Thursday 28 February 2013

Reading the Classics: The Trial by Franz Kafka

My book club likes a challenge every now and then and as none of us had read much in the way of Kafka, we settled on The Trial. I saw it performed at the National many moons ago, directed by Steven Berkoff with Anthony Sher in the role of Josef K, and enjoyed it as a Beckett-like piece of absurdist theatre.

Kafka lived through interesting times. Born in to a Jewish family in Prague in 1883, he trained as a lawyer and worked most of his life for the state insurance company, a job he came to resent for interfering with his vocation as a writer. He had a troubled relationship with his overbearing and authoritarian father and this conflicted relationship often influenced his work. He was also a womaniser who visited brothels for most of his adult life, although he had close relationships with several women. He never married and died of tuberculosis in 1924.

The Trial was written in 1914; as war broke out around him, Kafka was excused national service because of his essential government work and ill health. He had just met Felice Bauer, to whom he later became engaged, and she is said to have released in him the fluency of his writing and to have had a great bearing on his work - her blouse even appears in the first chapter of The Trial

The story is that of Josef K, a senior administrator in a bank, who one morning at home finds himself unexpectedly under arrest. He is allowed to continue working until summoned to attend a court hearing the following Sunday at an unspecified time. Neither this appearance nor any of his subsequent encounters with officials, advocates, fellow accused or even court artists ever offer him any clarification of the charge brought against him and how he can refute it:
For the proceedings were in general kept secret not only from the public but from the defendant too.
Although at first not overly concerned, Josef K becomes more and more entangled in his attempts to discover how he can free himself from the unknown accusation. His work at the bank suffers and he begins to find himself outflanked by the wily deputy manager. He believes himself to be innocent but this is difficult to plead as the supporting evidence required could be from any time of his life.

At every turn the clarity he seeks is blocked by bureaucracy and obfuscation and all that becomes clear is that he will never truly be free again. Although the book was unfinished at the time of Kafka's death, and was only published posthumously by his great friend Max Brod, Kafka himself had written its disturbing ending.

This densely written text is not a good night-time book, I discovered, more than once waking from a doze to find it abandoned in front of me. It's difficult, dark and surreal - the humour that bubbles to the surface is of the bleaker kind. Kafka also seemed to write women shabbily at times, with the younger ones only there to provide sexual gratification.

Yet there is so much in this book which foreshadows the futility of present day bureaucracy, the threats and frustrations of our own democracy. That sinking  feeling you get when trying to navigate one of those automated phone calls where none of the available options are relevant. Or being asked repeatedly for your password, mother's maiden name, pet's name and shoe size to demonstrate you are actually you.

The Trial profoundly questions the nature of existence and society. While reading it, I had one of those spine-tingling moments that harked back to something I'd been listening to on Radio 4's Today programme. The Justice and Security Bill currently at committee stage in Parliament proposes in certain circumstances that claims could be made against an excluded party, who is not able to see or challenge the evidence. Instead their influence would be represented by vetted 'special advocates'. Chilling indeed that this proposal in the UK in 2013 should have been foreseen by a citizen of the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire almost 100 years earlier.

Pictures courtesy of The Guardian. The Trial is available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Friday 22 February 2013

The Year of the Hare by Aarto Paasilinna

Did you realise Donald Duck is called Aku Ankka in Finland and according to an urban myth he was banned there in the 1970s for not wearing any pants? As Finns are known for stripping off in the sauna at the slightest provocation, it seems unlikely they would have a hang up about a cartoon duck's naked bottom (and isn't it actually weirder that Donald wears a jacket?), but it's one of the nuggets I stumbled across when I decided to discover a little bit more about Finland.

Embarking on my second Finnish novel of the year (albeit by the same author), I reckoned I should find out more about this northern land of the midnight sun. What do you know about Finland? If you're anything like me you know that, besides a national love of saunas and the sun not setting in the summer, its capital is Helsinki, it's cold and covered in conifers and - that's about it, really.

Well, apart from learning about Donald, my search also revealed that in between the pine trees Finland is full of lakes and the sun that hangs around all summer doesn't get above the horizon in winter, when everything is bathed in an eerie blue light called kaamos.

It's also the most sparsely populated country in the EU with only 5.4 million inhabitants, but has a high standard of living and a well regarded education system. And, one of its most celebrated writers is Arto Paasilinna, author of The Year of the Hare.

Now, I really loved Paaslinna's The Howling Miller (read my review here) and it's anarchic protagonist and that lead me to recommend The Year of the Hare as one of our next book club reads. This is Paasilinna's best known novel about world-weary journalist Kaarlo Vatanen who, while on an assignment, runs over a hare and, after rescuing the injured creature, embarks on a new life leaving his job, his wife and all  his possessions behind in Helsinki.

