Monday, January 14, 2013

The Queen's Tiara

Gustav III Opera House, Stockholm, ~1880 (Source: Svensk Arkitektur)

Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s 1834 work The Queen’s Tiara (Drottningens Juvelsmycke) - “The Great Swedish Classic” according to the cover of my Arcadia Press edition - ranked easily among the most fascinating books I read in 2012 and among the oddest books I’ve read in any year. Its oddity derives from multiple sources, not least of which is the book’s incorporation of varieties of form. Almqvist called the work a “fugue” – and while calling it a novel seems wholly inadequate, I’ll use the term here for convenience and for my being unable to think of another form capable of containing The Queen’s Tiara’s grab bag of first and third person narration, dramatic dialogue, exchanges of letters, short theatrical vignettes, packages of documents, legal testimonials, songs and narrator’s footnotes that play along the edges where reality meets fiction.

A sort of realist fairy tale arranged in 12 “books,” The Queen’s Tiara is framed by a prologue presenting this compendium of texts as evidence compiled to tell of events surrounding the assassination in 1792 of Sweden’s King Gustav III at a masked ball in the Stockholm opera house. An enigmatic narrator, Richard Furamo, nostalgically recounts his tale to a companion, Herr Hugo, during a discussion of theater at a family dinner decades after the tumultuous period of “duels and double jealousies…of tempests over locks of hair and fires in the heart” in which his story is set. Furamo focuses not so much on the assassination itself – though that scene is vividly related – but on tangential incidents reconstructed following a chance encounter with two mad, bitter sisters confined to a castle where Furamo had lodged one night while traveling. Supplementing his own narrative skills with the documents he has obtained to piece together the sisters’ history, he weaves an extraordinary story.

A summary of the story’s convoluted plot would tax my ability to condense it as well as any reader’s patience with the attempt, but cataloging some of its chief elements may offer a flavor of what’s involved: a conspiracy to assassinate the King; two young sisters, Amanda and Adolphine, and their soldier paramours, Ferdinand and Clas Henrik, both linked to the conspiracy; a case of mistaken identity that shatters the stability of this romantic quadrangle; the masquerade ball attended by all during which the King is mortally wounded; the flight of the conspirators and arrest of the assassin; the theft of a precious, bejeweled royal diadem (the Queen’s tiara of the title); and finally, fully occupying the second half of the book and obliging the sisters to “step aside and become mere walking on parts” in this drama, the emergence of the mysterious young lead character whose improbable name gives The Queen’s Tiara its secondary title: “Azouras Lazuli Tintomara.”

This androgynous, enchanting 17-year-old actor/actress, pursued by all and incapable of loving any, and whose captivating beauty has already fueled speculation about the cause of several impassioned suicides, occupies the innocent heart of The Queen’s Tiara. A creature apart, Tintomara nonetheless appears invariably proximate to the story’s central events: implicated by reckless gossip in the assassination conspiracy; inadvertently responsible for the diadem’s theft; connected intimately to the late King through a complexity of liaisons dangereuses of sex and blood (involving Tintomara’s mother, the King’s homosexuality, and the likelihood that Tintomara is the sibling of the King’s successor, his now thirteen year old son Gustav IV); drawn to the center of a quincunx formed with the sisters and soldiers we’ve met earlier (in one scene actually situated geometrically at the intersection of converging paths on which each of the other four persons approaches Tintomara at the same time, resulting in an explosive dispersal of all); and finally, squeezed by the exigencies of politics between her devotion to the new young king and the nefarious ambitions of the state’s cruel regent.

