“Books have to be heavy because the whole world’s inside them.” (Cornelia Funke)

Oh dear, I still haven’t quite got my blogging momentum back. I planned a few posts for German Literature Month 2018, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life but here we are at the end of the month and this is my first. Somehow I have a feeling improving my blogging is definitely going to feature on my New Year’s resolution list…

It certainly isn’t lack of good reading that is the cause of my blogging dip, as I really loved Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon (2010, trans. Donal McLaughlin 2012), from the ever-reliable publisher AndOtherStories. It also fits with my love of novellas at only 172 pages long, and is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit, as much to my own surprise, I’ve not been to Switzerland yet.

The premise of the novel is incredibly simple: octogenarian widower Lukas Zbinden is walking down the stairs of the retirement home where he lives, holding onto the arm of a new carer, Kazim. As they make their way down seemingly interminable flights, Lukas recounts his life. Kazim is a silent interlocutor, as you feel many people are with Lukas Zbinden. He was happily married, to a woman who converted him to the joys of walking, although she preferred country walks and her irrepressible husband prefers sociable city walks:

“Emilie always said the one really essential thing was to remain lively, active and interested, and always open to whatever’s going on both in nature and within oneself. We could talk much more about that Kazim, if we went for a walk.”

“Emilie liked trees standing randomly in a landscape; I like trees in rows. I’ve nothing against cow pastures being built on, even to be replaced by hangars and shopping streets providing free entertainment. I yearn for tranquillity but can’t actually bear it.”

Lukas is an entertaining, endearing man although not without his faults. He is still fully engaged with life, enjoying the people he shares the home with, poking his nose into their business, and trying to convert everyone to the joys of ambulation.

“Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away.”

He’s also aware of his own failings, and the progress of the title is psychological as well as physical. He misses his wife, he knows his relationship with his son isn’t that great, and he’s trying to be a better person.

“Emilie was so full of beautiful things she could share with others. Her whole life was sharing with others, just as I wish that for my own life. Believe me when I say that, it’s why I’m working on becoming inwardly rich. So that every time I’m with someone, I can share something with that person.”

Zbinden’s Progress was just the right book at the right time for me. Things are pretty bleak right now – watching the news is an endurance task. This novella is sweet but not sentimental, life-affirming but realistic. The overall message is that it’s never too late to reach out to people, to enrich your life and theirs with a connection. It’s also about how love, in its many forms, endures. And it’s about finding the right hobby:

“What counts is that you have the right leisure activity. An activity with which you can live when it gets very dark; that gives you support in the face of major challenges; for which there are no requirements in terms of age and ability; that requires no proof of an unimpaired ability to think; an activity during which you can die peacefully.”

Sounds like reading to me (so long as the dark is metaphorical not literal).

Zbinden’s Progress is funny and sad, but more the former than latter. It is about simple joys, and about finding what for you makes a life well lived.

“the end of my path is becoming more and more identifiable. I’ve started taking my leave of people, but they tell me it’s still too early for that.”

If I’ve failed to give you a good sense of this book, perhaps this will help – a pictorial representation by the author, helpfully enclosed with my copy:

Secondly, a book I read mainly for curiosity value, ThreePenny Novel by Bertolt Brecht (1934, trans. Desmond I Versey with verses trans. Christopher Isherwood, 1937). I know Brecht mainly as a playwright, and I’ve seen ThreePenny Opera a few times so I was curious to see what he did with the characters in novel form.

Macheath, ‘Mack the Knife’ is still the main focus, his famous activities of the ThreePenny Opera shrouded in rumour as he has established himself as a businessman, running a series of ‘B Shops’ which sell stolen goods incredibly cheaply.  Brecht was a Marxist and his work is undoubtedly didactic, but he does it with bone-dry humour:

“years obscured by that semi-darkness which makes certain portions of the biographies of our great businessmen so poor in material; ‘giants of industry’ usually seem to rise, suddenly and astonishingly, ‘straight up’ out of the darkness after so-and-so many years of ‘hard and necessitous life’ – but whose life is usually not mentioned.”

Another businessman is Peachum, Polly’s father, who manages a group of professional beggars, ruthlessly and cynically:

 “After a victory one must send out mutilated, dirty, miserable soldiers begging; but after a defeat they must be smart and clean and spruce. That’s the whole art.”

Polly marries Macheath, and Peachum is not happy. He wanted her to marry a man named Coax, who is organising a shipping scam to rip off investors and the Navy.

“His daughter was to blame for everything. Through her boundless sensuality, doubtless inherited from her mother, and as a result of culpable inexperience, Polly had thrown herself into the arms of a more sinister individual. Why she had immediately married her lover was a mystery to him. He suspected something terrible.”

Everything and everyone is terrible in ThreePenny Novel. The corruption is relentless. The coveting and accumulation of money is the only motivator and is pursued without scruple, facilitated by the bankers and financiers. It is incredibly bleak: sociopathic Macheath rises to the top through entirely legal means.

In this world there is no room for morals, compassion, or consideration. I didn’t find it depressing though. ThreePenny Novel is a satire, and so it’s wry portrayal of people and events lightens it enough. I thought it was a bit overlong (as I nearly always do for anything over 200 pages) but on finishing the novel I did find myself questioning what I could do to be less of a cog in corrupt capitalist machines so it was certainly effective from the political point of view, comrades 😊

Brecht’s work may seem dated: a Marxist treatise set in late Victorian London. But I really don’t think it is. Judge for yourself if this still seems relevant:

“There are some people who have the capacity for remaining entirely uninfluenced by the feelings of others, who can remain completely immune from actualities and can speak their thoughts openly and freely, without regard for time and place. Such men are born to be leaders.”

To end, there was only one song I could possibly end on. Here it is in the 1989 version of The ThreePenny Opera (trigger warnings for mentions of rape, murder, blood, assault, and stylised violence):

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“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here.’ Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” (Margaret Atwood)

This is my contribution to Margaret Atwood Reading Month, hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at Buried in Print. Do join in with #MARM!

As a teenager I fell in love with Atwood and read all her novels and short stories, most of her poetry and a collection of interviews. Then I’m not sure what happened, the MaddAddam trilogy didn’t appeal to me as much and I probably hadn’t read any Atwood since The Blind Assassin in 2000. In this year of my book-buying ban, I found I had two Atwoods in the TBR, so here they are.

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

Firstly, The Heart Goes Last (2015), my first Atwood in about 18 years, and from the first page I realised I needed her back in my life. She is such an accomplished writer that you know you’re in safe hands. She knows what she’s doing: the characters will be believable, the plot will carry you through, she has something important to say. What more could you want? This being Atwood, the story is terrifying, funny, and horribly believable.

Charmaine and Stan are living in their car. Time and place are unspecified, but there’s every reason to assume it’s now, in the United States. The recession has bitten and they have lost their jobs and their homes, along with many others. Poverty and deprivation have led to rising crime and they are at risk of violent attack. Unsurprisingly, their marriage is under strain:

“Charmaine says why don’t they go jogging? They used to do that when they had their house: get up early, jog before breakfast, then a shower. It made you feel so full of energy, so clean. But Stan looks at her like she’s out of her mind, and she sees that yes, it would be silly, leaving the car unattended with everything in it…and putting themselves at risk because who knows what might be hiding in the bushes? Anyway where would they jog? Along the streets with the boarded-up houses?”

Then one day, when Charmaine is working in a bar, she sees aa television advert for Positron. Positron offers a place to live and full employment.

“She can feel the griminess of her body, she can smell the stale odour coming from her clothes, from her hair, from the rancid fat smell of the chicken-wings place next door. All of that can be shed, it can peel off her like an onion skin, and she can step out of that skin and be a different person.”

Living in Positron means alternating one month in the town, one month in the prison called Consilience. Stan is from a tough background and his brother Con is a criminal. This means Stan is far from naïve, but he is also desperate:

“They’re like the early pioneers, blazing a trail, clearing a way to the future: a future that will be more secure, more prosperous, and just all-round better because of them! Posterity will revere them. That’s the spiel. Stan has never heard so much bullshit in his life. On the other hand, he sort of wants to believe it.”

