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The Return of the Edwardian Wit

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Reginald in Russia by Saki

Saki, the pseudonym of H.H. Munro, is an author I first discovered back in 2012, when I read a little collection of his short pieces put out by Hesperus, and also his first volume of stories under the title “Reginald”. Now Michael Walmer has put out the second Saki selection called, titled “Reginald in Russia” in one of his lovely new editions and has kindly provided a copy for review.

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Although Saki’s regular character Reginald is referenced in the title, it’s in fact only the first story in the collection in which he features. And there’s no shortage of the usual wit which is on show while Reginald exchanges bon mots with Princess Olga. Other stories are equally witty, covering subjects as wide-ranging as strange encounters in woods, ghost stories and a short and funny play. There are some really wonderful twists; one of my favourites being in the story “The Reticence of Lady Anne”, about a domestic dispute which has a completely unexpected ending.

“I hate posterity – it’s so fond of having the last word.”

In some ways, Saki reminds me a little of Ronald Firbank (also published by Michael Walmer); the two writers share a love of funny phrases and witty exchanges, although of the two it has to be said that Saki is a lot more comprehensible – and often screamingly funny! It’s a tribute to his skill that he can take something really quite dark (Gabriel-Ernest) and turn into something entertaining but unsettling.

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Saki often covers unexpectedly deep subject matter but always in a witty, clever way. Alas, he died young, a victim of the horrors of the First World War which robbed the world of many talented artists. But at least we’ve been left with the laughter and levity of his works which still entertain today. If you love Wodehouse, Wilde and wit, “Reginald in Russia” is most definitely for you!

The Banality of Evil…

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HHhH by Laurent Binet

I’m not sure quite why I I’m dipping so much into literature dealing with the Second World War at the moment – just the way my mood is swinging, I suppose. But I read “Look Who’s Back” recently (a satire about the return of Hitler – review will follow in November) and wasn’t sure where to go next, when I remembered that I’d got hold of a copy of “HHhH” not that long ago, and it seemed the best book to go onto. As I’m currently reading Philippe Claudel’s “Brodek’s Report” I guess I’m in some kind of groove right now…

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“HHhH” was first published in 2009 to much acclaim, and it concerns Operation Anthropoid, a plot to assassinate the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, who was at the time overseeing the Final Solution in Prague. The book is described as a novel, and sets out to tell the story of the two assassins sent to carry out the attack, a Czech called Jan Kubis and a Slovak called Jozef Gabcik. However, the book is not quite as straightforward as it might seem, as there is an extra layer, that of a novelist who is wrestling to write a historical novel but having trouble with the whole concept of such a thing.

The narrator is constantly questioning the process he’s undertaking, pulling himself back from inventing dialogue or events of which he cannot know the truth. Alongside this, he tries to tell the story as best he can, giving only what he knows or believes is fact. It’s an unusual concept and in fact leaves the reader wondering whether the “I” of the story is Binet, or another novelist onto whom Binet is projecting his anxieties! It’s clear that this particular historical story has really got under his skin

But surprisingly enough the concept works well, probably because Binet is such a good writer. He has a great love of Prague and a wonderful ability to conjure it up in prose; and he brings alive the characters involved brilliantly. In fact, much of the early part of the book is concerned with the victim and the background of events leading up to the assassination, obviously so that the reader understands the issues and why Heydrich was a target. Binet is almost journalistic in his approach, wanting fact not fancy, and bringing the story to life with a clear eye and a strong historical perspective. The book is quite experimental and is as much about the process of telling a story as of the story itself. The point seems to be that if all writing is fiction (and it is, in a sense) then the “I” of Binet’s narration is fictional too. And as the book progresses, Binet becomes so close to his work that he feels as it he is in it too, further blurring the boundaries.

“Kubis is dead. I wish I didn’t have to write that. I would have liked to get to know him better. If only I could have saved him. According to witnesses, there was a boarded-up door at the end of the gallery that led to the neighbouring buildings, and which might have allowed the three men to escape. If only they’d gone through that door! History is the only true casualty; you can re-read it as much as you like, but you can never rewrite it.”

In the end, Binet deconstructs the whole process of writing historically-based fiction by telling the tale and recording his responses to it; from his visit to the church where the assassins made their last stand, to the publication of a possible rival book, via his discovery of new facts and other novels on the subject while he is working on HhHH. By interpolating himself and his feeling into the story of Operation Anthropoid, Binet creates a powerful and effective book, particularly as the subject matter is so striking and often stark. There is no glossing over of hard facts and Nazi cruelty is shown clearly in all its brutality.

