This isn’t a political blog, but it is one where I try and relate books to what’s going on in my life/the wider world, and this is the week when Britain votes on whether to stay in or leave the EU. So in this post I’m looking at two books by European writers, and in order to maintain the blog’s thin veneer of impartiality, I’ve picked one by a writer from a country inside the EU, and one from outside. Between them they are two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit– with none of the attendant worries of which passport queue to join, should major changes ensue…
Firstly, The Blue Fox by Icelandic by poet/novelist/songwriter for Bjork/all round Renaissance man Sjon (trans.Victoria Cribb). This short novel (112 pages in my edition) is stunning: lyrical, sparse and truly magical. I can’t remember whose blog first introduced me to this, so if it was you please leave a comment 🙂
The story begins in 1883, with the priest Baldur Skuggason hunting a rare blue vixen:
“Snow covered the land up to the roots of the glacier, not a bare patch of earth to be seen; the vixen would write the tale of her travels on the blank sheet as soon as she embarked on them.
Grasping the weapon in both hands, he set off.”
Not a word is wasted, as Sjon creates characters and atmosphere with the minimum needed. This style is highly effective as it evokes the quiet focus of the hunt and the frozen expanse of the winter landscape.
“The sun warms the man’s white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.”
The second part of the novel goes back 16 years to explore the relationship between naturalist Fridrik B Fridriksson and his ward Abba, who has Down’s Syndrome. This section is more densely written but still beautifully constrained.
“Ghost-sun is a name given by poets to their friend the moon, and it is fitting tonight when its ashen light bathes the grove of trees that stand in the dip above the farmhouse at Brekka. This little copse was the loving creation of Abba and Fridrik, and few things made them more of a laughing stock in the Dale than its cultivation, though most of their endevours met with ridicule.”
Back in 1883, the stories intertwine and move towards an eerie, unsettling conclusion. The Blue Fox occupies a space between poetry, prose, myth, mystery and fable. Highly recommended.
Secondly, Berlin Stories by Robert Walser (tr. Susan Bernofsky), which also occupies a space between genres, this time autobiography and fiction. Walser moved to Berlin in 1905 as a young man, and Berlin Stories collects together his impressions of the city, the people he meets, the experiences he has.
I had no idea what to expect, not having read any Walser before. Picture the scene, reader: It is early morning. You hate your job. You are on a crowded platform waiting for a delayed train. You are surrounded by other commuters, who by their disregard for even the most basic social niceties are telling you that they too hate their job, and they hate you only marginally less. Then you read this:
“Onward, onward. That blue-eyed marvel, the early morning, has no time to waste on drunkards. It has a thousand shimmering threads with which it draws you on; it pushes you from behind and smiles coaxingly from the front. You glance up to where a whitish, veiled sky is letting a few scraps of blue peek out; behind you, to gaze after a person who interests you; beside you, at an opulent portal behind which a regal palace morosely, elegantly towers up. Statues beckon you from gardens and parks; still you keep on walking, giving everything a passing glance: things in motion and things fixed in place”
Needless to say, by page 4 of Berlin Stories, where that passage appears, I knew I was in for a beautiful journey around Berlin in Walser’s company. His style is brilliantly evocative of a city: short sketches of whatever interests him creates a series of impressions of Berlin, rather than a fixed, focused depiction. He is funny and sad, he has an eye for the minutiae and the broader picture. It is a love letter to the city, and you are left in no doubt as to why Berlin has such a culturally rich history.
“Berlin by comparison – how splendid! A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention.”
Like The Blue Fox, this is a short volume (139 pages) and therein lies its power. Walser creates concise, delicate yet richly vivid portraits of Berlin. Just gorgeous.
To end, I want a badge. A badge to commend my enormous self-restraint in not going on a 1980s cheese-fest (which is something I rarely restrain from) by capturing either the titular song or the band Berlin in embedded video form. Instead I’m going for a guaranteed earworm clip from a musical inspired by the Berlin stories of another writer, Christopher Isherwood. Take it away, Liza: