I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
After seeing the elegant and moving film A Single Man (and falling for Colin Firth all over again) I learnt it was based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood – a rather famous gay writer who for some reason I’d never heard of. My Twitter friends recommended a few of his books, but most told me I’d enjoy The Berlin Stories.
When was it published?
It was originally published as two autobiographical novels: Mr Norris Changes Trains (or The Last of Mr Norris in the US) in 1935, and Goodbye to Berlin in 1939. They were published together in 1946. My copy is the 2008 New Directions edition (US, UK) with a great intro by Armistead Maupin.
What’s it about?
Isherwood lived in Berlin on and off (but mostly on) between 1929 and 1933. Of course, this was a time of great political upheaval and social change. But while the narratives here inevitably reflect that, the stories are more about the characters Isherwood encountered. These include the mysterious, only sometimes bankable but always spankable Arthur Norris (you’ll have to read it); Sally Bowles, whom you might know from the film Cabaret which was based on Isherwood’s story; and other friends he makes: lefty, Jewish, communist, slum-living, bohemian, queer, intellectual, mad and sometimes quite ordinary.
Tell us more about the author.
Isherwood came from England. He became a US citizen in 1946. He wrote several novels, plays and works of biography and nonfiction. There’s a full list on the wiki entry. Interestingly, in later years Isherwood edited two volumes of Vedanta philosophy and translated from the Sanskrit the Bhagavad-Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms, according to the book’s biography.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
I loved it. From the way our protagonist (called William in the Mr Norris story) romanticises the extravagant masochist Arthur Norris, to his analysis of the relationship between his friends Peter and Otto in the their time by the sea in ‘On Ruegen Island, Summer 1931’ there is such a depth of observation of others, and a curiosity toward their motivations. The protagonist himself is rather shadowy and passive, though he does let on when something another does had annoyed or delighted him. And he describes the scenery in detail, so you too can visit Berlin in the early ’30s (with mixed emotions). In the cold winter of 1932-1933 he writes:
‘Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.’
Of course there is another reason for the more passive approach. It would have been more difficult for Isherwood to be published back then, one imagines, if open about his sexuality. The William and Christopher characters are kind of asexual – they don’t commit or act either way. But he is still able to explore people on all scales of erotic interest and leaning, through the other characters.
The stories thus make for colourful, fascinating reading, but tinged with that cold that Isherwood mentions. For all the people he meets in the stories would soon be in great jeopardy. He captures an incredible point in time – where normal people, everyday people, were kind of flippant in many ways about the political situation, or were in denial. Worry often didn’t translate into action, and so many of them didn’t get away before the situation escalated. Isherwood opens the book with a piece about going back in 1952 – how much had changed (and also how much hadn’t). It’s educative, I think, to read about the time before, to realise how quickly a person’s (a city’s, a country’s, a continent’s) situation can change for the worse. And how some people become swept up in it as though it were just a change in season.
So it’s a book with many layers, and it’s also enjoyable to read. The prose is clear and elegant, the stories are filled with small details and larger contemplations, and certainly the characters are memorable. I think the story ‘Sally Bowles’ was my favourite. And I haven’t yet seen Cabaret. I must!
Next in the ’20 classics in 2011′ series is Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I’m half-way through. After that, perhaps a little Treasure Island? I’m in the mood for some adventure. Feel free to read along with me.
Have you read The Berlin Stories or something else by Isherwood? What did you think?
Other People's Words
Jan 25, 2011
To call your novel ‘illuminated’ is a dangerous thing. Five Wounds‘ claim holds with it the expectation that it should be something beyond a typical read. An ‘illuminated novel’ must be more than novel: no minor feat, and no small promise.
I am glad to say that in this case the big claims are lived up to. Five Wounds would suffer and wail as a trade paperback, and it is no coincidence that both author and illustrator are listed with equal merit on its cover. The book lives through its words and breathes through its pictures – one is inseparable from the other. Like the five intertwining stories of its main characters, so too do the different forms of the narrative intertwine into one powerful hydra of a novel.
And it is quite an entity. The characters that make up Five Wounds are intensely varied, yet as the narrative unfolds they come closer and closer together. My absolute favourites were Gabriella, the angel left butchered and broken with an indecipherable prophecy; and Cuckoo, the man with a wax face, able to shape and mould to any identity, and yet unable to find his own. The tales are all unique and strange, and the unique and strange book that they find themselves in suits them perfectly.
The story itself is a beautifully written and illustrated journey, but for me what made the novel truly ‘illuminated’ was the way in which the book refused to settle. Five Wounds is no summer beach distraction, it’s an intensely involved reading experience. I found myself spotting obscure references to literature both ancient and modern in every section, and then began calling up students of Latin and other languages trying to decipher the various messages contained in the pictures and chapter headings of the novel. For me the journey of reading the book was one of active problem-solving and code-breaking, and not only is this no bad thing; judging by the novel’s curious annotations, edits, and conflicting final chapters, I think it is also absolutely the intention of its authors.
Five Wounds is not the sort of book that will appeal to everyone, and nor is everyone up to the task of reading it. It is bold, bizarre and confusing from start to finish. But for those who will take its challenge the book is a truly unique project, and its reading reaps truly unique rewards. It is a beautiful and worthy piece of art, and with each stripping back, the heart of its mystery becomes more and more elusive, and yet more and more meaningful. Perhaps I will never uncover all of its secrets, but I have nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
Lyndon Riggall is an avid sci-fi, fantasy and horror reader, and an aspiring writer. He collects his thoughts on life and books on his blog and on Twitter. He is not, to the best of his knowledge, illuminated in any way.
Thanks for all your entries! Using a random number generator, the winner of James Franco’s short story collection Palo Alto, courtesy of Allen & Unwin and the new Australian arm of Faber Academy, is Twitter user @folk_bird. I’ll be getting in touch with you soon for your postal address.
Sydneysiders! You’ve still got a few days to apply for the first course at Faber Academy, ‘Writing a Novel’, with Kathryn Heyman and James Bradley, which commences in March.
Rosemary, a vintage-dress-wearing tattooed taxidermist, decides to spend some time in her family’s run-down old manor Magpie Hall – to work on her gothic literature thesis and simultaneously escape an affair with her supervisor. But there are plenty of distractions at Magpie Hall: memories of her recently deceased grandfather, her great-great-grandfather Henry’s cabinet of curiosities, and ghosts from the collected pasts of her family. Not to mention a good-looking farmhand.
But this novel doesn’t quite go where you think it will go. And this is a good thing. We peek into the past – of the collector and original taxidermist Henry, in the late 1800s. We also encounter repressed horrors in Rosemary’s own past – events that have made her who she is. There are delicious descriptions of the old house, built like a gothic castle; of the sea port and the tattooist in the old days; and of the specimens in the cabinet of curiosities. Some scenes stay with you purely for the power of their simple yet vivid description, such as when great-great-grandfather Henry skins a tiger.
The novel pays homage to the gothic tradition, with hints of romance, of dark and complex things, and certainly with a few spooky bits which get your hair standing on end. But by the ending the book becomes something else, something deeper. It is a bigger story, more meaningful than a simple ghost story or romance (though as addictive and enjoying as those). It’s about the sadness of loss (through not only death but homogeneity), but also how we romanticise the past. The book draws a needle to the skin of our nostalgic leanings. And as someone who was certainly drawn to the book for its lovely mix of dark, freaky, romantic, historical and natural – I was left feeling moved and a little bereft.
This is great stormy-weather cup-of-tea under-the-covers reading. I finished it over two days and every time I did something else I just wanted to get back to it. King has such skill in drawing the reader into that dusty old house and the skin of the people in it, and leaving just enough out in each scene that we want to come back (though we’re often not sure exactly what for). We want to know about the deaths, the hidden things, the meanings and the ultimate fate of it all. This is perfect holiday reading – especially for those always curious about the history of things (particularly if it’s a little dark) and those who feel a mysterious yearning for pasts in which they didn’t exist.
