Tuesday 30 July 2019

Truncated reading: a Swedish horror

So I got to page 176 of Niklas Natt och Dag's The Wolf and the Watchman (Swedish title 1793, translated into English by Ebba Segerberg, not that she gets any but the tiniest credit for it), and had enough. Disgusted by the twofold repetition of what happened to the armless, legless, eyeless, toothless corpse that's discovered in Chapter One, I couldn't go on.

Given an especially horrid description of every nasty detail in an execution scene, I'd already had the suspicion that the author - all night, no day - was taking a sadistic relish in every one of the worst aspects of late 18th century Stockholm. It became clear that he was heading - no real spoiler here - for a Dickensian link between the highest and the lowest in society, but it's all too much. The twin protagonists are both losers who hope to redeem themselves (one is dying of consumption); the women, at least up to that mid-point, are either bloodthirsty hags, whores or adulterers. Bye bye, Mr Natt och Dag; I shan't be reading you again.

Having got the loathing out of my system, I thought I'd use this as an all-too-brief survey of what I've read over the past few months that's in an altogether different league. Three wonderful books by Hungarians (one now, I'm presuming, a British citizen, who has lived here since 1956) in which the past and the present are masterfully interwoven head the list. My pal at MacLehose books, Katharina Bielenberg, sent me Magda Szabó's Katalin Street and George Szirtes's The Photographer at Sixteen for post-hospital reading earlier this year, but then I was still on my Elena Ferrante jag (just returning to the two first novels I hadn't read). Katalin Street, a family-and-friends chronicle which begins with the surviving characters in old age and then runs from 1934 to 1968, the year before the novel was written, touches on themes which are embodied in one even more memorable character in The Door (1987), an absolute masterpiece.

They share the sadness and even the tragedy of old age, The Door wrenching us with the ultimate fate of its housekeeper protagonist. I'll say no more about that - just read it. Katalin Street's singularity is apparent in the introductory two pages, and on time it has this unforgettable paragraph (in Brian Rix's translation):

There came too the realisation that advancing age had taken the past, which in childhood and early maturity had seemed to them so firmly rounded off and neatly parcelled up, and ripped it open. Everything that had happened was still there, right up to the present, but now suddenly different. Time had shrunk to specific moments, important events to single episodes, familiar places to the mere backdrop to individual scenes; so that, in the end, they understood that of everything that had made up their lives thus far only one or two places, and a handful of moments, really mattered. Everything else was just so much wadding around their fragile existences, wood shavings stuffed into a trunk to protect the contents on the long journey to come.

It was, I take it, as an attempt to capture lost time for his mother, who had taken her own life in 1975, that George Szirtes wrote The Photographer at Sixteen. He takes the now-familiar format of working backwards from the end to the childhood of the protagonist to reclaim Magda's life for her and make it not just about the concentration camps, which in any case Szirtes tells us that as a poet he could not imagine. His poem 'Metro' 'stopped dead at the gates of Ravensbrück. Having trespassed so far I did not feel entitled to go in. I could imagine being taken away all of a sudden. I could imagine a journey. I was caught up in the act of imagining her but my imagination had no right to venture into the camp itself'.

He does so here briefly in clear, curt prose. What he can make more personal is the last house in North London where the family lived, and back to his early days in Budapest, the flight to England in 1956. The keynote of it all is contained here:

Telling the story backwards, I am conscious of seeing and showing her at the end of a process of which the beginning must remain a mystery to me. I can trace elements of madness and a furious desire for control which sounds oppressive, and indeed it was in some respects, but it was as impulsively generous as it was jealous. She would have given those she loved anything at all. She took to people as abruptly as she froze them out. I ave no wish to subject her to retrospective analysis. I want to report her presence and register it as it moved through life by moving back into her own past with her. I want to puzzle over it and admire it while being aghast at it. I don't want to be certain of anything. I don't want to come to conclusions. 

There are horrors here, of course, but a deep human compassion which springs from truth. The Wolf and the Watchman is just a horror story, or at least as much as I read of it is. Life's too short to bother with such things.

