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The Nature of Terror

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The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky

The final story in the volume of novellas by Irene Nemirovsky – a book that’s been much absorbing me in recent weeks – is a little different to the other ones I’ve read. “The Courilof Affair” ventures into territory that’s dissimilar to her other works, telling a story of Russian revolutionaries; in particular one Leon M, who we meet initially in the South of France where he’s living out his last days in post-WW1, post-Russian revolution Europe.

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Leon encounters a man who recognises him from the past, and this sets of a train of recollection whereby he writes down the story of the Courilof Affair – an event in which he was pivotal and because of which the stranger recognised him.

Our narrator grew up as the son of a pair of revolutionaries and it was inevitable he would follow in their footsteps. After they died he was brought up in Geneva and when fully grown, it was here that he was given his task – to assassinate the Minister for Schools, Valerian Courilof. Posing as a Swiss doctor, Leon worms his way into the family and confidence of Courilof, preparing all the time for his revolutionary act. However, Leon finds that things are not as black and white as he had been brought up to think, and that the assassination may not be as simple as it seems.

“The Courilof Affair” was a fascinating novella, exploring the nature of terror and the need for revolutionaries to kill; in fact, it’s a remarkably prescient work, showing that the terrorists don’t simply want to kill the target concerned, but want to make a spectacular statement, a kind of dramatic gesture. Leon finds himself questioning this aspect of his chosen path, as he could have easily murdered his target discreetly at any point while acting as his medic. But the revolutionaries want to make a big display of strength and it is this element of terror that occupies much of the book.

“Each of us has his weaknesses. Human nature is incomprehensible. One cannot even say with certainty whether a man is good or evil, stupid or intelligent. There does not exist a good man who has not at some time in his life committed a cruel act, nor an evil man who has not done good, nor an intelligent man who has never been foolish, nor a fool who has never acted intelligently! Still, that’s what gives life its diversity, its surprises.”

Leon comes to find that there are no real absolutes in life and that he doubts all the certainties of his revolutionary parents and colleagues. It’s only by distancing yourself from your target that you can really carry out a successful, dramatic assassination – if you are too close to your object it becomes impossible.

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As we know, the fortunes of those involved in revolutionary actions rise and fall, ebb and flow, and the life of Leon M. is no different. His past is gradually revealed as the novella goes on; from small-time rebel to powerful commissar to ousted official, nothing was certain in the early 20th century. Nemirovsky is clever enough to draw discreet parallels between the rise and fall of Courilof’s career and that of Leon M., as if to say that whatever your creed or belief, the vagaries and shifts of control of power will allow you no rest.

Nemirovsky was a fine writer, and I very much enjoyed this novella which took me outside of the world she normally writers of, and instead into something more like that in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent”. I’m so glad I decided to pick this volume up in the Samaritan’s Book Cave – my discovery of Irene Nemirovsky’s work has been a joy!

Part memoir, part fiction – always engrossing

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Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson

There are a few authors I seem to be returning to at the moment – the Strugatskys, Irene Nemirovsky and of course the wonderful Tove Jansson. I recently tracked down a reasonably priced copy of this, her first work of fiction for adults, and couldn’t resist picking it up (even though there are plenty of older books on Mount TBR…)

sculptor

“Sculptor’s Daughter” came out in 1968, by which time Jansson was a household name because of her creation of the Moomins. The book is a collection of short pieces firmly rooted in the world of a child; growing up in Finland, the girl inhabits her father’s studio, and an island near the sea, and the imaginative land that forms part of every child’s developing mind.

Is this fiction or autobiography? That’s often a hard question to answer as so many novelists use their lives in their work, but it’s particularly difficult in the case of Jansson where the parallels are so striking. The book is subtitled “A Childhood Memoir” and I think it’s best to read it as a fictionalised portrayal of Jansson’s childhood; because the stories here are not simply straightforward recollections. Instead, she gets inside the mind of a child, recreating the wonder and fear of the world around her, and the perceptions of things which are seen quite differently from the way an adult would.

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As with all of Tove Jansson’s work, this is a compelling read. She had a unique voice and viewpoint, and whatever she was writing about was very individually hers. There are vivid passages of adventures rowing out to sea, hiding from imagined dangers and the complex relationships between children, all of which will remain with me.

One of the strengths of the book is its portrait of Tove’s parents, the sculptor Viktor Jansson and the graphic designer/illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson – let’s face it, it was inevitable Tove would be creative! Her parents come vividly to life through their daughter’s eyes, with their bohemian lifestyle and uncompromising way of living, and the book acts as a wonderful tribute to them.

