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Virago Volumes: A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

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What was I saying about being a trivial reader? That’s perhaps the wrong word – fickle might be a better word; for example, there are many, many books I’ve had on my shelves for 30 years and *never read*! I’m trying to rectify that at the moment (Proust being the main example); but Martha Gellhorn is another case in point. However, paradoxically, the book of hers I chose to pick up was this one, “A Stricken Field”, one of my more recent Virago acquisitions. I thought the subject matter (Prague in 1938) might fit better with my current mindset, and Gellhorn was on my mind from reading about her in Sybille Bedford’s “Pleasures and Landscapes”. So there you are – I’m following my random reading muse as usual!

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Gellhorn, of course, is as fascinating a character as Bedford. A war correspondent from a young age, witnessing the Spanish Civil War amongst other things, she’s cursed with often being remembered only for having been married to Hemingway – although pleasingly Wikipedia put her other achievements first: Martha Ellis Gellhorn (November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998) was an American novelist, travel writer, and journalist, considered by the London Daily Telegraph, among others, to be one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. She reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career. Gellhorn was also the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945. At the age of 89, ill and almost completely blind, she committed suicide. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is named after her.”

So Gellhorn was obviously no ordinary woman and had no ordinary life – in fact, I imagine that a biography would be a really good read! However, apart from her reporting she also wrote fiction, and this book is her first full-length novel, published in 1940 when war was beginning to tear Europe apart; and also after years of conflicts on that continent, in Spain, and also in Germany, where the Nazi regime had been gradually developing an iron grip. The novel opens with Mary Douglas, an American journalist, flying into Prague in 1938. Munich pact etc. Mary is young, but she’s not naive, having seen the Spanish Civil War, and she knows that the creeping menace of the Nazis threatens the countries and people she loves. She’s hoping to find her friend Rita, a left-wing German who’s fled to Prague in search of safety, and they do indeed meet up early in the story. Rita lost her brother to the enemy’s brutality, and works for the resistance in Prague, trying to help fellow refugees survive. She has also found a fragile kind of happiness with a fellow worker, Peter; but they are living on a knife-edge, like every other enemy of Fascism at large in a country now being dominated by the jackboot. All the refugees are being forcibly repatriated to places where they will be tortured, put in concentration camps, and most probably die horribly. Can Mary and her journalist friends do anything to help – or is the impending cataclysm too much for any humanitarian efforts?

ASF is a remarkably powerful and moving novel; to be frank, it’s gut-wrenching, both in the emotional sense (as we ache for the suffering of the refugees) and the literal sense (there are references to torture, and one particularly awful interrogation scene). If I’m honest, the book as a novel is not particularly accomplished – the regular shifts in perspective are clumsy at times and hard to follow; the character of Mary never really develops much; and the group of journalists are just that, a fairly amorphous band who don’t take on much of an individual form. However, the book’s strength is in its reportage. It’s recording a piece of history, a shocking and horrible time, but one that needs not to be forgotten. The story of Rita and her lover Peter stands for any number of stories, for the thousands of people who suffered under oppression (and indeed those who still do). Gellhorn captures haunting images: Rita staggering down dark streets in Prague, not knowing where she’s going or why; the bundled up humans at the railway station being forced into trains taking them to their doom; those who cannot cope with the thought of leaving and take another way out…

“She thought: there will have to be a terrible justice, blowing over the world, to avenge all the needless suffering. Thus far, she had seen the innocent punished and insulted, pursued and destroyed; and when they tried to protect themselves, their enemies were swift, unanimous and relentless. Simple men were ignorant enough still to fight against each other instead of fighting side by side. She had seen only the triumph of the lie and the victory of the liars. It will take a long time to change this, she thought, we learn very little, we learn very slowly. She was afraid she would be reporting disaster and defeat her whole life.”

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It’s a stark story of a stark time; Mary tries at one point to involve some politicians in her attempts to help the refugees, but even they are powerless to make any difference. There are many shocks in this book, not the least the contrast between the privileges Mary enjoys because she holds an American passport, and the lack of everything – food, money, security, a chance at life – that the expelled refugees have. But what shocked me most of all was when this book was written and published. Gellhorn wrote the book in 1939, based on her real visits to Prague, and published it in 1940. In the 1938 of this book, the concentration camps and the treatment of Jews and Socialists is common knowledge – the reporters have become almost indifferent to it. I somehow had the impression that the revelations about Nazi camps after the war came as a shock to the world, but it seems that the facts were already well-known. Which leaves me thinking about man’s inhumanity to man, and how this vicious cruelty was allowed to carry on by all the so-called civilised nations. And thus it ever was and thus it ever will be – the bigwigs make their strategies and move little models around on a plan (or nowadays a digital simulation) but these represent real people, and it’s the latter who always pay the price for conflict – a look at the news reports nowadays proves that nothing’s changed.