Sunday 14 July 2019

78° North: around Longyearbyen

I've never been to a music festival anywhere as extreme as Svalbard (warning: this is going to be a post of Norfolk Churches Walk length, but you can always skim over the text and look at the pictures). The mythological Norwegian name has much more of a ring about it than 'Spitsbergen', 'Pointy Mountains', as Dutchman Willem Barentsz called it on discovering the archipelago in 1596, his third voyage in an attempt to find a successful north-west passage. It's marked on this map, made two years later, as 'Het neuwe land' (click to see better).

Of course not all the mountains are jagged, many being sugar-loafed, as we saw flying in to Longyearbyen

or flat-topped as in Iceland (the valleys going up from the west coast).

We got off the plane in a blizzard, and passed the industrial archaeology of the discarded mines, which began here with the arrival of American John Munro Longyear, who started operations in 1906. Norwegians took over after the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, which includes no militarization and makes a special case for any signatory sending people to work here; that's why we had to get off the plane from Oslo in Tromsø and pass through passport control before re-boarding. One of their mines is still working, though that won't be for long as environmental studies and research take over. This is how Longyearbyen looked close to its foundation

and now, at midnight on our day of arrival.

On that first late-night walk we also saw two figures on a patch near the sea

 - free-range reindeer quite at ease in town.

Longyearbyen also depends on its energy supplies from a 1950s power station which keeps breaking down, and then a specialist has to be flown in  from Germany to fix it.

The town looked bleak and modern on a first approach - it was bombed in the Second World War - though all the Norwegian creature comforts are to be found indoors, with so many good venues for eating and listening. The latter I've already dealt with in my chronicle for The Arts Desk, so let nature have the upper hand here (and without the ecological question-marks, which I've raised a little over there).

After the evening of the inaugural concert in Huset, the miners' community centre which has since served a number of functions and now includes a Michelin-starrable restaurant with a huge wine cellar, we had a full day on a boat.

Soon we were head out to the open sea, the bird-rich cliffs near Longyearbyen behind us.

I wish someone had warned me that it was going to be rough crossing the Isfjorden to see the Esmark glacier. I've only been seasick once before, on high seas going to Dieppe, but never actually thrown up constantly. Which I did here, four times, taking pills too late. Of course I had to reel out on to the deck (photo by Aggie Peterson, the wonderful person who made all this possible)

as we approached our wonder, a skua keeping us company.

Ice was breaking off the glacier

and a seal popped up briefly, along with bobbing black guillemots, but no polar bears to be seen. Adrian Brendel, the cellist playing trios plus with Imogen Cooper and Henning Kraggerud, had been at a glacier near the discarded Russian mining site of Pyramiden and saw five bears plus a host of beluga whales. We all wanted to follow in his footsteps, as it were, but the schedules on other days didn't allow it. Anyway, the wonder here was my first sea glacier, and it was worth all the chucking up; I'll never forget it.

Fish was prepared on the boat, but of course I couldn't touch it. Delightful Julia Seljeseth from Arkhangelsk, living in Tromsø with her Norwegian husband and family, soon to move to Brussels, gave me a dry biscuit and two Russian pills, which apparently I wasn't supposed to take at once, but I did, went and lay down in a cabin and went to sleep for 45 minutes before we arrived in the Russian mining town of Barentsburg, originally established by the Dutch in 1924 until a Soviet company took over eight years later.

For this stretch I'm reliant on very good photos from Julia and Danish violinmaker Jens Stenz, another excellent travel companion, since I hadn't charged my camera battery sufficiently; at least I had my glacier pics. Barentsburg is an odd mix of industrial archaeology (the building on the left above is the old social centre, which used to be open 24 hours a day, but NO alcohol; now there's a very low limit), Soviet-era buildings for the mixture of Ukrainian and Russian miners who live here with their families - we saw some miners returning from their shift - and tourist showcase. The church is recent (1990, I think), but finely constructed in the old wooden style.

