Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy

“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.

Burhan Sönmez: Istanbul Istanbul & Labyrinth

“The beauty of a book, says the book dealer, lies in the fact that no other book can arouse the same feelings in you. That’s why you can’t compare good books.” — Burhan Sönmez, Labyrinth

When your desire to forget certain things mingles with a character’s desire to remember, and the words from the book and those unsaid in your heart cross paths, the sensation stays with you, the way your first sip of raki does — like drinking smooth, liquid embers as your insides become drenched with that distinctive Turkish melancholy.

One ends tragically, the other ambiguously, but the influential power of Istanbul that takes hold of writers is exquisitely manifested in this pair. Despite Istanbul being a bazaar of a thousand and one stories, Burhan Sönmez has his own approach to storytelling and his own approach to this alluring, Janus-faced city that readers who are just as enamored with it as I am will hold in esteem. As a certain character says, “Just as you can’t bathe in the same river twice, neither can you tell the same story twice in Istanbul.”

The interesting thing you’ll discover about these two books is that, despite being two entirely different novels by the same author, their titles are interchangeable. Both are about labyrinths, and both are about Istanbul; both can either be about the labyrinths of the mind and memory or the labyrinths of the city; and I find both to be best read successively.

The past — or the land of our birth — can be a burden from which we sometimes wish to be free, but who are we without it?

Lev Ozerov: Portraits Without Frames

“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.

Teffi: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me

Oh, what would it have been like to be Teffi, born into a remarkable time that made personal encounters with Tolstoy, Rasputin, Gorky, and Lenin possible, and to have made a name for herself as a writer in an androcentric literary world?

These delightful autobiographical essays answer that question. From childhood recollections, what her multipurpose desk was like, how her pseudonym came to be, to encounters with history’s formidable men, Teffi writes with a poetic simplicity that makes for light reading while never lacking depth. 

“I adore oranges. They are round and golden, like the sun, and beneath their peel are thousands of tiny pockets bursting with sweet, fragrant juice. An orange is a joy. An orange is a thing of beauty.

And suddenly I thought of Ganka. She didn’t know about oranges. Warm tenderness and pity filled my heart.”

Stealing from the crate of oranges, she managed to give one to Ganka, who, in return, “Bit off a piece together with the peel, then suddenly opened her mouth wide, made a horrible face, spat everything out and hurled the orange far into the bushes.”

“I had become a thief in order to give her the best thing I knew in all the world. And she hadn’t understood, and she spat it out.”

And dear Teffi who apparently knew what it’s like to give one’s best and have it discarded just like that, called this short piece “Love”.

Elias Khoury: Broken Mirrors (Sinalcol)

“In the old days pomegranates stood for a woman’s breasts and when a lover spoke words of love to his beloved he would liken her breasts to pomegranate fruit. Do you know what we mean today when we say ‘pomegranate’? A pomegranate is a hand grenade. See how far pomegranate has fallen from the throne of love and become a part of war?”

NYRB’s launching of Anton Shammas’ Arabesques with an afterword by Elias Khoury prompted this reading. I am thrilled to finally see Khoury’s name on an NYRB cover, but still baffled as to why this virtuoso of form, poetic prose, historical and political insight continues to be unbelievably underrated! 

One probably cannot read his books consecutively because of all the trauma they contain, and how he presents a different form of the novel each time could disorient those who prefer the familiar; but on my fourth novel by Khoury, I remain amazed…

…especially when I disliked the main character for his views on marital infidelity right from the beginning, and I found more repulsive revelations in other characters; and yet, the hypnotic storytelling with beautiful lines about words and meaning just pulled me in. Strong female characters emerged, the plight of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon was addressed (an especially meaningful aspect as I’ve noticed how Lebanese authors from Alameddine, al-Shaykh, to Khoury have often included Filipina domestic help in their depiction of the Beiruti socio-scape), Lebanon’s history came through in well-executed layers, with two brothers on different sides of the civil war clashing ideologies were dissected, but as broken pieces of the mirror began to come together for the reader, the characters’ lives fell apart.

Khoury is less abstract here. These are all symptoms of the same sickness, he says. “He’d told her that his soul hurt and that there was no pain worse than that of the soul.” This is what war does to lives, he says. This is what war does to identity. This is what war does to love. This is how war never ends if it lives inside us.

