Archive for December, 2018

Reykjavik for book lovers? Who knew? Now you’ll know why…

Monday, December 31st, 2018
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Our well-traveled journalist-photographer Zygmunt Malinowski, at Solheimjokull glacier.

A guest post from our roving photographer Zygmunt Malinowski, this time reporting from Iceland, which he visited over the summer. (All photos are copyrighted by him, of course, and used with permission.)

Who knew that Iceland’s cosmopolitan capital is designated as a UNESCO “City of Literature”? UNESCO looks at several criteria for the tag: quality, quantity, diversity of publishing; the range of libraries and bookstores; its literary events.

Jules Verne’s Snaefellsjokul volcano.

During the cool mostly drizzly summer of 2018, Reykjavik’s main street, Laugavegur, is full of strolling foreigners and locals stopping at one of its many cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. Several chain bookshops are available here, too. Many of the visitors are backpackers heading out to experience this exotic land of “Ice and Fire,” In fact Jules Verne’s well-researched 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth was inspired by this region’s volcanic landscape. Its characters descend into the bowels of the earth.

One way to see Reykjavik is to take a literary walking tour. I booked the one offered by the City Library called “Dark Deeds.” Its theme was crime fiction and ghoulish stories (i.e., Scandinavian Noir). The intention “was not to give an historical overview of literature in Reykjavik but rather to give a small sample of the varied works set in the city…. This walk takes the participant to several locations in the city center for viewing a world connected to both older and contemporary Icelandic literature, although the emphasis is on recent compositions.”

Gathering for “Dark Deeds” next to Gröndal House.

We visited eight sites, and two young men, Salvar and Guttormur, gave a brief introduction and a short reading from each author’s work at each stop. A visit to the harbor revisited a story of a luxury yacht with no passengers crashing into the harbor – a mystery thriller and international best seller, 2014’s The Silence of the Sea by Irsa Sigurðarsdóttir (translated by Victoria Cribb). A nondescript building, formerly a hospital during the 1918 Spanish flu, recalled a detective, a young inspector “drawn into the underworld of the city” in 2015’s  Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason (also translated by Victoria Cribb). At Briet Square, we learned about Gerður Kristný an award-winning author, a former journalist and editor-in-chief of literary monthly, who wrote “Drápa” (a form of skaldic poetry) about a senseless murder based on a real crime. Its an epic novel in verse, which takes its form from old Norse poetry and its mood from modern crime.” An excerpt from the 2018 book:

Snowflakes floated
onto the pavement

The city vanished
overcome by night
into drifting snow

Rabid winds
besieged the town
sent downpours down
to its very core

The winter war
had begun

City-dwellers
ran for shelter

(Translated by Rory McTurk.)

Benedikt Grondal’s notebooks

A more cheerful site was the home of Benedict Gröndal (1826-1907) – a writer, poet, teacher, illustrator of Icelandic birds, translator of Iliad, autobiographer, and natural scientist. His love of nature was one of his strongest characteristics. He was one of the founders of Natural History Society of Iceland and became its first director. His autobiography Dægradvöl (Pastime) is considered one of the classics of Icelandic literature known for it historical value, satire and sincerity.

Inside renovated Gröndal House which was relocated and now is open to the public, on one of the panels there is a quote. The author muses about his legacy when he addresses the future reader:

“I hope dear guest that you will give yourself time to dwell at this window into my life and works. What you will see here is of course no proportion to my body of work, but I hope you will at the end send some warm thoughts my way and give praise to the works I so exerted myself to creating. Many of them were never appreciated by certain people during my time.”

Info column at Grondal House.

One of the amusing poems read at the home, “To Bother,” was popular as a song several years ago. In English translation’:

 

To Bother (Nenni)

I don’t always read I can’t always be bothered to read
I do n’t always bother writing I can’t always be bothered to write
I don’t always paint I can’t always be bothered to paint
what do I bother then? so what can i be bothered to do?

I always love to love I always bothered to love
I always bother to drink
I always bothered to drink I always bother to dream I can always be bothered to dream
something I bother then so I can be bothered to do something

 

Gröndal House in Reykjavik.

According to statistics, Icelanders are avid readers and it is said that one in ten here is an aspiring writer. Having seen only a few folks reading books, I asked the librarian and the National and University Library located at the nearby University of Iceland campus. He confirmed that Icelanders are readers – but mostly at home. Then he added that he also would like to write a book.

He also pointed out that Icelanders can read the ancient Viking sagas in the original language. Because of Iceland’s isolation their language did not change as much as it did as in other Scandinavian countries. The sagas – narrative prose – have an important role in Icelandic literature and are still widely read. They are valued by literary experts for their clear style, originality and uniqueness, which was hundreds of years ahead of its time in Europe (the Gaelic language would be a notable exception, however).

