Friday, November 28, 2014

Forgotten Book: The Spider by Hanns Heinz Ewers

Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-1943 ) was a German actor, poet, philosopher, and writer of short stories and novels. His 1915 story, The Spider, begins explosively:

When the student of medicine, Richard Bracquemont, decided to move into room #7 of the small Hotel Stevens, Rue Alfred Stevens (Paris 6), three persons had already hanged themselves from the cross-bar of the window in that room on three successive Fridays.

After two deaths, the owner of the boarding house appeals to the police as the deaths are adversely affecting her business: People are moving out and regular clients have stopped coming. A police officer is designated to investigate the affair. The officer while making his report hints at finding a clue to the deaths but does not elaborate, asking for more time. However, the time never comes because on the first Friday since his living in that room, he too is found to have hanged himself.

Two weeks later, Richard Bracquemont, moves into the room, determined to solve the mystery and make a name for himself. The narrative then is carried forward by his diary entries as he waits for something to happen. On Wednesday, he catches a glimpse of a woman in a room across the street. She seems to be spinning. And from then on Bracquemont finds himself getting enmeshed in a web. He struggles to get out of it but the allure of the window is too strong.


This is a story that gave me the creeps. Perfect Halloween stuff. Now I want to read more of this author.


First Line: When the student of medicine, Richard Bracquemont, decided to move into room #7 of the small Hotel Stevens, Rue Alfred Stevens (Paris 6), three persons had already hanged themselves from the cross-bar of the window in that room on three successive Fridays.

Title: The Spider
Original Title: ?
Original Language: German
Author: Hanns Heinz Ewers
Translator: Not mentioned
Publication Details: Not given
First Published: 1915
Pages: n.pag
Source: Project Gutenberg Australia
Other books read of the same author: None



Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books, today @ Evan Lewis' blog.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The House of Hapsburg: The Radetzky March, and Beware of Pity

"During the Serbian Campaign, when, after Potiorek's disastrous defeat, exactly forty-nine men out of our whole regiment, the Colonel's pride, retreated safely across the Save, he stayed behind to the last on the opposite bank; then, feeling that the panic-stricken retreat was a slur on the honour of the army, he did something that only a very few commanders and senior officers did after a defeat: he took out his service revolver and put a bullet through his own head, so as not to be obliged to witness his country's downfall, which, with his limited perception, he had prophetically foreseen in that terrible moment when he had watched the retreat of his regiment."

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a constitutional union of the Empire of Austria and the Apostolic Kingdom of Hungary that existed from 1867 to 1918. Ruled by the House of Hapsburg, it was at one time a great power in Central Europe, and it was the assassination of the prince-heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered the first world war. By the end of the war, the dual-monarchy was over, the empire having been defeated. Austria and Hungary went their different ways. The Empire was further divided when the West Slavs of the empire formed the country of Czechkoslovakia while the Southern Slavs formed the country of Yougoslavia.

This German Literature Month, I found myself reading two novels that deal with the Hapsburg empire.

Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March begins on the battle-field of Solferino in Northern Italy. The Austrian Kaiser, Franz Joseph comes to the battlefield to lead the charge of his men against French forces led by Napolean III. A young lieutenant, Joseph Trotta saves the young Kaiser's life and for this act of bravery is rewarded handsomely by a grateful monarchy. The novel than follows the trajectory of the Trottas, Joseph; his son who becomes a District officer; and his son Carl Joseph who joins the army. Through this chronicle of the Trottas, the novel captures well the decline and fall of the Empire.

The Radetzky March, a popular march-tune written and composed by Johann Strauss to celebrate the achievements of Field Marshal Josef Graf Radetzky von hauntingly repeated in the novel to emphasise the relentless march of time and the fall of a great power.

The other novel, Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity is not so ambitious in scope.

 A young lieutenant, Anton Hofmiller, serving in the Austro-Hungarian army is invited to the home of a Hungarian aristocrat Lajos Kekesfalva. Over there, he meets Edith the daughter of the house and finds that she suffers from paralyses. However, compassion for her and the fact that he enjoys her company makes him go back to the house repeatedly. Edith takes his pity for love and starts dreaming of leading her life with him. Hofmiller is shocked when he realises Edith's passion for him. However, instead of extracting himself from such a situation, he finds himself getting further enmeshed in it so much so that he even agrees to be engaged to Edith but then cannot bring himself to accept such a responsibility. How does Edith take his rejection?

