…. in which Perec plays more word games…


I told you I got book obsessions, didn’t I?? And so here is more about Perec. I felt the need to read more of his work after “Species of Space” and this little volume had arrived at the same time:


So, what’s it about and what’s so special? Well, this is what it says on the back:

art back(Sorry for the lopsided scan)

And that’s no word of a lie. There are no full stops and no capitalisation and the only punctuation I think was dashes. You’d think that 84 pages of that would be hard to read, but amazingly it isn’t – Perec’s brilliantly constructed the rhythm of the book so that it reads easily! It’s like a kind of flow chart with options translated into text and it’s clever and also very, very funny! So the poor man being advised has to contend with all the possibilities that might come up on such a chart (is it Friday? Yes. Is it in Lent? No. Has your boss swallowed a fish bone? etc etc) and goes round and round in circles like you can on these things, as your life ticks away.

I shan’t say any more about this except that it’s utterly brilliant, Perec was a genius and this is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. ‘Nuff said!

Oulipo and Word Games – reading Species of Space and Other Pieces by Georges Perec


There’s something about having a literary crush (and goodness knows I’ve had enough in my time!) that makes it hard for me to write rationally about an author or explain why I think they’re so wonderful – and I’m at that point with Georges Perec’s works at the moment! Instead of being able to discuss things in a sane manner I shall go all fangirl and rant on about how utterly brilliant his books are and how everyone should read them – which is really not constructive, is it??

However, I shall do my best….

In retrospect I’m surprised I came across Perec so late, as he seems so closely linked with Calvino (one of my biggest author loves). Nevertheless, I adored “Life: A User’s Manual” and I’ve since read “W” which was also pretty impressive. “Species of Space” is a collection of mainly non-fiction works (the title piece plus excerpts from others) and in many ways these defy classification. Perec turns his eye to all manner of subjects, from space itself to a collection of holiday postcard texts to a list of what he had eaten throughout a whole year, lists of objects on his work desk and thoughts about how to classify books in your library.

This is such a fascinating book, with so many quirky unusual pieces, all in Perec’s trademark tone. Several pieces prefigure other works such as “Life” and “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”, and they all have the effect of making the reader look at things with fresh eyes as if from the outside or for the first time. We’ve all had that experience where if you look at a word for long enough it becomes strange and loses its meaning; in the same way, Perec is urging us to look at things until they are no longer familiar, until we lost a little of our grip on reality and the world becomes odd.

As with “W” Perec’s work seems very much informed by his past and it definitely helps to know some of the facts of his life, ably provided in the introduction by his biographer (and translator of this selection) David Bellos. Perec has a way of circling round the facts and approaching them obliquely, which may be his way of trying to deal with things when it is too painful to do so head on.

This is fiction and reminiscence as classification;  Perec’s day job for a large part of his life working as an archivist in a science laboratory and its often reflected in the structure of his work and the way in which he presents his writing. It could of course be argued that this is his way of trying to exert control over a life which was blighted by trauma and loss, a way of trying to classify his life so it makes sense. And there is the sense that from the very act of classification comes clarity, as if it teaches us to *really* look at things, really see them.

I was thinking how much his narrative voice reminded me of my beloved Calvino, when lo and behold Perec dropped a quote in from Italo’s “Cosmicomics” – synchronicity or what! In fact, the presence of Calvino permeates the book; apart from two parts that refer to or quote his works, “Two Hundred and Forty Three Postcards in Real Colour” is dedicated to him, and there is a quote from him on the back of the book.

There is much that is moving here, in particular the section “The Rue Vilin” where Perec makes several visits back to the street where he spent the first five years of his life. Each time, more has changed and more decay is evident – it’s as if he’s trying to gain a sense of place, to grasp hold of the memories before the tangible evidence is gone. This work sent me off to the Internet, looking up the street, and I found several astonishing things: firstly, the steps at the end of street are really iconic and have featured in a number of French films (see here). Secondly, the place no longer exists (which was quite shocking) and is now a modern park….. But thirdly, there is film of Perec visiting the Rue Vilin and then being interviewed here – I only wish my French was better….

The Rue Vilin Steps

The Rue Vilin Steps

“My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory. I shall look at a few old yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognising them.”

I’ve always liked ‘clever’ writers – ones who play with words, twist the genre, taking writing somewhere unexpected. And I love Perec’s playfulness and his profundity; and the fact that reading his work makes you look at the world completely differently. He’s definitely going to be one of my favourite writers for a long time to come.

Recent Reads – Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb


And yet again I fling myself into a book! I was searching around for something to take to London with me recently to read on the train; that’s always tricky because you don’t want a particularly nice edition knocking around in your bag all day getting bashed. Fortunately I had a spare copy of this Szerb (as I somehow managed to pick up two after my enthusiastic reading of his “Pendragon Legend” earlier this year) so it seemed the ideal train read!