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Yet despite his wish to tell a simple tale, Binet cannot help but wax lyrical at times and his writing is very evocative. The story of the two assassins is one of courage, with two men determined to try to make a difference in a world that appears to have gone mad and Binet is a worthy scribe to pass on word of their deeds to another generation.

The concept of the banality of evil is something I’ve only come across recently, and I’ve begun to dip into Hannah Arendt’s work to see if I can make some sense of not only 20th century events, but also man’s inhumanity to man, which continues into the 21st. And I think I’ve started to see what she means. It’s not just *one* person who’s evil, the foaming-at-the-mouth Hitler stereotype – the evil leader has plenty of people with him who think the same (or even worse) than he does, and are just as prepared to perpetrate vile deeds. Evil is not the prerogative of a few madmen – it’s an everyday thing that many are capable of and against which we must all stand.

Heydrich was one of Hitler’s staunchest henchmen (why were there so many Hs in the Third Reich??) and was no loss to humanity. The reprisals after his death were hideous and we must never forget those who suffered. I’d highly recommend Binet’s book (I hesitate to call it a novel, really) not only for anyone interested in Operation Anthropoid, but also for those interested in the way novels are written and the conflict between truth and invention, particularly in a world where the lines are often blurred. A wonderful and stunning read!

The Return of Vintage Crime Shorts!

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Yes, I have got a little behind with my reading of the short pieces collected in “Dead Witness”, but they were the ideal thing recently when I was between books and unsure of what I was actually going to read next. And the four tales I read were really varied – quite fascinating how different the short story can be.

Though in truth, they’re not all short stories, as the first piece is an extract from novel – the one in which we meet arguably the most famous detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes!

The Science of Deduction by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (an extract from A Study in Scarlet)

Reading Sherlock Holmes nowadays is never going to be the same experience as his first readers; so much of his image has permeated our culture that even if you’re not a fan, you know who Holmes is. And if I’m honest, Holmes didn’t really catch fire until the first short stories started appearing. Nevertheless, editor Michael Sims has decided to feature the initial meeting between Holmes and Watson, which sees them setting up in Baker Street and also Holmes establishing his character and early signs of his deductive powers, so from that point of view it’s a good choice.

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It’s quite obvious that we’re in the presence of a great storyteller and great character, even in this early work, and I must admit that reading this had the effect of making me want to pick up my Sherlock Holmes short story collections and get lost in the world of Victorian crime. Truly, Holmes is the definitive detective!

The Whitechapel Mystery by Anonymous

This section is a whole different kettle of fish, as they say. It consists of a selection of rather gruesome newspaper reports of the Ripper cases which were actually so graphic that I ended up skipping over some of the descriptions! It’s quite an eye-opener to see how the gutter press hasn’t changed that much, although this was probably one of my least favourite shorts in the book.

The Assassin’s Natal Autograph by Mark Twain

Mark Twain is of course best for writing about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but this extract comes from his work “Pudd’nhead Wilson”. The featured story concerns a court case and has a very early exposition of the science of fingerprinting which proves a clincher in case of proving guilt. Twain was ahead of his time as this was first published in 1894, well in advance of the first use of fingerprint evidence in 1902. The extract was excellent, but should have come with a spoiler alert if you were thinking of reading the book…

Murder at Troyte’s Hall by C.L. Pirkis

The final story of the batch was a much more substantial and satisfying tale, write by Catherine Pirkis who was the first woman writer to create a woman detective – Loveday Brooke. Employed by an agency who can see the sense in having one of their number who can easily infiltrate big houses and the like, Loveday is sent to Troyte’s Hall to investigate the murder of old Sandy, the Cravens’ family retainer who lives in the lodge. The family itself is an odd one, with a reclusive patriarchal figure who spends all his time working, a daughter who has conveniently gone off to stay with a friend and a suspicious son who could well be the guilty party. Needless to say, Loveday manages to unravel things before the local policemen, although putting herself in danger in the process. But this is great stuff with proper detecting and quite exciting though maybe a little predictable!

I’m now about two-thirds of the way through this book and it’s ideal for dipping into when you want a classic crime fix but haven’t got the time to invest in a novel – great stuff!!

