Some thoughts of a Monolinguist

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It occurred to me recently, while browsing the lovely Pushkin Press site recently and trying to resist the temptation of another rediscovered 20th century classic, how lucky I am as a modern reader. For where would my reading be without translators?

I am a total monolinguist – I was good at French at school, but that was a long, long time ago and I have no vocabulary left. Additionally, I think the French I would speak would very formal and old-fashioned, because the version my children were dealing with at school was very different to the one I learned. As for other languages – hopeless! I once dreamed of learning Russian, but I think it’s beyond me. So, staring at my piles of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Zweig, Szerb, Hesse, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and the like, it’s sobering to realise how much of my reading pleasure is dependent on the people who undertake to approach a piece of art in another language and render it in English so that I (and many others) can enjoy it.

And it’s only recently that I’ve started to think more deeply about which translators’ work I like best, and which I’ll choose to read. Admittedly, in the early days of my reading, there was much less choice than there is now, and I more often than not ended up with any Penguin Classic I could find. You still often can’t go wrong with one of their volumes, but the range available is so much wider nowadays. Some independent publishers, like Hesperus, Pushkin and Alma, specialise in bringing us lost works in sparkly new versions, and NYRB are also responsible for many. So in no particular order, here are some of my favourites:

happy mosc

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, for their sterling work on bring Platonov to the English-speaking world


Len Rix, champion of Antal Szerb


Anthea Bell, known best for many volumes of Stefan Zweig, but also translator of Irmgard Keun


Joanne Turnbull, who’s given voice to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

gambler alma

Hugh Aplin, quietly translating away so many volumes of Hesperus and Alma Classics

rilke in paris

Will Stone, who rendered “Rilke in Paris” so beautifully and has staunchly defended Zweig’s work


The Maudes, whose translations of Tolstoy were contemporary and are still definitive in my mind


David McDuff, whose versions of Dostoevsky are really wonderful


William Weaver, doyen of Calvino translations

These are just the ones that spring to mind, translators who’ve provided some of the books which have given me so much pleasure recently. Alas, it’s likely that I’ll stay a monolinguist forever, so thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for giving me the freedom to read literature from around the world!

… in which the Book Finding Fairy comes to my aid…..


No, seriously! I’m starting to think there is some kind of entity watching over me, pointing me in the direction of lost books needing a good home! Because I popped into town today for a few quick errands, with no intention of looking for any more volumes; but detoured into a couple of charity shops looking for a belt.

And in the first, these two caught my eye:

sten hux

I’ve wanted to read Stendhal for a while, so a nearly new Oxford version for 95p was not to be sneezed at. Likewise the Huxley – I have a load of his books on Mount TBR but no short stories and this 1944 reprint society edition was also 95p. It was also kind of intriguing – as on the title page and the reverse of that page, someone had pencilled faint messages asking someone to forgive them because it was their birthday…. My mind has been racing all day, speculating on the story behind the messages!


But find of the day was this lovely book club edition of “The Surprise of Cremona” by Edith Templeton. I read about this book on Vulpes Libris a while back, and was keen to get a copy – but all the ones I came across were overpriced, had no dust jackets etc etc. However, on the way to the bus today, I swerved into the last charity shop en route – they were revamping their bookshelves, so I took a quick glance at their other shelf of volumes of dictionaries, etc, which I don’t usually look at. Lo and behold, there was the Templeton – for £1 and with a reasonable d/j!

So the Book Finding Fairy was looking after me today – or maybe I just have Book Finding intuition. Whatever – I’m happy with the results!!

Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky: July 19 1893 – April 14, 1930

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Forward march! That time may whistle by as rockets flare.
So the wind shall carry to the past of ours
only the ruffling of our hair.
Our planet is poorly equipped for delight.
One must snatch gladness from the days that are.
In this life
it’s not difficult to die.
To make life
is more difficult by far.

from To Sergei Esenin
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky


84 years today since we lost Mayakovsky…

Weekend Fun …. plus the odd new book or three….


This most recent weekend was a lovely one for lots of different reasons! Firstly, I went down to London to visit family as my Little Bro got me tickets to see the Manic Street Preachers (one of my fave bands) for my last birthday. Turns out they were supported by Scritti Politti, another favourite, so it was a two-for-one treat! I could rant on for hours about how wonderful the gig was (I hadn’t been to a Manics show since I saw them at the same venue – Brixton Academy – in 2001) – suffice to say they were mega, and I can’t wait for the new album!

Scritti were a joy, too – I loved them back in the day (late 70s/early 80s) and they’ve returned recently so I was able to see them for the first time. A wonderful long support set with all my faves and also some new songs! It was a grand night, as Wallace might say!

(This was last year, but much the same as Saturday night)

The second lovely thing of the weekend was of course seeing family. My Bro and his wife have three young’uns – a nephew and 2 nieces for me – and were very accommodating putting me up for the night despite being afflicted with various lurgies (including Man Flu for Bro who was not well and still came to the gig with me!) Plus the Aged Parents were down visiting also so it was quite a family reunion – and it’s always nice to see that the APs, despite being a little frail, are still enjoying life.

