Category Archives: Literature

”It has to happen now, or I don’t give a f**k…”

It’s early in the morning and I’m sat on the train. Just under three hours ahead of me before I reach Göteborg. Normally it’s quite a droll, but this morning I’m eavesdropping on a few retired train drivers discussing the state of the world and the development of our society. Their rural mentality might not impress me overly, but there has been a few good points. Intrestingly enough, they’ve been similar to the ones presented in the cultural section of today’s Svenska Dagbladet. I’m not yet sure what that says about Svenska Dagbladet and their reporters. Nor what it sais about me critizising the ”rural mentality” of the ex train drivers. Maybe their hands-on way of life is actually the healtier alternative.

Nevertheless, the thoughts their discussion has given rise to are on the need for instant results and immediate satisfaction in todays younger generation. A generation I’m part of, too, I might add. The generation of smart phones, Google, Facebook, Twitter and reality TV. The generation that prides itself of not having the time to read a book cover to cover, where it is cool to party ’till five in the morning and then be at the law firm or meeting a presumptive PA at six-thirty, ”tweeting” away to all ones followers  (what was once called ”friends”) in the cyber reality about how trashed and hungover one is while trying to get ones act together in a bathroom at a Starbucks. This is the generation where a long process, preparation and serious commitment is not worthwhile since it is too boring to wait for a result that might take longer than a week to get. This is a generation where platitudes like ”Oh, I’m sooo in to contemporary art and 21st century design” really means ”I looked at the picturs in the latest issue of Vanity Fair and, actually, read some of the text too!” When these are the people that will govern our countries in the future, no wonder the privatisation will continue being at the top of the agenda.

The problem is when this way of thinking amalgamates with the serious questioning of values, ideas, principles. The questioning is at the core of all serious cultural debate. Regardless if it’s seen as highbrow or not. The debate concerning the future of the Arts and humanities need a longterm analysis, a longterm plan and people comitted to being comitted. The Arts need people who are prepared to spend time reading, writing, taking in ideas new and old, cogitate, ponder, suggest. I am not as naive as suggesting the intelectual cafés’ of  1960s Paris ought to return with Sartre-like followers taking the lead, but they had a place then and something similar might have a place today. Resulting articles and papers being discussed widely ought to be part of the societies curriculum. Schools all over Europe have started giving classes in Rhetoric since it is important for the young generations to learn how to advocate a view in today’s individualistic society. That’s all good and sound. But, I wonder, how come it is important to advocate if you have no tools to analyse with and to reach a view to advocate for? Is it sound to be able to shout just for the cause of shouting? Not likely.

Since I am the one writing this, the focus is obviously the debate on the Arts. There are numerous examples I hope to be able to write about where the lack of cultural detabe have resluted in disaster for small theaters, opera companies, book publishers, buildings of importance (though not to the State) and so forth. Though for now, my question is if we are prepared to live in a ”quick fix” world where nothing, least of all the so called “intellectual” questions and thoughts, is allowed to take time and be given space. With the rife mindset of today it is as if we say; if it’s not instant success, it’s worthless. And I wonder, is that really true?

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Filed under 80-talister, Art, Contemporary Art, Culture, Instant success, Literature, Preservationist, Young generation

Why do we buy into a fake lifestyle?

The fact that we buy into a lifestyle has always fascinated me. A global fashion or design brand creates a special way of living, and millions upon millions want to lead that life. It doesn’t matter if it’s the wealthy New York City Banker lifestyle with a huge loft-flat, bare brick walls, brushed steal and glass or the more leisurely East Coast Intellectual with preppy university clothes, first edition hardbacks displayed in the living room and dark wood furniture in the dining area. I could go on forever with examples, but you get the picture I’m sure. If that is the life you live because you happen to be living that life anyway, fine. But if not, why do so many people aspire to it? Not necessarily the professions, but why do they crave the lifestyle of a City Banker, a Lecturer at Yale, a Politician in his Hamptons summer residence or a Duke at his Country Estate?

Because the PR bureaus and the advertisement industry have created the need and urge to live a better life than what we have. And we didn’t get a vote on what that better life contains.

