Art review: M. K. Ciurlionis (Lithuania)

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911) was an artist and composer who remains something of a national hero in his native Lithuania. Although his music is known worldwide, his art has rarely been exhibited outside Lithuania. However, an exhibition of his work opened at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in September last year, and runs until 12 March.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is our local gallery, and has set something of a trend in holding pioneering exhibitions of the work of European artists who are little known beyond their own national borders, such as Norwegian artist Harald Sohlberg, who I wrote about in 2020.

Čiurlionis (pronounced Churlyoniss) was a symbolist artist, who is now considered one of the earliest pioneers of abstract art, as well as a contributor to art nouveau.

Lightning, 1909, tempura on cardboard

Although Čiurlionis died in his mid-30s, he left behind over 400 pieces of music and over 300 works of art and, according to Dulwich Picture Gallery, he was “engaged with the idea of our relationship with the celestial and the cosmos.” He was influenced by Lithuanian folklore (Lithuania was pagan and pantheistic before adopting Christianity in 1387), as well as science, religion and philosophy.

Fantasy (The Demon), 1909, Tempera on cardboard

Lithuanian culture and language were long repressed under Russian rule, until after the Russian Revolution of 1905, and Čiurlionis was a founding member of the Society of Lithuanian Art in 1907. In the following year he wrote of his hope for the establishment of a ‘House of the Nation’ – and that museum, the Kaunas-based M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum, has lent his works to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Book review: Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (1944-2001, Germany)

Translated by Anthea Bell

Cult classic Austerlitz was my newbie Classics Club choice in January. It was W. G. Sebald’s final work before his unexpected death in 2001. Although he lived and worked in England from the late 1960s, he wrote all his novels in an archaic and elaborate German, but oversaw the English translations. Austerlitz‘s elaborately crafted passages mean full stops are rare, with one sentence covering up to nine pages.

To begin with I found the book, which I had been assured was a work of unparalleled genius, to be impenetrable. I read endless pages describing the unnamed narrator’s interactions with a man named Austerlitz, who he keeps running into, and who initially spends a lot of time describing various train stations of Europe in painstaking detail.

I was bored, but the text was strangely hypnotic, and eventually our narrator runs into Austerlitz in London, where they resume their conversation as though it had never paused (though their last meeting was years before). Austerlitz reveals childhood experiences, including his discovery, on the early death of his parents, that he had been living under an assumed name, Dafydd, for his entire remembered history.

In middle age Austerlitz finally confronts his past, discovering that his birth parents were Czech Jews; travelling to Prague and onto Paris with a companion he finds that in 1939, at the age of five, he was sent to Wales on the Kindertransport, and there taken in by his austere adoptive parents. On his travels he begins to recover his lost knowledge of the Czech language, along with shadowy memories.

Austerlitz moves through space and time, through dreams and ruined buildings, like a somnambulist, gradually unearthing the collective and personal horrors of his own past.

“I lay there in my semi-conscious condition for several days, and in that state I saw myself wandering around a maze of long passages, vaults, galleries and grottoes where the names of various Metro stations [….] – and certain discolorations and shadings in the air seemed to indicate that this was a place of exile for those who had fallen on the field of honour, or lost their lives in some other violent way. I saw armies of these unredeemed souls thronging over bridges to the opposite bank or coming towards me down the tunnels, their eyes fixed, cold and dead. Sometimes they manifested themselves in one of the dark catacombs where, covered in frayed and dusty plumage, they were crouching on he stony floor and, turning silently towards one another, made digging motions with their earth-stained hands.”

Sebald is famed for his works of ‘spectral geography’, and his work is interspersed with mysterious and atmospheric grainy black and white photos of people and places. (Bizarrely, The Spectator in a review of Austerlitz describes Sebald as a ‘liar’, as a photo purporting in the text to show Austerlitz as a child was in fact found by Sebald in an English junk shop, and is labelled as such on the back. Apparently the pathologically literalist journalist was unfamiliar with the concept of fiction.)

This strange, haunting, mesmeric book might be the best book that I have read about the Holocaust, a work of fiction about the defining tragedy of the 20th century.

Book review: The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (Lithuania, 1930-2009)

I hadn’t come across this classic of children’s literature until my son was assigned it as a year 8 (age 12-13) text. Published in 1968, The Endless Steppe is a memoir of Esther Hautzig’s childhood experiences during WWII, when she and her family were exiled to Siberia.

