Home

High jinks in the Alps! #carolcarnac #crossedskis @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

30 Comments

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

After finishing Esther Kinsky’s wonderful but rather melancholic “Grove”, I must admit that I did feel in need of a little contrast and perhaps something lighter. Enter another beautiful British Library Crime Classic, which was just the kind of escapism I needed. And after travelling to a somewhat muted Italy, this book took me off to the crisp clear snow of the Austrian Alps!

“Crossed Skis” by Carol Carnac is subtitled “An Alpine Mystery” and it was first published in 1952, since when it’s become extremely rare – so kudos to the BL for republishing it. And interestingly, it turns out that I’ve read Carnac (whose real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) before; she also published crime novels under the name of E.C.R. Lorac and several of those mysteries have also been reprinted as BLCCs! I read and loved “Murder by Matchlight” at the start of 2019, and her stories have also turned up on BL anthologies; fortunately, too, I have more Lorac titles on the TBR…

Anyway, back to Carol Carnac and the book in hand! “Crossed Skis” opens with a group of eight young women and eight young men setting off on a skiing jaunt to Austria at the start of January. The party has been assembled in a bit of a rush, with some last minute additions, and not all the members are actually known to each other. Bridget ‘Biddy’ Manners is the organiser, and somehow manages to corral her motley crew together to catch the boat train from Victoria. The journey is relatively uneventful, the group seem to gel quite well apart from a bit of ragging, and all are looking forward to escaping from the dull, damp British winter into a brighter, more exciting setting; understandable really, as it’s clear from the narrative that the things we moan about today are often the same things being moaned about nearly 70 years ago…

The reason we get into a mess in England during heavy snow falls is that we don’t cater for it. It always takes us unawares.

However, back in London, all is not well. A body has been discovered in a rented room in Bloomsbury, burnt to death; but it’s no accidental event. A brutal murder has been committed, and a sharp-eyed detective spots the mark of a ski stick left behind outside the house. Can the crime be connected to a group of skiiers? Who *is* the murder victim? Is there a criminal hidden in amongst the Austrian party? And will Chief Inspector Julian Rivers, himself a keen skier, be able to track down the murderer before it’s too late?

That’s a simplistic summary of what is a very clever and niftily constructed work, as Carnac dexterously runs the two separate strands of her plot alongside for a large part of the book. Alternating chapters and sections watch the group of 16 arrive in Lech am Arlberg, settle into their lodgings and take to the slopes. The bright clear landscape, the plentiful food and the chance to escape from everyday cares is a striking contrast to what’s happening back at home; although cracks do start to appear with some odd happenings taking place.

It was a disgusting evening, pondered Rivers, as he left the lights of St Albans behind and accelerated on the first long straight stretches of the Barnet Road. Wet snow drove depressingly against the windscreen and slush flew out in dirty cascades from the wheels, while mist tended to settle in the hollows. Into Rivers’ mind there flashed a visualisation of crisp, dry shining snow on the Scheidegg-Wengen slopes, hot sun and the hiss of skis flying on a delectable unbroken surface of glittering whiteness. He swore softly as a huge northbound lorry threw a small avalanche of dirty slush right over his own car. Snow?- heaven save the word!

Meanwhile, back in the coldest and dampest British January you could imagine, the detectives of the CID are following up the few hints they have about the murder victim. Negotiating a still bomb-damaged city, they have little to go on, and can’t even really identify the corpse properly. However, the detectives are not only skiiers themselves, but also gifted with imagination; and a recent crime has points which hint towards the involvement of a criminal with particular skills. Gradually, they build up a picture of the kind of person they’re looking for, which points them in one direction only.

Leland Griggs / Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The book’s title is apt for a number of reasons: crossed skis are bad luck, which they certainly will be for some of the party. And it’s also a good metaphor for the narrative itself, as the two straight lines of the parallel plot strand finally dovetail beautifully at the end, where there’s a very exciting and dramatic climax! It’s wonderfully inventive and certainly keeps you guessing right up until the finishing line; there were any number of suspects at the start, and although one (maybe two) characters came to the fore as the most likely, Carnac avoided the obvious.

Once again Kate realised that there was an element of terror in this mountain loveliness: the massive clouds and the snow slopes made the wooden houses seem puny. Only the gaunt stone church standing abrupt on its little plateau seem to have any quality of strength, as though, if the village were submerged, the stone tower and steep roof of the angular Gothic building might survive above it all.

