Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Book challenge 2015

Since I love challenges (including all those silly Travel challenges on Facebook) I could not resist this list on my daughter's blog.

If I understand the rules correctly, the challenge is to do it within a year. My daughter is a fast reader, and I have recently become a slow reader. I checked Shelfari that told me I have only read six books this year. It cannot be true. I must have failed to register what I have read. I checked Goodreads and added some books. I also checked my Kindle. But I still have a definite feeling that something is missing.

I am not going to read according to this challenge, but I can go back a year, to August 2014. Apparently, you are allowed to list one book in several categories. Anyway, here we go:

A book with more than 500 pages - I have no idea. I read most books on a tablet, and I don't know how many pages there are. I assume that The goldfinch is more than 500 pages. If not, The luminaries is.
A classic romance - What is classic? What is romance? No idea.
A book that became a movie - The remains of the day, Kazuo Ishiguro. I haven't seen the movie
A book published this year – The buried giant, Kazuo Ishiguro
A book with a number in the title Five children on the Western front, by Kate Saunders
A book written by someone under 30 – The royal babysitters, by Clementine Beauvais
A book with nonhuman characters – Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
A funny book – Britt-Marie var här, by Fredrik Backman
A book by a female author – H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald
A mystery or thriller – The silkworm, by Robert Galbraith, aka J K Rowling
A book with a one-word title – Sapiens, by Yuval Harari
A book of short stories – Suspended sentences, by Patrick Mondiano
A book set in a different country – The new policeman, by Kate Thompson
A nonfiction book – A time of gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
A popular author’s first book – Go set the watchman, by Harper Lee
A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet – The tightrope walkers, by David Almond (also qualifies as book published this year)
A book a friend recommended – The tightrope walkers, by David Almond
A Pulitzer-Prize winning book – The goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
A book based on a true story – Alan Turing, by David Boyle
A book at the bottom of your to-read list - The bunker diary, by Kevin Brooks
A book your mom lovesmy mum is happily dead, and thinking back, I cannot name a book she loved
A book that scares you – Sapiens, by Yuval Harari
A book more than 100 years old - The red and the black, Stendhal. Maybe it qualifies as classic romance?
A book you can finish in a day – Mary Ware's promised land, by Annie Fellows Johnston
A book with antonyms in the title – The white darkness, by Geraldine McCaughean. I re-read it for work
A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to travel – An artist of the floating world, by Kazuo Ishiguro
A book that came out the year you were born + The borrowers, by Mary Norton (I know you expected it to be Charlotte's web, but I really dislike it)
A book with bad reviews + Go set a watchman, by Harper Lee
A trilogy - Chaos walking, by Patrick Ness. Re-reading for work
A book from your childhood - Alice in Wonderland. Inevitably this year
A book with a love triangle – I cannot think of any.
A book set in the future - A book of strange new things, by Michel Faber (very bad)
A book set in high school – The rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton
A book with a color in the title – Red shadow, by Paul Dowswell
A book that made you cry – The buried giant, Kazuo Ishiguro
A book with magic – The wise man's fear, by Patrick Rothfuss
A graphic novel – The adventures of the princess and Mr Whiffle, by Patrick Rothfuss
A book by an author you’ve never read before – The miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
A book you own but have never read – Mini knits for the 1/12 scale dolls' house, by Linda Spratley
A book that takes place in your hometown I re-read The Master and Margarita every year
A book that was originally written in a different language – Suspended sentences, by Patrick Mondiano
A book set during Christmas - A time of gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. At least some of it
A book written by an author with your same initials – Poetic justice, by Martha Nussbaum
A play. I don't read plays
A banned book - I actually re-read To kill a mockingbird
A book based on or turned into a TV show – Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
A book you started but never finished - The queen of hearts, by Wilkie Collins

Looking at this list, I must say that I have read more than I remembered. And some books I have read I could not place in any category. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Conference nostalgia, part 2

Read the beginning of this story here.

I almost didn't go to the 1993 IRSCL conference in Geelong, Australia, because I had just returned home after six months in the USA, but I was younger then, and Australia was enticing, and I was a board member with another term of service possible, and everybody knows that you don't get elected if you aren't there.

But, absolutely honestly, when I went, I was not expecting to be nominated for presidency. I hoped to be re-elected to the board, and I hoped that the new president would be nice to work with. These days, elections are prepared well in advance, and the candidates circulate their CVs and personal statements. Which is the way it should be. But in the old days, board members were recruited on the spot, as late as an hour before voting. As we were finalising the programme, the current president asked whether I would like to stand for election. I was overwhelmed. When I sais, yes, I would, she told me to cherry-pick my board and tell the election committee. I looked around. I cherry-picked my board. It was a great board, and we spent many good days together in various parts of the world.

I was immediately faced with a huge problem. Typically, biennial conferences would be planned far in advance, so that at any conference the next one would be already in progress and the one after that under negotiation. I had no conference bid, and the only solution was to do it myself. Which I did, and it was the worst nightmare of my life. I can say it now, twenty years later, because I know that people who were there remember it as a very successful conference. Only I know about all the small disasters, and in retrospect I shouldn't have done it, not there and then, but did I have a choice, a newly elected president with no conference bid?

Twenty years is a long time ago. I remember the board meetings leading to the conference: deciding on a theme, discussing keynote speakers, sending out call for papers. It was in the stone age before everybody had email - we sent 300 printed copies of the newsletter to forty countries. My department covered the costs.