If all of this sounds absurdly complicated, it is. It is also wondrously imaginative and clever, whipping sexual psychology and political theater into a vortex in which the disruptions generated by the decapitation of state produce an echo - or perhaps a resounding overtone (The Queen’s Tiara is replete with references to music) - in those caused by Tintomara’s ambiguous gender and beguiling beauty. Though The Queen’s Tiara coalesces loosely around historical facts, it wanders far into fanciful realms, in particular by taking Gustav III’s well-known obsession with the stage and the operatic quality of his being assassinated during a masquerade ball and inflating these elements into a riotously theatrical tale with a porous fourth wall. In one of the book’s more memorable scenes, Adolphine, seeking to escape the opera house unnoticed on the night of the assassination attempt, climbs perilously up over the opera set, clinging to its faux treetops and clouds, dislodging a prop lightening bolt that crashes “into the operatic abyss,” and eventually making her way through backrooms and corridors as fantastically labyrinthine as a Piranesi drawing (both interior and exterior architectural descriptions throughout the work possess an exaggerated, chimerical quality). The narrator also occasionally pops in to remind readers that the story is partly his own invention, for example by acknowledging in a footnote the implausibility of this scene with the opera set and urging Herr Hugo, should he ever make the tale public, to enhance its believability by inserting a dangling rope to facilitate Adolphine’s ascent or perhaps a reference to her having taken gymnastics lessons.

I know of nothing quite like this strange, imaginative book, with its melding of historical fact and dramatic fiction, romantic fantasy and hard-edged reality, thriller-like political intrigue and aerial amatory caprices. Its gender-bending main character and the attendant inability of those around her/him to accommodate the mere notion of his/her existence are as canny and original as the tapestry of inventive, nearly baroque conceits Almqvist constantly unfurls, from copper plates depicting inquisitional tortures (used to frighten the imprisoned Tintomara) to an elaborate subterfuge involving a robotic mannequin. Yet far from seeming cultish or marginal in its fantasy elements, The Queen’s Tiara comes across as a classic indeed: a compelling historical novel that pre-figures Freudian psychology and blends Sadean cruelties with the most ethereal romanticism, an oddly moving invocation of the mysteries of human psychological and political processes, and a daringly imaginative caracole around the incestuous intertwining of reality and fiction. It’s also, on top of all that, an enormously entertaining story.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Diary of a Man in Despair

“…I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself to be dominated by the street-corner idlers of yesterday, but actually, the height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its shame for the shame that it is.”

While casting about in October for a work to read for German Literature Month, I abruptly realized I was holding one in my hands, a book I’d first read last winter but had kept close by as a reference - every page seeming to offer a memorable line - and also as a kind of presence I’ve been unwilling to let depart. Frederich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen’s Diary of a Man in Despair (Tagebuch eines Verzweifelten) consists of entries composed between 1936 and 1944 while their author observed, from among Munich’s cultural elite, the perpetrators of Nazism and their devastating impact. Though the catastrophic consequences of Nazism should not by any reckoning remain an unfamiliar story, the prolonged howl of indignation in Diary of a Man in Despair yanks one out of complacent assumptions, and its incisive depth of insight and penetrating far-sightedness give Reck-Malleczewen’s testament a chilling contemporary relevance.

Translator Paul Rubens - with enviable restraint, as this is a book for which additional commentary is likely superfluous - provides but a bare introduction to the author, which I supplemented with other sources to gather a few details. Born to a noble Prussian family, Reck-Malleczewen attended medical school then settled near Munich to pursue a literary career. Due in part to being a respected member of the upper class, he survived the first 10 years of the Reich well-positioned to observe firsthand its architects. He recounts incidental encounters with Goring, Himmler, Goebbels and even Hitler himself, unforgettably described as possessing “a jellylike, slag-gray face, a moonface into which two melancholy jet-black eyes had been set like raisins.” Unable to confine his disgust to his journal, which he carefully buried on his estate after each entry, Reck-Malleczewen also resisted in small public ways - continuing to say “Grüss Gott” (God Bless) instead of “Heil Hitler,” walking out of a theater of nationalists applauding Nazi barbarities – that culminated in a charge of disparaging German purity. Arrested in October 1944, he was executed at Dachau on February 16, 1945. Diary of a Man in Despair appeared in Germany in 1948; Rubens’ translation came out in 1970. New York Review Books will reissue the book this month.