Jansson went on to write many more adult works, several of which I’ve read, and with a lot of them there is a sense that again she was using her life in fiction. This is no criticism, because I love her stories; and it’s fascinating to see how she translated the people in her life into her work, even extending this into her Moomin stories (I assume that the Moomin family reflect her own, and certainly Too-Ticky was based on her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä). There’s always a lot more depth in Jansson’s writing that might appear at first, and her characters go through all sorts of vicissitudes, just like all of us in real life.

In some ways, it’s hard to review Tove Jansson’s work – I could just keep throwing out superlatives and saying how wonderful she is, and pinning down her brilliance is not easy. She’s a writer who gets to the essence of things, making you see the world anew which is a real achievement. And very fortunately, there are still works of hers I haven’t yet read!

Capturing the atmosphere of pre-war Russia

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The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Back to Russians, I’m afraid; though not actually a Russian author, but instead a novel set in 1913 Moscow by the acclaimed novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. I’ve heard nothing but good about her books, and was very keen to read this one – so it was a bonus when it finally turned up in the Samaritans Book Cave a couple of weeks ago!

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Fitzgerald didn’t start writing until her late fifties and went on to win the Booker Prize and write a series of acclaimed novels. “The Beginning of Spring” was published in 1988 and centres around the family of Frank Reid, a businessman of British descent but who was born in Moscow, returned there when an adult to run the family printing firm and who seems to understand the Russians quite well. The book opens with Frank’s wife Nellie leaving him without warning, taking their three children and throwing his life into confusion.

The children are sent back by train in a basket(!) and Frank, struggling to understand why Nellie has left him, looks back on his life and how they met and married. Meanwhile, the life of the print works continues; Selwyn Crane, Frank’s sidekick and a Tolstoyan, publishes his poetry book; Frank tries to sell a giant white elephant of a printing press and tussles with a rival; and Selwyn finds a young peasant women, Lisa Ivanovna, to look after the children. The whole community, English and Russian, seem to know that Frank’s wife has left and rally around in their different ways. Then there is a break-in at the print works; a young student takes a pot shot at Frank and destroys the print equipment of the head typesetter who is mortified; Frank’s brother-in-law Charlie visits; and Frank becomes entranced by Lisa.

There is resolution of a kind; but in the back of the reader’s mind is the fact that Frank and the works are ready to pack up at a moment’s notice to leave Russia if the unrest in the country develops any further. And we know what happened after 1913…

There was much to love about “The Beginning of Spring”: Fitzgerald’s writing is lovely, very evocative, and her descriptions of old Moscow and the surrounding countryside bring the world to life convincingly. And her portrayal of the Russian way of life, the procrastination and the bribes and the complexities of dealing with another culture is masterly. But…. I’m afraid there is a but. I loved this book a lot less than I had hoped for a number of reasons, one of the strongest of which was the characterisation. Mostly, it just didn’t convince – I found that very few of main protagonists took on a 3-D existence; there was a kind of vagueness or lack of definition about them so that I didn’t really get to know them and the consequence that what should have been surprising revelations didn’t really affect me. And this filtered through to the plot, that in actual fact became quite inconsequential and subsidiary to the effect of the description and atmosphere. It felt thin, in the end – with not really enough made clear or developed. And there was much potential – Selwyn was one of the characters I liked most and he could have flourished into a really strong protagonist, much more memorably than he actually ended up being. Frank’s eldest child Dolly was also one of the better characters, but in many ways wasted.The events could have been more dramatic and more impressive had they been given that chance to grow.

Penelope Fitzerald, 1986

One thing I did take from the book was that Frank Reid, the main character, was certainly mistaken in thinking that he knew and understood the Russian people (and indeed his own kind) because he certainly didn’t; he moves through most of the book having no real idea of what is happening and why people are behaving as they do. Maybe Fitzgerald was trying to make the point that we can never really understand other cultures or other people’s motives – I’m not sure, if I’m honest.

If this sounds unduly negative, that’s a shame; I did enjoy reading the book, mainly for Fitzgerald’s prose; but in the end I felt it never really went anywhere and that it had potential which wasn’t fulfilled. However, I will try more of Fitzgerald’s work in the future as I’d like to see how she handles other subjects.

Little Black Classics – the Oriental Edition!

