Sunday, 30 October 2011

Simple joys

Julia and her, I always want to say boyfriend, but he is actually her husband, came to visit for two days. Or rather Pontus came for two days, and she joined him 24 hours later. They were supposed to come together, but she was invited to participate in a fancy TV show, who wanted her so much that they paid her airfare, which must have been atrocious two days in advance. We enjoyed the company of our son-in-law for a whole day. Usually Julia does all the talking, so this time I felt I got to know him better. It also coincided with our new fireplace which we inaugurated in the evening. Nothing like a good fire to get a conversation going.

Then Staffan and Pontus went to Stansted to pick up Julia, but it was very late and I went to bed, so I saw her first in the morning. I hadn't met her since her wedding. She hasn't changed much, or perhaps she is still more happy and harmonious.

We hadn't planned any activities, but I suggested that we might go and see the Vermeer exhibition at Fitzwilliam, and if they hadn't seen the Tintin movie, I could perhaps be persuaded. We had a long lazy discussion during the prolonged breakfast and decided that what we really wanted to do was some serious shopping. They are both dedicated antique shoppers and great fun to shop with. After some deliberations we agreed on Ely, because it has a regular flea and craft market on Saturdays, a street of charity shops, a street of antique shops and three floors of antiques in an old factory building. So for once, I was in Ely and didn't go to the cathedral, except for tea, because at my favourite teashop, The Fire Engine, lunch was over and tea didn't even contemplate starting yet (this sounds like a quote from Winnie-the-Pooh, and it is meant to).

We began with the market because it usually closes by two, and the first thing Julia saw were two tea cups from the Botanic Garden series, that I had been looking for, since Staffan had recently broken one just as he had developed a particular fondness of them. So I bought those, and as I had paid Julia also saw a matching teabag saucer, which I bought, and some other items I didn't. Then we went on browsing, and my favourite stand with keyrings and other trash wasn't there, and I lost them, but finally found them at the stand with Swedish glasswear, in a vivid discussion with the seller on the various qualities of Swedish glass design. They bought two candlesticks and got £2 discount for the conversation.

Then we combed through the charity shops which didn't yield anything this time, and through some antique shops, where I found a matching plastic armchair for my 1:24 scale roombox at the incredible price of £1. The shopkeeper had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned 1:24. It must have been an unusual item among her china shepherdesses and silver spoons.

But the serious shopping was still waiting, and we had our cream tea in the Cathedral teashop, to keep us going. It wasn't anywhere in the vicinity of The Fire Engine, but you cannot have everything.

Now, I own more things than I will ever need, and I left so many things behind when we moved from Sweden that it feels to start gathering things again, but there is one object that I have coveted for a long time: nesting tables. There are usually dozens of sets in antique shops, but so far I hadn't seen any that I definitely liked and that would fit with the rest of my interior. I had told the kids that I was looking for nesting tables, so they were not at least impressed when I pointed to a set which was just the one I wanted. Mind, I had been looking for the last three years. They were searching for barometers and old tools, but eventually bought a magazine rack (yes, they managed to fit it into their suitcase), a Chinese abacus and a fancy handbag. As I say, it's fun shopping with them. The abacus will look fabulous beside the iPad.

Then we went home and celebrated the purchases drinking wine on the patio. It was a wonderful warm arfternoon, still light, since we hadn't yet switched to winter time. They left this morning. We hadn't seen the exhibition or done any other intellectual stuff. 

Professional and personal

Last week, at a formal dinner in Homerton I met a group of colleagues from Kazakhstan. Most people won't even know where it is. Our Faculty is running a project with Kazakhstan to enlighten this poor primitive nation. At least that's what their idiom suggests: "We will teach them..." (rather than, for instance, " we will exchange experience"). But this is another story.

A Cambridge colleague introduced me, also suggesting that I spoke Russian. Another blunder: they do have a language of their own in Kazakhstan, apart from speaking Russian and English and Turkish and possibly some other language. In fact, their English was excellent. But since my Russian was mentioned, subsequent questions were inevitable, and I had to admit that I was born in Moscow, and yes, I have been to Kazakhstan, more precisely to Qustanai, and the reason was that my familty was deported there. The Cambridge colleagues stared in horror. The Kazakh colleagues got agitated. What sort of deportees? (there were dozens of nationalities among them). Germans? Oh we love Germans, they are so nice, and they did so much for our education and culture, opened schools and theatres and were so friendly. Any relatives left? No, I had to say, everybody repatriated to Germany in the '90s. Kazakh colleague: Yes, we miss them. In my school, I was the only Kazakh pupil, all the rest we Germans.