Pleasingly, too, not all characters bright young things; Catherine (Kate) Reid and Frank Harris are more mature members of the party, and Martin Edwards opines in his excellent introduction that Kate is most probably a representation of Carol Carnac, herself a keen skier. If I had to make any criticism it would be that the minor members of the skiing party are perhaps a little lightly sketched in, so that some of them blended together a touch. But that’s only a minor quibble. The detectives are a lively lot, too, and I had to laugh at Carnac’s description of their reading matter at one point in their travels:

Rivers had taken with him The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, and two Anthony Trollopes, and he read his way uncomplaining across Europe. Lancing had bought six Penguin detective novels, from which he derived much entertainment: he left them all in the train at Langen, ”as propaganda”, he said to Rivers.

So “Crossed Skis” was a pure delight. As a mystery, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining and it certainly transported me away from lockdown for a few hours of pure escapism and puzzlement. Carnac writes beautifully, capturing her locations vividly, and that element of the book is one which really hit home with me. The book was published and set in the early 1950s, an era we don’t always connect directly with the Second World War. Yet as the vignettes of life in London make clear, this was a city which was still in many ways a bombsite; for example, the house where the murder takes place is one of a few surviving in a row, still standing in the middle of piles of rubble, where the owner scratches out a living taking in lodgers. Carnac’s prose captures strikingly the sense of being in a cold, damp, miserable post-War London with rationing and no cheer at all. No wonder the skiing party was keen to get away! “Crossed Skis” is yet another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint, and I really hope more of Carol Carnac’s titles will see the light of day.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“The leaden heart grew entwined…” @FitzcarraldoEds #estherkinsky #grove

28 Comments

Grove by Esther Kinsky
Translated by Caroline Schmidt

Grief takes many forms, especially after the loss of a parent or a partner. Some bottle up the emotions, some let them all out, and others try to find other ways to cope with, and make meaning of, that loss. There are many forms of catharsis, travel being one and writing another; and these two strands come together in a new book from Fitzcarraldo Editions, “Grove” by Esther Kinsky.

It’s been a few months since I read one of this marvellous publisher’s books; in fact, I haven’t picked one up since Lizzy and I co-hosted our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight (which was such fun). I read mostly non-fiction for our event, so it was nice to turn to one of their fiction titles, and Kinsky is an author they’ve published before (her “River” has glowing reviews). So I approached this with interest!

Esther Kinsky was born in Germany and grew up near the Rhine; for a dozen years she lived in London; and she’s also a poet and translator. As “Grove” opens, Kinsky’s unnamed narrator travels to Olevano, a small village to the southeast of Rome. She’s recently bereaved and has taken herself south during the winter months, settling in a temporary dwelling between the village and the cemetery. With this base, she explores the area whilst attempting to come to terms with her loss. Her heart is heavy, her focus intense, and she obviously feels the loss of M., her partner, deeply.

I stood at the window for hours as if inside a bell jar which had covered me and displaced me to my childhood, when in the afternoons and evenings I often felt incapable of doing anything but look out the window. Save that now beneath my hands on the window ledge I could feel M.’s hands. I didn’t see them like I had that morning, only felt them and wondered if this was what had taught me to forget my own hands

The second section of the book opens with death of the narrator’s father, and as she travels home for his funeral, this triggers more memories. Once again, these are of Italy and the narrator explores past family trips to the country, memories dominated by her father’s personality. He often appears to have been a lost man, both psychologically and literally, and there is an emotional distance between them. The narrative slips between past and present; fragmented images of Communist party gatherings, driving through the Italian landscape and his research into the Etruscan past build up a picture of her younger life. In the final part, the narrator visits the north of Italy at a later date, in search of the location of the garden of Finzi-Contini family (from Giorgio Bassani’s classic novel). However, the garden is not to be discovered, although perhaps the search for it has given the narrator comfort.

The garden of the Finzi-Continis remained a space that was shaped and reshaped by memory and interpretation, an area of loss that refused to be found… It was a place that could be found only by sensing its absence, by recalling what was lost…

“Grove” is a stunning piece of writing; Kinsky is a lyrical author, and her prose explores and captures the landscapes through which she wanders beautifully. Inevitably, the book is a melancholy read because of the subject matter and there is a sense that the narrator is seeking comfort or meaning in the lands she visits. However, she so often encounters bleakness or disintegration, in the form of half-built areas or landscapes being destroyed for modern constructions, that it does make you wonder what solace she found in her travels. She so often seems a displaced person, unable to find where she fits in the world like so many of the refugees she encounters as she journeys through Italy.