It was a painful experience, but I *am* glad I read this book. As Gellhorn says in her afterword “Novels don’t decide the course of history or change it but they can show what history is like for people who have no choice except to live through it or die from it. I remembered for them.” She certainly did that, and this book should continue to be read so that we never forget.

Recent reads – Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford

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Am I a trivial reader, I wonder? Strange question, you might think, but maybe not so strange; as I found myself initially attracted to this book simply by its strikingly beautiful cover design. Well, you have to admit that it’s stunning! However, I do have several of Bedford’s books on Mount TBR already (including the one I’ve ‘borrowed’ from OH), so I think I can be forgiven.

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Sybille Bedford was a novelist and journalist about whom Wikipedia tells us:

Sybille Bedford, OBE (16 March 1911 – 17 February 2006) was a German-born English writer. Many of her works are partly autobiographical. Julia Neuberger proclaimed her “the finest woman writer of the 20th century” while Bruce Chatwin saw her as “one of the most dazzling practitioners of modern English prose”.

So, a force to be reckoned with, then! Pleasures and Landscapes is a collection of Bedford’s travel writing, distilled from another collection, “As It Was”, with the addition of previously uncollected pieces. These range in date of composition from 1954 to 2001, and capture wonderfully the landscapes through which she travels. This is Europe from the past; a seasoned traveller, Bedford is revisiting countries she already knows (Capri, Venice) but also tackling the new (Yugoslavia, behind the Iron Curtain). And how intrepid she is! Not one to visit a country and sit on a beach, she instead drives up and down mountains, goes off walking, meets up with Martha Gellhorn on several occasions, sees the highs and lows of the countries she’s visiting – and all reported in beautiful, evocative, limpid prose.

Her writing is quite gorgeous – often just a string of beautiful words describing the elements of where she is, or the food of a region, which brings the place completely to life. And Bedford certainly does love her food – in fact, she could well have been a successful cookery writer, because the dishes of a particular area have great importance for her! She’s also something of a wine-fancier, and the essay “La Vie de Bordeux” is a fascinating account of a visit to the wine region of France to taste the new vintage.

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In case you were thinking this might be just a collection of pretty-pretty travel writing, however, I should point out that Bedford can be quite hard-edged and sees the good and the bad very clearly. She’s not afraid to comment on the poverty she sees, on the difficulties in travelling in some areas, on the bad hotels and rotten service she receives. And one of the most fascinating pieces is the long essay “The Quality of Travel”, written in 1961, when the whole tourist industry had really started to take off. Already it’s becoming hard to go to places that aren’t crowded with sightseers, to travel without plans and without an itinerary, and Bedford obviously mourns the loss of that liberty – although she does manage to get round this most of the time. She’s also remarkably prescient in her comments on the need for a Channel crossing not involving the sea (and this was in 1961!):

“What is wanted of course is not the Tunnel or a Channel bridge but a tunnel and a bridge, several tunnels, a whole span of bridges, anchors to make the island know at last its place. The citizens of Calais are said to be preparing for this unlikely event by setting up profitable amenities, but in England it is still looked on as science fiction. Never before in history has England moved as fast as she has been moving backwards in these last few years.”

So – she didn’t think much of England in the 1960s then?! Despite that, this is a lovely, lovely book – beautiful evocative prose, conjuring up vivid images of places and people, but also with a sense of time having passed and so many freedoms lost. This if the first of Bedford’s work’s I’ve read, and it definitely won’t be the last!

Bookish Karma….

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….or, what goes around comes around!

In bookish terms, I guess I mean that the Cull is paying off – Youngest Child and I took about 16 books into the charity shops today (we couldn’t carry any more – it was just too hot) and there are boxes and piles more to go. I am actually finding it something of a relief to be looking candidly at my shelves and saying to a book, “No, I loved you and read you one, but I shan’t ever need to read you again”. Paring down to the essentials is cathartic, that’s for sure. (It’s not only books that are going, btw – general clutter is going too, which is lovely).