The Cambridge colleagues grew more and more perplexed. Not only was their knowledge of geography insufficient, but their knowledge of 20th century history outside the UK was non-existent. I explained briefly, without any graphic details. They stared at me with awe. I doubt that they understood.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Books about books

I have just returned from a workshop in Glasgow, the first of a series, with the title "Reading fictions". The title is a bit misleading, but the subject was children's books in which a book or several books or reading in general play a significant role. One of the participants claimed that all children's books (and perhaps all books) are about the power and joy of reading, in which case there isn't much to discuss. But we tried to be more specific than that, to see how books are introduced within other books, and what readers can make out of it. There were many interesting things that we identified, for instance, the idea of books and reading as something forbidden, something to hide from others. I won't go into detail because it was just a very preliminary discussion, but, as with many similar focused topics, once you have started searching for them in literature you cannot help finding them everywhere. A participant pointed out that we hardly remembered Richmal Crompton's William as an avid reader, whereupon she read a longish quote about William hiding in the attic with his favourite snacks and a book. My own reflection is that we hardly remember Tom Sawyer as an avid reader, but all the games he plays with his friends are based on books.

Among the books we discussed yesterday was The Book Thief, quite a predictable example when you think of it. Some of my favourite examples are:

The neverending story, by Michael Ende. The protagonist steals a book from a bookshop and reads it until he is literally drawn into the story.

Seven-day magic, by Edward Eager. The children take a book from a library and it turns out to be magic, however for a week only since they must return it to the library.

Elidor, by Alan Garner. The children find a magical book in which they are portrayed. (Garner also has The Stone Book)

The dark is rising, by Susan Cooper. Another magical book.

Not to forget Harry Potter and all the important books encountered there - and I guess we don't think of Harry as an avid reader.

There are scores of books in which other books are mentioned or alluded to, and I have always wondered (and occasionally written about) whether authors are trying to legitimise their own position ("I am in good company"), or guide the readers ("That's the way you should understand my story - it is based on..."), or invite readers to share their own superiority ("Have you read and recognised all titles mentioned?"). All writers do this, from Bridge to Terabithia to Twilight. Sometimes they mention "the assistant pigkeeper", and if you get the allusion, good for you, and if not - you still know it must be a book. Books that Jerusha Abbot realises she has not read. The book that the three March sisters use to set up their own trials.

And also characters who are illiterate and still happy. Pippi Longstocking has all kinds of exciting things in her house, but not a single book. Charlie Bucket has no books. Mary Lennox receives book parcels, but remains indifferent and prefers to be in the garden. The Moomins have no books (although Moomnpappa writes one). What are the authors trying to tell us? I cannot imagine that Astrid Lindgren was against literacy.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

long long time ago in another life

I learned this morning that a very good friend from my pre-previous life had died. Apparently, he was celebrating his 65th birthday with a group of former fellow students, fell over the stairs while leaving the restaurant and died instantly. While this is the kind of death I envy, it is still very sad, and he could have lived many years yet. Although I am not sure he really wanted to.

He was my first husband's best friend, and they were highly ceremonial toward each other, as part of the game, calling each other "milord" and such. They had long philosophical conversations, and my husband explained to me that as a woman I would never ever comprehend the depth of their minds. Yet when we divorced, Alik remained my friend and gladly shared his mind with me. We attempted to have a relationship, stated it wouldn't work and decided that being good friends was more gratifying. He had an exquisite taste. Back in the old days in Moscow when there was little choice in flowers he would bring me iris and cyclamen (had orchids been available I am sure they would be his favourite). He managed to find the most incredible wines and the most exotic cake. He found the only place in Moscow where they served hot chocolate. And he liked skating - we would go skating every now and then, and I have vivid memories of snowflakes dancing in the light of coloured lamps over the skating rink. Grown-up people - we loved it. He would come to my birthday parties and occasionally New Year parties, but he preferred to meet me alone, over a good homemade meal and a bottle of wine.