Esther Kinsky in 2016 via Wikimedia Commons [Heike Huslage-Koch / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

There’s also a sense of the fluidity of time throughout the narrative, as the author explores her past and present; and there’s also a feeling of continuity, with her father’s intense search for the Etruscan necropoli mirrored by the narrator’s focus on, and regular visits to, the many cemeteries she seems to encounter.

Like other works I’ve read from Fitzcarraldo which are published in their blue ‘fiction’ livery, it’s hard not to see this book as some kind of autofiction; the narrator refers to her departed partner as M., and of course Kinsky was married to the literary translator Martin Chalmers, who sadly died quite young in 2014. Although the book is described firmly as a novel, it’s impossible not to see it as very much informed by Kinsky’s own life experiences. However, that’s by the by. Whether novel, autofiction or disguised autobiography, “Grove” is a mesmerising, beautiful and melancholy piece of writing. Her writing is compelling and poetic, and having loved this book I may well have to search out her earlier work, “River”!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. There is an interesting piece on the book and its locations on their blog here.

 

“…a community of sentient, expressive beings.” #peterreason #sarahgillespie

22 Comments

On Presence: Essays / Drawings
by Peter Reason and Sarah Gillespie

The danger of having a fairly extensive TBR like mine (ahem!) is that those volumes enthusiastically ordered eventually come into the house, disappear into the stacks and can so easily get overlooked. This is why I’m finding it particularly useful to have regular reshuffles of the piles – it does reveal some marvellous treasures! A case in point is this slim work which I sent off for after reading an enthusiastic review on Annabel’s site here – I do love a good essay…

Peter Reason is actually a fellow reviewer for Shiny New Books, and he’s covered a number of interesting works; so it may be worth your checking him out there too, once Annabel has everything up and running again. “On Presence” is a 30 page, limited edition, book of words and images which makes thoughtful, contemplative reading, and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Reason and Gillespie are uncle and neice, and “On Presence” contains words from the elder set against beautiful illustrations from the younger. Both formats address the natural world, the home we human beings seem dead set on destroying; and Gillespie’s illustrations, worked in monochrome, bring that world to life but with a changed perspective. So Reason meditates on his orchard; an abandoned birds nest; and the differing silences we can experience whilst out in the world. The two artists discuss their work processes and point of art in our modern times; and as a short note at the back says, this is a continuation in printed form of many discussions they’ve had over the years.

“On Prescence” is a wonderful initiative; hopefully one of many more to follow. The essays are beautifully written and very evocative, particularly when set against Gillespie’s art. Reason writes simply yet eloquently about the natural world, and I see he’s written books about ecological pilgrimages he’s made, which sound fascinating. This work had a particular resonance at the moment, reading it as I did in the middle of our necessary isolation which for many of us is meaning we lose direct contact with the natural world. As humans who are part of a living nature, we need to remember our connections while all this is going on.

It is the stories we tell ourselves, the metaphors we draw on, that create our world. The mess we are in reflects the stories that have dominated Western culture: stories of human supremacy, stories that separate humans from Nature, but emphasize economic growth at the expense of human and ecological wellbeing.

So this was a timely work to pull out of the tbr at the moment, and reading it did bring a little comfort. I do hope going forward we foolish humans will learn to acknowledge just how much a part of the world and its nature we are, something we seem to have forgotten recently. Though slim, “On Presence” *has* a presence and an impact, and I hope more of the joint work of Peter Reason and Sarah Gillespie will see the light of day.

Peter’s website is here

Sarah’s artwork can be found on her site here

“Need we be taught to love?” #rsthomas

14 Comments

Poems to Elsi by R.S. Thomas
Edited by Damian Walford Davies

Back in March, as part of the Dewithon hosted by Paula at the Book Jotter, I did a little post on the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas whose work I’ve loved for decades. That post led to a conversation about the poet on Twitter which spurred me on to buy a collection of Thomas’s work I didn’t have – “Poems to Elsi”. And it was another encounter on Twitter, this time via a link to a documentary from S4C which is up on YouTube, which send me back to the book and made me pick it up for what was a very emotional read…

As I mentioned in my post, one of my favourite Thomas poems is “A Marriage”, a beautiful verse which encapsulates the life of his wife, the painter Mildred ‘Elsi’ Eldridge. It’s an emotional work which gets me every time, and I don’t think I’d previously been aware that there was a whole volume which pulled together Thomas’s works relating to his relationship with Elsi. Edited by Damian Walford Davies, it also contains two previously unpublished poems and is, as far as I’m concerned, 72 pages of genius.

