Vive la Musique!

Spending  part of the summer in central France has constituted our annual vacation for several years now. We enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, the beautiful scenery, and the cooler weather. If there are any musical events we are happy to attend them, but they are not the main reason for our choice of location.

This year, however, there has been more music on offer in the Limousin region than ever before, although some of it goes beyond our definition of music in the traditional and perhaps somewhat narrow sense.

Every summer several members of the Paris Symphony Orchestra spend time in the region, from which some of them originate, and offer concerts to the public at large. The program of the one we attended in the nearby mediaeval church situated at Chambon sur Voueize consisted of instrumental works by Mozart and Vivaldi as well as two pieces for soprano by Handel and Caccini. The crystalline voice of the talented young soprano, Andrea Constantin, was enhanced by the excellent acoustics of the church, with its high, vaulted ceiling. The packed audience gave each piece an enthusiastic reception, applauding between the movements of Mozart’s clarinet concerto as well as at the end of each piece.

At one point the cellist who leads the ensemble, which consists primarily of several members of the orchestra’s string section, announced that they would be playing a surprise item, and went on to say that we would be hearing three pieces by Giora Feidman. The name is familiar to many Israelis as that of the man who has made klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish) music popular. Sure enough, the clarinettist who had starred in the Mozart concerto returned to the stage and proceeded to get the audience tapping its feet to the rhythmic and sometimes emotional music. It felt slightly strange to hear klezmer music in a church, but the audience gave it a decidedly enthusiastic reception and we certainly enjoyed it.

A few days later the same ensemble was due to give a concert of chamber music gems in the Orangerie of the nearby Boussac chateau. The structure itself was adorned with the stuffed heads of the various animals that the master of the chateau must have once hunted, as well as with some beautiful tapestries, which are produced locally.

The programme turned out to be a selection of individual movements from quartets and quintets by Borodin, Boccherini, Dvorak and Haydn, ending with the first movement of Schubert’s sublime quintet in C major. To hear it is to share the ecstasy and agony of Schubert’s short life, but to hear just one movement without the continuation is tantamount to being allowed to see the Promised Land from the mountain-top but not to enter into it. Still, it was an enjoyable evening, and we appreciated being able to partake of these precious gems in that very special environment.

In recent years an enterprising resident of a nearby village, with the support of the regional administration, has organised an annual music festival focusing on contemporary and world music of various kinds. Since one such concert was given in the church that is opposite our house I decided to venture forth and risk my sanity by attending a concert of experimental music for string quartet. To my surprise, the little church, which usually stands empty, was packed full with enthusiasts for this kind of music. The first piece consisted of the cellist playing some kind of music on the stage, while the three other instruments played occasional, seemingly random, notes off-stage. My first impression was of cats mating, but I confess to taking a jaundiced view of such music, and I wondered how any of them knew what to play and when since there was no contact between them.

For the second piece, however, all four musicians were on stage, and the piece (whose composer’s name I did not catch) consisted of their playing a somewhat monotonous tune by plucking the strings of their instruments. There was a melodic element, and after a while the monotony had a kind of hypnotic effect, which even found its way into my hardened heart. In a later piece, an elegiac melody for strings called ‘For Elise,’ the tender mood was shattered by the church bells striking the hour (four o’clock). When the piece ended the cellist said ‘I want to play it again,’ which they promptly did, to great applause. The concert ended with a piece by an American composer called Golden who hails from Alabama, and one could definitely detect elements of southern rhythms and negro spirituals in among the various sounds produced by the instruments.

The concert ended before the church bells could cause any more disturbances, and the members of the audience filed out of the church into the pale sunshine and were offered a drink of juice or wine. I hurried home, feeling badly in need of a reviving cup of coffee, and pleased at having exposed myself to a new and not completely unwelcome experience.

 

Under the Weather

 

How typically British. Even if a person isn’t feeling well it must be somehow be connected with the weather — that subject of eternal fascination for the true Brit. In my case, however, at least to the best of my knowledge, it didn’t have anything to do with the weather.

We flew from London to France, drove for a couple of hours, picked up some provisions in the nearest Carrefour supermarket on the way, and installed ourselves in our summer abode. The next day I cooked, did laundry, and functioned more or less normally.

It was on the day after that that I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning and only by dint of tremendous willpower managed to make myself a cup of herbal tea to drink with my morning biscuit (viva McVitie!). The very thought of coffee, which is my usual beverage of choice, made me feel even worse. I spent the day in an armchair, unable to move, eat, or function in any normal fashion.

The next day was more or less the same, only my one thought, after flopping into the armchair, was how to get back into bed. The thought of the expanse of mattress, pillows, and the biggest, softest eiderdown (duvet) I’ve ever seen seemed extremely tempting, and that is where I spent the rest of the day, dozing and coming to from time to time. In most uncharacteristic fashion, I couldn’t even have the radio on with classical music. The idea of food of any kind revolted me, and the only thing I was prepared to drink was, of all things, Coca-Cola, something which I generally eschew. I was unable to think of eating anything, or even taking my prescription pills (ten in the morning, five in the evening). I felt a terrible weakness in my entire body, and could not even stand up straight.

On the third day, I was in a similar state. My one thought was of being horizontal in my lovely, welcoming bed. But then along came another thought. What must my grandmother have felt as she lay dying of starvation and neglect in the Theresienstadt concentration camp some seventy-odd years ago? She undoubtedly had been used to a comfortable bed and clean linen in her Hamburg home, and was now probably reduced to a wooden bunk bed and who knows what rags with which to cover herself (we know that she took some bedding along with her but that was almost certainly stolen upon arrival). And was  there anyone to bring her a cup of tea or even a drink of water? Probably not.

And my other grandparents, my mother’s parents, didn’t even have that when they were murdered in Auschwitz.

What was this terrible disease to which I had succumbed? Yigal thought it was flu, which is something I’ve never experienced. . It felt to me as if something or someone had taken over my body and extracted every iota of strength from it.

So on the fourth day I started taking the antibiotics I always have with me, and I even allowed Yigal to take me to eat something (half a Happy Meal) at the nearest McDonald’s  The idea of anything heavier or more substantial was anathema to me. The institution of McDonald’s is not a place where I would normally choose to eat, but to the aliens that had taken over my body it seemed like a good idea.

Eventually my appetite began to return to me. For almost a week no coffee or anything stronger than toast with a thin layer of butter passed my lips. My strength began to return, and I was even able to stand up straight and walk at more than a snail’s pace.

“It’s a funny thing,” said an English friend who lives permanently iin France. “Many people who come over by plane from England fall ill soon after arriving.”

So it wasn’t aliens who took over my body but a bug that was somewhere in the plane when we came from London. I hope there’s some way of preventing this happening again as we’re planning a trip to the USA which will involve several flights. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know. I don’t want to go through anything like that again.

 

 

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman

 

I am proud to announce that I have completed my first vacation task, namely, to read the Hebrew version of David Grossman’s book, the English translation of which was awarded the prestigious Man Booker International prize. I’m also glad to know that the prize money was shared equally between the author and the translator, Vanessa Cohen.

But I must admit that getting to the end of the book was a hard slog. I’ve been reading and translating Hebrew for over fifty years, and consider myself reasonably adept in the language. I have dealt with texts of various kinds – historical, literary, academic, economic – and unless the subject is very esoteric and specialized I am usually able to cope with most texts. In addition, there is nothing particularly difficult about the language of this book. Yes, there are one or two jokes, colloquial expressions, and plays on words that might present a challenge to the translator, but the Hebrew Grossman uses is pretty much the language of everyday speech.

His main protagonist, a rather unfunny standup comedian on a stage in a provincial Israeli town, rambles on and on, taking his audience on the bumpy ride that is the story of his life. His physical and psychological attributes contain nothing to endear him to either his audience or to the reader, and hence it was such a struggle for this particular reader to persevere in reading another few pages every now and again.

The entire evening’s performance goes from bad to worse, with Dovele, the ‘comedian,’ meandering in and around any subject that happens to pop into his head, eventually describing a particularly unpleasant journey from summer camp to his home. The narrator describes the growing impatience of the physical audience, which gradually trickles away as the performance continues. In the end only a handful of people are left. By persevering in continuing to read to the end, the reader is identifying to some extent with the narrator, who knew Dovele when they were both young, and who now feels guilty at not having shown him more support in his time of need.

But is the real object of the book to make the reader feel guilty? I’ve always said that it’s guilt rather than love that makes the world go round, but to go this far in order to convey that essentially Jewish emotion seems to me to be taking things a bit too far. It seems to me that the joke’s in fact on us. The book is essentially a typically British kind of joke, known as a shaggy dog story, that has got out of hand. Shaggy dog stories are long and convoluted and don’t necessarily have to be about dogs, shaggy ot otherwise. My late father used to entertain guests with one about a horse (neighbour asks passing neighbour to help get horse into house, then up staircase, then into bathroom, all just in order to annoy visiting know-all mother-in-law when she screams, ‘John, there’s a horse in the bathroom!’ by answering ‘I know’). The telling of the tale took a good few minutes, with delightfully pretentious British manners derided with affection, and almost always occasioned hearty laughter.

But no-one feels like laughing when one gets to the end of Grossman’s book. Nor does one even feel like crying. There’s just a sense of emptiness, an exaggerated awareness of the senseless futility of life, and that you, the reader, have just wasted several precious hours in reading this sad book about a sad life in a sad place. Me, I’m reminded of a short story by, I think, Somerset Maugham, about a young boy at a British public school who is called to the Headmaster’s study to be told that the father whom he idolizes has been killed. Imagining some heroic deed he asks whether he was shot through the heart, only to learn that a balcony had collapsed in a Naples street and the pig that had been kept there had fallen on his father and killed him.

Now that’s a story well told, within reasonable limits of time and energy, and does not leave the reader feeling he/she has wasted his/her time. But that’s British humour for you, and that simply can’t be beat. It seems the Man Booker International jury lost it.

 

London etc.

As is our custom, Yigal and I take each grandchild to London as a bar- or bat-mitzva present and in order for them to familiarise themselves with their ‘roots.’ These are truly rather farcical roots, as the fact that their grandmother (i.e., yours truly) was born and brought up in England is a quirk of fate and the result of England’s acceptance of a limited number of refugees from persecution by Hitler in the years prior to WWII, and specifically after the pogrom known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.

Anyhow, it’s always nice to give a grandchild a treat. And it’s always nice to have an excuse to visit London. We have in the past taken two grandchildren at a time, doing our best to take any two (siblings or cousins) who are close in age. This time, however, there was no-one near Yoav’s age-group, so instead we took his mother, our daughter, as she was celebrating a special birthday, and we thought that this would make the experience more enjoyable for Yoav, and for us.

That was indeed the case. We tried to do all kinds of fun things in London, starting by going around on an open-topped bus to see the sights (Big Ben caused Yoav considerable excitement), and got off in order to visit the Tower of London and gawp at the Crown Jewels.

We were lucky with the weather and were able to enjoy the city at its best, with the buildings shining in the sun and people looking happy at being able to wear light summer clothes. We had packed umbrellas and raincoats just in case, and sure enough they came in handy on our last few days. The wonderful British summer strikes again!

But young Yoav seemed to enjoy every minute. He especially appreciated the tour of the Arsenal football stadium but he also enjoyed the concert of music by Bach and Vivaldi (including the latter’s Four Seasons) in the church of Saint Martin in the Fields. We also took him to see the wonderful show of The Lion King, which even on our third visit still enchanted and delighted us. It is truly a celebration of all things African, with unbelievably beautiful and talented actors who are also singers, dancers and acrobats. The London Eye gave us a view over the whole city and wasn’t scary at all, even though when viewed from afar the concept appears frightening.

Yigal enjoyed being able to show Yoav some of the priceless objects of historic significance in the British Museum, as well as some of the art in the National Gallery. No matter what others may say, in my opinion Britain has done a great service to world culture by acquiring the treasures of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia, as the forces of Isis would most certainly have destroyed them.

Our visit ended and Dana and Yoav returned to the heat of Israel’s summer, while Yigal and I moved our vacation location to France, where we are currently enjoying a less hectic time and more temperate climate, at least for now.

 

Theresienstadt 1941-1945; The Face of a Coerced Community

This monumental monograph, by H.G.Adler (Cambridge University Press, 2017), to which no book review can hope to do justice, comprises more than 850 pages and constitutes a far-reaching and detailed account, or rather scientific analysis, of the concentration camp that was located in what was known by the Germans as the Protectorate and today is the Czech Republic. The book was first published in German in 1955 and a revised edition in 1960. Only recently has the long-awaited English version been made available to the general public.

The author, who was himself incarcerated in Theresienstadt from 1942 to 1944, was known before his deportation there as a poet, novelist, and scholar. In this book he has produced a seminal work that is generally devoid of personal reminiscences but rather undertakes an exhaustive and objective study of the various aspects that went into the making and maintenance of the camp, focusing systematically on such categories as the history, sociology, and psychology of the camp (or ‘ghetto’ as it came to be called at a later stage). Within each of these major categories there are subdivisions into such subjects as deportations to and from Theresienstadt, administration, population, housing, nutrition, labor, economy, legal and health conditions, to name but a few. Each section, chapter, and category is accompanied by extensive statistical data, original source-material, personal accounts, and documentary evidence.

The somewhat incongruous photo chosen for the cover illustration shows a prisoner wearing a cook’s uniform giving out food in the ghetto courtyard to a newly-arrived transport of Dutch Jews. It seems somewhat strange at first, considering the general insufficiency of food in the camp, but this fits into the façade of normality that the camp was designed to convey. The ‘normality’ of the camp was, however, a sham created by the Germans, who ruled a society based on violence, intimidation, and a set of warped ‘rules and regulations’ governing the lives of the unfortunates imprisoned there.

Adler traces the history of the camp from its initial inception by Himmler and Heydrich as ‘a city peopled by Jews’ to its functioning as a place of imprisonment for thousands of individuals brought primarily from the Protectorate and the Reich. Many of those sent there were considered to be privileged because of their service in the German army in WWI or special social or intellectual status. Adler describes the horrors experienced by those deported there in cattle cars or passenger trains followed by the initial processing procedure. The new arrivals had to undertake a three-kilometer walk to the camps from the railway station of Bohusovice, carrying their luggage and supervised by SS men who often used violence to get their victims moving. Having arrived at the camp the prisoners were instructed to leave their luggage at the processing center (the Schleuse), where wholesale confiscations and theft were rife, perpetrated by both the SS and dishonest Jewish inmates.

Acceptance of the inadequate and poor quality rations constituted the next step in the process of ‘acculturation,’ and many new arrivals were unable to tolerate the meager and unsavory victuals. Adler likens arrival and processing at the camp to birth, a passage from one state of being to another, and one that is generally accompanied by crying. He describes the mental anguish and process of debilitation experienced by new arrivals, and by elderly persons in particular, many of whom rapidly descended into mental conditions akin to dementia and/or hysteria, as well as a form of apathy that soon led to death.

Accommodation and sanitary conditions in the camp were substandard in the extreme, disease and vermin of all kinds were rife, and the overcrowding meant that privacy and hygiene were simply out of the question. Certain individuals were able to benefit by being appointed ‘room elders’ or even ‘camp elders,’ and in many cases, according to Adler, these Jews exploited their superior position for personal gain and comfort. Welfare and medical departments were set up, supposedly to care for the prisoners, but there was little that could be done in view of the paucity of the equipment and medicines available. Work of one kind or another was required of all prisoners, and those who complied with this were given extra rations. The threat of inclusion on one of the Transports to an unknown destination in the east (usually Auschwitz and the gas chambers) was ever-present.