When I moved to Sweden, the first ten years I was incredibly stupid and invited all friends to come and see me at once. It was crowded, chaotic and never allowed any time to talk. So eventually I learned to see friends one at a time, portioning out my precious hours in Moscow, inevitably favouring some over others. Alik lived in a far-away suburb, it was an adventure to get there, and we had a tendency to sit up late, so I would often stay overnight. He had become a grumpy old bachelor, complaining over the world, over people, and his own miserable life. He would prepare a meal, and after the meal he would smoke a pipe. We would catch up on the past years' experience. I know it's a banal simile, but it was like a time bubble.

Knowing his taste for good food, I tried to invite him to the newly emerging gourmet restaurants in Moscow. He said he couldn't afford to invite me and would never accept that a woman paid for his meal. But he appreciated good tobacco that I brought from Sweden.

I also tried to invite him to visit me in Stockholm, and he said he didn't want to come as a poor relative. He had only been abroad once, in Belgium.

By the way, he was an outstanding philosopher and sociologist. He worked at the Institute for International Working-class Movement, which was, in those old days, the hub for the best philosophers in Russia.

At my father's funeral, after a couple of glasses he tried to explain to those present that they underestimated my father who was the greatest intellectual he had ever met. 

During my last visit to Moscow, for my school reunion, I didn't tell anyone that I was there, because I just couldn't cope with it, but I called Alik, told him that I would be in Moscow for a day and a half and wondered whether he was free to see me. We had a four-hour-long lunch in a Persian restaurant. He paid the bill.

Honestly, just a couple of days ago I told myself that I should call Alik to see how he was. He didn't use email or still less facebook, so we were out of touch.

And now it's too late.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Close encounters with children's writers, part 4

I have been extensively quoted in The New Yorker. I am very proud of it. I would have been proud of being quoted in The New Yorker on any occasion, but I am honoured to be mentioned as Norton Juster's choice of comment on The Phantom Tollbooth. I am certainly in good company in this anniversaty edition - just look at the names mentioned as "esteemed authors, educators, and artists" (I guess I qualify as an educator for this occasion).

Norton has been a very good friend for many years now, which is a huge privilege, and the story of our friendship is worth telling. When I lived in Amherst, Massachussets, in 1993, I heard from my university colleagues, who knew I was one of those crazy child lit people, that Amherst was famous for its children's authors, and among the many great names there was Norton Juster. I had read The Phantom Tollbooth many years before, in Russia, and I had even tried to translate it. So I thought maybe I could try to meet the author. Amherst authors were easily approachable and appeared on many social and academic occasions, but I was told that Mr Juster was a bit of an hermit. He only lived three blocks from my university appartment, but after this warning, I really didn't want to hang outside his house. I wrote him a letter, explaining who I was and why I'd like to meet him. He phoned me very soon and invited me to come over to his place, "after dinner", a transparent hint about the brevity of the granted interview.

I went over, at about eight, and suddenly, as it sometimes happens, it was past midnight, and we hadn't yet told each other everything we had to tell, so Norton said: "Next time you must come for dinner". And I did, and at that dinner I also met Eric Carle, another local author; and I went over several times, for dinners and coffees and teas. When I was leaving, I called Norton to say goodbye, which made him really anxious. "You must come over one last time, he said, I must give you my special watermelon jam to take home!"

Since then, I have visited Norton several times in Amherst; we also met in San Diego when we lived there, and some years ago Norton and his wife Jeanne visited Stockholm. Staffan took them to see a famous 13th century church; Norton took a glance at it and said: "That's not 13th century". With authority - he is an architect. Although when they had walked around a bit, he had to admit that some parts of the church were indeed 13th century. Staffan's honour was saved.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Never have I felt so lonely...

In my diary for today I have a pink post-it with an arrow pointed to noon, saying "Nobel prize". At noon I rolled out of a three-hour long meeting, running to the dining hall to grab some lunch before the next meeting, back-to-back with a third meeting, and then a private and confidential conversation with a colleague, and then a student coming in for a chat, and after he was gone I saw the pink post-it. It was almost half past six, empty corridor and no one to shout to: "Yes!". Except for Mary Anne in the office next door, bless her! - I most humbly asked her to share my joy and have a sip of wine.

If Staffan had been at home, he would have met me with champagne and the best cut-glass crockery (and he would have probably phoned and emailed me fifteen times by now). But he is in the middle of the Baltic Sea, and I assume that someone on that boat listened to the radio, and the whole boat has been celebrating ever since.

Of course Miso is an incredibly intelligent cat, but I am not sure she appreciates poetry. So I will now go to bed and read Tomas Tranströmer, the Nobel Prize winner, to myself.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Reflections on solitude

For several months this old blog post has been steadily on the list of five most visited pages. I wonder why. It is a most inconspicuous, unspectacular blog post without even a punchline. It has a boring tag that doesn't say anything. It follows upon another blog post in which I explain the difference between loneliness and solitude, and which has no visitors at all.

Desert island picturebooks

A new challenge from Philip Nel, and the first element of the challenge is spelling. (For the unitiated, it is a neverending battle).

Like Philip, I know "Top ten" etc is highly subjective; in fact, I am involved in a research project on exactly this matter, but that's another story. I think I must also make a difference between books that I cannot live without (desert island books) and books that I would recommend to a novice. I can live without Peter Rabbit, but I wouldn't omit it from a reading list.

Actually, I am not sure I would take picturebooks to a desert island. They are too short. I'd take ten books of 800 pages each. (A friend once asked, when we were playing this game, whether Collected Works of Shakespeare counted as one book).

However, if I were to choose ten indispensible picturbooks (in fact, I did once choose ten indispensible picturebooks, in my book on picturebooks, but it was ten years ago, and books ahv changed and I have changed), there wouldn't be a single common denominator with Philip's books - so that we can swim from island to island and exchange, making it twenty between ourselves.

Here we go.

1. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak. The picturebook. Predictable, I know, but I cannot imagine how you can talk about picturebooks without starting there. Every time I re-read it, I find something new. Every time I approach it with a new tool, it just opens into new dimensions. In other words, if I am only allowed one picturebook on my island, that's it.

2. The Tunnel, Anthony Browne. Everything you want from a picturebook is there: simple story and complex narrative, clever and emotional, all kinds of complex relationships, incredibly rich imagery, irony and self-irony. Profound book.

3. Pancakes for Findus, Sven Nordqvist. It's my favourite Findus and Pettson book, but all of them are equally brilliant. Witty, clever, rich in details, warm, but never losing the complexity of relationships.

4. Little Blue and Little Yellow, Leo Lionni. Amazing what you can do with characters who do not even have faces.

5, Granpa, John Burningham. Piercing story in which words stop when they no longer can express the feelings.

6. The Red Tree, Shaun Tan. Could be The Lost Thing too, but The Red Tree is deeper in meaning, emotional appeal and visual language.

7. Who will comfort Toffle? Tove Jansson. Again, a hard choice between her books, but this is my favourite. Brilliant visual language, and such a magnificent story.

8. Me and my Cat, Satoshi Kitamura. Just to be original - everybody else will choose Lily Takes a Walk. Excellent illustration of how words and images work together.

9. Visit of Little Death, Kitty Crowther. In tough competition, the best picturebook about death. Even better than Granpa.

10. OK, I give in. The Cat in the Hat. Loved it long before I knew what a picturebook was.

Welcome to my island.

And if you want to know more about my favourite books, visit my bookshelf.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Banned books, revisited

It's the last day of Banned Books Week, and I have once again been thinking about censorship. I am against all kinds of censorship, in any form, yet cancelling an author's school visit because some stupid parent thinks one of her books is offensive is somewhat different from banning 90% of world literature on loose grounds.

In the country where I was born, the list of banned books would fill a library in itself. Just some examples:

The Bible was banned because "religion is the opium of the people" (Marx). All other religious books were banned for the same reason. All books by Western philosophers not featured in Lenin's article "Three sources and three constituents of Marxism" were banned. All books by Russian philosophers who did not subscribe to Marxism were banned.
All books by Russian emigrees were banned because they were enemies of the people. All books by relatives of the emigrees were banned. All books by Russian writers repressed by the regime were banned. The Russian literary martyrology - writers murdered, sent to labour camps, famished to death - carries at least 2,500 names, whose only crime was their words. All books by relatives of the repressed were banned. All books by people who protested against repressions were banned. All books that even vaguely alluded to the Great Terror were banned. All books that even vaguely expressed sympathy with characters representing the opponents of communism were banned. All books by the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky were banned because his country had sent him to exile. 

