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.

Following the Mendelssohn Family

Diane Meur: La carte des Mendelssohn ISBN 978-2-253-06894-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Being an author is no trivial thing. When I was young, very young, I had the fantasy of becoming such an author. I believed I had a message and I wanted to write a book about it. I quickly realized my message was trivial – something about youth and rebellion – and once I had understood how much patience is required to research source material, to organize the work and to actually write a book, I was dissuaded to write anything exceeding in length my MA thesis to finish my studies.

Unlike me, Diane Meur didn’t back away from the challenge. She researched the ups and downs of the lives of the Mendelssohn family, starting with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and following a millions streams flowing from that genealogical source. She got confused by all the material as one could have predicted, she dropped the project, took it up again, drifted away from the subject and came back – and in the end she wrote a lovely book less about the Mendelssohn family and much more about her discovery of the Mendelssohn family, allowing every now and then for a detour, narrating her emotions, her daydreams, her philosophical musings.

Experts on the Mendelssohn family will not discover much new information, but any reader interested in a non-scientific exploration of the life of Mendelssohn the Philosopher, Mendelssohn the Composer, Mendelssohn the Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, Mendelssohn the Composer’s Sister, Mendelssohn the Banker etc. will find Meur’s book both informative and entertaining. A good read, a good gift too. Thank you, dad!

And as you may expect, there will be no book review without a music suggestion. And since we had Fanny Mendelssohn now twice in a short time on that other blog of mine, I will honour today Felix with his Symphony No. 5 in A minor (Op. 56) “Scottish”:

Soul-searching far, far away from home

A Guide for Tyrans and Would-Be Dictators

Gustave Le Bon: La Psychologie des Foules. (Psychology of Crowds) ISBN 978-2-13–062062-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Over the past two decades, several historic developments have baffled me: the high approval rates of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the naive belief of Islamists that they can submit Western democracies, Brexit and finally the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Each event involved fascinated crowds, masses of people obeying a type of logic that defied my understanding. I was intrigued, and while I was reading books about Putin, the grief of ordinary Americans and the theories of the political scientist Eric Voegelin assimilating Communism and Fascism to modern religions, a distant memory from my studies in sociology re-surfaced: Gustave Le Bon’s early study of the psychology of crowds.

I had only read a short introduction to Le Bon’s theories as a student, which was good enough to pass that exam, but now that I actually had read “Psychology of Crowds”, I realize I should have read it much earlier. Even if certain ideas of Le Bon did not survive the test of time – social sciences, psychology and medicine have made a lot of progress since 1895 – the general trust of his theory remains valid.

Crowds, in Le Bon’s sense, are marked by “the evanescence of the conscious personality [of the individuals forming the crowds] and the orientation of feelings and thoughts in one direction.” Crowds cannot undertake actions that require a high degree of intelligence, they are easily manipulated, animated mostly by emotions and prone to violence that can take the shape of an act of heroism – soldiers charging in a battle against all odds – or an act of riot or vandalism. One of Le Bon’s basic ideas is that a crowd will act in a way that may harm its individual members, but since the individual’s conscience has been switched of, this apparent contradiction becomes irrelevant. Thus a crowd will take decisions that the isolated member of the crowd would most likely not take.

A crowd easily takes up any ideas “whose time has come”, ideas that have been around for some time without being articulated by a large number of people. Le Bon identifies long-term factors preparing the ground and short-term factors triggering a crowd into action. Crowds just as easily switch ideas, and the attention of a crowd is best captured by an image that embodies such an idea. Two telling examples came to my mind:  Christ on the cross and Donald Trump’s border wall between Mexico and the United States.

Even if the fact of Jesus’ existence and his crucifixtion can be scientifically disputed, the oral transmission of this “breaking news”, the exceptional character of the story and much later the graphic representation made this, real or imagined, act of martyrdom a symbol so pwerful that it became one of the key elements of a 2000-year-old religion.

A more modern idea is Donald Trump’s wall. Everybody can picture a wall, the image suggests a means of defence against an invasion of “bad hombres”, another powerful Trumpesque image, a protection against an external enemy. It may also suggest the protection of an internal resource, like the US steel economy. Again, it is not important whether the wall will ever be built or whether it will actually keep criminals out. A positive emotion is attached to the image, and that’s why this idea animated so many to vote for Trump. That’s also why Trump fights so hard for it. The key element of his credibility is at stake.

From these initial findings, Le Bon moves on to other interesting theories. A dysfunctional society cannot be changed for the better by remodeling its institutions. What has this to do with crowds? Le Bon identified in the French society at the turn of the century a crowd of unhappy citizens, the product of a misguided educational system. He was greatly concerned about it and he was right. World War I was seen in France as a great chance to purify the a society deemed rotten. An illusion of course, but it explains the initial enthusiasm of French soldiers and the huge public support for the war.

In our days we see unhappy crowds too: the “Gilets jaunes” in France, the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. The European Union has failed to mitigate the consequences of a globalised and deregulated economy. They angry crowds have no constructive solutions at hand, their power is exclusively destructive. If Le Bon is right, these crowds could only be tamed by a new narrative of Europe, a convincing image of prosperity, hope, pride and protection, embodied in a new a European identity. What is Europe supposed to be? What do we Europeans want it to be? Those are the questions to be asked. Giving the European Parliament greater leverage and holding a referendum on the issue of summertime was not nearly enough. Europe suffers an identity crisis. If Europeans cannot be fascinated by the idea of building a peaceful, economically thriving and cosmopolitan society, then the European project is dead.