A conservative allied to Germany’s disappearing nobility, Reck-Malleczewen directs much of his outrage at the Nazis’ destruction of class order and social institutions. His conviction in his understanding of the institutional and psychological origins of Nazism, and in the inevitability of its failure, lends Diary of a Man in Despair a similar faith in humanity - despite the horrors perpetrated by its members - as one finds in Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Taking a Freudian view that things “generally buried in our subconscious” had been brought to the surface as in “the blood-cleansing function of a boil,” Reck-Malleczewen expands his interpretation to indict collusion of government and industry, unrestrained profiteering, indulgence in petty nationalism, and the gullibility of those seeking easy answers, accepting empty promises in a wrecked economy, and attempting to assuage their “own bad consciences by shifting the blame to a single man.” As a writer immersed in the arts, Reck-Malleczewen also implicates writers, composers, and actors who, through their politics and art, colluded with the regime.  Some of his observations embrace elements I’d tacitly associated with Nazism’s rise, such as a zealous sense of order – he instead castigates the Nazis for their rejection of order and “form” - and an eugenic approach to the development of society. It’s jolting to read Reck-Malleczewen assign partial blame to “mass man’s” intervening to allow unhealthy babies to live, thus creating a weakened race.

But despite some controvertible assumptions and a few factual errors, Diary of a Man in Despair takes a long view, employing not only the historian’s backward study but also the visionary’s forward-thinking.  What’s perhaps most sobering about Reck-Malleczewen’s account is how his philosophical clear-sightedness and longitudinal perspective, distilled by circumstance into concentrated brevity, pull back the curtain on the world’s “progress” since the defeat of Nazism, revealing the persistence, little impeded by voices of reason and caution, of many elements he indicts as Nazism’s accomplices. He rails against the free reign of “pirates of industry” who defile valleys, forests and streams with their factories, dams, and “characteristic barbarian inability to understand that some things are irreplaceable.” He warns of corporate influence on government, leading to ”a shallow and irresponsible concentration on one generation, an unheard-of destruction of irreplaceable natural resources, of our cultural and ethical substance – a stockbroker’s philosophy…which blocked out every thought about tomorrow.” He issues a disturbing prediction that “armed might” in the service of private industry would become the way of the world and that “mass man” would be led into “nationalism, with no nation.” He protests the intrusion into science by “patriotism,” anticipates the dispersal of new technologies to masses incapable of or unwilling to understand them, laments the creation of cheap, ersatz products – “without solidity in either materials or execution…appearance, artifice, a patched-on thing, and with it all the deeply ingrained idea of being something special,” and suggests, among other things, that “gasoline…has contributed more to the inner decay of mankind than alcohol.”

In other words, the threats Reck-Malleczewen describes remain recognizable and present. His diary permits us no distancing from Nazism, but demands that we view it in relation to ourselves and charges us to remain vigilant. Acutely conscious of having been stripped of everything but his role as witness, Reck-Malleczewen, in leaving us this small, profound, essential book, took the “one last chance given to one in this life, the chance to affirm the truth with one’s death.”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Miklós Bánffy: To the Moon

Miklós Bánffy

The Moon

French conceptual artist Sophie Calle once passed a night in a bed installed at the top of the Eiffel Tower, inviting members of the public to tell her bedtime stories to keep her awake. Asked later how she managed to convince authorities to let her spend a night in a bed at the top of the Eiffel Tower, she replied, awestruck by her own good fortune, “I asked for the moon and I got it.”

I felt a bit like Sophie Calle upon discovering recently some news about Miklós Bánffy’s “Transylvania Trilogy” – They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. Long-time readers of this blog may know that my enthusiasm for this set of novels is the reason I began book-blogging in the first place. Unfortunately, the books have not been particularly easy to find, and I’ve heard from several readers that the cost of used copies – especially the first volume – is often prohibitive (at least for print editions; the books are now available for Kindle download).

