I Have Come on a Lonely Path

Seo Choi has put out multiple successful Kickstarter projects, including several books, that highlight various aspects of traditional Korean spiritual practices. The latest one that just went to print was Keum-Hwa Kim’s I Have Come on a Lonely Path: Memoir of a Shaman. (Original Korean: 비단꽃 넘세)

According to Choi’s initial Kickstarter description, the original edition of I Have Come on a Lonely Path published in 2007 was popular enough to be made into a movie, but fell into obscurity (or maybe just “hard to obtain” territory) when the publisher went out of business in 2011. An American friend of Choi’s happened to have a copy and gave it to Choi, who has made it available for the first time in English through her micropublishing company Alpha Sisters. I supported the Kickstarter at the ebook tier and received my copy back in April.

Seo Choi’s copy of the original Korean edition. Read more at the Kickstarter page.

The book isn’t especially long; I read the entire thing on commutes, lunch breaks, and waiting for friends at bars. The chapters are relatively short so you can dip in and out as you have time. Peace Pyunghwa Lee’s translation is excellent, with plenty of explanatory footnotes for historical context and specific cultural or technical terminology—the names of items of clothing, food, or particular rituals and so on.

Through Lee’s translation, Kim presents her story directly, without needless digressions or flowery ornamentation. The introduction to I Have Come on a Lonely Path includes a content warning for “domestic abuse, physical violence, war, mental illness, suicide, poverty, police brutality, and discrimination” but the depictions thereof were rather plain and brief. I’ve read much more unsettling accounts, in fiction as well as non-fiction. Through it all, Kim remains humble, compassionate and empathetic. We follow her from her birth in 1931 in what later became North Korea, through early poverty and her shamanic initiation as a teenager, to her middle years living on the fringes of society in South Korea, until the latter stage of her life as a recognized carrier of intangible cultural property (the Seohaean baeyeonsingut) with performances in the US and on live South Korean television, a feature-length biopic, and the founding of her shrine on Ganghwa-do. She speaks frankly of these accomplishments without any sense of self-aggrandizement, maybe because the struggles of her early years kept her humble. First and foremost for Kim is the preservation of a tradition and living a life of service; those honors seem to be more about that preservation and service than about herself. She also lived through interesting times, as the expression goes. We don’t get any commentary on the titans of twentieth century Korean  history here, however. Kim only mentions events directly impacting her or her clients. This is mostly in the form of ill-tempered Japanese officials or South Korean discrimination against North Koreans, but to my embarrassment her story was also the first I’d heard of the New Village Movement.

In light of the New Village Movement, particularly the less savory aspects that bring to mind Mao’s Cultural Revolution, translation projects like I Have Come on a Lonely Path are important for maintaining the traditions and integrity of a culture. The thought struck me sometime afterwards that in some ways it’s comparable to the translation movement in Arabic that preserved so many manuscripts in Greek and Latin for scholars in Medieval Europe to rediscover and to include in the early years of the European academic tradition. Sometimes knowledge, ideas, and stories need to drift from one language or culture to another to ensure their own longevity. Power consolidation, especially within the structure of colonialism, is often based on rendering these ideas forgotten.

Overall this was a quick and fascinating read, at least for any Koreaboo (such as myself) curious about Korean folklore and traditions. The English edition includes an afterword from Kim’s niece, who continues in the same shamanic tradition (she is Kim’s “spirit daughter”—mentee—in addition to being her brother’s daughter) and currently maintains the shrine Kim established on Ganghwa-do. If it’s not your bag, it’s not your bag, but in the informal itinerary I’m building for my next trip to Korea I just added Incheon and Ganghwa-do.

Are You My Mother?

I am constitutionally incapable of walking into a library without at least paging through something. And so while I was at one of my home libraries in August to renew my card, I took a stroll around the main floor to see if anything caught my eye. My circuit ended in the graphic novel section, where Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was one of the featured books.

I knew Bechdel by reputation (who among us has not heard of “the Bechdel test” by now?) but not yet by works, even if I had heard of Fun Home and “Dykes to Watch Out For.” A memoir about parents? Well heck, very on brand to read while visiting one’s parents!

Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unique in their unhappiness. That’s the mood reading people’s reflections on their own parents. How are mine like theirs? How are mine different? Do we have any of the same difficulties in our relationships with them? Can I learn anything from how this person managed it (or didn’t)? Plus a heaping helping of: thank God my parents are the way they are.

Not that Are You My Mother? is didactic, or instructional. There are a lot of asides about Donald Winnicott and child psychology and Freud, but only because they were Bechdel’s own interests at the time of writing. And lots of Virginia Woolf and To The Lighthouse, as well. I guess one day I should make a real honest effort with that book, but today is not that day.

My dad is not Bechdel’s dad; my mom is not Bechdel’s mom. My relationships with them have different wrinkles and potholes than Bechdel has with hers, though sometimes they overlap or resonate in a kind of harmony. Never enough that the suggestions from her therapists feel like they can apply to me, but enough for me to do the slow nod of recognition.

Turkish Tag Team: Requiem över en förlorad stad during Cold Nights of Childhood

I was debating whether to make this one post or two, and in the end decided to make this a single post for a variety of reasons:

  • In terms of sheer practicality, my posting schedule and reading schedule are such that my usual rate of posting will have me bleeding 2023’s books into 2024, which I emphatically do not like.
  • These are authors that are in a kind of dialogue with each other, or rather one of them is clearly inspired by the other.
  • The books themselves were even very similar in terms of mood, themes, structure, etc.
  • I didn’t have much to say about either book on their own.

So, first of all, which books are we talking about?

The first was a Swedish translation of Aslı Erdoğan‘s Requiem över en förlorad stadI read an interview with her in an old issue of Karavan that I brought with me on vacation for airplane reading; in the end I was so taken by how insightful and interesting and brainy she was that when I got back to Stockholm I immediately grabbed what book of hers I could from the library.

The second book was a recommendation from a American friend now residing in Turkey that served to underscore an author I had apparently added to my Storygraph TBR (probably mentioned in the same issue of Karavan): Tezer Özlü. An English translation of her Cold Nights of Childhood was published this year, which I was able to track down at the Stockholm library.

My process was something like this:

  1. Read Erdoğan
  2. Solicit an opinion on her from a bookish American friend in Turkey, who recommends Özlü
  3. Read Özlü

As you might guess from that turn of events, I wasn’t entirely taken with Requiem. It’s a lot of mood and imagery and lovely turns of phrase, but nothing I could really sink my teeth into (or that I can remember now, at the time of writing, a week or two later). Trying to summarize the book is a struggle: “unnamed woman wanders around an unnamed city at night”? I guess?

My best explanation is that Requiem functioned as a sort of literary therapy for Erdoğan, and therefore concrete experiences are abstracted into an etheric dream world rather than relived in all their terror. Art as a process rather than a product, written for Erdoğan and not for an audience. The end result is that I would finish each chapter unsure of what happened and without any sense of the human being behind the words, and that last point is ultimately the make or break thing for me.

As Bookish American friend in Turkey tactfully put it, Erdoğan’s literary reputation might be overstated due to her (obviously important and brave and impressive!) political activism. But I also get the sense that Requiem is a very different beast than her earlier books, so perhaps I don’t have an entirely fair picture of her work. The same bookish friend also tipped me off that Tezer Özlü had finally been published in English for the first time, in an off-the-cuff follow-up to her estimation of Erdoğan that implied a comparison in Özlü’s favor.

What bookish American friend couldn’t have known, or maybe she did, was that Requiem reads like a riff on, and a response to, Cold Nights of Childhood. Both books ground a woman narrator in a city (or several cities) as she wanders not only through space but also through time, emptying their memories on the page the same way you empty your pockets before throwing a pair of pants in the wash. But if Requiem is an etheric and abstract dream world, then Cold Nights is waking life, or maybe better put a lucid dream. Instead of fuzzy, surreal abstraction, Özlü names everything with precision and clarity: people, streets, cafes, flowers. The same clarity holds throughout, even as the narrative skips through time or across space; she eschews poetic metaphor and favors stark depictions of her external circumstances and experiences, whether it’s stays at psychiatric wards or adolescent sexual desire or family gatherings in their cramped rural home. I might not have learned anything about Özlü by the end of Cold Nights, but unlike Requiem I still felt like I had met her. All of the English summaries make comparisons to The Bell Jar and it’s honestly a pretty apt one.

