Saturday, 29 October 2016


On reading Stefan Zweig 

Stefan Zweig ( 1818-1942)

‘Stefan Zweig was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most popular writers in the world.’ (See (Wikipaedia)
 ‘It seems to me a duty to bear witness to our lifetime, which has been fraught with such dramatic events, for we have all .....witnessed these vast transformations – we have been forced to witness them.’ Foreword to his autobigraphy, The World of Yesterday. P.21

A prolific writer of biographies (e.g Marie Antoinette, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Dickens), novellas, short stories and plays, his only two actual novels are Beware of Pity, published in 1939 and The Post Office Girl, the manuscript of which was found among his papers after his suicide in 1942 but which was not published until forty years later, in 1982.
Zweig‘s original title, Rausch der Verwandlung, roughly translated, means The Intoxication of Transformation. It was given its English title, The Post Office Girl, when it was translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg, and in 2009 was shortlisted for The Best Translated Book Award, an American literary award that recognizes the previous year's best original translation into English. The award takes into consideration not only the quality of the translation but the entire package: the work of the original writer, translator, editor, and publisher. The award is "an opportunity to honour and celebrate the translators, editors, publishers, and other literary supporters who help make literature from other cultures available to American readers.”
The question arises: wasThe Post Office Girl completed? In an Afterword to the English translation, William Deresiewitcz says that Zweig ‘nibbled’ at the book for years and suggests that he may never have hammered the book into a shape which satisfied him. But, when I read it for the first time I was unaware of its pre-publication history and accepted the indeterminate ending as the only possible one the author could have offered: Christine and Ferdinand’s fate seems as unknowable as our own and I was content to leave it there.

The significance and interest of this novel, for me, lies in the way in which the narrative of the individual’s life and fate is set in the context of historical events in a way that brings those historical events to life. Of course, in this Zweig is by no means using an original idea: think Tolstoy, for example, or, nearer to our own time, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. But in the analysis of Christine’s personality and experiences (and it must be remembered that Zweig was a friend and follower of Freud) we get an insight into the ways in which political and social situation in which she finds herself limit and determine the direction of her life.
Despite his remarkable popularity as a writer during the 30s and 40s, Zweig does have (and did have) his detractors. For example, in a review of Zweigs’ Autobiography,The World of Yesterday, published in 2010 in The London Review of Books, Michael Hofmann was unequivocally disparaging about Zweig’s entire oeuvre, as, it must be noted, were many of his (Zweig’s) contemporaries. On the other hand, readers’ online comments are almost unanimously admiring and appreciative.
One of Hofmann’s criticisms with which I will concur is that Zweig does have a tendency to overwrite: for example,Ferdinand’s long polemic rants toward the end are unnecessarily protracted, with too much repetition of the points he has already made quite clearly enough.
For all that, I value this book for its psychological truth, and, of course, because it’s a compelling read. On second reading, it still gripped me and also inspired me to look more closely into the history of Austria before and after the First World War.The World of Yesterday gives yet more insight into the experiences and fate of Jewish families, like that of Zweig, who lived through those times.
I first came to Zweig through his other novel, Beware of Pity, a psychological masterpiece, in my view. The Post office Girl is another such.
© CME 2016

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country
By  Edith Wharton
One couldn’t really describe Undine Spragg as a ‘heroine’.  But she is certainly the main protagonist of this book. The spoilt only child of a successful businessman and a compliant mother, Undine has grown up to expect her every whim to be satisfied.  The novel follows her attempts to rise above her roots.
What gives Undine distinction is her exceptional beauty, which she believes will enable her to leave behind her modest beginnings in backwater Apex and achieve the heights of New York society by making a favourable marriage.  To this end, her parents remove themselves and Undine to New York for her to begin what she sees as her inevitable progress, through marriage, to the heights of the sophisticated world of mid-Nineteenth century New York
 Everything we need to know about Undine’s family background and attitudes is neatly summarised by Wharton when Ralph Marvell, whom Undine eventually marries, asks her mother to explain how she came to be called ‘Undine’ He says: ‘It’s a wonderful find – how could you tell it would be such a fit?’ Undine’s mother replies easily, ‘’Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born.’ Ralph remaining struck and silent, she goes on to explain: It’s from Undoolay’, you know, the French for crimping.’
Modern American marriage customs and divorce in the upper eschelons of American society are the two main themes of the novel. The phrase: ‘the custom of the country’ is used early on in the narrative by Charles Bowen, a character who serves as a social analyst, and who observes that ‘it is the custom of the country’ for a man to slave away to pay for his wife's extravagances without ever telling her anything about the work he does. The consequence is that there is little if any shared life in many American marriages. The centre of the man's life, the world of business, remains a mystery to his wife. The centre of her life, a social world of opulent display, becomes an expensive drain on his resources when business is not going well. Undine early on gives her view of the purpose of American marriages when she observes that her friend Mabel Lipscomb will probably soon be getting a divorce since her husband has ‘been a disappointment to her.’

