Posts Tagged ‘Danzig’

August favourites #25: city

August 25, 2018

I’ve explored many cities in my time on the planet, and my favourite is definitely Gdansk, in Poland. I was first taken there on my first trip to Poland as a teenager, in the old days of people’s power. It was a beautiful city then, reborn from the ruins of the Second World War, the city which – as Danzig then, a Free City – was the ostensible cause of that war, as Hitler wanted to re-attach is to his reich. A year or so later I encountered it in Gunter Grass’ stunning novel The Tin Drum, which evokes the city in the interwar years as the Nazi threat grew, through a raft of Polish, German, Jewish and Kashubian characters; he did for that city what James Joyce did for Dublin in Ulysses. I’ve been back there several times since that first trip, explored its churches, mediaeval buildings, streets and wonderful waterfront. It even has a Shakespeare Theatre and a Shakespeare festival. What more could an English teacher want?

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


August favourites #15: German novel

August 15, 2018

I’ve read a fair amount of German fiction – in translation, I must admit; although I can get by passably enough in the spoken language, I’m not up to reading novels – but it’s probably the very first German novel I ever read that is still my favourite: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum. Partly it’s the setting, the vanished Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland, and a city I know quite well), and partly the writer’s lifelong quest to understand and come to terms with his, and his nation’s appalling behaviour during the Nazi era. Historians have tried with varying degrees of success, and exposed the facts, but writers of fiction are those who can attempt to take us inside the heads of those who lived then. It’s surely significant that Oskar, after his experiences, is the inmate of a mental institution… Grass takes us inside a warped and twisted world that nevertheless feels normal in the pages of the novel, and perhaps that is one of the keys to the insanity of those times. A stunningly powerful read from a writer who – for me – never stopped wrestling with his troubled conscience.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Changing Worlds, or, my collection of atlases

December 7, 2015

51bORWQkC9L._AA160_I found myself turning the pages of my 1981 edition of the Times Atlas Comprehensive Edition, which is well-worn and grubby, with lots of interesting bits and pieces sandwiched in between its pages – lists of previous names of towns and cities in Poland, old maps of Danzig and Königsberg, information about the collapse of the USSR and the renaming of cities and regions. It seemed to me that the colours were brighter and easier on (old, tired) eyes than the later versions, and the pages layout rather simpler and straightforward.

However, you can perhaps understand why an avid armchair traveller would have bought an updated edition in 2003: so many places (towns, cities and countries) have acquired new names. There is no such place as Leningrad any more, for starters, and it goes on from there… There are a lot more transliterations of local usage place-names – the editors trying to be helpful, which is laudable, but also ending up being confusing – colours and fonts have been changed, perhaps for the sake of it, and I don’t think it’s as well printed as the earlier edition.

When you think about it, this is a major issue: atlases rely on double-page spreads to present larger areas, and the binding – the matching together of two separate sheets in a signature of the book, so that they align perfectly down the middle, and, most importantly in an atlas, so that there is no thin white line separating the two pages of the spread – this is not done so well in the more recent edition, and it’s annoying. Especially when it costs £150!

This gripe took me back to an almost-antique: the Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas of 1919, which I picked up for a song at the end of a second-hand book fair years ago. Up until half a century ago, there was a different way of printing and binding atlases, which took single, double-page spreads and bound each one individually by folding it and gluing it to a paper strip which was sewn into the binding, so that each individual map is a centre-page spread, if you see what I mean, and there are no problems of misalignment or thin white lines between pages.

It’s a gigantic atlas, much larger and heavier than the Times one, as large as the wonderful Soviet Atlas Mira I once saw second-hand and didn’t buy… The maps of the North Pole and Antarctica are largely white and labelled ‘unexplored’. And it’s post Versailles Treaty but pre-plebiscite so that various areas are left white as unattributed to any country – I imagine you’d have felt quite peeved a year later, if you’d bought this one!

So much of the world is unrecognisable to modern eyes – Africa and Asia completely transformed form almost a century ago, the Middle East still awaiting the finalisation of the Sykes-Picot chaos that still plagues us today, huge tracts of the world labelled as part of British or French empires… the arrogance is astonishing. But it’s a stunning book, with wonderful cartography.

One also notices how atlases are ‘slanted’ in various ways: your own country often gets proportionally far too much space and attention, and maps at a larger scale; other parts of the world are relatively ignored, which can be very annoying, and sometimes necessitates buying another map to compensate. On the other hand, the Peters projection atlas, which attempts to compensate by mapping the entire world at the same scale, is basically an academic exercise, not really fit for serious use.