In one of the last chapters of the book Adler describes the vibrant cultural and artistic life that prevailed in the camp, perceiving it as an illusory way of escape from the grim reality of the situation. Most of the camp’s leading artists, musicians, actors, and writers were deported to Auschwitz and murdered there as the end of the war approached. This was also the fate of many of the ‘camp elders’ who had previously benefited from the preferential treatment accorded to them by the SS. The overall impression given by this book is of the prevalence of depravity and misery that seems to have been an almost inevitable adjunct of the general situation in the camp.

In addition to an index, the book also includes a chronological summary of the salient events on a day-by-day basis, as well as two hundred pages detailing sources and literature. Special credit should go to Belinda Cooper, whose translation from the original German reads fluently and well. As an account of an abominable episode in human history, this book constitutes a milestone of objective dedication to recording every aspect of this ‘experiment in evil.’

Heartbreaking and Inspiring

The history of the Herzog Hospital (formerly known as Ezrat Nashim) goes back to 1895 and the establishment of a society to provide care for the chronically ill. Since then the facility has expanded both in physical terms and in its medical scope. In the 1960s it moved to its new building in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighbourhood, and added specialized care for geriatric patients to its psychiatric wards.

In May this year I was privileged to be present at the official dedication of the new Samson Medical Pavilion, which greatly increases the number of beds in the hospital as well as incorporating additional medical services. In recent years the hospital has added the treatment of children needing constant respiratory care to its spheres of treatment, and the new wing provides extensive state-of-the-art nursing in this field.

In addition to Mrs. Karen Lewis, the daughter of the donors, Dr. Heinz and Dr. Edith Samson, various dignitaries addressed those attending the dedication ceremony, which took place on the fifth floor of the new wing. Not all the floors have been opened and are in use as yet, due primarily to lack of funds.

After some words of welcome and warm praise for the hospital’s dedicated staff from its CEO, Dr. Yehezkel Caine, the first speaker was the Minister of Health, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman. He emphasised the importance the Ministry attaches to meeting the needs of Israel’s growing elderly population, and the important role played in this by the Herzog Hospital. The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, stressed the crucial contribution to medical research made by Jerusalem’s many start-ups in the field of life sciences, and Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel’s Opposition Labour Party and the grandson of Rabbanit Sara Herzog, for whom the hospital is named, spoke of his family’s close association with it. He also made a point of mentioning Israel’s seminal role in medical research and services, noting that a recent edition of The Lancet was devoted entirely to medicine in Israel.

Following the affixing of a mezuzah by Isaac Herzog and the cutting of the ribbon by Mrs. Lewis, the attendees were divided into small groups and given a tour of the new facility. My group was taken round the department for children with respiratory problems. In some cases these are genetic in nature and in others the result of accidents or illnesses of various kinds. Almost all the children in this section, which encompasses several well-equipped wards as well as cheerfully-decorated communal areas, are attached on a more-or-less permanent basis to respiratory equipment of various kinds. The intake consists of infants as young as three months of age and upwards, and some of these remain in the ward until they reach adolescence, when they are moved to another department. Both Arab and Israeli children are cared for, and in many cases their parents establish warm friendships as they attend to their bedridden children.

Passing one ward we heard lovely music. We peered in and saw a young flautist standing by one of the beds, playing for the young patient. As we proceeded along the corridor we encountered another person carrying an accordion, evidently about to perform for other young patients. Petting animals are brought in from time to time, and therapies of various kinds (e.g., music, hugging, movement) are also part of the treatment provided. A cadre of devoted volunteers plays an important role in helping to care for the children and brighten their lives.