However, to me, ‘the custom of the country’ must also refer to Undine’s chronic, and ultimately disastrous, inability to understand any social world but the one she grew up in. Despite her meteoric rise through the social strata, her values remain basically Apex values.  Her attempts to ‘learn’ ways of sounding well-informed and intelligent are doomed. Marrying, first, into a family who, as well as their aristocratic connections, are educated and embrace all aspects of cultural life, Undine is out of her depths; worse than that, Ralph Marvell turns out to be a man whose creative bent is the main focus of his life. Being forced to take on uncongenial work to support Undine in the manner to which she is accustomed, he bravely soldiers on. When  eventually, she divorces him, leaving young Paul with his father, Ralph focuses all his affection on his son. Later, after divorce and re-marriage,  Undine decides that having the son she had previously rejected to live with her will create the best impression in her new, aristocratic family, which is the final humiliation for Ralph and he shoots himself.

In her marrying into the aristocratic de Chelles  family and becoming a Marquise, Undine believes that has finally achieved her highest ambition and reached the pinnacle of  French society. But she very soon discovers that the customs of that particular country are completely alien to her. Instead of the dazzling social life in Paris she anticipated, she is forced to live in her husband’s decaying chateau in the depths of the country and to join the other women of his family in quiet pursuits like housekeeping and needlework.

Undine’s story reminds me of the story of the Little Old Woman who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle: a kind fairy hears her sighing that she wished she could get out of her vinegar bottle and live in a nice cottage. The wish is granted. But the little old lady is never satisfied; from the cottage she moves into a house, then into a mansion, then into a palace. Finally she asks for a castle. The next day she wakes up and she’s back in her vinegar bottle! So Undine  gets her richly-deserved come-uppance, although in a rather unexpected way and one which shows Wharton deploying her well-developed sense of irony at its best. The only way in which she can enjoy the level of wealth she deems necessary to achieve recognition in ‘the best society’ is to re-marry the man whom she’d first known, married, then rejected, in her far-off youth in Apex. He has now become fabulously wealthy – but the social life Undine aspires to eludes the reach of the couple who are very slightly scorned as ‘nouveau riche.’ Her marriage is a hollow sham and she’s left with a deep sense of somehow having failed in life.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Something's Wrong by Sam Smith

Something’s Wrong
By Sam Smith
‘Insanity - a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.’
 R.D. Laing

This book is written from the wealth of its author’s own experience as a worker in the UK’s mental health care system, although in the end we’re left wondering if ‘care’ is the right word. There is a polemical underpinning to the work, which is expressed forcefully in an Afterword to the narrative, in which the shortcomings and anomalies of the mental health care system are laid bare and a plea made for urgent reform.

The narrative takes the form of a transcription of tape recordings made by Robert, aged around 50 when he begins them. What the tapes contain is, of course, always and entirely his narrative, his thoughts, his perspective. The reader is drawn so tightly into Robert’s thoughtscape that at times one could almost feel worn down by it, and yearn for relief from its sheer intensity.

            Since being diagnosed, at nineteen, as a paranoid schizophrenic, Robert has been through all the labyrinthine highways and byways of ‘The System’, including at times being Sectioned as being a danger to himself and others, at others being given limited freedom under so-called ‘supervision.’ He has experienced every known treatment and therapy, from drugs to electrotherapy. He is, indeed, a walking encyclopaedia on everything ‘The System’ has to offer those diagnosed mentally ill.