A good example is when the American style coffee companies started to branch out in Europe a decade or so ago. They had been found in the UK and some bigger European cities for some time, but all of a sudden they appeared in Sweden, Norway, Austria, the Netherlands etc. This created an almost overnight need for people to start having take-away coffee. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m a big fan of the take-away coffee industry myself, but it does become a bit silly to pay around €3.50 for a coffee from the coffee place around the corner from where you live to drink on the way to work which is no more than 20 minutes on the metro. If you live in London or New York, where a lot of people commute for up to two hours on a bad day, and start work at 7.30am I fully understand the need to have breakfast  “on the go” on public transport. That’s why the concept of take-away coffee was invented in the first place. But please, don’t try to have a busier lifestyle than you already do.

This is what fascinates me with us humans today. Why do we so desperately want to be a wealthy city banker or top lawyer in a big city, when the life we have chosen is as an office rat in a smallish town? Are we too afraid of the consequences on our health and general wellbeing so we don’t dare to take the big leap out in the unknown and don’t dare trying the high-flying lifestyle and the cost and trial it might bring? But still, we go to Laura Ashley, Lexington or Ralph Lauren Home to get the best of a lifestyle we admire and want to be part of? If so: why can’t we just be happy and content with what we’ve chosen and stick to our IKEA furniture and get on with our lives?

Because we’re not allowed to be satisfied and happy. If we were, the big companies would not make the large sums of money they want and the wheel of fortune would stop. And who would want that…


Still, aspiration is a good thing and I think we need the big companies to push us to see where the limit is for ourselves and for our capacities. Having said that, I also believe we need to be aware of how it all works so that we don’t fool ourselves into fake happiness. Consumerism is fun, I am the first to admit that. But consumption also needs to be taken seriously, and seen for what it is and what power it has. Without the greed and the consuming market we would not be where we are today as a society. With that I mean the wealthy, prosperous West with all its positive connotations. Though, that also includes the credit crunch we currently experience. It also means that the banks are scared out of their wit to loan money, that the housing market is more volatile than ever and that the pension systems are being revised all over Europe. And not for the better. I won’t even touch the subject of the cuts in the Arts funding. That’s for another blog post.

Looking at it like that, isn’t it funny that we still think “Nah, well, I still really like that lamp from RLH I bought last year. It sits so very nicely on the faux Victorian side table in the library. I don’t regret buying it for a second”. But maybe we need to think twice next time. Maybe we should look at the lifestyle we’ve chosen and question if that really is what we wanted in life. If it is and you have it all: congratulations. If it isn’t: welcome to the club…

 

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Filed under Fake lifestyle, Literature, Longing

Re-reading and remembering times past

In general I don’t read a book twice. It doesn’t matter how great it was, how close I got to the characters, how much the experience gave me. The reason? There is simply too much good literature out there to dwell on what’s already been read. I am also too impatient.  With a new book in hand I always find myself checking how many pages there are in total, then figure out by which page I will be halfway through and finally try to get through the whole blasted tome as quickly as possible so I can start on a new one. The ever-greater pile of unread books looks down on me guiltily, so there simply is no way I would have time nor the interest to re-read.  Or so I thought.

There have always been a few exceptions. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited I never get tired of re-reading, and now finally I have once again taken on the mammoth task of re-reading Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I read it, or them I guess would be more accurate coming to this seven-volume monster of a piece, the first time around when I was 19. I had fallen in love with France and it’s 19th century art scene many years earlier, and a small, battered study edition of my mother’s of Combray I-II had always been staring at me in the upper library of where I grew up. I had always had a deep urge to read it, but had never dared. Then, when I was going to Paris for the first time, I read it in an afternoon a few weeks before in my small dorm room at the university where I happened to be studying at the time. Lying on my back, skipping lectures because I was so taken aback with this new world of storytelling, I bought all of the eight volumes in hardback next time I came back home. It was an expensive investment for a young student at the time, but I haven’t regretted it for a second. And now I’m at it again. I saw the volumes when I was at The Rectory where I grew up a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t resist bringing the first volume with me on the plane back to Amsterdam. And for someone who in general doesn’t read a book twice, it has been a peculiar experience.

