Thursday, 25 February 2021

The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho

"A stranger arrives at the remote village of Viscos, carrying with him a backpack containing a notebook and eleven gold bars. He comes searching for the answer to a question that torments him: Are human beings, in essence, good or evil? In welcoming the mysterious foreigner, the whole village becomes an accomplice to his sophisticated plot, which will forever mark their lives."

It is pure coincidence that I read this book just after reading Barabbas. The two books are not alike, but they both deal with one age old question: that about good and evil. In Barabbas the protagonists  are Jesus and Barabbas. Without doubt we would see Jesus as the good and Barabbas as the evil. In The Devil and Miss Prym the devil comes in the form of a stranger, the evil and goodness in the form of Miss Prym. As we know, some questions are not so simple to answer. The opening is grand as so worthy Paulo Coleho.

"For almost fifteen years, old Berta had spent every day sitting outside her front door. The people of Viscos knew that this was normal behaviour amongst old people: they sit dreaming of the past and of their youth; they look out in a world where they no longer play a part and try to find something to talk to the neighbours about. 

Berta, however, had a reason for being there. And that morning her waiting came to an end when she saw the stranger climbing the steep hill up to the village, heading for its one hotel. He did not look as she had so often imagine he would: his clothes were shabby, he wore his hair unfashionably long, he was unshaven.

And he was accompanied by the Devil."

Miss Prym is interested in the stranger. She is the youngest woman in the village and is hoping to find a man that can take her away from there. Miss Prym is following the stranger the next morning when he walks up the mountains. She makes sure they will meet. On his way down the mountain they meet, as both expected.  The stranger gives her a proposition. In the mountain he has hidden eleven gold bars. One is hers if she tells the village people that they can have the other ten if they kill one of the villagers. All of them will be able to live without thinking of money for the rest of their life. 

”Why are you doing this? Why did you choose my village?” 

”It’s nothing to do with you or with your village. I’m simply thinking of myself; the story of one man is the story fo all men. I need to know if we are good or evil. If we are good, God is just and will forgive me for all I have done, for the harm I wished on those who tried to destroy me, for the wrong decisions I took at key moments, for the proposition I am putting to you now - for He was the one who drove me towards the dark.

”But if we’re evil, the everything i s permitted, I never took a wrong decision, we are all condemned from the start, and it doesn’t matter what we do in this life, for redemption lies beyond either human thought of deed.”

Before Chantal could leave, he added:

”You may decide not to cooperate, in which case, I’ll tell everyone that I gave you the chance to help them, but you refused, and then I’ll put my proposition to them myself. If they do decide to kill someone, you will probably be their chosen victim.”

Miss Prym is chocked over the proposal and fights with her conscience. Should she tell or not? The villagers on their part are full of their own wishes and expectations. Even the priest has his own past and hopes for a glorious future. The stranger has set events in motion and is eagerly awaiting the outcome. 

Elegantly, as ever, Coelho takes us through the philosophical pitfalls while exploring the minds of the village people and Miss Prym's dilemma. It is, as much of Coelho's production, a masterly story. It is a story of dreams, how to fulfil them, and how far we are willing to go. Coelho's stories touches the core of life. 

The ending is somewhat interesting and really open for discussion. Have you read the book? Any views on the ending?

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist

Pär Lagerkvist is a well-known Swedish author. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951. I have not read anything by him earlier (only a short book on words and its arts, which cannot compare to a novel). During his literary career he dealt with fundamental questions of good and evil, and these questions were dealt with through his various characters. He was a moralist and often used "religious motives and figures from the Christian tradition without following the doctrines of the church." (Wikipedia). Barabbas is one such characters. It is a wonderful novel and I was quite taken by it.

Barabbas is, according to Christian legend, the criminal who was pardoned when Jesus was sentenced to be crucified. Historians doubt whether this person actually existed, but that is for another post. He disappeared from historical sources after the event and nothin much is known about him.

Lagerkvist has used Barabbas to create a tale of the times. Barabbas is astonished that he is freed and an innocent man sentenced. He discreetly follow Jesus through Golgata and sees him dying on the cross. Afterwards he is going back to his old life in Jerusalem. However, the whole event has confused him. Listening to the gossip around town he hears, for the first time, about this Messias and his new, peaceful message to love each other.

