Review: Ljubljana Tales – New Europe Writers

lubliana tales Ljubljana Tales is published by New Europe Writers, a publishing enterprise dedicated to exploring the literary connections between the various European states, with an emphasis on those countries which were formally behind the Iron Curtain.

They have published several volumes of “Tales” including Warsaw Tales (now available for free download), Budapest Tales, Prague Tales and Bucharest Tales. I like the idea of anthologies of books from a particular city, especially when it’s a city I know little about.  Ljubljana is of course the capital of the former Yugoslavia nation of Slovenia.  My son visitited Ljubljana last year and keeps telling me what a an interesting city it is and this seems to be confirmed by its Wikipedia article.

Ljubljana Tales is a very nicely presented mix of poetry and short fiction in very accessible translations which all reflect the literary tradition of the city.  Slovenia had it’s own “Spring” which began in 1987 when the  magazine Nova Revija published articles demanding reform.   We who live in nations with a more settled history find it difficult to understand the place that writing had in the revolutionary movements which led to the liberation of countries like Slovenia.

The range of pieces in Ljubljana Tales is very wide.  About half the book consists of short poems, and the other half a mix of short fiction, never more than about half a dozen pages long.  I counted 66 pieces in total and found that as they were so short it was easy to immerse myself in the literary community of Ljubjana for a couple of days by picking the book up at odd moments.  In fact, some of the pieces would make useful accompaniments to a visit to the city.  For example, Miha Pintarič’s The Cobblers Bridge makes fun of an old ritual that used to take place there:

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Review: We’re Flying – Peter Stamm

peter stamm

Short stories come in so many different types you never know what you’re getting until you open the book and plough into the first two or three.  Sometimes the main purpose of them is entertainment as with collections of crime or humorous stories.  Other times they have a message, perhaps being little vignettes illustrating the difficulties of life.   Sometimes they seem like elongated poems, written in precisely worded prose to give an impression of a mood or an atmosphere.   Or if you go back to the great short story writers like Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekov or Guy de Maupassant you fine writers who saw their job as writing miniature novels with an opening scene setting, a small cast of characters, a plot and a conclusion.

On the whole, I find that the majority of the more “literary” short stories rather disappointing. I suppose I think that a short story should be above all else, “a story”.  It’s not enough just to present a scene with no narrative form and no ending.  The words, however nicely put together are not enough, there has be a flow of action: something has to happen.

Swiss-German writer Peter Stamm falls loosely in the middle of the story/literary axis with his new collection of stories, We’re Flying.  Something usually happens in his stories, but on the other hand he is mostly concerned with the word picture he creates.  And unfortunately (from my perspective) the stories are almost unremittingly down-beat (despite little flashes of light and hope to relieve the bleakness).  His Wikipedia entry describes his “cool and sparse” writing style which certainly seems to be an accurate description.

As a reviewer, I shouldn’t divulge the whole content of a story but for the sake of illustration I’ll break the rule and describe the story, Holy Sacrament.  A Pastor has moved to Lake Constance because he thought that the people in southern Germany would be more open to a  creative ministry.  Once he gets to his new parish he finds that the people are as conservative as anywhere.  He upsets the lady organist by using his wife’s guitar playing skills in the service.  He upsets the congregation by using  bread and grape juice for Communion rather than wafers and wine. His sermons on developments in the Middle East and the need for reconciliation are poorly received and the congregation dwindles away.  He steps outside the church after a troubled service and notices a seagull hovering above him and in a moment of inspiration casts a piece of bread upwards, immediately finding that a flock of gulls descend on the basket and takes the remaining pieces of bread.  He flings the basket up into the air and cries out, “All are welcome!” and as he does so he finds he can’t stop laughing and “at the end of weeks of darkness, he finally saw the light”.

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Review: The Queen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin Press are known for beautifully designed volumes of translated fiction, usually in a smaller format than most paperbacks.  The Queen of Spades and Selected Works by Alexander Pushkin is a gem of a book with its Naples Yellow cover, its fold-over cover and its archival quality paper.  I gave up my precious e-reader for a couple of days in order to read it.

Having gloated over the production values of this little book, let me get down to the content.  This is a new translation by Anthony Briggs who also provides a short but useful introduction to the works included in the book.  It consists of two main stories, The Queen of Spades and The Stationmaster and then a number of poems including The Bronze Horseman which the translator says is “one of the brightest gems of Russian literature”.


The highlightof the book is the title story in which Hermann, a young gambler, hears of a friend’s grandmother, an ancient Countess, who became wealthy by learning a gambling secret from a Count St Germain who claimed to be “the Wandering Jew, the discoverer of the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone”.  When the grand-mother was a young woman and in considerable financial difficulty she joined a gaming table for one night, deployed the mysterious secret and won a vast sum of money. Continue reading

Review: Cold Sea Stories – Pawel Huelle

I have been following Pawel Huelle’s writings for some time now. A few of his books have now been translated by the excellent Antonia Llloyd-Jones and they rate highly as examples of modern European literature.

For my 300th article on this website I am pleased to write about Huelle’s new book, Cold Sea Stories.  This is a collection of stories based on and around Pawel’s home on the Baltic sea, which in Huelle’s stories tends to be a cold and forbidding place.  The cities of Gdeansk and Warsaw also feature as a backdrop to a few of the stories providing some relief from the flat, wind-swept landscape of the coast.