Both of these books raise the question of I’ve been taught to expect in stories, not only through school and writing advice, but also in the kinds of stories available for consumption in popular culture. Building expectations through repetition is another way of teaching, after all, and the stories in most conventional media usually have story arcs, character arcs, conflicts, changes, a sense of narrative unity. By the end of the story, situations and characters should be different from how they started, and we should be able to clearly trace the progression of those changes. How many of these expectations can go unmet and a story (a book, a movie, a TV show) still be satisfying? How else can we look at stories? What other shape can they take? What other purpose can they serve?

A Gun in My Gucci: Two Outsiders Take Down the Chicago Mob

A Gun in My Gucci: Two Outsiders Take Down the Chicago Mob is right what it says on the tin. Author E. C. Smith, one of a mere handful of women in the FBI in the 80s, recounts how she managed to help put away a not-insignificant chunk of the Chicago mob based on testimony from  gangster-turned-informant Ken Eto, the highest-ranking (and maybe only?) Japanese-American member of the Chicago Outfit.

I first came across the book from an episode of Parallax Views, but this story might be familiar to anyone who’s deep into true crime. At any rate, Smith’s inside account of not only the Ken Eto case but how she became an FBI agent is worth reading on its own merits. Have I ever stopped to think about what it takes to become an FBI agent? No, and I doubt many people have. But now that I know, it’s little wrinkle that will stay in my brain forever; another puzzle piece in my understanding of how the world works.

Over time, I’ve realized that my favorite non-fiction is biographies, auto- or otherwise. It’s all of the interesting bits of going out and meeting new people without all of the stress entailed by smalltalk and social interactions. This certainly holds true for A Gun in My Gucci. Smith’s personality (warts and all) comes through crystal clear in lucid prose packed with wry humor and direct asides to the reader. In the hands of a less competent writer this would be awkward, but since Smith started her professional life as an English teacher she can put together a sentence or two. Is it polished, NYT bestseller writing? No, not quite, but it also doesn’t need to be. Even though I’m not sure we’d get along in real life, all the way through I was rooting for Smith (and Eto) and found her an engaging pyschopomp in the world of FBI agents and Chicago organized crime.

This expertise from a past life also means that A Gun in My Gucci is a quick read; according to my Kindle, I finished it off in three and a half hours. All killer no filler. Insecure writers often fail to trust their prose—usually with no good reason—and end up conveying the same point in two or three different ways, making redundancy a hallmark of amateur writing. If it’s not redundancy, then it’s superfluousness: an inability to murder their darlings. Part of the reason that A Gun in My Gucci reads so fast, in addition to the Hollywood-level source material, is that Smith doesn’t mince words or pad things out with a bunch of irrelevant incidentals. Not once did I get bored enough to start skimming, and praise from Caesar is praise indeed.

Smith was also interviewed for a Japanese documentary about Eto in 2008, Tokyo Joe: The Man Who Brought Down the Chicago Mob (Mafia o Utta Otoko), which is available in full on YouTube (for now). But if you want an engaging read for your next flight, or to keep you occupied during your commute, A Gun in My Gucci is worth the buy.

We Don’t Know Ourselves

After The Best of Myles made me realize how little I knew about Ireland, Fintan O’Toole was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts to discuss his new book, We Don’t Know Ourselves. I put a hold on it at the library while I was still in the middle of Philosophy in the Fleshexpecting it to take a couple weeks for such a doorstopper to be available, but lo and behold it was ready to take home a couple days later.

In other words, May was an intense month of reading for me!