All foreign books that did not portray class struggle were banned. Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past were banned bacause they did not portray the inhuman conditions of the working class under capitalism. For whom the Bell Tolls was banned because it portrayed the Spanish civil war that did not exist according to Soviet history books.  All books by foreign writers who had made the tiniest utterance questioning the country of the victorious communism were banned. All books that did not show life as it should be according to the communist worldview were banned.

All books that had the slightest allusion to human reproduction were banned. That doesn't leave much of world literature.

Still, I repeat: I am firmly against ALL forms of censorship. Including cancelling a school visit.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Someone to remember

I am reading a biography of a person whom I admire and whom I have had the privilege of knowing. Many, many years ago in my previous life, Staffan and I were interpreting at a meeting between Russian and Nordic theatre people. We were doing it as a favour to colleagues, without payment, and as anyone who has ever interpreted knows, it is easier to interpet from your mother tongue to a foreign language, so I was interpreting from Russian into Swedish, and Staffan from Swedish into Russian. After a while, a formidable woman in her sixties interrupted quite rudely: "Why don't you do it the other way round?" I was deeply offended, and Staffan phoned the culprit the day after and gave her third degree. This was how we first met the legendary Vivica Bandler. The result of the encounter was that Staffan and Vivica wrote a musical together. I was rather jealous of Vivica at the time because I didn't see much of Staffan for weeks, and he seemed to be having fun. I was consulted about a couple of Russian details that Vivica dismissed as theatrically insignificant.

We were both invited to Vivica's seventieth birthday in Helsinki, which was a parade of cultural celebrities. It started with drinks in the theatre where she had been director and producer, continuied with a splendid dinner in her magnificent mansion, and when Staffan and I, around 2 am, prepared to leave, Vivica said: "So early? We are going back to the theatre for nibbles!"

A couple of years later Vivica called me and asked whether I would like to translate a play. As her biographer points out - a well-known fact to all who have ever met her - "nobody could say no to her on the phone". She was organising a Finnish theatre festival in Moscow, and she wanted one play to be done in Russian, with two actors of Russian ancestry. The play guested Stockholm, and Vivica took me to see it twice before I started the translation. It was a challenge, because the actors' Russian was nursery talk, while the play used modern, colloquial, not to say explicit idiom which they found totally alien.

 We flew to Moscow, me joining them in Helsinki. Nobody met us when we emerged through passport control and customs. Vivica was angry. In fact she was furious. Vivica furious was a sight. An hour later, she was paged. Our hosts were waiting for her in the VIP room. I didn't see much of her during the festival week because she was a Very Important Guest and I was just a translator (as well as a prompter, since the actors kept losing their swearwords). Yet it was fun to be part of her entourage. At one point, she was asked whether she had been to Russia before. "Yes, she said, in 1943". The hosts were awed. "During the war?" "Yes, Vivica confirmed, when little Finland tried to invade the Soviet Union". This was Vivica's typical sarcasm, possibly lost on the hosts. She had served in women's auxilliary forces at the front.  

Regrettably, after that we lost touch and only met occasionally. It was with deep sorrow Staffan and I read about her death in 2004. The biography I am reading brings back many details I have heard and some that I have witnessed about this truly remarkable person.

If you wonder why you would bother about a stranger, many people know her well as Vifslan (Bob in English) in Tove Jansson's Moomin books.

Five hundred silly texts

This is my five-hundredth blog post. To commemorate it, I have changed the design. I feel very ambivalent toward this change. I have got used to my page, plain and dull, exactly the way Julia created it three years ago, with a cheerful comment: "You can change it later". Well, after three years, I have.

I don't quite understand why people keep changing their profile pictures on Facebook, especially when they set in pictures of their children, cats or favourite cakes. A picture should reasonably show what you look like. I am terribly conventional. Anyway, the new pucture is taken by Elise Walck, and it is the best picture anyone has taken of me in many, many years. I am one of those people who always turn out horrid in pictures, yawning, gaping, cross-eyed, unkempt. But this picture shows what I really look like. I think.

I have stopped blogging a couple of times, but there was always someone who encouraged me to go on. So I go on. Watch out for blog post number 501.