Friday, July 25, 2014

'The Good Soldier Švejk': wince and guffaw at excerpts from Jaroslav Hašek's brilliant, timeless satire

Long before Catch 22's Joseph Heller skewered the bureaucratic idiocy of the military, Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek was doing the same, with a panache that provokes a laugh-out-loud, visceral response. A bohemian bon vivant, Hašek died of heart failure at the age of 39, but his legacy lives on in his 1923 classic, The Adventures Of The Good Soldier Švejk. (In fact, Heller once told Milos Forman in the late 1960s that he could not have written Catch-22 without first reading Hašek’s World War I novel, the German translation of which was publicly burned by the Nazis in 1933.) Originally published as a series of popular readings in Prague during 1921–1923, The Good Soldier Švejk has been adapted to a film, an opera, a musical, and a play by Bertolt Brecht. Peter Sellers even used quotes from Švejk in his movie A Shot in the Dark. Here's a nice capsule biography of Hašek from books.openedition.org:
“Born into the family of a high school teacher, he studied at a commercial academy, and later led a bohemian and vagrant life wandering through Bohemia, Hungary and Galicia. He was jailed briefly for alleged anarchist activities in 1907. Later he worked as the editor in several special-interest journals such as Ženský obzor (Women’s horizon) or Svět zvířat (Animal world), and simultaneously he published stories and interviews from the Prague underworld in various anarchist journals. Throughout his life he wrote several hundred humorous stories published in various journals and newspapers.
In 1911, he founded the ‘Party of Moderate Progress in the Limits of Law’, a parody of party politics and the election process. In 1915, Hašek was mobilized and sent to the Galician front, let himself be captured and entered the Czechoslovak legions in Russia. In 1918, though, he entered the Bolshevik Party and joined the Red Army as a political commissioner. After coming back to Prague in December 1920, he again devoted his energy to writing short-stories, feuilletons, humoresques, theatre sketches and so on…. The communists, in particular, tried to appropriate his legacy after the Second World War and turn him into a true revolutionary, which, however, proved unsuccessful due to his essentially non-conformist, bohemian and deeply sarcastic personality and writings…. The novel is constructed as a free series of scenes, conversations, and storytelling connected just by the central figure of Švejk. It is set first in Prague, then south Bohemia, Hungary and in the end, near the front-line in Galicia. One of the comic elements of the book is the use of language. Especially in dialogues, Hašek uses colloquial Czech including vulgarisms and slang neologisms, bureaucratic and military jargon, Austrian German, Hungarian, Polish as well as the language of academic writing and popular literature.”
Nothing is immune from Hašek's biting satire, as these quotes from his magnum opus suggest. (The wonderful illustrations throughout are the original ones, by Josef Lada.)
“After debauches and orgies there always follows the moral hangover.”
“And somewhere from the dim ages of history the truth dawned upon Europe that the morrow would obliterate the plans of today.”
“The lieutenant’s fooling around again with the telegraph girl at the station,” said the corporal, after he had gone. “He’s been running after her for a fortnight and he’s always frightfully furious when he comes from the telegraph office and he says about her: “She’s a whore. She won’t sleep with me!”
Life in a lunatic asylum: "I really don't know why those loonies get so angry when they're kept there. You can crawl naked on the floor, howl like a jackal, rage and bite. If anyone did this anywhere on the promenade people would be astonished, but there it's the most common or garden thing to do. There's a freedom there which not even Socialists have ever dreamed of.”
“All along the line,' said the volunteer, pulling the blanket over him, 'everything in the army stinks of rottenness. Up till now the wide-eyed masses haven't woken up to it. With goggling eyes they let themselves be made into mincemeat and then when they're struck by a bullet they just whisper, "Mummy!" Heroes don't exist, only cattle for the slaughter and the butchers in the general staffs. But in the end every body will mutiny and there will be a fine shambles. Long live the army! Goodnight!”
“The famous field altar came from the Jewish firm of Moritz Mahler in Vienna, which manufactured all kinds of accessories for mass as well as religious objects like rosaries and images of saints.
The altar was made up of three parts, liberally provided with sham gilt like the whole glory of the Holy Church.
It was not possible without considerable ingenuity to detect what the pictures painted on these three parts actually represented. What was certain was that it was an altar which could have been used equally well by heathens in Zambesi or by the Shamans of the Buriats and Mongols.
Painted in screaming colors it appeared from a distance like a coloured chart intended for colour-blind railway workers. One figure stood out prominently - a naked man with a halo and a body which was turning green, like the parson's nose of a goose which has begun to rot and is already stinking. No one was doing anything to this saint. On the contrary, he had on both sides of him two winged creatures which were supposed to represent angels. But anyone looking at them had the impression that this holy naked man was shrieking with horror at the company around him, for the angels looked like fairy-tale monsters and were a cross between a winged wild cat and the beast of the apocalypse.
Opposite this was a picture which was meant to represent the Holy Trinity. By and large the painter had been unable to ruin the dove. He had painted a kind of bird which could equally well have been a pigeon or a White Wyandotte. God the Father looked like a bandit from the Wild West served up to the public in an American film thriller.
The Son of God on the other hand was a gay young man with a handsome stomach draped in something like bathing drawers. Altogether he looked a sporting type. The cross which he had in his hand he held as elegantly as if it had been a tennis racquet. Seen from afar, however, all these details ran into each other and gave the impression of a train going into a station.”
If you love that you'll want to click through to read a hilarious chapter from the novel about a visit from the well-intentioned Baroness von Botzenheim, come to distribute largesse to the wounded.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

