Monday, 4 February 2013

What an interesting time the festive holiday period is. It seems so far away now. All that planning and shopping and wrapping. Personally, I opted for as little planning as possible and as much socializing as I could fit in beforehand. So, a trip to Goole to see friends one weekend and a pint of Winter Warmer in the Eagle and Child with another friend, endless games of Scrabble at home, muddy dog walks, a final slosh through floodwater on my mountain bike to replenish the satsumas I kept eating and finally, getting up early to set the ham simmering away at a merry pace in the stock pot, ready for glazing and sticking with cloves and roasting in the oven.

Ah, but the reading...that's the best thing about holidays, isn't it? Time to stay in bed and go through my German classics - Annette von Druste-Hülshoff's novella The Jew's Beech, Heinrich Böll's The Clown and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which I've been promising myself for years now. 

I read The Jew's Beech in one sitting. And what a strange and rather disturbing little story it is, too. Forests and trees often appear in German tales. They're rich in symbolism. The German word for beech is Buche. The German for book is Buch. Beech wood tablets were used in Germany before the advent of paper. Celts saw the beech as the tree of learning, wisdom and the written word. Tradition has it that if you carve a wish in a piece of beech wood and bury it in the soil, as the wood decays the wish will come true. It was also a symbol of prosperity. The beech tree and the vicinity is the locus for four deaths, one, the hapless Jew of the story. His murderer is later cut down.  "When thou approachest this place, thou shalt do to thyself what thou didst do to me." The story is a study of power, local politics, anti-antisemitism and myth building.  

I became a fan of Böll when I read Murke's Collected Silences, deliciously funny story about a radio editor who collects the edited out spaces in between a broadcaster's words. Böll has a gift for picking such extraordinary preoccupations. The eponymous narrator of  The Clown is a collector of moments. He is also conflicted by his own integrity and the demands of the 'real' world. A clown or a fool sees things for what they are. Hans Schnier is an innocent, he speaks the truth. His 'numbers' are utterly scathing and brilliant. After one, 'The General', which makes the right people laugh and the right people angry, he goes back to his dressing room to find an old lady waiting for him:

She...told me her husband had also been a general, he had been killed and written her a letter beforehand asking her not to accept a pension. 'You are still very young,' she said, 'but you're old enough to understand' - and then she left. After that I could never do the 'General' again.
Hans has a deep-rooted respect for humanity, despite society's hypocrisy and the willingness with which people give themselves up to reactionary ideologies and religion.
Strangely enough I like the kind to which I belong: people.
He will go to the gutter before he sacrifices his principles. He will sing and play his guitar for coins.

Finally, The Magic Mountain. Coincidentally, I came down with a throat like razor blades and a racking cough on Boxing Day, so I retreated to my attic bedroom for 48 hours -which is itself a sort of magic mountain, I suppose. I thoroughly identified with Hans Castorp's desire to stay longer than his allotted time. It's a hugely ambitious novel and its scope is vast - the philosophy of humanism, pedagogy, illness and time, developments in engineering and medical science.

This is a Bildungsroman of tiresome (at times) and fascinating intensity. Bed is a good place to read it. Once you're back in the real world of work, though,  it starts to irritate. How isolated the people in the sanatorium are. How rich and privileged. They are all going to die, of course. And the First World War is not very far away. Death will come on an unimaginable scale. Europe was very sick at this point in history. The sanatorium is a kind of metaphor for this.

From novels to factual books. The rather dubiously titled Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson chronicles the history of swimming from classical antiquity via Shelley, Byron, Brooke, Swinburne and Woolf through to the 1930s in Germany and Hollywood musicals. The cult of the body beautiful and its dangerous flirtation with Nazism.

By total contrast, Edmund de Waal's magnificent The Hare With Amber Eyes is a warm and tactile history of his family inspired by a netsuke collection. It made me think deeply about how objects acquire meaning, how human identity is textured as well as invented. This is a story of how displaced people remake themselves and remember themselves, how exiles find themselves again. Everywhere there is the dust and reconstruction of war and turmoil. De Waal talks of his vitrine as a Wunderkammer, a world of things. This book is a Wunderkammer. It is honest and compassionate and  utterly rigorous. It is also quite beautiful in many respects. You can visit his website and see more of the netsuke collection by clicking on the mouse.

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