The premise is wonderful and the sparseness of the text embodies the spaces of Finland. Vatanen realises, soon after finding the hare that
He didn't like his wife. There was something not very nice about her: she'd been unpleasant, or at any rate, totally bound up with number one, all their married life.
That's it, I thought, I love this book, even though I felt a shiver of recognition in this wife who
never wore (her clothes) for more than a while because, once on, they soon lost their allure for her
I too believe the clothes I buy will somehow create a newly minted, streamlined me, and when they don't achieve the impossible, I reject them. I was looking forward to hearing more about Vatanen's relationship with this unpleasant and interesting wife, so imagine my disappointment when she quickly disappears from the narrative. Vatannen sells his boat to a friend, which funds his year of leoparine self-discovery, gives his wife and colleagues the slip and heads off into deepest, fir-lined Finland. The hare's wounds gradually heal and Vatanen rejects city living and reconnects with nature through a series of darkly comic land-based adventures.

The situations and characters in each episode are truly comic, from the crazed bulldozer operator who drives his machine into a lake and then berates the onlookers for not rescuing him quickly enough to the hard bitten lumberjack Kurko who learns to swim and then finds a cache of weapons left behind by the Germans at the bottom of the river. The hare polarises opinion among those they meet but never fails to provoke a reaction; meanwhile, Vatanen lives on the fringes of society and moves further and further away from civilisation as he makes his way north, steadfast only in his devotion to his adopted wild companion. Each adventure, however, is more or less unrelated, and apart from the the bond between Vatanen and his hare, there is little other character development to be found.

Paasilinna was a journalist who became  disaffected with his occupation and sold his boat to fund his writing of this story, so it's clearly in no small part based on his own life. I loved the book's quirkiness, but wanted to know more about the reactions of those Vatanen left behind - I was hoping his wife and colleagues might reappear in their awfulness, but as they didn't I found I had little feeling one way or another for what became of him. My other quibble was the translation which occasionally seemed to miss the mark - the use of English money and words such as 'quid' seemed rather out of place in the Arctic Circle.

This is a picaresque novel with a fable-like quality and I can imagine it being very effective as a play or a film.
I liked it, but maybe not quite as much as The Howling Miller, even though the humour and many of the themes are similar. And, along the way I enjoyed finding out more about Finland, Aku Annka and the supposed banning of his bottom, even though on the evidence of this novel, there's no way it would have been of any concern whatsoever.
(image courtesy of Disney)

Saturday 16 February 2013

Treasure Books

So, I've decided to have a clear out (again). And it's been fairly successful so far - quite a few old VHS tapes, some clothes and even one book (a stencil-and-tassel-your-entire-house tome from the eighties) have made it into the charity bag. But now here's the rub; I can accept I won't be young enough or thin enough to wear that white tiered skirt ever again, but can I really live without the books I cherished, and have kept through various house moves, in my youth and childhood?

Well, after much soul searching, I've decided on the whole that I can. My raison d'etre for keeping them was that my children might like to read them. But, with one or two exceptions (see below), it wasn't a successful strategy. This more sophisticated generation has a whole genre of  their own children's and young adult fiction to pick from, as well as numerous other distractions and somehow Enid Blyton holds little appeal. And perhaps, from any sensible perspective, that's no bad thing.

So, there's going to be a cull of the friendly spines I grew up with, which have been packed away for years in boxes in the cellar. But there are some I can't bear to part with:

My Naughty Little Sister Dorothy Edwards

I borrowed this series of books from the library so many times, I think I knew them word for word. I wanted a little sister so badly, but my Mum had other plans - allegedly I was the naughty little sister! I bought the set for my own daughters, and they were one of my few successes. They loved these affectionate stories of what one little girl got up to in her 1950s childhood, from digging up the garden to eating all the trifle, as much as I had.

Little House on the Prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder


I can remember having this read to me by my primary school teacher Mrs Cherry and it entranced me. I reread the series of Laura Ingalls Wilder books so many times, I'm surprised the pages haven't all fallen out. I gave it my highest accolade

I thought they were brave and pioneering but unfortunately my children's view was tainted by the over-sanitised TV series, repeated endlessly in their formative years.

The Wrong Chalet School Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

I first discovered the Chalet School books at my local library where I spend a lot of my childhood! I loved these 1950s tales of a girls' boarding school in the Tirol, unpacking your trunk in the dorm supervised by Matron sounded dashing and splendid to my primary school self. This book, where the school has moved to Wales for some reason, seems to be the only one I actually own. I'm sure I had more but I went through a phase of dropping them in the bath while reading.

The Railway Children E Nesbit

Ah, The Railway Children - what more needs to be said? Steam trains, red flannel petticoats and 'Oh, my Daddy, my Daddy!'

The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton

I didn't really get into Blyton's Famous Five books, but I adored this tale of summer holiday adventures on a mysterious island with secret passages and old copper mines, as well as all the other books in the series.These children had the sort of holidays I wanted! Similarly, I loved all the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazon books - all borrowed from the library.

