Category Archives: Recommended Reading

Virtual Book Club: Spanish Episode

Good news, bookworms! After an extended hiatus while this year’s cohort of undergraduates settled into the academic year, the Virtual Book Club is back, this time with an episode focussing on Spanish. This episode features a discussion about an extract from El castigo sin venganza (Punishment Without Revenge), a seventeenth-century play by Lope de Vega.

The discussion is led by doctoral researcher Rebecca, with undergraduates Lottie and Hector. They consider how the extract deals with questions of masculinity, honour, and morality, and ask how our reading as a twenty-first-century audience might differ from that of an early modern audience. Sixth formers interested in the Medieval and Modern Languages course at Oxford might be interested to know that the course offers the opportunity to study literature throughout the ages, from the medieval to the present. This episode is designed to offer a glimpse into the early modern period, and how some of the central questions asked by writers at that time continue to resonate in new ways today.

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original Spanish and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

 

Writing about Rimbaud

This week’s post explores one of the most famous French poets of the nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud, whose collections include Une Saison en enfer and Illuminations. Rimbaud captured the imagination of his readers, both on account of his experimental writing style and his turbulent personal life. Prof. Seth Whidden, Fellow and Tutor in French at The Queen’s College, has recently published a biography on Rimbaud. Here, he reflects on the writing process and the tricky relationship between life and literature.

Writing about one of France’s most famous authors was a daunting task, but what made it less so was what makes his story so compelling to all lovers of literature: year after year, generation after generation. If Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is French teenagers’ perennial favourite, it’s because during the course of his short life and even shorter literary career — he stopped writing poetry by the age of 21 and died at the age of 37 — he embodied some of the fundamental urges that we all have known, at one time or another: bursts of creativity; seeing how far rules can be bent before they break; and the desire to pick up and move away, expanding horizons and learning about self and the world.

Étienne Carjat [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was those urges that I tried to capture in my recent biography. Some of it is well-known, and almost didn’t need to be recounted: his childhood in sleepy Charleville (now Charleville-Mézières), in eastern France; his brash arrival in Paris and torrid relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), which ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in a Brussels hotel room; Rimbaud’s departure from poetry and Europe, criss-crossing half of the globe and ending up spending the last fifteen years of his life as a trader in the Arabian peninsula and present-day Ethiopia. Looking back at all that he did, it’s almost possible to forget that he wrote some of the most enduring poems in the French language, blowing his way through centuries of rules to create new ways of thinking about and writing poetry. His innovations include a collection of prose poems — poems set in paragraphs rather than verses — entitled Illuminations. In addition, some time before he left Europe in 1875 he wrote the first two free-verse poems (poems in verse but lacking end-line rhyme) in French.

Mixing life and literature can be dangerous business: reducing a poem to a biographical detail flattens the poem and removes so much of what makes literature sing (how it sounds, how it’s rhythmed, how it feels, how it moves the reader…). Instead, I set out to weave two parallel stories. Yes, of course, it is helpful to know that ‘Le Dormeur du val’ is dated October 1870, and so Rimbaud set out to his presentation of war’s bloody interruption ruining the bucolic Ardennais countryside just weeks after France capitulated in Sedan, a dozen miles from his hometown. But that knowledge doesn’t tell the full story of the poem, far from it: it leaves out how the final line is prefigured (spoiler alert!) in the repeated vowel sound of ‘bouche ouverte’ of line 5; of how the standard twelve-syllable line is destabilized several times, with punctuation an accessory to the crime:

C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

It is a green hollow where a river sings / Madly catching on the grasses / Silver rags; where the sun atop the proud mountain / Shines: it is a small valley which bubbles over with rays. // A young soldier, his mouth open, his head bare, / And the nape of his neck bathing in the cool blue watercress, / Sleeps; he is stretched out on the grass, under clouds, / Pale on his green bed where the light rains down. // His feet in the gladiolas, he sleeps. Smiling as / A sick child would smile, he is taking a nap: / Nature, cradle him warmly: he is cold. // Odours to not make his nostrils quiver; / He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast, / Silent. He has two red holes in his right side. (translation from Rimbaud, Complete Works, trans. Wallace Fowlie, revised Seth Whidden, Univ of Chicago Press)

