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Cyber crush: to meet or not to meet, that is the question.

March 24, 2011 19 comments

Gut Gegen Nordwind by Daniel Glattauer. Translated in French by “Contre le vent du Nord” and in English by the silly “Love Virtually”, instead of the literal “Good Against the North Wind”

I decided to read Gut Gegen Nordwind – I can’t make myself use the ludicrous English title – after reading Caroline’s review. It seemed to be the right book to read for the upcoming 7 hours flight I had to take and I wasn’t disappointed, the hours flew pleasantly.  

So, what is it about? Emmi wants to cancel her subscription to the magazine Like. She misspells the email address and accidentally sends it to Leo Leike. They start chatting and writing to each other until the light and funny conversation turns into a crush. Emmi is happily married and Leo is recovering from a multiple stop-and-go relationship with Marlene. The question “Shall we meet?” is raised right from the start. As they live in the same town, the meeting would be easy to set up. It’s nagging at them and itches more and more intensely as the correspondence develops.

I really enjoyed the beginning of their relationship, their witty ping-pong exchanges. The ending is unexpected and well-chosen. I was a little bored by the procrastination about meeting or not.  As it is written in the form of emails, the style is mostly spoken language, with a very good translation from the German. The sequence of short messages gives a vivid rhythm to the book.

Now that I’m writing the review and try to answer the central question of the book, ie “What are Emmi and Leo looking for in this virtual relationship?”, two opposite tendencies fight in me. My soft side would say it’s a lovely book gracefully avoiding the expected Hollywood ending. My cynical side would be tempted by a twisted interpretation. So, I’ll give you the two voices and you’ll make up your mind.

La vie en rose, the soft voice says.

Emmi and Leo weren’t looking for anything but accidents, like falling in love, happen. They start an innocent correspondence and get carried away. Leo is available and he’s probably vulnerable after his break-up with Marlene. Emmi entering into his life without the constraints of a long-term relationship is probably a good way to forget his former lover. Emmi is a distraction that becomes an addiction. On her side, Emmi is sincerely in love with her husband Bernhard and it is as if her love were opening a new branch for Leo, who reveals the little emptiness of her married life. Someway, romance is lacking in her life and she enjoys the feeling of young love.

Words are powerful weapons that can set imaginations on fire. It was in the core of two beautiful short-stories by Thomas Hardy I recently read. Imagination also plays a crucial part in Gut Gegen Nordwind. This is a disembodied love fostered by teasing words. But is it really love or the idea of love? Can you pretend to love someone you’ve never met? Isn’t this a very convenient “relationship”, one you can stop whenever you want? You’re there, online, only when you feel like it. It’s out of time, out of place, a sort of living diary. It’s like having a diary that responds to your thoughts.

Of course, the other question is: Is Emmi cheating on her husband with this relationship? What is cheating? What she does, as her feelings are committed, seems a greater betrayal than a simple one night stand.

La vie en Noir, the cynical voice says.

Are they two seducers who manipulate each other? Emmi and Leo don’t really share their deepest thoughts or their everyday life. They don’t have engaging conversations. But they need each other, the daily messages and the idea that there is someone out there to talk to. I wondered why what could have been an agreeable friendship had to turn into love.

What if Leo had been a Lea? Would Emmi have kept on writing if her addressee had been a woman? I’m not sure. Although we only see her through her mails, Leo’s answers and the indirect speech of her friend Mia, we guess Emmi takes pleasure in being attractive. We understand that she’s pretty and likes testing her power over men. She’s the one who starts teasing and talking about seduction. Emmi is not built to have a man as a friend. She doesn’t believe in friendship between a man and a woman. From the first emails, Emmi introduces the idea of seduction and sex by asking Leo how he imagines her. Is she doing this to spice her marriage? And Leo? Doesn’t he enter the game easily, nourishing the flames by ambiguous sentences, erotic comments and a strange way of meeting without meeting?

I can’t give too many details without spoiling the last part of the book. But the more I think of it, the more I incline towards the twisted side. What can I say, I have difficulties to buy pure romance.

My two opposite responses to Gut Gegen Nordwind are evidence that this book isn’t as simple and as gooey romantic as the English title gives us to understand. There is a sequel, it will be published in France in April but it’s already released in English and has been reviewed by Caroline here.

Wisdom from an Older Poet

September 13, 2010 7 comments

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Read by Denis Podalydes.

 In 1903, Franz Kappus is a cadet in a military school. He writes poetry and wonders whether his poems are good and if he is meant to be a poet. When he learns form one of his teacher that  Rainer Maria Rilke is an alumnus of the same school, he decides to write to him and ask for an opinion on his poems. A long correspondence will follow, and Franz Kapuss had Rilke’s letters published years later, leaving his own in the shadow.

 I have borrowed the audio book of Letters to a Young Poet at the library. The voice of Denis Podalydes was sometimes musing, sometimes firm, and always warm, soft and convincing. Rainer Maria Rilke has a calm wisdom which applies a soothing balm on one’s mind.

In the first letter, Rilke answers to Franz’s interrogations. He gives his vision of being an artist. How do you know if you are meant to be a writer ? The answer is simple: if you can imagine your life going on without writing, then you are not a writer. He advises Franz to turn his attention to himself to find in his inner life the roots and the raw material for his art. Critics from journalists, magazine owners and readers are not relevant to evaluate the worth of his poems. He shall find this answer in himself. No one can teach him how to write, something I agree with. (I’ve always wondered what Americans teach in writing classes). He needs to find his voice as a writer, and this voice comes from deep inside.

The other letters are more guidelines for life than writing counsels. The experience of the artist is solitary and to bear its loneliness with forbearance is a way to strengthen and reveal one’s personality. Rilke thinks a period of solitude is a mandatory step to discover who we are and that if we throw ourselves in the world without caution, we shall never know ourselves deeply. Solitude is a mean to shut out the futilities of life and concentrate on the essentials. It will give us solid roots to face the tempests of our existence.

His vision of women suits me and is insightful for the time. He points out that men and women are more similar than it seems (Remember, we are in 1903 and women have the rights of children). The greatest worldwide innovation will occur when men and women will not consider themselves as opposites but as human beings. Women should no be individuals defined in comparison to men but as themselves, a feminine human being. Rilke perceives that love relationships will be affected by this transformation and men will be surprised. Love will consist “in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other”.

To Franz who seems to have lived some hard times, he says sorrows should pass through him. The sadness which crosses someone nourishes them but when it stagnates, it putrefies and pollutes their soul. Fate is not external to men but within. The future is immobile, we are moving and imagining that events fall on us. But we just fail to listen to our inner minds and detect the coming events. It is that way that the future penetrates in us.

On courage, Rilke writes that the only true audacity is to welcome the unusual, the new, the strange as a benefit. “…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”  Perhaps the ability to adapt to changes and new events is indeed the route to happiness, if happiness can be defined as a state of “non-suffering”

Rilke’s personal telescope is pointed on life from an fresh corner. These peaceful letters are the sort of book you want on your bedside table. They are a kind comfort for bad days, a silent shelter from the tumultuous outside world.

For another review, read Caroline’s fascinating take on these letters.

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