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One town, many books

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I’m a modern everyman. I make use of books to find for myself a dwelling place, if only a temporary one, within the pastiche of narratives and experiences, facts and fantasies.

I leaf through the books, do not drink and do not drive – I smoke and fly, through the tunnel under the city castle and over the main square, hovering for a second under the feet of monument to Valentin Vodnik, the first Slovenian poet that did not write only religious verse, I’m lingering under the old linden tree before darting through the unsuspecting flock of dust-covered sparrows, and disappearing among the arcades of cajoling shop windows.

For me, the geography of towns, harbors, streets, and squares overlaps with literary topography. The poems and novels I read are chapters in a story about a particular place with which any place can identify. The tension between the fearful anxiety and the thrilling exploration that propels me on my wanderings around my imagined city delineates the modern mentality in which inescapable loyalty to a home place challenges one’s need to freely choose identity.

I’m not an exception. I remain attached to my birth town. And to my armchair, my comfortable nest for my reading sessions. It stands in the living room of my family house. The house stands in Ljubljana in what was a workers’ colony before the World War Two.
Zvezna ulica or Union Street is a generous place for our family house. It’s a dead-end street, though. Perhaps that’s the reason why it can afford to be safe for kids at play, and amicable for neighbours to trade gossip over the low garden fences. It streches from the main cemetery to the railway tracks for Trieste-Budapest trains, and ends a stonethrow away from our house.
My street‘s name does not simply denote a generic union, a bond that ties together „more than one“ entity. Its primary meaning evokes Yugoslavia, the union that emerged out of the ashes of Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 and collapsed in the flames of Yugoslav federation in 1991-1999.  

In Slovenia, an eager member of the European Union since 2004, political unions with others have long been a staple of collective life, even though Slovenians traditionally appeared as „junior partners“ at best. Its geographical location helps explain the fact that Slovenians never had an independent state. Nestled at the northwestern gulf of the Adriatic Sea, their lands appealed to a sucession of Western invaders as the easiest entry-point to the Mediteranean. The Slovenians‘ historical memory brings up the rule of Charlemagne, Habsburg Empire, Napoleon, Third Reich, Fascist Italy, royalist and communist incarnations of former Yugoslavia.

All the while, however, Slovenians maintained a collective sense of a specific ethnic identity, invariably articulated in resistance to comprehensive state-sponsored and violent politics of conversion. In 19th century, they were exposed to the unbridled apetites of rival European empires to the extent that prompted Fran Levstik, one of the founding fathers of modern Slovenian literature, to rally his people to the nationalist cause by unambigously pointing out the choice for Slovenians: either they’ll become „Russians or Prussians“. Unless, of course, they will manage to use their own language to produce ther own literature.
In doing so, Slovenians grew accumstomed to treat literature and culture as a „second best“, as a substitute for the then-largely absent political institutions of their own. From this vantage point it is easy to see why is the establishement of Slovenian independence in 1991 celebrated as the fullfilment of the popular collective desire. However, the very status of independence paradoxically rendered obsolete the uses of shared communal experience, the experience of union.

Consider: the most popular slogan of political discourse in Slovenia before it joined EU was deceptively simple. It called for a „Return to Europe“. But what was hiding in plain sight was its ugly side which—in the eyes of both, the elites and the populatuion at large—implied a „Retreat from the Balkans“. It implied severing the ties between Slovenia and the other republics that used to share a common Yugoslav house. The slogan was based on the widely shared Slovenian assumptions about their legitimate historical connections to the West (Roman Empire, Charlemagne) and their supposedly forced cohabitation with the despised and feared Balkan lands (Yugoslavia). This leading trope of public debate has encouraged the manipulation of exclusionist sentiments that ultimately ended up equating Europe with unadultarated good and the Balkans with unfettered evil.