However, I haven’t embargoed the obtaining of books; I’m just being strict with myself and only buying volumes (or accepting as review copies) things I really do want to read and hope to read quite soon. Thus it was that three books came home with me today (so the ratio is still good!) and these are they:

Quite wonderful finds, and all charity shop bargains. The Forster (a Hesperus!!) was in the Samaritans Book Cave, where we were donating – in beautiful condition and only £1.50! The Michael Arlen was from the Oxfam at £2.49, and again is in great nick and will go with my lovely Capuchin edition of The Green Hat!

The final book was unexpected: we were in the library picking up text books for Youngest Child to absorb over the summer, and trying to avoid the loud noise of the multi-cultural festival which was going on (though the bagpipes were wonderful, if a little incongruous in a library) – anyway, I had a quick look at the books for sale and there was the Maclaren-Ross collection of Selected Stories for 40p! Library sales are the best….

And Youngest Child was happy as she found a proof copy of one of her favourite authors/novels in the RSPCA for 95p! So obviously we had good Book Karma today because we donated – we’ll just have to keep giving! :)

(Forgot to mention the lovely review copy that arrived today from Hesperus – thank you! – now isn’t that an appealing looking set of spines?!)

Shiny New Pushkin!

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SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Given my love of Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to review a new translation of their national poet’s short story collection, “Belkin’s Stories”. Beautifully done by Alma Classics, it shows that the poet was a master of other literary forms, too!

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I was also pleased to provide Five Interesting Facts about the great man – you can read both of these, plus much, much more at Shiny New Books – go read, what are you waiting for?! :)

Shiny New Books

Belkin’s Stories

Five Interesting Facts

Recent reads – The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

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I just love it when I stumble upon a book by accident and it turns out to be brilliant – and that was certainly the case here. I picked this up in a charity shop for £1 because the author’s name rang a bell somewhere; I guess I read a review on a blog once. It’s translated fiction, which I like; crime fiction, ditto; and the first of a series set in Paris. So, a no-brainer to pick it up then!

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Fred Vargas is a pseudonym and the author actually has another career in archaeology (which informs one set of her novel series). This particular book, however, introduces us to a detective called Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. He’s a man from the country, more used to mountains and fields perhaps, than Parisian streets. Nevertheless, he’s been transferred there, to take charge of the 5th arrondissement, and there we join him. A series of blue chalk circles have been appearing on the streets of Paris, drawn round a seemingly random object, with a strange quote around it. The media of course pick up on these, and it’s seen perhaps as a joke. However, Adamsberg thinks it is anything but, and is unsurprised when a dead body turns up in the middle of a circle….

I’m not going to say too much about the plot, but I will talk about the characters, because what a wonderful bunch they are! In fact, unusually the book opens with two of these meeting – and they’re not the detective, but Charles, a brittle blind man and Mathilde, a spiky and independent oceanologist! These two figures feature prominently in the plot, and one of them has an unexpected connection to Adamsberg. Then there is Clemence, the strange old woman who helps Mathilde with her work and lodges with her. The police are a varied bunch too; particularly appealing is Adamsberg’s sidekick Danglard, who is a single-parent father of two sets of twins and a younger child who isn’t even his, and is usually drunk by lunchtime!

Fred Vargas - somehow this is  how I visualise the characters Mathilde!

Fred Vargas – somehow this is how I visualise the character Mathilde!

The mystery itself is wonderfully satisfying, full of twists and turns that I never saw coming but which nevertheless in hindsight I think I *should* have picked up! The final resolution is excellent too, but dominating the story, and somewhat unexpectedly, is the character of Adamsberg himself. I say unexpectedly, because he is actually a *very* odd person. He seems almost detached from anything at all; and his way of investigation is quite unusual, particularly when contrasted with Danglard’s. The latter goes entirely by facts, eschewing so-called detective instincts because of a mistake in his past. Adamsberg, however, seems to go by instinct alone – he seems unable to consciously think out a case, or do any typical detective deduction. Instead, he works by feelings and emotions in almost a zen state. He just *knows* something or someone is bad and that something is going to happen. The author’s portrayal of this is quite brilliant, particularly when it starts to rub off on some of the more officious members of the team who suddenly seem to be very relaxed!

All in all, this was the perfect crime book for me: murder, but not too gory; mystery, which I didn’t get; a wonderful ensemble cast, really well written; and an enigmatic detective. I shall *definitely* be reading more of Fred Vargas!

Recent Reads – Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms

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Like Teffi, Daniil Kharms is an author whose work I first encountered in Robert Chandler’s exemplary collection, “Russian Short Stories From Pushkin to Buida”. However, unlike Teffi, Kharms chose to stay in the Soviet Union after the revolution, eventually becoming another of its victims. I picked up this anthology of his work last year, and I’ve only just got round to reading it.