Selecting papers, compiling the programme, finding session chairs. This was also the first year we gave the IRSCL book award. A lot of work for the board. But the bulk of the conference preparation was in Sweden, and I would have never managed it without the strong children's literature community, not just my university, but the Children's Book Institute, the Writers' Union, the illustrators, the libraries. I could arrange a reception at the City Hall, the venue of the Nobel banquet. There was an evening archipelago cruise with shrimp dinner and dance. There was a post-conference trip to the Astrid Lindgren theme park.

I made tons of mistakes, but I am not telling anyone, and it wouldn't be helpful because no conference is like another one.

I was re-elected for another term, but it was simpler because we had the next venue and theme, and the board meetings were less stressful for me. The 1997 conference was in York, UK, and I stepped down, but stayed on the board as immediate past president to ensure continuity. Almost the whole board stepped down, which is never good, but there was a new bunch of people coming in, and things were changing. In 1999, IRSCL had the first and only joint conference with the rival organisation, the Children's Literature Association. Some people wanted the two organisations to merge, while there was strong opposiiton to this. A one-off joint conference was a compromise. IRSCL had initially been a Euro-centric organisation, even though two presidents has been from the USA. The York conference yielded many British members, and after the 1999 conference in Calgary, which was great fun, a deluge of US members came. I was surprised to learn, at the membership meeting in Worcester last week, that a third of the members today are from the USA. There weren't as many in my days.

But my days are long gone. When I skipped 2001 in South Africa because we had just moved back to Sweden from California, I thought it would be just one time. In 2003, when it was in Norway, just around the corner, I had prepared a panel with my colleagues and students from the Nordic Children's Literature Network (NorChiLNet), but had to cancel at short notice because of severe health problems. I missed Japan in 2005 and Ireland in 2007 for the same reason. I went to Frankfurt in 2009 because it was a reunion: 40 years since the organisation was founded, and all past presidents who were still alive were there.

I missed Brisbane in 2011 and Maastricht in 2013 for various reasons. It was sad, because I once invested so much in this organisation and it meant so much to me. Therefore it felt such an honour and pleasure to be asked to do a keynote in Worcester. How many years after presidency do you need to be in quarantine?

I believe I was the longest-standing member at that conference. The membership meeting asked me for clarification of some history. On the last day, a French colleague arrived. It was the person who asked me a question at my very first conference in Bordeaux in 1983.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Conference nostalgia

Just returned from Worcester and the biennial conference of the International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL), I cannot help drowning in nostalgic memories. I knew I had written a blog post about the Frankfurt conference in 2009, but I didn't remember that I had also written about missing the Brisbane conference, and generally about some fond IRSCL memories. So this post will inevitably have some repetitions, but as a veteran, which I am, I felt weird when people said, proudly: "I have been a member since 1991". OK, I have been a member since 1983, and I participated, as a Jack-of-all-trades, in 1981. It is a very long time. More than half of my life.

In 1981, I wasn't a member and could not even dream of becoming a member because at that time, you were only elected into the Society if you were an established scholar, with at least one published book. By 1983, the rules had changed, and I became a member with my two publications in Russian and a handful of semi-academic articles in Swedish. I was a PhD student. I submitted a paper proposal which was rejected (I would have rejected such a poor proposal today), but I decided to go anyway. The conference was in Bordeaux. When I arrived and collected my programme, I saw my name there. I hadn't even brought my paper, but fortunately the organiser had a copy (it was in the stone age when we made xerox copies of typewritten papers). I was scheduled in the very last session, on the very last day, when half of the delegates had left. I got one question, unrelated to my paper. An old lady from the audience chastised me afterwards because I had read too fast and held the paper in front of my face (she was quite right of course). But because my topic was on fantasy, when the theme of the next conference was discussed, it became fantasy and the fantastic. Of course I had to go to that.

The 1985 conference was in Montreal, the French university, and the organisers pretended that the English part of Canada did not exist. Not one single Anglophone Canadian scholars was invited. My paper was on Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, and I was paired with a German colleague who criticised the novel down to nothingness, and it was hard for me to come with my hugely appreciative analysis.

The 1987 conference was in Cologne, and I have vague memories of it, apart from a boat trip and a visit to a museum where a guide, obviously misjudging the audience, explained the difference between Renaissance and Romanticism.

The 1989 conference was in Salamanca, and half of the sessions were in Spanish without translation. It was the first time I was asked to chair a session, which is a recognition of your scholarly status. There were two famous scholars in the session that I chaired, and they eventually became good friends. This was the conference at which I determined that I would never again find myself in a situation where everybody went off to dinner with their friends and I was left behind. Therefore I said to several people whom I knew and some whom I had just met: "There is a bunch of people going out tonight, would you like to join?" And I ended up with a lovely bunch of people to go out with.

I was asked by the IRSCL board to edit a volume from that conference, but all the best papers had been snatched, and it wasn't an enjoyable task. It was a h-ll of a task. The manuscript had to be camera-ready, no copy-editing, no proof-reading. The publisher was in the USA, and we communicated by fax. I was a very inexperienced editor and not a native speaker. It took weeks to send the proofs back and forth across the Atlantic.

The 1991 conference was in Paris. All papers had to be submitted in full and were printed in a brochure. As people were giving their presentation, the audience was reading the printed paper, turning pages audibly. One brave colleague stood in front of the audience and said: "You have my paper in the brochure so you can read it, therefore I will give another paper".  Which he did, without even having a written text.

At this conference, I was elected to the Board. I was tremendously happy and proud of myself. It was a good board, all female for a change, and we had the first board meeting in Cadiz, in the Spanish colleague's summer house by the ocean. Many meetings were to follow, although I missed the second of that round, in Toulouse, because I was in the USA on my Fulbright at the time. In fact, I had just returned from the USA when the 1993 conference was on, and I had almost decided not to go. But I did, and it changed everything.

To be continued.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

My contribution to the Harper Lee controversy

I am usually sceptical of sequels, prequels, midquels and sidequels, although they can occasionally be worth reading for various reasons. I am hugely sceptical of all kinds of Ur-texts, other than for purely academic purposes. There is, for instance, a whole book of early versions of The Master and Margarita, where you can trace all the intricate reworkings in plots and characters, but they are nothing like the final version (and, of course, there isn't even a final version of this particular novel). I am not an archive person, but I have for professional reasons read early unpublished drafts of some famous novels, and they are just that, early drafts. If you are working on a specific text from a specific angle, early drafts can be illuminating. But it's important to remember that they are drafts, not intended for public perusal.

I was sceptical toward Harper Lee's so called new novel ever since it was mentioned, and in the hype just previous to publication I became still more sceptical. I read the first chapter released some days earlier and was not impressed. If I had read this first chapter out of context I would say it was sentimental garbage and never considered reading any further. However, some colleagues had also read the chapter and thought it was good, and I am always prepared to take colleagues' advice and give a book a second chance. I also felt that I could not go on saying that the book was rubbish and merely a publisher's gig (a million copies pre-ordered!) unless I had actually read it. I decided that I would read it for what it was, without comparing it to Mockingbird. As a professional reader, I can do it.

I bought a Kindle copy and started reading the second chapter on the release day. It went from bad to worse. The characters did not interest me, the dialogue was pathetic and used to carry the plot in a most amateurish way; the narrator's voice was didactic, everything was spelt out. There was no conflict, no plot development, nothing at all to attract my attention. Profoundly bad writing. Again, I would have put it away under different circumstances, but I hadn't even reached the episodes discussed in the pre-reviews: the darker sides of Atticus Finch. So I went on. There were a couple of slightly more vivid passages, always flashbacks into the protagonist's adolescence, with some painfully trivial episodes such as her terror when she gets her period or believes that she is pregnant because a boy kissed her on the mouth.

I persisted, and then suddenly, when she discovers that her adored father is a racist, it became intensely good. It was still a typical example of belated parental revolt, accompanied by realisation that all her happy childhood was an illusion (for instance, that their black servant Calpurnia wasn't as devoted as little Jean Louise believed). The good part was perhaps ten pages, followed by an unbearable sermon by Jean Louise's uncle and an explicit quarrel with the father that, if anything, shows that Jean Louise is indeed more prejudiced than he. And they live happily ever after. Sort of.

One star on Goodreads.

It so happened that the cottage where I spent my holiday week had a good library that included To Kill a Mockingbird, so I started reading it immediately after finishing Go Set a Watchman.

To Kill a Mockingbird has never been a great favourite, but it is an important book if you are a reader and more so if you are a professional reader. I first encountered it as a stage version, performed by the State Children's Theatre in Moscow, all the more surprising because the famous film was rated 16+. We had to read it in my English class in college, but I don't think I understood much of it then, definitely not what was so great about it. Which is the narrative perspective. Scout is looking back on her childhood, “when enough years had gone by to enable us to look back”; but she is still very young to understand what happened, and she definitely did not understand what was happening as she experienced it. People around her believe that they can discuss anything in front of her and even allow her to watch a rape case trial, because she is too young to understand. As a narrator, a lightly older version of herself, Scout does not question her own ignorance and does not offer a better understanding. On the contrary, at the time of narration, she is mostly focused on the fact that her brother once had has arm broken. This is exactly the kind of event that a young child would be interested in, and everything else is just a backdrop. The poignancy of the novel is the total discrepancy between what the narrator is saying and what the reader is supposed to infer. To see the backdrop in spite of the narrator obstructing it. This is why I have always said that to use Mockingbird in schools is pointless and even unethical: you have to be a mature reader to cope with this narration. (You also need to know a lot about American history, but that's a different matter). Mockingbird is similar to What Maisie Knew: employing a child as a lens, at the child's expense.

This aspect is still stunning on re-reading. Otherwise, I had no memory of the slow plot in the first half of the novel, mainly telling about two or three summers full of games, interspersed by horrors of school. Had it been told in the Watchman mode it would have been tedious; as it is, it serves as a very long prelude where glimpses of Atticus Finch's human rights engagement may be traced, and Boo Radley's possible crucial role in the plot is hinted at. The famous courtroom scene is quite short, but long enough to see how it has been pruned down from the uncle's speeches in Watchman. Generally, although Mockingbird is endlessly better than the draft, some of the draft's flaws are tangible.

Because I read one text immediately after the other I could spot verbatim passages, but they were few and far between. The Tom Robinson case takes half a page in Watchman, just as an example of how Atticus has changed. But then, Jean Louise of Watchman may misremember. She has an idealised memory of her father. We don't know what he really was like.

To compare Atticus in the two texts or, moreover, claim that Atticus of Watchman can change our view of him in Mockingbird is nonsense. They are two completely different fictional characters who happen to have the same name. Neither is Jean Louise in Watchman the same character as Scout in Mockingbird. She may be an early version, tested and dismissed.

I am glad I have read Watchman, and still more glad I had an occasion to re-read Mockingbird and confirm that it isn't a masterpiece it is always presented as. Maybe, as often happens, most people know the story from the film. It has an important political agenda and has been hugely influential. Every student of literature should read it. Recommend it to your mother-in-law's cousin? Depends on their reading preferences.

As to Watchman, the publisher has made a lot of money out of a soap bubble, as publishers do. If I were ever to teach creative writing, the two texts would be perfect on the syllabus, to show what a long road there is from the first draft to the final one. 


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Press Replay

This is what I wrote two years ago. There is very little I can add. I am tremendously privileged to have a research leave every seventh term, just about once in two years.

I don't have a book project this time, but I have several large and difficult chapters that I agreed to write long ago in moments of weakness, hoping that something would come in between. As usual, it hasn't, so THE TIME HAS COME. For some inexplicable reason, I am giving three keynote talks at conferences in the nearest future and for two of these I only have a vague idea of what I am doing. All in all, the amount of text I have to generate will add up to a book.Therefore I need to plan carefully.

In the next few weeks I will have to grade last term's papers. I will try to do it as soon as possible to take it off my mind. Doctoral supervision is not affected by research leaves so any moment a draft may land in my computer, anything from a chapter section to a finished thesis. I will deal with it when it comes.

The graduate admissions are almost done for this round, and I don't have to attend meetings. My diary is wonderfully empty except for some dinners with good friends or visits from grandchildren.

Soon it will be warm enough to dig in the garden, and my physiotherapeut has mended my shoulder. I am building a gorgeous dollhouse. Can life get any better?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Deep in a dream

I have been in doubt whether to share this experience. It is far too personal. But there are people out there who will have been through something similar, and you, my dear reader, can experience it one day, or your loved one. This is a kind of thing that we know happens but “it cannot happen to me”.

Let me tell you: it can.

Since I am alive to tell the story it obviously had a positive outcome, but most of it is my reconstruction based on what I have been told. What I remember is bizarre, as dreams are, and unless I had evidence of a plastic hospital ID-band (and, presumably, a record sent to my doctor), I might believe that I have dreamed it all.

What I know for sure is that last Sunday I went out for dinner with a colleague visiting Cambridge. The day before, we worked on our joint paper. Staffan drove me to the restaurant, picking up G from her place on the way. I remember ordering, and I remember the canapés and the amuse-bouche. I remember we talked about taking a cooking course in Italy. I eventually remembered, on prompt, that we discussed G's son's scholarly plans. The next couple of hours is a second-hand narrative. Apparently, we had a lovely meal, except that one course contained peanuts, which I had firmly told the waiter I didn't want because I had eaten this course previously, and although I am not allergic to peanuts the taste was too strong for the delicacy of the rest. There were two desserts, and apparently I liked one of them better than the other. G paid the bill, as agreed, the restaurant called us a taxi, we chatted and made plans for meeting on Tuesday afternoon to work further on our paper. G got off at her place, and I continued.

There is no clear evidence of the following, but I got home, supposedly paid the taxi and opened the door with my key.

Staffan's evidence is that I was cheerful, telling him about the meal, including sending the peanut dish back to the kitchen. According to him, I changed into sleeping gear, presumably brushed my teeth, took my pills and went to bed.

Next, some hours later, he heard me calling from the bathroom. He says I was lying on the floor, with my legs in the bathroom and the rest of me in the corridor. I could not get up, but, he says, told him quite soberly to call an ambulance. When we arrived at the hospital, I was asked lots of questions to which I, Staffan says, replied coherently and accurately, in the right language. Among other things, they asked me when the Second World War started. They took blood tests, blood pressure, ran me through brain scan, did all kinds of tests. Everything was fine. Only I don't remember anything of this.

As I said, dreams are bizarre, and I dreamed I was in an ambulance, but I had been inside an ambulance, although not as patient, so I wasn't at all perplexed. The ambulance was going back and forth between home and hospital, and I thought it was fortunate that we live so close to the hospital. (We don't. We live on the opposite side of town from the hospital. My work is close to the hospital). I dreamed that I was lying on the floor in a hallway of an unfamiliar apartment, and again, I wasn't surprised because that's the kind of things you dream. It wasn't in any way an unpleasant dream so I wasn't eager to wake up. I dreamed somebody asked me to look up and down and left and right, and this is exactly what my optician had done last Saturday so it was quite logical to dream it, although in the dream it wasn't my optician but some weird figure from a horror movie. I dreamed I was telling people around me that I was in withdrawal because, close after kidney stones, medical withdrawal is the worst experience I have ever had in my life, and I was very anxious that they gave me my pill. I also dreamed that I was in a euthanasia clinic in Holland, as described in Ian McEwan's novel Amsterdam, and that people around me were just hallucinations caused by lethal drugs. I wasn't particularly upset about it because in the dream it was all properly pre-arranged. I dreamed they pushed me into a tunnel for brain scan, but in the dream I knew it had happened many years ago in Stockholm, so I wasn't worried. There was something else I was worried about in connection with the brain scan, possibly that I would get lost in the corridors – just as you do in dreams. I was worried that they would forget to bring me out of that tunnel. I dreamed I was wearing my blue fluffy slippers and wondered why. I dreamed I was dizzy and thirsty and had to use the bathroom. I frequently dream that I have to use the bathroom and cannot find it, or the toilet disappears just as I am about to sit down. Therefore I wasn't at all surprised when they moved me from the bed I was lying on to a chair with a hole. It's just the kind of thing you dream. (I checked with Staffan later – it happened). I was anxious that I had to attend a symposium (which had been last Friday). I often dream that I am at a conference and don't know what I am supposed to speak about. I was also anxious to know why G was in Cambridge because it didn't make sense, but then of course it was just a dream. I was still begging for my pill, but they told me I should take it in the evening, as usual. I said it was evening and I had to take my pill. I continued insisting that I was in withdrawal and therefore dizzy. Someone without a face told me I was getting anti-dizziness injections which I found pleasurable. I was not at all surprised that I was in hospital, but I was surprised that I was wearing my bathrobe and fluffy slippers. Yet this is exactly what happens in dreams: you dream you are in front of students in a lecture hall wearing a bathrobe and slippers. I was embarrassed because my nightgown sleeves were frayed. Also, the world was blurry (Staffan had not brought my glasses). They told me I could go home soon, and I thought it was fortunate that we lived so close to the hospital. There was no sudden awakening and realisation that I had been dreaming; everything was clear and logical. I asked Staffan what day and time it was. I got scared. I wasn't sure what had happened and what had been a dream. I kept asking the same questions over and over again until he told me, mildly, to shut up.

I read some work on memory studies for my recent research project, and what I know is that every time we retrieve a stored memory it gets arbitrarily connected to something else, real or fictional, and stored again in a distorted form. It is therefore pointless to try to remember. What I may now think I remember can just as well be a false memory prompted by something I have been told. Let's face it: I have a total memory gap of fifteen hours during which people around me perceived me as rational and coherent.

They think I fell and hurt my head. It's a theory as good as any other. Why did I fall in the first place? They think I had an ear infection. But all tests were normal.

“Humans are suddenly mortal” (Bulgakov). Yet another reminder of your own mortality is never pleasant, but it is also a reminder of utter vulnerability. I didn't do anything wrong to cause my fall. I cannot prevent it happening again.

This very moment I should have been on a plane to Bergen, Norway, going to a conference that I had been very much looking forward to. It is not the first time I have to cancel conference participation at short notice. I never learn. But it is the first time I have experienced amnesia. I don't like it.

Conclusion: once again, appreciate the time you have, because you don't know when it may run out. Value people around you who spend the night in hospital beside you in an uncomfortable chair. Reconsider your priorities. And make sure your nightgown is not frayed.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Two amazing women


Last week we had a very distinguished guest speaker, Juliet Dusinberre, the author of Alice to the Lighthouse, one of the best critical studies of children's literature, written almost thirty years ago. She talked about Beatrix Potter, and this talk very nearly made me change my mind, once again, about the value of biographical information for literary studies. I didn't know much about Beatrix Potter beyond basic facts (I guess, most of them from the movie, Miss Potter), and the letters and diaries that Juliet spoke about were really illuminating. One of our students wrote an excellent blog post about this talk, so I won't repeat it.

What struck me, however, was the similarity of Potter's life and struggle to her contemporary, the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. Once upon a time I was a Lagerlöf scholar (published a book and several articles), and even then I wasn't interested in her biography, and even then I was wrong because there were many facts in her life that were reflected in her writing and therefore worth knowing. For instance, the loss – or threat of loss – of the childhood home surfaces in all her novels. When she got the Prize – first female writer ever to receive it – she bought back her father's estate, and, much like Potter, kept buying adjacent land and expanding farming. As rich and famous, she still had to challenge her male fellow writers and was often referred to as "fairy tale auntie". Unlike Potter, she wrote novels, but she also wrote one book for children that is, at least internationally, better known than her novels, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Among many remarkable things she does in this book, commissioned as a geography textbook, she is a passionate animal rights promoter. Could she be familiar with Beatrix Potter's books? Possibly. Could Potter have read Nils? It was translated into English early. Does it matter? Not really.

Of the many famous words by Lagerlöf, my favourite is from her diary: "Today I sold twenty sacks of flour and a short story". That could have been Beatrix Potter.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

More from the Western front

After I finished FiveChildren on the Western Front I couldn't help thinking about the allusion, and I decided to re-read Remarque. As It turned out, it was one of those books that you believe you have read when you actually haven't. I know I read Three Comrades as teenager, and possibly The Black Obelisk because I remember the cover of the book in Russian. But apparently I had not read All Quiet on the Western Front, and I am glad I hadn't because I know I wouldn't have liked it and wouldn't have understood much. It is a slow read, and when you are young you have no patience for slow reads. It must be something neuroscientists still have to explain, but teenage brains just cannot cope with slow and deep reading.

But now I am mature enough and in the right mood to enjoy this wonderful and terrible book which I haven't seen mentioned a lot in the centenary discussions. I also see clearly where Kate Saunders has got her ideas from. Although of course for the English soldiers it wasn't the Western front. It was the one and only front.

It is hard to believe that All Quiet on the Western Front was written so long ago. It feels as if it was written today. First-person, present tense. And a disturbingly postmodern ending.

I also thought that today it might have been marketed as a Young Adult novel – the protagonist is nineteen – but YA didn't exist then. And the novel is exactly about being forced from childhood into adulthood. And the author lets the protagonist die rather than grow up disillusioned. 


It was an extraordinary reading experience and completely serendipitous.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Five children and all the rest

Edith Nesbit has been a landmark ever since I read Five children and it exactly forty years ago. I didn't read it as a child, because it wasn't available; I read it as a scholar of children's literature, and of fantasy in particular. I bow to Lewis Carroll and George Macdonald, but all children's fantasy goes back to Nesbit. Her magic code (my coinage, which eventually became the title of my PhD thesis) is as central for fantasy as Asimov's three laws of robotics for science fiction.

I wrote my second academic article, in Russian, on Nesbit in 1979, and it was later revised and published in English in the inaugural issue of Marvels & Tales in 1987. Nesbit's fantasy novels were key texts in my PhD. I taught Five children and it in every course I could squeeze it into.

I don't worship authors, and I have never been particularly interested in Nesbit as a person, but last year I happened to visit her grave.

I am sceptical of sequels and prequels, especially written by someone else. (I have written an infuriated essay on so-called sequels to Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables). But if done well, they can be wonderful. Jacqueline Wilson's Four children and it was a joy to read.

Some days ago I stumbled upon Kate Saunder's Five children on the Western front. I must admit that I had not read anything by this author, but I was intrigued by the title (and it acknowledged “inspired by...”). 

It was, obviously, very different from Wilson's witty and hilarious book, a playful travesty rather than a proper sequel. I could not help comparing Five children on the Western front with A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which is one long, idyllic prologue to the Great War where all title characters die. The mother is of course modelled on Nesbit. 

Five children on the Western front starts with a glimpse of the idyll, portrayed in Nesbit's trilogy, and moves on quickly to the War, with a prolepsis suggesting that two boys of the adventurous five, whom Nesbit calls exceptionally lucky children, will not make it. The reader's privileged knowledge over the character is a tremendously attractive feature for me, as a professional as well as pleasure reader. It makes my guts turn. There they are, the five children – actually six, with an additional sister, cleverly called Edie, short for Edith. There they are, once again exceptionally lucky to meet their old friend the Psammead, on a warm and sunny autumn day of 1914. Cyril is an officer, about to be dispatched to France. Everybody knows that the war will be short, maybe a couple of weeks. If the Psammead knows otherwise he keeps it for himself.

It is a powerful book. It is perfectly stylised: just enough “beastly” and “A1 brick” to feel Nesbit-y without overdoing it. The characters are developed in a remarkably believable and tactful way, from their never-wishing-to-grow-up pastoral to inevitably-growing-up in the shadow of war. I would say, Nesbit couldn't have done it better herself. She most probably couldn't have. The Great War had this effect on writers: they hid in the Hundred Acre Wood with Just William and Swallows and Amazons. But from a hundred years' perspective, it feels profound: all early twentieth-century children's literature children would die in the Great War. I don't believe literary characters have a life outside the text, but this book makes me change my mind.

I have now lived in the UK almost seven years, and even before the centenary last year I had been deeply moved by the Great War indelible trauma. The collective memory doesn't shout: “Hooray, we won the war”, as many other nations do. Instead, it soberly and respectfully mourns its children. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Final reflections

This has been a useful exercise since I had a chance not only to indulge in nostalgia, but reflect on why I stopped doing all these things. I have noticed that most of them have two features in common. Firstly, they are all connected to the place and time of my childhood and youth. We made things that weren't available, and we did things because there were no other options. When I moved to Sweden and things became available, they became less attractive. I have another example: we took incredible efforts to get hold of horoscopes, but when you can read them in any daily paper, what's the point?

Secondly, all the activities I described are things that bring people together; and again, bring together because there are few or no alternatives, of the kind people have now when we spend most of our spare time one-to-one with computers or other devices. I feel frustrated when I see members of my family sitting in the same room, each with a device, often playing the same game or even laughing at the same Facebook joke. We have lost something important, and I am resisting it as much as I can, meeting people in real life, spending quality time with people I love. I'd like to belong to a knitting club, or do Saturday baking for charity, or find someone to play scrabble with. Live scrabble, not virtual scrabble.

Maybe it's my own fault. I haven't been active in finding fishing or skiing companions, and I have recently been consistently choosing solitary pastimes, such as walking or gardening.

Whatever the reason, I don't really regret that I don't do any of these things, because obviously I am doing other things instead. Read my blog if you want to know more. 

Monday, 5 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Traveling by train

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year, gambling, party games, knitting and baking.

Russia is a very big country, and when I was young few people had cars and air travel was expensive. Therefore if you wanted to get anywhere you had to go by train. Leningrad was the most common destination from Moscow, and the most extravagant way of travel was The Red Arrow, a train that left at five minutes to midnight and arrived at eight, allowing travellers a quiet, comfortable morning with a hot breakfast. The train had first-class carriages which at that time had bronse ornaments, soft velvet seats, and a bathroom shared by two compartments. 

At the other end of the spectrum you would either start at ten and arrive at five in the morning, or start long after midnight. You got a carriage number on your ticket, but no berth and had to fight through the crowd to claim a sleeping space on the luggage rack. 

I am glad I have the experience of both, for comparison.

Destinations such as Riga or Tallinn also took a night. But when we went to visit relatives in Northern Caucasus, it took twenty-eight hours. The day felt very long. We brought our own food, usually hardboiled eggs, roast chicken, bread and biscuits. The conductor offered tea several times a day. It cost four kopecks, and two more if you wanted extra sugar. At some stations local people sold pies – and who knows what they put into them! We always got out at stations to get fresh air. There wasn't much to do during the day except play cards. I liked to lie on the upper berth and watch the landscape.

Transcaucasus or Crimea was longer still. But when you went on holiday in those days it would be for three or four weeks, so a day of travel in each direction didn't matter.

The first few years I lived in Sweden I would take a ferry to Finland and then train to Moscow. The day at the station in Helsinki between the ferry and the train was awful, especially with small children. Eventually I started flying. It wasn't substantially more expensive.

I now live in a country with an excellent rail system (even if trains are sometimes delayed), but the longest I have travelled was five hours, with a change in London. It just isn't the same. 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Baking

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year, gambling, party games and knitting.

Whenever guests were expected, the first thing you did was bake some pies and cakes. Pies were served as hot starter, after herrings, fish and cold meats. Mince-meat pie, salmon-and-rice pie, cabbage pie, mushroom pie, as large as the baking pan, with a thick crust. Or else it would be small pies or pasties, again with all kinds of fillings, and no hostess with self-respect would omit a pie on a festive table.

Russia doesn't have a huge tradition for dessert, other than ice-cream, so after the main course, tea would follow, accompanied by cake. Now, if pies were more or less universal and the only variation was the filling, cakes came in all kinds. Sponge cake, apple-and-vanilla cake, plum cake, almond cake, walnut cake, napoleon cake, roll cake, custard cake, cinnamon cake. And biscuits and tarts, dozens upon dozens of recipes, each family keeping their own secrets.

I remember when I was maybe five, a cake was magically produced from granny's room; possibly, baked during the day and kept away until evening tea. Ever since then, the recipe was called “the small cake from granny's room”. When there were many guests coming, there would be a large “small cake from granny's room”. As the only child, I was always allowed to lick out the bowl.

There were no cookbooks, so recipes were carefully written down in notebooks and passed down to the next generations. In my great-grandmother's notebook, you could read: “Butter for two kopecks”.

Nobody baked bread, because bread in the stores was cheap and good.

As a grownup, I would bake a cake at least once a week. I went on baking after I moved to Sweden, bringing all the family recipes and finding new in Swedish cookbooks. I learned to bake Swedish gingerbread and saffron buns for Christmas. I even started baking bread, not because there wasn't any to buy, but because everybody did it, for fun or for whatever reasons. I soon noticed that my bread wasn't appreciated and quit. I continued baking cakes and biscuits, but in Sweden there is no tradition of tea and cake. If you invited guests in the evening it meant dinner, not tea and cake. And there is no tradition of afternoon tea either. Somehow, there wasn't any natural cake time.

I made cakes for children's birthdays, but noticed that after the candles were blown out the guests left the cake uneaten.

I dutifully made Christmas gingerbread and saffron buns, and it was fun baking together with the children, as long as they found it pleasurable. I also baked Russian Easter cakes. 

Fifteen years ago Staffan and I went low-carb, and it doesn't make sense to bake if we don't eat it, even if baking is a pleasure. Occasionally I make sponge cake if we have guests coming for tea. Here in England I have re-discovered the joys of tea as a meal. But this is rare. I have friends and students who bake most amazing cakes, and I feel I cannot compete. There are no children with whom baking might be a way of being together. I miss it. I am not yet at the stage when I bake a cake just for myself.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Knitting

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year, gambling and party games.

Knitting was a necessity rather than a hobby when I was young. Clothes in stores were uncomfortable and ugly; clothes on the black market were expensive, but you could knit things that were original and to your taste. The problem was getting hold of yarn, knitting needles and patterns.

The indigenous yarn came in two variants. The less expensive was coarse, the more expensive was very thin so it took ages to unwind skeins, and then you would put three to five threads together for suitable thickness. The dye was of poor quality so you had to treat yarn with vinegar (or pee if you were less fastidious) and then wash again and again until the dye stopped running. The colours were typically dull, but you can still knit nice stuff in dull colours.

The black-market yarn was lovely. Soft, bright – a joy to knit. Expensive, yes, but worth it. Decent needles were only available on the black market. Patterns were worth their weight in gold. The lucky few who were allowed to travel abroad would bring ladies' magazines with knitting patterns which would then be shared and bartered. You couldn't copy a close friend's sweater, but you could borrow ideas. All ladies knitted, and it was a good way of being useful while chatting or listening to music.

It took me a long time and many tears to learn how to knit. For some reason I just couldn't get it. My granny, who was the family's great knitter, would lose patience. I got lousy grades in school. Eventually I learned during a prolonged illness when I was forbidden to read. After that, I would knit sweaters, cardigans, dresses, two-piece suits, trousers, scarves, hats - anything, although I never mastered socks and mittens. My wardrobe became unique and varied. When I got access to libraries' "closed" collections through my work I could find patterns in Western magazines, considered by authorities dangerous for average citizens.

I went on knitting when the children were small, but very soon they reached the phase when home-knits were frowned upon, and I stopped. I also stopped knitting for myself, although in Sweden there was of course no shortage of needles, patterns and yarn.

Both our daughters are passionate knitters, and Julia's knitwear is amazing.

The closest I ever came to knitting in the past ten years was a vest for my granddaughter's stuffed hippo. I felt really appreciated as a granny. 


Of the many things I don't do anymore, knitting is something I can consider taking up again.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Party games

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming, celebrating New Year and gambling.

I have a feeling that today's urban children are not familiar with any games that used to be played in streets and backyards when I was a child. Of couse, streets and backyards are dangerous today, but were they less dangerous then or were grownups unaware of the dangers?

I won't go into a long nostalgic account of all ball games and ring games and skipping games that we played as children. What I remember, however, is that many of these were shared between children and grownups, and there was no discrimination between young children and older children. In summer, in the country, every evening would bring children and grownups together for a couple of hours of outdoor games the names of which I don't know in English, but I am sure they are the same all over the world. Maybe this was because there wasn't much else to do: no television, sometimes no electricity. But I also think this was something that was done and isn't done anymore.

On rainy days, and in other seasons back in the city, there were party games, and again nobody was excluded. Birthday parties – not children's, but grandparents', aunts' and uncles' and parents' friends'; family gatherings or any social occasion; there would be charades, “Guess who I am?”, again, I don't know the exact names, but I believe they are universal. The kind of games Facebook invites you to play and share, but it was much more fun to do it live in a large group of mixed ages. For instance, the game leader would say, in a funny rhyme: “Your rich antie has sent you this bag of gold; you can buy whatever you want, don't say yes or no, don't buy black or white”, and the game implied confusing the players with questions to make them say the forbidden words. Or, Associations: think of someone in the room. The other players will ask you what colour you associate this person with, what animal, what season (yes, very Facebook kind of game). Fifteen questions: think of a historical person, and the players will ask questions: Is this person still alive? Did they practice any art? Is there any book by this person in the shelf in this room? Then all kinds of rhyming and drawing games; all kinds of word games (finding as many words as possible from one, very long word, and only nouns in the singular were acceptable).

I played all this well into my twenties, with people both older and younger than myself. By that time, we had both television and record players, but that couldn't compete with party games.

Where did it go and why? I am sure people in Sweden used to play party games, but I have never experienced it in Sweden, beyond the traditional Midsummer dancing. And surely, people in the UK used to play as well. I once tried to offer a game at a party I gave for some grad students, and it was a disaster. They just didn't get it. So I guess the time of play is irreversibly over. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Things I don't do anymore: Gambling

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery, mushrooming and celebrating New Year.

OK, not serious gambling. But playing cards was something everybody did, from small children to old ladies. There were simple children's games and there were complicated grownup games, and as a child I loved watching grownups play. Occasionally I would be allowed to join if a fourth partner was missing. I was hopeless with strategic games where you need to remember which cards have been played, but in games of risk I was as good as anyone. Poker was one of the favourites. The stakes were not high, but a card debt was a matter of honour, grownup or not. In my student days, we played poker with one-kopek coins that a friend had collected, a three-litre glass jar of coins, must have been quite a fortune.

My father brought a roulette set from abroad, probably taking a risk, even if it could pass as a children's game in the customs. We played it for a while, but never really got hooked.

Dice, on the other hand, was popular, and there were periods we would play regularly and very seriously.

Then a friend of my parents introduced us to mahjong, and we were lost. Our first mahjong set was homemade from wooden bricks on which my father and I meticulously burned circles, bamboos and characters, winds and dragons; then coloured them in with filt-tip pens. Later my parents found a real mahjong set in an antique shop, and the wooden set was passed down to me and my friends. The friend who first taught us wasn't a sophisticated player, and the rules she remembered were vague. I went to the national library and found a mahjong handbook in English that I carefully translated in handwriting (I wasn't allowed to borrow the book, just read in a reading room) and then typed up with four carbon copies. It became our bible. I made lots of silly mistakes in my translation that nevertheless lingered and became part of our everyday jargon,

We took it very, very seriously. At weekends, at the countryhouse my parents were renting, a table would be arranged after dinner, covered with a soft red throw. There were usually more than four of us so we would build teams, and the game could go on for months, all scores carefully written down after each round. Cash was never used, but scores were, for fun, calculated into cash. We used 0.01 koper per point, but the winner might end up with a hundred roubles or more. With the compex rules from our bible, there were infinite variations of the game; we never got tired. And no other game would ever be as exciting. The ritual of it! The magic of the language! In what other games do you play "Moon from the Bottom of the Sea" or "Northern Gate" or "Dragon Tail"? And all those poor people who had no clue what you were talking about.

I stopped playing for a while when I got married and had a baby, but after my divorce I found a new mahjong gang, and we would meet and play every week for many years, again keeping scores for ever and ever. I wonder whether there is still an unfinished game.

In Sweden, I bought a mahjong set, but I never found partners. When my parents visited, we would occasionally play a round, Sergej joining us, but it wasn't the same obsession. I am not sure who of the children kept the set when we moved to Cambridge.

Earlier this year – sorry, last year! - an overseas student was moving home and sold most of her possessions through facebook. I bought a couple of things, and then I noticed that among her items was a mahjong set, and it was gone, gone, gone! So it wasn't meant to be.

(Of course, you can say that I can get a mahjong set from amazon any day. But then you have misunderstood the purpose of this blog).