Through all his life, Barabbas is biased towards the rev religion. Sometimes he believes and sometimes he doubts. It makes him do good deeds he would never have done otherwise, and he does not know how to interpret his own actions. His life turns out to be hard and troublesome, but all through its different phases Jesus' message is following him through people he encounters.

Reading the novel is like a discussion on morals and ethics. We can recognise ourselves in the doubts we have about, not only religion, but life in general. How do we know we are on the right course? Who says what is roght or wrong? At the end of his life Barabbas finally adhered to the belief. However, life is not that easy, and although he thought he was following the right path, it turned out to be the wrong one.

With Barabbas Lagerkvist has shown us that life is not a straight road to either happiness or salvation. We are week, we might not always be able to follow the right path, or be able to interpret the signs, no matter how much we try. Just like Barabbas we fight with our believes and our actions. It tells us a lot about our lives, even today, and is maybe a help on our journey through life. 

I think Lagerkvist deserves the Nobel Prize just for this one novel and wonderful story on life's struggle. The writing is poetic, although the story is a trouble some one. 

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

A Slipping Down Life by Anne Tyler


Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home invited those interested to dive into the authorship of Anne Tyler with The Anne Tyler re-read project 2021. Two books are scheduled for February; A Slipping Down Life and The Clock Winder

"Evie Decker is a shy, slightly plump teenager, lonely and silent. But her quiet life is shattered when she hears the voice of Drumstrings Casey on the radio and becomes instantly attracted to him. She manages to meet him, bursting out of her lonely shell—and into the attentive gaze of the intangible man who becomes all too real…."

Anne Tyler has with Evie Decker created another bigger than life character. A girl different from others, with few friends, good at school, but without any real interests or aim in life. That is, until she gets obsessed with a local rock singer and takes fate into her own hands. Together with her only friend Violet she starts going to concerts at a local restaurant just to hear Casey sing. This leads to her carving his name, backwards, onto her forehead. It gives a short time of local fame and is to change her life forever. 

One thing leads to the next and before both Evie and Casey know it they are married and living together in a small, rented house. Too young, too immature, and no real vision of how their life together will be. In the beginning there are a few glimpses of happiness. However, as Evie develops her mind and visions, Casey is not able to do anything out of his talent. Easy to leave things when they don't turn out the way he wants, he cannot take the responsibility for their marriage. And when Evie confronts him, he attacks by asking Evie why she carved his name onto her forehead. The answer is astonishing.

Once again Anne Tyler is spot on with her characters, her descriptions of people, places and the environment in which her characters live.  Beautifully written and a story that takes you to the core of love and what life is about. 

"Because of the edgeless shimmer of his hair in the sunlight, he seemed only another daydream, nothing to get nervous about. "Afternoon," he said."

"He sat on the top porch step, with his forearms resting on his knees. Now that he was in the shade he had lost his shimmer. He was made of solid flesh, damp from the heat. Evie began swinging back and forth very rapidly." 


Friday, 12 February 2021

Book Beginnings on Fridays and The Friday 56.


This week's book beginning and page 56 is taken from the biography The Lonely Empress, a biography of Elizabeth of Austria by Joan Haslip. 

Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader

"We were eight children and each one of us had our Christmas tree."

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice

"She was even prettier than he remembered and in his enthusiasm he wrote off to his mother, 'I can never thank you enough for having laid the foundations of my happiness', adding, 'every day I love Sisi more and more and am more convinced that no one could be better suited to me'. Seen in her own environment, Elizabeth was at her most enchanting, a gay, excited little girl rather than a future Empress, proudly showing him off in front of her brothers and sisters, all of whom, including Helen, gave him a tumultuous welcome. "

How little did they both know what their marriage and lives would be like?  

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

The Lonely Empress by Joan Haslip

The Lonely Empress is a biography about Elizabeth of Austria. Known as Sisi she has mesmerised a whole world and it was with great anticipation I started to read. I think a lot of people, including myself, have a somewhat romantic image of her, but you realise rather quickly that you are wrong. She is far from a romantic princess, rather the contrary. But let's start from the beginning.

She was one of a big family of siblings in the Wittelsbach family. Growing up rather freely, close to nature and away from binding court protocol, her future life came as a shock to her. Emperor Franz Joseph's mother Sophia and Sisi's mother Ludovica were sisters and planned to marry off the young emperor to the oldest Wittelsbach daughter, Helen. As it happened, Sisi was accompanying her sister to the first meeting with the crown prince, and, as they say, the rest is history. He fell madly in love with Sisi and persuaded his mother to change her mind about who should become his wife. 

