Lockdown Diaries II, Day 6: With Raymond Queneau

I skipped day 5 of the lockdown diary yesterday, because I spent the day with a friend – owing to my circumstances people are allowed to visit me even in lockdown, now there’s a new turn up for the books! – and there was the weekly quote anyway for you to read. 

Nothing else happened. And today didn’t happen anything much either.

The fact that generally speaking even less is happening in this lockdown than in the last one, however, made me muse on the subject of how many times can you write the same thing over and over again without boring your readers to tears.

Well, Raymond Queneau in his Exercises in Style managed to do it a whopping ninety-nine times. (I don’t think I’ve got his talent.)

I first read his book in Hungarian when I was in grammar school – I first read everything in grammar school – and I found it highly entertaining. Decades later I’ve got myself an English copy, and I still find it highly entertaining. The only thing that baffles me is that Mr Anglo-Saxonist, into whose style of reading this kind of smart-arsery really fits, was never willing to read it. But there. You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make it drink… 

With that I’m handing you over to Raymond Queneau:

On the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about twenty-six, soft hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone’s been tugging at it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the man standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time he goes past. A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat, he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I come across him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend, who’s saying: “You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat.” He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

(Notation, from Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau)

Now if you think that the above excerpt is particularly boring, it’s because it is particularly boring.

Notation is the retelling of an incident, wholly devoid of interest to anybody, and in as bland a manner as possible, so that afterwards Queneau can have some fun in the rest of the book rewriting it in various styles. In ninety-nine different styles, as I said above.

A Writing Challenge – For Anybody Who Is Interested

Well, we’ve got nothing better to do, since we’re all in lockdown and there’s nothing really happening… so why don’t you write up what happened today, in a simple and matter of fact way, and then start experimenting? 🙂 

I’m going to provide you with my boring entry for today… and tomorrow (when I expect nothing more interesting to happen than today), I’ll look for inspiration in Queneau and give you an attempt at describing the big nothing, imitating one of his style variations. If you want to take up the challenge, post a reply in the comments, keeping to the same style. We’ll see how far we’ll get with this. 🙂

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Got up in the morning and went through the usual morning routine: cup of tea, shower, breakfast. Saw Young Friend of the Elephants off to school, then worked on the computer all morning. I experimented with a Pomodoro timer app as I keep forgetting to take breaks; it would have been great if the app actually worked as advertised.

Took my lunch to eat outside in the garden, as the weather was reasonably mild and there was some weak sunshine.

Worked some more on the computer in the afternoon, including on the blog, adding another map to the History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps, maybe I even finish it before the year ends? Only been at it for months.

Over to you. 🙂

Recommended reading:
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

 

Captain Michales

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis: A Book Review

Captain Michales is a wild man. His own family calls him the Wild Boar; and when he invites his companions to one of his drinking bouts – which often last for days – not only they dare not to say no, they dare not to stop drinking either, not even if it makes them miserably sick.

Even so, Captain Michales is no wilder than his country, Crete.

The cover of the 2nd Greek edition in 1955 illustrates the spirit of Captain Michales and the book perfectly [Image via Wikipedia}
Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Freedom and Death, is set at the end of 19th century when Crete was still a – reluctant – part of the Ottoman Empire. The island saw  a series of rebellions against Turkish rule throughout the 19th century before eventually it became independent and finally united with Greece in the 20th.

Kazantzakis himself was born in Megalokastro (today’s Heraklion) in 1883 and in his autobiographical book, Report to Greco, he hinted that the figure of Captain Michales was inspired by his own father: in the novel he’s describing the world that he grew up in.

A harsh and chaotic world.

Relations between the two groups of inhabitants of the island, the Greeks and Turks, are turbulent to say the least: ethnically motivated murder is a daily occurrence, family vendettas drag out for decades and law is practically non-existent. This forms the background of the novel, which is a story of friendship, jealousy, murder and vengeance, embedded in the larger story of the fight for Cretan independence.

The hero, Captain Michales, is a larger than life figure from the town of Megalokastro. The other chief characters are his Turkish blood brother and at the same time enemy, Nuri Bey; Nuri’s wife Eminé, who strikes passion in more than one man’s heart; Captain Michalis’s extended family, his rivals, his friends and neighbours in Megalokastro; not to mention the Pacha in charge of the island and the spiritual leader of the Christians, the Metropolitan.

In addition to the actual plot line, the novel is like a caleidoscope of colour about life in Megalokastro in that particular moment, strongly emanating the atmosphere of the time and place – for Kazantzakis writing it must have been like reliving his childhood.

It is a memorable book, but brutal: brutal like the hero, and brutal like the times and the country in which he lived. Not for the faint hearted.

Captain Michales stretched out his hand and raised the severed head by the hair like a banner. A wild light haloed his face, which was filled with an inhuman joy. Was it pride, god-like defiance, or contempt of death? Or limitless love for Crete? Captain Michales roared:

“Freedom or…”

Death.

Lockdown Diaries: Day 29 (Books That Make You Look Good When Dead?)

Locked Down in London, Day 29: Too Many Books?

A few years ago we had to have some repairs done to our roof and for a few days we had a workman in. On the last day he finished work early and had to wait for a colleague to pick him up with the company van. We sat him down in the living room with a cup of tea, and he looked at the bookshelves and asked: “How many books do you have?”

Well, truth be told, I don’t know. Mostly I feel that not enough. At some point however we did try to catalogue them by using a scanning program and although we never finished and keep forgetting scanning new books in, I was able to make an educated guess.

“About three thousand,” I said.

His jaw dropped. “Three thousand! And did you read them all?”

That made my jaw drop. “Well, of course…” I have read a lot more than 3000 books in my life, actually. The ones on the bookshelves – those are just my favourites.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 29 (Books That Make You Look Good When Dead?)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 23 (Christ Recrucified)

Locked Down in London, Day 23: The Police Is Losing the Plot

Earlier in the week, the Northamptonshire chief constable threatened to send his policemen to check on shoppers’ baskets and trolleys because in his opinion going out to buy chocolate Easter eggs is not essential!

What about buying the dye for the boiled eggs?! 🙂

Photo by Boris Manev on Pexels.com

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 23 (Christ Recrucified)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 11 (A Martian’s Guide to Budapest)

Locked Down in London, Day 11: Hungary Loses the Plot

While here all I have to moan about is the Derbyshire police’s dislike of people in scenic spots, in Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, better known by the ordinary citizen as Viktátor, or sometimes as King Viktor, has decided that he can’t have too much emergency powers and he can’t have it too long: he’s pushing through a new bill on the extension of the already existing emergency powers – without a sunset clause.

Meanwhile Hungary’s Chief Medical Officer for Public Health advocates that people soak eggs in bleach before eating them (!) – it’s lucky that apparently you can’t get bleach at the moment.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 11 (A Martian’s Guide to Budapest)”

Give a Quarter of a Year to the Mixture and Beat it Until it Cheers Up

No, I haven’t gone insane (yet) due to having to stay at home: the above gem in the title comes from Google Translate. It’s a paragraph from a tarta di Santiago recipe, which I was sharing with family & friends on Facebook, as part of my Lockdown Diaries. (I have to post bilingual on Facebook for everybody to be able to understand and I was too lazy to translate an entire recipe. 🙂 )  

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Quarantine in the Grand Hotel

A luxury hotel on a holiday island has been placed under quarantine after a case of an infectious disease was reported to the authorities by the management. The police cordoned off the building and its gardens, quarantining not only the hotel guests, but the staff on the premises, and various diverse characters who, for their misfortune, happened to be present – from the stern-faced missionary who stopped for lunch in this palace of sin to the souvenir seller and the unemployed dockyard worker busy loafing around in front of the hotel entrance, not to mention Miss Lydia who received the deportation order this morning after she spent two years on the island with the excuse that she was waiting for the return of an officer of the merchant marine, who had stepped outside for a few minutes…

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Hungary in Ten Books

In a few hours time I’ll be taking a late night flight to Budapest; by the time you’re reading this I might have even arrived. This latest visit home prompted me to write a long overdue book list for you. 🙂

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest in winter fog. Photo by Noval Goya via Flickr.

One good way to get to know a people is by reading their literature.  Unfortunately, in the case of the Hungarians this is not easy as the language is obscure and difficult (and no, it’s bloody not related to Polish, or Russian, or German!¹) and not a lot of the country’s literature has been translated into English, let alone into other languages.

So what follows here is not any kind of representative list of Hungarian literature – it is, nevertheless, a list of ten good books which were all translated into English. If you ever decide to visit Hungary, you could do much worse than reading one of them on the flight there. 🙂

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Musashi: The Master Swordsman of Medieval Japan

The Battle of Sekigahara… anyone?

