Dead Souls

In his book Changing Places, David Lodge introduces the game Humiliation. It's about confessing great books you've never read. Apparently, for AS Byatt, one of her entries was/is Gogol's "Dead Souls, now in a new English translation.

Landowners in Tsarist Russia were taxed on their payroll of serfs (souls), which included those who had died between tax-assessments. At one level, Gogol's book describes how a man, Chichikov, has formed the plan of buying the dead souls of various landowners in order to use his list of fictive slaves to buy real land to "resettle" them and to become a landowner himself. However, the book is much more complex than that, why I recommend Dead Souls Demystified for a more thorough analysis.
From Berlin 2015
According to Tom Reiss, the Jewish oil barons from Baku, who after the Russian revolution escaped to Berlin, talked about their oil wells as "lost souls". They had surely read Gogol's book and perhaps discussed it with Vladimir Nabokov, who also had fled Russia for Berlin.

There is much to say about Russia and oil, and its history is full of dead souls of all kinds, perhaps especially the kind that Chichikov represents according to Byatt:

"Chichikov himself is also of course, a dead soul, a man self-designed to be unremarkable, agreeable and acceptable, a smiling confidence-trickster whose plots, as Nabokov points out, are neither very clever nor very coherent."

Or, using Nobokov's words, he is the manifestation of the untranslatable Russian concept of poshlost.


Compulsory Vacationer

In the beginning of small workshops I often introduce an exercise aiming at making the participants aware of their own role in the outcome. I'm not sure where I picked it up, but it probably was from Esther Derby and Diana Larsen who combined the ideas behind agile software development with appreciative inquiry to create a new way of doing Lessons Learned sessions called “Agile Retrospectives”.

In the exercise all participants are asked to report anonymously which of the following roles they will take on during the workshop: Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer or Prisoner.

Explorers are eager to discover new ideas and insights, and really wants to contribute. Shoppers will be happy to go home with one or two useful new ideas. Vacationers aren’t especially interested in the workshop, but are glad to be away from the daily grind.  Prisoners feel that they’ve been forced to attend and can actually sabotage the workshop. Should the group consist of only vacationers and prisoners, then the workshop really needs to focus on why that is the case. Thankfully, that has never been the case during my workshops.

However, I wonder if not people take on the same role no matter the topic of the workshop. Although we certainly differ in our interest in various areas, I think our general disposition shines through.

We often get stuck in old habits. When I drive to visit my sister and her family in Jönköping, I pass a a campsite just beside the motorway at Ulricehamn. Apparently people return to this place every year and some caravans stay during winter. The view of the lake is beautiful and the small town is quaint, but the beach is nothing special and the roar from the road must be deafening. I shake my head in wonder and drive on.

I must admit though, that I too have my special places I seem to return to over and over again. One of them is the sculpture park Pilane at the west coast of Sweden (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2007). Another is the amazing garden at Läckö Castle (2015, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007) designed by Simon Irvine who was there when I visited this year. Nearby Peter Korn's garden is also a must (2015, 2013, 2011, 2007) and he's always so nice to talk to.

I suppose it's the combination of certain recognition and elements of surprise that keeps me going back. Maybe this is a habit I share with other people!?!


Summer Lovin

Every autumn I make a list of all the fun things I did during summer. It's amazing how long the list always becomes, and the memories keep me warm through the winter.

It's a bit tricky to know when to start counting because many days in May are much warmer than the ones in June and July. For example, I spent some lovely days in Kalmar at the end of May going to  the HSS conference focusing academia-industry collaboration. Lots of interesting seminars, but best of all was the disco and we danced all night long. This time I managed to visit the beautiful Krusenstiernska Gården.
In the beginning of June I had the chance to sneak out to one of my favourite places in Stockholm: Rosendal's Gardens. Next I went to Warsaw for a seminar on innovation, but I managed to get to know the city a bit too with its great parks and old (rebuilt) town.

The days at home were fun too, picking mushrooms, raspberries and blueberries and just basking in the sun by a lake with a book in hand. We also tried to educate us by learning more about herbs and other plants at Gunnebo Castle.

At Midsummer, a new tradition has been established and I went to Kungshamn for a cosy weekend with friends again. This year we walked on the slippery cliffs at Ramsvik. Before the end of June, I managed to go to Berlin for another academia-industry conference and had the opportunity to explore a bit of the city center. It was quite rainy, why we went to museums and KaDeWe. Summer is not complete without a visit to Peter Korn's Garden, and this time I could cuddle with one of the tabby cats.
The first weekend in July promised to be very hot, why we headed for the coast since we knew this could be the only really warm days. According to Mum we used to go to Stråvalla beach when I was a kid, although I don't remember this at all. After that we tried to educate us again through taking part in a tour in the Rose Garden in Trädgårdsföreningen between the showers. We also took a one-day job at my uncle's current favourite pastime: the Munkedal museum railway.