Life-writing can help connect some dots, though, and such connections are what makes this biography slightly different from others. In order to appreciate what made Rimbaud’s poetry so revolutionary, it’s important to understand the norm from which he made such a clear departure. Readers of this book will learn some of the basic rules of French prosody: just enough to be able to feel some of his creativity and rule-breaking. They will also see that his creativity doesn’t stop when he leaves Europe; instead, I propose a new way of looking at his African period. Rather than repeating the formula that has served the Rimbaud myth well for over a hundred years — Europe means poetry; Africa means commerce — I propose a new narrative in which inquisitiveness and creativity are constants in his life, informing his activities in both periods of his adult life. It can be easy to keep poetry elevated on its pedestal and assume that a life after poetry is an uninteresting one — easy for literary critics who love poetry, anyway! — but if poetry is just one manifestation of a broader creative force, then there can be other possible moments of creativity. They might not measure up to the brilliance of his poems, but their presence in the story of his life might be worthy of a little more attention.

Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide: the reader of Rimbaud’s poetry, first; then the reader of this biography. My final chapter poses a series of questions, and I hope that anyone interested in creativity, rule-bending, and seeing the world will recognize therein some of the questions that we all ask from time to time: about literature, about life, about ourselves and about the world around us.

Bringing Kafka’s Castle to Life

To celebrate publication of the new critical edition of Franz Kafka’s final, unfinished novel Das Schloss (The Castle), Carolin Duttlinger and Barry Murnane from the Oxford Kafka Research Centre hosted a day of activities with sixth-form students, two student workshops on editing and adapting Kafka, and a podium discussion to discuss the legacy of the novel. The day-long event brought together specialists from Oxford, Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle, and award-winning playwright Ed Harris, who recently adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4. In this blog post Barry Murnane, Associate Professor in German at St John’s College, introduces Kafka’s novel.

Playwright Ed Harris with the students on the study day

Das Schloss is not exactly the most obvious introduction to Kafka’s works. Written over a period of about seven months in 1922 while Kafka’s health was deteriorating (he had been diagnosed with what was probably tuberculosis several years earlier), Das Schloss is a rambling narrative that tells us how a protagonist known only as K arrives in a snow-covered landscape dominated by a castle and has to find his place in the local community:

“It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Mount, mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, transl. Anthea Bell. Oxford: OUP, 2009, p5)

Calling himself a “Landvermesser”, or “surveyor”, K finds himself in the middle of a society that is apparently dominated by a gigantic bureaucracy and he becomes involved in constant conversations with the locals trying to understand how this bureaucracy works.

Kafka in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where he began writing Das Schloss

For one reason or another, K never seems to ‘arrive’, however, and ends up constantly walking and talking in circles. On the one hand, he seems blameless because the castle authorities are not exactly forthcoming with any information. On the other hand, K appears at least partly responsible for his failure in that he treats the locals as little more than stepping stones on his way to the castle, including a potential lover called Frieda. It’s unclear how the novel would have ended: Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, says that Kafka told him on his deathbed how the novel was meant to finish with K being ‘accepted’ into the Castle and its community, but it seems a long way to go before K. would be accepted anywhere, never mind by the Castle authorities. Instead, we see a novel project trailing off into a “scheinbare Leere”, the seeming void, that K looks into at the start of the novel.

Thanks to the new critical edition of Das Schloss edited by Peter Staengle and Roland Reuß and published by the Stroemfeld-Verlag we now get a real sense of how Kafka actually wrote. Their edition reproduces the exact manuscript alongside an easy-to-read transcription, warts and all. The new edition is ground-breaking, but it puts an emphasis on scholars to make the overload of information it provides accessible. There is no easily consumable narrative of K against the Castle: we see passages where K is a less than positive hero figure, stubbornly refusing to actually listen to what people are telling him and treating women with little respect. One interesting thing is that the material of the manuscript itself shows no real sign of a struggle as Kafka begins to run out of steam with the project: the ductus of his handwriting remains smooth, flowing, perhaps even more so than at the start.

