Monthly Archives: March 2024

Yes to Life by Viktor E Frankl

We all have dark days. Some people have continuous dark days. Among the worst of all dark days was imprisonment in a concentration camp during the Second World War. And yet we have been given such thoughtful reasons for dignity and hope by two of those prisoners. Primo Levi gave us If this is a ManIf not Now, When?The Periodic Table, as well as poetry and essays. I quoted from his poem, Girl of Pompeii, when I wrote about my visit to the ancient city, buried in a volcanic eruption. Here are some lines, referencing Anne Frank, ‘who wrote of her youth without tomorrows’.

Nothing is left of your far-removed sister,
The Dutch girl imprisoned by four walls
Who wrote of her youth without tomorrows.
Her silent ash was scattered by the wind,
Her brief life shut in a crumpled notebook
[From The Girl Child of Pompeii, translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman]

Primo Levi was Italian, while Viktor E Frankl came from Vienna. He too addressed the question of how a person can survive ‘without tomorrows’. Perhaps his most famous book, published in German in 1946, was Man’s Search for Meaning. The original English title was From Death Camp to Existentialism, but the revised title speaks more directly to a reader.

Recently I read another collection of writings by Viktor E Frankl, also with an irresistible title: Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. The ‘everything’ that we have to put up with may not be as overwhelming as the experiences of Jewish people and others in Europe during the Holocaust. But I do often wonder what is the point of continuing, and why one should say yes to life, in our troubled times. I’m sure many other people do too.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything

The title of this book comes from a song composed for the prisoners of Buchenwald to sing when they were exhausted from their hard labour and from the smallness of their rations. They were forced to sing this song.

Whatever our future may hold:
We still want to say ‘yes’ to life,
Because one day the time will come – 
Then we will be free!  (3)

Some prisoners, no doubt, found hope in the words of this song, but Frankl has taken it with its evil origins and reclaimed it to explore that existential question about survival.

Liberated from a labour camp, and returned to his work as a psychiatrist, Frankl gave three lectures in 1946 at the adult institute of Ottakring, in Vienna. He had been liberated for just 9 months. The lectures form the basis of this book.

Auschwitz

Much of this short book is given over to reminding the people of Vienna what the policy of euthanasia meant in the Third Reich. And an even stronger theme, the topic of suicide, permeates the book. Frankl argues strongly that it is not an appropriate response to hopelessness. 

Here he summarises his three main approaches for saying yes to life in this way.:

We have already heard that the fulfilment of meaning is possible in three main directions: human beings are able to give meaning to their existence, firstly, by doing something, by acting, by creating, – by bringing a work into being; secondly, by experiencing something – nature, art – or loving people; and thirdly, human beings are able to find meaning even where value in life is not possible for them in either the first or second way – namely, precisely when they take a stance towards the intolerable, fated, inevitable and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities; how they adapt to this limitation, react towards it, how they accept this fate. (68, emphasis added) 

Frankl expanded his ideas shortly after writing Yes to Life, in Man’s Search for Meaning from which this paragraph stood out for me.

Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for every individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or other destiny. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. [85, from Man’s Search for Meaning]

You must excuse the sexist language. I am sure that, as was common at that time but unacceptable now, Frankl included women when he wrote ‘men’.

I have been trying to apply the ‘three directions’ in my own life, pretty depressed by the state of things as I am. In particular, I have been noting the natural world as we advance into spring. One of my projects is to be more aware of bird song, since I frequently take walks in our local woodlands, on Dartmoor and feed the wild birds in my garden. I have learned to identify the ubiquitous robin and can usually identify the wren by its whirring final bars. Gulls and pigeons have never given me any problems. I discover, from my app, that invisible visitors to my garden a couple of days ago included robins, blue tits, wrens, chiffchaffs, dunnocks, greenfinches, firecrests and goldfinches. The app also identified the song of a Great Kisadee, a bird native to central and south America. I need to turn on my location control! But recently a flutter of long-tailed tits passed through. On a walk with a friend yesterday, in the woods on the site of an iron age fort, we came across clusters of primroses, the first bluebells and those delicate and unassuming woodland flowers, wood anemones. 

I am not being so simplistic as to suggest that noting birds and flowers are any kind of mental health solution. I am reporting that I read Frankl and it has sharpened my pleasure in those living things.

See also Bookword in Naples (May 2022)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 1946.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 2019. The English translation from the German by Joelle Young was published in 2020 by Penguin. It contains an Introduction by Daniel Goleman. 143pp.

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Kate Hardy by DE Stevenson

When Covid ‘ended’ I thought it would be a little like VE Day, wild celebrations followed by renewed hope and planning. How wrong I was. It has never ended in the way that VE Day ended World War Two in Britain and instead has been followed by an absence of hope and planning. 

Despite those contrasts, both experiences affected every person in the population. Covid was a universal experience of fear and restriction and adjustments. I am fascinated by the post-war period, partly because of the contrasts with the aftermath of Covid, but also because I grew up in the shadow of the war. The Second World War engulfed Europe for six years, and was a time of general mobilisation, restrictions, and shared effort to win as well as fear, danger, and death. The relief when it was over was well expressed by the euphoria of VE Day. Communal effort had led to insights about how people wanted the country to be changed after the war.

This novel was first published in 1947 and is set in the immediate time following the end of the war. DE Stevenson shows some of the things that had changed and sets a romance against the backdrop of those first post-war months.

Kate Hardy

Kate Hardy is an independent young woman, a novelist, who has spent the war in a flat in London, giving shelter to her sister and niece when they were bombed out. With the war over she decides to move to the country and buys a house in the village of Old Quinings, on a whim, certainly sight unseen. 

The house is the Dower House on the estate of Richard Morven, and it became empty when his mother died. The question of housing, sharing houses, what is appropriate and proper decorum related to staying in other people’s houses, and so forth, runs through this novel. Kate has the money to attend to the defects in the house, but there are rules about the use of materials, employment and so forth that continued after the war and made life complicated.

Kate Hardy is from the class that expects to have servants and people to fix things for her. She brings loyal Martha Body from London, and employs Mrs Stack, from the village, to help with the heavy work. A man to sort out the garden presents himself, but Mr Seagar, who runs the carpentry business, finds it hard to provide the service he would like, and furthermore he is obliged to take back men who served in the war which causes staffing issues. 

Richard, the lord of the manor, is quite taken with Kate because she is independent and speaks her mind. The reader believes they might end up together. She is the author of three best-selling novels, ‘adventure stories with a difference’, and wants to work on the fourth in peace and quiet in the country. Richard has read these books and admires the hero, Stephen Slade. Although she publishes her books under a male pseudonym, Kate represents a kind of ‘new woman’, who makes her own decisions, is independent and not necessarily looking for marriage. In contrast, Kate’s sister and niece are very selfish, and expect other people to look out for them, including Kate. 

Mrs Stark’s son Walter has just returned from 7 years in the East. He has served with distinction in the army and learned how to fit in with his fellow officers, despite his modest background. Now he is back, he is much resented by the men in the carpentry firm. Back at home he finds it hard to fit in. Some war experiences changed the old relationships, and produced resentments.

And the question is – how will this assorted group of characters arrange themselves in this new post-war world. The events of the first few months of Kate’s residence in Old Quinings provide the answer, but not without some rather nasty events which link to witchcraft and Kate’s gardener and include poison pen letters.

As the story unfolds, we see many contrasts in those post-war years: town/country; tradition/modern; parenting styles in US/UK; open-/closed-mindedness and so forth. Some things are never questioned, however: class system, supported by land ownership in particular. Some episodes in the novel arise from class consciousness.

An enjoyable, but not deeply significant novel by a prolific author – I counted 50 novels in the listings. It was an easy read, with no great dilemmas or insights.

For another and more enthusiastic review, see the blog of Northern Reader in September 2023. She particularly praises the well-drawn characters.

Kate Hardy by DE Stevenson, first published in 1947. Republished by the Dean Street Press in 2022. 192pp 

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About Uncle by Rebecca Gisler 

Reading fiction from other countries and especially in other languages frequently presents the readers with worlds with surreal aspects. Fiction in English seems rooted in the world I live in day-to-day. People respond when spoken to, react to events and reach some kind of conclusion. Quite often all of this, or some of it, is absent in fiction written in other languages.