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If in doubt – back to the Penguin Little Black Classics! I thought these might be the solution to the Woolf book hangover and the failure with Duras, so decided to carry on the slightly Eastern theme of my last read with five titles from Japan and China.

Akutagawa – The Life of a Stupid Man

Akutagawa was a fascinating character (just check out his Wikipedia entry!) and this book features three titles: his most famous story “In a Grove” plus two autobiographical pieces. “In A Grove” is fascinating; it features seven short pieces relating the teller’s particular view of an incident which has taken place whereby a woman has been assaulted and her husband murdered. It’s a surprisingly modern take on criminal reportage, where every account differs and it’s hard for those investigating to learn the truth. Kurosawa’s film “Rashomon” was based on the story and it just goes to show that everyone is an unreliable narrator. The other two pieces are autobiographical and the second of them, “The Life of a Foolish Man” is chilling; split into 51 short parts, it’s a summary of Akutagawa’s life written shortly before he killed himself at the age of 35. His writing is excellent and I certainly want to explore his work more.

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Kenko – A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees

Kenko was an author and Buddhist monk who lived in the 13th/14th century and his works are apparently some of the most studied in Japanese literature. This is extracts from his longer work “Essays in Idleness” which consists of a series of random pieces in a stream of consciousness style, where Kenko just jotted down his thoughts and feelings as they occur to him. They’re intriguing and often lovely meditations on all the things that affect human life, and go to show that not a lot changes over the centuries. As Kenko says, “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.”

Pu Songling – Wailing Ghosts

Chinese literature is a place where I have a huge gap in my reading, so it was nice to pick up this little volume to start my exploration. Pu Songling lived during the 17th century and spent most of his life as a private tutor; he’s known for his collection “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio” from which these tales are taken. They’re a lively bunch of stories; ghosts, monsters, witches, demons and magical foxes abound; some are no more than a page long. But all are arresting, intriguing and sometimes rather scary, blurring the lines between fantasy, myth and ghost story. This book has some lovely line drawings too, and on the evidence here, I really need to read more Chinese literature.

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Shen Fu – The Old Man of the Moon

Shen Fu was also a Chinese author, from the 18th century; he’s known for his book “Six Records of A Floating Life” which is regarded as the best description of everyday life during the dynasty through which he lived. This LBC has extracts that cover his relationship with his wife; his early love of her, their marriage, the struggle to make ends meet, her health issues and their final parting. It’s a fascinating and moving work that again shows that our concerns stay the same over the centuries and there’s nothing new under the sun.

Matsuo Basho – Lips too chilled

My final Oriental read was a collection of haiku from the master of the for, Basho. This was distilled from the collection I read not long ago (and reviewed here), but it was lovely to revisit them – poetry of all sort bears repeated re-reading and these small gems of beauty and wisdom were no exception.

So – another great batch of Little Black Classics from Penguin – dippable, enjoyable and often good tasters for an author or genre you haven’t approached before. Definitely a winner for me!

The Parlous State of the TBR….

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Which might seem to be something of an alarmist heading – but to be honest, the TBR does worry me a lot, particularly as I keep reading of other bloggers’ triumphs with attacking theirs! I have been clearing books out madly, being as ruthless as I can with volumes I’ve carted around for over 30 years without reading, and four large boxes went to a charity collection recently.

However, this hasn’t stopped books continuing to arrive at the Ramblings – this week has seen the following make their way through the door:

nabokov x 2

These two lovelies arrived to replace two books in a large Nabokov omnibus I donated because it was so unwieldy I was just never going to read it. Plus they’re much prettier….

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Only the right-hand John Berger volume arrived this week – I’ve had “Ways of Seeing” knocking around for ages – and the novel was because Verso were having a wonderful sale…

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And this is one of the few Dostoevskys I don’t have, so I succumbed for no other reason than I wanted it.

To try to alleviate things, I dragged several books into the Samaritans Book Cave to donate today – and came out with these:

book cave finds

A lovely Folio Society Russian classic and an original Green Virago of Rebecca West’s “The Fountain Overflows” – is there no hope for me? Have I no willpower??

Well, no I haven’t. The thing is, if I read only the books I own that I’ve never read, I wouldn’t need to buy a book for, oh, at least a couple of years. The TBR has spilled onto another shelf or two and there are now these (the most recent layer) as well as literally hundreds upstairs:

some of the tbr

Frankly, the only way I don’t get into a screaming panic about it is just by not thinking about it. And buying more books.

