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“…in the end in life life is endured..” *

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Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese
Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Last month you might have noticed a flurry of links on Twitter to ‘Books of the Year’ posts. However, as Simon at Stuck in a Book very sensibly pointed out, this was a wee bit premature, given that there was still one twelfth of the year left in which to read books – and he was right. Let’s face it, who knows what real joys and treasures might come up in December. Certainly, I’ve read one of the most extraordinary books of the year this month, and I’m still trying to get my head round it a little bit…

I should ‘fess up straight away that I’d never heard of either book or author before; but I saw an image of it, I think on Twitter?, and noticed that it was emblazoned with a quote from Italo Calvino. That’s enough to get my attention straight away – I have a reasonable number of books on my shelves because they’re lauded by him, or with forewords etc, and I trace my love of Primo Levi and his works back to the fact that I bought “The Periodic Table” when it first came out because of, indeed, a Calvino quote on the cover…

With all that water coming down and coming down, and when you were about to say: there, it’s stopping now, you didn’t have time to open your mouth before the water violently returned, a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy.

Any road up, as they say, “Malacqua” has been brought out by the independent publisher And Other Stories. Looking through their back catalogue, I do feel rather ashamed that this is the first of their publications I’ve read, and they’re obviously an imprint worth exploring. The publisher was kind enough to provide a review copy, and once picked up, this was a book I couldn’t put down.

So what exactly is the book *about*? “Malacqua” has an ostensibly simple plot: the city of Naples is afflicted with four days of unceasing, almost biblical rain. Strange occurrences follow: an eerie wailing is heard coming from empty buildings; certain coins begin to play music to the children of the city; buildings and roads collapse, killing citizens; the emergency services and those in charge are puzzled; and, mostly importantly perhaps, we see the effect the rains have on the lives and loves of the people of Naples.

“and Christ!, was this city built on a void?, …”

Weaving through the story is the melancholy journalist Carlo Andreoli, watching the rain come down and trying to fathom its meaning. He is there at the start of the story, reporting on the rain and wondering, like all Neapolitans, when it will stop and why, actually, is it falling? As the rains continue to fall, we dip in and out of the lives of the people of the city, and the constant downpour, although it has a physical effect on many (destroying their homes or indeed their person), has more effect on them mentally or psychologically. The state of suspense and the interruption to the normal daily routine brought about by the deluge allows the city dwellers to take stock, to consider their lives and dwell upon what might actually be the point of it all. In ordinary everyday existence these things never come to the surface, but the strangeness of the rain allows normal functions to be suspended and life to be pondered upon.

Those poor innocent creatures? Yes, of course, they will say that, along with other things, and other facts. But let us also say one more thing, that life is in the end reabsorbed in tranquillity, collective facts are pondered long enough to be diluted a little and confused, and in the end, off you go!, in the end why do you want us to care about this whole mess and this rain falling as if it had never fallen before, my friends, let us regather, let us regather everything.

I can’t go any further without talking about the book’s actual prose, as the writing is quite extraordinary and took my breath away. The language is a liquid, fluid construct, very stream of consciousness, that washes over you, rather like the rains and floods themselves, and the effect is hypnotic. The punctuation is eccentric, the prose lyrical and involving and this, together with the events related, produces an intense and very atmospheric read. The whole effect is to create a sense of waiting, of time in abeyance, of anticipation and when added to Andreoli’s melancholy feeling of impending doom, the strange episodes of wailing dolls and singing coins, there is a real sense that normality has been suspended and Naples has moved outside of the normal time-frame of the world.

I ended this deeply thought-provoking book pondering on its meanings and what the author was saying to me. Obviously, there’s an element of allegory in there, but Pugliese offers no easy solutions, no pat answers, and that’s very stimulating for me as a reader. Calvino comments “This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message”, and I agree that it is, though what it says is not necessarily straightforward. However, I think “Malacqua” considers the notion of what it is to be human, who we are and how we live our lives, how we react to strange and unusual happenings and the basic resilience of the human spirit – which is quite an achievement for a slim novel…

He gets up for the sake of it, but also sees that water, coming down and coming down interminably, and the daylight that hasn’t come. He wonders at that point, he really wonders: how will it end? Because to tell the truth life has fled, now, and sometimes if he and his wife are left on their own there’s always that dark presence, that sad thought of the life that was once their life and has now fled; and when this happens he gets up, always, and says I’m going to the garden because I’ve got things to do.