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 takes an approach to a rather broad topic (twentieth century Irish history) that resembles the one Christle uses in The Crying Book. Like Christle uses her grieving process to lead the reader through historical views on crying, grief, and “hysteria,” O’Toole ties his own life to larger events happening in Ireland at the time: a discussion of his parents’ wedding photo transitions into a brief explainer on Irish city planning in the 50s, an early job at a department store segues into Ireland’s economy in the 90s. Unlike Christle, however, O’Toole structures his personal history in discrete, concrete sections: each chapter covers a specific topic and focuses, more or less, on a single year. (The departure point is 1958, the year he was born.) He also returns to the idea of “unknown knowns”: the open secrets in Irish culture, at the local as well as national level, that shaped the arc of many of the events covered in the book. So many things, according to O’Toole, happened in plain sight but nonetheless were never bluntly stated in polite conversation. Hence the title of the book.

We Don’t Know Ourselves is a doorstopper of a book but it’s breezy reading that goes fast. Usually in books with this kind of scope I get lost in all of the names, but recurring figures are contextualized and grounded well enough that I had no problem keeping track of all of the threads. Will I remember everything I read? Of course not. Do I have a better context and bird’s eye view of contemporary Ireland and how it’s situated in European politics? Definitely.

I still wouldn’t count on me to know the answers to any pub quiz questions, though.

Den högsta kasten

This was the second book for the local library’s newly established book circle. (The first being Educated.)

It was also the first time I found myself formulating my responses to a book in Swedish rather than in English, which I think is because Den högsta kasten is such a niche Swedish (and Stockholm) interest. I vented a lot of spleen about it in Swedish but trying to talk about the book in English just leaves me feeling indifferent. Maybe because an English review is the most pointless thing I can imagine. Is there anyone who would simultaneously be interested in Sweden’s culture and arts figures of the mid-90s and unable to read a word of Swedish? Not likely.

Yet onward shall I soldier!

Den högsta kasten is the story of a dissipated year (or less, maybe just a few months) in Carina Rydberg’s life. The book is officially categorized as a novel, as fiction, but all of the people in it are real people and the discussion around Rydberg and the book has always been based on the understanding that it’s not aspiring to be fiction or even a roman à clef, but actually true events. Maybe publishing it as a novel was a way for the publisher to dodge legal liability. Who knows!

My first problem with the book is that its marketing and reputation are entirely misleading. I went in expecting a Dorothy Parker style takedown of rich snobs. Instead, the book pulled a bait-and-switch and made me spend half of the page length with Rydberg in India, which I wouldn’t have minded if she were a gifted travel writer instead of another white European who’s constantly explaining how she’s not like the other tourists, she gets India. When she’s not doing that, she’s locked in a really toxic and unpleasant dynamic with two of her fellow travelers or padding out the lack of content with random childhood memories about beauty and exclusion.

I thought things would improve in the second part, but no. Back in Stockholm and hanging out at PA&Co in Östermalm, Rydberg does not have a particularly keen eye or insightful understanding when it comes to her fellow bar patrons. Instead she latches on to another man, has a few months of some kind of ambiguous connection to him, and then finally declares him a jerk when he refuses to lend her a fair chunk of money. The book ends with Rydberg deciding to turn the whole debacle into a book.

It’s also rich for a book to claim that the “unwanted” would ever be among the regulars at a posh bar in the swank neighborhood of Östermalm alongside all the media movers and shakers, which is exactly how the back text markets itself. It occurs to me that maybe that was an attempt to paint Rydberg as the “unwanted” one, but I highly doubt it.

And finally, the scandal surrounding the book itself seems to have missed the mark when it comes to the content. It seems (based on my cursory reading) that people were clutching their pearls because Rydberg was talking a lot of trash about Important People, how rude, but the only people who really come off as dirtbags here are her lover in India (director Kaizad Gustad) and the lawyer she meets at PA&Co, known only as Rolf or Roffe. Maybe spilling the tea about Rolf’s affair with Harry Byrne’s wife was bad form, but for all I know that was public knowledge before the book came out.

