Tag-Archive for ◊ 20th century ◊

• Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Martin Davies grew up in North West England. He travelled a great deal from the Middle East to India. Today he is a BBC television senior producer and editor and lives in South West London.

His bibliography :
Mrs Hudson and the Spirits Curse published in 2004.
Mrs Hudson and the Malabar Rose published in 2005.
The Conjuror’s Bird published in 2005.
The Unicorn Road published in 2009.

The Conjuror’s Bird is based on historical facts with genuine people from the 18th century like the well-known explorer, botanist and patron of natural sciences, the wealthy Lincolnshire landowner, Baronet Sir Joseph Banks, who was part of Captain James Cook’s first grand voyage around the world on the “Endeavour”, from 1768 to 1771. He was also the unofficial scientific adviser to king George III.

Other known people of the time are Banks’s best friend, Dr. Daniel Carlsson Solander, the Swedish botanist and natural scientist, his Danish friend, Johann Christian Fabricius, professor of natural history and world famous entomologist, and his German friend, the naturalist, ethnologist and travel writer, Johann Georg Forster.

Upon his return to England from Captain Cook’s second expedition in 1774 in the South Seas, Forster offers Banks the well-preserved single specimen of the extinct Ulieta bird.

The novel focuses on the Ulieta bird which became extinct in the 18th century. The extinction of species remains a controversial subject in our 21st century, with its many on-going debates about how humans are destroying the world’s flora and fauna and therefore creating a dangerous unbalance in the ecosystem. A big and serious problem that existed once upon a time and still exists today with apparantly no way of stopping it, unfortunately.

The Conjuror’s Bird intertwines history, romance and thrilling detective pursuit. It’s a biographical fiction mystery novel with literary merit and an engaging, suspenseful story, well-written with intense emotions.

In his novel, the author runs in parallel, by alternating chapters and by using a different typeface, an interlinked story of three centuries: the 18th, the 20th and the 21st, where the past meets the present. The story of the taxidermist, John Fitzgerald, who goes on a detective mission, hunting for the only specimen left of the Ulieta bird, which once belonged to Joseph Banks but disappeared from his collection without any explanation and was never seen again.

If it wasn’t for a coloured drawing done by Forster’s son, Georg, which can be seen in The Natural History Museum in London, no one would have known of its existence. The second story being the love tale of Joseph Banks with the mysterious Miss B—n, the main link being the elusive Ulieta bird and the unknown Miss B. with the striking green eyes, who seems to be the key to finding the long disappeared stuffed bird.

The third story being the discovery of the Congo peacock by James Chapin, the American naturalist,twenty three years after coming across a single peacock feather earlier in the 20th century.

Another link in the novel is the two unfulfilled love stories which stand two centuries apart. The strong and impossible passion that Joseph Banks once shared with Miss B. (Mary Burnett?) who was a woman well ahead of her time in Georgian society, and the infatuation that John Fitzgerald and the ambitiously independent Gabriella used to have for each other. Both loves seem to have ended due to a child, a daughter.

The characters are well depicted, the novel competently structured and a successful amount of research attained. A very pleasant read.

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• Saturday, March 31st, 2007

Sandor Marai was born in Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian empire, on April 11, 1900 to an old Saxon family. He became famous in 1930 as one of the prominent writers in Hungary. When he was young, Marai lived in many different cities: Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris, then lived in Budapest in 1928.

Persecuted by the communist regime in 1948 – the communists banned Marai’s books and destroyed every copy they could find – Marai escaped to Italy before deciding to settle in San Diego in the USA where he obtained citizenship.

Marai considered writing in German but in the end settled for Hungarian, his mother tongue. Even when living in San Diego he continued to write in his native language. His work was not published in English until the mid 1990s. After his wife’s death, Marai lived a secluded life before committing suicide by shooting himself in the head in 1989 in San Diego.

Marai is a novelist, short story and memoir writer, a poet, a journalist and a playwright. He wrote “Casanova in Bolzano” in 1940, “Embers”in 1942, “The Rebels” to be published in 2007 and “Memoir of Hungary” in 1971. Marai was the first reviewer of Kafka’s work.

Marai’s work was unknown outside Hungary for a long time. He has been rediscovered recently and republished in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and many other languages. He is now considered one of the important writers of the 20th century. In 1990 he posthumously received the Kossuth prize. “Embers” became a best-seller both in Europe and the USA, and the English version of “Embers” has been translated from German.

“Embers”is an original and unusual book. The setting is a fairy tale from the pre-war splendid era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The aristocrat’s life is described with all its splendour, its rules and values. The novel is set along those lines. It’s about how sacred friendship is, and how the important sentiment of honour, betrayal, love, hate and passion can grow old and weak with time. It’s a deeply moving monologue, a sort of meditation related out loud. It is also about age and patience that grows wise with maturity.

The General had all the patience it took to wait for 41 years for the return of his one and only best friend Konrad. He was convinced that like all criminals, Konrad was bound one day to return to the scene of the crime, when his waiting has been rewarded, by Konrad announcing his long awaited visit. He set meticulously the same setting of the last dinner the three of them had together forty one years ago, the General, his wife Krisztina and his best friend Konrad, after the unforgettable stag hunt in the forest. Not forgetting any little detail. It’s in the same dining room, in the same old castle at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. He even remembers the exact date: the 2nd of July 1899, 41 years and 43 days ago.

The General spent his life counting the days until his friend Konrad came back after the unspoken act of betrayal that shattered three lives, and left each one of the inseparable threesome to live in complete solitude.

Now the time for explanation has arrived, at last. Since the memorable day of the hunt in the forest with Konrad, Henrik (the General) lived secluded like a hermit. He knew the day would come when things will be solved. He spent a good part of his existence dreaming of this day and preparing for it, for his revenge. But with age he become more wise and deliberate. His revenge ended up being like a duel without swords. The two old men who were once the best of friends, sit opposite each other after dinner in front of a smoldering fire. The General in front of an almost silent protagonist, starts to unravel very slowly, layer by layer, their whole, long dead past friendship. He ponders over all the events that lead to break the honourable tie that once united them, despite their differences and despite the fact that Henrik was born into nobility and Konrad was impoverished.

The seventy five year-old retired general keeps us in suspense. Throughout his pedantic narration we expect a twist at the end. We discover that the twist is that there is no twist, as the guest, Konrad says quietly: “why do you ask me when you know that the answer is yes”. The general knew the answer to all his questions all the way along, but because of his obstinate obsession, he had to go through this confrontation for his peace of mind and as a last farewell to his once best and loyal friend.

In “Embers” or “The Candle Burns to a Stub” (its Hungarian title), nothing much happens, there is no plot. Just the smoldering fire inside an old man’s heart and soul. We discover that for him finding the truth is of no importance any more; with age and time everything mellows, the important thing is to discharge oneself from a burden. Once this is dealt with, his wife’s portrait can be hung back on the wall again, and he can sleep peacefully, knowing that he accomplished the task he has been longing to accomplish all these years. “Now you may hang it up again.” “Yes,” says the nurse (Nini). “It’s of no importance anymore” the general says. “Are you feeling calmer now? asks Nini. “Yes,” says the General.” Now he is relieved after things have been said once and for all. He can go to sleep now. “Good night Nini.” “Good night.”

“Embers”is a sad book. A lot of sadness is revealed in the General’s monologues and throughout his reminiscence, which he had time to develop and dwell upon during his many years of solitude. “And when the longing for joy disappears, all that are left are memories or vanity, and then finally, we are truly old. One day we wake up and rub our eyes and do not know why we have woken… Nothing surprising can ever happen again.”