Friday, 11 April 2014

the end of winter


I have been absent. In London, mostly. Physically. Feeling a little discouraged, a little directionless, a little lost, a little sad. But at least it's spring and there are daffodils everywhere. Outside my window in the local park in Walthamstow the trees are in bloom. Yesterday I didn't wear tights, and last week I sat in the park after coming home from work. It was still warm, and I read my book in the sunshine and felt almost happy.

I've been reading A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series that Game of Thrones is based on) for the last month and a half. I just finished the (for now) last book in the series yesterday. I had never watched the TV show and never planned on watching it or, god forbid, read five massive books of a fantasy series. But then I read this fantastic article in the London Review of Books a year ago, and that was it. It was like a challenge. A very convincing challenge. In the article, John Lanchester argues that fantasy as a genre is unpopular with the general reader, and that it is unlike other genre literature which does, occasionally, produce massive bestsellers that are loved by the general, genre-averse readership. Lanchester further shows how A Song of Ice and Fire actually works with and undermines the tropes of its own genre. 
In February I found a cheap copy of the first book in a charity shop: a copy that had a picture of a gloomy Sean Bean on the cover. I didn't even know that Sean Bean played a character in the tv show - if I had known, I might have started watching it years ago! I was half-hoping that I'd hate the book, or that it would be a cheap thrill. That one book would be enough and I'd go back to Victorian novels, Roman autobiography, or books about sad teenagers. Instead, I kept reading. My commute improved immeasurably. I like what Iris Murdoch called 'a jolly good yarn'. I also like long books, epic tales, complex character arcs, and feeling emotionally involved with what I'm reading. So reading thousands of pages about a made-up world obviously suited me very well. I read many books that are beautifully written pieces of art, but many of those have predictable plots, or hardly any plot at all - which, incidentally, is one of my main problems with much German-language literature.
Conclusion: Read John Lanchester's article, ignore the tv show (I've watched it since - utterly banal and boring compared to the books, not to mention the women-as-props issue), read the books. Especially if you have a long commute. I ended up looking forward to spending 40 minutes on the tube because it gave me uninterrupted reading time.

On a completely unrelated note: If you're in London in the coming months, you should check out Phyllida Barlow's installations at the Tate Britain. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and loved it.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

inbetween days


We have guest rooms at work for artists who work with us. A couple of weeks ago I spent a few nights in one of those rooms myself. It was strange to spend an evening in Knightsbridge; to take the bus to High Street Kensington and go to the cinema there; to be at work early. It's a different world.

I found myself at Heathrow at six in the morning, too tired to read, too excited about spending some quality time with my family. So I started watching Borgen instead. I probably watch about one TV show a year, and Borgen has fulfilled my requirement of an intelligent, female-led political drama.

I went home, and when I came back I read On Not Going Home, and it's very good.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

On not going home


 I came back to London in a daze. It was six o’clock, still dark out, but the airport was packed with people. Going home. Leaving home. 

 In Vienna, we went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and looked at the Old Masters, the Bruegel room, the Greek and Roman treasures. We went to the Jewish Museum and saw an exhibition about Richard Wagner (whom I dislike). We went to the cinema and saw Inside Llewyn Davies (good, especially the cat), The Hobbit (bad), and Computer Chess (undecided, but probably good). We ate out. We ate in. Wandered around. 
We spent New Year’s in an old farmhouse, eating raclette. I cuddled the cat. Peter cuddled the cat. We played board games. I stopped thinking about London, about my job, about being an adult. I slept for hours and hours. My only regret is not eating more bread. 

 Back in London, life continues much the same. It has taken months for me to settle into a routine, and to stop comparing life in London with life in Vienna, or Durham, or what life might be like in Edinburgh, Oslo or Bologna. I get up early, I go to bed early. My windows face east, and as I shuffle through my morning habits of Radio 3, cups of tea, wet hair and struggling with the daily absence of carrot bread, the sun rises slowly over the park. 
I leave the house at eight. I cycle to Walthamstow Central which is already busy with commuters, but not as busy as it will be ten minutes later. Unless I’m unlucky (or late), I get a seat on the tube. For the next forty or so minutes I read. My headphones block out most sound apart from the rumbling of the train and the apologies of the driver for the invariable delays. What I read: novels; books on history, occasionally on religion and philosophy; the LRB; the TLS; the Profil. Right now: Suetonius' history of the Twelve Caesars, which I love. What I listen to: Schubert; Elliott Smith; Sufjan Stevens; quiet stuff that will keep me calm when stuck in a tunnel. 
And then I’m in Knightsbridge. Eight, nine, twelve hours later I repeat my journey. I crawl into bed and read some more. I haven’t figured my evenings out yet – more often than not I miss my brothers, their easy familiarity and their pasta dishes. 

On weekends, I leave town. 

 Homesickness is odd. You can feel fine for days, weeks, and then all of a sudden it hits you and you will find yourself walking the aisles of a Spar supermarket, simply because the branding is familiar. 

 * Title from this talk at the British Museum. Ironically, I won't be able to go because I'll be in Vienna.

Sunday, 29 December 2013



I was thinking about the books I've read this year, but it's hard to remember them all. Some of them are in my room in London; some of them are on my brother's bookshelves; some of them are in boxes. I've read some books I liked, I read some books I didn't like, and strangely the story I remember best is the one I read on the bus every morning, right after I moved to London: Stefan Zweig's Scharlach (Scarlet Fever), in which the young protagonist feels so alienated after moving to Vienna, so out of place. 