Living quarters date from the 1970s, clashing markedly with an older (and well restored) town hall

In front of this block a bust of Lenin and a proud proclamation of 'our goal - communism' have weathered the changes, more for museum-piece value, I think.

The school has murals which far outstrip anything in Longyearbyen - local sea fauna

and fantasy images of Moscow and Novgorod.

The 'Red Bear' bar for miners and public alike serves good espresso

and is above what used to be the northernmost brewery in the world until Longyearbyen got one (the latter's cans ready for release below).

The post office is very fancy and tourist-friendly inside, with a splendid array of franks for your postcards, though the two I sent from here haven't turned up, while the one from Longyearbyen arrived four days later. Maybe they really were using this form of transport.

Our duty-and-pleasure here, after a splendid tour by a young Russian woman who had just arrived here after working in much warmer climes, was to hear a two-violin recital from Eldbjørgg Hemsing and Oganes Girunyan, superlative Armenian violinist in the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, in the state-of-the-art concert hall/theatre (photo by AP).

Then it was swiftly back on the boat for a relatively calm journey back to Longyearbyen, staying close to the cliffs where we saw a variety of gulls and plenty of puffins (flying or on the water, but only distantly on the rocks; photo by JS).

We had barely an hour to recover from the 11 hour ordeal and wonderland before we were whisked off in a coach for the evening happening: our ACPCO strings having a feast with their adapatations of Danish String Quartet folk arrangements in a lavvo (Sami tent, or to be accurate two tents) some way up the relatively open plain of Adventdalen.

The hero of the evening was violinist Anders Melhus, who revealed to all his talents as a superb improvising stand-up comedian, and all in English too. Heres Aggie's picture of him outside the lavvo.

It was an event of the purest delight; we all laughed so much. The chap seated to the left below is an Iranian Nowegian who was in Svalbard to offer some legal advice. He had to miss the opening concert because he takes classes by skype with a master of the tar (Persian long-necked lute).

I chatted to him in the queue for the only food - reindeer stew, which I HAD to have as I hadn't eaten anything since aforementioned dry biscuit since breakfast. It was superb.

Herds of reindeer were wandering over the plain

and in the interval I saw the author of the startling noise we'd heard in the first half - we think it's a purple sandpiper. It was very much on its own.

Beautiful scene at 11.30pm - sun to the west (never setting at the time of year, of course).

And here's our protector for the evening.

You are advised that if you wish to leave the boundaries of Longyearbyen, you must go with an armed guard. Polar bears are dangerous and a fortnight before my visit, one had crashed into town, occasioning helicopters above and everyone shutting themselves in.

The only two I actually saw were stuffed - this one on the right below in the splendid museum, part of the university building, where APCO musicians were playing a bewitching rarity, Svendsen's Octet (I'd been told the wrong time, so arrived in time for the finale only). Photo by AP.

The other was in the lounge area of the warm, welcoming and yes, peaceful church (open 24 hours a day, every day).

This, Svalbard's second church on the site (the first having been destroyed in the bombing) was consecrated in 1958, robustly constructed by Hans Magnus. It was the northernmost of its kind in the world until the building of St. Nicolas in Nagurskoye, Russia.

I took this on a brisk circuit of Longyearbyen, passing by the harbour where eider ducks with their melancholy cooing were basking, dipping or cleaning by the harbour,

a lone reindeer - probably one of the two I'd seen on the first night - was chewing around the disused mine above the power station

and moss was beginning to colour its way up after the thaw.

Local bus-stop (shelter essential in the winter),

more mine-works with variegated rock,

a mysterious circle of tree-stumps, about which I never did discover more

and the Longyear river.

That evening it was back along Adventdalen and this time up via a series of hairpin bends to a concert in the shed-forecourt of the only working mine, Gruve 7

where Strauss's Metamorphosen and movements from Kraggerud's Equinox were introduced by the very eloquent mine manager. Good acoustics, more about it in the TAD article.

