Portraits: Of a young Rebecca Solnit finding, and fending for, herself; of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions by Ryszard Kapuściński; of Eastern Turkey under the veil of its dramatic landscapes by Zülfü Livaneli; of Paris and the poet through the vantage point of Henri Cole; of the unfortunate visage of Skylark by Dezső Kosztoláni. These are some of the extraordinary faces I met on this month of May.
It is not nearly celebrated enough, says Solnit: “The sheer pleasure of meeting new voices and ideas and possibilities, having the world become more coherent in some subtle or enormous way, extending or filling in your map of the universe…this beauty in finding pattern and meaning,” this thing called Reading.
Even so, here we are. The readers (ironically, the ones least concerned about faces), the ones who, by turning each page, celebrate best these encounters, these awakenings, these flights.
“I wanted to be with you sooner…” This first line, a faint melody, I imagine played by a solitary piano. This unwavering, melancholic undertone, suggesting that Eszter Encsy is addressing someone who is no longer in her life.
There is a calm, almost cold, but delicate aching to be accepted and understood. Recollections of childhood come across as confessions and explanations… including that time she did not mean to kill the fawn.
But how did that seemingly dispensable incident earn the title of the book? Perhaps the fawn is meant to symbolize the fragility of youth, and how easily it can be broken.
Magda Szabó, who died with a book in her hand, has bequeathed to the world novels that aim straight for the soul. She wrote of women; women who do not have to be faultless. She did not demand heroics from them or for them to be worthy of admiration or to be idealized. She only asked that they live — live intensely, and learn.
And yet, I did not expect her to go to the extent of Eszter. The moral puzzles are not vague here, it is made quite clear what kind of person we have as a central figure right from the beginning: “I could never have undertaken to be a good girl and never to tell lies…” “I lie so easily I could have made a career out of it…” “I was also laughing at the monster I really am…” “I wasn’t a very nice person and I wasn’t very friendly…”
We immediately get the picture. Appalled, we double-check the synopsis, even though Szabó readers know that her synopses hardly describe what one encounters between the pages. But we read on. Because Szabó is brilliant. Because we suspect that a gut punch or two awaits round the bend. Because oftentimes, nothing is what it initially seems. Because she writes of those difficult spaces between people that most of us are too inattentive, too timid, or too unimaginative to explore. Because we know that behind all her stories is a carefully woven leitmotif of a history she mourns. Because Szabó is always subtly reminding us of consequences, of how we cannot extricate our personal histories from that of our nation. Because she is eternally thought-provoking, and therefore, rewarding.
…and because those elegiac strains from that lonesome piano will linger long after you’ve turned the last page.
Reading this at a time when happiness eludes me and only a Turkish word can describe the sadness I feel, a time when the world is in disarray and the cynic in me is more pronounced than I want it to be, it is easier to argue that true beauty, real freedom from the male world’s sway, and lasting transformation surely take more than suggested by this book — but I am also a believer in the wisdom of surrendering to the restorative power of spending a month in a villa in Italy, flowers, rest, and the sea. Oh, I’d take these any day!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that one should not carp about novels like this. You simply open your heart to it, cease overthinking, and allow it to happen — the way you’re supposed to with sunshine, a little frivolity once in a while, and happiness.
So if this book were set to poetry, it would be this poem by Lydia McGrew:
When joy alights like a bird on a fence post arrested in fragile flight, do not frighten her away.
When she comes in the clutch of the heart at the scent of the evening air instinct with life and memory, in the grey-blue of the sky at twilight, in the sweep of the pine tree to the sky,
Do not say, There are depths to be plumbed, There are knots to be worried at. I have no time for this.
Nor listen to the more insidious voice that lectures, Death and disease roam the streets. Pitiless murder with bloody sword unsheathed stalks all the ways of the world, and beauty and innocence fall before him. What right have I to be happy?
Rather stand still, And say,
It is a gift.