Since it is almost a decade ago I read À la Recherche last, in a rather Proustesque way I find the different volumes having like small, mental connotations not dissimilar to how the material items does set the storyteller in the books off on his long, winding sentences and reflections. Like I remember reading Combray I-II, I clearly remember how I read volume two and three while in Paris for a few weeks at my first summer break from university. So isn’t it strange then, that the strongest experience I now have re-reading Proust is remembering the feelings I had about life, the world and about this new literary experience ten years ago? I certainly get a lot out of reading it again, and once again finding the fascinating details the author has left for us to reflect upon, but the strongest feeling is to be brought back to 2001 all over again. The feeling of being a young student with his whole life ahead of him.

So maybe this is my equivalent to Proust’s moment with the Madeleine cake and the linden tea? Re-reading opens up doors to new parts of ones mind, not just in the literature. For me it has been a rather odd realisation, but maybe that’s the greatness of literature? Not just that it helps us exercise our imagination and broaden our horizons, but that it also stays with us longer than we thought. Maybe more of the actual experience of reading stays with us than we think? Fascinating.

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Filed under À la recherce du temps perdu, France, Literature, Marcel Proust, Paris

Storytelling that can change our perception

There’s something special about 20th century American literature. My regular readers know that I usually bang on about the French and British way of life and these countries literature. I am after all embarrassingly European. However, it’s time for me to admit that I have a soft spot for 20th and 21st century American literature. I’ve had it for many years now and it’s a love story that’s getting stronger and stronger for every tome that passes through my hands.
I have long thought about what it is that make it so appealing to me, but I struggle to find the core reason. Can it be that there is something special that you don’t get in European literature? That there seems to be a longing, a fight and a strive to create a better world. A fight to find an identity, whether it’s a self, a family identity or the identity of a state or a nation. Coming from a literary tradition more than 2000 years old I find the intellectual analyzing from the authors incredibly interesting and it creates a web of thoughts and questions we should all ask ourselves, Americans and Europeans alike.

Mind you, I don’t talk about Dan Brown or John Grisham here. Authors like Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, John Updike and Jonathan Franzen are the ones, among many others, I refer to. Having said that, The Runaway Jury and The da Vinci Code have something to give us readers too. No question about it. Just not, in my view, as much substantial as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch 22 or The Corrections. And Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird is the latest in the line of books I‘ve just finished.

Harper Lee once described her Pulitzer Prize winning novel as “a simple love story”.  It is indeed just that, but it is also so much more. There are depths to the story that stay with you for a long time. The moral of this little town in the Deep South is eccentric, humorous and sometimes violent. But most importantly, it is deeply prejudiced. Set in the 1930s, the story seen through the eyes of a child tells us about the severe injustice towards the Black population, how they were treated like dirt but employed by many as housekeepers, janitors etc. The few Caucasian that stand up for their coloured neighbours rights are mocked and banned from the social circuit. This moral dilemma creates a huge turmoil in nine year old Scout Finch when her father, the town lawyer Atticus Finch is taking on the alleged rape case against Tom Robinson, a Black man who is accused of raping the daughter of a redneck alcoholic living behind the town dump. Regardless of Tom Robinson’s obvious innocence proved in Court by Atticus Finch the jury decide against his favour and Tom Robinson is sent away to prison awaiting the chair. With this as a leading story within the story, Harper Lee manages to point a finger at all of us, forcing us to think twice about the world we live in almost hundred years later. Has it changed much? What do we do to create a fair world for all? Scout’s brother Jem has an exchange-of-words with his father just after the trial is over, and there are many thoughts that should echo recognition with us all today.