The RFH in 1951 during the Festival

The RFH in 1951 during the Festival

Further fun was spending a lot of Saturday (and some of Sunday) on the South Bank. I’m inordinately fond of the Royal Festival Hall – perhaps because it’s the only thing surviving from the Festival of Britain, with which I have quite an obsession. I could hang around the RFH for hours (and have done over the years) admiring the lovely 1950s architecture, gazing at the wooden panelling and noting the fact that features like the original engraved glass door handles are still in place.

And finally, of course, there was the odd book or two or three or….. Well, I was quite restrained I thought but still brought home a small pile:

stackI was quite pleased at the smallness of the heap. The two Viragos came from the second-hand book market under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank and were volumes I haven’t come across before.


The Fantomas book was also from the market – I’d love to see the films of this classic crime story as they starred one of my favourite French actors, Jean Marais.


The gorgeous looking NYRB is from Foyles and I confess I was attracted to it by the fact it has Italo Calvino’s name on the front. This is one of the many reasons bookshops are best – browsing in a store will find you treasures like this that you can pick up and discover in a way online shopping will never replicate.


And finally, an oddity. Opposite the Bloomsbury Oxfam is a little bookshop called Bookmarks that I ventured into for the first time on Saturday. It’s mainly left-wing stuff (and I was very tempted by some little pamphlets on Lenin and Trotsky, but reminded myself I have so many books on them already…) However, tucked into their bargain boxes at the front for £1 was this little Penguin book of Imagist Poetry. The book itself was worth picking up, but tucked inside were some sheets of poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins that someone had once typed out and put in the book for safekeeping. I love finding little hints about previous owners of books – another reason I like to give old books a new home!

So – a lovely weekend, all in all. I revisited the RFH on the way home on Sunday to soak up the South Bank ambience and sample the lovely food stalls at the back of the Hall. My feet were very pleased to get home, though….

BUT (and it is a big but!) – today the results of a bit of online madness a week ago arrived…..


Since discovering the ridiculous “is-Roth-or-Zweig-the-best-writer” controversy online, I’ve been keen to read more Zweig and this collection of his essays, translated by Will Stone and published by Hesperus Press, sounds ideal.


And these two lovelies were the result of browsing the Pushkin Press website (Wolf) and giving in to the urge to buy the Transylvanian Trilogy which I’ve been fighting off for ages…

Oh well – for the record, I’m currently reading “Transit” by Anna Seghers and trying to catch up with reviews – I’d better get my skates on really!!

Recent Reads: Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansall


Let’s face it, Agatha Christie and her wonderful detective, Hercule Poirot, don’t need any introduction from me. Christie is one of the best-selling authors in the world – ever! And even if you haven’t read any of her books, chances are you’re aware of the amazing adaptations of the Poirot stories, starring David Suchet in the title role. I first discovered the little Belgian in my teens, around the time of the all-star film adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” and I was instantly hooked. In the decades since then, I’ve collected and read everything by Christie, and she’s most definitely one of my favourite authors.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Until the LWT adaptations of Christie’s stories, Poirot had really not been well served by the film medium. Although I’d watched Albert Finney in “Orient” he was far removed from the written version of the character, and just about every adaptation featured a caricature Hercule, with stupid exaggerated mannerisms and cod accents. However, the advent of David Suchet in the role brought a sea change, and this book is full of his recollections of his life as Poirot – coming to the role at the start, his approach to acting and becoming the man, his quest to ensure the portrayal was accurate and his wish to bring all the Poirot stories to the small screen.

“Poirot and Me” (a lovely gift from OH at Christmas) is a beautifully easy and enjoyable read, brimming with anecdotes and memories. Suchet is meticulous in his approach to bringing the great detective to the small screen, determined that his portrayal will be of *Christie’s* Poirot, and it’s fascinating to watch the development process. He’s obviously put his heart and soul into the role, becoming the character to such an extent that he (and others!) often don’t know where Poirot ends and Suchet begins. He’s also a very astute interpreter, a true ‘character actor’ and he has some intriguing insights into Poirot’s nature and being. At the start of his career in Christie, he made a long crib of characteristics of the great man, which is reproduced at the end of the book and makes fascinating reading. Learning how he used his actors skills to get under the skin of the real Poirot was quite an eye-opener – being a proper actor isn’t a walk in the park. And Suchet filled in the gaps too, relating the other work he’s done between Poirot, and reminding us of the uncertainty of an actor’s life, going from job to job and not knowing where the future lies.

David Suchet

It’s a bit of a shock to realise that the first stories featuring the actor were back in 1989 and then you understand what a monumental undertaking it’s been for him to retain his grip on the character over all that time; not only improving and perfecting his portrayal along the way (which, let’s be honest, was pretty perfect from the start); but also digging down deeper into the nature of Poirot, highlighting his real character which has been somewhat buried over the years by the superficial public image. It’s a remarkable achievement which must have taken much from the actor, and he’s not afraid to show the emotions involved in this, whether positive or negative. The accounts of the filming of the final stories are moving, and I confess to having a tear or two in my eyes (I haven’t felt strong enough yet to watch “Curtain”!) We are really privileged to get a behind-the-scenes view of the creation of Hercule Poirot, so much of which is driven by Suchet himself

David Suchet comes across as a genuinely modest man, never anything less than generous about his colleagues, both in front of and behind the cameras. I have a great deal of respect for him, and as a fan of Poirot, also a great deal of gratitude for the way he’s brought the real detective to us in a way never done before. It’s an understatement to say he’s the definitive Poirot – he *is* Poirot! This is a lovely, lovely book and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone with even a passing interest in Agatha Christie and her great detective. Essential reading!