And with that, I wish us all an enchanted April, and the wisdom and grace to submit to happiness when it beckons. 🤍
“To me, it has always seemed that each individual has such a moment. It is a fixed point in eternity, varying with each person, which they reach, sooner or later, in their trajectory through time. It is this moment which most perfectly expresses them, and to which essentially they belong, in which they live most fully. Both before and after, some awareness of this lies within them, so that in varying degrees of consciousness, they are seeking that moment in order to be fulfilled, or to find again in that fulfillment and setting, the persons who shared it with them.”
“A lifetime or a moment is all the same; a whole cycle lived richly, or thinly, one day. Each can prove to have been the meaning of a life. We cannot know, from where we stand. But if we seek, and are aware we have missed the moment we seek, our own absolute moment in time, then we live out our lives unfulfilled. In the words of an eastern proverb: we die with our eyes open — we cannot rest; even in death we are still looking for it.”
Never mind that her longings for a lost love and mine mingled as I luxuriated in the pages of this book. Never mind that some details will raise the eyebrows of conventional social constructs. (“Overweening conventions! They have us in a stranglehold from the cradle to the coffin,” writes Lesley Blanch.) Never mind the question of whether the Traveler corrupted her life or enhanced it; I have two opinions as contrasting as East and West. What is certain is that this woman ended up living by her own rules and did not lead a lackluster life.
But to have bookshelves spilling over because of a geographic fascination and to have the books arranged by region; to have literary tastes swayed topographically; to explore entire worlds by turning pages; to spend hours on long bus rides poring over books; to have “everything I saw, or read, ate, or thought tinctured by my infatuation”; to travel and be particular about the precise lighting in which to see certain places because they look more beautiful in morning, noon, or afternoon light; to find areas of conflict irresistible and be chided for having “such violent desires”; to journey into the mind’s eye or into the heart of another; to see traveling as an act of “following a strain of fugitive music” — I’ve never felt this aspect of myself more probed and understood, that I wish I came across this book much sooner.
There are allusions to be unveiled in the captivating writing, and there are lessons to be gleaned from the interaction between cultures, but the line I’ll take to heart is, “Don’t be so finite,” said the Traveler.
Lesley Blanch lived to be a hundred and three, unapologetically, and infinitely.
Fleeting patches of sunlight that decorate pieces of furniture, linger on book pages furtively as I read, or momentarily set the crema of my espresso aglow, are lovely indications that summer is gently slipping into the Philippine islands after a sunless wet season.
But why do I even dare write this in the face of a Liberaki who is an authority on sunshine? This Liberaki who does not merely write about it but makes it so tangible that one’s heart becomes dappled with sunlight, too?
There is a little bit of the Little Women in Liberaki’s three sisters in that it portrays in each sister how Woman can make different choices, pursue different interests, hold different priorities, think differently and still remain Woman; portrays how Woman can mean, or can be, “A great many things,” in the words of Alcott’s Jo March. Or as Liberaki’s Katerina replies, “Not just two, but thousands, Maria, or one which could be a thousand,” when Maria remarks on how Katerina seems to want to live two lives.
But Liberaki, daughter of Dionysus that she is, has a certain sensuality that Alcott did not make space for in her conservative depiction, although we love her just the same. This Liberaki sensuality is an elegant one, however, and treats female sexuality as part of life.
What made me pick this up for Women’s History Month was the curious case of an author who insisted on transliterating her name as Liberaki, rather than the more accurate Lymberaki, so that it would correspond to liberation. It is rare to come across an author’s name that already alludes to an untethered mind and sets the tone for a book. But how wonderful to discover that the same author has a command of artistic laws and lavishes attention to detail while creating an exquisite balance of light and shadow!
This sensitivity to art was what enthralled me! For what is sensitivity to art but a reinforced sensitivity to life?
“The sun has disappeared from books these days. That’s why they hinder our attempts to live, instead of helping us. But the secret is still kept in your country, passed on from one initiate to another. You are one of those who pass it on.” — Albert Camus to Margarita Liberaki
Three Summers was originally published in France through his recommendation.
Despite being only approximately two-thirds the length of The Balkan Trilogy, it took me longer to finish reading The Levant Trilogy.
Olivia Manning is not to blame, but rather the awry emotional state I was in when I read the latter. I even entertained the thought of setting it aside for a lighter read, but I was rewarded for pressing on. I’m glad I trusted the recommendation of friends who thought the trilogies are worth experiencing. As I approached the Levant’s third book, my pace finally picked up and I could hardly put it down again; and by the time I turned the last page, I was not ready to let Guy and Harriet Pringle go.
