Category Archives: Books I’m Reading

The Door: On keeping your house, and letting others go

I’m reading “The Door” by Magda Szabo, a book from the 1980s that was only recently translated from Hungarian into English.

So far, a great slice of life from that country, and that period (inclusive of the decades leading up to it) centered around an educated writer and the eccentric and opinionated anti-intellectual woman who becomes her housekeeper. Great tastes of “peasant” perspective vs. educated citizenry during tumult in Eastern Europe. Their relationship is wonderful in its complexity and its mutual challenges.

Anyway, I’ve been poor at recording favorite things about books as I read them, so here are a few snippets of lovely language and concepts I wanted to save (all emphasis mine).

On Keeping Your House As You like

“So extreme was the overall impression created by the apartment that our visitors reacted in one of two ways. Either they were paralysed with amazement, or they were overcome with laughter. Even the walls of our kitchen were something else. Instead of wallpaper or paint, we had oilcloth covered in squirrels, geese and other poultry.

Most of our visitors were artists. For them, the place was a familiar world of gentle lunacy. My ultra-correct relatives, with no fantasy life of their own, I had written off long ago.”

On Letting Others Go

The housekeeper, Emerence, explaining herself after the writer is shocked to realize Emerence knew their elder mutual friend Polett was going to commit suicide after years of feeling lost:

“Have you ever killed an animal?”

I said I had never killed anything.

“You will. You’ll put Viola [their dog] down. You’ll have him injected when the time comes. Try to understand. When the sands run out for someone, don’t stop them going. You can’t give them anything to replace life. Do you think I didn’t love Polett? That it meant nothing to me when she’d had enough and wanted out? It’s just that, as well as love, you also have to know know how to kill.”



That Kind of Experience Will Change a Man

I was told that I can better relate to (and sometimes write for) a colleague because of some shared Eastern European heritage. (The colleague is directly from there, as was my father.)

I didn’t disagree. “They are more direct,” it was suggested — and this too I generally find to be true. Eastern Europeans tend to possess a more blunt approach, or at least one that doesn’t tiptoe around other people’s feelings. (This does not describe me, yet I somehow appreciate it in others.)

Anyway, I’ve long theorized that part of this tendency, as well as — in Czechs, at least — a more fatalist, absurdist sense of humor, stems from generations and generations of being tread on by forces (invading empires, usually) well beyond their control.

I compare it to family members who had lived through the Great Depression in the U.S. “They’re different,” people would say, whether referring the tendency to save paper bags and twist ties and anything else, or to a generally more cautious outlook on life. And that’s just one generation that lived through the Depression. Imagine if generation upon generation lived through Turkish invasions, Austro-Hungarian domination, the occasional German occupation, and throw in a World War or two for good measure. Maybe even a mass human rights atrocity or two.

Anyway, I’ve been reading “The 900 Days” by Harrison Salisbury, the definitive (and uplifting!) book about the German siege of Leningrad, when they literally attempted to blockade, freeze and starve all of Leningrad into submission. (As we would later learn about the Germans in World War II, slaughtering an entire block of civilians was just part of the playbook.) The book is also a major source for the excellent fictional novel, “City of Thieves.”

In the middle of the winter siege, a radio man showed up for duty to find a new T-shaped broom handle, which his boss told him was to support him at the microphone in case he was too weak to stand. “And you must read,” the director said. “In thousands of apartments they are awaiting your voice.” (More on this in a moment.)

‘The First Violin is Dying’

The following is descriptive of what I’m talking about in many ways, and reminiscent of any random, casually melodramatic health update my father ever gave me:

“The wooden T was not just a gadget. Vladimir Volzhenin, the poet, had collapsed in the studio from hunger after reading his verses to the Leningrad public. He died a few days later. Aleksandr Yankevich, his face black, and breathing with difficulty, read Makarenko’s “Pedagogical Poem” over the radio, although he was so ill [a colleague] stood by in case he was unable to finish. Ivan Lapshonkov sang a role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Snow Maiden’ … he was so frail he had to support himself with a cane. By nightfall he was dead.”

That passage goes on and on. The dedication is admirable, the description almost amusingly matter-of-fact. (Maybe it’s only amusing if you’ve had your dad describe a cough and two broken femurs with equal levels of passive it’s-fine-but-no-it’s-horrible.)

Another echo of my father’s matter-of-fact approach to jarring news (as long as it wasn’t news that shamed the family; then it was avoided like a censor), is when they would dictate the:

“…regular weekly report on the condition of the orchestra: ‘The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.'”