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It’s a fascinating volume, but his life is so unusual that I think it’s worth quoting from Wikipedia at length:

“Daniil Kharms (30 December 1905 – 2 February 1942) was an early Soviet-era surrealist and absurdist poet, writer and dramatist. He came to be known for his children’s literature.In 1928, Daniil Kharms founded the avant-garde collective Oberiu, or Union of Real Art. He embraced the new movements of Russian Futurism laid out by his idols, Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich, and Igor Terentiev, among others. Their ideas served as a springboard. His aesthetic centered around a belief in the autonomy of art from real world rules and logic, and the intrinsic meaning to be found in objects and words outside of their practical function.By the late 1920s, his antirational verse, nonlinear theatrical performances, and public displays of decadent and illogical behavior earned Kharms – who dressed like an English dandy with a calabash pipe – the reputation of being talented and highly eccentric.

Kharms was arrested in 1931 and forced to live in Kursk for most of a year. He was arrested as a member of “a group of anti-Soviet children’s writers”, and some of his works were used as an evidence. He continued to write for children’s magazines when he returned from exile, though his name would appear in the credits less often. His plans for more performances and plays were curtailed, the OBERIU disbanded, and Kharms receded into a very private writing life.

In the 1930s, as the mainstream Soviet literature was becoming more and more conservative under the guidelines of Socialist Realism, Kharms found refuge in children’s literature. Kharms was arrested on suspicion of treason in the summer of 1941. He was imprisoned in the psychiatric ward at Leningrad Prison No. 1. and died in his cell in February 1942—most likely, from starvation, as the Nazi blockade of Leningrad had already begun.”

A varied and ultimately tragic life, then, and we’re lucky that his work has survived – it was rescued by friends and kept hidden for years until the thawing of the Soviet Bloc allowed publication, and has gradually filtered out to the west.

And it’s work that’s actually very hard to classify. The selection here varies from short pieces such as this:

“Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter.
                                          January 9, 1937″

to a much longer tale called “The Old Woman” which takes Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and twists it around. There are poems, nonsense pieces, thoughtful fragments and quite poignant paragraphs. As an example there is this:

“How strange, how indescribably strange, that behind the wall, this very wall, there’s a man with an angry face sitting on the floor with his legs stretched out and wearing red boots.

If only one could punch a hole in the wall and look inside, one could see right away that this angry man is sitting there.

But it’s better not to think about him. What is he? Is he not a particle of a dead life that has drifted in from the imaginary void? Whoever he may be, God be with him.

                                        June 22, 1931″

What would be a strange little fable anywhere else takes on an extra resonance in Soviet Russia. It’s typical of his output but also very telling and I think that one of the things to remember when reading Kharms is that context is often all.

“One must write poetry in such as way that if one threw the poem in a window, the pane would break.”

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In some ways, Kharms is hard to review too. What can you say about such a mercurial writer, who can slip between genres. His poetry is sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny and nonsensical. His longer story “The Old Woman” is a funny and clever piece of Soviet satire. Each sentence seems carefully thought out and dripping with meaning.

“While traveling, do not give yourself over to daydreams, but fantasise and pay attention to everything, even the insignificant details.”

Kharms reads like nobody else I’ve come across and this books was a really rich and rewarding experience. His playfulness and idiosyncratic outlook are really engaging, and I have to praise too the translator and publisher. The book comes with excellent notes and the translator must have done a terrific job dealing with capturing the wordplay in another language. I’ve seen Kharms’ work described as micro-fiction and that’s a great term – he can convey so much in so few words and in such a clever, funny way. Highly recommended!

One book in, Eight books out – the cull begins….

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…and so far it’s been reasonably cathartic! Having said that, many of the books that have gone so far are not mine, as Middle Child and Youngest Child were doing a lot of clearing out last week. But I donated 8 books to the Samaritans and came home with this:

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It’s a lovely Companion Book Club edition, and the story sounds like a bit of a hoot – it seems from reviews I’ve read that the author is attempting a bit of a War and Peace-type epic, spanning the Russian Revolution. Could be good, could be very, very bad – we shall see!

But starting to clear the shelves a bit is essential, and I’m trying to be practical – looking at books and asking myself honestly:

a. will I *really* ever read this or

b. will I *really* ever read this again?

Obviously there are many books I’ll keep for sentimental reasons, but I’m trying to be realistic before I run out of space. And (whispers) – decluttering really *does* make you feel better!! Wish me luck… :)

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