When the narrative begins, Robert is living in a care facility where he is permitted a degree of freedom. As the recorded tapes show, he observes and understands everything around him, especially his fellow inmates and the ‘carers’ who are employed to supervise them. It becomes painfully clear that ‘caring’, in any meaningful sense of that word, is not mostly what happens; the inadequacies of an extensive cast of ‘carers ‘ is detailed, from the down-right callous to the well-meaning, but ineffectual, social worker.

From the beginning, Robert is telling himself that something is wrong but is unable to quite put his finger on what that is. In making his tape recordings, he is determinendly, and ultimately successfully, thinking his way back to some form of normality. What we gradually learn is that what is wrong is the whole system to which he has been subjected  and within which he has been ensnared. The regime of drugs and other therapies, far from ‘curing’ him, have served only to confirm the first diagnosis of the professionals: that he is mentally ill, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. As the narrative proceeds we are invited to question and meditate on our own perceptions of ‘insanity’ and ‘normality.’

Through the transcription of the tapes we begin to get a picture of Robert’s early life and the reasons for his being diagnosed as mentally ill. We discover that he was the only child of his parents: father a sensible, responsible man who, as Robert eventually realizes, loved his son very much, albeit in an undemonstrative way. His mother, on the other hand, is revealed as over-doting, indulging him to the extent of tolerating, indeed encouraging, him in uninhibited horse-play. It becomes clear that she is, in part at least, the reason for Robert’s later behaviour and his failure to recognize limits. (The fact that she later hangs herself, unable to face up to Robert’s offence and its consequences, indicates that she was always unstable.) So when, at nineteen, he is involved in a fight outside a pub with another lad, he doesn’t know when to stop. As he puts it: how do you know when the other one isn’t going to get up and hit you again? As a result his opponent is badly injured, to the extent that he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Retribution is inevitable, but Robert has a history of other incidents of abnormal behaviour – the most serious being the occasion when he tied his mother up to a chair and sat by her until his father came home to release her. As a result, instead of being sent to prison for inflicting grievous bodily harm (in which case, he bitterly reflects, he would by the time he is recording these tapes have served his sentence and been a free man) he is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and sent to a secure unit. As the tapes proceed, we gain the impression that he really is manic in his obsessive attention to detail, and he also refers to episodes of past manic behaviour. The question, always, is to what extent the treatment he has been receiving is the cause of his behaviour rather than the other way round.

In his observations of his life and times Robert comes across as eminently sane; he observes and comments on many features of contemporary life which, looked at objectively, are pretty strange: the ways people dress, the ways they behave. As well as the mental health system, property developers, lawyers, the state of our towns and homelessness are all critically examine – and mostly found wanting. I particularly enjoyed his critique of The Saturday Guardian, which he describes as ‘heavy’, with all its supplements and sections, but in which: ‘Every week the same. Like an empty bowl that has to be filled, week after week, but with words. Like a nervous chatterbox filling time with nonsense talk. No, not nonsense; but chirping away about things of little importance. Saying for the sake of saying.’ Amen to that!

So, how does Robert’s story end? It is not an easy resolution. He finally understands that the only way to escape the clutches of the system is to become entirely invisible; to disappear; to live outside any possibility of discovery. Since his whole journey through the mental health care system has been a series of encounters with the mentally ill, the addicted, the rejected, through them he has learnt the lessons which enable him to slip out of sight and to live outside any conceivable system. In other words, he learns how to efface himself completely.

Anyone who lived, and read, through the 1960s will remember people like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, both of whom became gurus of alternative thinking about what was termed ‘mental illness.’ Laing stressed the role of society, and particularly the family, in the development of "madness" - his term. His rejection of the medicalisation of mental illness almost certainly went too far in denying the influence of  biological or chemical causes of what was termed ‘madness’; in any case, Laing was largely discredited in his life-time, both for his ideas and because of his alcoholism and his drug-taking. Never the less, his ideas do still have resonance and there are those who adhere to them. In 2004 The International R.D. Laing Institute was established in Switzerland as ‘a meeting place for all those interested in the psychotherapeutic approach of and its theoretical reflections by R.D.Laing.’ Laing defined insanity as ‘a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.’ Robert could be seen as a case in point, with his confusing childhood experiences, followed by a regime of treatment which not only didn’t ‘cure’ him, but arguably made him worse. Laing also claimed that ‘There is no such condition as “schizophrenia,” but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event.’