First-edition cover designs vs. modern updates

Ain't technology wonderful? This feature on Buzzfeed has a slider mechanism whereby they show you the original, often fusty cover of a classic novel and then underneath is a recent remake. Pretty cool. In some cases (as with the Wizard of Oz), I thought there was no need to mess with a good thing. I do like the new design for Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God; but the one replacing Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell's graphic for To the Lighthouse seems a bit too literal.
The new George Orwell 1984 is suitably menacing, and the Kerouac On the Road is an improvement. Interesting that the old and new Edith Wharton Age of Innocence covers both feature a woman artistically rendered, but the new one pops more, even though the old one has a plaintive, period quality that's not unappealing. The new Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea is blah, very thumbs down, while the new The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe of C.S. Lewis just seems overdone and cheesy to me. The typography and graphics of the first To Kill a Mockingbird cover also seem far superior.
What are some of your likes/dislikes?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia: man & myth

Anyone wanting to explore how the Middle East got where it is today would be well served by reading Scott Anderson's prizewinning Lawrence in Arabia (subtitled “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East”). Most people have a passing acquaintance with T.E. Lawrence through David Lean's spectacular film, but Anderson drills down to portray the man and his mission in myriad engrossing ways. “Anderson does not filter the tricky history of a crucially important era through any individual’s perspective” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. “Nor does he see Lawrence as the only schemer trying to manipulate Arab destiny; this book has an assortment of principal players, only one of whom managed to become so famous. As to why such acclaim elevated one renegade Briton and his feat of creating a guerrilla Bedouin army, Mr. Anderson writes that the short answer may seem anticlimactic. His reason: 'This was a time when the seed was planted for the Arab world 'to define itself less by what it aspires to become than what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms.'
Clarity was hard to find, and so, after such wanton loss of life, were victors. But heroes were needed, and here was a shoo-in. According to the book, 'Lawrence was able to become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ because no one was paying much attention.'
That does not make Mr. Anderson’s account a debunking. For those already fascinated by Lawrence’s exploits and familiar with his written accounts of them, Mr. Anderson’s thoughtful, big-picture version only enriches the story it tells. 'Lawrence in Arabia' emphasizes the Gordian difficulties facing any strategist from any of the numerous contingents involved either in fighting for Arab freedom from the Ottoman Empire or looking to carve up Arab land once the fighting was over.”
Oxford-educated archaeologist-turned-British-army-officer T.E. Lawrence immersed himself in the culture of Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, eventually playing a crucial role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I.
A  key spur to Lawrence's enduring fame were the images of him promulgated by filmmaker Lowell Thomas. With the permission of General Sir Edmund Allenby, Thomas spent several weeks filming Lawrence and capturing local color (e.g., veiled women, Arabs in picturesque robes, camels, and Bedouin cavalry). He first ran the footage at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and it proved so successful that the King asked him to bring it to England. The program opened to huge acclaim at Covent Garden on 14 August 1919, with hundreds of subsequent showings/lectures being attended by a Who's Who of society.

As a youth, Lawrence used to starve himself and undergo other privations to test his mettle. (That iron self-control undoubtedly came in handy later in life.) Other interesting facts about him are that he was relatively short (5' 5"), that he lost two brothers in World War I, that he refused a knighthood from King George V (believing the English had betrayed the Arabs by denying them independence), and that despite having attained the rank of Colonel, he later enlisted as a private in the Royal Tank Corps under an assumed name.
Read an excerpt from Lawrence in Arabia below.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Saki: A peerless writer mown down by the scythe of war