Help! :)

…in which I read a library book! (but don’t really take to it…)

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The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Re-reading “The Voyage Out” left me with a huge book hangover, which was of course to be expected. I should perhaps have dipped into some short stories but instead went for a library book I’d just got out and which I’d read high praise of – “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras.

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Duras was French – born near Saigon, when Vietnam was still French Indochina, she’s known as a writer and film director, and from what I’ve read much of her work seems to be informed by autobiography (though thinking about it, much fiction *is*!) “The Lover” is indeed based on incidents from her life; the narrator is a 15 and half-year old French girl living in Indochina in a dysfunctional family much like that of Duras. Her father is dead, her mother barely scraping a living and she has two brothers; the elder a bully, the younger (who she dotes on) is weak. The girl’s relationship with her mother is complex and strained and while travelling back to boarding school upon a ferry, she meets an older Chinese man, with whom she embarks upon an affair. This relationship tears the family apart and ends when the man’s father refuses to acknowledge it and he is forced to marry another woman.

All of this is told in fragmented prose, slipping backwards and forwards through different times in the relationship, even switching in tenses halfway through a paragraph. The affair is an intense one; the story is never graphic (despite the book often being described as an erotic one) but the emotions are heightened and passionate, and the girl feels with all the fervour of a needy teenager in love for the first time. The family seems to sway from crisis to crisis, and the time span is long, coming quite up to date and dealing with her relatives’ later lives and deaths.

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And yet… Despite its brilliance, I didn’t really warm to the book. The problem I had, I think, was that although I could appreciate the writing, Duras’ skill in telling her story of dislocation in such a fractured way, this made it difficult for me to relate to the characters. So so although I can stand back and appreciate the art, I didn’t love it in the way I love so many books.

“The Lover” has received praise and awards, so it may be that I simply read it at the wrong time; I think I’ll return to Duras’ books one day, but I confess this one didn’t make me want to rush back!

A Nascent Genius

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The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

In March 1915, one hundred years ago, the first novel was published by a young writer who was destined to become one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. The book was “The Voyage Out” and the author was of course Virginia Woolf.

As I’ve probably rambled on in the past, I first discovered Woolf’s work in the early 1980s when I read “Mrs. Dalloway”. I was so knocked out by it, I went on to read all her works chronologically, starting obviously with TVO. But I haven’t returned to it since, and this seemed like just the right time to do so.

voyage out wordsworth

“The Voyage Out” opens with Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose in London, preparing to take their leave of England and make a voyage abroad for the winter. Ridley Ambrose is a scholar, and Helen his wife is traumatised by the thought of leaving their children for so long. The ship they’re travelling on belongs to Ridley’s brother Willoughby (a widower), and his daughter Rachel is also making the voyage out. Aged 24, but particularly naive because of the lack of her mother, it is her story which will very much be the central one of the novel. Also travelling briefly on the ship are Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, and Rachel develops something of a crush on Richard, who kisses her, much to her shock.

Helen could hardly restrain herself from saying out loud what she thought of a man who brought up his daughter so that at the age of twenty-four she scarcely knew that men desired women and was terrified by a kiss. She had good reason to fear that Rachel had made herself incredibly ridiculous.

The ship is going to South America, and the Ambroses persuade Rachel to stay with them in Santa Marina. Helen has recognised the fact that Rachel has missed out on much social education, focusing much of the time on her musical gift, and decides to take her niece in hand. They stay in a villa, and begin to mingle with the many British people staying at a nearby hotel. While Ridley works, the women are free to do as they wish, and two young men become the male counterparts to the main female characters – St. John Hirst and Terence Hewitt. Both are educated, though St. John is something of a prodigy, one of the most intelligent men in the country. Hewitt is attracted to Rachel and as she blossoms a little, they fall in love. Around them, the intrigues of the ex-pat community continue, with another engagement, new arrivals, a dance and an expedition into the jungle. As Rachel and Terence contemplate married life, Helen and St. John develop an intellectual relationship. But the ending of the book may not be what the reader expects.

As the greater number of visitors at the hotel were English, there was almost as much difference between Sunday and Wednesday as there is in England, and Sunday appeared here as there, the mute black ghost or penitent spirit of the busy weekday. The English could not pale the sunshine, but they could in some miraculous way slow down the hours, dull the incidents, lengthen the meals, and make even the servants and page-boys wear a look of boredom and propriety. The best clothes which every one put on helped the general effect; it seemed that no lady could sit down without bending a clean starched petticoat, and no gentleman could breathe without a sudden crackle from a stiff shirt-front. As the hands of the clock neared eleven, on this particular Sunday, various people tended to draw together in the hall, clasping little red-leaved books in their hands. The clock marked a few minutes to the hour when a stout black figure passed through the hall with a preoccupied expression, as though he would rather not recognise salutations, although aware of them, and disappeared down the corridor which led from it.