While it broke my heart to see the cribs where tiny babies are hooked up to heart-lung machines, oxygen and other items of medical equipment, there is no doubt that the hospital does work of the highest importance. The caring dedication of the ever-cheerful staff is both inspiring and admirable, providing an additional source of pride in Israel’s medical achievements

(This article first appeared in the July 2017 edition of the AJR Journal,)

 

Fast Girl: a Life Spent Running From Madness by Suzy Favor Hamilton

This book was recommended to me with the assurance that the story it contained was interesting and even enlightening. I’m not quite sure about that.

I don’t happen to find copious detail about the sex industry in Las Vegas a subject that interests me particularly. Of course, it is important to view the author’s experience in this sphere in the context of her bipolar personality disorder, which went undiagnosed for many years and, she claims, was the cause of her erratic behaviour.

As a teenager the author displayed considerable athletic talent and was even selected to participate in three successive Olympic Games as part of the US running team. On each occasion she failed to shine, and found herself psychologically unable to cope with the pressure of competing on an international level. She describes her emotions and experiences in great and convincing detail.

Growing up in suburban Wisconsin, Suzy Favor Hamilton was encouraged to pursue her athletic career. Tragedy struck when her older brother committed suicide, apparently due to an undiagnosed disorder similar to her own, but the family managed to continue to live as normal a life as possible, despite understandable difficulties. Suzy got married and even succeeded, despite some problems, in getting pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter, but felt that something was missing from her life.

Things changed when she persuaded her husband to take her to Las Vegas and to celebrate their twelfth wedding anniversary by doing a sky-jump together and participating in a sexual threesome. Unlike her husband, Suzy found this last very enjoyable and ended up subsequently returning to Las Vegas on her own on several occasions to continue her sexual experiments with various men. Eventually she found herself working for an escort agency in Las Vegas, calling herself ‘Kelly,’ and getting high on her success in this sphere. She made frequent trips to Vegas and engaged in what is essentially high-class prostitution, doing all this with the tacit agreement of her husband.

Despite all her efforts to keep her true identity secret from her ‘clients,’ Suzy’s real name was eventually made public by a journalist, bringing her life of luxury, extravagance and sexual exploits to an end. She was forced to abandon the Las Vegas identity and lifestyle that she loved and return to her ever-supportive husband and their humdrum life in Wisconsin. It would seem that at this stage she began to get psychological treatment, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and received the appropriate medication, enabling her to resume what most people would consider a ‘normal’ life.

he title page tells us that the author has written the book together with Sarah Tomlinson, and it is probably to the latter that we owe the well-written text, which flows easily, helping the reader to assimilate a story that verges on the shocking. The author declares that she has written the book in the hope that her story will help others suffering from similar disorders, and that is certainly a noble aim. Whether this book is able to achieve that objective is debatable, however.

An Occupational Hazard

One doesn’t normally think of translating and editing as a dangerous profession, but my experience of working in this field for the last fifty years has had a deleterious effect on me, leaving me seriously incapacitated. Reading literature of any kind, and especially if it has been translated into or from any of the language pairs between which I work, becomes a major problem, impeding any pleasure I might otherwise have obtained from reading. I generally do what I can, to the best of my ability, not to read books in translation, and so get a certain satisfaction from reading books in the original.

For example, I decided to buy the Hebrew version of David Grossman’s latest book, ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar,’ the English translation of which has been awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. Almost immediately, however, in the first few paragraphs, I found myself wondering how the translator, Jessica Cohen in this instance, had translated a particular term. The whole book gets off to a rather slow start in which the reader is part of the audience at a stand-up performance, and is drawn into the story of the rather unfunny ‘comedian.’ This gives the reader time and opportunity to think about the way the terms have been translated.

I have never been to a performance of a stand-up comedian myself, though I have seen one or two such events on TV, and have, I suppose, a general idea of how these things work. But that isn’t the point here, as Grossman uses the so-called comedian’s patter and interaction with the audience to display his character, history and psychology. One thought that occurred to me while reading the book was to wonder whether Grossman earns a little extra on the side from writing jokes for stand-up comedians. I’m sure he could do quite well in this field if he put his mind to it. Anyhow, I’m still in the middle of reading the book, so I don’t yet know what the denouement is, if there is one at all. The pace of the narrative is rather slow, there’s little plot or tension, at least to begin with, and it is the language the ‘comedian’ uses which reveals who and what he is.