Antal Szerb is another Pushkin Press find, and I was provoked into picking “Pendragon” up after reading Annabel’s enthusiastic review. “Journey by Moonlight” seems to be reckoned very highly from what I saw online so I approached it with high hopes – and I wasn’t disappointed, although it wasn’t quite what I expected (but then neither was my last Szerb!)

JBM opens with Mihaly, a bourgeois Hungarian businessman, on honeymoon in Italy with his wife Erszi. It is her second marriage but his first, and the story begins with hints of things going wrong. Mihaly wanders off and gets lost; he and Erszi seem to be slightly at odds about where they’re going, what they’re doing and life in general.

“She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihaly had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?”

Suddenly, a figure from Mihaly’s past turns up abruptly, delivers a message, insults Erszi and leaves. This prompts Mihaly to tell his wife about his youth – a wild time when he mixed with the strange Urpius children, Tamas and Eva. Dark secrets are revealed and then Mihaly manages to take the wrong train, lose Erszi and end up lost in Italy – a situation he seems not unhappy about. Erszi somehow washes up in Paris, still hankered after by her ex-husband, but also pursued by Mihaly’s friend. Meanwhile, Mihaly befriends an American woman and an English doctor, revisits elements from his past, confronts them and faces death.

Does that sound a little dazzling and overwhelming? Perhaps – but I think I’m learning to expect the unexpected from Szerb, because people and events will come flying into the story unannounced and it still carries on making a perfect kind of sense. Szerb is wonderful at literary effects – as Nicholas Lezard pointed out in his laudatory review in The Guardian, the arrival of the old friend at the beginning is “one of fiction’s great entrances”.


There are echoes here of other things I’ve read, particularly Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” which seems to be mirrored (intentionally or not) in the antics of Tamas and Eva, and in their dark side. The characters are alive and vibrant, as are the settings, and Szerb gets us inside Mihaly’s head quite brilliantly. He’s not an author that seems to go for the usual solutions – in fact, one of the joys of the book is finding out how Mihaly and Erszi, as well as most of the others, are not at all like we initially think, or how they think they are. Mihaly’s worst enemy all the way through seems to be his imagination and his warped perceptions of things.

“Our civilisation presents us with a marvellous mental machinery designed to help us forget, for most of our lives, that one day we too will die. In time we manage to push death out of our consciousness, just as we have done with the existence of God. That’s what civilisation does.”

It’s a roller-coaster ride of a book, with perceptions and understandings switching and changing. Szerb is a wonderful storyteller and this is the kind of book I’d like to go back to and re-read, now that I know the ending, to pick up all the little hints and significances throughout. Again, as with Pendragon, he almost seems to be mixing genres and presenting us with very unlikely heroes and heroines. Both Mihaly and Erszi are flawed, but still protagonists you can care about. I’m growing to love Szerb’s work the more of him I read – and the delightful thing is, there are still several other volumes available from Pushkin Press… :)

Recent Reads – Mr. Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick


When it comes to reading (and collecting!) books that could be regarded as a set, I confess that I’m a bit of a stickler. Take the British Library Crime Classics, for example! I stumbled across these recently, and I’m very keen to read “Death on the Cherwell” and “Murder Underground” by Mavis Doriel Hay. However, being fussy, I decided to start at the beginning, and picked up this – the first one they put out. As the blurb states, the protagonist Miriam Lea is “only the third-ever professional female detective to appear in a work of crime fiction” – so why has the novella been forgotten, particularly as the author was apparently very highly regarded in his day! The introduction reveals a little of what could be the problem, in that the story is somewhat derivative of an early work, Harlan Halsey’s “The Lady Detective”. But since I haven’t read this yet, I approached MBA with an open mind.

We are introduced to Miriam Lea, orphan, who earns a living however she can. Previously she had appeared on stage, then worked as a governess, but she’s now fallen on hard times and in desperation approaches Mr. Bazalgette’s agency to see if they will take her on as an operative. Luckily, just before the money runs out, a case of theft comes up and Miriam is sent off in pursuit of a fleeing bank employee, assisted by Dunstan, a more experienced agent who acts as her maid. The chase takes them to Belgium, Paris, Spain and eventually South Africa while they try to run their man to ground. Will they catch him red-handed with the stolen money and bonds, or will the thief escape?