About Uncle is the first novel by Swiss author Rebecca Gisler, who writes in German and French. There are grotesque and increasingly bizarre aspects to this short novel, which she refers to as ‘a certain magic and power in the atmosphere’. It is set on the coast of Brittany in a house in an isolated hamlet. Rebecca Gisler writes:

It’s a place that exists and that I know very well. There’s a certain magic and power in the atmosphere: the winds, the bay, the rocks, the animals. But it’s also a place that represents a reality, which can be found in many places as soon as you get away from the big cities: people repressed by society, living away from it all. [From a letter to readers by Rebecca Gisler, sent to Peirene subscribers]

About Uncle

The Uncle is central to the novel. It is narrated by his niece on whom he becomes increasingly dependent. Here is the opening sentence.

One night I woke up convinced the Uncle had escaped through the hole in the toilet, and when I opened the door and found that Uncle had indeed escaped through the hole in the toilet, and the floor tiles were scattered with toilet-paper confetti and hundreds of white feathers, as if someone had been having a pillow fight, and the toilet bowl and the walls were stippled with hairs and all sorts of excretions and looking at the little porcelain hole I told myself, It can’t have been easy for Uncle, and I wondered what I could do to get him out of there, after all Uncle must weigh a good two hundred pounds, and the first thing I did was take the toilet brush and shove it as far as I could down the hole, through the pool of stagnant brown water at the bottom, and I churned with the brush but it didn‘t do any good, Uncle might already have reached the septic tank, as I churned the murky water sloshed onto the floor, carrying various repellent substances along with it, and I slipped and slid and my knees sank into the muck, and it felt almost like walking in the bay just after the tide had gone out, when it’s all sludge and stench. (3-4)

Immediately one can see that this writer is not going to spare the reader’s sensibilities. Furthermore she has complete control of this (and other) long sentences. Here it has the effect of carrying the reader further into the rather unsavoury world of Uncle, passing from the niece’s ridiculous idea that Uncle had escaped down the toilet to the very unpleasant state of the bathroom floor, where she finds herself ‘drenched to the elbows in filth’. The characters are anonymous, except for being known by their family relationships, which adds another layer of oddity. Yet there is also a kind of matter-of-factness about the paragraph above. She takes the toilet brush and churns it, and wonders if Uncle has travelled through the pipes to the septic tank. As if uncles do that sort of thing all the time.

Rebecca Gisler reports that she wrote a good deal of this novel during the pandemic, and I certainly recognise the oddity and grotesqueness of life at that time, in a reality that was separate from other people’s. But as she says, it is not a pandemic novel.

This is a novel that does not shrink from the embodied aspects of the characters, in particular of Uncle. He is grossly overweight …

Uncle sits with his stomach crammed between him and the table, and Uncle’s stomach is so fat that it doesn’t seem like a part of his body, it’s like a package he’s carrying, or a pet … (9)

… and he has some bizarre table manners, peppers his omelette until it is ‘evenly coated with a layer of grey dust’ (8) and no one will sit opposite him …

… because eating across from Uncle means consenting to share his food, I mean consenting to the torrents of spit he shares with your face. (12)

The house seems occupied by people who have no meaningful work or agency, although the nephew does leave and their mother (Uncle’s sister) returns to Switzerland. The niece and nephew are employed working on computers to translate the contents of food for animals and maintain a website with extraordinary merchandise, supplying pets. Uncle has been laid off from his gardening job because of ill health.

Uncle becomes seriously ill and must go to hospital. They find their way there, and what they see is described in a very long sentence, and this is its beginning:

And some of those people on the way out of the hospital had cats or dogs on leashes, and others were pressing Guinea pigs or ferrets to their breasts, and Guinea pigs were squeaking anxiously, as if they had just gone through a rough time, and still others had budgies in cages and a woman in a wheelchair was carrying a parrot on her right arm, and we observed that fauna in silence for ten full minutes before my brother made up his mind to ask if we were sure we were in the right place, and Uncle said Yes yes, he knew this hospital well, he’d taken his uncle the Druid there three or four times before he died at the foot of his bed, but Uncle’s answer was drowned out by a bellow… (93) 

And a yak has become trapped in the hospital door, as they do. Uncle recovers enough to return home, and life continues in its strange way.

