Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Some recent travel reading. . .


Sorry it's been so quiet here for the last few weeks. I was working a ten day academic conference and straight after that I headed to Switzerland for ten days of vacation, where I climbed an Alp, went to a lot of art museums, sat through two Italian operas and an excellent production of Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) set in 1960s London, watched the dishy Roger Federer win the finals of the French Open on a channel with Spanish commentary, and climbed another hill in Zurich to visit James Joyce's grave. Oh, I do love Europe. And the chocolate and ice cream! The Swiss may be known for their watches, penknives and cuckoo clocks, but I for one salute their serious and professional dedication to butter.

Zurich is also the birthplace of Dada and so my reading material was two recent books published by Princeton University Press. The Posthuman Dada Guide: tzara and lenin play chess, by Andrei Codrescu was an inventive introduction to this literary movement and its key players. Codrescu argues that in our modern, impersonal internet age, the conditions are ripe for the nonsensical tenets of dada to flourish yet again. The book isn't as funny or creative as Tom Stoppard's play Travesties, which imagines meetings between James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara who were all in Zurich in 1916, but if you've seen the play or are interested in this artistic period, then Codrescu will certainly give you a good overview. Cabaret Voltaire (where Dada began) is now a nightclub called amusingly enough, the Duda Club.
One of the Dadaist members was Kurt Schwitters - I saw some of his collage paintings in the Swiss art galleries I visited - and he also wrote subversive fairy tales in the 1920s. These have been collected into a volume called Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales, translated and with an introduction by fairytale expert Jack Zipes. I've been interested recently in this genre since reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and many of these tales are pure, twisted fun in the "be careful what you wish for" vein. One of my favourites was "The Scarecrow" which uses very interesting typography as part of the narrative. A concrete fairytale, if you will.

Zurich has great bookstores both antiquarian and new. One of the major chains Orell F├╝ssli, has separate stores devoted to German, French and English language books. In the latter, I found an early Jonathan Coe novel (oh joy!) that isn't available in Canada. The Dwarves of Death isn't his best book, but it was very entertaining plane and train reading, with a Nick Hornby sort of feel to it. And then as a nice bookend to the holiday, I read Milan Kundera's excellent piece of literary criticism, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, over the weekend. Not only a look at the art of the novelist, it's also a call for the history of literature to encompass the work of multiple cultures and nationalities. Writers, he argues, are as much influenced by what they may read in translation as they are by their own countries' writers, and a literary history that acknowledged this would look far different, and bring far greater prestige to many writers whose work is now often forgotten or out of print. He certainly has me interested now in reading The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch, Ferdyduke by Witold Gombrowicz, and Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot.

3 comments:

Shonna said...

Good to see you back.
I was missing your wonderful commentary on books (plus my book list wasn't growing as fast as it usually does!)

Bradley said...

I have to agree with Shonna, it is fantastic to have you posting again!

Maylin said...

Aw, thanks guys, I'm touched. There was a moment when I thought I should find an internet cafe and post something or other, but that only lasted a nanosecond. These days, I value vacation time not only for a break from work, but the internet as well, much as I love blogging. Sometimes, one just needs to breathe fresh air and experience the world away from a computer screen.
But it's always lovely to hear that when one does post, someone out there is reading. . .