Well, what to say about this? The book takes the form of a diary and so we see all through the eyes of Miriam, watching her fluctuating frame of mind and her responses to the events. The book is a good read, short but involving, and full of action. But – and there is a but – it does have its limitations. To be honest, apart from Miriam there is not a huge amount of characterisation and so I never really got a strong sense of the others involved in the story. The action is fairly surface level, thought related a little breathlessly, and the mystery and the twist are not greatly surprising. But my main thought would be that this really isn’t that much of a crime novel! Yes, there’s a crime and yes there’s an attempt to apprehend the thief, but in all honesty this is a book about Miriam and her life and what will happen to her, not a vintage crime novel(la)!leonardmerrick
In the end I quite enjoyed MBA – but I don’t think it will rate as highly as I expect some of the later books to do, and I can’t see myself wanting to revisit it again – so at least that’s another one that can leave the house!

The Making of Modernism


In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 by Sue Roe

Like many people, I grew up in awe of Paris, its artists and the whole image and ambience it has, with the idea of people painting everywhere in the streets, walking around in smocks and berets and living the Bohemian life – a cliché probably best punctured by Tony Hancock’s wonderful film, “The Rebel”. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that so much of modern art was indeed born in Paris, particularly in Montmartre in the early 20th century, which was a crucible which forged many talents. Sue Roe’s excellent new book sets out to tell the story of this birth during the years 1900-1910, when Picasso and Matisse, plus many of their colleagues, were struggling to find new ways to express themselves.

Roe has chosen to focus on those particular years for specific reasons – Picasso first appeared in Montmartre in 1900, and from 1910 onwards the place changed dramatically and the artists began to move away. In a readable, beautifully written book, she tells a wonderful story and pulls together many elements to give what I think is an excellent picture of how modernism started to be formed and took wings – not only covering painting and sculpture, but also in writing, dance and fashion.

One of the strengths of this book is the breadth of knowledge Roe brings to the story: we can all read a biography of a particular artist, but Roe draws all the threads together and shows the relationships. We see how the various painters were struggling with the new theories and forms, and how they helped, stimulated or competed with each other. We see how the arrival of Gertrude Stein and her family from American impacted on the artists, giving them patrons and funding, and valuable support. There is also the impact the artists had on Gertrude’s writing, and how she tried to incorporate modernist theories into her texts. Then there is the fashion of Paul Poiret, revolutionising women’s clothing and reflecting the colours in the works of art he saw. And Diaghilev arrived with the Russian ballet, bringing revolutionary dance and music, with set designs and costumes based on and influencing the modern trends. Even the dealers and collectors are given space here, as their influence was so important in giving the artists exhibitions and sales.

View Of The Butte Montmartre  Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre

Montmartre in the 1830s – very rural!

All these strands were interrelated, influencing each other and pulling art forward into great change and the book brilliantly relates this story. One of the most fascinating elements for me was the conjuring up of Montmartre in 1900. We think of Paris as a large, modern city, but at that time Montmartre was rural – almost like a country suburb – with country roads, windmills, shanty towns up the side of one of the hills and broken down buildings filled with starving, struggling artists, living hand to mouth. The pictures in the book (and more I’ve found online) show just how ‘countrified’ the area was – perhaps one of the reasons Picasso found it so appealing!

Marie Laurencin, 1913, Le Bal élégant, La Danse à la campagne

Marie Laurencin, 1913, Le Bal élégant, La Danse à la campagne

“They talked on until long after the tables in the cafes had emptied and only the hardened alcoholics were left, slumped for the night against walls, huddled in doorways or stretched out beneath the benches. In the lanes, hunched forms could be seen in the shadows, making their way back from midnight Mass. In the distance, down at the bottom of the hillside, Paris still teemed with the light of thousands of gas jets casting their sputtering shadows across the streets. At dawn, Picasso and his friends made their way home to the sounds of the early-morning trains, their wild calls rising up from the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, the Moulin de la Galette coming into view like a pale ghost against the sky.”

The Lapin Agile, a 'club' frequented by the artists, in 1969 - more of a farm than a club, really!

The Lapin Agile, a ‘club’ frequented by the artists, in 1969 – more of a country house than a club, really!

Another element that Roe gives much prominence to is the influence of the nascent cinema. Motion pictures had just begun to break during the decade, and started to replace the main entertainments of circus and vaudeville. The artists were fascinated by the movies, and also such innovations as the first aeroplanes, and all these elements influenced their work. She’s also excellent at bringing to life just how shocking the modernist works of art were and how scandalous society found them.

Reviews of the book have been positive in the main although I have seen occasional criticism which I can’t quite understand. Alastair Sooke in the Guardian stated: “…In Montmartre does not pretend to be a work of fresh scholarship. As an elegant synthesis of complex material, though, it excels: Roe is a skilled and graceful writer, capable of fashioning an accessible, nimble narrative.”

