literature

Thomas Bernhard on Literature & the Viennese Coffee Haus Disease

As I type this, I sit in my friend’s Wohnung in Vienna. I arrived last night, later than expected as all flights in Berlin were delayed due to a supposed bomb threat according to our pilot, and when I arrived in Austria, it was dark and drizzling. I have been to Vienna once before for just over a week. Perhaps, the great gods of Viennese arts and thought will strike me down as I take my sip of coffee, but I found the city–albeit, beautiful–a bit dull. The buildings are grand and opulent; sometimes I think of structures carved from marzipan by master bakers. I am here for three weeks and a pit grows in my stomach as I try to consider how this city will be more appealing for this longer stay.

Thomas Bernhard, 1957

Like all semi-tech savvy 21st century citizens, when recommendations failed from my friends, I went straight to the internet. There are certainly a few sites and top 10 lists, but they often suggest the same handful of Schlösser, other palatial estates, and museums. I’ve found some sites that are well-kept by engaging locals, which I am more than grateful for, but the trend is to point people of the non-castle trekking variety* to coffeehouses (Kaffeehäuser). Coffeehouses are completely part of Vienna. You have a coffee and a cake (actually, with all of my complaining, this is one of my favorite things to indulge in while in German-speaking countries; I can wax on endlessly about my favorite: pflaumenkuchen.)

I should be more grateful, as I am in the city for a literary grant, but in my curmudgeonry, I thought to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a 20th century Austrian writer who often poked satirical fun at what he thought were the tired and stupid ways of Austrians. His works caused scandals. A favorite of mine is Woodcutters (original title: Holzfällen), where the narrator cleverly mocks a group of dinner guests all the while sitting in a wing chair.

As I sidetracked from my original mission to find something interesting in Vienna, I did a quick internet search of Thomas Bernhard and if he had specific thoughts on the city. I immediately found an excerpt from an autobiographical work called Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The short bit is a humorous reflection that Bernhard has about his relationship to Viennese coffeehouses and what he calls the Viennese coffeehouse disease. It’s a quick read, for sure, but here are a few favorites:

On other literary-inclined coffee house patrons,

These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house — not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant[.]

On German and Austrian newspapers (compared to English and French),

From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets — to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper?

On Viennese coffee houses and himself,

The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind.

So there you have it. My Viennese dilemma. If you haven’t read Thomas Bernhard, you certainly should start right away. I think many of his books have been reissued in recent years in English translation. Has anyone else visited this beautiful yet dull city? Perhaps you are like my friend who has lived here for many years and compares it and its people to a mausoleum.

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* I love castles, but I think I have seen so many on my previous trip to Vienna, there is no reason for me to go out of my way to see one. If I happen to stumble upon one, I shall look at it, thinks it’s beautiful, and continue walking on (probably to a coffeehouse to have a cake).

In the Year 2889 by Jules Verne

2889 cover

I must admit that I originally began reading this short story based solely on its title and that said title’s similarity to the song, “In the Year 2525.” When I began reading, the preface notified the reader that this Jules Verne story was in fact not written by the great Nineteenth century French science fiction/fantasy author, but by his l’enfant terrible son, Michel, who occasionally wrote fiction but published it under his famous father’s name.

The prose is not entirely eloquent, but the intrigue is found in how Michel describes his version of the future. At times, it is both amusing and oddly prophetic. Like me, I’m sure anyone fond of The Jetsons will enjoy the pneumatic tubes which people travel by or the flying cars that line up at your window (or the very George Jetson automatic dressing machine you just step into).

In the Year 2889” focuses on Mr. Fritz Napoleon Smith, an extremely wealthy newspaper magnate (apparently, in the distant future, newspapers are money makers with thousands of employees). He owns the Earth Chronicle that has 80,000,000 subscribers,

“Smith’s wealth went on growing, till now it reaches the almost unimaginable figure of $10,000,000,000.”

I wonder if the younger Verne would be disappointed in the state of newspapers in the year 2014. However, the newspapers of 2889 aren’t read: “Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day.”

2889

Michel Verne uses what I assume is exacting technical language to give a futuristic feel to 2889. Besides being delivered by tubes and flying cars, there is a Skype of the future, which Mr. Smith uses quite frequently to speak with his wife when she’s away (“the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires”–this is how I assume Skype works). The above image is an artist’s interpretation of their shared meal, even though he is in Centropolis (one must imagine this is what NYC is going by in the future) and she is in France.