Among other things, I think the second trilogy is a surprising critique on imperialism and British presence in the Levant. (“Lord, the things we do to other people’s countries.”)
And as I re-viewed the six books mentally, it felt to me like the twenty years of writing between the first volume and the last is a peeling away of life’s layers of unrealistic romanticism; so that by the end, one is left with the stark nakedness of reality — of war, marriage, and life.
Is it a bleak depiction of life? Not entirely. Manning seemed to say that it all depends on how you play the cards you’re dealt.
Lüneburg Variation is a first novel, Chess Story was Zweig’s last; and one cannot really read Lüneburg Variation without recalling Chess Story. Both explore the same themes of Nazi savagery, moral complexity, and the maniacal passion for chess; but Maurensig paints it in darker shades.
Lüneburg Variation’s striking first line sets a sinister tone: “They say chess was born in bloodshed”; on the second page a murder is committed; on the seventh, a confession.
And then we meet the players behind the game and we are brought to a time when Austria was gripped by anti-Semitism, and how the world of chess, peopled by masters of Jewish descent, was purged from Jews to “recover its purity.”
For a book that’s only slightly longer than Zweig’s novella, it has a handful of indelible scenes, but what will stay with me is a particular chess lesson. After a protégé loses to his teacher, the master asks, “What if this has been caused by your inattention?”
But the attention of which the master spoke referred to something beyond the chessboard. That page made me close the book to ponder on those words that endorsed seeing rather than merely looking. I sipped at my postprandial coffee, and thought of life, and I thought of reading. How inattentive we can be to the world around us! How inattentive we can be as readers!
As I read on, the pieces came together and I was chilled by a realization. What if this was a question meant to haunt generations? Genocide, injustice, cruelty are things that can only be perpetrated by the indifference and inattention of many.
“Would Chekhov have suffered writer’s block?” Maria wondered, as the hull of the sunflower seed snapped open between her lightly clamped teeth.
Had it not been for gravity and absentmindedness, it might have appeared like a final attempt of helpless rebellion as the kernel fled in its nakedness, first escaping through Maria’s lips and slipping straight into the narrow entrance of a cowl-necked blouse, lapsing between two mounds of mysterious bosomy matter, and finally shelving itself in the black hole of the navel.
There, cradled in the darkness was the sunflower seed, and it knew not what parallel or different fate it would have encountered had it slipped inside – on the other side, of that warm, heaving skin. At that moment, it knew not time nor space, it only knew of warmth, suspension, and a false feeling of relief.
Maria’s eyes swept the floor but found no trace of the seed, so she picked up another one when suddenly, an idea! A writing idea after weeks of creative standstill! She mock-kissed the second sunflower seed with glee and tossed it back on the table. “If Chekhov could eye an ashtray and tomorrow furnish a story called ‘The Ashtray,’ what tales I could conjure from a sunflower seed!”
With confident strokes of her pen she inked ‘The Sunflower Seed’ on the top of a blank sheet, and Maria wrote:
“Would Chekhov have suffered writer’s block?” Alejandra wondered, just as the sunflower seed snapped open between her semi-clenched teeth.
Of what seemed as a definitive act of impetuous rebellion, the seed fled in its nakedness, first escaping through Alejandra’s lips and slipping straight into the abyss of a cowl-necked blouse, lapsing between two mounds of mysterious bosomy matter, and at last shelved itself in a black hole which was the navel. There, cradled in the darkness was the sunflower kernel, and it knew not what parallel or different fate it would have encountered had it slipped inside – on the other side, of that warm, heaving skin. At that moment, it knew not time nor space, it only knew of warmth, suspension, and an ersatz feeling that resembled belongingness.
Maria continued to write vigorously and narrated how Alejandra’s husband discovered the mutinous seed in her bellybutton later that night and punished it by plopping it into his mouth with a teasing gleam in his eyes.