When power was finally cut to the radio transmission in this city populated by an ever-decreasing population of starving, freezing, dying people:

“People from all ends of the city began to appear at Radio House, to ask what the matter was and when the station would be back on air. An old man tottered in [from the other side of town]: “Look here,” he said. “If something is needed, if it is a matter of courage — fine. Or even if it is a matter of cutting the ration. [Note: They’d cut rations repeatedly all winter. People resorted to eating wallpaper to supplement their daily slice of bread.] That we can take. But let the radio speak. Without that, life is too terrible. Without that, it is like lying in the grave. Exactly that.”

‘Nothing-to-Do Was More Terrible Than a Bombing Raid’

Okay, one more excerpt that really gets to the heart of art and human response under such repressive conditions, which was sadly just a different kind of repression than they faced under Soviet totalitarianism:

The surviving writers of the city would spend days planning a “Leningrad Speaking” or “One Day in Leningrad” kind of book that would depict all the people went through during the siege. Merely conceiving the book helped them survive. When it became apparent no censor would approve of actually creating the book, one writer said:

“Tell him that writers are dying without this work, that they cannot live without it.

Ketlinskaya knew this. Living in the cold, hungry, dark city, people themselves together by the consciousness of being needed. They began to die when they had nothing to do. Nothing-to-do was more terrible than a bombing raid.

But try as she would she could not get permission for the book. She became convinced that though no one really opposed the book, no one wanted to take responsibility for approving it; the old Russian problem: bureaucracy.

Yeah, and for many Eastern Europeans, that was just the peacetime problem.

Reichstagsabgeordneter, or fun with long German titles

Cemetary in Prague
Very old cemetary in the Jewish Quarter of Prague

Picture…sent back live
Picture…spangled new age
Letter…on your doorstep
Called up…for your country

Horror…can’t believe your eyes
Mommy…they’re taking me away

~ Killing Joke, “Tomorrow’s World

I’m reading this book, “The Vertigo Years,” about Europe between the turn of the century and WWI, capturing the weird mood and fast-changing age and anxiety before the old aristocracy “led” thousands of poor saps into a lengthy pointless war, the effects of which the world spent the rest of the 20th century poorly cleaning up.

(If you consider that WWII was the 20th century’s most far-reaching event — Cold War, nukes, Holocaust, military-industrial complex, yada yada yada — and then consider WWII wouldn’t have happened without WWI and its absurd conclusion, and then consider WWI happened because a bunch of landed rich dudes who’d ruled Europe for centuries were ill-equipped to adjust to life where capital became ever-so-slightly more diffused to people who actually produced things rather than people who were just born out of the right womb…then you totally get the ironies of the human condition that make me enjoy Killing Joke so much.)

Here is a nice review of the book in The Guardian, including this fair statement:

The vertiginous atmosphere of a tumbling prewar society – at the same time exciting and frightening – is described with atmospheric clarity. The combination of easily worn scholarship, fascinating character studies and fluent story-telling that is often very funny makes this a hugely enjoyable and illuminating book.

Anyway, I post today to quote something completely less significant but really funny, about how Germany’s growing middle class was increasingly less impressed by nobility and more by civil titles [bracket notes are mine]:

While many middle-class people were imperialists and believed in the greatness of their culture and their fatherland, the recognition they were striving for was not the Emperor’s to give [Note: i.e. not nobility titles like duke and baron and all that tripe.] German businessmen were more interested in the title of Kommerzialrat, the civilian, non-noble title of “Commercial Councillor,” an emblem of dependability and honourable conduct, than in knighthood. Medical doctors had an eye on the title Sanitätsrat; lawyers and judges hoped to attain the grade of Justizrat, and so on. […] This hierarcy of civilian titles […] were taken so seriously in Germany that even wives were addresses with their husbands’ titles: Frau Professor, etc.

Moreover, with proverbial German industriousness, these titles could be multiplied, in which case they would be used in full at every official occasion. Thus, a simple medical student could dream of working his way up to a practice, teaching at a university and receiving an honorary degree there, being eventually elected to the Reichstag and then retiring, at which point he would become known (and regularly addressed in writing) as Herr Reichstagsabgeordneter a.D., Sanitatstrat Professor Doktor Doktor (honoris Causa), and even further, as far as his enthusiasm for committees, exams and official posts would carry him.

In a characteristically German way, the burghers had emancipated themselves from the constraints of the old hierarchy by creating a new one.

Awesome. (Well, it’s awesome to me, anyway.)