The powerful memoir of a German infantry soldier during WW2, A Stranger to Myself was written in 1944 a few months before the author died, drawn from his detailed journals written at the Front. Because of that, it has an immediacy that other books, with their post-war hindsight, lack. This isn’t a who-what-when of battles, but the profound emotional and spiritual impact of war on a young man on the ground, speaking to the experience of the unspeakable. German war memoirs are far fewer than those of the allies. Even this one wasn’t published until a few years ago: Reese’s mother was unable to find a publisher during her lifetime. I am very glad for ebooks in this case: I wouldn’t be able to find it in paper. But I was able to download it and in a weekend, I’d finished it. I am still thinking about it.
On a beautiful day recently, A and I walked for 4 hours. At Sunnyside Beach, where in another time people danced to the music of big bands in the Palais Royale, I saw a swan. I learned that this is an aggressive and invasive species, unlike the native swans with their black beaks who appear in my dreams. But still, the swan has always meant sanctuary to me, and grace, and I felt graced by its presence.
This is a memoir about life as an immigrant child from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, a subject that I’ve become very interested in because of this memoir. I rated this a four (though I am against ratings really) because the first part, about Shteyngart’s childhood, is fantastic. Had it stayed that way, I would be raving about it, had it not been that good, I wouldn’t bother adding it to my books.
The writing about his childhood is hilarious, biting, vivid. I was really struck by how little was different in the Soviet Union, by way of material life, in the 1970s from 1930s Poland (my parents’ memories). His parents even treated his asthma with cupping (in Yiddish bankes): heating small glass vessels to create a vacuum which are then put on the ailing person’s back, thereby sucking up the skin to suck up the vapours or something. My grandmother was a specialist in “laying bankes” in the pre-ww2 years.
The next part of the story, his years of being stoned and drunk in high school and university were pages I got through for the sake of the first part, and because even there his writing was good enough to keep me going, even if I was disappointed that as I went there was just more of the same.
The last part of the memoir covers his return to Russia with his parents, and that felt to me inhibited and truncated, abruptly so. His parents are still alive, and I had the feeling that there was a lot more to say, and that if he were to write his memoirs when he was older, it would be more satisfying to read, both because of maturity and freedom.
He was on the jury of the Giller Prize, the year that Web of Angels wasn’t listed, and, oddly enough, reading this memoir was a relief. I could see why my novel wouldn’t be his cup of tea. Too bad The Singing Fire wasn’t up in 2012–I think that would have been more in his line. But after all this time, the sting has gone out of it thanks to Little Failure. So for that alone, it should get four stars!
A book people seem to love or hate. I did laugh out loud. It’s a tall tale, not my favorite genre usually: the hundred year old man runs away from an old age home, has adventures, tells the story of his life, which is the story of the 20th century and his unlikely encounters with presidents and dictators. But I was thoroughly entertained and amused by both the front and back stories. It was a great romp. A sort of Swedish Candide. I keep recommending it to people who may or may not thank me for that.
Part of my project for 2014 is to pay attention to the day. Every morning I jot down in a notebook the time of sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, the phase of the moon, and the weather, not the forecast, but the feel of the day: cold, windy, warming, drizzle or snow. The weather has been noteworthy and attention grabbing in my part of the world. First the glittering ice storm that knocked out power in hundreds of thousands of homes, and then bouts of extreme cold. Today there is sun and it’s warming up. I may be able to shed one of my layers. Is that symbolic?
I thought that climate change would end winter. Instead it ricochets from one season to another. Everything at hyper-speed, plants, animals, viruses on the move. We’re riding the rapids. Hang on!
I heard cardinals singing this morning. They know the days are getting longer.
One minute longer than yesterday.
It’s very cold but I’m grateful for the sun.
Sending warm thoughts to everyone still waiting for power and to all those working so hard to restore it.
Mercifully we have power. So I can appreciate the beauty of this:
That’s the birch tree leaning over our back balcony. Across the street the limb of a tree fell down on a power line. A neighbour set up orange pylons around it. I pray for the trees.
It was pitch black to my human eyes, but this is the way an owl sees or a cat, I thought. The camera was on a tripod, the lens wide open for six seconds. The world was light.
The day calls to you and you call back.