It is astonishing how relevant Kafka’s discussions of bureaucracy and social life in The Castle still are. With Oxford German Studies looking to build up to the centenary of Kafka’s death in 2024, the new edition of the novel is an ideal opportunity to discuss Kafka’s legacy and importance today.

Virtual Book Club: German episode

The Virtual Book Club returns once more, this time with an episode focussing on German. The German episode features a discussion about a short story by Franz Kafka, ‘Der Kaufmann’ [The Tradesman]. Here, Joanna Raisbeck leads the discussion with undergraduates Hannah and Colleen, as they consider the questions: what is the tradesman worried about?; what does he think about in the lift?; and why do you think he has these thoughts in the lift?

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original German and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Literature Masterclass: Theatricality

In March, Dr Simon Kemp gave us an introduction to ‘Time and Tense‘ for sixth-formers studying French literature. We return to the literary toolkit today with an introduction to another aspect of literary analysis you might wish to consider, particularly when looking at plays: theatricality.

In this presentation, Dr Jessica Goodman, Tutor in French at St Catherine’s College, gives us an overview of this concept, touching on questions like who is talking and to whom?, what is happening onstage and offstage?, and what difference does the presence of the audience make? Join us for all the ‘drama’ below…

Announcing the 2018 German Classic Prize!

Budding Germanists out there might be interested in delving into a ‘German Classic’: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart. For the second year, the Oxford German Network is running an essay competition for Sixth-Formers who have studied German at GCSE level (you do not need to be studying German at A Level or equivalent). There are prizes of £500, £300, and £100 to be won. The deadline for submissions is noon on Wednesday 12 September 2018. More information is available here or read on to find out more…

The Prize celebrates a classic text of German literature, with resources to make it accessible whether or not you have experience of German literature. This year, the prize focuses on Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, a fascinating historical drama about how Elizabeth I came to have Mary, Queen of Scots executed. The great centrepiece of the play is a gripping confrontation between Elisabeth and Maria – in fact, it never happened but it makes for electrifying drama.

You will find a rich array of material including podcasts and YouTube links on Maria Stuart: http://www.ogn.ox.ac.uk/content/german-classics-prize. Candidates may also request a special reader with extracts from secondary literature on the work (see contact details on the website).

The task: Write a 2000 to 3000-word essay in English, independently and unsupervised, over the summer holidays between Lower and Upper Sixth/ between Years 12 and 13.

The prize, and funding of the accompanying resources, have been generously donated by Jonathan Gaisman, QC, a highly distinguished commercial barrister who was introduced to German literature at school and still finds German literature and culture the most intellectually rewarding part of his life. He would like to give young people the opportunity to be inspired as he was when he first encountered German literature.

Students willing to have a go at undertaking this challenge have the possibility of winning a glittering cash prize worth £500, £300 or £100. All participants will get a certificate of participation.

The prize is aimed at German learners in the UK. It does not assume that participants will be taking English beyond GCSE or that they have a prior interest in literature. The rationale for asking Modern Languages students to write an essay in English is to give an opportunity for UK learners to engage with a linguistically and intellectually challenging German work in the linguistic medium they are most comfortable with. While participants may want to use a translation to support their understanding, we recommend reading the work in the original to get the most out of it and take advantage of the opportunity it offers for expanding German competence. All quotations must be in German.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

As with all the Oxford German Olympiad competitions, we aim to create a level playing field for students from different backgrounds, schools, and levels of linguistic competence. The submission form must be signed by the participant’s teacher, who is also asked to submit the essay online. All sixth-formers in UK schools with a GCSE or equivalent UK qualification in German are entitled to take part, including students who are not taking a German A-level or equivalent qualification. Native and near-native speakers of German are not excluded but are required to declare their linguistic status on the submission form. Our prime criterion is the quality of intellectual and imaginative engagement with the work evident in the essay while taking account of prior opportunity.

Any questions should be addressed to the German Classic Prize Coordinator: Joanna Raisbeck, joanna.raisbeck@some.ox.ac.uk.