When Thomas Szasz wrote: "If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic" he summed up what he saw as society’s ambivalent and illogical attitude to mental illness. Although he strongly opposed Laing’s ‘counter-cultural’ stand and the whole anti-psychiatry movement, he also rejected the ‘medicalisation’ of mental illness. No doubt many, if not most, contemporary mental health practitioners would take issue with the notion that mental illness is entirely a response to one’s environment, which seems too simplistic;  more recent research indicates that chemical and hormonal influences on the brain may have greater influence than people like Laing or Szasz would ever have considered.

Nonetheless, the question remains: was Robert mad or was he driven mad?

Sam Smith's books here:

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Ogier family in Guernsey County, Ohio

In 1806, the first party of immigrants, mainly members of the Sarchet family, from Guernsey in the British Channel Islands arrived in the then newly-settled area of North America which later became Guernsey County, Ohio. They were followed, in 1807, by members of another Guernsey family, the Ogiers. A fascinating, and possibly apocryphal, story surrounds the arrival, probably in 1808, of another member of the Ogier family named Thomas. This story has become part of Ogier family lore.

In 1938, Alfred S. Campbell, an American cattle-breeder and journalist, visited Guernsey in the Channel Islands and was entertained by Thomas Ogier at their family home, Les Duvaux, where Mr. Ogier related the story of his ancestor, also called Thomas, who had been forced to leave Guernsey as a wanted man. An account of his visit to the Ogiers, including this story, appears in Campbell’s book, Golden Guernsey, which was published in 1938. This is how the story goes:

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Napoleonic wars were being waged in Europe and Guernsey became a base for allies of the English, including Russians. This caused difficulty and disruption on the island as food became scarce and the poorly-disciplined soldiers took to pillaging and theft. Thomas, an affluent farmer, returning to his home from a hunting expedition, found a Russian soldier on his land and shot at him, intending only to wound him. The soldier made it back to his base but, having identified his attacker, died of his injuries, Thomas Ogier therefore became a wanted man and fled from his home before he could be arrested. He first went to France and later took ship to America and, after some wanderings, joined other family members in Cambridge, Ohio. Relating this story to Alfred Campbell, Mr. Ogier told him that ‘…in all his wanderings Thomas Ogier carried with him one relic of his home – the family cradle!’ One might doubt the practicality of a fugitive from the law choosing to burden himself with a wooden cradle, carrying it to France, then over the Atlantic to America; but the cradle is real enough and is in the possession of the Guernsey County Historical Society!

Enquiries are in train and if I can get a pic of the famous cradle (and permission to use it, of course) I’ll post it here.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

A Maryport Quilt goes National!

A very fine quilt, made in Maryport in Cumbria about 130 years ago, has been accepted into the Collection of the Quilt Museum and Gallery in York. It’s a particularly good example of what is known as the ‘Sawtooth Medallion’ Style, made in red and white fabrics. The red fabric is Turkey red printed in a rich and complex paisley pattern. Only quilts of exceptional interest and condition are accepted into the collection so it is an honour that this one has been accessioned.

The quilt, which belonged to an established Maryport family, was given to me on long loan a few years ago. It is in perfect condition because, as I was told: ‘Grandma always kept it on the best bed, covered with a sheet.’ The owner and I finally decided that it needed to be offered to the Museum and Gallery so that it could be kept and preserved to museum standards. I’m delighted to say that it is now on display at the Museum as part of its current exhibition titled Quilts Then and Now. Full details of the Museum and opening times can be seen here:

A Victorian Surivival

Flat shot of table cover

Embroidery has outlasted silk
This Victorian table cover from a house in Cockermouth , measuring 56" square, was brought to me for advice on repair and conservation.  It has a square centre medallion organised round embroidered rectangles which are enclosed in velvet borders. The rest of the patchwork is 'crazy', i.e. randomly shaped  patches stitched together. Each patch is outlined in feather stitching, a very popular needlework tradition in this type of  crazy patchwork. The whole textile is surrounded with yellow cording, suggesting that its likely use was as a table cover or, possibly, a decorative throw.