 

Reykjavik across the city lake.

At Gröndal House (his illustrated book of Icelandic birds is in the case)

National and University Library at University of Icelabd.

Russia: “Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

Thursday, December 27th, 2018
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Osip Mandelstam died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on this day, December 27, 1938. Here’s his NKVD photo from the same year. “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed,” he wrote. “Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

 

“Who was the most fateful person in the history of Western mankind?” Nietzsche answers.

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018
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Sloterdijk wrote “Nietzsche Apostle.”

The Berlin national daily Die Welt has published Robert Pogue Harrison‘s recent Entitled Opinions radio/podcast interview with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in time for the holidays here. You can listen to the interview (recorded in English) over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here

It’s kind of a Christmastime message, in a backhanded sort of way.

It begins:

Robert Harrison: I have just finished reading your splendid little book called Nietzsche Apostle, which was published in English in 2013 but first came out in Germany in the year 2000, on the hundredth anniversary of Nietzsche‘s death. What exactly you mean when you speak of Nietzsche as an apostle?

Peter Sloterdijk: he answer is quite simple. Nietzsche had very high ambitions, and he asked an elementary question, “Who was the most fateful person in the history of Western mankind?” And the answer he gave by himself, to himself, was that this person was obviously Saint Paul, whom he took for the real founder of Christianity – only apostle Saint Paul, who invented the apostolic role as such.

Saint Paul was the most fateful person in history, according to Nietzsche. If it were possible to undo the effects that Saint Paul had created, it would change the course of history. According to Nietzsche, Saint Paul brought genius into resentment. He elevated resentment to a level from which it could became a gospel.

Harrison: Do you believe that the figure of Jesus is secondary, in Nietzsche’s mind, to Paul?

He thought rather highly of himself.

Sloterdijk: In a certain way, yes. It’s absolutely not clear if Jesus had a universalist message. Jesus seems to be an elitist. He talks to those who can understand. Eventually there’s an encounter between the Gospels and the evangelical messages and Greek philosophy. The meeting began in Paul’s writings and were taken up in the fourth Gospel, which was written later. This meeting between Hellenism and the unruly Jewish method made possible what we call Christianity.

Harrison: Of course, the word gospel means “good news” or “glad tidings.” You make a point of Nietzsche’s claim that he wrote the fifth gospel in his book Zarathustra. Can you speak a little bit about this fifth gospel and the paradoxes at the heart of it? You claim Nietzsche made a great effort to convince himself of the “good news” and to continue believing that he was actually a bearer of good news. He was tormented by the fact that before you get to any good news, there’s terrible news – dreadful, awful news that he has to bring to humankind.

Sloterdijk: First of all, the category of “news” is problematic because news, in modern terms, is actuality, whereas for those who used it as a term ἄγγελμα in former times simply meant “message,” or in German, botschaft. The ἄγγελος is just a messenger. That is important. The connection with time is not yet so clear.

Read the rest here – but if you don’t know German, you’ll have to have a go with Google Translate. Or wait for English publication.

Holiday greetings from the world, and one from Virginia Woolf: “at this one season, the Heavens bend over the earth with sympathy…”

Monday, December 24th, 2018
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…at this one season, the Heavens bend over the earth with sympathy, and signal with immortal radiance that they, too, take part in her festival.”

A quick holiday message from your exhausted correspondent at the Book Haven – and a better one from Virginia Woolf, from her novella Night and Day The passage comes to us courtesy Book Post, Ann Kjellberg‘s subscription-based book review, offering a “bite-sized newsletter-based book review delivery service, sending paying subscribers high-quality book reviews, by distinguished and engaging writers, direct to their inboxes.

We’ve enjoyed greetings from around the world in our own inbox, and thought we’d share a few from senders who have appeared in the Book Haven pages: Swedish author and translator Bengt Jangfeldt, and his wife, the Russian actress Jelena Jangfeldt, writing from Stockholm; Swedish poet Håkan Sandell sends his julekort from Oslo; cat-loving Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina sends a few felines from her London home; and an Upernavik, Greenland, winter image arrived from Polish photographer, and regular Book Haven contributor, Zygmunt Malinowski in New York City. We’ll be hearing more from him in a few days.

Meanwhile, have a wonderful holiday with family and friends with plenty of good cheer!

 

Adam Zagajewski on Krzysztof Michalski: “only the impossible can be marvelous”

Saturday, December 22nd, 2018
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Much missed.

This poem is making an appearance on Twitter, thanks to Tom D’Evelyn. I hadn’t seen it, nor the new Adam Zagajewski collection Asymmetry, translated by Clare Cavanagh. Another postponed pleasure. The poem recalls philosopher Krzysztof Michalski, founder of Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was a fellow and met him in 2008, and where he died five years ago of cancer.