But I refuse to accept such equation. I lend instead my ear to poets and writers from across the field as I freely choose my home. I’m at home in books about Zagreb that strive to provide evidence for the ironic insight of the great Croatian bard, Miroslav Krleža, that Central Europe begins on the terrace of the town’s most illustrious Esplanade Hotel; I’m at home in Belgrade, whose head resides in cosmopolitan heights thanks to writers Danilo Kiš and David Albahari, while its legs are entrenched under the swinging lamp of a noisy and violent Balkan tavern!
And I’m at home, truly at home, in Sarajevo, defined by ineffable suffering but also with an ethical determination to continue to talk in many voices about the right of a person to have many identities, through the supreme works of art such as can only be born out of extreme circumstances, finding expression in the quivering elegies of Izet Sarajlić, the noble urban sentiment of Abdulah Sidran, or the broad-minded epics of Dževad Karahasan.

But I readily respond to the melancholic gaze of a deer that flashes by through the morphine-laden verses of Georg Trakl; I trace the vestiges of a personal drama in the wet flowers on the façades of bourgeois palaces under the slopes of Kapuzinerberg; and I am unmistakably, although temporarily, at home in Salzburg!
The book flutters its pages and old-fashioned raincoats fan out in an effort to protect the dry loneliness of night strollers passing by the craft shops of Alfama, the heart of old Lisbon; the portrait of Fernando Pessoa emerges from under the jutting roofs of the past colonial glory written in sea salt and pigeon droppings; the portrait of a poet who produced an eternal homage to his Lisbon using the voices of imaginary authors who sing various songs but share one soul. His Lisbon is my Lisbon!

The book spreads its tattooed pages and I’m embraced by the smell of sea-worn cliffs of the northern Adriatic; the tower of the Thurn und Taxis castle appears for a moment, a fleeting pulsation, and I slowly surrender to the recognition that I’m at home in Trieste; it is here that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote two of his dizzily inspiring Duino Elegies, and it is where I now find home, under the hills of the “gulf city” depicted in the books of Boris Pahor. I’m at home in the nostalgic “chiusa tristezza” from Umberto Saba’s poem Three Streets; the steps of Nora Joyce rustle through the whiteness of the book while she paces around a rented apartment, one of a dozen she and her husband lived in fleeing from creditors; I can hear the argument of far-sighted Henrik Tuma, who as early as before World War I wanted to establish the first Slovenian university in cosmopolitan Trieste, the chief port of the Habsburg Empire, rather than in landlocked Ljubljana; although it is not visible to my eyes, I can nevertheless see Dragutin Kette’s sad promontory of San Carlo in Trieste, where the poet went to soothe the wounded heart and the needs of the swollen body; I imagine that I can understand the dialect of šavrinke, the peasant women traders from the Karst high plateau who together with the readers of Marjan Tomšič’s novels head daily towards the vegetable market in the harbor as they did during the distant times of the Habsburg monarchy; the inscription on Italo Svevo’s grave in St. Ana Cemetery tells me that he “smiles at evanescent life and glory which crowned his work late.” Roberto Bobi Bazlen, a publisher and a critic, despairingly reminds me from the desks of Biblioteca Civica that there is no other way to write modern books but as footnotes.

The poems of Czeslaw Milosz, Tomas Venclova, and Eugenius Ališanka open for me the door to Wilna or Vilnius, the “city of ash” amidst Lithuanian forests that lives a secret life of another reality, one that has been sifted through the sieves of my literary memory. I suck in the smoke, leaf through the books of poems and stories, and fastidiously sip the verses and passages in which the creative talent succeeded in conjuring up the shared destiny of immigrants and refugees, nomads and displaced people, roaming the streets and courtyards of the town whose walls demarcate the ultimate frontiers of freedom.