Hautzig was born in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania (then part of Poland). She had a comfortable early childhood in a large, upper middle-class, happy Jewish family on a tree-lined avenue and, as she recalls later, her wardrobe was bursting with pretty dresses.

In 1941 Vilnius was annexed by Soviet troops, and Hautzig was transported to exile in Siberia, along with her parents and paternal grandparents, leaving behind her extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins – a fact that would haunt the family thereafter.

After a gruelling train journey in cattle trucks, and months imprisoned in a labour camp as ‘capitalists’, amnesty was granted to Polish citizens on Soviet territory under the Sikorski–Mayski agreement, while war continued to rage across Europe. Hautzig, her parents and her grandmother were allowed to look for accommodation of the most basic kind outside the labour camp (their first ‘home’ being one wall of a small, shared hut that accommodated the entire family).

For five years they made a life of sorts, living hand to mouth on the brutal – but sometimes beautiful – Siberian steppe; Hautzig’s grandfather, meanwhile, had succumbed to illness in another forced labour camp.

This account is immensely readable, and Hautzig convincingly recaptures a child’s voice. Despite the desperate circumstances, once permitted to attend the local school the young Hautzig has a child’s concerns: fitting in with other children at her Russian-speaking school, entering school contests, aspiring to get hold of presentable clothing amid impossible poverty, or trying to find the resources to attend a rare showing of a movie when the chance arises.

There are many moments of humour and levity in this memoir, which nevertheless doesn’t shy away from presenting the personal horrors and losses of war. I can see why my son’s school selected it as a non-fiction text. It is absorbing, presenting historical information in a matter of fact way from the perspective of a young adolescent.

After the war the family returned to their home town, and Hautzig later emigrated to the USA to study. Far less well known than Anne Frank’s diary, this is an unexpectedly accessible insight into the life of a teenager impacted by the devastation of war.

January Wrap-up/Plans for February

What I read

Most of my January reading and January posts have been based around South Africa. I also read and reviewed Children of the Cave by Finnish writer Virve Sammalkorpi for NORDIC Finds, and got through a couple of classics on audio book. I do find them more accessible that way: much easier to wade through and far more enjoyable.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (published in 1853) was read by Prunella Scales, and the book is a series of interlinked, gossipy short stories about the inhabitants of a small fictional country town, Cranford. The character-led tales, narrated by ex-Cranford resident Mary, all tie together to make a satisfying, often wryly humorous and sometimes very moving narrative of ordinary people living ordinary lives in genteel but impecunious circumstances.

I always thought I disliked Jane Austen’s writing, but it turns out that I only dislike Mansfield Park, which I studied for English A level. This month I finally tackled Sense and Sensibility, read by Rosamund Pike, which I loved. There’s humour and charm amid the romantic highs and deep lows of teenage sisters Elinor and Marianne. Although I do find it hard to sympathise with the urge to marry off a 16-year-old to a man of 35, especially one who loves a flannel waistcoat (undoubtedly de rigueur in 1810).

I also read Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, but it was such a depressing and horribly twisted story that I couldn’t bring myself to write a review.

What I watched: Films and TV

In addition to watching and reviewing South African movie District 9, I watched four films.

Brian and Charles is a 2022 British film about a lonely man and hapless inventor living in Wales who (almost accidentally) builds a sentient robot, and was perfect for pizza and movie night with the teens.

We also watched the Netflix movie adaptation of White Noise (2022). I wasn’t all that impressed by the book back in circa 2004, but with the benefits of middle age the dark humour and essential truths have become more relatable. Very entertaining. However, Gothic mystery The Pale Blue Eye, also a new Netflix release, was pointless and a bit boring.

Finally, I watched Avatar (2009) with my husband and younger daughter. I thought it sounded vaguely ableist, with a disabled character who only really comes to life via his alien-species avatar, but all three of us loved it. The storyline isn’t particularly original, the dialogue is cringe, the special effects are dated, it’s long – but what it does it does so well! Highly entertaining, and a solid four stars.

If you’re still with me, then it’s time for TV now. My top watches of January have been polished TV Western The English (Rafe Spall is incredible), lush period drama Marie Antoinette, and the enjoyably silly high concept Disney series Extraordinary.


I managed to get out and about and visit an exhibition on hieroglyphs at the British Museum, the female modernist artists on display at the Royal Academy, Madalena Abakanowicz at the Tate Modern and Kafe Fassett’s fabric designs at the Fashion and Textile Museum.

Plans for February

And finally, if you’ve made it this far, my plans for the month ahead include a focus on books, films, art and music from the Baltic state of Lithuania, among other things.

Book review: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (Finland)

Translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

“It’s dangerous to be different where everyone else is alike. Have you noticed?”

Virve Sammalkorpi is a contemporary Finnish writer who has written several novels, although this is the first to appear in English translation. Children of the Cave was first published in 2016, and was published in translation by Peirene in 2019, subsequently languishing unread on my shelves.

Annabel’s NORDIC finds project/challenge provided me with the motivation needed to finally open the book, although I had initially intended to review Tove Ditlevsen’s weird novel of mental illness, The Faces, which I did read, but found I just couldn’t get my thoughts together to review.

Children of the Cave won both the 2017 Savonia Literature Prize and the Kuvastaja Prize for the best Finnish Fantasy Novel.

I would generally claim not to like fantasy, and would believe myself to be telling the truth, but I suppose I am quite open to novels set in an alternative reality: ‘relatable’ fantasy novels, or those set in the past or on an alternate timeline. I’d include the wonderful Women’s Prize-winning Piranesi, by Susannah Clarke, in this category, as well as Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. In fact, thinking about it, it turns out I have a positive (hitherto unacknowledged) penchant for spec-fic.

Anyway, back to the book, which I very much enjoyed. In the Preface the story is described as a tribute to Iax Agolasky, a young Russian translator, explorer and later photographer who, we are told, accompanied a French anthropologist on an expedition deep into the Russian wilderness between 1819 to 1823. The anthropologist, Professor Moltique, we learn followed a branch of research into “ancient peoples”, based around folklore and legends.

The story unfolds through recovered diary entries, sometimes damaged, missing or unclear. A year into the journey signs of life are seen near a cave, and creatures emerge, which resemble humans but have varying animalistic traits, whether it be a pelt, whiskers or merely a parrot-like tongue. It is unclear whether the creatures are human or a previously undiscovered species of animal.

Tensions emerge over the find, relations begin to deteriorate among the expedition party, and it becomes clear that some members of the trip see the childlike creatures as interesting specimens, or – perhaps worse – as little more than prey, even while Agolasky begins to grow close to an older girl, Anna.

Following the course of an increasingly doomed expedition through a first person account is a device that has been used many times before, for example by Beryl Bainbridge in her 1991 novel Birthday Boys, a fictionalized account of Captain Roberts Scott’s journey to Antarctica in 1910-13.

In Sammalkorpi’s book this device is employed so proficiently that I found myself googling to find if there really was once a man called Iax Agolasky who had kept an incomplete expedition diary. An intriguing read that asks some big questions.

Film review: District 9 (South Africa)

We watched 2009 South African sci-fi film ‘District 9’ at the weekend. In fact we’d watched this dystopian movie before, but I remembered virtually nothing of it. I was discouraged by the fact that I’d not laid down a single memory, but it’s a really entertaining movie, which also has an allegorical point to make, clearly influenced by South Africa’s own history of ghettoization and apartheid.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp and co-produced by Peter ‘Lord of the Rings’ Jackson, the film opens documentary-style, with 20-year old news footage of the arrival over Johannesburg of a massive spaceship. The craft disgorged its malnourished cargo of insectlike, bipedal aliens, dubbed ‘Prawns’ by the locals, into the city, and has lingered in the skies ever since.

Quickly confined by officials to an increasingly overcrowded shanty town, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, the ‘Prawns’ have been living hand-to-mouth on overpriced cat food, repressed, and prevented from interacting with the local population for the past two decades.

Sharlto Copley plays Wikus van de Merwe, an eager bureaucrat at the ‘Multinational United’ (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs, who is tasked by his evil MNU executive father-in-law with serving the ‘Prawns’ with eviction notices so that they can be moved to a new location.

The aliens aren’t too impressed with this plan, and violence breaks out. Hapless, amiable Wikus finds himself infected with an alien fluid, which causes him to come uncomfortably close to the aliens (it all gets a bit Jeff Goldblum as the ‘Brundlefly’ circa 1989).

Circumstances compel Wikus increasingly to empathize with the aliens’ desperate situation, and he develops a connection with an unusually intelligent alien, known as Christopher Johnson, and his son, who are bent on fleeing the planet.

There are moments of humour, decent special effects, an excellent bunch of baddies and gripping action scenes, and I’ve given the film a healthy 4 out of 5 stars on my newly set up Letterboxd account. This movie was definitely worth the £3.50 movie rental fee.

Book review: Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tlali (South Africa)

This book is pretty uninspiring in terms of plot, since it is a first person tale set mainly in the environs of a hire purchase shop in Soweto, specializing in radio rentals. Muriel works as a clerk there, and details here interactions with a range of colourful characters, including her boss, and the other workers, with repossessions a recurring theme.

It soon becomes clear, though, that the repossessions are mainly from the black customers, while white customers, however creditworthy in practice, receive favourable treatment, and amid significant discrepancies in interest charges for white and black customers.

The power of the book then is in its clear-eyed, matter-of-fact detailing of the racist system that prevailed under the apartheid regime during the 1960s, at the most mundane and everyday level.

Remarkable too is the fact that the book was published at all. It was the first work of fiction (more accurately perhaps ‘fiction’) to be published by a black South African woman, initially in a substantially redacted form; it was banned in South Africa until the late 1980s.

Music review: South African late 20th century classics

Miriam Makeba by Miriam Makeba (1960)

I couldn’t spend a month ‘in’ South Africa without listening to some South African music, and this album by Miriam Makeba (who to this point I only knew for ‘Pata Pata’) features in the 1001 albums list, which describes it thus: “traditional Xhosa wedding songs swing into airy African jazz moods, melilifluous Indonesian lullabies and infectious Calypso romps”. A link to Makeba’s amazing “Click Song” is provided at the end of of this post.

The album was recorded in exile in New York in 1960, when she was 28; in the same year she was prevented by the South African country from returning to that country for her mother’s funeral.

Nicknamed ‘Mama Africa’, Makeba was one of the first African musicians to receive global acclaim. She returned to South Africa after the end of apartheid, and died during a performance in 2008.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Shaka Zulu (1987)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo came to prominence as the gospel choir featured on Paul Simon’s bestselling 1986 album Graceland. Not a big fan of listening to Paul Simon or gospel choir, but these people have got staying power and appeal well beyond my Spotify speaker. Shaka Zulu won a Grammy following its release, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo won a fifth Grammy in 2018 for Shaka Zulu Revisited: 30th Anniversary Celebration.

Various Artists: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (1985)

Finally, this South African pop compilation comes in at no 497 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, which describes it as full of “‘badass joy [that] needed no translation”. It apparently influenced Graceland (that album again), and features the late Mahlathini, the deep-voiced “Lion of Soweto”.

Book review: Down Second Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008, South Africa)

Down Second Avenue is a work of non-fiction, sometimes sub-titled “Growing Up in a South African Ghetto”, that documents the formative years of Es’kia (Ezekiel) Mphahlele, dubbed the “father of black South African writing”.

The book was first published in the UK in 1959, and in the USA in 1971, and I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is introduced by renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It is one of Peter Boxall’s ‘1001 Books to Read before you Die’, so by reading it for my immersion into South African writing and culture I’ve ticked it off that list.

Mphahlele tells of his early childhood in Marabastad, outside Pretoria, where he was sent by his parents to be raised in poverty by his steely paternal grandmother. As a teenager he returned to the care of his parents, who had become increasingly estranged from each other. Poverty, both inside and outside the system was everywhere, and mortality was high among the impoverished black population.

In childhood Mphahlele didn’t really question the apartheid system, but as he become more educated he became increasingly angry at the injustices perpetuated by the whites against the black population.

He succeeded academically and professionally against all the odds, becoming a teacher, but tells of winning a prize in early adulthood where “the whites … segregated themselves. They drank out of complete tea sets while we had an assortment of oddly-matched cups and saucers.”

Eventually, at the age of 37, in 1957 Mphahlele departed South Africa for Nigeria, with his wife and three children, after managing to obtain a passport, despite hurdles presented by the authorities, which bridled at his vigorous political campaigning over the years. In Nigeria, where he lived until 1961, he felt able to breathe at last “the new air of freedom”, while his children could learn “something worthwhile … not for slaves”.

He expresses his bitterness at life under apartheid, and the difficulty of having his writing accepted on its own terms, without prejudice:

“No South African journals circulating mainly among whites would touch any of my stories, nor any others written by a non-white, unless he tried to write like a European and adopted a European name. … Every time something has been published that I wrote, I have felt patronized.”

The book ends:

“I think now the white man has no right to tell me how to order my life as a social being, or order it for me. He may teach me how to make a shirt or to read or to write, but my forebears and I could teach him a thing or two if only he would listen and allow himself time to feel.” In 1977 Mphahlele returned to South Africa.

As in the Julia Blackburn book I reviewed earlier this month (which is otherwise entirely different from this book), here again was a plea for a demonstration of basic human feeling from members of the white colonial system propagating an inhumane regime.

Book review – Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam by Julia Blackburn

I ordered this book, published in hardback in the UK in 2022, from my local library, intrigued by reviews. Julia Blackburn has written widely, combining her non-fiction writing on topics like anthropology, nature and history with memoir, as well as fiction.

Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam is loosely structured as a journal, beginning in March 2020 and ending a year later. The book draws together two separate threads of narrative, one following Blackburn’s enforced months of widowed solitude locked down in the UK during 2020 and 2021, away from her three children and their families, and one following the historical story of German linguist Wilhem Bleek’s investigations into the language and culture of the /Xam people of the South African Karoo, together with his English sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd.

As Blackburn works on her book on the /Xam in the UK, after her research in South Africa is cut short by COVID-19 in March 2022 (she gets virtually the last seat on virtually the last flight out of Cape Town), Blackburn longs desperately for her family, while thinking of the /Xam people in the 19th century “doing their best to hold tight in a world that has become utterly unfamiliar and more dangerous”. She tends to her chickens, and reflects in a way that is both sad and matter of fact on life and death, and history, and it’s all absolutely fascinating.

Her reflections and digressions spring off the page, as she pores over old notebooks and adds little wandering references to a trip to the Venice Biennale, making marmalade, getting the COVID vaccine and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

Meanwhile, back in the 19th century, Lucy Lloyd worked with indigenous people like /Aikunta and /Dia!kwain (the ‘!’ is apparently a sort of guttural click) to slowly compile a dictionary of /Xam words, with a /Xam-English dictionary preserved in the Cape Town University Library. No one alive today speaks the /Xam language.

Lloyd sounds to have been altogether more empathetic, and significantly less well-recognised, than Bleek. Four decades after Bleek’s death she continued to be described as his assistant, although she had dramatically expanded upon and developed the work that had begun with him. 

The whites devastated the countryside of Karoo from the 1600s “with our guns, our presumptions and our cruelty, as we moved like a plague through unexplored regions, claiming everything as our own and leaving a trail of destruction in our wake”.

In 1836-37 Captain W. C. Harris wrote, dispassionately, of leaving the bodies of baby elephants abandoned around their mothers’ corpses in the whites’ greed for ivory:

There could have been no fewer than 300 elephants within the scope of our vision … they all proved to be ladies and most of them mothers, followed by their old-fashioned calves … eventually both wagons were so crammed with spolia that … we were reluctantly compelled to leave the ground strewed with that valuable commodity“.

Whole species, like the quagga, a sort of brown and white striped zebra, were wiped out: quagga have been identified in cave paintings, so had had a long and hardy heritage. By the 1850s /A!kunta, another man interviewed by Bleek and Lloyd, thought that elephants were mythological rain-bringing creatures. The land was taken over by the whites’ sheep, never mind that they are unsuited to the environment and rubbish at camouflage.

The whites’ cruelty did not stop at animals, with /Dia!kwain recorded thus by Bleek and Lloyd:

We shall see whether we make those people cry as we do, for they do not seem to know that we are people“.

Heart-rending as such words are, the book succeeds in a small miracle in bringing the reality of these lost people, who were so much more connected with the natural world, to life. A bonus is the photos Blackburn has reproduced of some of the /Xam people who spoke to Bleek and Lloyd, and of contemporaneous drawings. An excellent and unique book.

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