Burnt Toast Editorial

Writing that smokes

Category Archive:Twentienth century fiction

A bear, an alien, and two stories of migration. Our book pick for August.

The question of migration and its impact on societies is everywhere in the print and broadcast media. So too on social media. The debate rages today as much, if not more so than it did in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. Only this week India and Pakistan have been marking the partition of India on 15th August 1947 when 10-12 million people were displaced from their places of birth to comply with the Radcliffe Line, the boundary drawn up by the British demarcating the two new states. The violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to the present. Last year’s EU Referendum in the UK brought the subject of migration to the fore of British politics once again and was articulated further afield after the installation of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. Election races in the Netherlands and France had the same effect.

Today we are launching our Book Pick of the Month. Just to get things off to a good start we decided to subvert the one book rule and select two! Why make a rule if you can’t break it?  Our choices for the Book Pick’s first outing are How to be an Alien. A Handbook for Beginners and Advanced Learners by George Mikes and Winnie Ille Pu (The Latin Edition) by A. A. Milne, translated by Alexander Lenard.

At first glance the two books may seem like odd bedfellows but on closer inspection the common factor is the shared experience of migration of the author of one and the translator of the other. ¹

George Mikes and How to be an Alien

George Mikes was born in Hungary in 1912 under the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. Whilst his father had ambitions that George would follow his profession of the law, his son’s interest lay in writing and journalism. After graduating in Budapest in 1933, George gained his first post as a journalist for the Budapest newspaper Reggel (“Morning”), shortly followed by writing a column for Színházi Élet  (“Theatre Life”).

By 1938 he was the London correspondent for Reggel and 8 Órai Ujság (“8 O’Clock Paper”), a post he held until 1940. Despatched to London to cover the Munich Crisis he was only expected to stay for a couple of weeks. In fact he stayed for the rest of his life, becoming a British citizen in 1946.

Mikes’ real talent was as a humourist. In a long career he wrote over 40 books, 35 of them humorous and many post-war British classics. He was recognised as a blender of elements of Hungarian, English and Jewish humour.

His most successful and outright best-selling title was How to be an Alien, first published in 1946, translated into 22 languages and published in 39 countries. In it he portrayed himself as a bumbling alien who describes the habits of the natives in the vast, strange but friendly “country” of London. ² How to be an Alien

Quoted examples of his gentle and wry poking of fun at the British still ring true:

“Continental people have a sex life, British people a hot water bottle”, “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms a queue of one”, “Many Continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game”, “Overstatement, too, plays a considerable part in English social life. This takes mostly the form of someone remarking: ‘I say …’ and then keeping silent for three days on end”, and a particular favourite, “Remember: If you go for a walk with a friend in England, don’t say a single word for hours; if you go for a walk with your dog, talk to it all the time.”

To accompany the witticism of Mikes’ observations the book was illustrated by Nicholas Bentley who captured the essence of the author’s comic perspective.

Alexander Lenard and Winnie Ille Pu

In the case of Alexander Lenard, born in Budapest in 1910, the unexpected success of his Latin translation of A. A. Milne’s classic and beloved story of the bear Winnie the Pooh and his friends Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger, threw the spotlight of fame on to an otherwise almost reclusive 50 year-old Hungarian-born doctor who spoke 12 languages, who with his wife Andrietta was resettled in Brazil in 1952 by the International Refugee Organization. One of the few possessions they took with them on their odyssey to find a safe haven was an English language edition of Winnie the Pooh.

Because his Austrian medical degree was not recognised in Brazil, Lenard worked as a nurse in a lead mine, a pharmacist, and a translator at medical conferences. Eventually buying land in the sparsely populated Itajai valley in Southern Brazil the Lenards built a two-room house where he painted, wrote poetry and indulged his passion for Bach. In 1956 Lenard won the equivalent of $2,000 on the Sao Paolo Television Bach Competition. With the winnings more land was purchased and a larger house was built. Winnie Ille Pu

When teaching Latin to the daughter of a local resident who expressed a wish for something interesting to read in the language Lenard began translating Winnie the Pooh. Over a period of seven years he mined the classics for idiomatic expressions used in ancient Rome and its empire. Whereas the original was a children’s book Lenard’s “Pu” was filled with puns and alliteration from centuries of Latin literature.