To be at home in a place where the sky meets the earth is to make the experience real! To be at home in a place that offers the elementary, emotionally laden and full-blooded experience! To be at home in a place in which every thing has a name! To breathe the metropolitan air which ever since the Middle Ages has been inviting all the citizens of the urban republic to get rid of old communal ties! I myself would like to become a map of the city, a written page, a thin cobweb through which older and dimmer biographies and urban chronicles shine!
While I’m getting lost wandering along the boulevards of real megapolises and among the covers of borrowed books, I actually search for my imaginary city. Wherever I discover it, a provincial village easily emulates the dwelling of gods and becomes the capital of the world! More precisely: it is the capital of my world that, along with many other and different worlds of other and different readers, travels the orbits of the “Gutenberg galaxy.”

It is true that we, readers, are the citizens of various nation-states each with our own home address and hometown. Yet the moment we open a book and yield, in our unique ways, to the adventurous challenge, we take part in the same ritual. We assert that our place of residence is in the same community, in the republic of letters. It cannot be found in any world atlas; its borders are unstable and are passionately negotiated time and again. With every story read, with every verse quietly recounted, we renew our citizenship in the republic of letters. Many opportunities arise and dissolve within it, faces distorted by horror offer a hand to fantastic patterns of paradise, and every page read turns a new chapter in a reader’s biography.

We can all become citizens in this republic, without restrictions. The only condition required to obtain citizenship is a human capacity for empathy, that is, the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. No one’s human rights are curtailed in this republic, no one is discriminated against, sentenced, or erased from the register.

Moreover, no one in the republic of letters is forced to speak the language of the majority. The literary republic of letters speaks in one language. It is the language of translation. Literature is not what gets “lost in translation,” as Robert Frost famously exclaimed in defense of poetic singularity. As for me, I’d rather go along with the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet who said that the reading of poetry in translation resembles “a kiss through a veil.” I could not care less for the ascetic chastity that, fearing loss, remains innocent, while with my lips parted in expectation I leaf through the pages of books written in languages I haven’t learned. I take my hat off thankfully to translators, the exemplary citizens of the republic of letters, who continually make it possible to every reader, all of us, to be part of the story of a temporary community committed to the lost cause that represents our true home.

 

First published by the British-based New Metropolitan, reposted per author’s permission.

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Camille Corot: Women

MD Staff

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Woman with a Pearl, c. 1868–1870, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des peintures. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Camille Corot is best known as the great master of landscape painting in the 19th century who bridged the French neoclassical tradition with the impressionist movement of the 1870s. His figure paintings constitute a much smaller, less well-known portion of his work, but they appeared throughout his prolific fifty-year career, with particular force toward the end. Rarely seen outside his studio during his lifetime, these works made an impact on later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernist artists who copied or borrowed from them, such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. Dressed in rustic Italian costume or stretched nude on a grassy plain, Corot’s women read, dream, and gaze directly at the viewer, conveying a sense of their inner lives. His sophisticated use of color and his deft, delicate touch applied to the female form resulted in pictures of quiet majesty. The forty-five paintings on display, created between the mid-1830s and the early 1870s, are largely divided into three major subjects: costumed single figures, nudes, and allegorical studio scenes.

The exhibition is curated by Mary Morton, curator and head of the department of French paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington September 9 – December 31, 2018

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Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black

MD Staff

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Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Dawoud Bey. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Dawoud Bey’s latest body of work is a series of black-and-white photographs that reimagine sites along the last stages of the Underground Railroad.

Photographer Dawoud Bey, the recent recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, decided to make a fresh start soon after his 60th birthday. Already renowned as a portraitist, he turned his camera on architecture and landscapes; accustomed to urban scenes, he decided to photograph thickets, a picket fence, and Lake Erie. Bey also returned to black-and-white printing, and more particularly to gelatin silver prints, which he had not used since the early 1990s. Through these choices Bey wanted to make a far greater shift: from pictures of the here and now to the vast, historical subject of the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that aided enslaved African Americans on their path to freedom.

Bey also wished to pay homage to photographer Roy DeCarava (1919–2009) and poet Langston Hughes (1901–1967), who each addressed the African American experience in their work in part by foregrounding what DeCarava called “a world shaped by blackness.” DeCarava’s mastery of even the darkest tones gave Bey a model for depicting the twilight uncertainty that those fleeing slavery confronted as they traveled northward. Meanwhile, the closing couplet of Hughes’s short poem “Dream Variations”—“Night coming tenderly / Black like me.”—inspired the exhibition title. Bey has said that he wanted to hold darkness itself in a tender embrace.

The result is a series of 25 large-scale photographs, most of which are on view in this presentation—the first showing of Bey’s latest body of work in a museum. All the pictures were made around Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, a final way station for those seeking freedom in Canada. The photographs show homes and patches of land that are rumored to have formed part of the invisible railroad “track,” leading those seeking freedom from one unfamiliar place to the next.

Bey chose a dense, vibrant selection of 19th- and 20th-century photographs from the Art Institute’s collection to hang directly outside the exhibition gallery, works that complement the exhibition by suggesting the range of ways that the American landscape has been represented in photographs and the place of African Americans within that physical and social landscape.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black was commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial of International Art. Art Institute of Chicago Jan 11–Apr 14, 2019

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Crystal Award Winners 2019

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Haifaa Al-Mansour

Conductor Marin Alsop, film director Haifaa Al-Mansour, and broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, are the recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award, the World Economic Forum announced today. The award celebrates the achievements of leading artists and cultural figures whose leadership inspires inclusive and sustainable change. The winners will be honoured in the opening session of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, at 18.00 CET on Monday 21 January. The ceremony will be webcast live at www.weforum.org.

“Any new architecture for ‘Globalization 4.0’ will need to be both inclusive and sustainable. The remarkable achievements of the recipients of the 25th Annual Crystal Award inspire us to see beyond the limits of convention to find solutions for the current issues the world faces,” said Hilde Schwab, Chairwoman and Co-Founder of the World Economic Forum’s World Arts Forum, which hosts the awards.

Awardees

Marin Alsop, for her leadership in championing diversity in music
Marin Alsop, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony since 2007, is one of the greatest conductors of our time. Earlier this year she was the first woman to be appointed Chief Conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and, in 2013, was the first woman in 118 years to conduct the BBC’s “Last Night of the Proms”. She has tirelessly endeavored to provide opportunities for all people to access music for a world where diversity in classical music is the norm rather than the exception. In Baltimore she launched the “OrchKids” programme to serve the city’s less privileged children, and the BSO Academy and Rusty Musicians for adult amateur musicians. She is also Music Director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. A graduate of Yale University and a MacArthur Fellow (2005), at the Annual Meeting, she will lead the Opening Performance with the Taki Concordia Orchestra.

Haifaa Al-Mansour, for her leadership in cultural transformation in the Arab world
Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. “Wadjda”, Al Mansour’s feature debut, was the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female director. The success of her 2005 documentary “Women Without Shadows” was a breakthrough that was followed by a new wave of Saudi filmmakers and front-page headlines of Saudi Arabia finally opening cinemas in the kingdom. She was recently appointed to the Board of the General Authority for Culture to advise on the development of the cultural and arts sectors in Saudi Arabia. She recently released “Mary Shelly” starring Elle Fanning, and “Nappily Ever After” starring Sanaa Lathan. Al Mansour is the first artist from the Arabian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Sir David Attenborough, for his leadership in environmental stewardship
Sir David Attenborough’s broadcasting career spans more than six decades during which he has played an extraordinary role both reinventing and developing the medium of television and connecting people to the wonders of the natural world, bringing distant peoples, animals and habitats into living rooms across the planet. As a BBC producer and executive, he has played a crucial role in creating new forms of programming and scheduling that, to this day, influence global broadcasting. His work includes many iconic productions, from the ground-breaking “Zoo Quest” series to landmarks including “Life on Earth”, “The Living Planet”, “The Trials of Life”, “The Private Life of Plants”, “Life of Mammals” and “Planet Earth”. At the Annual Meeting, Sir David will present key sequences from “Our Planet”, a new series by WWF, Netflix and Silverback Films, focusing on the preservation of life on Earth.

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