john skinner

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What's on my bedside table this week

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George Steiner: Errata (auf Deutsch)  

One of my heroes, Euro-citizen, polylinguist, polymath, and all-around very clever person, sums up his life and works. The tone becomes quite sad towards the end: having spent his energies writing and teaching rather than playing university politics, he recognises too late that a School Of- coterie of sycophants would have been a comfort to his old age.

George Steiner formed many of my ideas, in particular he teaches by example that while one cannot know everything, one may and should be interested in everything. Reading Steiner (attentively reading a lot of anything) is a lesson in humility: every time you get through a dozen books and think yourself pretty smart, the thirteenth is by someone like George who pats you on the head and says "Yes, very nice; but look over there, have you seen those yet?" and you realize that you've read maybe a tenth of one percent of the material on the subject.

Anyone interested in the area where linguistics, philosophy and religion overlap would enjoy Language and Silence (Deutsch: Sprache und Schweigen), After Babel (Deutsch: Nach Babel), In Bluebeard's Castle (Deutsch: In Blaubart's Burg) and Real Presences (Deutsch: Von realer Gegenwart) in roughly that order; anyone interested the Holocaust should read The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (apparently not translated, gee I wonder why). There's also a Reader, selected by Steiner himself, which makes an excellent introduction to the man and his manifold interests.



Dianne Warren: A Reckless Moon 

Proudly Canadian. A collection of short stories in the modern mode: slightly ironic, vaguely sad, aware of a certain inner emptiness but at a loss for ways to fill it. The author is a native of my home province in Canada, and the book resonates (for me) with places and people that I know well.



Leopold von Sacher-Masoch: Venus im Pelz (auf Deutsch)

The book, and the author, which gave Masochism its name. It's a strange read, the "exalted" tone of the dialogue comes sometimes dangerously close to absurdity. But if your disbelief can be suspended long and far enough, the story is — forgive me — enthralling. [Absurdity never hurt J-R Ewing, did it?]

Masoch himself never used the word "masochism" which was coined by Krafft-Ebing on the example of his books, in fact he attempted to restrain K-E legally from the usage. Alas, it had already reached the popular press, with the result that the once famous and successful author was in his own lifetime as good as forgotten. At the time of his death, only this one of his many works was still in print.

The german edition contains a few extra delicacies. Masoch's wife Wanda describes a very strange encounter between M. and King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Gilles Deleuze documents the relationship between the man and the perversion which bears his name, and the very different case of de Sade and his namesake. Fascinating!

The book is not available on Amazon in german, though I found it easily enough in my neighbourhood bookshop. Look for Insel Taschenbuch (Suhrkamp) Nr. 1959, ISBN 3458336591.

The novel is available in english as Venus in Furs, the essay by Deleuze is also available. Hint: go first to the essay, you may be offered the pair together as a bundle deal.

Wanda von Sacher-Masoch was herself a good writer, Zelda to his F. Scott. Her given name was Aurora Rümelin, she took the name of the heroine of Venus im Pelz on their marriage. [The original Wanda was a different woman, Fanny von Pistor.] Wanda's memoires are also interesting, available in english and german.



Thomas Maschke: Mac OS X (auf Deutsch)

When I started this page, I intended to include only "literature" i.e. reading for fun. [That said, I'd be the first to admit that some of what I read for fun might strike others as being hard work.] This 630-page monster has swallowed so much of my time lately that it would be inaccurate not to include it. The new Mac OS is looming large and I will have to be able to deal with it: both my database customers and my computer consultancy clients will be switching over in the next two years. The book is very shallow despite its great length, and somewhat confused about its audience: Maschke spends a third of the book discussing the Classic environment, which most Mac owners are already using daily under the name OS 9. Not good enough to recommend, so no links here.


Tiziano Scarpa: Venedig ist ein Fisch (auf Deutsch) 

A collection of amusing and informative essays on Venice by a Venetian: a tourist guide for people who would be offended to be called tourists. I hope some clever english-language publisher picks up on it.



The Bible (in English, King James Version with the words of Christ in red).

The Germans have many religious holidays, most of which occur on Thursdays. You are probably thinking what I first thought: "What idiots would hold a public holiday on Thursday, you have to go back to work the very next day." Well, that would be true if they did, but you see they don't. They all take the Friday off too and so have a four-day weekend for the price of one day's holiday entitlement. It's not a bad deal.
There are five of these holidays back-to-back between Easter and Midsummer, which have names like "Fronleichnam" [literally, the happy corpse].


Johann Nestroy: Einen Jux will er sich machen (auf Deutsch)

This play was the basis for Tom Stoppard's "On the Razzle" which I saw in London twenty years ago. The original is in Viennese dialect, and is just as funny as Tom's version. Some of the best jokes from "On the Razzle" are Nestroy's.
My copy of the book is from the Reclam yellow series. These are produced principally for schoolkids, the books are shirt-pocket size with tiny print, and even the thickest of them costs no more than six chocolate bars. It's a wonderful concept, which to the best of my knowledge is unique to Germany. Normal paperbacks are too expensive for kids to buy, and libraries are as short of money as every other public institution.
Reclam — properly Philipp Reclam jun. — is a Stuttgart company, which is in itself not surprising since over one-third of all German publishers are to be found within a two hour drive of the city hall. There are books and bookstores on every street corner, something else I appreciate.


Philip Larkin: Collected Poems   

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then, I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.

Ah yes, cheerful Phil. It's almost cheating to put Owl-Eyes in the list, he's never far from the top of my reading pile. I remember reading this poem ("Aubade") when it was first published in the Times Literary Supplement. It was the winter of 1977, I was a first-semester student at the Architectural Association. I sat in the cafeteria with a cup of tea, started reading — and was lost. It swallowed me up like a threshing machine, I came up at the end feeling as though I'd been away for months and had walked on the surface of the moon. It's a cliché to say this, but it's true: everything had changed, I saw a different world that afternoon.

If you enjoy Larkin's poetry, you should probably not read the excellent biography by Alan Bennett: Larkin was a real shit, and reading about his personality may blunt the pleasure of his works. Not that there is any reason why a good author should also be a fine person, or indeed vice versa. Take the film The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman (or its source, the novel by Raymond Chandler) as a case in point.


Beat Gloor: staat sex amen (auf Deutsch) 

A typographer and print designer looks at the world, and finds much of it substandard. The title is drawn from a chapter of amusing miss-hyphenations, which thanks to Microsoft and lazy or incompetent editors are as common in German as in English. The title is properly one word: "Staatsexamen" (the intense and harrowing oral examination that stands between you and a PhD), however the false hyphenation makes of it "nation sex amen".
The book is enlivened by Gloor's dry sense of humour and his awareness of the absurdity of kicking against the pricks when they don't know that they are pricks. If you speak German and are interested in print-as-thing, then it's a fine read. (The book is also available as a website.)


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Copyright © John Skinner, 2002-2003 [except: excerpts from "Aubade" by Philip Larkin, copyright © the estate of Philip Larkin]. All rights reserved.
Last updated 2003.07.25