PS. Despite the success of King’s award-winning and internationally published The Sound of Butterflies, this (better, I thought) novel doesn’t seem to have been picked up yet in Australia, or anywhere outside New Zealand! I do hope Australian readers will still seek it out, I know many of you will enjoy it. Any interested publishers? Maybe try getting in touch with King through her website. She’s also on Twitter.
I am going to read 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011.
All book-lovers have gaps in their reading – how could you possibly read everything? In recent years I’ve been fairly up-to-speed with newer books and Australian literature, but I’ll often find myself in conversation, saying ‘oh, I haven’t read such-and-such yet’. People often assume I would have, given my ‘literary-minded’ claims. I have to remind them I’m only 26. I read Shakespeare in high school, plus gothic literature, Jane Austen and a few other things; through my undergrad and honours (in film and literature) I was introduced to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, JP Donleavy, Italo Calvino, Thomas Mann, DH Lawrence, EM Forster, Anton Chekhov, and many other writers of the modern and postmodern eras. Since then I’ve obviously discovered a lot on my own, but there is much ground left to cover. I’ve decided that this year I’ll dedicate approximately a quarter to a third of my reading (20 books) to classic, modern-classic or cult books.
I’ve already compiled a list – books I’m curious about, books I think will be fun to read, books I want to be able to talk about, books I can learn from. They are from all different eras and genres. I won’t publish the list in full but after reading each one I will write about it and let you know what the next one or two are that I’m going to tackle. That way you can read along with me, or come back and comment on previous posts. Many of you would have already read the books and can jump straight into the conversation (not just on here but through Twitter and the Facebook fan page).
The first classics I’m reading are The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. I’ve never read either author. I became interested in Isherwood after seeing the film of A Single Man. My lovely Twitter followers led me in the direction of The Berlin Stories.
Have you set any reading goals for 2011? Will you be joining me in mine?
Picture: Enjolras Delfin’s Young Woman Reading by a Window
The recent floods throughout Queensland and other parts of Australia have had a massive impact on many lives. But there are some literary-minded ways you can help out:
1. Bid for some of the signed or limited edition books and other literary goods like manuscript assessments in the Authors for Queensland auctions.
2. The Writers on Rafts Flood Appeal has been launched by the Queensland Writers Centre. Register your details along with a donation to go in the draw for some fantastic prizes. The website is here.
3. Buy tickets for A Gala Night of Storytelling 2011: Voices from Elsewhere, presented by the Wheeler Centre. The event will be on 11 February and all profits from ticket sales will go to flood-affected libraries across Queensland. Guests will be John Birmingham, Sonya Hartnett, Mem Fox, and ‘enfant terrible of Chinese literature’ (Sydney Morning Herald) Murong Xuecun as well as award-winning French author Yannick Haenel, German poet Dagmar Leupold and acclaimed Indian novelist Abha Dawesar.
4. And of course, you can donate directly to the Queensland Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal.
Beginning the blogging year with a giveaway is always a good idea! This week you can win a copy of actor James Franco’s upcoming short story collection Palo Alto, courtesy of Faber Academy and Allen & Unwin.
What is Faber Academy?
The Academy began in London when Faber offered creative writing courses out of their offices, taught by authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Hanif Kureshi and Louise Doughty. When these became successful, the Academy spread to Dublin, Paris and Toronto among others. Faber has teamed up with Allen & Unwin to offer a six month course on ‘Writing a Novel’ to be held at their offices in Crows Nest and to be taught by Kathryn Heyman and James Bradley from March to August 2011. ‘What’s exciting about it’, says Allen & Unwin, ‘is the hands-on nature of the classes, the publishers and agents reading night and the expectation that participants will finish the course with a complete first draft of their novel’. There’s more information about the course outline on the website. Applications for the course close soon on 28 January.
To win James Franco’s Palo Alto, courtesy of Faber Academy and Allen & Unwin, all you have to do is tell LiteraryMinded about a book you’re looking forward to reading in 2011. It might be something new, or it could be that book you’ve been meaning to read for ages. Leave your answer as a comment here on the blog, send it to me in a tweet, or leave it as a comment on this post on the Facebook fan page (not my personal page) before 5pm Sunday 23 January 2011. The winner will be drawn randomly.