Reading TVO was in some ways reading a new Virginia Woolf novel; it’s so long since I first read it that I had forgotten pretty much everything except the ending. And what wonderful experience this was! If I’m honest, I think I got much, much more out of TVO on this reading; 30-odd years ago I came straight to it after “Mrs. Dalloway”, which is a very different kind of novel, and I had much less experience as a reader.

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This time round, TVO was an all-encompassing experience and I found myself blown away by Woolf’s writing. What’s evident here, so early on, is her ability to capture the inner mind, the workings of each soul, of every one of her characters in a way that is never less than convincing. Her prose is wonderful; her descriptions of the landscape bring it alive; and her portrayal of the inner landscape of the characters is masterly. She’s exploring so many things here: the restrictions on women and the effects of their lack of education; whether women can find intellectual fulfilment in marriage; whether men and women can ever truly understand each other.

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The “woman question” itself is possibly the strongest element in the novel, though handled with discretion. Helen, for example, is an extremely intelligent women, in love with her husband, yet clearly lacking an outlet and any form of mental stimulation; she is therefore ideally placed to develop a friendship with St. John who seems fairly sexless but needs the companionship of a women with brains. And Rachel has obviously suffered from a lack of a structured upbringing, instead spending all of her time in the stultifying company of two maiden aunts; her mental fuzziness and social awkwardness is striking, and could have been avoided with the input of a mother and a proper education. Then there are the numerous ex-pat females, from Susan who is anxious to avoid ending up a spinster, through to Evelyn Murgatroyd who seems unable to fall in love or decide if she loves a man enough to marry him, and so ends up seeming to flirt endlessly.

The book is also a vivid portrait of British Colonial society in the wild; fascinated by the native culture, the Brits travel up the river to observe the native peoples in situ; they stick to their routines despite being abroad; but there is a loosening of the rigid social structures in place back at home. It’s not an element of the story that’s overstated, and I believe that Woolf toned this aspect down when editing it from her original manuscript, titled “Melymbrosia”.

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The book is also a powerful study of illness; the passages of Rachel’s thought processes while she’s delirious are striking, and you can’t help thinking that they were informed by Woolf’s own experience of her various breakdowns. Rachel’s experiences are at the heart of the story; the journey, the actual voyage out is hers, as she makes her way into womanhood, and the tragedy of the story is hers too.

The light of his candle flickered over the boughs of a tree outside the window, and as the branch swayed in the darkness there came before his mind a picture of all the world that lay outside his window; he thought of the immense river and the immense forest, the vast stretches of dry earth and the plains of the sea that encircled the earth; from the sea the sky rose steep and enormous, and the air washed profoundly between the sky and the sea. How vast and dark it must be tonight, lying exposed to the wind; and in all this great space it was curious to think how few the towns were, and how small little rings of light, or single glow-worms he figured them, scattered here and there, among the swelling uncultivated folds of the world. And in those towns were little men and women, tiny men and women. Oh, it was absurd, when one thought of it, to sit here in a little room suffering and caring. What did anything matter? Rachel, a tiny creature, lay ill beneath him, and here in his little room he suffered on her account. The nearness of their bodies in this vast universe, and the minuteness of their bodies, seemed to him absurd and laughable. Nothing mattered, he repeated; they had no power, no hope.

TVO is a wonderful book, and I loved it and appreciated it so much more this time round. Woolf’s trademark style is on show here, less developed than in later works, but still recognisable; she flits from one person’s thought process to another in a wonderful way, really bringing them to life. Rachel and Helen, Terence and St. John were all so alive, as were the supporting characters; I was particularly taken by Evelyn M. and her struggles to understand her own emotions and motivations.

Even if Woolf had not gone on to become the literary titan she was, she would still have earned a place in the history of fiction for this poignant and beautiful novel. As it is, TVO is an excellent place to get an introduction to her work; to explore the feminine sensibilities at the turn of the 20th century; to take a trip to a (probably mythical) South American jungle; and to meet a wonderful array of characters. An amazing book and I’m so glad I chose to revisit it during its centenary year.

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