Huelle’s Poland is a land of memories and there is little sign of the modern European nation which Poland is now becoming.  Generally the atmosphere is of the 1980s when the trade union Solidarity (for whom Huelle worked) is gaining in influence, while memories of the great tragedies of the Second World War are not far below the surface.

The stories in this book were written 15-20 years after Huelle’s earlier book of stories, Moving House, and show a more mature talent, not quite as easy to read, but with more depth, although sometimes less easy to penetrate as the earlier collection.

Fortunately the book ends with an interview with the translator and this gives the background to each story, adding greatly to my enjoyment of them.  In this interview Huelle says,

I belong to the culture of the north, which is sad, melancholy, nostalgic, bleak – there is not much light . . . This is the culture of herrings, potatoes and vodka, not wine, and this is the place that has shaped me, like it or not.

The opening story, Mimesis, perhaps the most striking of the collection, is based in a  Mennonite village on the coast, soon after the invading German army have evacuated the village, taking its inhabitants away on the backs of lorries to who knows where.  The Mennonites were a reclusive sect who having travelled across Europe to escape persecution felt themselves to be at home in tolerant Poland.  Alas, as for so many settled peoples, the war was to change their lives irrevocably, none more so than the un-named young woman who was out on the dunes when the lorries came and was left behind to live alone in the abandoned village.

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Review: Apricot Jam and Other Stories – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

apricot jamA new book by by Russian giant of literature Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) seems like a throwback to the 1960s and 70s when the Soviet Empire was threatening the world with nuclear holocaust and American politicians spent their days worrying about the spread of communism.   One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward, the majestic Gulag Archipelago – all these titles were huge publishing events when they first came out, providing as they did a revelatory insight into daily life into the labour camps of the Soviet Union.  Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 leading to his deportation from Russia in 1974.

In 1976, Solzhenitsyn moved to the USA where after an initial period of adulation, the opinion of many turned against him as they became aware of his contempt for American society and his support for Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church – “..the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits … by TV stupor and by intolerable music”.  While offending many, Solzhenitsyn’s “reactionary” views increased Solzhenitsyn’s popularity with more conservative commentators such as Malcolm Muggeridge who wrote in 1978,

The pack is after him because what he says is unbearable: that the answer to dictatorship is not liberalism, but Christianity. I mean, that is an unbearable proposition from their point of view, and it is where he stands . . . It has been something wonderful to watch and, to more people than you might think, enormously heartening: that that is what this man should have to say instead of a lot of claptrap . . . They started off by never mentioning that he was a Christian. I mean, for a long time, he was made a hero of the cause for freedom, but it was never mentioned that an integral and essential part of it was his Christian belief.

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Review: Screwtop Thompson – Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills first novel, The Restraint of Beasts (1998) was a wondrous creation, comic and tragic at the same time, portraying an episode in the life of two fencing contractors Tam and Richie and their un-named supervisor.  A deceptively simple read, it addressed issues of crime and punishment in a setting quite unlike anything I have read before and I was not alone in finding it stayed in my mind long after I’d finished it. I have since reread it several times and find it equally beguiling every time.  Other books and short story collections have followed, but nothing has quite equalled The Restraint of Beasts, but I continue to read everything by Mills in order to capture something of the magic of The Restraint of Beasts – and there is usually just enough there to keep me reading him.

Mills has the ability to create dysmporphic scenarios from everyday narratives – ordinary things happen to ordinary people, but the effect is sinister and unsettling.  He uses cliché and colloquial expressions but there is something of parody in the way he uses them.  His characters’ over-prosaic conversational style suggests that they live stilted emotional lives with a preference for home and the routines of a boring job.  Humour is never far from the surface, but the reader laughs in an uneasy way, never quite short whether he is on safe territory or not.  His characters love the everyday and the routines that support them, but they seem to be locked into situations that ultimately do them no good and from which they would best advised to get out of as quickly as they can.

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Review: The Empty Family – Colm Tóibín

I am writing this review early in the morning in the strange half-light reflecting into the house from the eight inches of snow which fell overnight down here on the South Coast of England.

I often find short-story collections disappointing, mainly because so many writers try to create impact by giving their work an unwarranted novelty or quirkiness.  In Ireland at least however, there is a long tradition of short story writing which tends towards the calm and reflective, providing illuminating windows on to life with far greater integrity than those writers who wish to surprise their readers with their cleverness.  Ann Enright’s new collection for Granta Books, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, is full of such, including writers like John McGahern, William Trevor and the author of the subject of this review of The Empty Family, Colm Toíbín.

The stories in The Empty Family are definitely in the Irish tradition of short stories.  Each one can be seen as an episode in someone’s life, and often they seem like extracts from a longer work, although this is not to say that they do are not complete in themselves. Toíbín manages to drop the reader into the narrative of each story with little difficulty and every story certainly seems complete in itself.

The book contains nine stories, so with only 214 pages to the book, none of them is over-long. Its hard to fault any of them and looking at Amazon reviews by other readers I find it hard to understand those who have rated the book as low as two or three stars – having read a few of those reviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that generally its the genre of Irish short stories they don’t like, or even the “gayness” of some of them which has put them off (see my last paragraph).

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