Right now, I'm devouring Donna Tartt's latest novel, The Goldfinch. She does something which I admire immensely: make a child's life appear three-dimensional, entirely convincing. Some of my favourite novels are about children. I worked with children for years, I like them and think they're interesting. But more than that, I often think that it must be incredibly hard to write a good book with a young protagonist, because none of us really remember what it's like to be a child; we re-create childhood via other media, via observation, films, photographs, the stories we're told about what we were like when we were little. Most authors that I like manage to create very convincing worlds and characters (I hate one-dimensional characters, which makes it harder and harder for me to enjoy (some) Victorian novels), but to capture what I imagine childhood to be like seems almost impossible.

Anyway. Here's are some novels and short stories about children and young people. They're all fantastic, and most of them are a bit strange. Short stories that I liked are Ali Smith's The World with Love and Francis Wyndham's Obsessions. My favourite novels with young protagonists (all quite sad, really) are G.F. Green's In The Making, Elsa Morante's L'isola d'Arturo (Arturo's Island) (my brother and my mother loved this as well, it's wonderful), Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys, and L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (obviously).
Honorary mentions to Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower and Thomas Mann's The Buddenbrooks for featuring really memorable child characters, even though they're not the main protagonists. My favourite books about children, written for children, are Astrid Lindgren's Kalle Blomkvist and Tonke Dragt's De brief voor de koning (The Letter for the King). I actually feel sorry for children who grow up without Astrid Lindgren's books. I'm not sure they're for children, necessarily... The Brothers Lionheart still makes me want to cry into my cocoa. And Rainer Maria Rilke's Kindheit (Childhood) is one of my favourite poems.

Friday, 20 December 2013

the last two months

The last two months. Too much work, and this: 
A walk to work after spending the night in Chelsea. Imagine walking to work in Chelsea every morning. A rare lunchbreak in Hyde Park. An okay book and a cat camera. What I see when I wake up in the morning, only it's pitch black these days, and all the leaves have gone. My colleague gave me flowers because I was sick and she is nice. A lovely weekend in Durham, I have learned to love the cathedral. Walking back to work on a beautiful autumn day. Waking up near the Forest of Dean. Breakfast with Kevin and Peter. A gift: House of Lords Shortbread (they're very nice). My improvised advent wreath, too minimal and all I could think of was the flower shop near my U-Bahn stop in Vienna that sells tons of advent wreaths from mid-November onwards. An afternoon in a café with real tea. Getting ready for an event at work. And a selfie in the kitchen at work before I hopped on the plane back to Vienna for Christmas.

I'm home now. The cat follows me around. My brothers follow me around (not really). I've eaten half a glass of apricot jam already, seen an excellent play, and watched Inside Llewyn Davis, which I liked. I've slept. It takes 20 minutes to get anywhere, half an hour at most. Every sound is familiar. I arrived late and took a taxi home, which I've never done before, and I... let him take the long way round and kept my shortcuts to myself. It's good to be home.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

above Tintern


On Monday we drove to Tintern Abbey. We stopped for one last walk. The view! God, how I miss that. In Vienna I lived close to the hills. Observing the city from one of the wooded hills always calmed me down immensely. The city, the hills, the forest, the fields where the city ends.

On Friday we had a lunchtime concert at work. I didn't really know the work of Wolfgang Rihm before (contemporary classical music is not exactly one of my strengths), but his waltzes are wonderful (and not very contemporary-sounding). I sat on the stairs - anxiously hovering in the background is basically all I do during our events - and breathed deeply. Another long week.

I'm currently reading The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was new to me when I came upon an essay by Frank Kermode about her oeuvre, but I've since read countless articles about her, mostly because her biography has just been published. The Blue Flower is wonderful, though I'm not sure whether I'd like it as much if German wasn't my first language. Part of its charm, for me, is that Fitzgerald imitates the syntax and oddities of German. I'm usually not a great fan of writers including single words in a foreign language (the occasional merde or halt) to signal that their characters are speaking a language other than English, but it works here. I wonder how one would translate this book into German. Translating has been on my mind a lot recently, and I realise that I'm more and more apprehensive about the whole issue. I see the time and effort that classicists put into their translations, I see them argue about single words and their meanings, and it makes me wish that every translation from French, German, Norwegian was published with extensive footnotes, or in bilingual editions. 

This year I've read more 20th century fiction than ever before. Possibly more than I've ever read, in my whole life. How odd.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

the forest


I'm not quite sure where the idea came from, but a couple of months ago I sent an e-mail to my best (UK-based) friends and mentioned the idea of going away for a weekend. Nothing happened for a while. Then my brother said he'd come along, and in uncommon Austrian efficiency we held a Skype meeting with my best friend during a Wednesday lunch hour and agreed to go to the Forest of Dean.* My brother rented a car, Kevin found a holiday apartment. Konstantin flew in from Vienna, Peter came down to London, Devin took a late night train from Durham, Kevin took the Megabus Gold from Edinburgh, and Lisa and I took the tube after work on Friday. We spent the weekend in a 70s-style apartment near the Forest where we warmed our feet and dried our hair in front of the fire. I slept like a stone and ate baked beans for breakfast for the first time ever. It was lovely.

* location may or may not have been chosen based on the Harry Potter connection