I may be on holiday this week but I’m busier than ever, finishing up my Christmas tasks and getting together with all my friends who are briefly back in town for the holidays. All I want to do now is curl up with a nice, long book (specifically, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope) but with so many things going on (most recently, acting as shopping assistant for those with no idea of what to buy other family members and who are only just realising this with a few short shopping days left), this does not seem the time to savour that most fondly anticipated book. No, it is clearly a time for short stories and essays, pieces that can be read quickly in the gaps between my other activities.
Following on from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (which I loved), I picked up Café Europa by Slavenka Drakulić. This volume of essays focuses on post-communist life in Eastern Europe. The book’s tone is very different from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, which, as the title suggests, generally focused on the positives, on triumphs rather than failures. Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe. The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not. Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal. She is not a disinterested observer but one who is deeply engaged with her subjects, often guilty of the very behaviours she believes are holding back these countries’ progress. These are essays about nations and people trying to find their place in the world and, especially, in Europe, a place that only a few years before seemed impossibly glamourous and incredibly foreign to all they knew and had experienced. I was most touched by Drakulić’s frustration at constantly being treated like a second-class citizen when abroad, coming up against the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as poor and dirty, cheats and thieves.
From there, I moved on to Prague Tales by Jan Neruda, which was perfect in almost every way. I adored this book and couldn’t bear to put it down. For one day at least I ignored all the other calls for my attention and read this straight through, even though I had picked it up specifically because it was a volume of stories that could be read in bursts. There are 13 tales, varying in length from only a few pages to the 100-page long novellas “A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”, which bookend the volume. All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague (coincidentally, my favourite part of the city), the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading. Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet. Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist. There are simply, brilliantly told everyday tragedies (“A Beggar Brought to Ruin” and “How Mr Vorel Broke In His Meerschaum”), a rather eerie tale of passion (“The Three Lilies”, the story that inspired Pablo Neruda to adopt his pen-name), wonderful comedies (particularly “How It Came to Pass”, about the ill-fated plans of several schoolboys to overthrown their Austrian rulers) and excellent domestic dramas dealing with the intertwined lives of neighbours (“A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”). What is particularly striking is how different the tone is from anything that was being written in English at the same time. There is a clarity and crispness to his prose, as well as a confidently satirical style, that reminds me more of books written in the 1920s and 1930s. It is no surprise to find that Karel Čapek used Neruda as a model. Neruda was also a passionate Czech nationalist. At the time he was writing, German was the language of business and literature, of serious people, while Czech was left to the peasants. It is fascinating to read the many comments in these stories relating to that, whether it be a manager demanding his employees cease speaking Czech in the office (our rebellious young narrator refusing to: “I speak Czech long and loudly. My colleagues avoid me like the plague”) or a group of soldiers chatting away about a visit to the Czech theatre, which was performing a German play. I cannot praise this book highly enough and my only concern now is how to obtain a copy of my own (having read a borrowed copy from the library).
After being so delighted by Prague Tales, I decided to move on to something very different, since any other fiction book would do poorly in comparison. Facts Are Subversive by Timothy Garton Ash seemed an excellent contrast, a collection of political essays written between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2009. With sections devoted to still-evolving Eastern European countries, the idea of Europe itself as a collective (including the excellent “The Perfect EU Member”, an entertaining argument for why Canada represents the EU ideal), Islam, the US (with a historically fascinating essay written directly after 11 September 2001 outlining what Garton Ash saw as the US’s options at the time), Asia, as well as essays on specific writers, books, and films, there is more than enough variety here to choose from. I did pick and choose somewhat, skipping a few of the essays that appealed to me the least or which I had already read when first published. I particularly enjoyed “The Brown Grass of Memory”, Garton Ash’s response to Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion.
And then, feeling the need for something light, I picked up Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress (of Austenprose) and promptly wished I hadn’t. A collection of stories inspired by Jane Austen, I found only a handful of these to be worth reading and my enjoyment of those few was certainly hampered by having to wade through the others to get at them.
I’ve now worked through all the volumes of short stories and essays I had out from the library and find myself longing for a good novel or biography, something cohesive. So on I go, to read about Tommy Douglas and finally try Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, knowing that at the end of this week, with my commitments filled and these two short books most likely finished, I will be able to pick up Trollope unhindered and escape into Barsetshire in time for Christmas. What bliss!