No attempt here to make it all tidy for tourists like Barentsburg, though the mixture of views over pristine landscape and the immediate surroundings was striking indeed.

The next morning dawned with the clear skies we'd been promised for days, and Longyearbyen was alive, as it had been briefly on Saturday too.

Essential stopping-point: Fruene, 'the world's northernmost chocolatier'. Good for lunch, too.

After the final superb chamber concert, Jens and I decided to walk further up the valley to the Gallery Svalbard - though not before he had managed to touch and hold Adrian Brendel's recently-acquired Guarneri cello

and I'd snapped the trio being snapped by Aggie.

Further proof that you don't have to go beyond Longyearbyen boundaries to capture some of the more modest Arctic wildlife like this snow bunting:

and I don't know if this is the female of the species or a baby.

Handsome barnacle geese are everywhere (I saw the pink-footed variety too)

and the wider views upwards, to yet another mine, are spectacular, with the snow seemingly about to crash over the tops.

Downwards towards the main settlement

and then into the gallery itself, as impressive as any of its size. There's a beautiful collection of reproduction maps of Svalbard from the discovery through the centuries (here's a detail from just one finely illustrated one)

within a room that also has reading facilities, as do all the museums.

One of the very friendly guys on the desk, who came to talk about the maps, was happy for me to capture his local tattoo, which shows how much he loves being here.

The treasury, is the Stiftelsen  Kåre Tveter-Sammlung, charting the work of the Norwegian so-called 'painter of light' from his arrival in 1982. It's housed in a space where the high windows frame the real thing

and there's a piano, reminder that with this room and the church there are at least two more venues to add to the five where we attended concerts.

The first 48 paintings were housed here through a charitable foundation in 995; Tveter died 17 years later, though illness had put an end to his creative work in 1998. Figurative elements gave way to increasing abstraction, and an expression both of the light and the dark, with autumn being Tveter's favourite season here. The polarities are well expressed in the hanging

and you need a close up of the above one on the right - it's a poetic expression of what one experiences coming in to land.

So to our last evening, a magical nine-course meal at the Huset restaurant with movements from quartets that were far more than Tafelmusik from four brilliant APCO players. I've written over on TAD how APCO (and Lucerne Festival Orchestra) viola-player Julia Neher made us stop and reflect with her words before Webern's Langsamer Satz, which we then heard in a different way.

The sign of a perfect meal is when you feel neither overfull nor drunk at the end, despite the huge variety of wines, beers and ciders we consumed.

I'm chuffed that I was bossy enough, when we arrived, to insist that the core of us didn't sit at different tables but joined together. So here we are, Norwegians, Poles, a Dane, a German and a Brit, all enjoying each other's company.

At one point there was a cry of wonder from somewhere and outside the windows we saw an Arctic fox ambling by, doing its evening thing on the way in to town. These aren't ideally sharp photos, but at least I caught it in time.

1am - was too charged up to go to sleep before then.

And we still had more time the next morning before the early afternoon flight. So I asked my new friends Ragnhild and Pjer Ketil to join me in walking to the official town boundary along Adventdalen, to the bird gatherings around the husky kennels (they feel safe from predators here). Mostly eider ducks on this occasion, but in impressive numbers, both out on a spit of land

 and below the hill

with couples at rest

 and in flight.

Shouldn't have bothered the huskies by chatting to them in their pens, but otherwise I wouldn't have caught an eye quite like this.

We did in fact see a dog-drawn vehicle being used for practical purposes on our way back.

Even at the airport, the wonders keep on coming - here one had a clear sweep of more than one glacier over the bay (this, of course, is a zoom-in) -

while the waiting area must have the best views anywhere through its vast windows.

Neither out on the tarmac crossing to the plane,

nor on take-off

could I stop snapping. There was a feeling that I didn't want to let go of this extraordinary place until we had flown over the last tip of land. I thought that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, but the next festival is going to be in February, in the dark days where if you're lucky everything is blue the whole time, and I want to experience that...