Author Pugliese

I need to say a word about the masterly translation by Shaun Whiteside, which deservedly received a PEN Award. Obviously, I can only judge the English rendering but it reads magnificently, lyrically, poetically and almost musically in places. If the Italian original is as complex as this, he must have done a hell of a good job to render it in another language… Apparently, the book was originally published in 1977 (damn! if only it had been issued in 6 months time….) but the author never allowed it to be reprinted; I wonder whether there is underlying comment on the state of Naples that I might not have picked up upon?

Will “Malacqua” be in my top books of the year? Most definitely! It’ll be very near the top I think, because it’s rare for me to be so blown away by a book nowadays. The combination of the beautiful and hypnotic language, the intriguing storyline and the thought-provoking concept makes this a stunning book that’s going to bother me mentally for a long time, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review copy kindly provided by And Other Stories, for which many thanks!

*any weirdness you might perceive in any of the quotations is *not* me mistyping them but is in the original text…..

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A trip to see Tove’s paintings – plus *restraint*!!

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Timing is most definitely all…

I had a lovely jaunt to London on Saturday to meet up with my old pal J, taking in a wonderful exhibition, some rambling round the city and a little shopping. The weather was cold but bright, which was perfect for us – and by Sunday the snow had hit so I’m glad it waited till our day out was over!

We tend traditionally to meet up before Christmas, but J’s idea was that we should nip down to Dulwich to see the exhibition of Tove Jansson’s paintings that was on at the art gallery there. As I love her work, I was happy to agree, although it did mean getting a very early train at silly o’clock to get a reasonably priced fare and arrive in London allowing time to travel to Dulwich.

And this is what we were going to see. As we both love Moomins, we visited the Moomin show at the Royal Festival Hall in July. However, we both think *very* highly of Jansson’s non-Moonin work, and this exhibition showcased that, with some wonderful paintings, drawings, sketches and illustrations that really emphasised her versatility. Of course, there were some wonderful Moomin things there too, so the experience was fabulous. I did find myself wondering what Jansson could have produced if she’d pursued a fine art course, but then we wouldn’t have had the Moomins – so, swings and roundabouts!

Alas, photos were not allowed inside, but afterwards we visited the *very* well stocked shop, and oh! the temptation! Tons of Moomin things, of course, but books and postcards and memorabilia and… Well, I was pretty restrained in the end and came away with a set of postcards (I rather collect postcards…) plus a Moomin card:

J, however, couldn’t resist the exhibition catalogue as it had her favourite work in it (and it was rather lovely), as well as the Tove-illustrated “Alice in Wonderland”. The latter was particularly stunning, and if I didn’t already own at least two copies (including the Mervyn Peake one, which may be my favourite) then I might have been tempted.

After leaving Dulwich and heading back to the centre of London via Fortnum and Mason (don’t ask…) we ended up lunching at Chipotle in Charing Cross Road (where I could function as a vegan):

and then rambled around the Pushkin House Russian book sale and a very fancy stationery shop called Quill. Amazingly, I bought nothing…. !

Late afternoon found us in Foyles cafe (I *love* Foyles and I *love* its cafe, in case you hadn’t noticed) where there was time for vegan cake and tea before a long browse round the shop. Here again restraint was the order of the day! Both J and I had realised at the exhibition that although we’d read all the main Moomin books, we didn’t actually have the collection of short pieces called “Tales from Moominvalley”. Exploring the children’s book section of Foyles revealed only two copies – which are no longer there….

For me to come home from a London trip with so few purchases is some kind of miracle (and perhaps reflects the fact that Christmas and birthday are coming up, plus I am awash with amazing review books at the moment). However – ahem – towards the end of the day J presented me with two BLCC titles she’d picked up in charity shops, plus my Christmas and birthday gifts for later in the month – which are suspiciously book-shaped… So maybe it wasn’t such a non-bookish day after all!

Incidentally, we spent much of our day getting about London by hopping on and off buses instead of resorting to the Tube as we’ve done in the past. The latter has become so much more manic of late (and I get vaguely claustrophobic in it at times), and how easy are the London buses now!?!? And much more pleasant too – sailing over Tower Bridge at the front of the top floor of a double-decker in the sun on the way to Dulwich is a wonderful memory of our day out! ๐Ÿ™‚

Explore translated literature with Asymptote Book Club

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Translated literature… a topic I bang on about on a regular basis, probably risking boring you all to death! However, some of the best books of my life are those translated from other languages and, in an increasingly fragmented and hostile world, I do feel that absorbing another country’s culture has to be a way to help us try to understand each other.

I guess also that many of you will, like me, be avid followers of Marina Sofia’s excellent blog, Finding Time to Write. She’s started working for the Asymptote Journal which covers world literature in translation, and she recently gave me the heads-up about a new book club the Journal will be hosting – the Asymptote Book Club.

