Germans at Meat by Katherine Mansfield

[From In A German Pension – 1911]

I said in my last post on A Breath of Life by Lispector that I will go on to look at her short stories. I thought I would do the same with other writers also and it will be quicker for me to post something on here, I am currently going through some longer books and they are going to take me a while to get through so here goes.

Germans at Meat is about a British narrator having dinner with a number of German guests.

Katherine Mansfield does not write about the German dinner guests in a positive light. The German guests in question are from a time when Germany’s place in the world was ever rising after unifying as one nation. A very different Germany to what we know now.

The German guests pass comment on the British diet and the English breakfast. At the same time we get to witness their table manners such as ‘He turned up his eyes and his moustache, wiping the soup drippings from his coat and waistcoat’ and the British narrator interrupts one of the guests before he goes on about the effects of the amount of sauerkraut he has eaten. We also read about the German guest’s bemusement by the narrator choosing to be a vegetarian and even more surprised about not knowing what her husband’s favourite meat is.

Among other topics discussed is how Munich is described as being what Germany is (I assume none-Bavarians would disagree with this) and asking the British guest if they are scared of a German invasion saying ‘You have no army at all – a few little boys with their veins full of nicotine poisoning’ (of course history has showed us what really would happen… twice but that’s neither hear nor there).

We also hear about the thoughts on the family. It appears German women like to produce big families. It ends with the British dinner guest leaving.

Although a British person is used in contrast to the German dinner guests, it is really about people with different cultures and ideologies meeting face to face and not quite understanding each other as opposed to Britain and Germany themselves. You could argue in today’s world there are more similarities than differences.

The British narrator observes their table manners and holds back from saying anything that may be deemed to offensive as the German guests reveal their thoughts and attitudes. The British narrator does not appear to have any form of the Edwardian British stereotype. She can speak German to her guests, she is a vegetarian, she does not behave like the classic housewife who knows what her husband like to eat all the time. Despite all this the German guests almost treat her like (as far as they are concerned) that she is the embodiment of what the English are.

What I learnt from this short story is that despite where we are from, we are actually all individuals and we have to choose to act as such. I could be wrong on that but that is what I got out of it.

[From Katherine Mansfield, The Complete Collection, Kindle Edition]

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector (translated by Johnny Lorenz)

This novel was published posthumously having been found with the writings she left behind and is is very different from the novels.

A Breath of Life is about a narrator and his relationship with a character he has created. There are actually three characters in the Breath of Life. The narrator himself, his creation Angela Pralini and Clarice Lisepctor herself who although has no lines herself permeates the whole feel of the novel.

Our narrator writes about his thoughts on life, on writing, on the concept of god. The narrator is trying to discover more about himself. In doing so he creates Angela, he gives her a history, a life as if she was real Brazilian woman, instils her with her own personality. She also contemplates her own thoughts and who God is. In this case her god is the narrator. As we go through the novel who is meant to be speaking can merge as if it is clearly the narrator talking as Angela. The narrator becomes captivated by his creation. He falls for her and he also questions her mortality within the life he has given her. Both characters look at how they view the world. The Narrator wants absolute control over Angela’s fate but in doing so is writing about himself more so than he his writing about Angela among all of it is Clarice who is pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

As far as I’m aware there is some Eastern European influence to this book (according to a friend a I leant it to) and there is that philosophical sense of trying to understand a way of thinking that is recognisable in almost all of Clarice’s work. As you would expect from Clarice this is a book that is not long yet at the same time you feel like you are taking in a lot. Written towards the end of Clarice’s life it also shows us if only through a prism, Clarice’s thinking at this time. Although not exactly like it, this book made me think of Agua Viva more than any of the others and I like this book as it is regardless of who the author is. It looks at our own thoughts and how we represent them and appears the most ‘meta’ of Clarice’s works.

I have looked at all of Clarice’s longer works (as far as I am aware that have been translated into English) and after this one I will be looking at Clarice’s short stories (I have a copy of the whole collection) looking at each on individually.

[Penguin Edition Published 2014]

The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq (translated by Richard Howard)

If you want a world described in such a way that you can feel it and see it with such clarity in your own mind’s eye then look no further than the Opposing Shore by Julien Grecq.

The Opposing Shore is a remarkable book in the way in describes the world around you in such a way that you can almost see and feel it as it is written in such a poetic way.

The story itself is about Aldo an aristocrat who gets a commission to work for the Admiralty where he has been posted to the coastal town of Syrtes to observe the borders of the sea for any sight or report of a rival nation who though technically at war with, they have not seen any form of violence with this nation for hundreds of years due to an old ceasefire that is till being upheld.

Among Aldo’s time on duty we see what he sees and thinks in the first person and he has a good way in describing not only the world around him, mainly where the Admiralty have sent him but what has been said to him with his interactions with others and most impressively, Aldo is good at describing what has not been said with respect to certain gestures and glances.

The style of the book and the way Aldo speaks has the feel of a 19th Century pastiche. The kingdom of Orsenna of which Aldo is a member of has the feel of a southern European Mediterranean nation maybe of the renaissance era. The rival nation of Farghestan which is relatively unknown to us but has the suffix of -stan suggesting it is an eastern nation very different to Orsenna.

Social class is a topic in this book. Aldo among some other characters are of the aristocracy and when we get to here about their views on their worlds and how they view their own traditions. We also get to witness their relationship with characters from other classes (mainly Fabrizio).

The main theme however, tends to be about Aldo’s boredom with his post and how far he would go to defeat such boredom possibly at the cost of breaking the ceasefire that lasted so long between the two nations. We also get the trope of a lady (Vanessa in this case) leading Aldo astray to do something he possibly should not.

I can see The Opposing Shore being a book that is possibly not for everyone especially with respect to the old style prose however, it did flow quite well and the more you read about Aldo’s world and his story, the more you want to stay in it. Aldo has such away of describing tension and atmosphere that makes it feel real and not contrived in anyway or make me want to roll my eyes. The more you read of it the more you become aware of what affect Aldo’s actions will affect his world.

This mostly what I have thought after just finished reading it and eventually I would like to go back to it again to reflect on it. I am aware that there is getting to be a longer list of books I have already read to look back at again, I can’t promise anything but it something I would like to do.

[First published in French in 1951, this edition Harvill (Harper Collins) 1993]

Harmsworth Popular Science (1913)

If you ever go to a university library (or sometimes a public library) you will find collected bound editions of editorials and magazines on a number of subjects. Now of course we go on the internet and either through the public domain or some private enterprise we can gain access to a wide array of information. An example of such bound editorials was Harmsworth Popular Science. A British magazine that stopped publishing in 1913 of which I have a number of bound editions in shall we say, certain states of condition. These encyclopedias of knowledge don’t just look at physics, chemistry and biology as it was known at the time but it also looks at technological advances and the social sciences also. They look at such topics as you would expect from a 1913 science publication during the reign of George V. These volumes are fascinating in that it shows how (and in particular the British academic) saw the world before the world would change forever only a year after its last publication. Alfred Harmsworth who this is named after was major newspaper tycoon, the pre runner to the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch who had significant control in what people read.

From what I’ve looked at in the volumes there are some fascinating articles that would hold merit today, biographies on great minds and inventors along with an interesting look at technology, how it was seen and what it could become. There are some articles however, that would almost definitely be dismissed in our modern era. The volumes show a support for eugenics and and the knowledge of the universe is limited along with theories which have now been proven not to be true (for example how galaxies are formed)

There is a confidence with the United Kingdom’s place in the world (again this is written before the world would be changed significantly in science, though and most definitely politics). There are articles informing us of how much coal is produced in the UK. There are also a number of articles that look at the economics of the UK and how laws are made. It even looks at the rights of women although judging on the editorial team, not a single woman wrote any articles (women did not even have the vote when this was written). There is of course a look at a woman’s place in the world and praises the works of Swedish suffragist Ellen Kay.

A fascination for eugenics though with good is seen throughout the volumes. Little did the writers know if the appalling consequences such thoughts would have later in the 20th Century.

Harmsworth Popular science arrived at a time when great technological advances were coming to the forefront. Advancements in transport as well as a look at relatively new inventions such as the the airplane. It is also interesting to read on how what we would consider historical figures are now perceived. The likes of Thomas Edison, Gulielmo Marconi and Ernest Shackleton are described with high praise written in a time when they were still alive.

If Harmsworth Popular Science continued to day it would be interesting to know how their writers would view their predecessors. In the last volume written by the head editor Arthur Mee, he acknowledges that ‘-that we end, in this volume with our eyes on the horizon’. Mee acknowledges that there is so much more to learn and that everything that has been written is a book of information, ideas, hope and faith and holds no narrow view of life.