 The fabrics are predominantly silks and velvets. The embroidery is of a good standard of workmanship and, in many case, the embroidery has outlasted the silks, which have worn away around them.

Unfortunately, it had deteriorated so far as to make any work on it impossible. On the other hand, it is clearly too interesting to simply be thrown away. One possible option would be to conserve it under glass, in which case it could be viewed but wouldn't suffer any further degradation of the fabrics. This, however, would be an expensive undertaking but enquiries are being made to see if it would be viable.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Proust (re-visited) via Hesperus Press

If, for entirely understandable reasons, (it apparently goes on for ever; style is labyrinthine; plot, in so far as there is one, slow to virtually stationary….) you are reluctant to read even a page by Marcel Proust, but at the same time have a slightly guilty feeling that somehow as a serious reader you ought to do so, I'd like to suggest a possible way in. Hesperus Press (, whose motto is ‘Et remotissima prope (to bring near what is far), publish "works by illustrious authors, often unjustly neglected or simply little known in the English-speaking world.” The books are beautifully-designed little paper-backs and Proust’s Pleasures and Days, originally published in 1896 as Les Plaisirs et Les Jours, and here translated by Andrew Brown, is one of them. It is a series of sketches and short stories depicting the lives, loves, manners and motivations of an eclectic variety of characters; their amorous entanglements, idle vanities, feigned morality and, above all, their snobbery – Proust is very strong on snobbery.

The cover blurb reads: “A stunning volume of philosophical reflections, short narratives and poems", offering us “ an early glimpse into Proust’s literary genius, and revealing him as both a remarkable chronicler of metropolitan life and a compassionate recorder of the most poignant sensations and recollections.”

There is an excellent Forward by A.N. Wilson, where we learn that Proust completed these stories, poems and fragments before he was 23 years old. (One can only be awed by the knowingness, the psychological perspicacity displayed by one so young.) "What will immediately strike any reader of this volume of short stories is how surely, from the first, Proust knew his theme." And Wilson helps us to understand the literary import of Proust’s style: “The complex syntax, those long sentences with their coiling clauses that he was already practising in the Pleasures, is deployed in The Search (i.e. In Search of Lost Time ) to make us slowdown and take the time to notice the world and the richness of its interconnections.”

Of course, if you have never even dipped your toe into A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, whether in French or in translation, that last remark won’t mean much to you, but Pleasures and and Days will give you an authentic introduction to the Proustian style and themes so that, who knows?- you may be tempted to launch forth on the great work itself!

From Pleasures and Days:

Here is the 23-year old Proust describing the bleak and lonely last days of the young Baldassare Silvande,Viscount of Sylvania:
‘ He turned his head away from the happy image of the pleasures that he had passionately loved and would never enjoy again. He looked at the harbour: a three-master was setting sail.

"It's the ship leaving for India" said Jean Galeas.

Baldassare could not make out the people standing on the deck waving their handkerchiefs, but he could guess at the thirst for the unknown that filled their eyes with longing; they still had so much to experience, to know, and to feel. The anchor was weighed, a cry went up, and the boat moved out over the sombre sea to the West, where, in a golden haze, the light mingled the small boats together with clouds and murmured irresistible and vague promises to the travellers.'

As I read those words, I was haunted by echoes of Theophile Gautiere’s poem, L’Isle Inconnu, memorably set to music by Berlioz:

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.

L’aviron est d’ivoire,
Le pavillon de moire,
Le gouvernail d’or fin.
J’ai pour lest une orange,
Pour voile une aile d’ange,
Pour mousse un séraphin.

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.

Est-ce dans la Baltique?
Dans la mer Pacifique?
Dans l’île de Java?
Ou bien est-ce en Norvège,
Cueillir la fleur de neige,
Ou la fleur d’Angsoka?

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?

'Menez-moi', dit la belle,
'A la rive fidèle
Où l’on aime toujours'.
Cette rive, ma chère,
On ne la connaît guère
Au pays des amours.

Où voulez-vous aller?
La brise va souffler.