And there’s the rub. Initially he comes across as a somewhat unpleasant character, someone who picks on individual members of the audience and mocks them for the name they bear, their own or their wife’s physical appearance or their occupation. I guess that’s a standard ploy of stand-up comedians, but it certainly is not one that endears him to this particular reader. The language he uses varies between colloquial modern Hebrew, Yiddish expressions and obscure literary references. At each incident of verbal pyrotechnics my brain stops short and asks ‘how did Jessica Cohen translate this?’ or, worse still, ‘how would I translate this?’

As you can imagine, this does not make for an easy read. On the contrary, it makes the reading experience extremely difficult and troubling, and it is only by dint of a conscious effort that I persuade myself to pick the book up again and read a few more pages. I’ve already made up my mind to buy the English version and compare the two, an exercise which I know in advance will cause me anguish and distress.

From conversations with colleagues in the field, I know that I’m not alone in experiencing what can be called ‘Translator’s Syndrome,’ which is also very much akin to ‘Editor’s Syndrome’ and ‘Proofreader’s Syndrome.’ Are those of us engaged in these professions destined never to enjoy ‘a good read’ or be carried away by the need to find out ‘what happens next,’ as we did in our childhood, before we entered this dangerous field of activity, when we could read a book and thrill to the intensity of the experience?

In conclusion, I feel it is incumbent upon me to issue a warning to anyone contemplating a career in translation (or editing or proofreading). Beware! You are embarking upon a journey that will forever prevent you from enjoying another book! Enter at your peril!

 

Their Finest Hour

 

Since the reviews of the above film were positive on the whole, we decided to make a supreme effort to see it, squeezing it in between two evenings of other cultural activities. The subject was particularly interesting for me because it was set in London during the Second World War, in the period known as the Blitz, when Nazi Germany rained bombs down on the city.

I grew up in London, and lived there until I moved to Israel after completing my university degree. The film is set in 1940, just near the beginning of the war. I wasn’t born yet then, but my parents were living there as a newly-married couple, both of them refugees, and lived through the events described in the film.

And sure enough, the opening scenes showed familiar scenes and sights of war-torn London, buses unable to proceed to their destination because of bomb damage, people huddled in underground stations, which served as bomb shelters, and houses that had been turned in an instant into a heap of rubble, often with people trapped or killed underneath.

The idea is to show how, in a combination of slapdash improvisation and professional expertise, a film depicting the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk served to raise the spirits of the nation as well as to save thousands of lives of servicemen. We hear the call that went out over the radio for anyone with a boat of any kind or size to make their way to the French coastal town of Dunkirk in order to bring the trapped men safely home.

Britain is an island and the British are a sea-faring nation, as has been proved in the past on more than one occasion. Just think of Sir Francis Drake ‘singeing the Spanish King’s beard’ when he led the fleet against the Spanish Armada, or the East India Trading Company, which established the British presence in India and elsewhere to eventually create British colonial rule that extended across most of the known world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I grew up reading Arthur Ransome’s books, ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ and of course there are also the unforgettable characters created by Kenneth Grahame in his book ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ Thus is a nation’s sea-going heritage preserved and handed down to each new generation of children.

The story of the film within the film focuses on the ‘human element’ aspect of what might otherwise have been a humdrum, albeit heroic, military operation. This takes the form of two sisters, Lily and Rose, who defy their drunken bully of a father to take his small, rickety fishing boat out to sea in order to take part in the rescue.

The facts of the event are not as heroic as they are portrayed in the script of the film on which our characters are working, and a fair amount of tweaking of actual developments and characters are required in order to meet the demands of the actors, producers and politicians, all of whom have agendas of their own to fulfill and objectives to achieve.

