What do I want to read during summer vacation? Will it be Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, or Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries?
I took my vacation last week, so the planning of vacation reading is moot. But let me recommend three short perfect books for travel.
The German writer Kurt Tucholsky’s novel, Castle Gripsholm (NYRB), translated by Michael Hoffman, is the charming story of a summer vacation in Sweden. Published in 1931, it begins with a series of short letters between the author and an editor who asks him to write a short love story. Tucholsky’s reply is facetious.
A love story… but, my dear master, how could I possibly? Love in the present climate? Are you in love? Is anyone in love these days?
Tucholsky says he would prefer to write “a little summer story.” And then the little summer story begins.
The characters are endearingly original and delightfully bohemian. A writer, Peter, travels to Sweden with his girlfriend Lydia, a witty secretary whom he nicknames the Princess. The two are romantically involved, though their manner is not in the least romantic.
It is impossible not to enjoy their repartee. The couple have the same comic sensibility. On a brief stop in Copenhagen, they visit the Polysandrion, a little museum which displays bad paintings by a singularly untalented gay Danish artist who owns the villa. They find the paintings hilarious: they depict scantily-clad young men with butterflies perched on their shoulders and bottoms. But Peter and Lydia must delay laughing because the painter’s friend is there.
In Stockholm, they walk around admiring the beautiful houses. “A city with water is always beautiful.” But they want to get out of Stockholm and find a cottage in the country. A shrewd guide who speaks German with an American accent takes them to Mariefred, where they tour Castle Gripsholm. Unexpectedly, he finds them the perfect place to stay, large rooms in the annex of the castle. Their stay is idyllic.
Tucholsky’s style is buoyant, witty, and lyrical. This lovely account of a summer holiday is so exquisitely detailed you can see the charming castle, feel the lapping of waves on the lake, and hear the beautiful silence which they are unused to in Berlin. Peter says that eyelids are not enough: he needs “earlids” in the city.
There isn’t much plot, and such as it is revolves around visits from devoted friends and a good deed (really a rescue mission). The latter doesn’t quite fit in with the rest. But I loved this book.
In Rebecca West’s spare first novel, The Return of the Soldier, set during World War I, a soldier’s amnesia causes chaos. Shell-shocked Chris cannot remember Kitty, his shallow, pretty wife, and is desperately in love with Margaret, a woman of another class whom he wanted to marry long ago. The third woman, Jenny, his cousin, understands him as well as Margaret does, and also is in love with him. Who are the real soldiers here? It could be argued that Margaret and Jenny are, as they sadly do their duty, which will make no one happy.
In the Russian poet Karolina Pavlova’s only novel, A Double Life, published in 1848, she mixes prose and poetry to great effect. Pavlova tells the story of a wealthy young woman, Cecily, who enjoys riding, parties, flirtations, and dancing. The mood of the novel is often dreamy, somewhat reminiscent of Turgenev. Cecily leads a double life, absorbed in dreams and fantasies of love; but also apprehensive about where love will take her. And she is surrounded by manipulative people: her best friend Olga’s mother, a sophisticated society woman, views Cecily as the rival of her daughter , and plots to deflect an eligible suitor. Pavlova was apparently unpopular with male poets and writers, who jeered at her poetry. And is this why she disappeared from the canon? I admired this elegant novel.