There is an oddness to it all, however, in that phonographs are often used in 2889. Every subscriber of the Earth Chronicle has one. It’s so endearingly antiquated as it’s mashed into the future.

The story might not have the same pizzazz of an authentic Jules Verne story, but the imagination is there. It’s pretty marvelous to read what Michel Verne was coming up with in 1889. “In the Year 2889″ is definitely worth a read and especially so, because it’s free in the public domain.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

This summer has seen a light sampling of haunting reads. Ghost stories are no longer dedicated to autumn/October release dates and this is something I’m entirely happy about. With that said, however, I was a smidge disappointed by the prolific Graham Joyce’s The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit.

electric suit

The novel is being promoted as one that taps into a more supernatural motivation, but taking the back burner would be a whopping understatement. Though, the writing itself is quite strong and clean, any notion of a “ghost” or an “electric blue suit” is wholly reduced in favor of more mundane plot points.

The book begins engaging enough and gets the story going quickly. David Barwise is a young college student who goes to work at a shabby seaside resort during his summer break. He’s drawn to the town because it is the same place that his father disappeared from fifteen years prior when David was only three years old. His mother and step-father are mighty worried and question him on his decision to go there. When David arrives he sees a man and a young boy on the shore. This, of course, brings up memories off his lost father.

David is much different than the rest of the employees who are entertainers–ventriloquists, stage performers, dancing girls–and the rest who make sure the holiday resort runs smoothly.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit has all the pieces that should make it a stand-out work. Joyce positions the mysterious intrigue right at the beginning, but some how it gets lost. I think of this book has being in quarters: the first quarter whets our whistle; we must know about this man and boy on the shore.

“The man’s suit is blue and it darts with watery phosphorescence. The suit is beautiful, alive, quivering like the scales of fish.”

The man appears to him in his waking life and even in his dreams and nightmares. Joyce further goes on to set the novel in 1976, the hottest summer in recent memory, and makes the setting even more bizarre by having swarms of ladybugs engulf the town like a plague.

The second and third quarters are where we have a problem. There is too much concern with the minutiae of running a seaside holiday resort; the characters, as well, are little more than lightly stenciled versions of people. They seem fuzzy in my imagination and are never truly realized even though there is a sense that the author wants them to stand out.

The final portion is slightly more interesting. Questions are inevitably answered and mysteries are flattened out leaving them resolved. It all seemed as if it suffered from too little, too late syndrome.

Perhaps, I’m being too harsh on this novel, but I had such high hopes. It might be more suited for a casual reader sitting poolside who’s one or two mojitos in already. I haven’t read any other novels by Graham Joyce, but I’m under the impression that he’s highly regarded by fantasy enthusiasts and he’s won the O. Henry Award. Has anyone read his other books?

Distractions: Which Classic Novel Describes Your Life?

After watching about 37 minutes of last night’s news, my brain could no longer take the massive global overload of despair, doom, and destruction. I heard the serpent calling me to click over to Playbuzz. Blerg. Weakness. At first, I was surprised (what? A trivial internet multiple choice didn’t pin me down?!), but then I read the final few sentences, which I found to be strangely familiar. Which novel did you get?

lord of the rings

The Fallen by Dale Bailey

Back in May, I reviewed an excellent novella by writer Dale Bailey titled, “The End of the End of Everything.” Until now, it had been the only work I had read by the author, but I was delighted to hear that his novels were being republished. The Fallen is Bailey’s debut novel from 2002.

the fallen

Saul’s Run, West Virginia is a small town that is an eerily perfect place to live except every few years when a slew of unlikely deaths and violent crimes flare up like a bout of flu and then ultimately recede again for another number of years. Otherwise, people live till old ages and the security of the residents is completely at ease. Henry Sleep returns to the Run, as it is known to the locals, after a decade’s long absence after hearing news of the apparent suicide death of his father, the local holy man. Henry is skeptical of the death and as he has further run-ins with the other locals and a new face, his apprehension grows tremendously.

The Fallen is classic horror that I couldn’t help but associate with Stephen King. Although, this novel felt tremendously different from his recent novella, Bailey still focused on a place with an unnatural presence growing around it, ready to suffocate the characters till the final pages.

The idea of evil lurking in unexpected places was prime in The Fallen, giving it that earlier King feeling. Recurring shared dreams of being caught in a labyrinth are highlighted throughout leaving the reader ever-curious about how this all ties together.