RS and Elsi were married in 1940 and were together until her death in 1991. However, as the fascinating introduction by Davies makes clear, it was not entirely a straightforward relationship. Thomas was, of course, a notoriously private man, writing his autobiography in the third person, and often alluding to personal events very obliquely (I read it back in the day, and it’s fascinating). However, reading between the lines of this and the poems, it seems that the marriage was one where in some ways Elsi was very self-contained and RS often felt shut out, unable to know what was really going on in her mind. Of course, it could be argued that *no* human can ever really know the whole truth about another, and that Elsi’s view that you should “Keep your hearts together and your tents separate” was a valid one. How closely you should interpret that is, of course, a matter of speculation; certainly their tents were together enough to have a son, Gwydion, whose existence often seems to flummox RS. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for allowing individual space within a marriage to make it a successful one…

Were there currents between them?
Why, when he thought darkly,
would the nerves play
at her lips’ brim? What was the heart’s depth?
There were fathoms in her,
too, and sometimes he crossed
them and landed and was not repulsed.
– from “Marriage” (not “A Marriage”)

The poems are arranged broadly chronologically – well, in subject matter, that is – so that they build up to give as close a portrait of the marriage as we’re likely to get; at least, from RS’s point of view. Elsi apparently has as yet unpublished writings, and I wonder if they will ever see the light of day? That’s by the by, however; what really matters is the poetry itself and it’s incredibly beautiful and moving. I’ve read many of these poems before, in the original collections from which they’re drawn; however, the cumulative effect of reading them in this sequence and following RS and Elsi through their life is an emotional one, and I had any numbers of shivers down the spine; as well as, I must confess, the occasional wobbly moment… RS was a powerful poet, one who deserves to be better known; although his poetic eye was often unflinching, it was also capable to great tenderness which I think is often forgotten.

…she was not deceived,
but accepted me as a girl
will under a thin moon
in love’s absence as someone
she could build a home with
for her imagined child.
– from “The Way of It”

So reading this collection was an exceptionally poignant experience, and I’m so glad I tracked this collection down. And there are some rather lovely synchronicities involved in my reading of this book (I seem to be seeing a lot of those lately), most of which are due to the editor of the collection, Damian Walford Davies, and his twin brother Jason! I mentioned being sent off from Twitter to a Youtube documentary, and that programme features the brother academics jousting over the merits of Dylan Thomas vs R.S. Thomas. And curiously enough, at the time of the show, Jason was Co-Director of the R.S. Thomas Research Centre at Bangor University; but it’s brother Damian who edited the poems, and did so very beautifully and sensitively.

Another level of intrigue exists when we get to this:

Back in the late 1990s, the producer of this CD collection approached R.S. Thomas with a view to recording the poet reading his own work. The result was an epic 3 CD set which emcompasses a wide range of his verse; it was released in 1999 by Sain and I recall picking it up on one of our holidays in Wales. It’s a marvellous collection, and a credit to the producer – who was one Damian Walford Davies! So it seems that R.S. Thomas and his memory have been well-served by both of the brothers…

I’ll end by sharing a couple of links with you. The first is the short show I mentioned, with the brothers playfully disagreeing about which Thomas is best – great fun!

And finally, here is RS reading “A Marriage”. If you can track down the poetry CDs I highly recommend them, because I don’t think there’s anything better than hearing a poet read their own work…

“Vodka is at least as effective as hope. And so much less vulgar.” #Napoleon #Berezina @EuropaEditions

28 Comments

Berezina by Sylvain Tesson
Translated by Katherine Gregor

In my post on “The Honjin Murders“, I mentioned the kindness of other bloggers; and today’s review is thanks to lovely Pam at Travellin’ Penguin, a blog I’ve followed for some time now. Pam wrote about this book back in January and then kindly offered it as a giveaway. Given the subject matter, it was obviously going to be something which would appeal to me, and so I was very excited when I won the book! It made its way from Down Under to me here in the UK (together with some beautiful postcards and a sweet bookmark); and again, because of the subject matter, it recently seemed the ideal book to pick up when I was looking for a little escapism from our present situation…

a picture of the book in this post along with the postcards and the bookmark on a table with russianb memorabilia

Author Sylvain Tesson is a man with an interesting background; a French writer and traveller born in Paris, he’s ranged far and wide over the globe, from Iceland and Borneo to the Himalayas – to name but a few! However, he doesn’t make his journeys easy, often travelling by motorbike, bicycle, horse or on foot; in fact, his trip over the Himalayas *was* on foot, involving a five-month journey of 5000 kilometers from Bhutan to Tajikistan. That’s some undertaking and he’s obviously a man used to hardship…

Man is never happy with his lot, but aspires to something else, cultivates the spirit of contradiction, propels himself out of the present moment. Dissatisfaction motivates his actions. “What am I doing here?“ is the title of a book and the only question worth asking.