 

“You know rape’s a capital offense in Alabama,” said Atticus.
“Yessir, but the jury didn’t have to give him death – if they wanted to they could’ve gave him twenty years.”
“Given,” said Atticus. “Tom Robinson’s a colored man, Jem. No jury in this part of the world’s going to say, ‘We think you’re guilty, but not very,’ on a charge like that. It was either a straight acquittal or nothing.”
Jem was shaking his head. “I know it’s not right, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong – maybe rape shouldn’t be a capital offence….”
Atticus dropped his newspaper beside his chair. He said he didn’t have any quarrel with the rape statute, none whatever, but he did have misgivings when the state asked for and the jury gave a death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence.

“But lots of folks have been hung – hanged – on circumstantial evidence,” said Jem.
“I know, and lots of ‘em probably deserved it, too – but in the absence of eye-witnesses there’s always a doubt, sometimes only the shadow of a doubt. The law says ‘reasonable doubt,’ but I think a defendant’s entitled to the shadow of a doubt. There’s always the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he’s innocent.”


https://i1.wp.com/graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2009/04/24/travel/escapes/24alabama_span.jpg

The serious side to the story is surrounded by the cotton fields, corn flour bread and summer heat of the American South. You can almost smell the new baked bread eaten before everyone’s off to church on Sunday, you can hear the old Ford pick-up trucks driving along the dusty road leading in to Maycomb, the sleepy Southern town where the novel is set. That Harper Lee’s book has become a classic is very well deserved and I wish everyone would read it. Not just for the thought provoking content surrounding Tom Robinson’s case, but also for the nostalgia and love to ones childhood it creates. How simple life could be, with small joys and pleasures, but also how complex the grown up world seemed.
Not that it seems less complex when one is adult, but the book reminds us about that the small things and the simple pleasures can sometimes be the best and most rewarding.

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Filed under Alabama, American literature, Harper Lee, Literature

When I was one and twenty

When I was in my late teens I dressed in a dark long coat, wore a beret and, sometimes, mascara. If only occasionally, it did happen. Today I’m ashamed over the fact, but there we are. I was also a socialist of sorts and found Kafka’s books the most exiting literature ever printed. And I thought I knew best. Does this picture seem familiar to anyone? Many of us working in the Arts have gone through this phase, and some never get out of it. Luckily I did. Today I find bespoke tailoring, antiquarian books and a good dry martini more interesting and fulfilling. Pretentious? Probably. But that’s how I turned out.


Why am I rambling on about this then, dear reader? Well, it’s all down to the latest book I read. It’s by a young (he’s only twenty-one) Swedish writer-in-waiting called Jonas Strandberg. The book, Feberstaden (Fever City for those of you with minor linguistic skills), is written in Swedish and not yet published by a major publishers, but I sincerely hope someone will pick it up very soon. I just couldn’t put it down, and it immediately took me back to my own youth on the Swedish west coast. The characters struggle to get their heads around their lives and their interests straight, the uncertainty of adulthood and the future, the boiling passion for music, it’s all in there.

Simply put, the book is about a bunch of guys in their early twenties, if that, all playing in a band. They are just on the brink of making it big time when the lead singer and front man disappear without a trace. He can’t be found anywhere.  The remaining guys scramble their forces trying to get back on track but realizes it’s not that easy. The question remains; how much are you prepared to give up for success, for possibly “making it” in the world of rock ’n’ roll? Is it worth sacrificing virtually everything?

I agree, reading it like that it doesn’t sound like much. A really bad detective story? A youngster trying to ride on the wave of success from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy? If so he wouldn’t be the first. But no, that really isn’t the case. Strandberg’s storytelling is mesmerizing. The plot described above is the central body of the story, the overriding line, but not its real core. What it’s really about is the immense pressure these young musicians, and the patient girlfriends involved, are under. How they struggle to find their own ground, their own sound and their identity as a band. The testosterone pumping and the frustration with parents who doesn’t understand the passion are painfully close to the surface all the time. When reading Feberstaden it started to itch all over, it made me really stressed since I can easily remember the feelings described so vividly. It might have been many years ago for me, but Strandberg manages to rouse it all again. I can’t say I’m grateful to him for that, but it’s a good skill for a writer.