Far more off-putting to me is Rydberg’s complete lack of self-awareness throughout the whole thing. Men treat her like garbage, or at least not like how she wants them to treat her, but she continues to follow after them like a puppy. Are we supposed to understand that there’s a connection between her embarrassments in childhood and her behavior now? Maybe, but in a book that’s otherwise hellbent on interpreting itself for the reader, she refuses to signpost that connection at all. Other times it’s obvious that Rydberg is inferring a whole lot about people’s motivations, mixing it with a heaping helping of wishful thinking and presenting it all as Objective Fact when there’s no way she can know one way or the other. “He was talking so loudly at the bar because he wanted me to hear him, even though we weren’t talking to each other anymore, I just know it.” Rydberg comes off as the most clueless person on earth.

My second problem with Den högsta kasten was that it’s a structurally incoherent book. The two parts have nothing to do with each other. In the second part, Rydberg tries to draw connections between what happened to her in India and the people around her now in Stockholm, but it always feels like either a very naked attempt to foist cohesion on a book that has none or to bully the reader into liking the first part. On more than one occasion she tells us that after hearing about her trip to India, so-and-so tells her, “Wow, what a great story, you should turn it into a novel.”

I wonder how often Rydberg failed to detect the note of sarcasm in someone’s voice.

My third problem is with the content itself. In addition to not living up to its reputation, Den högsta kasten reads to me like a book that could be written by the people in my life who later turned out to be, to put it bluntly, stalkers. Specifically, I’m thinking of two people I knew who, beyond being obsessed with a crush, invented entire relationships out of whole cloth and then villainized the other party for not returning their feelings when faced with undeniable reality. Talking trash about movie directors or broadcasting a couple’s marital troubles for all the world to hear is one thing; ruminating in a thought pattern that could well lead to violence or other drastic consequences is another, and that’s probably what made Den högsta kasten so unappealing for me.

Educated

On a whim I decided to join a bokcirkel at the local library, and the organizer cheerfully informed me that the next book would be Tara Westover’s Educated.

Much like the neighborhood book club, I’d signed up in hopes of reading Swedish books, rather than Swedish translations of American bestsellers, but here we are! Not to mention that Educated was one of those phenomenon books where, thanks to everyone talking about it, I felt like I had read it by osmosis. Having now actually read it, I can indeed confirm that the experience of hearing everyone talk about it is enough to really get the gist of the book. Westover has an incredibly isolated and traumatic childhood, decides against all odds to go to college, comes to terms with her childhood trauma and by the end has become a history scholar. No surprises there.

My hypothesis is that part of the reason Educated made such a huge splash was that by 2018, Mainstream Liberal America had realized that Hillbilly Elegy was Bad, Actually and saw in Educated an attempt to make amends for hyping up Elegy. Obviously I can’t exactly prove this, and J. D. Vance didn’t complete his face heel turn until 2022, so who’s to say. (Go give the If Books Could Kill podcast episode a listen for more on Hillbilly Elegy.)

This is not to throw shade on Educated. Westover overcame tremendous obstacles to be where she is today and for that she deserves accolades. And unlike Vance, she’s not trying to make a larger political point or diagnose the ills of large swathes of the American population. If you grow up Mormon, you’ll end up talking about other Mormons in your memoirs, but Educated never feels like an explainer on Mormonism, or like a critique or an apology. The book itself is…fine? I think it was probably an essential part of Westover’s recovery process to write the whole story out and to present it to a public after spending several years being gaslit by her family about her own memories.

What makes me uneasy about Educated is where it lands in the book market and the reasons the reading public has for latching on to it. It’s not quite circus sideshow gawking, but it’s not quite not circus sideshow gawking, either. However, the fact that I read this in order to discuss it with a group of Swedes (and that I’m already anticipating being asked to give an impromptu “US History and Culture” lecture) might be coloring my reaction here. There’s also a part of it that feeds into the collective American obsession with rags-to-riches “bootstraps” stories, where a particular kind of reader might point to Educated as proof that America really is a meritocracy and that if you’re not succeeding you’re just not working hard enough.