This is a deeply moving book and towards the end, I found myself becoming teary-eyed.


First Line: THE TROTTAS were a young dynasty.
Title: The Radetzky March

Original Title: Radetzkymarsch
Original Language: German
Author: Joseph Roth
Translator: Joachim Neugroschel
Publication Details: London: Everyman's Library, 1996 (Intro by Alan Bance)
First Published: 1932
Pages: xliii + 331
Source: CRL [0113,3M94,RM]
Other books read of the same author: None


First Line: The whole thing began with a blunder on my part, an entirely innocent piece of clumsiness, a gaffe, as the French call it.

Title: Beware of Pity
Original Title: Ungeduld des Herzens
Original Language: German
Author: Stefan Zweig
Translators: Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt
Publication Details: London: Cassell, 1956
First Published: 1939
Pages: 418
Source: College Library [823 Z9B]
Other books read of the same author: None


Monday, November 24, 2014

In its 75th Year: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie


I was in school when I first read And Then There Were None. Agatha Christie was already a great favourite and I was searching for all her books and reading them. I remember the suspense and the tension became so unbearable towards the end that I turned the few pages left and read the last page. Couldn't believe my eyes when I read the name of the person pulling the strings. I don't know how many times I have read the book subsequently and never has it failed to give me the thrills.

This year being the 75th year of its publication (it was first published in November 1939 at a time when the world was witnessing yet another catastrophe) I read it once again. and found that with age one's focus of interest shifts.

Ten people are called to an island. Though strangers to each other, they have one thing that binds them, they have all caused the death of somebody. Never did I really pay great attention to the crimes that they had committed. Yes, they were all murderers but the first time I read it my interest was more on finding the true identity of U.N. Owen and subsequently at how skillfully Christie weaves her tale [though thinking about it dispassionately it has always seemed to me that a lot of the success of U.N. Owen's plot depends on sheer luck: An old man walking so silently that he is able to bash the heads of not one but two men, is able to inject poison into the arms of an old lady, an alive man masquerading as a dead man. Would a new author have been allowed to get away with all this?]

"What a duty-loving law-abiding lot we all seem to be!

Most of them are guilty of a dereliction of duty. The doctor botches up an operation. The policeman indicts an innocent man. A governess plots her ward's death. An officer leaves his men to die. A general sends one of his men to his death. Two servants withhold medical aid to their mistress. Anthony Martson forgets his responsibility on the roads. Emily Brent, who professes to be a pious Christian actually forgets all about Christian charity in her dealing with her maid.

Dr. Armstrong and the Rogers kill an elderly person. Tony Martson and Vera kill kids. Arthur Richmond and Beatrice are young. Landor and Morris are middle-aged. Lombard's 21 men must have been of varying ages. This time round my thoughts were with these victims.

Landor had had a wife - a thin slip of a woman with a worried face. There'd been a kid too, a girl about fourteen. For the first time, he wondered what had become of them.

Like Ex-Inspector Blore, I too thought about the families of those who had died. Surely, there must have been people who loved them. What happened to the parents of the kids killed by Martson? Did Arthur Richmond have a family? Did Louis Mary Clees have children who were devastated by their mother's death? Did Cyril's mother - who had already lost her husband - survive the shock of her young child being drowned? And contrary to the stance maintained by Lombard death for the 'Natives' is as easy or tough as for a White man.

That was what murder was - as easy as that!
But afterwards you went on remembering...

And did the blood on their hands make any difference to them? Dr. Armstrong pulled himself up and presumably went on to become a better doctor; Tony Martson learnt nothing. General Macarthur was assailed by guilt (as was perhaps Mrs. Rogers), no such feeling crossed the minds of  Blore and Brent. Vera remembered the drowning but had Hugo married her wouldn't she have congratulated herself on the success of her scheme? More than anybody else, it is Vera's crime that gives me the shivers.To plot the death of a small child who is in your charge and to execute it in such a cold-blooded manner and to rue it only because you didn't get the man and his fortune. How does one describe a person like that?


First Line: In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.

Title: And Then There Were None
Author: Agatha Christie
Publication Details: London: Harper Collins, 1993
First Published: 1939
Pages: 223
Source: College Library [823.871 C463M]

Other books read of the same author: (Among others) Endless Night


Submitted in the "Book Published Under More Than One Title" in the Vintage Mystery Challenge @
My Reader's Block because as a perceptive reader once remarked, the different titles reflect the growth of our social conscience.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Forgotten Book: Mademoiselle de Scudéri by E.T.A Hoffmann

My first review for the German Literature Month 2014 is a book generally considered to be the first European work in the Detective genre: E.T.A. Hoffmann's Mille de Scuderi. The book had long been on my wishlist and reading it brought about another pleasant surprise: The book contains what might be considered the background to J.D. Carr's classic The Burning Court viz. the story of Godin de Sainte-Croix, Marquise de Brinvilliers, and the police officer Desgrais.

The year is 1680 and terror stalks the kingdom of Louis XIV. First there was a series of murders by poisoning initiated by a special poison designed for this very purpose by the evil genius Godin de Sainte-Croix and his mistress Marquise de Brinvilliers. When Sainte-Croix died accidentally by inhaling the poisonous fumes and Marquise de Brinvilliers was tricked by Desgrais - an officer of the Marechaussée - and subsequently condemned to death, the Parisians breathed freely. But it seemed that Sainte-Croix had a few disciples and soon nobody was safe: fathers with fortunes, unloved but wealthy husbands, shrewish wives... all could be killed easily without any fuss:

Murder came gliding like an invisible, capricious spectre into the narrowest and most intimate circles of relationship, love and friendship, pouncing securely and swiftly upon its unhappy victims. Men who today, were seen in robust health, were tottering about on the morrow feeble and sick; and no skill of physicians could restore them. Wealth, a good appointment or office, a nice-looking wife, perhaps a little too young for her husband, were ample reasons for a man's being dogged to death. The most frightful mistrust snapped the most sacred ties. The husband trembled before his wife; the father dreaded the son; the sister the brother. When your friend asked you to dinner, you carefully avoided tasting the dishes and wines which he set before you; and where joy and merriment used to reign, there were now nothing but wild looks, watching to detect the secret murderer.

Finally, the king appointed a tribunal, the Chambre Ardente, presided over by La Regine to investigate these secret crimes. Through the efforts of the officer Desgrais the king-pins were arrested but La Regine's measures to control these crimes led to a reign of terror in which the innocents were as brutally (mis)treated as the guilty. As if all this was not enough, a fresh wave of trouble came to overwhelm the people. A gang of robbers decided to steal jewels from all those who carried gems or wore them on person. Dead bodies were found stabbed in a similar manner, sometime even on the threshold of the house they were about to enter. As the police searched in vain for the gang, Desgrais set up a trap to nab the criminal(s). One day it did seem that he was about to catch one of the robbers when the man he was chasing vanished through a wall!

Was it some supernatural being that was robbing the people? Rumours spread thick and fast. And it was in such a mood of apprehension and dread that a young man barged into the house of Mille de Scuderi (modelled on the real-life author Madeleine de Scudéry) and left a casket for her. When the casket was opened, it was seen that it contained jewels of exquisite craftsman-ship. And from then on de Scuderi finds herself involved in a tale of theft and murder...

There is a lot of swooning and trembling in the text but it is an interesting look at the life and customs of the 17th century. Worth a read.


First Line: Magdaleine de Scudéri, so famous for her charming poetical and other writings, lived in a small mansion in the Rue St. Honoré, by favour of Louis the XIVth and Madame de Maintenon.

Title: Mademoiselle de Scudéri: A Tale from the Times of Louis XIV
Original Title: Das Fräulein von Scuderi: Erzählung aus dem Zeitalter Ludwig des Vierzehnten

Author: E.T.A Hoffmann
Original Language: German
Translator: Not mentioned
Publication Details: Not available
First Published: 1819
Pages: n.pag
Source: Project Gutenberg Australia
Other books read of the same author: None

Read and reviewed as part of the GLM:

Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase

Friday, November 7, 2014

Forgotten Book: Somerset Maugham's Ashenden (1928)

Virendranath Chattopadhaya, the younger brother of the Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu, came from an influential Bengali family settled in the state of Hyderabad. A man with a flair for languages (According to Wikipedia, he knew more than 12 languages), Chatto (as he was fondly called) was also a man devoted to the cause of Indian freedom. It was a quest that took him to England, France, Germany, Russia, and Switzerland among others. Committed to communism and in favour of an armed struggled against the British in India, Chatto published many virulent articles in newspapers leading to his being wanted by the law in many European countries. At one time married to author and activist Agnes Smedley, Viren was acquainted with some of the top ideologues and revolutionaries of the early 20th century, including M.N. Roy, Lenin, Har Dayal,  Madame Bhikhaji Cama, and Bhupendranath Datta.

Member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), Chatto was opposed to the activities of Hitler. According to Wikipedia, between 1931 and 1933, while living in Moscow, Viren continued to advocate anti-Hitler activities, Asian emancipation from Western powers, the independence of India, and Japanese intervention into the Chinese revolution. Feeling himself sidelined by the Communist Party in Russia and desirous of returning home to India, Chatto was arrested in 1937 in those infamous purges of Josef Stalin and executed the same year. India's independence was still a decade away.

But why you may ask am I talking about a forgotten Indian nationalist in what is supposed to be a post about Somerset Maugham's Ashenden. It is because Chatto appears as the revolutionary Chandra Lal in one of the stories, 'Giulia Lazzari', the story itself being based on an attempt by the British Secret Service to assassinate Chatto while he was in Europe.

 Based on Maugham's own experience as a British agent during the first world war, the book is a collection of loosely linked stories. It is said that Winston Churchill asked Maugham to burn 14 other stories. If this is true, it is indeed sad because the stories show Maugham's creative genius in which there is no flag-waving super spy who grinds any opposition to dust but rather an observer of people and events who can even make the reader sympathise with his opponent rather than himself. "One can't help being impressed by a man who had the courage to take on almost single-handed the whole British power in India,"  Ashenden says about Chandra Lal.

Incidentally, I got to know of Chatto's role in the Indian National movement and his appearence in Ashenden through this post @ prasantadas. As the writer so eloquently puts it: It is a bit strange to think that the only place where one finds a celebration of Chatto's exploits is a story by an English writer-spy whose own reputation is in decline.


First Line: It was not till the beginning of September that Ashenden, a writer by profession, who had been abroad at the outbreak of the war, managed to get back to England.

Title: Ashenden or The British Agent
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publication Details: London: Pan, 1955
First Published: 1928
Pages: 221
Source: H.M. Library [F.M.A 86 E]
Trivia: No. 84 in the Tozai Top 100 Mysteries
Other books read of the same author: (Amongst others) Up at the Villa


Entry for FFB @ Pattinase.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Royalty in India: Maharani, and Almond Eyes Lotus Feet

There was a time when India was a mass of Princely kingdoms who spent their time warring with each other, patronising the arts, looking (or not-looking) after their subjects, and doing other things that Royals are supposed to do.

In Maharani, Ruskin Bond narrates the story of an aging former queen Neena or H.H as the narrator - who has known her since childhood - affectionately calls her. Spoilt, selfish, and beautiful, Neena lives in a grand palace with just her dogs as her companions. The others - lovers and sons - come and go.

There is an elegiac tone to the novel as it recounts the bygone era of the Raj with its power and parties, plays and performance to post - 1947 India with its democracy and politics, abolition of the privy purses and redundancy. Or as the narrator puts it so poetically in the end:

And if, at the end, the times weren't so good, it was probably because the party had gone on for too long.

I first heard about Almond Eyes Lotus Feet at the (now defunct) site: 4Indianwomen. Intrigued by the description of the book, I started searching for it and was lucky enough to find it in a book sale @ the world book fair in Delhi last year. Co-authored by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar , this is a fictional memoir of a princess who now stays in Mumbai and recounts the life in the zenana (along with the traditional home recipes for health & beauty) to her (modern urban) grand-daughter.

The sepia-toned reminiscences accompanied by breath-taking b&w photographs eloquently captures the grandeur of yore.

There are also pictures of vintage ads of products of the by-gone era, one of which (Afghan Rose) I remember being used by my grandmother.


First Line: "I think I'm dying Ruskin." said H.H. as I took her hand and kissed it in the manner of the knight of old.

Title: Maharani
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publication Details: ND: Penguin Viking, 2012
First Published: 2012
Pages: vi + 180
Source: Borrowed from a cousin

Other books read of the same author: (Among Others) The Room on the Roof, Lavender Days.


Opening Lines: "Granny, I love you dearly, but this book is a mess!" That's what my granddaughter said. I know what she meant: part first-aid, part folklore, and part cook book. I suppose in some places it is a bit naughty too - ...

Title: Almond Eyes Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health
Authors: Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar
Publication Details: London: Collins, 2007
First Published: 2005
Pages: 248
Source: Bought @ World Book Fair, 2013

Other books read of the same authors: None

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Top Ten (+ 3) Tuesdays: Books to get in the Halloween Spirit

This week's Top Ten Tuesday asks us to list 10 of our favourite Halloween books. I do like to read about the supernatural but I prefer my horror to be understated: an eerie feeling that gives an unsettling quality to the narrative works fine but an 'in-your-face' horror with its gruesome and repulsive description is a major turn-off.

Here, in no particular order, are my favourite 13 (an appropriate figure for such a list, I guess) reads for this time of the year.


A young man, taking in the air, sees two figures - that of a young girl and a man- collide against one another. Too his shock, the man instead of helping the girl starts beating her up brutally. As the kid's screams rent the air, Victorian morality is torn to pieces. This ageless tale that set the template of so many books that followed still has the power to chill me long after I read an abridged version of it as a child.


An evening in a club where a man recounts the story of a governess who went to take charge of two children only to find the ghost of her predecessor and her lover haunting the house and her charges. I read this book as a straight-forward story of possession and then intrigued by some of the critical views on it went back and read it again... and it was like I was reading a different book altogether.


Undertakers who might very well be murderers, women who disappear through walls, bodies that disappear from crypts, unseen observers, fake letters, past secrets, and photographs of murderesses that resemble one's own wife. All these and more in Carr's masterpiece.


A young woman, Rosemary Woodhouse moves into a new apartment along with her husband, Guy Woodhouse who is a struggling actor. They strike up an acquaintance with their neighbours, a middle-aged couple by the name of Castevet. Soon strange things begin to happen, a death occurs in the apartment, Guy begins to get the roles that he had coveted, and then begins insisting that they now start a family though till now he had resisted Rosemary's wishes for the same. Why is a baby suddenly so important? This was the first book of Levin that I read and thinking about it still gives me the shivers.


We are in an India of snakes, snake-charmers, rope-tricks, and fakirs. One of them puts a spell on a monkey's paw:  "'It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,' said the sergeant-major, 'a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.'"

Is there anybody who hasn't read Jacob's classic story of the tragedy of our wishes coming true? I read this story in school and then painstakingly copied it word by word in a notebook. A couple of years back, I requested John to write a post about it and he kindly complied. Here's his fine review of the text.


Harley Quin appears and disappears magically at the most opportune moments in this short-story collection by Agatha Christie. Over the years, I have forgotten the rest but still remember 'The Face of Helen' and the police-man's matter-of-fact remark at the end.


There was a time when The Three Investigators - ??? - were my heroes. While others fought over Nancy Drew and Hardy boys, I read the adventures of Jupe, Pete, and Bob . In this, their first adventure, they investigate Terril Castle, the haunted home of movie actor Stephen Terrill, who is supposed to have committed suicide as his career was on the verge of collapse with the coming of the 'talkies'.


My sister had this Shakespearean play of over-reaching ambition, murder, and guilt prescribed in her college. And since there were three of us, we decided to enact the scenes featuring the three witches. So in a darkened room lit only by a candle, and with black dupattas worn like niqabs we mouthed the dialogues. You might well laugh but in the flickering light of the candle with our faces hardly visible, there was magic in the air as we held our hands wand  and went round and round chanting:

Fair is foul, and Foul is Fair
Hover through the forest and fill the air...


A residential- school teacher returning to his school in the evening hears the sound of a child crying. He follows the sound to where he sees a boy in the uniform of his school crying bitterly with his face buried in his arms. Playing truant and now afraid to go back to school, the teacher suspects. He addresses the boy who raises his face and...


What would Halloween be without Edgar Allan Poe? This story of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline showcases Poe's genius as the master of the macabre.


"You!" says a character just before being pushed to death. That 'you' for me encompasses what is the most terrifying thing of all: a familiar face suddenly morphing into the face of the devil. More than anything else in this tale of a doctor who is called in by one of the dying grand houses of post-war England, I remember this shocked 'You'.


Coleridge, I think, is the ideal poet for this season. Kubla Khan with its description of Xanadu: Caverns measureless to man, sunless sea, shadow of the dome of pleasure - shows a man at the height of his poetic genius. When he says:

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!

You can virtually see the crags, and the rocks, and the woman with her arms uplifted towards the sky.

 Douglas Adam's book about the adventures of Dirk Gently, combining elements of Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, is the best tribute to the poet. And I could just marvel at the ingenuity of the Adams when I read the novel. It makes no sense in the beginning and then suddenly you realise what the author is doing and... you are on a thrilling ride.


How do you feel about these books? What would your selection be? Do share.


Also submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books, today @ Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.


Part of my A Baker's Dozen series. Earlier selections can be seen over here.