Being this young and being able to be such a brilliant storyteller is a treat and very promising. There are minor editing errors that need to be dealt with, but that is in no way a critique of Strandberg’s gift as a writer. I’m not sure he’s found “his real” voice yet – something tells me that the sometimes overly elaborate descriptions and convoluted sentences are a sign of wanting to say too much, not trusting his reader and his own gift. In short, that is what we’re all struggling with as artists in whichever discipline though, isn’t it?

I hope he will get due credit for his work and won’t give up writing. If he carries on this is for sure someone to look out for and a writer we will hear a lot about in the future.

 

… Aware in his whole body that what he listened to was so much more than just songs on a record. It was five young peoples message to the world told in a way you can only talk or scream when you’re twenty years old. When everything still matters and thing s still mean something and every fall seems bottomless, but the tops so very close to blue stars. It wasn’t just files, not just poetry about love and anxiety and not just music.

It never is just music.

– Jonas Strandberg, excerpt from Feberstaden


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Filed under Gothenburg, Literature, Sweden

Coffee in London: part 3

London Review Cake Shop. Yep, that’s where I ended up today. How? God only knows. But I’m glad I did.

Admittedly this isn’t as much a coffee connaiseur’s place as the other ones I’ve recently visited and written about. Don’t get me wrong, the coffee is good. Not just good, it’s miles better than what you get at the normal coffee-chain / corner-shop kind of place. And, once again, it’s the famous London based roastery (I’m not even going to mention their name this time, scared for you guys thinking I’m sponsored by M*******. Unfortunately that’s not the case) that’s providing the beans.  The cappuccino I ordered arrived promptly and at the standard you can expect. However, the little extra “something” was missing. The foam wasn’t the way I prefer it. Not as smooth and clean on the palate as I’m used to when a very good barista makes it. Not that I want to be overly fussy or anything. No, I just want the best there is. Is that too much to ask? The espresso base was very good though so all in all I was happy with my drink. Just not ecstatic.
The carrot cupcake was heaven though. Unfortunately they’d run out of the famous lavender one I really wanted to try, but if they are better than this one, well… I just have to go back and try at a later stage I guess. What a pity.

What really makes this place such a nice haunt is that it is what it is in it self.  No excuses. Since it’s adjacent  or immediately attached rather, to the London Review Book Shop on 14 Bury Place, it creates a very nice and relaxed atmosphere. When I was there it wasn’t particularly busy so those of us there were basically just sitting reading and drinking coffee. Since Bury Place is one of the streets just off Great Russell Street, where British Museum is situated, you get a lot of regular Londoners who enjoy a peaceful coffee and want to read a paper or magazine instead of the buzzing student crowd. This makes it a nice place for some relaxed down time with any kind of written medium, really.

The Cake Shop’s interior is different from the other places I’ve written about over the last few days as well. When you’ve found your way in via the History section in the book shop you’re met by a very contemporary till made of light faux wood of indescribable origin. On the side of the till is a glass display full of lush cakes, pies and sandwiches. The cupboards behind the till are almost IKEAesque in their plainness. But it doesn’t look bad. Not bad at all. It works well for this kind of place. It isn’t trying desperately hard like so many other London coffee houses are right now. They give you what you need, neither more nor less. For a place where you want a good coffee and some time to think, as well as the possibility to browse among books galore, this is where you should go. It is bright thanks to the big windows facing Bury Place and a fairly high ceiling. It’s also got a big outside sitting area during the summer.

For a Sunday afternoon like today, this was the ideal place to go. And in top of it all, I got to spend time among an abundance of new hardback titles which is always divine in this paperback infested world.

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Filed under Art, Coffe Houses, Food and Drink, Italy, Literature, London, poetry

A Utopian Republic fit for the 21st Century?

Thomas More (1478-1535), to some Saint Thomas More, created a fascinating piece of prose and provocative thoughts with his masterpiece Utopia. Almost five hundred years ago it was printed and released in the, for many, inaccessible Latin. It didn’t take long though before it could be found in English as well.  I must admit that my Latin isn’t as good as I would like it to be, so I read Utopia in the Paul Turner translation from 1965. I am looking around for some other translations at the moment. If you know any good ones, I would be grateful for suggestions. It would certainly save me some time.