Well, I’d never heard of it either before I read Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel, Musashi.

Which brings us to the next question: Miyamoto Musashi, anyone?

Your answer, of course, is in the title of this post: Miyamoto Musashi was one of the most famous – if not the most famous – swordsman Japan ever produced. Already in his lifetime he became a legend.

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El Samurai

Read this in English: The Samurai

…y el sacerdote

Porque El samurai, esta novela por el autor japonés, Shusaku Endo, tiene de hecho dos protagonistas, aunque el título sólo menciona uno. Dos personajes principales en paralelo: unidos en el propósito pero, al mismo tiempo, con un marcado contraste entre los dos.

El propósito que une el samurai Rokuemon Hasekura y el padre Velasco es negociar privilegios comerciales con Nueva España para los japoneses a cambio de que los misioneros europeos puedan predicar al cristianismo en Japón. Lo que los separa es… pues todo los demás, empezando con sus razones para participar en la embajada. El año es 1613, y el caudillo Tokugawa Ieyasu acabó unificar Japón bajo su propio mando.

¿Y la recompensa para los dos protagonistas después de un viaje arduo cruzando dos océanos? El samurai espera que recobre sus tierras solariegas; el sacerdote sueña de hacerse el primer obispo de Japón. Pero sus Señorías sólo les conceden sus deseos si consiguen la misión …  ¿pueden hacerlo?

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The Samurai

…and the Priest

Because The Samurai, this novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, has two protagonists for all that only one of them is mentioned in the title. Two main characters in parallel, united in purpose – yet in contrast to each other.

The purpose that unites them is gaining an agreement for the establishment of direct trade between Japan and Nueva España, New Spain, in exchange for Japan allowing Christian misssionaries to proselytise in the country. What separates them is… everything else, beginning with their reasons for setting out on the embassy. The year is 1613, and the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu has recently managed to unify Japan under his own rule.

The samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, hopes to get his ancestral lands back; the priest, Father Velasco, dreams of becoming the Bishop of Japan. Their desires will only be granted if their mission is successful…  can they carry it off?

Continue reading “The Samurai”

Seven Snowy Stories

The winter’s first – and in these parts possibly only – snowfall put me in mind of books in which winter features prominently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ones that came to mind immediately were children’s stories. So here are seven snowy stories to surprise your children (nieces, nephews, grandchildren, your best friend’s horrible brat…) with. Perhaps for Christmas? 🙂

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The Amazing Cynicism of the Tao Teh King

In Search of Tranquility

I occasionally see world weary westerners traipsing down Regent Street in loose robes and sandals chanting ‘Hare Krishna’, apparently believing that this would ease their existential angst, or, better still, solve all their problems – I blame the Beatles. Personally, I’ve never yet felt tempted to sing ‘Hare Krishna’; mainly because it’s somebody else’s cultural background and I’ve got a perfectly serviceable one of my own. Even so – and despite the Beatles – I recognise that the East has much to offer us.

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The Persian Letters of Montesquieu

Thirty-odd years ago I thought that the French author Montesquieu was enlightened, witty and clever. I based this opinion on reading his Persian Letters, an epistolary novel which details the experiences of two Persian travellers, Usbek and Rica, in France in the early part of the 18th century. Last month I picked up Persian Letters again… and found out what a change thirty-odd years made.

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A Book with a History

The book is green with golden letters, cloth bound. Sunlight faded the spine into autumnal yellow so that you can no longer make out the title and the author very well. When you open it, the yellowed pages rustle, feeling slightly stiff to the fingers. The title page is followed by the picture of the author printed on smooth, glossy paper that contrasts with the coarser pages that follow it. I turn the pages and think: they don’t make books like this anymore.

And then there’s the way it smells. The smell of decades which lingers on  your fingers even after you put the book down.

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Aesop’s Fables in Nahuatl

While reading a history of the Latin language recently, I came across one of the fables of Aesop – translated into English from Nahuatl. In case you’ve never heard of Nahuatl, it was the language of the Aztec empire and in consequence the lingua franca of Central-America up to the 16th century; it is still spoken in parts of Mexico.

The book in question is Ad infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler and I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public although if you do happen to be interested in historical linguistics and especially in Latin, it’s fine; all the more enjoyable if you can actually know Latin of course (sadly I don’t).

But what has a Nahuatl version of the fables of Aesop – who after all was Greek – got to do with the history of Latin?

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