One of my favorite book critics, Michael Dirda, recently marked an anniversary re British writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870–1916), known more widely by his pen name Saki. "As it happens," Dirda wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "this is the centennial of Saki's finest single collection, Beasts and Super-Beasts."
It was the last book that this wittiest of Edwardian writers saw into print, since he soon after enlisted as an infantry soldier in World War I, even though he was already in his early 40s. Saki was eventually killed in action at Beaumont-Hamel, France, in 1916, shot in the head. His last words were reportedly "Put out that bloody cigarette!" ….
Along with Ronald Firbank, Saki set the tone—outrageous and epigrammatic—for the English school of comic fiction (and drama) that runs from Evelyn Waugh and Noël Coward to Ivy Compton-Burnett and Roald Dahl. Saki's own light-hearted contes cruels elegantly depict practical jokes gone wrong, childhood savagery, the inanities of country-house life or kindly, beneficent nature unexpectedly turning deadly, and yet they remain as fizzily delicious as a Pimm's cup on a summer's day. Now, of course, these tales of languid aesthetes named Reginald, Clovis or Egbert also seem more or less camp, suitable for illustration by Edward Gorey and suffused with ever-fresh cynicism: "The Government of the day, which from its tendency to be a few hours behind the course of events had been nicknamed the Government of the afternoon.…"
It is just this airy suavity, tinged with maliciousness and melancholy, that makes "Beasts and Super-Beasts" so endlessly rereadable. In "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" the wickedly mischievous Lady Carlotta is mistaken for the new governess expected by Mr. and Mrs. Quabarl. For a lark, she quickly pretends to be Miss Hope and, when queried how she will interest her young charges in the past, replies loftily, "I teach history on the Schartz-Metterklume method." She begins her instruction, deplorably, hilariously, with a most inappropriate episode from the annals of early Rome.
In "The Lumber Room" Saki takes up a favorite theme—poetic justice—by relating how young Nicholas revenges himself on an aunt of quite exceptional heartlessness. "It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighboring town, a circus of unrivaled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day." Isn't that a marvelous sentence? Still, Nicholas's vengeance isn't quite so bloodthirsty as that of Conradin in Saki's famously horrific "Sredni Vashtar," found in "The Chronicles of Clovis" (1911).
Sadly, we're sold out of the Edward Gorey–illustrated Saki stories from the New York Review of Books. BUT there's a Saki story in Mystery & Suspense: Short Stories by Great Writers, one of the "Worth Pocket Companion" series that also includes crime, romance, and travel volumes. And I ran "Reginald at the Claremont" in a previous blog.
The drawing of Munro in uniform by David Levine originally appeared in the October 8, 1981 issue of the New York Review of Books with the article "A Genius for Revenge." The Gorey illustration for "Sredni Vashtar" appears in the NYRB classics edition of Saki's stories.
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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Breathtaking illustrations for Lord of the Rings; Game of Thrones goes to school; Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast'

The illustrations by Ukrainian artist Sergei Iukhimov for The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien are astounding.
"Lo! lords and knights and men of valour unashamed, kings and princes, and fair people of Gondor, and Riders of Rohan, and ye sons of Elrond, and Dunedain of the North, and Elf and Dwarf, and greathearts of the Shire, and all free folk of the West, now listen to my lay. For I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom."
Gandalf and the hosts of the West meet the Mouth of Sauron; who displays Sam's sword and the mithril shirt before the northern gates of Mordor.
Boromir, pierced by many arrows.
Gandalf, arriving in Hobbiton with a load of fireworks.
I don't know what's happening in this picture ... can anyone help? Below, Tolkien reads from The Two Towers, the second book of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Students at the University of Virginia can assuage their Game of Thrones withdrawal at having to wait until 2015 for the resumption of HBO's hit series by taking a cross-disciplinary summer course called "Winter Is Coming." Taught by Lisa Woolfork, it's a seminar that encompasses both the first three books of the blockbuster fantasy series and the first three seasons of the show:
“One of the goals behind this class was to teach students how the skills that we use to study literature are very useful skills for reading literature and TV in conjunction,” Woolfork, an associate professor of English, said. “‘Game of Thrones’ is popular, it’s interesting, but it’s also very serious. There are a lot of things in the series that are very weighty, and very meaningful, and can be illuminated through the skills of literary analysis.”
I've read Book 1 of GOT and would call it exceedingly imaginative and gripping, but not particularly literary. I much prefer seeing it come to life with the astounding cast and production values of the HBO series. What do you think? The class does sound like fun, however.
While we're on the topic of fantasy titles, I'd like to put in a plug for Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast, which most assuredly IS literary. I read Mervyn Peake's original trilogy in a course in college and have never forgotten how enthralled I was by it. Below, Alfred and Irma Prunesquallor from Peake's novel Gormenghast, illustrated by the author (right).