"Neither Ludovica nor Sophia seems to have given a thought to the fact that Francis Joseph and Elizabeth were not only first cousins, but that Elizabeth was a child of second cousins, both of them Wittelsbachs - a dangerous inheritance for the heirs to the Austrian throne."

After their first meeting in the spa resort of Bad Ischl Sisi had to go back home. 

"In the most romantic of all Austrian towns they said good-bye, and it seemed as if the Emperor would never tire of kissing Elizabeth's tearstained face. But it was two strangers who said good-bye, two people who as yet knew nothing of one another, and who would only gradually discover the incompatibility of their characters, the divergencies of their tastes. But whereas Francis Joseph's love would be strong enough to survive all the vicissitudes of their married life, Elizabeth's love, fragile and ephemeral as a dream, would fade in the first hour of disillusion." 

The last sentence above more, or less, sums up the character of Elizabeth. She lived in an imaginary dream, suffered from melancholia, was very shy and had physiological problems of various kinds. A little bit of paranoia added to it makes a troubled life.  Although she did love her husband for some years, it slowly disintegrated. "The tragedy for Elizabeth was that she was married to a man with no imagination." Two souls that never really met. Elizabeth had very little empathy and could not even give love to her own children, the exception being her last child Marie Valerie. She was a worried soul which made her travel around Europe for most of her life. Elizabeth and Franz Joseph were married for forty-four years, but it seems they only spend around four years together. Elizabeth went from one place to the next, without finding any peace. She got easily bored and ventured on another trip.

Part of the problem was the Habsburg court which kept the most rigid etiquette in Europe. Strict rules on how to spend the days, both with the family and the court itself. It came as a shock to Elizabeth who had grown up in a rather unruly household. She never took to Vienna and only reluctantly stayed there when she had to for political reasons. She loved Hungary and even learned Hungarian. She took their political course into her heart and this was the only time she engaged in the politics of the Habsburgs and Austria. 

Elizabeth was considered the most beautiful woman of her time. She could be very charming when she wanted to and people fell for her spirit. In a way, it turned out to be her curse. She came to worship her own beauty which took peculiar turns. She spend hours every day to do her hair, she let the maids make face cream out of strawberries and she slept with raw meat on her cheeks, just to keep her beauty. She was a fanatic for exercise and walked hours every day. Her main love seems to have been for horses and she was considered an excellent rider and hunter. She could easily compete with any man on a hunt. Her restless energy made it difficult for most people to keep up with her pace. Afraid of becoming fat she dieted most of her life and sometimes only ate an orange or two during the day. I think today she would have been diagnosed with anorexia. All these factors did not improve her health. 

Elizabeth often talked about how she wanted to die: "I would like to die alone, far from my loved ones, and for death to take me unawares." In this sense, her wish was fulfilled. She was stabbed by an anarchist on the Montblanc quay in Geneva and died soon afterwards. The Habsburg family suffered many losses of loved ones and various accidents during their lives. When Emperor Franz Joseph received the news that the Empress had passed away he said: "'Is nothing to be spared me on this earth?' Count Paar was the only one to hear the harsh and bitter sobs of a broken-hearted man questioning his God. Then raising his head, Francis Joseph looked across at the portrait of the woman he had worshipped but never understood. And speaking to himself, rather than to Count Paar, he said, 'No one will ever know how much I loved her.'"

The biography covers not only Elizabeth but also part of the life of Franz Joseph and the family. The Mayerling drama is here, as well as political events during the latter part of the 19th century.  "The tragedy of Francis Joseph was that he was never prepared to make sacrifices until it was too late." The political upheaval in Europe during the latter part of the 19th century might have needed an Emperor who was more flexible and not so bound to traditions. 

The biography makes for fascinating reading, both on a personal account of the Habsburg family and their, somewhat, doomed heritage. When looking back on the personal lives of Franz Joseph and Sisi, I think Franz Joseph turns out to be the nicer person of the two. His love lasted a life-time and must have caused him a lot of sadness, considering how Sisi spent her life. Sisi on her side, should not have been an Empress. She would probably have been happier in an ordinary marriage, living a simpler life, close to nature. Having said that, she definitely enjoyed the lifestyle of the rich. That is, she was free to choose the lifestyle she wanted. 