Little Women Louisa M. Alcott


Another classic that needs little introduction. I imagined myself as Jo March. And how I cried...

Ballet Shoes  Noel Streatfield

Like many little girls I longed to be a ballerina, but I wasn't allowed ballet lessons. The Fossil family were living my dream...

Watership Down Richard Adams

This book was really different from anything else I'd read at the time. I remember a real playground buzz about the epic adventures of Fiver, Hazel and co. - unlike most of my other favourites, boys enjoyed it too.

My bookplates were quite sophisticated here as well, thanks to my membership of The Puffin Club...

I Capture the Castle Dodie Smith and The L-Shaped Room Lynne Reid Banks

Both these books were a real influence in my teenage years. I seriously considered changing my name to Cassandra and longed for someone to fall hopelessly in love with me. Then I went through a historical fiction phase - borrowing Victoria Holt and Georgette Heyer from the library by the shed load. After that it was science fiction, raiding my brother's shelves for all his H G Wells, John Wyndam and Isaac Asimov books. The L-Shaped Room brought me back down to earth - reading from the other side of the swinging sixties attitudes already seemed anachronistic, but I loved the story of Jane's struggle - pregnant, unmarried and living in a squalid bedsit and of how her neighbours, especially the lovely Toby, gradually brought her back to life again.

So these are my Treasure Books - I'd love to hear about some of yours...

Wednesday 13 February 2013

The Winter's Tale

So, we had a wonderful theatrical experience yesterday, my family and I. We drove to Stratford-on-Avon as a half-term treat, to see a matinee of The Winter's Tale at the RSC. This was no ordinary show but a unique performance, where those understudying for the principal players had the opportunity to show what they could do. But the whole ensemble was included, so this also meant that the likes of leading actors Tara Fitzgerald and Jo Stone-Fewings were involved in taking on some of the lesser parts.

The Winter's Tale, one of my bucket list of Shakespeare plays I'd yet to see, is a story of the destructive force of jealousy and yet is classed as one of Shakespeare's comedies (although sometimes also viewed as one of his 'problem plays'). In the opening scene, Leontes (Ben Whybrow), King of  Sicilia, is begging his life-long friend Polixenes (Daniel Millar), King of Bohemia, to extend his stay. Leontes' petition is unsuccessful, but his pregnant wife, Hermione (Bethan Walker) is more persuasive and this, together with witnessing their friendly kiss, is enough to convince Leontes of his wife's betrayal, that she is having an affair with Polixenes and is bearing his child. He orders that Polixenes should be poisoned, Hermione thrown into prison and the daughter born shortly thereafter abandoned on a foreign shore.

The first acts portray the descent from an affluent Pre-Raphaelite idyll of Sicilia at the play's opening to a darker place where bellies-with-child are punched without redress, until we are finally washed up on the shores of storm-lashed Bohemia. Lucy Bailey's production separates Sicilia from Bohemia by class rather than country, focusing on the divisions suggested by the text of the play, although how Bohemia serves as a Victorian industrial powerhouse for Sicilia when it consists mainly of frolicking shepherds isn't entirely clear.

Prior to seeing this production, I'd read a couple of reviews which were quite critical of the set and lighting, suggesting they were a distraction from the actors and that Bailey had focused on style over substance. I didn't find this so; the changing seascape was evocative without being overwhelming and the tower (although it didn't seem all that ivory-like, I only picked this up from the programme notes) introduced a dynamism quite welcome after so much exposition. It was also an effective means of demonstrating Leontes' isolation from the society he had so arbitrarily rejected.

The final acts are altogether a lighter affair, set in Bohemia some sixteen years later. Leontes' abandoned daughter Perdita (Bethan Walker/Emma Noakes sharing) has been adopted by an old shepherd and brought up in a rural setting of clog dancing, pick-pocketing and partying like there's no tomorrow. Prince Florizel (Andrew Hanratty), son of Polixenes, has fallen in love with her but, because of her perceived lowly birth, there are problems ahead, embodied by the unreasoning rage exhibited by Polixenes, but relieved by the superbly comic interventions of the peddler Autolycus (Duncan Wisbey).

Theatre is created anew at every performance and nothing can reinforce this so vehemently as an understudy run. This is a chance for the up and coming to impress and progress, and so it is exceptionally exciting to watch. Here and there were a few fluffed lines, but in the circumstances, it seems quite picky to mention them. I had my doubts about Ben Whybrow as Leontes at the beginning but he seemed to grow into the role. Bethan Walker was outstanding as Hermione (and sometimes Perdita) with not a whiff of the understudy about her -  she is surely destined for more leading roles. I hope all the understudies took as much from the experience as we did from being in the audience.

(Original cast images courtesy of the RSC)