(As a side note, much as I love battered old paperbacks, this really lovely hardback was another reminder of why I don’t like ebooks. Thick paper, lovely colour photos of the filming of the series, the ease of holding and reading, the smell of newly printed paper – not much is better than that!)

Vintage Crime Shorts: A Trio of Tales


After the mammoth tome which is the doorstep that is “The Idiot”, I confess I felt rather in need of something a little shorter and punchier. Re-enter “The Dead Witness” with its collection of classic crime shorts – just right to clear the book hangover! I found myself nipping through three stories one after the other, which quite surprised me – so I thought I’d round them up here.

Edgar Allan Poe – The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)


“Morgue” is of course considered the first ‘proper’ detective story, and despite its being preceded by “The Secret Cell”, I do agree with Michael Sims, the editor of this anthology, that Poe still deserves the title. “Cell” had none of the characteristics that Poe laid down and everyone else copied: a unique detective, with unusual characteristics, and a way of deducing facts no-one else could’ an apparently insoluble murder; the first locked room mystery; the baffled and amazed sidekick; bumbling policemen who couldn’t solve the crime. C. August Dupin is the detective, sharing rooms with a friend and exercising his brain cells (are they little and grey?) to such an extent that he can even break into his friend’s train of thought and predict exactly what he is going to say. When a mother and daughter are found brutally slain, in unusual circumstances, in the Rue Morgue it takes Dupin to solve the mystery. I shall say *nothing* about the crime or the solution, because the only downside with re-reading this story is that once you know the solution you won’t forget it, and in many ways it’s difficult to re-read! However, if you do plan to read it, please be careful of the edition you choose – I’ve seen several with cover pictures that totally give the game away…. That’s by the by, anyway. All that needs to be said is that Poe was a bit of a genius and we crime story fanciers have a lot to thank him for!

Charles Dickens – On Duty with Inspector Field (1851)


This, I confess, I found to be a bit of an oddity. More essay than story, “Field” tells an impressionistic tale of Dickens’ trip out into the worst areas of London with the real Inspector Field, seeing how the underbelly of the city’s occupants had to live. Mixing with all kinds of criminals, accompanied at all times by police officers, Dickens shows us the downside of Victorian society – poverty, starvation, crime and prostitution. It’s a beautifully written piece, full of atmosphere and poignant observation. But I couldn’t quite work out why it was here; to be honest, I would have preferred an extract from “Bleak House” showing Inspector Bucket in action! (I believe the latter was actually based on Field). Ah well – on to the next story.

Wilkie Collins – The Diary of Anne Rodway (1856)


Collins is of course another important progenitor of the detective story, in particular with “The Moonstone”, considered the first detective novel in the English language and featuring Sergeant Cuff. So it’s not unusual to find him also working in this vein in short stories, and “Rodway” is an early example of telling a story in the diary form and also a female doing the investigation. Anne Rodway is poor; living in cheap lodgings, she ekes out a living sewing whilst waiting for her fiance to return from abroad where he is attempting to earn enough for them to marry. Her best friend Mary is also poor, but beautiful, and the two girls are like sisters. So when Mary is attacked and dies, it is almost more than Anne can bear. The police are convinced she simply fell and banged her head, but Anne is not so sure and when she finds a ‘clew’ (I *love* that spelling!) in form the form of the torn off end of a cravat, gripped in dead Mary’s hand, she determines to find out the truth. The story of her investigations, against the background of poverty in the city, is poignant and moving – Collins really can tell a wonderful tale, and in some ways is more readable than Dickens, who does tend to lapse into extravagances of language at times! I’ve only read “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White” of Collins’ work, and I really think I need to read more!

So that’s another three tales from “The Dead Witness” – my only quibble with the book so far would be the minor one that the compiler hasn’t put the publication date next to the title of each story. That would have been useful, in my view!


Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821 – August 31, 1867)



Evening Harmony

The hour has come at last when, trembling to and fro,
Each flower is a censer sifting its perfume;
The scent and sounds all swirl in evening’s gentle fume;
A melancholy waltz, a languid vertigo!

Each flower is a censer sifting its perfume;
A violin’s vibrato wounds the heart of woe;
A melancholy waltz, a languid vertigo!
The sky, a lofty altar, lovely in the gloom,

A violin’s vibrato wounds the heart of woe,
A tender heart detests the black of nullity,
The sky, a lofty altar, lovely in the gloom;
The sun is drowning in the evening’s blood-red glow.

A tender heart detests the black of nullity,
And lovingly preserves each trace of long ago!
The sun is drowning in the evening’s blood-red glow …
Your memory shines through me like an ostensory!

Charles Baudelaire

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