Joan Haslip has managed to capture the life of a lost soul and a tragic life. The biography is very well researched and documented and gives an in-depth view of the life of the royals at the time. The difficult balancing between private and official lives, having to adapt to external circumstances. Joan Haslip treats the story with great respect, documenting their lives and showing sympathy to the people she is writing about. An excellent biography. 

(PS I have used the Austrian (and Swedish) spelling of the names of Habsburg and Franz Joseph (except for quotes from the book). It seems in English you can use both b and p for Habsburg and the biography uses p. Franz Joseph is Francis Joseph in English.) 

Monday, 8 February 2021

2 x Anne Tyler

 Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home invited those interested to dive into the authorship of Anne Tyler.  I read several of her books when I was younger and always loved them. The books are chosen according to the order in which they were written. For January that meant If Morning Ever Comes (1964) and The Tin Can Tree (1965)

Already with her two first books, she has found her way of telling a story. The characterisation is there, as well as the environment in which her characters live and work. With a few words, she brings you into the world of her characters and you are stuck. 

If Morning Ever Comes

"Ben Joe is the only boy in a family of six sisters, Mama and Gram. He is studying for a law degree in New York when he hears his eldest sister Joanne has left her husband and returned home with her baby girl. Out of a mixture of homesickness and duty Ben Joe returns to the home in which he has always felt like an outsider."

Coming back after having studied for half a year, makes Ben Joe feel even more like an outsider. When growing up he had certain responsibilities in the family, and now he realises they manage without him. After New York, although missing home, he knows that the small-town mentality is not something he misses. He is upset about his sister leaving her husband, but it seems no-one else does. While the rest of the family takes things as they come and does not pay too much attention to things, Ben Joe tends to linger longer on what is happening. 

"At the doorway he turned to look at them again. He was in one of those faraway moods when everything he saw seemed to be inside a shining gold-fish bowl, and he suddenly saw how closed-off his family looked. They went peacefully on with what they were doing; Ben Joe, having vanished, might as well not exist. When he stepped outside he gave the door an enormous slam, just to make himself exist a minute longer. "

He is a person that seems to always want to be in another place. "Every place I go," he said, "I miss another place." Although he is trying to get away from what this small-town mentality is and the life that is lived there, he seems incapable of breaking with the past. "Behind his own eyelids the future rolled out like a long, deep rug, as real as the past or the present ever was."

The Tin Can Tree

"When young Jamie Pike dies in a tragic accident, she leaves behind a family numbed with grief and torn with guilt and recrimination. In this compassionate and haunting novel Anne Tyler explores how each member of the family learns to face the future in their own way."

The story of the Pike family, Aunt Lou, Uncle Roy and their son Simon, is also a story about their neighbours, all with their own problems. Brothers James and Ansel. James is the provider for his brother Ansel who is ill, anaemic but seems to thrive on his illness. The older Potter sisters, Miss Faye and Miss Lucy and Joan Pike a cousin to Jamie Pike living with the family. Joan is introduced in this way: "Joan Pike was twenty-six years old, and had lived in bedrooms all her life." While the parents are trying to come to terms with their loss, their son Simon is suffering. Joan is trying to do the best for him, as does James. 

The everyday drama plays out over a short time, while all of them have to deal with everyday life, where nothing much happens. But when it does it has consequences. Joan is the one who is mostly contemplating her life and what is in it for her. "They were going to stay this way, she and all the rest of them, not because of anyone else but because it was what they had chosen, what they would keep a strong tight hold of."

Anne Tyler already so early in her career, masters the language and the storytelling. Nothing much is really happening in her books, but still, there is. Her characters and how they behave rings so true, and even if she talks about ordinary things, the beauty of her language stands out, as I think you can see from the quotes above. She brings you into her characters' lives and their feelings, good or bad, are your feelings. The descriptions of towns and people are spot on. A real pleasure to read. 

The two books for February are The Slipping-Down Life and The Clock Winder. I have already read the first one. 

Thursday, 4 February 2021

The BookTube Spin - number 15

The BookTube Spin by Rick MacDonnell on Youtube took place on January 31. The set-up was to choose twenty books from your TBRs and you will have two months to read it. The list of The Content Reader. The Spin number was 15. It guided me to Orlando Figes' book Natasha's Dance, A Cultural History of Russia. It has been on my shelves for a few years so a good book to read. 

Love the beautiful cover.