On Roads – A Giveaway!

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The more I think about Joe Moran’s “On Roads” (reviewed here) the more I love it and want to share it with others! So I thought I would do a little giveaway!

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I have one brand new copy of the book to give to an interested reader. Names will be pulled out of a hat randomly and if you’re interested leave a comment to enter – all I ask is that you recommend me a really good non-fiction read you think I might like!

I’ll close entries in a week’s time and see if I can persuade OH to do the draw as Youngest Child is no longer on hand – good luck! :)

More Russian Lovelies from the Wonderful Alma Classics!

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Alma Books has long been one of my favourite publishers (you can find plenty of my praise on this site) and I was very pleased to hear that they’re issuing more wonderful Russians!

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Just published is a lovely collection of Chekhov’s short stories “In the Twilight”, which has been rendered readable for us Anglophones by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin. As well as being in a sparkly new translation, the book features the usual excellent Alma extra material in the form of photos and biographical material.

This is a particularly interesting collection of Chekhov’s work as it was the third collection of his work published, and it was put together by the author himself (unlike many modern collections which are selected by publishers and translators). So we have the advantage of reading a work in the form in which Chekhov wanted us to see it.

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Chekhov’s Dacha in Yalta, courtesy Cornucopia magazine

Additionally, as Aplin points out in his interesting introduction, this set of stories catches Chekhov at an intriguing point in his development; here the author is making the transition from his earlier, more humorous pieces, written very much with a view to making a living, to the more serious works for which he would become known.

I’m looking forward to reading this very much, and a review will follow! Kudos to Alma, though, for bringing out this work in a lovely new edition.

Evergreen version of The Gambler - isn't it lovely?

Evergreen version of The Gambler – isn’t it lovely?

If you haven’t explored many Russian classics before, Alma’s Evergreen imprint is a good way to start, as this budget price set of books includes several titles from that country’s great authors. Gogol’s “Petersburg Tales”, Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and “Notes from Underground” and “The Gambler” (my favourite!), plus Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” are some of the titles available, and at £4.99 you can’t go wrong.

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Finally, I was so excited to find out that Alma are issuing a new collection of some of Bulgakov’s stories under the title “Notes from a Cuff”. These are primarily early pieces, composed when the author was working as a doctor during the Russian civil war; and the best bit is that the book also contains some new works translated into English for the first time!

“Notes on a Cuff” is due out in November – and I’m very much looking forward to reading it! :)

A Secret History of Motorways – and the future we never had…

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On Roads: A Hidden History by Joe Moran

It’s been a little while since I read any non-fiction – I’ve really been submerged in various types of fiction lately, haven’t I? – but I stumbled across Joe Moran’s “On Roads” in The Works at a bargain £1.99 and it sounded too good to resist!

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Moran is a social and cultural historian who currently lectures at Liverpool’s John Moores University and has authored several other books apart from this one – and according to Wikipedia he’s influenced by my beloved Georges Perec among others, so that can’t be bad! “On Roads” tells the story of British roads post-WW2, which sounds though it might be boring – but actually is quite unputdownable! This is not about how roads were dug and concrete poured (although elements of that are discussed); instead, Moran covers a wide range of aspects including the planning and building of motorways, the evolution of service stations, the introduction of speed limits and breathalysers, anti-motorway protesting and a remarkably wide-ranging cultural look at how roads have influenced and shaped our country. We learn about how the road numbering was influenced by Napoleon; how traffic jams form and unform; how the Little Chef developed; the political waves which influenced motorway building; and the wonderful fact that 2.5 million Mills and Boons books are supporting the M6 toll road!

“The M6 Toll Road used up two-and-a-half million old Mills and Boons novels, romantic dreams crushed daily by juggernauts. So thank you, reader, for saving this book from being buried under one of the new lanes on the M1. Mind you, if I had to be pulped I can think of worse fates. Having your unread books vanish into the authorless anonymity of a road feels pleasingly melancholic, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean.”

This is cultural history at its best, and Moran’s sweeping range of knowledge is impressive – in fact, his erudition reminded a little of Iain Sinclair’s “London Orbital” but without the mysticism and with a little more of a left-wing bias (although he never lets his political beliefs get in the way of telling a good story and dropping in another fascinating fact). He’ll reference anything from the old band “Hatfield and the North” to J.G. Ballard via Swampy and Greenham Common and fog on the motorway, and the book is never less than engrossing. It’s also very drily funny!

Much of this book stirred memories, too. I’m old enough to remember travelling in the early days of motorways and at a time when there were no facilities such as the current motorway services to stop for the so-called ‘comfort break’ (it was behind the nearest bush when I was a child). I can recall the early Forte service stations and how modern they seemed at the time, and how wonderfully retro they would look now, and this book triggered many long-lost images. There was one particular Forte break we stopped in whilst travelling from Hampshire to Northants and I wish I could identify it….!

We’re often plagued nowadays by thoughts of the future we were predicted we would have, which is nothing like the one we got – “Nostalgia for an age yet to come” as Buzzcocks put it so well. This book brilliantly captures the feeling of anticipation experienced during the 20th century, when progress was seen as a sparkly, bright new future where all would be equal and everyone would have a wonderful life with gadgets to make life easier, and a modern cars and roads to get about on. Moran charts the changing views as the century progressed and attitudes shifted as environmental concerns came to the fore, and it’s sobering to see how quickly viewpoints altered as oil ran low and the car was no longer the be-all and end-all.

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This is an exceptionally good book – readable, enjoyable, informative, funny and thought-provoking. Why it ended up in The Works I don’t know, as I very much agreed with the quote on the front from the Sunday Times: “A beautifully written masterpiece”. I urge you all to go out and buy a copy – now!!!

In which “Books are my Bag” reaches Suffolk….

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and a day that starts badly ends up well!

Yes, I have been a tad grumpy lately – mainly because of bad quality second-hand books – and additional grief was caused by the fact that a planned visit to London yesterday to hang around Foyles with J. during Books are my Bag events had to be cancelled owing to OH being a bit poorly.

So I was pleased to find that BAMB was actually going to be celebrated by the local Waterstones branch (although I only heard the night before thanks to an email from Caboodle – nothing was showing up on the BAMB website). I intended to make an early visit in case events started promptly and all the bags went, but things went pear-shaped as we had to make an unintended visit to the local hospital with 92-year old mother-in-law….. Turned out that there was nothing wrong with her and the visit was a false alarm, but I hit town at midday convinced there would be nothing left in Waterstones.

Frankly, if I’m honest, you wouldn’t even know BAMB existed if you looked at the front of the shop. No displays or bags in the window or events or anything. I wandered upstairs to the fiction section and enquired rather feebly about the bags and the guy said “Oh yes!” and opened a plastic bag containing them – apparently I was the *first* person to ask!!

I had a little chat with him and pointed out that a little publicity might help; they didn’t show up as doing anything on the BAMB website and I’d only found out the night before, and that a window display might help (maybe I should be running the branch…) Anyway, what was nice was that, having been given a free bag, I felt inclined to explore the fiction shelves a bit and having dissed the store a few weeks ago, I have to withdraw my comments a little. Despite having moved their fiction into a smaller area, there was actually quite a good selection – particularly of smaller presses which I hadn’t expected. So well done Waterstones, Ipswich for being a little more adventurous with what you stock!

In the end I bought one *brand new* book in honour of the day – to add to the few second-hand volumes I’d found – and this is what came home with me:

The infamous bag – not a Tracy Emin one, but I don’t mind that at all! Plus the new book I bought which is this:

My first Pereine Press book – yes, Waterstones really *do* stock some of the good smaller presses! “Chasing the King of Hearts” chimes in with the kind of stuff I’m reading at the moment, so it was the obvious choice.

As for some of the second-hand bargains, these first two came from the local library old stock shelves, for 40p each:

I’ve picked up a number of decent books this way, and often in better condition than some of the second-hand books I buy online. And for 40p each! I’m determined to read Trollope soon and have heard good things about this. As for Francis Wyndham, I know I’ve read about him on a blog but I can’t remember where. But I will give his short stories a go!

And finally some charity shop finds:

This was from the Oxfam – again I’ve read about Claudel online (I think on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and it sounded intriguing. And last but not least from the Crack On charity shop:

I’d never heard of it but the blurb says it’s a mix of travelogue and family history and I’m intrigued enough to risk 75p on it!

So not a bad day in the end – not the one I had planned, but nevertheless with some lovely bookishness. How did you celebrate Books are my Bag? :)

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