Another sweet spot is the sculpture park Pilane, this year followed by a walk around the exhibition of wooden boats in Skärhamn. A new acquaintance was Vrångå island in the south part of the archipelago. We watched the families walk off the ferry and went in the other direction. Another new experience was going up Säveån by Paddan, watching new parts of Gothenburg. Going to Hönö for lunch and shopping is becoming a very tasty tradition. I love my new blue trousers! Dinner with friends in Hällsvik was also very inspiring.

Despite the weather, we also managed to go to Läckö Castle. When we went to the beach at Hindens Rev, the wind was so strong we had our picnic behind the changing rooms. We had better luck when biking on Ven island, and visiting other beautiful spots in Skåne such as Kullen and Hovs Hallar. The sun was also shining when we went to Särö Västerskog and had a family dinner at Blomstermåla.
I had the good fortune to attend some fun events such as the stand-up comedy show Badjävlar, the Midnight Run competition, the Music on the Water concert with Eric Gadd, a birthday party for my sister and her children, and a village get-together with my parents' former  neighbours. We also had some very nice lunches and coffee breaks at Lärjeåns GardensRåda Säteri and Gunnebo, with homemade bread and ice-cream. In addition, many hours were spent at the allotmentkilling slugs, weeding, harvesting and looking at the wonderful sunsets.

According to the meteorology science, summer continues into September at the west coast, at least when it comes to temperature. That's why I also count kayaking at the coast near Fjällbacka as part of my summer activities. A very nice way to spend the end of summer, with lots of sun, wind, good friends and curious seals.


Alias Bey and Said

When my mother was nine years old, she had read all the books in the small country school. The teacher recommended her to read something from her father's library and so she did. I don't think she asked her father for permission, because the first two books she picked are not especially suitable for young children. "Blood and Oil in the Orient" and "Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus" namely contain stories of genocide, rape, war, murder and so on. They also include wonderful fairy-tale-like stories about knights and castles, heroism and bravery, strange customs and remote villages, sunny deserts and stormy seas - all though the eyes of a young boy. They were so exciting that my mother has yearned to visit the Caucasus ever since.

When I started to read these books this spring, I became interested in the author Essad Bey, since especially the first book was supposed to be a kind of autobiography. However, when I looked it up on Wikipedia it turned out that it was a pen name and behind it was a man called Lev Nussimbaum.

I was a bit weary to tell my mother this, since the books had meant a lot to her. As it turned out, the story of Lev Nussimbaum was even more intricate than the two books. His story has been captured by Tom Reiss in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. Amazon describes his book like this:

"A thrilling page-turner of epic proportions, Tom Reiss’s panoramic bestseller tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a real-life Indiana Jones with a fatal secret. Reiss pursued Lev’s story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal–and sometimes as heartbreaking–as his subject’s life."

During his short life, Lev Nussimbaum managed to produce an astonishing number of articles, novels and biographies. He depicted Stalin, Lenin, Mohammed, Reza Shah of Iran and many more. For some he used his first pen name Essad Bey. Towards the end of his life, he wrote his most famous book: Ali and Nino. According to Tom Reiss, that is, who claims that Nussimbaum is the man behind the pseudonym Kurban Said.

In her review of Reiss' book, Veronica Horwell ends with these words:

"Reiss, through obsessed sleuthing, has retrieved a believable liar and revealed a secret, the last notebooks of Lev-Essad-Kurban, purportedly a novel called The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love. He decently respects the connections inconsequence can make, from the Interpol officer who hooked him on Ali and Nino to the chance arrival at his Manhattan dinnertable of the last heir to the Ottoman sultanate. And his descriptions of cities of exile resonate so in a time of transit that I hope his next book will be a history of diaspora capitals."

Criticism of the sources was apparently not so important in Sweden in the 1930s, because when I look at the cover of the Swedish edition of "Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus" it includes three positive reviews of "Blood and Oil in the Orient". Among them one by Professor Carl Skottsberg, the creator of the Göteborg Botanical Garden. Somewhat of an adventurer himself, he still had time to write book reviews for the former newspaper Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, renowned for its anti-Nazi profile. I'm not sure what Skottberg would have written, had he known the true identity of the author and of his ambivalent attitude towards the developments in Germany and Italy.
From Azaleadalen Botaniska 2013
I'm sorry that I didn't know all this when I visited Positano in 2001 with my mother. Then we surely would have visited Lev-Essad-Kurban's grave like Elizabeth Kiem did:

"But one headstone prefers the direct exposure of Tyrrhenian sun. It wears a turban in place of a cross. It faces away from Positano, south towards the next outcrop of a town. It is the resting place of Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said, author of that tale of Azeri star-crossed lovers, Ali and Nino. In Positano he is known as “The Muslim.” Thanks to Tom Reiss, he is also known by his birth name, Lev Nussimbaum.

I like to think of him as the Weimar Scheherazade."