There is praise for a certain Thomas Edison

Despite what has since been disproven and ascertained since the publications of these volumes there is an honesty to them and good intentions in a century that would see a significant number of changes. Britain would be at war a year later. Many lives would be lost and irrevocably changed not just in Britain but the rest of the world. We would see these advancements in technology would be destructive as well as have his benefits. We would see how global politics would cause a lot of harm. We do see however, that we as a species can do some remarkable things. What we probably have learnt since is that we have a lot of responsibilities also.

No matter what we learn, we must not be afraid to change our views and reasoning based on the evidence that is available to us and not to be so cruel to those we perceive to be ignorant or wrong. Be kind.

[Educational Book Co Ltd 1913]

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

A few months back I wrote a post on how I thought writers could write their books in different and unique ways in that they could make us rely on more than just the written word or the odd picture. An example of such a work is Night Film. Night Film however, is a thriller. I am not a big fan of thrillers myself. For me they’re the book equivalent of reality shows or lower league football matches when you have no connection to either team. Something is going on but you’ll forget about them and the characters never leave any legacy on your mind.

Night Film is a thriller novel about the apparent death of Ashley Cordova, daughter of a mysterious film director. The film director’s films have a cult following and his movies are not readily available, underground clubs have been made to watch his film that have have repulsed and inspired people in a number of ways. As our main protagonist Scott McGrath investigates what has happened and gets help on the way, he gets to know more about the Cordova family.

If I’m being honest I was not a big fan of the whole story itself, I didn’t hate it. Scott McGrath the main narrator of this tale isn’t the most likeable of protagonists. We know he had a broken marriage and a daughter who sees from time to time. We also discover his attitudes shall we say, are definitely not what many on the American left would call ‘progressive’ but at the same time he is not an awful or detestable and he definitely has a drive to see things through. He also gets the help from two other characters. Nora who I found to be a bit flat and forgettable and Hopper who I didn’t like at first but would turn out to be more interesting later on.

One of the many articles that appear throughout the book.

I thought the story was too long I think some bits here and there could have been taken out and there is no sleuthing or detective work in Scott’s investigations. For example he goes to a hospital where Ashley Cordova was once at, never discovers anything and then someone out of nowhere says, go talk to this person, this person will tell them to go somewhere else. It was like going dot to dot until we could see the whole image of what we would later discover. I was also under the opinion that if the director Mr Cordova existed in our world that he would not be deemed as anything unusual in our world. His films don’t as unique as say.. James Incandenza’s films do in David Foster Wallace’s infinite Jest.

Despite being a thriller, with a plot I did not like that much including characters I will forget about, so why did I like this book as much as I did? It is if anything because of the presentation. There are articles from newspapers, the internet and magazines and cut outs that are presented to us. I liked this I though it really added to the world being described but that’s not all. Throughout the book there are certain pages that if you have the app (as of November 2020 you can find them on a website https://marishapessl.com/night-film-app/ ) add more to the story. You can hear music being described, audio of interviews of characters and additional notes to consider. I am big of fan of anything like this that can help shape a story and I would love to see more people doing this. I say this of course when I have yet to do anything as such myself.

Night Film was not wholly to my taste but there was enough there to keep me interested. The fact that we read and see what the characters see and with respect to music etc hear what they hear. Imagine it other genres, fantasy that can give us the illusion of actual fantasy or historical fiction that can make is actually feel it.

Grim Fandango Remastered by Lucas Arts and Double Fine

In case you haven’t notice this isn’t a book but a video game. Before I go any further, this is more of a look at the feel of the game itself, the look and to a lesser extent the plot of the game as opposed to the actual gameplay.

It would be rude to do a Halloween special of sorts without doing something even remotely related to Halloween, I could have done a horror novel or something by Poe or Lovecraft, I could have even done something with regards to a film. I am however going to do something on a video game that is actually quite close to my heart as a game that I have enjoyed which has a story that I adore. There are many homages, videos and articles out there with regards to people’s love for this game and I do not know what else I could add to it so here goes.

Manny being made aware of what would shape his adventure in the rest of the game.

Grim Fandango is a game I happily go back to purely for the story. More so now that I know how to get through it and solve the puzzles after multiple play troughs. I remember playing it as a teenager on the PC trying figure out what to do and where to go and I have it on my Switch now which is perfect for me because I prefer playing it on a portable device.

The thing I love about the game is the themes is presents to us. The fusion of film noir, art deco and the Jazz Age with the Mexican holiday of the the Day of The Dead and by extension, Aztec Mythology and the afterlife.

Once you start playing the game, you can easily see the film noir aesthetic from the props to the lighting and fashion.

As a huge fan of film noir it’s great to see nods to films such as Casablanca, Double Indemnity, The Killers (among others that I can’t think of straight away). We find our hero in the land of the dead, like a middle ground between the land of the living and the Ninth Underworld (as found in Aztec Myth) Manny Calavera (As you would expect for someone in the land of the dead, a calaveras) a down on his look salesman (like in Double Indemnity).

Manny like many film noir is no angel, he tries to cheat the system in work so he could get better sales (sales that is for travel packages to the Ninth Underworld, the nicer the soul that enters the land, the better package they get). We learn that everyone has a reason for being where they are in the Land of the Dead before they can move on from it. We also learn that in many ways it is not that different to the Land of the Living. People still do things that they did when they were alive. They love and hate, drink and gamble. Manny in this case exposes a certain degree of crime and comes across a number of unsavoury characters. He also meets other characters such as Meche who later becomes his love interest, an innocent soul who he wants to protect. Other characters in the game also include demons who have been sent to serve the souls of the Land of he Dead by doing manual tasks such as being mechanics and ‘sea bees’. Manny’s sidekick Glottis being one of them. Personally I thought it was a missed opportunity to not look at this more but it does not take anything away from what you’re already seeing.

Within the context of the game, it usually takes four years to walk to the Ninth Underworld on foot and the game takes places on certain days over a four year period. Each year representing a level. The second year we see all the classic tropes of film tropes, sinister characters and beatniks. I was fascinated by the idea that in the Land of the Dead because people can’t die, they are ended by becoming the bed for flowers, a form of life (pushing daisies if you will). So instead of reaching the Ninth Underworld, they reincarnate as flowers.

Visually you see the art of the Aztecs and Mexico merge with the look and shading of Film Noir. The Art Deco buildings have Aztecs symbols on them, a number of the characters talking with a Hispanic accent while also being 1940’s and 50’s attire and keeping that Film Noir look to it. This is also reflected in the music

Thought the remastered version of the game you can hear commentary from the developers was pretty good. I traditionally try to avoid this in DVDs etc as I think in can remove the magic of a film/game but it is good to hear how themes originated.

I love these type of adventure games and Grim Fandago is different to the traditional ones in that there is no mouse icon to move around, you just have to look at what Manny is looking at. Menus are kept to a minimum which also means you don’t have puzzles which combine different items together at least in the way they did in games such as Discworld. This is also one of my favourite games and I love the Film Noir themes that play throughout. Although I have read that many aren’t as enthusiastic about the second half of the game as they were with the first I think there is still enough to keep you going and definitely want to replay it again. Again I love the Noir theme and I prefer this in fact to LA Noire’s which as great as it is, does not quite have the same charm and feel at least for me. There are of course other similar games out there. Contrast being one of them as well as the Max Payne games which has more of a darker feel.

[First released in 1998 but now available on a number of platforms, the PS4 and Switch being among them as a remastered version.]

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

This was Clarice’s last published work before her unfortunate death although there were some works published afterwords (A Breath of Life being one of them). It is recognisably a work of Clarice’s in many ways, the varied use in vocabulary and an analysis of the self and who or what we are. There are two main characters in this story. Rodrigo SM the narrator and his unfortunate creation Macabea. The narrator tells us of their joy of writing, that their writing gives them a certain degree of power, in this case Macabea. We would see a similar type of theme in a Breath of Life though the narrator in that would give their heroine more of a voice.

This is Centennial Edition from New Directions publishing to commemorate 100 years from when Clarice was born. It also has a section written by her son Paulo Gurgel Valente on his recollections of his mother and her work which was written as recent as last July (2020)

Rodrigo has not given Macabea an easy life, she is a from poor area of Rio de Janeiro, she has simple pleasures and despite everything she goes through is actually quite content and in no way a vicious or nasty person. It would be hard to describe to much of the plot without giving too much of it a way so I will keep it to a minimum. Compared to other characters we meet Macabea is a relative saint if albeit a little naïve, her boyfriend does not have much to praise him for. Macabea is above all the other characters she meets in a number of ways without realising it. She has her own dreams and desires but never selfish. As the story develops however, we are made aware of the fact that Macabea is not master of her own fate. The narrator does say towards the end that this story is about the the greatest of everyone, more so Macabea in this case. Rodrigo then concludes with a nonchalant shrug with the acknowledgement that nothing lasts forever.