Translation

Rebecca Gisler writes interesting notes about translation and writing in different languages.

When I started to write, I wrote in German. Then I moved to Paris, where I started writing in French and to read a lot of French poetry. […] The translation (from German) to French, which is my mother tongue and more a family and oral language, contributed a great deal to the way this novel is written. In the beginning I felt much less comfortable writing in French compared to German, and this experimental language attempt gave rise to a character that reflected its own instability: the uncle. French language, perhaps because I use it more naively, has helped me to free myself from the narrative with which I associated German.

About Uncle by Rebecca Gisler, first published as D’oncle in 2021 and in English by Peirene in 2024. 143pp. Translated from the French by Jordon Stump. Winner of Swiss Literature Prize 2022.

The link for Peirene Press subscription is here.

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Rallying the Older Women Writers

Something rather wonderful happened last week. It was Thursday, Leap Year Day. As usual I had tweeted (yes on X) about The Sleeping Beauty which was the post featured before this one. Sometimes I post a second tweet, hoping it is topical and will bring readers to the articles in the archive of this blog. I looked back through my archives, found what was on the blog on the previous Leap Year Day, in 2020. It was a few weeks before the lockdowns began. We were beginning to get very worried about Covid-19. But my post had a different theme.

It was called 

Let’s have more older women writers

You can read the article here.

It was itself referring to an earlier post from 2016. In 2020 I continued the theme of discrimination against older women writers began my comments with a little provocation.

Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers: You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.

I used this quotation in my tweet.

The Response

I’ve got a modest following on my blog and on twitter, so I was quite unprepared for what happened. It was unprecedented. Within 24 hours it had been liked 44 times, retweeted 16 times and I had gained 21 new twitter followers. In addition older women writers had added their comments. In that same time period, ten writers provided information about when they published their first book (all older than 57), many were on their second book and more had published several. It’s never too late, said one; I’m 65 and still going, said another; and another reported that she was 64 and on her 9th book. A publisher reported that they were about to publish a novel by an older woman and took no account of age.

I was pleased that one woman in her 50s said that she had been doubting her capacity to write but was encouraged by the Bookword post. Referring to the picture another commented that I would read whatever she’s writing. Martin Amis was correctly outed as the writer of the statement about women disintegrating after 70.

I have never had such a response to a tweet, and the readership of the 2020 Leap Year post immediately exceeded 100 on that day.

So why this response?

In 2020 the article I placed on Bookword blog did not have this response, so I have been wondering why the tweet and the blog post appealed to so many people in 2024. I’d be glad of your thoughts on this.

I’ve been tweeting for more than 10 years, and I have noticed that some of my tweets get a great deal more traction than others. These tend to be the ones that ask a question that people want to answer. I think the provocation about women over 70 was enough to get some people to check it out.

The 2020 post (Let’s have more older women writers) did not reach many people when it was first published. Some things might have changed since then. For example, four more years’ worth of women have entered the demographic of ‘older women’. Each new cohort are better educated and possibly have a feistier attitude, are more ready to stand up for themselves than their older colleagues. And those who responded to the tweet with their own experiences were all 65 years old or younger. 

Perhaps there are more older women writing and publishing and perhaps creating a market for fiction by older women. Older women have more money, more disposable income and form a growing market for books (and films and tv series) about older women. Some of the writers who responded with their published record will be including older women characters.

Women are living longer. Well, they were, up to 2020. I’m not sure whether this group is still enjoying increased longevity. Sadly, the neglect of the NHS and the cost of living and other factors in the last four years are causing the death rate to rise. Many of the women who are living longer continue to write for longer too.

It is interesting that the possibility of double discrimination – ageism combined sexism – has provoked this affirming response. What do you think?

Silly old Martin Amis, indeed.

On the related theme of older women characters in fiction, remember that this blog has 70 posts in the series Older Women in Fiction. You can find the full list here. It also includes recommendation from readers. Please feel free to add your suggestions. 

And you might be interested in a book for which I was a co-author: The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, published by Policy Press in 2016. You can read about it here.

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