Amongst other things, one such demand gives rise to the inclusion of an American pilot in the film that is being made. Apart from being a handsome young man, the pilot has absolutely no acting experience or talent, and naturally this causes considerable difficulty until somehow a solution is found. This and other developments are generally a source of merriment and mirth for the audience in the real world, while the audience in the film that is eventually produced and shown in cinemas during the war arouses the desired patriotic emotions and sense of identification.

Of course, without some love interest, in both the real and the unreal films, no story can be complete, and so it is that alongside the ‘genuine’ emotional attachments that develop between the individuals working on the film, they ‘manufacture’ a romantic connection between the characters they have created.

As the film ends we find ourselves identifying with the characters whose faults and foibles have been portrayed with humour and compassion. For me personally it was inspiring to see how a narrative thread is manufactured out of thin air, facts are manipulated and how the courage and determination of the Britain of seventy years ago once saved the world.

On Writing by Stephen King

Not being a fan of the horror/fantasy genre of novels, I must confess at the outset that I have not read any of Stephen King’s other books. I do know, however, that he is a very successful and prolific author in his particular genre, and that several films have been made of his books.

I decided to download and read this book after seeing several recommendations for it in writing groups I belong to, and it certainly is an interesting read. The man can write, and I breezed through the book in eager anticipation of finding the holy grail of how to get published and attain bestsellerdom that every writer seeks.

The first half of the book is taken up by what the author calls his C.V. It is in fact pure autobiography, and is in itself an interesting story. Growing up in a single-parent, lower-middle-class household in middle America is not the best start in life for anyone, let alone an aspiring writer. Still, it would seem that young Stephen showed aptitude for writing from an early age, and his initial attempts to produce a newsletter or journal provide considerable entertainment for the contemporary reader who knows what happens later.

I’m going on the assumption that Stephen King’s account of his initial failures, abundant rejection letters and repeated disappointments are true. He has a good memory, or perhaps has kept a record (or both), but it gives one heart to see how long it took and how many failures he experienced before he actually managed to get into print (a short story in a magazine). This pattern seems to have continued throughout his teenage years and even into young adulthood, marriage and his early career as a schoolteacher. The initial pages of his first bestselling novel, Carrie, were rescued from the trash-can by his wife, who convinced him to continue with the manuscript. It is also interesting to read how the idea for the book came to him, on the basis of his own experience at school and his work as a high-school teacher of English.

When it comes to telling the reader/ what it takes to produce a good book, Stephen King has some helpful albeit platitudinous advice. Read a lot, write a lot, avoid adjectives and ‘kill your darlings’ are among the prime paradigms on which he has expanded extravagantly, contravening his own admonition to cut wherever and whenever possible. He stresses the need to adhere closely to the rules of grammar, which seems to be stating the obvious, and advocates sticking to the apostrophe s to indicate apposition, even when a word or name ends in the letter s, even though in many cases this is superfluous.

Right at the end of the book we find ourselves once again embroiled in an excessively detailed account of how he was run over and seriously hurt as he was out taking a stroll one day. His injuries, which he describes in considerable medical detail, were undoubtedly horrific and life-threatening, requiring a long and painful recovery process/ Relief came only two months later, when be was able to sit down and start writing again.

I’m not sorry that I made the effort to buy and read this book, though I’ve read too many similar texts to be able to find anything revolutionary and new in this one, at least as a guide to the aspiring writer. It does provide some insight into the mind and workings of someone who has proved himself to be a successful writer, and that in itself is important. At the end of the book is a list of the books Stephen King has read and found helpful, and it is certainly long and wide-ranging. I must admit that I have read only a few of them, and I’m disappointed that not a single book by Virginia Woolf is to be found there. But then, what did I expect?

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P.S. I will be speaking about my latest book, “Chasing Dreams and Flies; A Tragicomedy of Life in France” at the AACI, Talpiot, Jerusalem at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, June 14. All welcome.