“Berezina”, published in 2015, is therefore likely to be a travel book with a difference, and the reason for the journey is fascinating. In 2012, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, Tesson and a group of friends decide to recreat that journey; however, they’ll travel not on foot or horseback but on ancient Soviet motorbikes and sidecars. The route will take them from Moscow to Paris, jousting with heavy modern traffic and extreme weather, and in itself it’s a real eye-opener.

Now, I’m a lover of travel books; I’ve read masses over the years, following Eric Newby all over the place, accompanying pioneering Lady Travellers rediscovered by Virago, and plodding all over various bits of Russia and Siberia with varied adventurers. However, I’m not sure I’ve read a book with such an intriguing angle as this one. Following the route of Napoleon’s retreat to honour a past conflict is actually quite a moving idea; and as the party is a mix of French and Russian folks, both sides of the war are represented. So, armed with flags and bicorns, the motley crew set off to pay tribute to history and hopefully avoid smash-ups on the way!

As a travelogue alone, the book would be engaging and entertaining; Tesson is a down-to-earth narrator who is nevertheless capable of waxing lyrical about many subjects – well, he’s a Frenchman, isn’t he? ;D However, the book explores quite deeply the whole conflict of 1812, Napoleon’s character and ambitions, the reason his campaign failed and the horrors of the journey away from Moscow and death. And it pulls no punches, discussing how unbearable the conditions of the journey were, how many men and horses died, the awful things that had to be done to survive, and how in the end Napoleon basically abandoned his troops to get back to Paris and save his empire.

Since the explosion of the Internet, a revolution required marketing techniques. What mattered was no longer to take over the administration, overturn the army, and hang the ruler from a meat hook: all you have to do was keep hold of the media fields, come out with speeches, fuel blogs, and prepare a stage for western speakers, hired oraters called upon if the cause turned out to be bankable on the ideals market of the EU.

That element of the book really lifts it above the normal travel book; and the discussion of the past as set against the modern world is quite revealing. The party are at times travelling through parts of the world which were former Soviet territories and Tesson’s thoughtful reflections on how those places have changed are illuminating. Berezina itself is the site of a pivotal battle between the retreating French and pursuing Russians, and it’s significant that the word is now a term used in the Fench language to signify a disaster…

As I said, Tesson doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to facts, and he and his companions obviously know their Napoleon well – as he wryly acknowledges:

All three of us owed our knowledge of Napoleon to recent reading. We could have spent the rest of our lives in libraries, since there had been a new book about the First French Empire published every day since 1815.

Certainly, Napoleon must be one of the most written-about figures in history! And “Berezina” throws much light on him as a general and as a symbol to the French people.

Napoleon by David – via Wikimedia Commons

Needless to say, the travellers arrive home in much better shape than the armies of 1812, and reading “Berezina” just reinforced my feelings about war; how it’s fought by those in charge using the masses as fodder and how those masses are the ones who always suffer. As Pink Floyd put it so aptly:

“Forward” he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the general sat and the lines on the map
Moved from side to side

So “Berezina” turned out to be an entertaining and often moving read; its scintillating blend of history lesson and travel worked well, and at times I felt as if I was struggling along through snow and wet and mud and dark and cold with Tesson and his fellows, or the poor retreating soldiers. Although I don’t often travel far, I *do* love to get out and about when I can. Nowadays, it’s having to be travel by proxy and in some ways I’m happy this journey was only a virtual one; the reality would have been very hard to deal with…

*****

As a coda, I wanted to share one of the first pieces of classical music I ever came across (on one of my dad’s vinyl LPs, when I was just a wee lass); obvious, perhaps, but I still love it, especially when the bells and cannons come in – stirring stuff (if probably historically inaccurate….) 😀

“And I am afraid of the dead” @nyrbclassics #malicroix2020

37 Comments

Malicroix by Henri Bosco
Translated by Joyce Zonana

Back in April there was quite a buzz about a new release from NYRB Classics, and a number of bookish Twitter types did a bit of a readalong. Now, somehow I’d managed to miss this book coming out, which is odd because I follow NYRB releases closely and often review their titles. The book in question was “Malicroix” by Henri Bosco, and fortunately another kind fellow blogger was able to pass on a digital copy to me, so I was able to join in and read alongside others (thanks, Damian!)