It is a fascinating read, this fictional world of the Utopian Republic visited by Raphael Nonsenso and later described to Thomas More and his friend Peter Gilles. The three gentlemen met in More’s hotel garden when he visited Antwerp, and between luncheon and supper they sat talking. Or rather listening since Nonsenso is the one who does most of the talking. In the book, which is mainly a retelling of the conversation in the garden, More and Gilles sit mesmerized and stunned by the description of this ultimate, or perfect in a sense, fair and democratic solution for a society. The society described is as ideal and unreachable as anyone could imagine at the peak of Henry VIII reign. This might have been the intellectual trigger for More to write this piece in the first place. It is not at all religious in the way as most his other writings tends to be. More’s interest in the Humanities and the secular world shines through heavily and this, I think, is what makes the piece a classic and must-read for anyone with interest in the development of Western scholarly tradition. His texts on the Church and the Faith are corner stones in the Catholic Church, but this is a piece where More manages to combine his religious views and longing for an earthly paradise with his deeply rooted beliefs to do good for the common man. After all, he chose not to become a priest, to stay out of the world of the cloth-and-cloak and instead carried on practising law. He was well known for living like a priest or even a monk, wearing a hair shirt under his robe and occasionally enjoyed some self-flagellation. All this while still being a loving family man, husband and caring father.

So, what is it that is so revolutionary and contemporary with Utopia? I’d say it is the description of problems that existed during the Medieval and Renaissance times as well as today. Mans longing for riches, vanity in general, the suffering of the sick and the elderly and the unfair way people try to avoid taxes and start wars. All this is dealt with in Utopia. The lower down you are on the social ladder (yes, it still exists but is in some way justified) the more gold you are forced to wear. Simply to get rid of the greatness and everybody’s longing for this the most expensive of precious metals. Euthanasia is also dealt with in a way most interesting if you have followed the discussion that’s been going on between politicians, celebrities, intellectuals and the common man (to use a phrase form Utopia) over the last few years. What More writes sounds as if it could have been taken from Sir Terry Pratchet’s Dimbleby Lecture given earlier this year on the subject. More writes:

As I told you, when people are ill, they’re looked after most sympathetically, and given everything in the way of medicine or special food that could possibly assist their recovery.

He goes on:

… if, besides being incurable, the disease also causes constant excruciating pain, some priests or government officials visit the person concerned, and say something like this:
“Let’s face it, you’ll never be able to live a normal life. You’re just a nuisance to other people and a burden to yourself – in fact you’re really leading a sort of posthumous existence. So why go on feeding germs? Since your life’s a misery to you, why hesitate to die? You’re imprisoned in a torture-chamber – why don’t you break out and escape to a better world? Or say the word, and we’ll arrange for your release. It’s only common sense to cut your losses. It’s also an act of piety to take the advice of a priest, because he speaks for God.
If the patient finds these arguments convincing, he either starves himself to death, or is given a soporific and put painlessly out of his misery.  But this is strictly voluntary, and, if he prefers to stay alive, everyone will go on treating him as kindly as ever. Officially sanctioned euthanasia is regarded as an honourable death …

This does almost sound like Sir Terry Pratchett’s suggestion about a Death Panel who were to decide who would be granted euthanasia or not.

To me, More’s writing is strikingly contemporary for being written almost five hundred years ago. However, I wonder if this Utopian society would work? Like any other more or less ideal but slightly naïve attempt to the Perfect World I’m afraid it would be a total disaster. There is still hope for mankind, but the only way forward is to be aware that mankind is not good all through. It’s enough with one or two people in a society who have ulterior motives for it all to fall apart. The day we think they don’t exist, that they’ve disappeared, we’re a lost cause. After all, not even Thomas More believed entirely in his own mind’s creation:

… I cannot agree with everything that he [Raphael Nonsenso] said, for all his undoubted learning and experience. But I freely admit that there are many features of the Utopian Republic which I should like – though I hardly expect – to see adopted in Europe.

I could not agree more.

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Filed under Art, English Reformation, Euthanasia, Literature, Renaissance, Saints