In short: the big Times Atlas is the one to have.

My small world of Polish literature…

September 19, 2015

So I’m fifty per cent Polish, but neither read nor speak the language; I’m proud of my ancestry and even have a coat of arms to go with it… I’ve read widely in Polish history, and sought out some Polish literature which is available in translation – not that there’s very much, to be honest) and have to say I’ve been mildly disappointed thus far.

The national epic, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz, I have yet to read. It’s a lengthy poem, and the translation I possess looks rather daunting. On the other hand, the little of Czeslaw Milosz‘ poetry I’ve read I have enjoyed.

One major Polish novel I’ve read and enjoyed is Boleslaw PrusThe Doll, a nineteenth century naturalist text which reminds me of the works of writers such as Zola or Balzac… and then there’s the epic Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, superficially a tale of the very early days of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome, but also an allegory about Poles suffering under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian yoke; though the translation available is very dated, the story is engaging and by no means saccharinely religious, which one might have expected froma Polish Catholic writer.

My acquaintance with twentieth century fiction has been limited to Witold GombrowiczFerdydurke and Transatlantyk, both of which I found interesting rather than gripping. Memoirs, history, criticism, reflection and essays are what Poles have done well, in my experience thus far, and with the nation’s fraught history over the past century, perhaps that isn’t too surprising.

Milosz writes sensitively and hauntingly about his vanished past – his home city of Wilno, formerly in Poland, was allotted to Lithuania by Stalin as the city of Vilnius – in a similar way to how Günter Grass writes about Danzig/Gdansk (in fact Grass develops a lengthy fictional parallel between the two cities in his novel The Call of the Toad), and also about the vice-like grip of Stalinism on the intellectual life of post-war Poland, which led to his leaving and settling in the United States. The Captive Mind is a classic analysis of those times. The memoirs of Aleksander Wat and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski also deal with the 1930s/40s/50s and the mentally and physically tortured lives many Poles had to lead during those years, either under the Nazis or Russians or both. One might argue that the times were so fantastical in themselves that no fiction could do them justice…

The history of all the different Polands is admirably treated by Norman Davies in several masterly works: his two-volume History of Poland, Rising ’44, Microcosm, Vanished Kingdoms… and the incredible complexity of relations between nations in the region and between races and nationalities, that were at the heart of so much conflict and destruction have been expertly traced and unravelled by Timothy Snyder in Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations. Again, the truth is so bizarre, you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Sadly, I feel my knowledge and understanding of Polish literature is very limited, due to the lack of texts available in either English or French; if anyone knows of anything I’ve overlooked, I’d be pleased to hear of it…

* Polish readers must excuse the lack of Polish diacritics in my text; I can’t find an easy way to include them, from a UK English keyboard.

Death of a Writer

April 13, 2015

So, farewell Guenter Grass.

I first read him at school, when I came across Cat and Mouse, and then The Tin Drum. They made a deep impression on me, as did later the superb film of (the first half of) The Tin Drum. With an imaginative, fantastical, even magic realist approach, he sought to portray and explore Germany’s war guilt, to see whence the madness arose.

I visited Gdansk (Grass’ former home city of Danzig, now part of Poland) in 1970. I remember being shocked by a large graffito which I had my father translate: ‘We have not forgotten. We shall not forgive.’ I can understand the painful sense of loss of home which Grass feels, his homeland erased forever, places still there and yet not there, because they have new names, new owners, new purposes. This happened to my father too: his homeland vanished, is now another country, different territory.

I’ve been to Gdansk since, and seen various of the places immortalised by Grass, and monuments to his childhood home and school. They seem to reflect the spirit of reconciliation that I feel Grass sought. Though some of his novels became self-indulgent and rambling, one of them links the stories of the city of Danzig, lost to its German inhabitants, and that of the Polish city of Wilno, lost to Poland and now the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Some attacked him for concealing his volunteering for the Waffen-SS at the very end of the war, when he was a boy of sixteen. I felt I could understand, and could excuse this concealment; I felt it did nothing to mar the reputation of one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists, and his death will send me back to revisit some of his novels. When I read writers like him, I feel how insular and boring we are here in England, and also how incredibly fortunate not to have suffered in the ways so many did, in Poland and Germany and elsewhere, during those years.

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