Alas no picture of a pretty book, as I e-read this – not a format I enjoy, but it was worth it in this case! 😀

Henri Bosco (1888 – 1976) is a writer I hadn’t come across before, and it seems he might have been one of French literature’s best kept secrets. A prolific author, only a handful of his works have been translated into English in the past; and this from a writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature four times!! So kudos to NYRB and translator Joyce Zonana for bringing his work to us Anglophone readers.

“Malicroix” was first published in 1948, and it tells the story of a young man coming into his inheritance. Martial de Megremut is an orphaned young man who lives a quiet life with his extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins and the like. However, his mother was a Malicroix and so when his uncle Cornelius de Malicroix dies, he leaves an inheritance to Martial who is now the last survivor of Malicroix blood. Contacted by the Malicroix family notary, the alarming and mysterious Maitre Domiols, Martial travels to a small island in the Camargue (an area of southern France characterised by marshes, swampland and lagoons). Here he is met by the other inhabitants of the island, Cornelius’s old retainer Balandran, and his dog Brequillet. The climate is hostile; his fellow man and dog taciturn; and the isolation overwhelming. For man like Martial it’s a real shock to the system, but Cornelius’s will makes it clear that Martial must spent three months on the island to come into his inheritance – which is in fact the island and all that’s attached to it (sheep and the like…)

No two times of solitude are alike, for we are never alone in the same way

It’s quite an ask for someone like Martial, used to calm, quiet inland living with a loving family; in fact, quite a simple and bland lifestyle. However, something stirs inside him, and despite the threatening presence of Domiols and his slippery servant Uncle Rat, Martial discovers a stubbornness which makes him want to see out the three months and claim the island as his. However, it will not be as straightforward as that; for Cornelius has left a codicil, and a final test will be faced by Martial to right a wrong of the past, if he wants to truly become a Malicroix.

That’s just a brief outline of what’s going on in this marvellous and immersive novel, and to be honest the plotlines as such are not the major focus of the book. What seems to me most important is the changes which we see taking place in Martial as he wrestles with the very essence of what makes him who he is. Although outwardly Martial recognises the Megremut in himself, represented by the image of his life as a quiet botanist in a greenhouse, inwardly he can feel the wild Malicroix blood that’s in him, symbolised by the wild untamed nature on the island. Those two types of blood are raging through him leaving us to wonder which will win; and while that battle is going on we can’t help but puzzle on what the secret of the island and inheritance actually is.

The island—I wanted it; I had become its spirit; I haunted it like a ghost; my soul depended on its possession, and in the auspicious darkness through which Dromiols vainly searched for me, I moved ahead toward my destiny, tormented by a growing anxiety, but lucid, my head lowered, like a blind force.

I must mention Bosco’s writing, because the narrative is quiet beautiful and the prose lyrical, often hallucinogenic. Martial goes through many trials on his journey towards his inheritance, with a number of stumbling blocks on the way. There are others on the shore across the river: the strange ferryman, another figure initially unidentified and descendents of ancient enemies. Early on in the story, the mysterious Maitre Domiols tells Martial the family history, and it’s a dark one; though at this point neither Martial nor the reader knows how the past will affect what plays out in the present. Bosco’s narrative captures Martial’s heightened state of awareness, his digging down into himself to discover what kind of man he really is, and his final appreciation of the two strands of blood within him.

A little later, he would give me news of the flock, always the same. How could it have been otherwise? The Malicroix solitude, the island, our wild and barren lands—all kept people away, and where people do not enter, nothing moves, except imperceptibly. Yet ever since Balandran loved me a little, I hardly suffered. He loved me like a Malicroix, an enfeebled Malicroix, to be sure, but still stamped with the seal. I had had my night of madness. And he had seen in it the strong blood of that old, wild lineage. From that moment on, he was my man, for this is a blood that binds and commands, even in me, who usually would not know how to insist on anything nor how to give an order, so much am I a Mégremut. Yet, through my innate gentleness, Balandran had scented the old, wild blood.

Reading “Malicroix” was a completely immersive experience; each time I picked up the book I was transported to the island in the Camargue to experience its landscape along with Martial (and it *is* a very dramatic landscape). The lyrical prose is almost hypnotic at times, and yet much is left elusive and unsaid which adds to the mystery of Martial’s story. The location itself is a powerful force in the narrative, dominating at times and almost taking on a personality of its own.

Had I not already entered the outline of a disturbing dream? Hanging by a frail thread at the center of the ravenous river, the boat seemed an improbable memory. Yet it was more than a dream, for my eyes had truly seen it, and in my sleeplessness I was tempted to interpret it as an emblem of a lonely thought—man on the water, awaiting night and death.