Bailey structures the novel with sections and chapters that jump between present and past years when the Run’s tranquil life is upended by dastardly crimes and unexpected deaths, which gives a feeling of unknown dread. When weaved together, this plot construct can be both confusing and intriguing with the former purposefully disorienting to leave the reader feeling off-kilter as Henry further investigates his father’s odd death and the evil forces of the town.

Admittedly, the novel did feel a little uneven. The beginning was incredibly engaging as past years’ portions were looped with Henry’s present return. The middle slightly stagnated in a way that it might not have if Bailey was writing this today with several novels already in his oeuvre. The ending’s action is full tilt as Henry and his friends learn what is causing the intermittent horrors of Saul’s Run.

The Fallen and Dale Bailey’s other novels are being republished by Open Road Media. Check ‘em out and take special note of his novella that I previously mentioned, which is available from Tor.com.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

The PBS Online Film Festival is going on right now and they have 25 short films available on YouTube (only a few days left for viewers to vote for their favorites). One of the contenders is a 3 minute long short experimental animation based on Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (you can it read it for free in the public domain). I’m particularly fond of the way the animators put the opaque wallpaper onto the woman’s body.

From PBS: Vote for this film at http://www.pbs.org/filmfestival/video…
The Yellow Wallpaper is an experimental animated adaptation of the eponymous short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story is about a depressed woman who descends into insanity as she struggles against the patriarchal institution that confines her. Through expressive movements and visual symbols, the animation captures the intersection between gender and mental health.

The Quick by Lauren Owen

At the very beginning of Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, the reader is introduced to a very secretive and mysterious men’s club called the Aegolius. The number of initiates is kept to a minimum and a story is told than even when the Prince of Wales requested membership, he was turned away because the number had already been reached.

It’s the latter part of the nineteenth century and James, a young man right out of university, goes to London to try his hand at writing a play. He becomes roommates and later intimates with another previous acquaintance from Oxford. When the two men go out for a walk one night, dastardly misfortunes befall them and when James goes missing, his sister, Charlotte, arrives from Yorkshire to find her brother, which leads her to the doors of the enigmatic Aegolius club.

the quick

What initially drew me to The Quick was promise of a Gothic inspired novel set in the seedy corners of Victorian London. The book does begin this way and even has elements of such novels as it includes diary entries and other similar epistles.

However, about halfway through, something inexplicable happens–the novel becomes dreadfully dull and doesn’t pick up at all. Once James disappears, a never-ending slew of new characters are introduced. At first, I tried to keep them straight and then realized that none of them was particularly important. The narrative is thick and slow; every movement of every character is detailed for pages. If I never read about a character sitting down and sipping tea again, that day would be too soon.

I fear that Owen’s editors let her down immensely. The only conciliation is that her publisher masterfully worked up a publicity frenzy by not revealing a key plot point and adding a sense of “plot twist” around it. They also mustered up some top notch writers to blurb it. Sadly, about half of readers have ingested the proverbial Kool-Aid and rave about it on Goodreads, while the other half have the good sense to agree with me.

The writing is solid and decent. Yet, the author builds no discernible mood or landscape. This has been a huge reading letdown, which has added to my sparse posts here as this book was long and took up far too much of my time. Normally, I would’ve put the book down, but I was certain something would be a saving grace. Sadly, this was just a complete bomb.

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39_steps 39_steps1

“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'”

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I know I’ve noted before that things have been a wee bit quiet around here as of late–this is due to busy, busy, busy. I’ve been running around here, there, and everywhere and it seems as if this will continue for the next several months over the spread of many countries. I’m dead-tired today and can’t help but think of John Buchan’s man on the run, Richard Hannay.

I love The Thirty-Nine Steps and have seen many adaptations (my favorite has to be the stage play which I’ve seen twice). I have so many books lined up for this summer, but I can’t help but imagine running through Scotland on an adventure (minus murder, spies, and anarchist plots).

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This book is available for free in the public domain.

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

the poisoning angel

During the first half of the nineteenth century in Brittany, a household cook went on a decades’ long killing spree. She poisoned men, women, and children, opting to lace cakes and soup with arsenic. Her victims would swell and be in immense discomfort before they finally expired. The cook killed dozens of people.