The idea is that you subscribe, either for three months or a year, and each month you get sent a lovely book of translated lit. Tempting or what… The three-month sub would be an ideal Christmas gift for the book lover in your life (hint, hint, family…) or just a great investment to treat yourself and widen your literary horizons.

As well as reading the books, there will be plenty of online interaction with blogs and discussion groups, which sounds fun. The translators will be much to the fore, which is a plus point for me as I think they’re the beeโ€™s knees, basically.

You can read more about the book club here – go on, treat yourself, you know you want to…. ๐Ÿ™‚

A Russian Bronte? @shinynewbooks @ColumbiaUP

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As my love of Russian literature is no secret, I guess I’m the obvious candidate to be reviewing another excellent book from Columbia University Press in their Russian Library series. Their latest one is a real treat, too, in the form of a comedy of manners from a neglected 19th century woman author – and it set me thinking about the lack of female representation in the canon of Russian writing from that century.

The author of “City Folk and Country Folk”, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, was one of three Russian writer sisters and her book features wonderfully feisty female characters at the centre of the story. It’s a witty, sparkling and yet pithy read and I wonder how many other women writers we’re missing accessing in our Anglophone world because of a lack of translation.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya has been tagged as a Russian Bronte by the publisher, although in many ways she could be said to more resemble Austen. However, she’s a wonderfully fresh voice coming to us from the Russian past – you can read my full review here at Shiny New Books, and I recommend this one highly!

Carpe Librum! or, in which I fear for the foundations…

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(of the house, that is….)

Yes. I’m afraid the sorry state of the book piles continues with yet more arrived chez Ramblings… and here is the latest bunch:

Pretty, aren’t they? But not small…ย  And probably not much I can say in mitigation, although there *are* yet more review books:

All of these are titles I requested and want very much to read – in fact, I’ve just finished “Malacqua” which was quite stunning and it’s going to take me a while to work out what I want to say about it. I’ve started the M. John Harrison and the first few stories have been outstanding, so I’m very excited about that one. And “Locus Solus” just sounds – very intriguing…..

Ahem. As I am prone to say, damn you Verso Books with your money-saving offers! Currently, the publisher has 50% of ALL of their books (so I make no excuse for using shouty capital letters because that’s an offer worth shouting about!). Yes, I know I have the e-book of “October”, but I loved it so much I wanted the tree version. And I’ve wanted “Night Walking” for ages too, and this was the time to buy it. 50% off. With a bundled e-book if one is available. Go check out Verso. Now!

This was a beautiful and unforeseen treat, in the form of the wonderful Seagull Books catalogue. It’s known to be a work of art in its own right and I was over the moon when the publisher kindly offered to send me a copy. It has masses of content including contributions from such blogging luminaries as Melissa, Joe, Anthony and Tony, so I plan to spend happy hours over the Christmas break with it. Plus they publish Eisenstein – how exciting!!!

As for this – well, it came from The Works over the weekend when I was browsing for Christmas gifts. I picked it up because it looked pretty, imagining I would find it a bit sappy or soppy, stuffed with twee verse. Well, there *are* the usual romantic love poems (the classics, which is no bad thing) but there were some powerful pieces I didn’t know, including one by Marina Tsvetaeva. I was hesitating till I looked at the last poem in the book, by Owen Sheers, and it was so stunning I had to buy the book…

And finally – a little bit of madness in the Oxfam:

This weighs a bloody ton, frankly, and I ended up lugging it round town for hours. But – it cost ยฃ1.99 and how could I resist pages like this:

and this????

Mayakovsky! A Bulgakov picture I’ve never seen! And so much more! I confess OH looked at it a little askance and sighed, but it was a no-brainer. My shoulder is still recovering, however…

So – I’m definitely still seizing the book – time for another clear out, methinks…. =:o

The Lure of the Frozen North #viragoauthorofthemonth @margaretatwood

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Strange Things by Margaret Atwood

In what subtle way does the universe convey the knowledge that it has ceased to be friendly? (W.H. Blake)

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this post that I am a massive admirer of the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood. I’ve been reading her work for decades, and she’s a writer I regularly return to over the years, always discovering something new and wonderful in her books. The LibraryThing Virago group have been picking an author of the month to read this year, a challenge I’ve been dipping in and out of, and November’s choice was Atwood. I almost ran out of time with this one, despite being desperate to read more of her work, but I *did* manage to squeeze in one title. And oddly enough it turned out to be another non-fiction book, which would fit in with the Non-Fiction November challenge that’s going around, although that’s purely coincidental…