There’s a small supporting cast in “Malicroix”, but they’re beautifully drawn characters. Balandran and Brequillet, both initially wary of the incomer, warm to him as he comes to love the island and are loyal friends. A mysterious woman comes to Martial’s aid at a time of great distress, and may have more to do with the story of the Malicroix family than is immediately obvious. Even the dubious Uncle Rat is not as straightforward as he seems. And Martial’s family, initially portrayed as rather soft and bland, are revealed as good people, powerful in their own way and able support their errant family member; his return visit to them before a final trial is very moving.

She had not heard me approaching. Now, for the first time in my life, I could contemplate her at leisure, seeing her with new eyes, the eyes of another. For the stranger had followed me. The stranger was here—I was the stranger. Caught between these two natures that nevertheless interpenetrated one another, body and soul, I was reluctant to trouble the peace of this charming old woman who, while she waited for me, bent over her rose point lace, carefully stitching.

Looming over the book is the monumental, larger-than-life presence of the mysterious notary Domiols; his willpower is spelled out and it often seems that he will overwhelm Martial by sheer force of personality, compelling him to leave the island. However, the latter discovers that his Megremut blood gives him hidden strength in his patience and his ability to copy with isolation. Whether it gives him enough strength to cope with facing his ultimate fear – the chaos and disorder of the river – is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Henri Bosco [Souricette-du-13 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

As you might guess, I absolutely loved this book. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read, really (though the nearest comparisons I can think of are The Marble Cliffs and The Other Side, also both from Twentieth Century European authors). I grew extremely fond of Martial, Balandran and Brequillet in particular, and had some bad moments about the fate of all of them! And I can understand the fuss that’s been made about this book, because it really is something special. Beautifully written, totally absorbing, emotionally affecting and quite haunting, “Malicroix” is a book to get under your skin and into your soul.

*****

I feel I should say a special word of thanks to translator Joyce Zozana for her work on bringing Malicroix to us. From what I understand, she first encountered the book back in the 1970s when it was praised in another work she was reading – Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space”, which oddly enough has been lurking on my TBR for a few months. Now there’s synchronicity… Anyway, apparently Joyce was inspired enough to want to start translating it at the time, but then life got in the way. Fortunately for us, she was able to return to the book in the 2010s and we now have the chance to read Bosco’s electrifying work. Thank you so much Joyce!

(Many thanks to NYRB for allowing Damian Stuber to kindly pass on the e-reading copy to me – much appreciated!)

An evocative glimpse of a lost Soviet past #sheilafitzpatrick #sovietrussia

28 Comments

A Spy in the Archive by Sheila Fitzpatrick

I’m not entirely sure what’s driving my reading at the moment; obviously the amount of comfort reading of classic crime is because of world circumstances; but I’ve also felt drawn towards non-fiction, maybe as a way of travel (which is not an option right now). Certainly, my love of Russia and its history hasn’t diminished at all, and so Sheila Fitzpatrick’s wonderful memoir of her time in Soviet Moscow in the 1960s turned out to be ideal for my mood.

I’ve been aware of Fitzpatrick’s work as a pioneering Sovietologist for some time; and she regularly appears as a contributor in the pages of the London Review of Books. Born in Australia, she came to study at Oxford in the 1960s as an exchange student; the college she was attached to, St Antony’s, was reputed to be a breeding grounds for anti-Soviet spies and she mixed with an array of well-known names. Her strong desire was to get to Russia and study its archives, a visit which was facilitated by the British Council; and the book relates her experiences in Moscow as well as the close friendships she made and the complexities of functioning under Soviet bureaucracy. It all makes for a scintillating read!

Fitzpatrick herself is a fascinating woman, coming from a left-wing family; her father Brian was a noted author, historian and journalist, as well as one of founders of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. From what Sheila says in her book, they had a stormy relationship, one which she eventually covered in her book “My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood”. “Spy…” draws on Fitzpatrick’s memories of the time, the diaries she kept and the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had passed away in 1965).

Red Square in the 1960s – SAS Scandinavian Airlines / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At the time, the study of Soviet history was not taken seriously and Sheila set out to change this. The Cold War was still in full swing, and even getting into the Soviet Union was complex enough. Add into that the constant fear of spies, threats of expulsion from East and West, plus the fact that any visitor to Moscow was going to be observed closely and possibly the subject of some kind of entrapment, and you end up with a situation guaranteed to make anyone feel anxious, especially a shy girl from Australia (which is how she describes herself). At one point, she was even ‘outed; in a Russian press article as a spy (which she wasn’t), but because of the confusion with names (she was using a married name as well as her maiden name) the effects were fortunately minimal.