On a lighter note, Archipelago Books hit the bull’s eye with that Wassily Kandinsky cover art!

Daniel Mendelsohn: Three Rings & Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

One was acquired because of the unmistakeable image of my favorite city that bewitched me as I browsed through NYRB’s contemporary collection; and the other because there are only two Turkish modern classics in the Penguin collection and I’ve already read and loved the other one!

What is a classic? In Amit Chaudhuri’s rephrasing of J.M. Coetzee, it is that which speaks to you when you are ready to hear it. I was not too sure about being ready, but if Pamuk thinks Tanpinar is the most remarkable author in modern Turkish literature, you trust him… even if it means limping through four hundred pages of winding narrative for an entire week.

But as reading fate would have it, Mendelsohn’s book turned out to be the crutch that got me through my inadequacies as a reader and the compass that prevented me from losing my way through Tanpinar’s meandering tale.

Aside from being so much more, Three Rings sheds light on ring composition in masterpieces by Homer, Proust, Sebald, and other literary forebears. Because of this, it made me recognize this exact literary form in The Time Regulation Institute and taught me to luxuriate in the beauty of narrative digression instead of getting lost.

As if harmonizing intentionally, Tanpinar evokes the eastern concept of time as a non-linear progression as Mendelsohn intimates this non-linearity in literature and life.

Time Regulation Institute is primarily a satire on the young Turkish Republic during Atatürk’s cultural revolution, which included enforcing Western time and imposing a fine on those who continued to observe Islamic time. While Atatürk is lauded in the West as a hero for modernizing a dying and retrogressive Ottoman Empire, Tanpinar artfully warns readers about how new freedoms are accompanied by new tyrannies a seldom heeded but always relevant, and necessary, warning.

“The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale — or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments… never have I known a concept so inextricable from its antithesis, and indeed entirely crushed under its weight… I must confess I’ve always found freedom an elusive concept… if we truly felt passionately about it, then wouldn’t we have…never let it out of our sight?”

Amit Chaudhuri: Finding the Raga

A note that aches to resolve on the semitone next to it is called a leading-tone in Western music theory. While it comes closest to what a shruti is in Indian classical music, they are not equals; and although shruti literally translates to “what is heard” in Sanskrit, it has another meaning in Hindu sacred literature. Shruti in Indian classical music is the smallest gradation of pitch discernible by a human ear and the tiniest interval of pitch that a singer or musical instrument can produce.

But it is not my intention to bore non-musician friends with more of that. Finding the Raga is a poetic and accessible introduction to Indian classical music. It imparts an ample amount of artistic insight to share in future discussions. Aside from suggesting that our understanding of music enhances our appreciation of literature, language, and the world, it is an enlightening reminder that there are other lenses in which to view the world and other modes of music through which we can listen to the world aside from the Western.

It was, however, the idea of shruti that made itself heard to me more resoundingly, and exactly what I needed to read and learn on the first day of the year; because while leading-tones in music to which I am accustomed communicate a certain unease and a longing to resolve, in the raga, “Shruti has to do with the note’s anticipation of the next note, as well as its refusal to be immediately transformed into it. It’s to do with sometimes preferring a state of becoming, of being transformed…”

Once again, this in-betweenness. The last book I read in 2022 was Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a coming-of-age novel set in Jerusalem after the Second World War that seemed to me about the state of in-betweenness. It made me ponder on the truth that life itself is an entire in-betweenness and that, perhaps, the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty.

And now, this whole concept of shruti, a coming to terms with, and even a relishing of, this in-betweenness.

Finding the Raga has set the tone for my year. Here’s to making the in-betweenness both the journey and the home, the way sadhana does not differentiate between labour and its fruit or between preparation and performance, the way a khayal does not demand the listener to distinguish between process and finished product; and here’s to fine-tuning life for this interval of in-betweenness that can be made beautiful.

Truman Capote: A Christmas Memory

“But when it comes time for making each other’s gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries… Instead I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she’s said so on  several million occasions: ‘If only I could, Buddy. It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.’ …Instead, I’m fairly certain that she is building me a kite…”

Truman and his dearest childhood friend did end up giving each other a kite for Christmas and they had a good laugh about it before enjoying a wonderful kite-flying day. The kind of day that makes one say, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

In one of the many gatherings this season, an acquaintance confessed matter-of-factly that he doesn’t give Christmas too much thought or he’d feel sad about what was missing. I felt that wholeheartedly. It turned my thoughts toward loved ones who have lost so much this year and what Christmas would be like for them. Indeed, “What gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.”

This book, so deceptively simple, had me sobbing by page thirty. It is heart-warming and heart-rending at the same time. Although the accompanying stories lend a surprising glimpse into the author’s emotional traumas from his early years, it is beautiful enough to be considered one of the best Christmas books and, perhaps, deserving of an annual rereading — if only to remind us of the gifts of true friendship, and to nudge us to rummage through our own chests of Christmas memories and realize what treasures we keep within.

“That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching for the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

My Initiation to László Krasznahorkai

As if in sync with my protracted pace in gathering enough courage to take on a Krasznahorkai, it also took a while for my order to arrive. 

When at last his books occupied the Hungarian section of my shelf, I timidly went for The World Goes On to sample one of the short stories. Catching the name of my favorite city in the table of contents, I immediately turned the pages to The Swan of Istanbul.

The Swan of Istanbul (seventy-nine paragraphs on blank pages)

In memoriam Konstantinos Kavafis

My excitement was fueled upon seeing it dedicated to the writer of my favorite poem! (Too excited, in fact, that my eyes skipped the words in parentheses.)

What greeted me was the literary counterpart of John Cage’s 4′33″. Blank pages, ladies and gentlemen.

These thoughts assailed me as I flipped through the emptiness of each page: Doesn’t Krasznahorkai have a reputation for composing entire books with a single sentence? Where was the intimidating muchness of which they spoke? Should I lazily call this pretentious without giving it much thought and expose my limited knowledge of post-modernism and deconstructivism? But also; László, I like you already.

And yet, after “reading” the blank pages, I closed The World Goes On and tried my hand at The Last Wolf. There I found the labyrinthine thoughts and lines for which he is known, a philosophy professor who thinks he is mistakenly hired to write about the last wolf of Extremadura, a wasteland in Spain that was once part of what the Romans called Lusitania, and yes, the solitary period at the very end.

As the story spirals out, the reader is made to ponder on the hunter and the hunted, how the two are very much alike and are part of the same thing; gentrification, not just among humans but among animals; bestiality and humanity intermingling; the incomprehensibility of existence, and how man is a prisoner of thought.

If John Cage’s 4’33″ was meant to be the embodiment of the composer’s idea that any auditory experience may constitute music, what if reading Krasznahorkai is to explore, to be surprised, to question what constitutes a reading experience, and to challenge what else literature can be?

Thad Carhart: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Not the West Bank this time, just the Left Bank. The thing about my Silk Route | Fertile Crescent reading project is that — despite being a source of enlightenment through discovering underrated but astounding literature — novels from this route in question are usually emotionally taxing.

Although I have sensed that I am drawn to writings from places of conflict for the reason that they have a sensitivity to beauty commensurate with their heightened awareness of the fragility of life; once in a while, I need a breather, and that’s when I turn to books related to other interests. In this case, not merely an interest, but a love.

But as love would have it, we oftentimes become accustomed to a beloved’s presence and we slowly take its magic for granted. 

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier refreshed me about the intricate workings of a piano; of how extraordinary this instrument is; of the alchemy and difficulty involved in piano-making and music-making; and how beautiful tone production relies so much on the precision of piano makers, the skill of piano technicians, and the heart and hands of a pianist. This rekindled a fire that led me straight to the piano after turning the last page.

But this book is not just about pianos and trivia from the music world. (Although, while we’re at it: Did you know that when the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the first thing to be hauled to the rooms at the top was a piano?) It is also about the Paris that is inaccessible to the tourist. In fact, this would make a lovely pair to Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.

Surely, these books did not intend to rival Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or the aching poignancy of Truong’s Book of Salt, but at times, lesser-known books are beautiful for the simplicity that they lead us to find something that draws out music from within.