strategy, globalism, terrorism, Islam, but I did read novels too, didn’t I? Strange. I needed to do a little more hard thinking to come up with something, and for once, my ordering history with a global online bookseller was of some use. Now that I order books mainly at a real bookstore, retracing past orders will become more difficult.