The Hour of the Star like her first published work Near to the Wild Heart is a short but well contained story. It does not feel as over done as her works The Besieged City or The Apple in the Dark. You will recognise however, again without giving too much away that the fate of Macabea resembles that of Virginia in The Chandelier. For want of a better comparison, The Hour of the Star is a lot less foggy in my mind’s eye with respect to the world it creates than The Chandelier was.

[New Directions, Centennial Edition 2020]

King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard

Before I read this book all I knew about it was from what others have said about it and that Sean Connery played the main protagonist Allan Quartermain in League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

From what I’ve heard others have said of it, I have heard it been described as ‘dated’ and a work from a different time. Having just read it I can say that this is true to a certain extent it is a book however, that still has some quality to it. When people say it is dated it is because it is written during the time when the British Empire was more active than it is now especially in Africa.

I got a copy from a charity shop with the dust cover falling apart not bad for £1.50.

The story starts with the narration of Allan Quartermain. Quartermain is our main hero of the tale, he is a British adventurer of sorts and knows a thing or two about Southern Africa, hunting and the local indigenous people (we even get to read about Quatermain’s hunting of elephants). He gets hired by an English man to go help find his brother in the mysterious King Solomon’s mines of which little is known. Along the way Quartermain gets help from a number of characters, one of which is an African who has his own reasons for wanting to join the group. Along the way the main group meets an hitherto unknown civilisation.

Criticisms in our modern society can easily be made about how this otherwise unknown society was portrayed by Rider Haggard. They believe Quartermain’s guns to be magic sticks and that they can summon an eclipse because they don’t know how they work as he plays on their superstitions. I would not know for certain but I would heavily doubt such a society would be so superstitious. With the exception of the characters that are clearly the protagonists of the tale, Rider Haggard does not portray African people in a wholly bad light although you could argue that the Anglo Saxon characters are meant to be seen as the betters. I found the protagonist Gagool, the adviser to the king of the newly discovered society to be an intelligent and sinister human being who would do anything to get her way. The character of Umbopa on the other hand is portrayed as a man of great virtue.

This is essentially a boy’s adventure book about going to an unknown land and meeting people who are not like you. It is an exciting book to read and despite being written by the British Rider Haggard, it feels like it was written on a different planet purely because the world of 1885 when it was first published is very different than the world of now. It has its charms and on the face of it I did enjoy but it some of it would definitely not be written in the way it was today. Give it a read, yes it is dated to a certain degree but I would not consider it to be wholly disrespectful which I was worried it may well have been before reading it.

[First published 1885. My edition 1955]

The Castle by Franz Kafka (translated by J.A. Underwood)

Like The Trial, The Castle is the story of an unfortunate K who gets lost in a world of opaque bureaucracy. Unlike The Trial, K has not been punished for a crime he does not know about, instead he has been hired as a land surveyor by an administration at a Castle, who don’t know why they hired him in the first place, K is left puzzling over why he remains at the village by the Castle interacting with the people there.

He has a relationship with a barmaid who he later finds out he has to marry so gets engaged to her, he meets a landlady who is hostile to him. There are many more characters and scenarios K comes across in the story and because he is there by mistake they end up giving him a job in the village anyway. Once K gets to know more about the world he has entered he realises that the people of The Castle are separate from the villagers and look down on them, using the women for example to satisfy their sexual needs.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

As in The Castle like in The Trial you never know an awful lot of what is going on until it is disclosed to you. K certainly does not. What the people of the Castle do exactly is not wholly known. K goes into the world at first with the best intentions but is left scratching his head as he plunges himself into this new society when all he needed to do was leave as soon as he could.

The Castle is famous for being one of Kafka’s unfinished works. For me this actually added to the story making it even more Kafkaesque (I really wanted to avoid saying that but it can’t be helped here). K is stuck in this world now, he likely will not leave. K is like a loud western tourist who shows up in Japan postwar or some other part of the world they know little about and has probably committed cultural faux pas after faux pas without realising it. K instead of taking a step back, ends up getting involved with and having a number of conversations and interactions one after the other, forgetting why he is there in the first place. Already as I type this (and especially when I was reading it) I am aware that I also am falling down the rabbit hole of writing about the conversations and scenarios along with K himself so I will stop there.

To anyone who wishes to read this, I highly recommend a certain degree of patience and to simply plunge into the story along with K and to take a step back after the end of each chapter to go over what you have read. I preferred The Trial by Kafka as the better story but that was purely because I found the story easier to follow, The Castle is intentionally making sure that you get stuck with K about what is going on and in a way that is they beauty of the novel.

[Penguin Classics, reprinted 2000. First published in 1926]