Category Archives: NYRB Classics

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka ViertelTitle: The Kindness of Strangers
Author: Salka Viertel
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372747
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

If you feel like reading the quintessential twentieth-century autobiography, then this is it. You just have to read The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel. It is everything I expect from an autobiography and it delivers down to the last page. Viertel’s life was not only interesting but also lived variedly and maybe that’s the reason the book shines the way it does. It is almost a pilgrimage of one woman through the twentieth century’s darkest times and also a chronicle of the good times. I could easily classify The Kindness of Strangers as an epic read, mainly because of its sheer expanse.

The Kindness of Strangers is the journey of a woman. It is the journey of a century – all rolled into one – from a province in the Austro-Hungarian empire to Hollywood. Viertel’s book is unique in the sense that it doesn’t try and pack everything in one chapter or paragraph. It takes its time talking about people, events, and their impact. Normally, I have observed myself getting bored of such autobiographies that start right from childhood and unfold against a backdrop of larger events. That wasn’t the case with The Kindness of Strangers. I enjoyed the read and that of course had a lot to do with the writing.

Of course this isn’t an easy read, in the sense of the turn of events – from the First World War to the Second and incidents that are recalled from memory, Salka Viertel’s writing is too detailed. Sometimes that works wonders for the reader and sometimes it is too much trivia. However, it made me think about how should an autobiography be written at all then? Is there a template? Should there be one? I don’t think so though. The Kindness of Strangers as any good autobiography merges the personal and political perfectly. For instance, her concern over her children’s safety during WWII or her time as an actress in Europe to her time in Hollywood and how that merged with political opinions of many is a delight to read.

There is a lot going on in the book and I was only too glad to see timelines so as not to miss the drift of what is being said. I had no clue of who Viertel was till I started reading her memoir. The relationship with her parents, the rebellion, the relationship she shared with her sister Rose, and most importantly leading the life she wanted to. The sense of loss of innocence is spread throughout the book. Nostalgia plays such an important role – not only in its conjuring but also it feels like it is not a thing of the past at all.

My favourite part of the memoir is Salka’s later life, spent in America, where she worked in Hollywood, made friends with Greta Garbo, became an American citizen as well, and helped many artists find homes – the ones who escaped Hitler’s clutches so to say. There are these lost worlds constantly at play of which the reader is privy to. The writing while gives a sense of staying on some details a little longer, still feels hurried. I wish for some parts there was more.

The Kindness of Strangers is full of life and joy. It is also full of instances that demand attention and empathy. It is the kind of book that talks about relationships – the constancy of them and the passing on of most. Ultimately, it is the book that makes us see our follies as humans and also the kindness we are ultimately capable of which sometimes we do not know of ourselves.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czapski. Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles

Lost Time by Józef Czapski Title: Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp
Author: Józef Czapski
Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372587
Genre: Literary Speeches, Historical Narrative
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Off-late, I have been reading a lot about memory and the passage of time and that has happened quite organically. There is no planned reading list around it. It just happened by the by and one of those books happened to be Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Camp by Józef Czapski.

The concept of suffering isn’t new to humans. We have been suffering one way or the other – in one situation or the other for decades and centuries. Of course, a certain group of people suffer more at any given point, but again that’s not the point here. The point is resilience in the face of suffering, in the face of the unknown, to not have any idea of what will happen to you. What do you do then?

Lost Time is a book of lectures given by Czapski when he was a prisoner of war during the Second World War in a Soviet camp, as the title suggests. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, said Joan Didion in The White Album and it couldn’t be truer. Don’t we all at some level tell stories in order to survive? Whether it is merely surviving the mundane day after day or when we are caught in an extraordinary situation like Scheherazade’s?

These lectures brought Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to life for prison inmates. This slim volume is a collection of some of those lectures that Czapski gave, depending solely on memory (so befitting to Proust) – sketching characters, places, and time, thereby evoking so many emotions on the spectrum within the inmates. Also, it is so strange to be talking of Proust in a prison camp – the volumes of aristocracy, elegance, and grace – only to prove that Proust can be felt by all.

At the same time, what I love about this book is that it is an easy read. Czapski made Proust accessible – and perhaps may even encourage you to read Proust once you are done reading Lost Time. You don’t need to read it first. Also, Proust in Gulag – does it seem to say a lot about the human condition and how we are as a species? Czapski’s love for the master is evident – through every speech – he merges Proust’s life with the six volumes and that to me is magnificent. I just wish this book were longer. I wish there were more speeches. A definite must-read. For Proust lovers and the non-lovers as well.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

Iza's Ballad Title: Iza’s Ballad
Author: Magda Szabo
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I haven’t read too many books about mothers and daughters. I am sure there a lot of them out there but I haven’t been able to cover that territory the way I have been wanting to. Every relationship when it comes to a parent gets a little complex. There are always disagreements for sure, but we don’t realize when it leads to becoming a dysfunctional relationship from an accommodating one. It happens too fast, too soon. Families are like that I suppose and a lot of writers have written and continue to write about it. I was floored by Szabo’s earlier work “The Door” – again the relationship between two women, so I knew what I was getting into and boy was I not disappointed by it!