Bearing in mind that all of the participants are no longer with us, I’m not sure what more Roe could do than use the source material available and weave it into her narrative (and her notes and annotations are very thorough and clear). I agree very much with his assessment of her writing skills, but I would also say her research skills, knowledge of her subject, enthusiam and ability to transmit this are strong. The really important thing she conveys here is the sense of the whole – not just one individual artist’s life, but a group portrait, reflecting all the various practitioners from Apollinaire to Modigliani to Braque to Laurencin to Stein via umpteen others. I’m not aware of another book that’s approached this era with such a breadth of vision and given such an elegant overview, showing the influences and interconnections.

Montmartre in 1852

Montmartre in 1852

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I only wish that the publishers had managed to squeeze in more illustrations! Roe writes well about individual paintings or works of art, and fortunately in these days of the Internet I was able to scurry off and check out many of the artists she writes about. One minor niggle was the presence of occasional misspelled words and instances of repetition in a short space, which would have benefited from a little fine tuning. But that *is* a minor point – this is a wonderfully absorbing, entertaining and informative book, which has not only widened my knowledge of modernist artists, but has also sent me off to search out my Gertrude Stein books!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers – for which, many thanks!)

The Shelves – A Progress Report!


Yes, the cull continues, and while the shelves upstairs are being slimmed down, the ground floor of the house is threatened by piles waiting to be finally sorted – sell, donate or chuck (the latter is a small category and usually consists of old classics defaced badly by the Offspring at some point during study!)

At the weekend I tackled the Virago shelves – and the only practical way was to spread them out on the spare room bed:

This is what they looked like after a bit of a prune – I had a terrifying number of duplicates (three copies of “The Edwardians”, for example!) but they are definitely slimmed down now and fit back on the shelves (tho they are two deep):

I have made a start on the Russian shelves too, which are below and alongside the Viragos (there are an awful lot of Russians….) Here are the fiction books having been pruned and put back on the shelves:

Well, some of them….. Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn have shelves of their own. This isn’t total success, however, as I still have these volumes perched on a step stool as they wouldn’t all fit back on – time for a rethink!!

Anyone got any bright ideas? How do you deal with overflowing book stacks?? :s

Recent Reads – The Sea Close By by Albert Camus


The book clearing continues apace, and as I was moving piles of printed matter around I stumbled across this – a little Penguin pamphlet (for want of a better word), containing two essays by Albert Camus and released to coincide with his centenary last year (which is when I picked it up). Camus was, of course, one of my great discoveries in the 1980s, when I was reading every French existentialist I could get my hands on. He stands up to re-reading though, as I found when I revisited “The Outsider” – but these two essays were pieces I hadn’t read.


They’re titled “The Sea Close By” and “Summer in Algiers” and the first piece is just that – a piece about being aboard ship, sailing on the seas, and the meditations that occur while you’re afloat and travelling. We’ve lost so much of the sense of travel nowadays: speeding everywhere in cars, jet planes and even express trains, we can’t imagine the slow, hypnotic quality of a voyage to another country. The sky and the stars float by; life becomes suspended and dreamy as the days pass and land is still not in sight. Camus captures in beautiful, poetic prose that gradual sense of movement, of changing location, which is often lost today – it’s a wonderful piece of writing.

“Summer in Algiers” is an earlier piece; Camus was of course French-Algerian and here he revisits the area in which he grew up, the Belcourt area of Algiers. Here, the rhythm of life is different; priorities are not the same under the hot sun, and the people are not motivated by the same things as those in big cities and cooler climes. The pace of life is slow; people bloom and blossom early, decay quickly and are existentialist in the sense that they live simply to live, not for any other reason. Pleasure is the motivation, the morals and rule of the street are those which apply, and there is an intensity in living this way. Again, Camus’ prose is evocative and beautiful, conjuring up the glare of the Mediterranean sun on white walls, the still at noon, the slight cool of the evenings.

“Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summonses for my Algiers to be so closely linked with them. When I spend some time far from that town, I imagine its twilights as promises of happiness. On the hills above the city there are paths among the mastics and olive-trees. And towards them my heart turns at such moments. I see flights of black birds rise against the green horizon. In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes. A whole little nation of red clouds stretches out until it is absorbed in the air. Almost immediately afterwards appears the first star that had been seen taking shape and consistency in the depth of the sky. And then suddenly, all consuming, night.”


As an object, this little pamphlet is quite lovely – I have similar ones of Orwell essays and they’re just as nice. Certainly, Penguin and other publishers should bring out more of these bite size booklets so we can just pick up our favourite others and indulge a little when the mood takes us. Camus fitted my mood just at this moment and maybe it’s time to revisit my favourite book of his, “The Plague”!

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