Fitzpatrick’s focus at the time was on studying Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, an early Bolshevik who was (according to Wikipedia) “a Russian Marxist revolutionary and the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar (Narkompros) responsible for Ministry and Education as well as active playwright, critic, essayist and journalist throughout his career.” We have, of course, recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution; but when Fitzpatrick visited Moscow in the 1960s the Revolution was still within living memory, and she was able to gain access to members of Lunacharsky’s family. His home life had been a complex one, with a second marriage and in effect two families. However, Fitzpatrick made contact with his brother-in-law Igor Sats, and his daughter Irina, and they became fast friends; in fact, it seems, just as close as actual family members.

“Spy” is an engaging mix, therefore, of memoir, thoughts on her discipline, pen portaits of the people she encounters, musing on the politics of the era and a wonderful glimpse into what it was like in that place at that time; and I must admit I would love to have a TARDIS to go back and experience what Sheila did, despite the difficulties. In some ways, she recognises, she was very naive, and narrowly escaped entrapment a couple of times. But the relationships she built up with Igor and Irina were powerful ones, particularly with the former. At times, it almost verges on an unconsummated love affair, but Fitzpatrick acknowledges her need for a father figure in her life, especially after the complex relationship with her real father. She’s not afraid to look back at her younger self with a wry yet affectionate eye, recognising how hard it must have been for her mother to receive the letters Sheila sent home, and their relatationship was obviously also not easy…

I absolutely loved reading this book, as you might have guessed; I became thoroughly absorbed in it, transported back to the Oxford and Moscow of the time and it was a real window into the past. The sexual politics of era were quite an eye-opener too, both at home and abroad; and despite the burgeoning women’s movement there were still assumptions about how women should behave, particularly in a partnership. I admired how Fitzpatrick made her own way, and I’m keen to read the book she wrote about her later husband, Mischka Danos.

Sheila Fitzpatrick in 2016 – from Wikipedia Commons – Department of Communications and the Arts Australia / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

As well as being a fascinating and extremely engaging read, there was much in the book which resonated in me on a personal level. I’m of a different generation to Fitzpatrick, so came to the idea and history of the Soviet Union a decade later and much younger. However, a good part of the book is concerned with matters which came into my line of sight at the time (and since). Fitzpatrick’s supervisor at Oxford was Max Hayward, who I know as a translator, in particular being co-responsible for the first English version of “Dr. Zhivago” (and there’s a whole other story there about the CIA’s involvement in getting that book out of Soviet Russia to the west). He was a prolific translator, dying quite young, and it was intriguing to see him from Sheila’s point of view. She’s very honest looking back, finding her behaviour towards him perhaps not as she would now wish it to be and commenting:

I’m depressed in retrospect by the callousness of my report. All I can say in extenuation is that when you’re young, you don’t always believe that your seniors are human.

Of particular interest, however, was the fact that Igor Sats was heavily involved with the Russian literary journal Novy Mir (New World). First published in 1925, it was originally a publication which very much toed the Communist Party line. However, by the 1960s, under its editor Alexander Tvardovsky, it was leaning towards dissident territory and was responsible for a number of firsts, including its groundbreaking publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (probably the first Russian book I read). Solzhenitsyn is an author dear to my heart – I followed his progress avidly during the 1970s, including his expulsion from the Soviet Union and his appearances on the BBC – and he makes regular appearances in “Spy” (as does another favourite Russian author, Andrey Platonov). Reading about the struggles the journal had, and the complexities of negotiating Soviet censorship to be able to publish what you want was absorbing, and transported me right back to my teens. Looking at the list of contributors in the battered old collection of Novy Mir pieces reminded me what an esteemed journal it really was, and was quite moving.

There were other resonances. Fitzpatrick relates encounters with Ivy Litvinov, an Englishwoman married to the Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov , whose books I’ve read and who I wrote about here. And she discusses the tendency I’ve noticed in Soviet writing, particularly in my exploration of Science Fiction works from that era, of hiding the real meaning of the story in a subtext – what she calls Aesopian writing.

So “A Spy in the Archives” turned out to be just the thing I needed to read right now. Sheila Fitzpatrick roams far and wide over all manner of complex issues, but the book is never dull and her memories are entertaining and fascinating. She provides a wonderful insight into the difficulties of research, particularly when access to material is tightly controlled, and her viewpoint that the past can be studied as social history, rather than just political state history, is one with which I really agree. I expected to like this book, but I hadn’t anticipated it would be such a wonderful read which ended up touching me personally. Highly recommended if you’re interested in history, the Soviet Union or simply an account of a memorable period in one woman’s life!

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: