Sunday, January 16, 2011

hansel and gretel

Most people are familiar with the story of Hansel and Gretel. Every version I've heard includes a house made of cookies, cake, and/or candy, a wicked witch, and a narrow escape. But there are some extra details in the story in the Grimms fairy tales my Austrian grandfather sent me.

First of all, there are 4 pgs of preamble before Hansel and Gretel even find the witch's house. We get the socio-economic context. The poor woodcutter has little to eat or to chop (zu beissen und zu brechen), and in a time of great inflation (grosse Teuerung), he can't even manage their daily bread. His wife wants to abandon the two children in the forest, so they'll have less mouths to feed. The father thinks they should share what little they have with the children. They argue, the father objects, but finally relents. Hansel overhears the plan and collects white stones, which he drops as they walk into the forest, for the moon to light their way home again. They return, their father is happy, but his wife still wants to be rid of the children. Here the narrator observes: Whoever says A must follow with B, and if once you give in, you must give in again. (Is that moralizing or fatalism?)

This time Hansel drops the famous breadcrumbs, which the birds eat, so the children stay lost in woods. For three days they eat nothing but a few berries. A snow-white bird appears to lead them to a house made of bread and decorated with cake and windows of sugar. They break off pieces and eat their fill, only to be startled by an old woman who hobbles out with a cane. She invites them inside, feeds them milk and pancakes, and puts them to sleep in two lovely white beds. 

Of course, the old woman is the witch who built the house to attract children. In the event that the reader doesn't comprehend the full creepiness of the scenario, the narrator explains: When the witch gets a child, she kills it, cooks it, and eats it; and for her that's a holiday. Witches have red eyes and can't see far, but they have an acute sense of smell. When Hansel and Gretel got close to her house, she gave a wicked laugh and sneered: These are mine, they won't get away! She watches the children sleeping and murmurs over their plump red cheeks: That'll be a tasty morsel.

What happens in most Hansel and Gretel stories? In this one, the witch shuts Hansel in a stall and makes Gretel cook meals to fatten him. When he's fat, I'll eat him! Gretel cries but has to follow the witch's orders. Every morning the witch hobbles to the stall and tells Hansel to stick out his finger so she can feel if he's fat yet. Hansel always holds out a bone. The witch is surprised that he's still so thin. Finally, she can't contain her impatience and tells Gretel to fill a great cauldron of water. The next day she will slaughter and cook Hansel.

In the morning the witch already has the fire in the stove crackling. She tells Gretel to crawl into the oven to check if it's hot enough to bake bread. Gretel guesses that the witch means to bake her and says she doesn't know how to check the oven. The witch calls her a stupid goose, and demonstrates how to bend and poke her head in the oven. Gretel gives the witch a great shove, slams shut the iron door, and bars it.

There follows a page of merriment where Gretel lets Hansel out of the stall, they dance in the yard and find jewels in the house, which they take home (which they can now find), and discover that their father's wife is dead. Happy Ending, which is not always the case in this collection of Grimm's.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

accordion music

Today it snowed for real for the first time this year, not just a few drifty flakes but snow upon snow upon snow. I'd call it a snowstorm, but R says no. For him, a snowstorm means zero visibility where you can't see your own feet. So, okay, it wasn't that bad. But hey. The streetlights had a 3-D halo of falling snow and R's eyebrows were frosted. The bottoms of my jeans were frozen almost to my knees from kicking through the snow that hadn't yet been cleaned off the sidewalks.

I'd decided to go for a walk looking for a bar we'd been to years ago to hear accordion music. The musicians sat in a circle of chairs in the center of the room. Whoever showed up with an instrument could join the circle. Accordions with keys, accordions with buttons. A couple of fiddles. The music continued without stop, segueing from one traditional number to the next.

The bar is still there--still friendly--though they no longer host accordion evenings. Too bad. I wanted to recommend it to a friend who plays a concertina she transports in a nylon beer cooler. She'd have been a hit.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

blog photo

The picture was taken from the window of my study which looks onto a typical street in Pointe St-Charles in Montreal. Brick row houses. Flat roofs. Wood cornices. The sweep of the wind carved the snow.

In deference to Rapunzel, I chose her vantage point. Up above. Not street level.

These Pointe houses were built in the early 1900s by the Irish who came to dig the Lachine Canal. The second floors tend to be higher than you might expect, because the basement windows are above ground. In this house the ceilings are 10 1/2 feet high, the windows 7 feet long. (Go ahead, convert it to metric.) I've never been on the roof because I would have to hoist myself above the last step of the ladder, into the air, and through a trap door. I don't trust my arms.

Too bad because the roof would be a great place to have a beer and watch the fireworks in the summer.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

scary drawings

I've had to rethink what I mean by the "scary" illustrations in my copy of Grimms. They bothered me terribly as a child. Some of the pages have been ripped from the book, some of the illustrations scribbled across with black crayon.

But there's no blood or severed flesh or monsters with gnashing teeth. In terms of content, the drawings are mostly innocuous. What seems to have bothered me were the nasty expressions of the characters. Their misshapen noses and chins.

For example, in the story "The Seven Ravens", a little girl was searching for her seven brothers who were turned into ravens. She travelled to the end of the world until she came to the sun, who was hot and gruesome and ate little children. She ran away to the moon, who was cold and mean-tempered, and grumbled, "I smell human flesh."

Only the morning star helped the little girl by giving her a small chicken bone. "If you don't have the bone, you can't open the glass mountain, and in the glass mountain are your brothers."

The little girl wrapped the bone in a cloth and continued on her voyage until she came to the glass mountain. She stood before the locked door and unrolled her cloth, but it was empty. She had lost the bone the star gave her. What should she do now? She wanted to save her brothers and had no key for the glass mountain. The good little sister took a knife, cut off her little finger, and pushed it in the lock which happily opened.

What frightened me in this story when I was a child was the matter-of-fact narrative. She took a knife and cut off her little finger.

Except for the moon's growling expression, the drawings in this story are harmless.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

bratwurst in 1988

Earlier this evening I met a friend for a beer at NYK on Bleury. Wooden beams, not too noisy, no blaring big-screen sports. We could talk!

A wall has been knocked out and the decor is much improved since I last came to this address in the late 80s. (Am I dating myself? Oh dear.) Back then it was a single room, dull, with two disgruntled young men serving sausages. Their kitchen area was a hotplate and grill in the window that ran the width of the narrow room and faced the street. Bratwurst, Knackwurst, Debreziner. First les saucisses were boiled in the kind of large, dented aluminum pot I associate with army surplus stores or cottage kitchens. The kind of pot you're not supposed to use unless you want to hasten Alzheimer's. Then the cooked sausages were grilled and served with little ceremony. I remember the silhouettes of the two men against the light, plopping sausages into water, swiping mustard across buns.

One advantage to getting older has to be ability to accordion past and present.

I've been advised that I should stay on topic in a blog, so rest assured that this will somehow dovetail into the seminal influences of Grimm's and Alice in Wonderland: living in Montreal and how the city changes.

In my fiction I rarely write in first person. Obviously, I can--in emails and letters. I seem less sure about adopting *I* as a public voice. So here's the experiment. A blog.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


I said I would post an illustration from my copy of Grimms fairy tales. Here's Rumpelstiltskin.

Monday, January 3, 2011

philosophy in the metro

Someone is paying to post philosophical statements in the subway cars. Could it be the STM on its own initiative? Deciding to educate the travelling public?
Here's one I like:
La croyance forte ne prouve que sa force, et non la vérité de ce qu'on croit.
It's from Nietzsche's Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human). In English:
Strong belief only proves the strength of one's belief, not the truth of what one believes.

I don't generally refer to Nietzsche for ideas, but I like this one.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

rapunzel's hair

I've called this Rapunzel's hair because I like words with a Z in them.

I also want to write about Grimms fairy tales. As in "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair / So that I may climb the golden stair."

When I was a child, my Austrian grandfather sent an unexpurgated copy of Grimm's with scary pen and ink illustrations. (I'll eventually scan some to post here.) Little girls who had to cut off their fingers to use as keys to unlock doors. Body parts rolling out from under a table. Having to dance in cast-iron shoes heated in the fireplace.

I don't want anyone to climb my hair. Which is too short in any case.