Before greed became morally acceptable in the circles of the Haves as well as many of the Have-Not-Quite-As-Muchs, and we all strove to make it into a commendable contribution to society to demand more and more, we made do with ambition, a much nicer word. I leave you to decide how closely ambition and greed are related; I’d say second-cousins-once-removed, but I’ve definitely seen them in bed together.
As a small child, having not only heard tell about hunger but experienced a definite feeling of hollow tummy, it was my ambition to sit in front of a well-filled plate of food at every mealtime. Mum dished up and, feeling the large, dark, pleading eyes of her first live-born and only child upon her, she was often more generous than she should have been. “Are you sure you can manage that?”, was her permanent refrain, and “You must eat it up. Dad will be cross if food is wasted.” The food was never wasted; Dad remembered too well a time when shortages were the norm and great inventiveness and imagination were needed to bring it to the table. He always finished my leftovers. But the phrases “eyes too large for your stomach?” and “bitten off more than you can chew?” were a constant reminder that there was something wrong with me and his disapproving tone left me feeling vaguely uneasy and grubby.
My table habits have changed since then, and plates piled high put me off altogether. I feel full before I even start eating. I wish I could say the same about books. There’s been a perilously unstable pile of books sitting on top of a large wooden box in my study for weeks, mostly poetry books, I thought. Each new one I took off the shelves to flick through ended up on the pile. Notepads, bookmarks, magazines, folders of notes, all found a ’temporary’ home on the box. With Kelly coming to clean up after us, the pile needed sorting.
Besides poetry books, which have all gone back on the shelves, I was surprised to find these which had slipped my mind, all non-fiction, with bookmarks keeping my place between the read and unread chapters.
In 'Die Deutsche Seele' the writers survey and research 64 themes of "Germanness,” from ‘Abendstille, via Bauhaus and Beer, Doktor Faust, Gemuetlichkeit, Heimat, Music, Luther, Schadenfreude, Father Rhine, to Weihnachtsmarkt, and the eternal German longing for the abyss.
I must not lose this book again, it’s wonderful for dipping into whenever homesickness overwhelms me. It makes the homesickness worse, but in a perverse way that feels good.
Simon Winder professes to have a ‘crazed love affair’ with Germany, a country he has visited many times over the years. According to the sleeve notes ‘he is mesmerized by its cuisine, its architecture and its fairy tale landscape. He is equally passionate about the region’s history, folklore, monarchs and changing borders'. Winder describes Germany’s past afresh, taking in the story from the shaggy world of the ancient forests right through to the Nazi catastrophy in the 1930s, in an accessible and startlingly vivid account of a tortured but also brilliant country, which has at different times revealed the best and the worst aspects of Europe’s culture.
Since I was given Germania nearly a year ago I have picked it up and thrown it down in disgust many times. It lacks gravitas, historical cohesion and rigorous research, and yet . . . . the man has a warped sense of humour which appeals to me.
There is nothing funny about Sebald. How ‘Vertigo’ came to be buried at the bottom of the pile is incomprehensible to me. My plate, when I first started to read it, must have been full to overflowing, thus making me turn to
a form of entertainment other than reading.
I can always read Sebald and my great regret is that he didn’t live to write more of his compelling, deceptively simple, eccentric masterpieces. Part fiction, part travelogue, Sebald pursues his solitary course from England to Italy, combining, along the way, Stendhal, the Great Fire of London, a story by Kafka and a closed-down pizzeria in Verona.
I would get back to any one of these books without delay, if it weren’t for the fact that I am in the middle of consuming two others: Richard Russo’s ‘Straight Man’ which makes me want to live among American college professors on a campus somewhere in small-town USA. It’s the only novel I have on the go and I am enjoying it tremendously. I’ll only put it down to pick another chapter of the second book currently on my plate: Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’, self-styled ‘Bracing Detox for the Self-Help Junkie’. Never having been a self-help addict the book shouldn’t make sense to me, but it does. Burkeman gives woolly old ‘positive thinking’ rather than actual thinking a well-aimed kick in the teeth. His ideas on how to stop frantically striving for happiness and actually getting closer to a semblance of it by letting go suit me down to the ground.