Charmaine and Stan sign away their lives to the project – there’s no leaving once you’re in – and settle into their new lives. The aesthetic is an idealised 1950s Doris Day film, with surveillance. Gradually they both, in very different ways, begin to understand the dark side of the Positron project, and of each other.

“He hadn’t recognised it when they’d been living together – he’d underestimated her shadow side, which was mistake number one, because everyone has a shadow side, even fluffpots like her.”

The plot that develops is darkly comic, and deeply sinister. Needless to say, the uses of technology in Positron are not ethical, and the question is, where do you draw the line? The answers to this question become more and more murky as the novel progresses.

Charmaine and Stan are not always sympathetic but they are believable, including why they would sign their lives away. The rise of the far right in today’s politics can seem bewildering at best and terrifying most of time, but Atwood has Stan address the reason people support their freewill being circumscribed, in no uncertain terms:

“Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven’t performed that well for him personally.”

There’s also a great deal about gender politics in The Heart Goes Last. I can’t say too much about it for fear of plot spoilers, but I greatly enjoyed this pithy observation by Charmaine when she’s taken out for dinner by a powerful man who wants to seduce her:

“She blots the corner of her eye, folding the trace of black mascara up in the serviette. Men don’t like to think about makeup, they like to think everything about you is genuine. Unless of course they want to think you’re a slut and everything about you is fake.”

The ending is perfect: a twist that shows in miniature the broader themes of the novel, ending with an unresolved question for a character and the reader. It doesn’t allow a comfortable feeling of being in a better, wiser position than the characters but instead asks: when faced with a moral dilemma, do you really know what you would do?

Secondly, The Penelopiad (2005), a novella (hooray!) in which Atwood retells the story of Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus (part of Canongate’s Myth Series). Penelope narrates the story from Hades. She was the faithful wife of Homer’s myth, but also had her eyes wide open with regard to her warrior husband:

“Of course I had inklings, about his slipperiness, his wiliness, his foxiness, his – how can I put this? – his unscrupulousness, but I turned a blind eye. I kept my mouth shut; or, if I opened it, I sang his praises. I didn’t contradict, I didn’t ask awkward questions, I didn’t dig deep. I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.”

This captures much of the themes of The Penelopiad, that is, that Penelope’s feelings for her warrior husband are not straightforward, and also, that the story of events depends on who is doing the telling, what they leave in and what they miss out. The Odyssey is a cornerstone of Western civilisation, but it is not the only version. Penelope’s Odysseus is a wily cheat, far from heroic. Helen is a vain bitch:

“Of course, she was very beautiful. It was claimed she’d come out of an egg, being the daughter of Zeus who’d raped her mother in the form of a swan. She was quite stuck up about it, was Helen.”

When Odysseus is away fighting the Trojan War, Penelope runs his estates extremely well and keeps her suitors at bay. Her son Telemachus is a brat and Penelope feels more kinship with her 12 maids, many of whom she has known since they were babies. The maids form a Greek chorus throughout the story, speaking in verse between chapters. We know that Telemachus will kill them all on his father’s return, and Atwood is intrigued as to why these powerless (poor, female) people are treated so brutally:

“Let them dangle, let them strangle –

Blame it on the slaves!”

Penelope is shown as having to carefully navigate a position that sees her wealthy but powerless, having to pick her way through a minefield of social constraints that could see her branded a whore in her husband’s absence. Her faithfulness is not out of loyalty to Odysseus but self-preservation in a patriarchal society.

There are massive themes in this novella and they are as relevant as ever when the most powerful man in the world has a constant refrain of ‘fake news!’. By the end of The Penelopiad Penelope is shown to possibly not be a reliable narrator, but then, is anyone? Don’t we all have our own versions? Atwood reminds us that for each story told, it is worth considering what gain is to be made. And she does so with irreverent glee:

“Who is to say that the prayers have any effect? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t? I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands.”

Taking part in #MARM has made me check Atwood’s bibliography to see what I’ve missed: I’ve still got her three most recent short story collections, Hag-Seed and the MaddAddam trilogy to catch up on. I’m really grateful to #MARM for reminding me just how much I love her writing and giving me my Atwood impetus back again!

To end, when Margaret Atwood appeared on Desert Island Discs, she chose this song by a much-missed troubadour: