The Seep

Now we’re out of my non-English vacation reading and back into English territory with The Seep, the Austin Feminist Sci Fi Book Club’s selection for October.

Straight off, I really liked The Seep. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one marathon session was because I started reading it in the middle of the night and exhaustion eventually overtook me. To get into slightly more detail, The Seep uses the framework of first-contact and utopia genres to examine grief, how it feels to be left behind by seismic shifts in society, and which struggles are worth having. It’s also very queer, very trippy, and very short: the perfect book for getting out of a reading slump.

Perfect, no notes.

La Gloire de mon père & Le château de ma mère

Marcel Pagnol’s Souvenirs d’enfance were burned into my memory at some point during my French studies—I watched Le Gloire de mon père for class, and I had an abridged or otherwise simplified edition of the book for course literature (that I don’t think I ever actually read, and that I definitely didn’t hold on to). Trying to track them down at the library or at the handful of international bookstores I knew of in Stockholm never got me anywhere. Nor did I think to check at Språkbokhandeln, the absolute treasure trove nestled in Lund, when I was there in 2020. It all worked out, though, because I can’t think of a better souvenir (hah) from Paris: one book from each bookstore we visited!

I packed both books for vacation and assumed that would keep me well occupied, but to my surprise I absolutely tore through each book in little over a day. Usually my reading experiences in French require frequent dictionary breaks just to follow what’s going on (George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir), but Pagnol did me favor and kept it relatively simple—even with all of the terminology for wildlife and hunting, I could keep up with the story. Dictionary breaks could wait until a re-read.

La Gloire de mon père was also a welcome counterbalance to the despair in Världen av i går. Pagnol was Zweig’s junior by fourteen years or so; reading the two alongside each other meant I was getting a bit of a Cubist portrait of turn-of-the-century Europe, two different perspectives presented simultaneously.  The years in Berlin and Paris that Zweig writes about with the nerves of a young man were merely the warm and happy days of Pagnol’s childhood in Marseilles.

I got too cocky, though, and rushed ahead through Le Château de ma mère, which is just as drenched in sunshine and nostalgia as its predecessor…until the very last chapter, which is when it collides with the grim realities Zweig depicts in Världen av i går. A lot of crying, this vacation! Turns out I didn’t really pack as much light reading as I thought I had.

According to English Wikipedia, Pagnol is considered a bit old-fashioned and passé these days, but since I’m not French that context was completely lost on me. To an extent it’s also pretty on brand for me, anyway, considering I’ve been well behind the times for basically my entire life.

The two are collected in a single volume, both translations from Rita Barisse that were more or less contemporary with the original publication in French. Have there been more recent ones? Is it any good? Who knows!

Världen av i går & Amok

It seems I followed much of the rest of the world, or if not the world then just one friend of mine in particular, in reaching for Die Welt von Gestern in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. But since my arbitrary rule of translations is to read German originals in Swedish rather than in English, I had to wait until I came across a Swedish translation (and it never seemed to be available at the library when I remembered to check). Six years later, it appeared in front of me at Söderbokhandeln Hansson & Bruce. I took it with me for vacation reading, and while I was browsing Hubenettes in Östersund I happened to notice Zweig’s novella collection Amok on the shelves. Since they’re the same author and I read them in such close succession, collapsing them into a single blog-thought makes sense.

Amok is not any deliberate assemblage of Zweig’s or time-honored collection that’s seen international release in several languages.  Instead, it’s a collection from Ersatz Förlag, only available in Swedish, featuring “The Royal Game,” “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” “Confusion,” “A Girl and the Weather,” and “Amok.”

The World of Yesterday, on the other hand, is available in several English translations: one from titan among translators Anthea Bell, which seems to be the translation put out by Pushkin Press; one from Plunkett Lake Press attributed to B. W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger; and finally a translation from Robert Boettcher independently published through Amazon.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Zweig doesn’t really discuss his own writing much in Världen av i går, at least from a personal perspective on the process. The only time he addresses the craft of writing more or less head on, he toots his own horn and talks up how one of his strengths as a writer is his ability to murder his darlings and stick to only the most essential elements of a story. After the five stories included in Amok, I have to disagree, but maybe that’s a factor of changing times and literary conventions.

Women are essentially invisible in Zweig’s depiction of Europe in general and of his life in particular. Not surprising for the content or the times, so I’m not exactly mad about it. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that Zweig’s first wife (who only gets two incidental mentions in Världen av i går, one of which is when Zweig is trying to divorce her) undertook a significant chunk of research and administration for him; his second wife (whose only mention is in the same breath as the aforementioned divorce) had originally been his secretary. Amazing how being able to outsource drudgery and life maintenance frees you up to be a highly productive writer!

The same lack of women more or less applies to the stories in Amok, which are all deeply anchored in a first-person perspective from a male narrator. Even “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman” uses a male narrator to frame the story of the woman in question—a frame that I don’t see much narrative use for. Of course, Amok only contains five novellas out of a substantial body of work; such a limited selection is hardly indicative of an entire body of writing. I just wish there had been more thought on the publisher’s part about which stories to select.

Overall, I was touched by Zweig’s humanity and empathy, which was just as much on show in the above stories as it was in his memoirs. They are all deeply psychological, character-driven narratives rooted in human struggles, suffering, and resilience. But in all honesty, his knack for characterization is actually on better display in Världen av i går than in most of the stories in Amok. Zweig’s sketches of his contemporaries are precise and cutting, unambiguously sympathetic to the person involved but clear-eyed about their flaws or failures. The characters in the stories collected in Amok, on the other hand, are muddier and harder to pin down. I cried at some point in every chapter of Världen av i går, but I shed no tears over any story in Amok.

The reason I was so unmoved by, and ultimately a bit disappointed in, Zweig’s fiction might be the same reason I could lose myself so easily in his memoirs: they are a product of a specific time. Sympathy for an amorous widow scorned by a younger lover, or for a closeted gay English literature professor, might well have been scandalous or at least unusual upon publication in the 1920s, but close to a century later those stories are fairly tame and predictable. So the wheel turns; with any luck, in another hundred years, stories like “I Sexually Identify As an Attack Helicopter” will seem confusing or just banal because we’ll live in a better world where fluid gender identities are a matter of course. While Världen av i går might as well be subtitled “Plus ça change,” stories like “Confusion” with their now-dated and unremarkable plot twists make you realize that things can get better.

Dvärgen

When I did my semester abroad at Stockholm University, I took a course in modern Swedish literature (offered in English, since our Swedish wasn’t much more advanced than “En stor stark, tack!”). It was by far the best literature course of my undergrad career, in large part because of the excellent reading list. The course literature included Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, which made such a strong impression on me that I started building a small library of his books as soon as I moved to Sweden.

As I write this, I realize that I have to start almost every review here with some kind of explanation as to either how I came to hear of a book, or why I chose to read it, or both. I guess context is important to me. Here, for example, you can (rightly) infer that I went into this book biased and well-disposed towards Lagerkvist, and now you can (rightly) expect that I liked it. Now I can dispense with the pointless formality and hubris of passing judgment on a well-established classic and just ramble a bit. My point here isn’t to encourage—or discourage—anyone from picking up something relatively new and/or obscure. I just want to remember what I read and, in this case, present worthy Swedish books to my English-speaking friends. Lagerkvist was a huge international hit in his lifetime but he seems to have returned to mere domestic fame; these days Sweden’s entries in world literature appear to be limited to Strindberg and Nordic noir, which I feel is deeply unfair. Fortunately, it’s my understanding that there is an English translation of Dvärgen available and that it is of excellent quality, so you don’t have to miss out on this one.

Anyway! Dvärgen is simply the diary of a court dwarf in Renaissance Italy, spanning maybe six months to a year for the bulk of the action. It includes war, assassinations, intrigue, plague, famine and all the rest through the eyes of said unnamed dwarf, a character that literary criticism has near unanimously described as “evil incarnate.” That’s the interpretation I was thinking about after I finished the book. Is the narrator really meant to be as much?

I don’t ask the question to “woobify” him, as the expression goes—to turn a clearly morally corrupt character into a sympathetic and victimized hero. While his role as as servant means he’s often acting on behalf of others, the dwarf also carries out several actions on his own initiative, motivated by rage and sadism. Nor is there any attempt to make him appealing or “likeable,” like a secret fondness for animals or sensitivity to music. He finds all of the nobler human emotions and pursuits abhorrent or ridiculous; the only things he confesses to enjoying are war, violence, and bloodshed. The extent of the sympathy evoked for him is the absolutely dehumanizing treatment he receives from just about everyone around him. Stepping back, we can also of course point out that we are reading his own diary and account of himself, which is naturally how he wants to be experienced and how he is choosing to present himself, but that is an ambiguous point we can, at best, only infer. I’m sure there’s been more than one thesis already about the role of toxic masculinity and ableism in forming his character.

Rather, I ask the question because just as much of the evil in the book—if not most of it—is someone else’s doing. The prince decides to go to war entirely of his own volition, without consulting the dwarf at all. Likewise, when war proves fruitless, he decides to lure the enemy into an assassination with promises of peace and free trade. The dwarf might be the one to serve the enemy poisoned wine at the celebratory dinner, but he does so only at the order of the prince. And while the dwarf decides of his own accord to inform the prince of the tryst between the enemy prince’s son and the prince’s own daughter, the prince is the one who, in a fit of impetuous rage, murders the young man in his sleep.

Moreover, if we are to take the dwarf at his word, the fear and distaste that people express when they encounter him is nothing more than fear and distaste for what lurks inside themselves. Is this an observation that the reader is meant to take seriously? Or are we to understand that this is projection or warped thinking on behalf of the narrator, and that his claims of true insight and understanding are just so much bloviating?

Life is ambiguous, art is ambiguous, there are no easy answers. Even the ending is ambivalent: yes, the dwarf is in prison and peace seems to reign in the kingdom, but the connection between those two situations is unclear. Does the dwarf have such a supernaturally evil presence that peace cannot be achieved until he is disposed of? Or is the prince genuinely a changed man after facing political and personal consequences for his ambition, and the dwarf’s imprisonment merely an incidental fact following the death of the prince’s wife? The text supports both; the text chooses neither. The unanswered question.