Again, I don’t think Westover is deliberately writing to pander to either of those instincts. How the public responds to a book and where one particular life story falls in the general ideological fabric of a culture is kind of beyond the scope of an author’s consideration. There’s something to said about a publisher saying “yes” to this particular life trajectory but “no” to others.

Also, unrelated to anything, but a huge content warning for pretty frank descriptions of gruesome accidents of all kinds: serious burns, head injuries, gashes, you name it. I’m squeamish so those were sections I just skimmed through. A significant portion of the book also focuses on the abusive behavior of one of Tara’s older brothers, again with pretty frank descriptions of bullying and violence.

The Big Balloon (A Love Story)

I decided to get an early start on some classic New Year’s resolutions like decluttering and ending long-term toxic relationships by having an emergency gallbladder removal two days after Christmas!

Medical drawing of a gallbladder
This one does not spark joy!

It also left me with three and a half days of nothing to do but chip away at my ebook collection; I didn’t take my purse and its ever-present paperback with me to the ER, as I fully expected to return home the same day. Well, well, well. Fortunately my phone is a miniature library of obscure and half-forgotten ebooks and I could keep myself distracted in the long waits between ultrasounds and discussions with surgeons. Most of that time was spent with the back half of Rick Berlin’s The Big Balloon (A Love Story), which up to that point I’d been reading on my morning commute.

I’m not hip to the Boston art scene, I didn’t know who Rick Berlin was before I bought the book, I’d never heard of any of his musical projects. But he put out an ad for the book on one of my go-to podcasts and since the premise sounded unique, or at least interesting, I decided to give it a try. I feel that’s only worth mentioning because someone who’s either a fan of Berlin, or familiar with his artistic milieu, will probably have a different response to it than I did.

Out of every possible Pandemic Project or Pandemic Novel, The Big Balloon is maybe the only one I can imagine that will be at all tolerable to revisit in more normal times (if we ever have more normal times). Even though the book is the direct result of COVID-19, it’s never about COVID-19. The conceit is simply this: The Big Balloon is a collection photos of items around Berlin’s home and reflections, stories and reminisces related to each item. Each little essay is entirely self-contained, with no attempt to impose chronological or thematic order on the collection (aside from organizing it into chapters based on rooms). The result is like a literary version of a Cubist portrait, where different years of Berlin’s life and different aspects of himself are presented simultaneously—or as close to simultaneously as you can get in something you read. Something about using the limitations of lockdowns to open up a vast interior world, etc. etc.

The Big Balloon worked well for commute and hospital reading because each essay was never especially long, so I could dip in and out according to subway arrivals or morphine-addled focus. And that was precisely the intended effect:

There is no linear structure to this book. No over-arching narrative. Each entry is self-contained. One piece can relate to another, but it isn’t necessary to make that connection. The reader can pick it up, crack it open anywhere, read a section and put it down. The ‘chapters’ are just the rooms in my house.

It could be said that I chose this odd-ball format for bathroom reading. For those with short attention spans. On the other hand, much as I love the twists and turns of a full blown story, the Haiku simplicity of disparate entries exposes Berlin as if opening the paper window flaps of a Twelve Days Of Christmas holiday card in no particular order.

The highly personal nature of the material also, in a way, made up for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have any visitors. I wasn’t exactly starved for social contact generally, between the two other patients sharing my room and chatting with the nurses doing their rounds, but that’s not the same as time with your nearest and dearest in the darkest, coldest days of the year. The next best thing was Berlin plunging right to the depths of his own psyche to share with me, and the rest of his readership:

The Big Balloon is super personal. Most art, at least the art I love best, is personal. From another’s truth one extrapolates one’s own echo, wisdom, embarrassment and laughter. That’s what I’d hope for you, dear reader. That you’d laugh or at least find something self-relevant in these independent passages of my peculiar life.

A creative not-so-little undertaking that makes me want to ask the same of my friends, or save up for a dry spell on the ol’ bloggo. “Choose ten things around your house and write an essay about each one of them.” Maybe make that an additional step in the KonMari method.

Happy New Year!

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.