You might have noticed that I flagged up the fact that Atwood is Canadian, a fact well-known and one that I wouldn’t normally have mentioned. However, it becomes relevant here because ‘Strange Things’ is specifically about Canadian literature and how it’s been informed and influenced by particular themes or events in the country’s past. I do have a little connection with the country, as my late father was actually born there while his parents were working abroad, and so he held dual passports; and I’ve always felt an attraction to the place which hasn’t diminished in recent years as Canada does come across in the media as a rather tolerant and nice country to live in. In fact, during the Brexit shenanigans, several family members joked half-seriously that it might be worth us all decamping there…

If you ask a writer to give a lecture, you’ll get a writer’s lecture; and as we all know, the inside of writers’ heads resemble squirrel’s nests more than they do neatly arranged filing-cabinets.

But I digress. Onto the book, which is a collection of four pieces delivered as the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University, and these focus on the influence of the wilderness of the Canadian North on writers and indeed Canadian culture. I should ‘fess up that I’m actually pathetically unwell-read when it comes to CanLit, so much of what was discussed was new to me – which is good, but embarrassing…

Vintage photo by Caroline Moodie

The four starting points for the lectures are the doomed Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the mysteriously monstrous (and cannibalistic!) Wendigo; and how women writers have developed their own take on exploration. Within these topics Atwood ranges far and wide, exploring all kinds of sub-concepts, from the fact that the North is usually portrayed as female and how women writers deal with that aspect; our love of a tale of doomed exploration; the various aspects of being a monster, whether a completely external kind or one which is part of ourselves in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde way; through to the strange need of non-native peoples to adopt a native image or heritage. All of this is delivered in Atwood’s trademark crisp prose and dry wit – until re-reading her recently I had forgotten just how funny she can be, but once again I was laughing out loud in places.

These two renditions of Native people, as either better than whites or worse – with whites being the norm, the standard for comparison – ought to sound very familiar to women, polarized as they have been until so recently into angel-wives or demon-whores.

However, there *are* serious points to be made here, not the least of which is the fact that women have regularly been marginalised in Canadian mythology, never the ones who go out and explore but rather the ones that stay inside and make the homes; or worse still, allowed to personify the wilderness that has to be explored and penetrated. Atwood also expresses concerns about our behaviour towards the natural world, commenting:

… if white Canadians would adopt a more traditionally Native attitude towards the natural world, a less exploitative and more respectful attitude, they might be able to reverse the galloping environmental carnage of the late twentieth century and salvage for themselves some of that wilderness they keep saying they identify with and need.

It’s funny how there can be little synchronicities in life, and unexpected connections that pop up when you’re reading. For example, in the section of the book on Canadian women’s writing, which Atwood entitled ‘Linoleum Caves’, she covers “Bear” by Marian Engel; and I got much more from this particular section having read Books,Yo’s recent illuminating post on this book. Although Atwood comments on the bear’s particularly talented tongue (ahem….), like Books, Yo she’s aware that this is not the real point of the work, though perhaps both commentators here draw different conclusions as they’re coming from very different angles.

Atwood also touches briefly on the work of Robertson Davies, an author I have lurking close at hand, and certainly “Strange Things” has made me very keen to explore Canadian literature in more depth. She closes the book with another stark warning about the effect that our inability to address climate change is having on the world, and this resonated particularly strongly with me too; I haven’t recovered from the section of Simon Reeve’s recent “Russia” documentary when he explained how much of the permafrost had melted – it’s quite terrifying…

So, yet another masterly work by Margaret Atwood; I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by her work and I’m finding her non-fiction works particularly engrossing lately. Eldest Child has indicated a wish for some Atwood books for Christmas, so I now have the lovely task of trying to decide what to treat him with – and the quality of her work is so high, that I think the choice will be particularly difficult….!

Celebrating #GermanLitMonth over at #ShinyNewBooks! @shinynewbooks

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For the last few years I’ve tried to drop into German Literature Month, as hosted so beautifully by Caroline and Lizzy, but this month wasn’t going quite so well until a lovely new review copy of Hermann Hesse’s “Demian” popped through my letterbox. I had asked to cover it for Shiny New Books, and it’s been released as a Penguin Modern Classic in the beautiful new format they’ve adopted, with striking pictorial cover and teal/turquoise livery – very lovely indeed.

Revisiting the book after more years than I care to acknowledge was an engrossing and fascinating experience, and I’m sure I got a lot more from it on this read than I did first time round. You can see my full review here, as well as all the other wonderful pieces on Shiny – so go visit! ๐Ÿ™‚

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