“Iza’s Ballad” is about Ettie – the old mother from an older world. Her daughter Iza as expected is from the modern world, with thoughts that are not aligned to those of her mother’s. Ettie is recently widowed and goes to live with Iza (who is now a doctor) in Budapest. Ettie was born and brought up without a formal education and came from a poor background. However, she ensured her daughter was well-educated and did not want for anything. Her husband Vince was a magistrate and Iza has taken after him. Ettie cannot get used to Iza’s way of living. Iza on the other hand has stopped being answerable to anyone. The traditional and the modern clash just as they did in “The Door”.

Szabo’s writing is not easy. It takes some time to get into but the translation by George Szirtes is spot on to the last detail. The reason I say this without knowing a word of Hungarian is the nuances, metaphors and folk references aren’t lost at all on the English reader. To me that is some good enough criteria of a great translation. Also, being a man he gets the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship beautifully and only too accurately.

The concept is universal and hence almost every reader can relate to it. Szabo doesn’t waste her words and that is quite evident. In fact, in so many places, she doesn’t try too hard telling the reader, but just shows and leaves and that’s how a good book should be. “Iza’s Ballad” is an emotional ride and yet restrained – balancing the old and the new, the relationship dynamics and above all love and its transformation.

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin. Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie

Notes of a Crocodile Title: Notes of a Crocodile
Author: Qiu Miaojin
Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370767
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Notes of a Crocodile” according to me is a lovely title for a book. I say this to establish it right at the beginning and get it out of the way. This was the third book I read in the women in translation month project and I think by far this has been one of the best (I’ve read six in all so far). There is something very reassuring and yet heartbreaking about this book that makes you fall in love with the prose. You realize it is a translation but it doesn’t matter. The effect is as much. It moved me in just the right places.

“Notes of a Crocodile” is about teenagers who are queer misfits and only discovering love, friendship and artistic affiliations in post-martial-law era of Taiwan. They study at one of Taiwan’s prestigious university and come to realize what happens when you love too hard and too strong. The narrator is an anonymous lesbian, nicknamed Lazi who falls in love way too strong with an older woman named Shui Ling and how she turns to her friends for support as she doesn’t see this happening. Her friends are another kettle of fish: a rich kid who has turned criminal, his self-destructive gay lover (is there any other way to be or to love?), an overachiever who is just bored and her girlfriend who is an artist. See what I mean, when I say the book covers the entire spectrum of LGBTQ?

I was fascinated by this read. “Notes of a Crocodile” at one point in the book (major breakthrough by the way) moves from sexual identity to self-realization about love, loss and how the heart breaks. The translation is just right. I think all the nuances of Chinese expressions and words are in place. Bonnie Huie does a wonderful job on this cult classic. What I loved the most while reading this book is the pop culture references thrown in by Qiu. I wish she were around to write some more books. I also remember reading Last Words from Montmartre with such fervor as well. I couldn’t stop reading it and the same happened with “Notes of a Crocodile”. Also, should you want to know more about title, then I am not giving that away. Read the book for that.

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi by Teffi

Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, And Me - The Best of Teffi Title: Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi
Author: Teffi
Edited by: Robert Chandler and Anne Marie Jackson
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590179963
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literature, Essays
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Some books are just so good that you want them to last longer than they did – to savour them, every single word then become precious. Teffi is one such author whose works you just want to soak in and want the words to linger long after. I got to know of her through the NYRB website and knew I just had to read this one – because of the author’s associations with literary giants such as Tolstoy and how she got to meet the very famously infamous Rasputin, not once but twice.

Teffi’s experiences are what this book is about – short autobiographical pieces that are sometimes funny, mostly catty and unforgettable for sure. These pieces were written in the 20s and 30s when she was in exile in Paris. There is a touch of poetic quality to her prose (no wonder because she wanted to be a poet anyway).

A lot of wit, human understanding of the world and empathy shine in every essay and that is what I love about the collection. Sure there are parts that I couldn’t relate to (because of the cultural barrier), however what I read was enough to tide me over to be able to understand the beauty of her language and the points she was trying to make.

From speaking of her childhood most vividly to the Russian cultural phenomenon, nothing is left out. The essays show us the Russia that was quite forward in its approach when it came to the arts to the Russia that was turbulent and oppressive at the same time.

The book is divided into four parts – first being about how she lived and worked, second about personal aspects of her life – from how she was raised to her time in France, the third one is about her bizarre encounters with people and the fourth is about famous authors and writers. She truly did have a sense of understanding people and reading them quite accurately.

Teffi’s writing is crystal clear and she says what she has to without mincing any words. You might have to keep track of the people she mentions on and off in the book, but there is a guide for that at the end of the book as well. I am completely taken in by her writing after reading this collection of essays and plan to read some more of her for sure. You must read this collection of essays for sure, if history is of any interest to you.