Pleased with the South American tone of absurdity in her story despite aiming for a Russian shade, and unaware that her tale was half fiction-half accidental truth, she put her pen down with a satisfying staccato. “Ah, the sound of a period!” she exclaimed. As she stood up, the sunflower seed fell to the floor, later to be identified as midnight snack by the little mouse that lived in between Maria’s walls.
The above story is not from the two books featured here. I wrote this in 2009 when reading a volume of Chekhov, who happens to be one of the most handsome of authors, ignited a spark of creative inspiration. Since then, I’ve found that the best short story compendiums do not inspire me to write reviews; they nudge me to pay more attention to the details of everyday life and to write my own short stories however inferior mine may be.
Ferit Edgü is more minimalist than Sait Faik but I find both their stories to be of a distinctive hue. There is something almost monochromatic about them: But akin to the most masterful black and white photographs, this quality does not reduce them to something less but raises and intensifies their expressiveness.
My best attempt to describe them would be to ask one to look into photographer Ara Guler’s black and white images; or better yet, grab that photo book, Ara Guler’s Istanbul with a foreword by Orhan Pamuk. Each photograph a story, each story an evocative photograph.
It is said that every Turk knows a Sait Faik line or story by heart. He is, after all, considered the Turkish counterpart of Anton Chekhov. Turkey’s most prestigious short story award, the Sait Faik Prize, is named after him — which Ferit Edgü received in 1979.
Needless to say, last month’s release of this Ferit Edgü collection resulted in yet another NYRB | Archipelago book-pairing at my end.
Now, excuse me as I attempt to write another short story. If that doesn’t work, I’ll be content with seeking beauty in the ordinary.
“And so the role of literature on this earth: It is that thing seeking beauty.” — Sait Faik
“The story of a marriage and of a war,” reveals the NYRB description. Thus it was with a sense of irony that I picked this up after learning that Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh met on the set of the 1987 BBC adaptation, married two years later, and divorced when Branagh had an affair with Helena Bonham Carter.
I have to admit that the silly curiosity in whether Guy and Harriet Pringle would meet a similar fate was partly what spurred me to read on. Lest this begins to sound like a gossip column, let me continue by writing that there is a certain ease in reading Olivia Manning.
That can hardly be said of other wartime books that have close to a thousand pages, and yet, here is The Balkan Trilogy; alive with the imperfections of being, the tragicomedy of the human condition, the uncertainties of love and life, and keen observations on history that kept me engaged up to the very end.
Manning is also an ideal literary guide for a place one rarely reads about. The last volume is set in Greece and the first two in Rumania. Despite my daring adventures in world literature, Rumania remains unfamiliar territory, but with her geospatial adeptness and descriptive prowess sustained by first-hand experiences, I was wholly transported to Bucharest’s golden domes, outdoor cafes, and societal hodgepodge, and baptized into the political currents of WWII through the stunning perspective of the Balkans.
My initiation to Manning’s work was School for Love. As if reading my thoughts, Rachel Cusk’s introduction addresses my reflection on why I was met with yet another orphan as a main protagonist: “A central metaphor for war, displacement, cataclysm, and the death of the old world in 1940s Europe.”
And yet, despite the solemn themes and the fight for a marriage in the face of disenchantment and war, the aforementioned ease stems from a writer who stops to smell the roses; someone who implies that doing so does not distract us from the more important things in life but nourishes us instead and gives our lives more meaning.
Sometimes we need a massive trilogy to be reminded that the only real fortune in this cruel world is to live and love.
“Fifty shrewd and moving glimpses into the lives of Soviet writers, composers, and artists caught between the demands of art and politics.”
Fifty portraits in words by this man born in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire, this man with Jewish origins who extraordinarily survived the Shoah, and who walked among Akhmatova, Pasternak, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich and many others “who lived / in times that were hard to bear.”
Fifty poignant poems, written “so that those who did not know will know” and read by this reader as “what happened long ago / becomes current again.”
Fifty intimate portraits that initially seem to be of individual people but soon become apparent as an exceptional, panoramic depiction of an era of art choked by tyranny.
Little did I know that it would become one of my most treasured volumes of Russian literature. I love how clueless we sometimes are of a book’s value until we read it and become acquainted with its soul.