Tag: Montaigne

Discoveries: Sarah Bakewell on Irmgard Keun

I interviewed Sarah Bakewell last month about her biography of Montaigne for the new Interview of the Month slot on the Blackwell Online website (that interview will be available there very soon). Visiting her website recently I saw her post about Irmgard Keun, a writer I had never heard of.

Bakewell: How to LiveIt turned out that Sarah had never heard of her either until she stumbled on one of her books in My Back Pages in Balham.  That gave me an idea for a new series of guest posts, featuring readers on writers or books they have recently discovered. 

Sarah has very kindly allowed me to republish her post, the first in a series of what I am unsurprisingly going to call Discoveries. If you would like to contribute, email me at george [at] podularity.com.

Sarah BakewellWhen I’m working from home there usually comes a point where I have to get up from my desk and rush out into the air, usually on the pretext of going to the supermarket or post office. But sometimes, once I get out into the street, I realize at once that I don’t need groceries and I have nothing to post.

When this happens, I keep walking past Balham tube station until I get to the best second-hand bookshop in the neighbourhood (also one of the best in London), My Back Pages.

Irmagard Keun Child of all NationsI tend to come out with exactly one book, and it’s never one I had previously intended to buy. Last week it was a Penguin Classic I’d never heard of, by Irmard Keun, called Child of All Nations. I bought it because I liked the cover.

Child of All Nations was written in 1938, and only translated into English in 2008 – by Michael Hofmann, who is best known for his translations of Joseph Roth. There’s a connection, for Irmgard Keun travelled round Europe for many years as Joseph Roth’s companion. Both were writers and bohemians, both drank too much, and both were in flight from the Nazis, who were burning their books.

The novel is the story of Kully, a young girl whose parents are doing just what Keun and Roth did. The father drifts from one European capital to the next, writing and boozing, and trying to charm or wheedle money out of people. Whenever he does get a few coins, he blows it on inviting impecunious poets and street-drinkers out for absinthe and rum. Meanwhile, Kully waits with her mother in Dutch and Belgian hotels which they cannot afford to leave, for that would mean paying the bill. She picks up languages by the half-dozen, meets children and adults, and plays with anything she happens to find, from rotting crabs to tiny balls of mercury spilled from a broken thermometer. She observes all: an eternally naïve narrator who misunderstands what is going on, but who – of course – really understands more than anyone. The adults are lost and often sad; Kully does not get it, and so she sees things as they really are.

Irmgard KeunIt’s an exquisite, moving book, beautifully written (and beautifully translated). Kully’s father is an unforgettable character: warm, impulsive, generous; intimidating when drunk, shockingly irresponsible, yet somehow reassuring. When he is around, it seems nothing can go wrong; the trouble is, he is hardly ever around. Early on, he is described as having eyes which “sometimes looked as if they had swum far out to sea and weren’t completely back yet.” And when he gives a lecture in Poland, Kully (who isn’t sure what a lecture is) pictures it as a glittering spectacle in a vast castle, attended by thousands of people. It must, she imagines, “must be something like thunder made out of diamonds.”

This book is thunder made out of diamonds too, and it takes you far out to sea. I’m glad so few of the books I find are like this, or I’d never get anything else done; I’d read and re-read them, and perhaps forget to come back.

©  Sarah Bakewell 2010. For original post, see Sarah’s site here.

17. “Unstitching the carefully tailored suit” – among the dead philosophers

Simon Critchley
“The book is written against the view that a philosopher’s biography is of no importance and that philosophy can be reduced to a series of systems of thought. It’s really an attempt to rewrite the history of philosophy as a history of philosophers. That was the way that philosophy was taught until the eighteenth century. So in a way it’s a revival of a rather ancient idea of philosophy being taught through exemplary biography or the idea of philosophy as a way of life.”

In this week’s podcast I talk to Simon Critchley about his recently published Book of Dead Philosophers. The book might at first seem like one of those forgettable book of quirky lists and miscellaneous bizzareries, but in fact it’s much more than that. Critchley Melbourne coverAs Jonathan Derbyshire put it in his Guardian review:
Book of Dead Philosophers UK cover
“These descriptions aren’t just intended to be diverting, however (though they are certainly that); Critchley says that they are also meant to challenge a conception of philosophy which holds that it is a form of abstract, conceptual inquiry that makes no difference to the lives of those who practise it.
For him, philosophy is not so much about learning how to die, as about learning how to live with what he calls our ‘creatureliness’. We are finite, ‘limited’ creatures, and philosophy is, or ought to be, the business of helping human beings to live with the ‘difficulty’ of facing up to that.”

I met up with Simon in the rather noisy cafe of the ICA in London just before he was due to give a talk about the book, and started off by hitting him with a quote from Heidegger. As you do.

Oh, and the title of this post is a quote from Simon’s book; “unstitching the carefully tailored suit of the self” is his description of the effect that grief has on us.