Not able to find a publisher for his “Pu” Lenard paid a printer in Sao Paolo to publish a print run of 100 copies, sending review copies to foreign publishers. This led to a Swedish publisher printing 2,000 copies of an abridged version which in turn prompted Methuen, A. A. Milne’s publisher, to publish several thousand. Milne’s American publisher Dutton, published “Pu” in 1960 with the result that Lenard’s book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks – a feat unheard of for a foreign language book let alone one written entirely in Latin.

The New York Times writer, Lewis Nicholls described it as ” … the greatest book a dead language has ever known.” The Chicago Tribune exclaimed that “… it does more to attract interest in Latin than Cicero, Caesar and Virgil combined.”

The message from these two Hungarian migrants, writers both, is that we are all someone else’s foreigner. And that includes a funny little bear and an alien.

¹ Strictly speaking Lenard and his wife were refugees.

² As a matter of interest Montesquieu used this satirical literary device in his Lettres Persanes to excoriate and satirise French society especially that of the court of Louis XVI. It was first published in 1721.

Read more about George Mikes here

Read more about Alexander Lenard here

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The literary shaping of a novelist: from our guest writer Marius Gabriel.

My parents’ house was full of books, thousands of them; and I have belonged to many public libraries in different countries. But two particular libraries shaped my mind more than any others. The first was in Villa Valverde, in Sicily, where I spent part of my childhood.

The Villa Valverde was a pensione which had been built by my paternal grandfather, Pancrazio Cipolla. He’d spent decades working in London hotels, rising from waiter to manager. He took his savings back to Taormina and built Valverde around 1910, as a luxurious retreat for British tourists.  It had all mod cons, including a library of English books. These had all been supplied by a publisher who specialized in such things, and were in a uniform edition of brown leather with gold tooling, proudly stamped with the hotel name and crest. The books were all Victorian and masculine – Sir Walter Scott, Charles Kingsley, Conan Doyle, Fennimore Cooper and the like.

It was here I met Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster, and Amyas Lee, and Sherlock Holmes and Natty Bumppo, and the ‘Man Who Would Be King.’ Rather heavy going, since I was not yet ten, but I swallowed it all down in huge draughts.

The second library was at my high school, when my peripatetic parents took us from Sicily to South Africa. It was in a decaying part of the school that has long since been knocked down (we used to spear rats there during break, with compasses tied to rulers). The collection itself was large, and consisted mainly of bequests from Old Boys, some of them dating back to Edwardian and Victorian times, and smelling strongly of tobacco and damp. No attempt had been made to catalogue or filter this heterogeneous collection. They were simply in alphabetical order according to author. In my six years there, I must have read almost every volume.

I lugged home bound editions of Punch dating from the 1850s to the First World War, which was where I began to pick up what little modern history I know (and developed a fondness for weak jokes.) I found, and read with wide eyes, Henry Miller (an education of a different kind), Colette (I had to ask my mother what a Lesbian was) and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley (nothing left to the imagination there).

I read fusty old copies of Sheridan le Fanu, H. Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer and Robert Louis Stevenson. I ploughed my way through novelists popular in the 20s, 30s and 40s: Sinclair Lewis (I must have read Kingsblood Royal a dozen times), Thornton Wilder, Edgar Wallace; Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck (I adored him), J.B. Priestly (very heavy going), Daphne du Maurier, A. J. Cronin, H.G. Wells (where I learned what socialism was); Robert Graves (also pretty hot stuff) and Somerset Maugham.

I read voraciously, sometimes a book a day. I read at night, under the sheets, with a flashlight, till two in the morning. I read on the bus to and from school. I read on the toilet and at the supper table. I read without even knowing why I read at times, so long as the words on the page held me.

A tenacious memory for useless things means that many of these books are still rattling around inside my head, and will surface at odd moments; or, what is worse, half-surface, and lead me a merry dance trying to recall which book and which author, in which library, in which country, in which year…

Marius Gabriel, our guest writer

He is the author of eight sagas and historical novels, including the best-sellers The Mask Of TimeThe Original Sin, and The Seventh MoonCosmopolitan accused him of “keeping you reading while your dinner burns”. Born in South Africa in 1954, he has lived and worked in many countries, and now divides his time between London and Cairo. He has three grown-up children.

His latest novel, Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, is set during World War II and published by Lake Union, is available on Amazon or by placing an order with Marius via his website. To view all of Marius’s books click on link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Marius-Gabriel/e/B000AP9HOU

You may also be interested to read Marius’s GoodReads page where he also writes a blog. If you like cooking Marius is the man for you. Baking bread being a speciality.

P.S. Marius served his author apprenticeship as a student at Newcastle University. To finance his postgraduate research, he wrote 33 Mills & Boon romances under a pseudonym. His identity as a man had to be kept secret until he turned to longer fiction under his own name.

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#wonkyword! Palimpsest, Gore Vidal, and reading between the lines.

In 1995, the American writer, political commentator, and essayist Gore Vidal ¹ broke his own declared vow never to write a memoir. Palimpsest – the first of what was to be a two volume work ² – was published to great acclaim and some criticism as befitted a public figure whose intellectual and cultural writings on American history and American life had created enemies as well as supporters.

When writing on the subject of his name he explained that his birth certificate had originally recorded it as Eugene Louis Vidal; this was then changed to Eugene Luther Vidal, Jr.; subsequent to this the name Gore was added at his christening in 1939. Fourteen years later as an adolescent he took the decision to discard the first two names.

This act of self-alteration or indeed erasure links directly to the meaning of palimpsest, our latest #wonkyword, with its etymological root in Latin from the Greek palimpsēstos, from palin “again” + psēstos “rubbed smooth”. Its use is most commonly found in the study of old manuscripts, scrolls and books; in modern usage it is used in architecture, archaeology and geomorphology. #wordwonk

Perhaps one of the best known palimpsests is that attributed to the Greek mathematician Archimedes. Known as The Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript is a Byzantine prayer book from the thirteenth century assembled using pages from several earlier manuscripts – one of which contained several treatises by Archimedes that were copied in tenth century Constantinople. These were first discovered in 1906 by the Danish Archimedes scholar Johan Ludwig Heiberg.

As the key aspect of such a manuscript is its layer upon layer of writing, for one so acutely aware of self-fashioning and self-actualisation as Gore Vidal, Palimpsest was perfectly judged.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gore_Vidal

² Point to Point Navigation is the second volume of Gore Vidal’s memoir and was published in 2006.

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#wonkyword! Dégringolade, Captain Haddock and Theresa May.

Our latest #wonkyword is one you might be forgiven for thinking was the name of a villain in a James Bond film but in fact dégringolade is used either as a verb or a noun to describe a more serious state of affairs – that of a decline or deterioration. Not just any old type of decline but a rapid one. One minute up, next minute down, just like Captain Haddock of Tintin fame whose life is a series of disasters interspersed with acts of comedic heroism. It also brings to mind the very recent inglorious tumble in political clout and prestige of the British Prime Minister, Theresa May.

A prime case of semantic drift dégringolade’s etymological origins are Middle French (desgringueler) meaning to tumble and also Middle Dutch (crinkelen) to make curl, similar in fact to the English words of “crinkle” and “crank”. In other words dégringolade indicates not only decline but its speed and trajectory. Got it?

Its first known use was in 1873; perhaps not so surprising as this was but six years before the French Revolution. Although mostly commonly found in French usage it does pop up in English especially in political and financial journalism, for example,

“For a Democratic Party in the depths of political dégringolade, liberal-Progressives throughout DC and the media are expressing a level of bravado that reeks of either an embarrassing feign or a deep level of denial of the message sent to them by the American people.” ¹

Or in the case of the English author Julian Barnes from Nothing to be Frightened of, his maverick twist on the family memoir,

“Though I based the story on a septuagenarian dégringolade I heard about elsewhere, which I then grafted on to my parents’ home life, I didn’t deceive myself about what I was up to. I was retrospectively – posthumously – giving my father a bit of fun, of extra life, of air.” ²

Either way it is a fantastically expressive and imaginative word to be savoured.

¹ Winters, P. M., “Democratic Party Dégringolade”, Dignitas News Service, 6 November 2014.

² Barnes, J, Nothing to be Frightened of, (Jonathan Cape), 2008. For a review of this book written in the New York Times by Garson Keillor click here.

For the pronounciation of dégringolade click here.

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