It all sounds quite gruesome (and it is, of course), but with time dividing us and a closer examination of Hélène Jégado’s spree, one can’t help but think how preposterous it all is. She had no clear reasoning for it. Hélène was not explicitly after money or other possessions, she just liked offing people. If she was accused of a petty crime like stealing a sheet or book, the accuser was done for. She left so many bodies piling behind her that the villagers outwardly yelled obscenities at her in the streets.

In The Poisoning Angel, Hélène Jégado’s life and crimes have been fictionalized by author Jean Teulé as he portrays the dastardly affairs in a dark comedy vein. As a child, Hélène is taught different folklore including one about the Ankou, the Breton myth of death. She takes on this personification and makes it her life’s work, so to speak, to dispatch everyone in her wake.

The majority of the novel is concerned with the various households Hélène Jégado joins throughout the years. With every new master of the house or suspicious domestic servant, the reader looks through one open eye as her fatal soups and cakes are served one after another. Afterward, this did become a bit repetitive; there wasn’t much variety in each new household. Moments that did stick out were when Hélène’s new position was in a venue different from the others. It was particularly engaging when she takes up as the cook of a brothel, both cooking her fare and providing comfort to the gaggle of soldiers that find their way there. The rapidity of their dispatches is downright farcical.

Beginning each chapter is a simple map of Brittany with points notating Hélène’s movements as she absconds from each residence. At some point, the path criss-crosses adding to that aforementioned preposterous feeling and the addition of a couple of groupie wigmakers, who clip the recently deceased’s hair for their own uses, make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better suited for a stage play.

The Poisoning Angel is translated from its original French by Melanie Florence. She took a particularly interesting approach as she included some of the Breton language that was surely in the original novel. Hélène comes from Brittany, an area of France that is continually designated as other. This further outcasts her throughout the book.

For further reading, I suggest Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder, where I read an excerpt about the real Hélène Jégado, which is available for free here.

The Poisoning Angel will be published on July 14th by Gallic Books.

Added to The International Reading List

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

bellweather rhapsody

In 1982, a grim incident occurs at the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York: a young bride murders her husband and then goes on to hang herself in her hotel room on their wedding day. The violence leaves witnesses and a heavy scar on the once grand hotel. It’s fifteen years later and high school musicians are descending upon it for the annual Statewide festival…oh, and there is dreadful blizzard looming off-stage ready to snow in all of the pubescent musicians and their chaperons.

The above synopsis may appear heavy and brooding (à la The Shining), which it is, but Kate Racculia also completely turns the premise upside down, running many moments of humor and suspense into each other. Most of the chapters focus on a particular character at a time–delving into their backgrounds and anxieties of hidden secrets and the festival itself.

Jumping fifteen years ahead to the same day in 1997, Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker–a pair of twins–are both invited to the festival for their talents in voice and bassoon, respectively. Alice is assigned to share a hotel room–the hotel room–with fellow participant and daughter of the Statewide’s interim director (herself a wickedly crafted character). When Alice momentarily leaves the room only to return to the other girl hanging from the same type of cord in the same exact room, everything starts to unravel. Alice leaves to retrieve help, only to return to a room where there is no body. No sign of a body. Nada. Was there a murder? A suicide? A cruel joke? Or something else?

This is an ensemble cast and I can’t help but have favorites (I assume this is a similar feeling that regular soap opera viewers have to their choice characters). For me, Rabbit Hatmaker, the seventeen year old twin brother of Alice who is struggling with personal identity and his upcoming future post-high school life, was who I clung to from the beginning. The rest of the cast, however, was robust and filled with difficult personalities that transcend the stereotypes we can think of for participants of a “band camp.” Their chaperon, who at first appears to be a meek shadow of woman, is brimming with secret history; the arrogant Scottish conductor is a former piano virtuoso, but is now sporting a hand with fewer than five fingers; that wicked interim festival director is way more wicked than we’re initially led to believe. The cast goes on, but why ruin it.

This novel is more about the characters. It’s a slight of hand that the author produces. Yes, the hotel’s background and the possible 1997 suicide/murder of Alice’s roommate are indeed intriguing, but the strength of Bellweather Rhapsody lies with Racculia’s approach to the characters. The narrative voice is close to each of them and even during this trying weekend, the voice never falters when producing quick-witted and droll chapters.  I hate to compare the novel to other works, but I couldn’t help but feel delight as the book played with the idea of a snow stranded house with a deadly past all the while producing characters that were akin to those found in Agatha Christie or Clue.

Bellweather Rhapsody was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.