Arcadia Books, the British publisher originally responsible for putting out the trilogy, re-released new trade paperback versions of the books in Great Britain in early 2010, but these new editions quickly seemed to become nearly as expensive and difficult to find as the originals. But Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia had also launched a campaign to generate publisher interest outside of Britain, and, in an effort to further that cause, I followed up some correspondence with him by writing to the agency handling international rights to the books, expressing my hope of one day seeing them in hardcover, perhaps in a well-known collection such as Everyman’s Library.

I’m not about to claim credit, but I’m nonetheless delighted to announce that I seem to have received the moon: Bánffy’s Transylvania Trilogy will in fact be published by Everyman’s Library this coming July. The books will come in a standard Everyman’s Library hardcover edition in two volumes (with the shorter second and third books of the trilogy bound together).

In the unlikely event that I did have something to do with this excellent news about the Bánffy trilogy, I'll keep up my baying at the moon by offering up a few more works/authors I’d to see published or re-published in English translation. Some have been available in English before and are now out of print, some I’ve found only in French (listed below with their French titles), and my interest in others has been piqued by suggestions from various book bloggers and reviewers.

The Dying Lion and Milolo, by Miklós Bánffy - Hungarian
Grande Sertão Veredas, by João Guimarães Rosa - Portuguese
Amrikanli: Un automne à San Francisco, by Sonallah Ibrahim – Arabic
Astronautilia : Hvezdoplavba, by Jan Křesadlo – Greek & Czech
Gravelarks, by Jan Křesadlo - Czech
La fôret des renards pendus, by Arto Paasilinna (and others – so few have appeared in English) - Finnish
L’Art de la joie, by Goliarda Sapienza - Italian
Congo, by David Reybrouck - Dutch
A World Without Maps, by Abdul Rahman Munif & Jabra Ibrahim Jabra – Arabic
Portrait of Lozana, the Lusty Andalusian Woman, by Francisco Delicado - Spanish
The Peasants, by Wladyslaw Reymont - Polish
Monday Starts on Saturday, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (the “unauthorized” translation by Leonid Renen) - Russian
Perrudja, by Hans Henny Jahnn - German
La Petite Pièce Hexagonale, and Parfum de Glace, by Yoko Ogawa (though some of Ogawa’s works are available in English, these two – my favorites of the several I’ve read in French – are not) - Japanese
Tales of Spring Rain, by Uyeda Akinari (the companion volume to Akinari’s wonderful 18th century collection of Japanese gothic stories, Tales of Moonlight and Rain) - Japanese
Ri Koran watakushi no hansei (Half of My Life as Ri Koran), by Yoshiko Otaka a.k.a. Ri Koran a.k.a. Li Xiangjian a.k.a. Yoshiko Yamaguchi a.k.a. Shirley Yamaguchi - Japanese

Other authors un- or under-translated into English:

Joseph Kessel - French
Manuel Mujica Láinez – Spanish
Ramón Gómez de la Serna – Spanish
Panaït Istrati* – French
Julio Ramón Ribeyro* – Spanish
Angel Ganivet* – Spanish
Albert Londres - French
Max Mohr - German
Serge Filippini - French
Albert Cossery - French
Simon Vestdijk - Dutch
Eduard von Keyserling - German
Sergio Pitol – Spanish
Carlos Drummond de Andrade – Portuguese

There are certainly hundreds and even thousands more. I’d be most interested in others’ suggestions, so please offer up your own nominees in the comments.

*Translator John Penuel has been addressing the works of these three writers; some of his translations have been published in print editions and/or are available for Kindle download.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Back Soon

Visitors to this blog may have noticed a lengthy silence, for which I apologize. An unexpected personal loss has kept me away. I will be returning shortly. In the meantime, my best wishes to all for a healthy and happy new year filled with literary discovery.

                                                                                      M. Price - Writing in Tongues, 2010