Viel Glück!

How much is too much reality?

In May The Oxford Centre for Comparative Criticism and Translation, and St Anne’s College hosted a discussion between two of the best-known novelists writing in Spanish today, Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Beginning as an introduction to their recent publications, the conversation evolved into an exciting reflection on the role of storytelling in a post-truth age…

Javier Cercas at the Gothenburg Book Fair 2014. Photo by Albin Olsson, from Wikimedia Commons

Javier Cercas gave an insight into his 2014 novel, El Impostor (The Impostor), which tells the story of Enric Marco Battle, a trade unionist who became famous in Spain as a survivor of the concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenbürg. Battle became a spokesperson for Spanish survivors of the Holocaust and was a prominent voice against Fascism. However, in 2005 it was revealed that Battle had deceived the public about his experience of the war and had never been held in a concentration camp. He was, in effect, an impostor.

Vásquez introduced his 2015 novel, La forma de las ruinas (The Shape of the Ruins), which traces two political assassinations in Colombia’s history: that of General Rafael Uribe Uribe, a senator and civil war veteran killed in 1914; and that of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a leader of the Liberal party and presidential candidate at the time of his murder in 1948. Vásquez’s novel includes a character called Carlos Carballo, a conspiracy theorist who believes the two crimes are linked, not only to one another, but also to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez at the Hay Festival 2016. Photo by Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), from Wikimedia Commons

Both novels, then, might to some degree be considered historical fiction, taking their storylines from history but marrying this with the imagination to create a version of the past that is closer to what we might expect from fiction. However, the two writers use their novels to problematise this genre, questioning the role fiction can play in an era of alternative facts.

The writers consider the figure of the fantasist, asking what motivates a fantasist to invent alternative scenarios and why such figures are believed. This begs the question, is the novelist a kind of fantasist? And if you can have a factual novel, what is it that makes it a novel, a work of the imagination?

Vásquez suggests that fantasists are fascinated by stories, by creating narrative out of the past as a way to meet their personal objectives. They are detectives of a kind, and the novel is a means of probing reality and humanity. As Ford Madox Ford said, the novel is a ‘medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.’ Cercas, meanwhile, draws a distinction between the different fantasists presented in the two novels: on the one hand, Battle, who distorts history to amplify or falsify his own role within it; on the other, Carballo, who cannot accept that history doesn’t make sense and is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth), and therefore looks endlessly for connections in an effort to find the meaning in history.

What do both fantasists tell us about our relationship to narratives of the past though? Perhaps that history becomes more palatable when it is presented in the form of a story. Between the lack of a story and a lie, we prefer the lie and, to go a step further, when we are dealing with the worst elements of history, we try to mask it with narrative.It is for this reason, Cercas suggests, that General Charles de Gaulle aimed to convince French people that they had all been ‘résistants’ during the war, for, he said, ‘Les Français n’ont pas besoin de la vérité’ [French people do not need the truth].

In the current climate, we find other words for lying, referring to distortions of the truth as ‘alternative facts’. Social media allows us to create alternative chains of events and, for the first time, we have the impression of being able to choose the version of reality we want to hear. Consequently, people who are adept at manipulating storytelling have power. Vásquez points out that the German writer and philosopher Novalis asserted that ‘novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.’ The novel goes where history cannot, reframing history as a narrative that can be edited, manipulated, and used to dominate the political moment. This is because, in the words of the poet T. S. Eliot, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

It seems, therefore, that our present moment is defined by narratology, by storytelling. What do you think – are we facing a battle for the story?

An Introduction to Effi Briest

This post was written by Katie Wilson, a first-year student of French and German at Oriel College. Katie gives us a glimpse of one of the texts studied in the first year of the German course at Oxford, and makes the case for Effi Briest as an early feminist novel.

Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is the first text we study in Hilary Term (in Oxford, this is the term that runs from January to March) of the first year, and the first German novel we study during the degree. The text is about seventeen year old Effi, who is forced by her parents into an arranged marriage with an older man: Baron Geert von Innstetten. Becoming quickly entrapped in her inevitably unhappy marriage, Effi seeks to fight against boredom and depression in her marital home in any way that she can. We read the novel following the study of four German plays in Michaelmas Term (the term that runs from October to December). As interesting as they are, the plays are primarily focused on male characters, and all written by male authors. There are female characters in only some of the plays, and they’re not the heroines that female students want to read about.

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), portrait by Carl Breitbach

The novels for Hilary Term don’t look much more promising on the surface. There’s still no female authors, and we’re treated to a round of soldiers, a magician and an ungeheuren Ungeziefer (the ‘monstrous bug’ of Kafka’s metamorphosis)*. Fontane’s novel, however, is a game changer. Although it’s written by a man, the novel is structured so that we share our experiences with the female protagonist. When Effi’s bored, Fontane takes up page after page to explain her boredom, so that we’re bored with her. When Effi’s happy, we’ll only experience a page of excitement because time flies when we’re having fun.

This is no accident. Sharing Effi’s experiences means we’re naturally sympathetic towards her, so when she takes actions that were unforgivable in her Victorian Prussian context – ie: having an affair with married womaniser Major Crampas – we understand her motivations and direct our animosity towards the privileged few that oppress Effi.

Hanna Schygulla played Effi in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 adaptation. (Prod Co: Tango Film Prod, Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Phot: Jürgen Jürges, Dietrich Lohmann, Ed: Thea Eymèsz, Art Dir: Kurt Raab).

Of course she’s young, naïve, and perhaps not the greatest heroine we could have hoped for. However, Effi Briest ticks all the boxes for a first wave feminist text that highlights women’s issues in Fontane’s context. Everyone should be very excited about studying this author!

* If you’re curious about translating the phrase ‘ungeheuren Ungeziefer’, check out this article by professional translator Susan Bernofsky.

Virtual Book Club: Italian takes a turn

The Virtual Book Club is back once again, this time with an episode on Italian. The Italian episode features a discussion about a poem by Patrizia Cavalli, which was published in 1992. Here, doctoral student Nicolò Crisafi guides two undergraduates, Kirsty and Hannah, through the poem, looking at topics like gender, voice, and form.

If you would like to receive a copy of the poem to follow as you watch the discussion, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

A Two Minute Introduction to Goethe

This post was written by Isabel Parkinson, who studies German & Philosophy at Worcester College.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born, rather poetically, on a summer’s day in Frankfurt in 1749 just as the church bells were striking noon. In true sensitive-artist style he studied law as a young man and detested it, preferring to attend poetry lectures instead and write Baroque-style verse for his lover. Goethe became a literary celebrity at just twenty-five when he wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers – a quite beautiful story that’s not only unchallenging enough to be read for pleasure, but has been so excellently translated that no knowledge of German is required. It’s achingly melancholy and endearingly optimistic in equal measure with a core of reverent, self-sacrificial, and occasionally obsessive love; the young hero Werther is so desperately infatuated with Lotte that he sends his servant to her house when he himself cannot visit, just to have someone in his home who has seen her.

Werther made Goethe an overnight success, and by the 1790s he was collaborating and communicating with the other major player in the German literature scene, Friedrich Schiller. In 1809 Goethe published his third novel, Elective Affinities. It is written in prose, rather than in the epistolary style of Werther and is a similarly excellent story, with not so much a love triangle as a love square or maybe even a pentagon.

Goethe turned his hand to many things – politics, science, prose – and his epic reworking of the classic legend Faust is an example of his dabbling in the closet drama genre. Part One is closely connected to the original famous legend, while Part Two – published in 1832, the year of Goethe’s death – pushes the story and the soul wager to its conclusion. The rich detail and sheer length of Goethe’s Faust may unfairly paint it as an impenetrable work; these misconceptions hide a vividly imagined and often quite humorous tale. It is true that one can make much of the religious, moral, and philosophical questions, but they are balanced with lighter touches such as a shape-shifting poodle and Mephistopheles accompanying Faust on a double date through a garden – and what Oxford student can fail to identify with the dissatisfied academic who trades his soul for knowledge and pleasure?