Tom writes, Twitter fashion: “Adam Zagajewski Asymmetry Trans Clare Cavanagh. ⁦⁩ ‘Krzys Michalski Died’— yes he did. Google (I did). The poem does not lie: he was like that. Slightly immortal; I ordered his book on Nietzsche. The poem makes me envious ⁦⁩ in a good way. Thanks AZ!”

A Christmas lost-and-found story – courtesy a book-loving Victorian girl named Minnie Percy

Friday, December 21st, 2018
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The story of a gift that’s lost and then found seems to be a Christmas theme, and so we present this little Victorian Christmas story, from Bay Area high school English teacher Chris Bunje Lowenstein. Careful Book Haven readers will remember that Chris is a Dante-lover (we wrote about her Dante pack of cards at an antiquarian book fair a few years back here).

A Dante-lover, too.

From Chris:

At this year’s seasonal Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, I came across the quintessential “olde book shoppe,” which specializes in – of course – the works of Charles Dickens. The wooden bookcases in the shop bowed under the weight of a few thousand other beautiful books with decorative bindings, most of which were published from about 1880 to 1914. It takes the owner three days to create this replica of a 19th-century bookshop.

I spent a full hour in the shop, and, having decided to take some bits of history home with me, I purchased seven 19th-century books with beautiful decorative bindings. As I made my purchase, my eye happened to fall on a small group of papers, propped on a shelf and bound by thread and a fraying blue ribbon. The paper that formed the “cover” of this little booklet had a highly decorated, hand-colored drawing of Shakespeare. Underneath the drawing, in Gothic lettering, was the name “Minnie Percy”. I have no idea who Minnie Percy was or why she’d created this booklet, but I fell in love with the colorful cover and the fact that every word inside was handwritten. Here in this manuscript was a bit of Victorian history kept alive. I imagined the pleasant hours I would spend researching the piece, admiring it, and sharing it with my high school students and book collector friends. Impulsively, I purchased the little manuscript, but it didn’t fit in the bag with the seven other books I’d bought. To protect it, the owner of the shop placed the manuscript in between two pieces of cardboard, and, parcels and purse in hand, I wandered around the fair for two more hours before returning home only to notice …

I had lost it! Somehow, the manuscript had slid out of its protective cardboard and fallen to the ground unnoticed. I was ashamed at my own carelessness. I had allowed myself to be so caught up in the re-creation of history that is the Dickens Fair that I dropped and lost an actual piece of history, a piece of history whose caretaker I had implicitly agreed to become once I purchased it.

That evening, I emailed the fair’s producers, describing the manuscript and the vendor from whom I purchased it and asking them to please contact me on the chance that someone found it and turned it in. I heard nothing. The next day, on a break after one of my English classes, I checked my email. Nothing. And again after school. Nothing. After several days, I began to despair. Perhaps the manuscript had been swept up like the other trash at the end of the day and discarded. Or – best case scenario – perhaps someone saw the manuscript on the ground, recognized its beauty, and took it home. While I would have preferred to keep the manuscript for myself, I was at least consoled by this version of events, because in this version the manuscript would not be lost to history; it would live on in the care of someone else. By the end of the week, I had abandoned all hope. I would never know what became of that beautiful, one-of-a-kind, little gem.

Late Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my phone rang. The caller identified himself as the owner of the bookshop at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. “Someone turned in to the ticket office the manuscript you bought from me last weekend. The office had received the email with your contact information, so they brought the manuscript back to me and asked me to get in touch with you.”

I was so overjoyed that I swore I could hear Ebenezer Scrooge suggesting that I be boiled in my own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through my heart. A few hours later, I gave my name to the man working the will-call ticket booth, explaining why I was there. “Ah, madam” he said in his best Dickensian British accent, “we’ve been waiting for you. I have a parcel with your name on it. Just a moment.”

I thanked him and clutched the manuscript tightly, silently giving thanks to the kind soul – unknown to me – who also recognized that this manuscript was not a piece of trash but a treasure and who rescued it and, realizing that it belonged to someone else, turned it in. More than just a manuscript was returned to me on Saturday; my faith in humanity was also restored. God bless us, every one.

When I got home and finally had the chance to examine the manuscript booklet more closely, I saw that Minnie Percy had created a commonplace book she had titled “Gems from Shakespeare”. Inside the book were famous quotes from many of Shakespeare’s plays. The titles of the plays were written in large Gothic letters, and the bright blue ribbon that bound the book was also used for a bookmark. Written in Minnie Percy’s beautiful Spencerian script on the page the ribbon marks is the following quote from As You Like It:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.