To amuse you I would like to quote Le Bon’s idea about leaders, leaders of a crowd or leaders of a pack. “They are being recruited among those neurotic, excited, half-alieniated who border the insanity.” Well? Anyone coming to your mind? I bet. And how did this person come to power? Partly by aaccusing the media to spread “fake news” and circulating through social networks a counter-narrative, full of lies, half-truths and distorted facts that appealed to his voters.

Le Bon would have been horrified by the possibilities of social media. At the end of the 19th century he identified three elements threatening good governance: the weakening of traditional beliefs, the freedom of speech of the crowds and the many newspapers printing everything and anything. At this early stage of modernity already, Le Bon observed that politicians lose the initiative in setting an agenda and are increasingly driven by the opinions popular with the crowds. “If one single opinion could gain sufficient track to impose itself, it would soon exert a tyrannic power”, he writes. Lenin’s communism, Hitler’s totalitarian regime, Trump’s wall and Brexit – they all fit perfectly into this scheme. What a prescient man Le Bon was!

However his book deserves a cautious interpretation. Le Bon derived a large part of his theories from his personal observations. He did not collect and analyse empirical data as modern sociologists would do. His opinions about the natural inferiority of women and a hierarchy among races are obviously wrong. Nevertheless Le Bon’s “Psychology of Crowds” remains a n interesting read, especially in these troubled times. I am sure that Steve Bannon has read it. I am sorry Hillary Clinton did not read it.

The Nazis used a powerful, evocative music written by Franz Liszt as a propaganda tool. It was broadcasted several times a day as the jingle announcing the news from the Eastern front. It’s from the symphonic poem “Les Préludes”:

How a romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Exploring an Uncharted World below Sea Level

Jules Verne: Voyages extraordinaires: Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (English title: 20 000 Leagues under the Sea) ISBN: 978-2-07-012892-1 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The ambition of Jules Verne (1828-1905) was to combine the scientific education of his readers with the pleasure of reading a thrilling adventure novel. The French writer succeeded marvellously, his books sold well, and quickly they became part of the classics of French literature. Verne was a visionary as far as science is concerned: His heroes flew into space decades before man had built a rocket capable to overcome the earth’s gravity, they explored the abysses of the oceans well before the technology of modern submarines had been invented. Verne had invented the genre of science-fiction literature avant la lettre and ranks among the best and most important European writers of all times.

I clearly recall my first contact with Verne’s fantastic worlds as a young boy. It must have been in the late 1970s in southern France, not far from Nice. I went shopping with my family at the first shopping mall I ever saw. It had a cart circuit on the roof – I made very big eyes when I saw it – and a movie theater. And so I watched “20 000 Leagues under the Sea”, shrieking in terror when the giant octopus grabbed the submarine with Verne’s heroes on board. I do recall nothing from the film, except this specific scene.

Curiously I had never read any of Verne’s novels up to now. I realized what I had missed once I had started with “A Journey to the Center of the Earth”. After the first pages, I had caught fire and read four Verne novels on a row, the last being “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” in the French edition of La Pléiade, beautifully illustrated, heavily annotated and with an excellent introduction. It was one of those books that I had trouble to put down; needless to say that it didn’t take me much time to read it.

I will not spoil your pleasure by giving away key scenes, but I will summarize the story nevertheless. In the late half of the 19th century from different spots in different oceans mysterious sightings are being reported. A giant whale? A man-made machine? Nobody knows, but everybody has an opinion. Some reports indicate that the mysterious object is capable (and willing) to attack ships, but the brightest scientists cannot come up with a convincing explanation. It is decided that an expeditionary team shall search the ocean and uncover the secret. Part of the team are the whale hunter Ned Land, the marine biologist Prof. Aronnax and his servant Conseil.

A dramatic event leads to a situation where the three heroes discover the truth behind the enigmatic sightings: The object is man-made. A technological miracle in many respects. Land, Aronnax and Conseil end up in a submarine named “Nautilus” and commanded by a mysterious man: Captain Nemo. His origin is unknown, his wealth unlimited. He sails the ocean and flees humanity, which seems to fill him with a singular hatred. A very intriguing man. Prof. Aronnax is fortunate enough to create a kind of intellectual bond with Nemo and slowly discovers the multiple facets not only of the submarine’s commander, but also of sea life as such and the hidden treasures of the oceans.

However, the three heroes are aware that being privy to Nemo’s world means that they will not be permitted to leave the “Nautilus”. While Ned Land develops quite a few escape plans, Prof. Aronnax is torn between his fascination by Nemo’s way if life and his desire to report the marvellous marine world that Nemo had made him discover and compels him to flee. Eventually they will flee, as to how and why and when – read the book! “20 000 Leagues under the Sea” is a real page-turner with a lot of suspense, at the same time Verne’s beautiful, elaborate language makes reading an almost sensual experience.

The “Nautilus” is the submarine of my dreams. Captain Nemo not only had a well-stocked library built into it, it also features an organ and a vast collection of sheet music. For all his hatred against mankind, he does not repudiate its cultural artifacts. Nemo names a few of his favourites: Weber, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Wagner and Haydn. Joseph Haydn precisely wrote an opera called “L’Isola Dishabitata”, that perfectly fits into the context:

A pocket-size opera inspired by Robinson Crusoe