Getting my head round book reviews has not been uppermost in my mind lately, owing to life rather getting in the way of everything. But I *have* been reading (books having always been my coping mechanism) and I thought I would catch up with a couple of very disparate books I encountered recently.
Paris Tales ed Helen Constantine
I read and loved Constantine’s “Moscow Tales” collection earlier this year, so it was a cinch that I’d want to follow up with her volume about Paris. I’ve not yet made it over the channel to the City of Light (though that’s on the bucket list) but I do have an eternal fascination with it, alongside my love of French authors). And “Paris Tales” is stuffed full of delights.
The book is structured around the various arrondissements (or districts of the city) and there’s a little map in the back showing which area relates to which story. Each tale has an individual photograph at the start to illustrate it, and it’s touches like these (and the quality printing/paper) which help to make the books in this series so special. “Paris” contains two works by Maupassant, who I’ve been meaning to read for decades and the first (which also opens the book), entitled “Nightmare”, is gripping and actually really scary. There are short texts by the always-wonderful Colette, which cover Montmartre and nature in Paris. And the book also has a story by my beloved Georges Perec, “The Runaway”. I’ve read the latter before but the impact isn’t lessened at all on revisiting this incredibly moving autobiographical tale of a young boy adrift in Paris – the ending is particularly emotive. There are also pieces by Gerard de Nerval, Balzac and Zola (to name but a few), all excellent.
But one of the joys of these collections is encountering authors new to you, and there were several here that I really enjoyed. However, the most stunning was “Blind Experiment” by Hugo Marsan; wonderfully written, evocative and going where you least expected it, this was one of those stories that took your breath away and sent you back to read over it again. I shan’t say much about the actual plot (with short stories, there’s such a risk of giving too much away ), but I’d urge any fiction lover to read it.
“Paris Tales” was perhaps not quite so strong a collection as the Moscow volume but still extremely enjoyable and I particularly loved discovering the Marsan story. Constantine’s collected together a wonderful and vivid set of stories and I’m even more eager to explore further cities, as I know several more volumes are available…. :)
Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars
So when was it that Blaise Cendrars first strolled into my line of vision? I can’t recall – but I suspect it was in the 1980s, in my first flush of big reading. Certainly, I’m sure I had his “Moragavaine” on my wish list at the time, but I couldn’t tell you if I read it. Nevertheless, when I was browsing the Peter Owen Modern Classics list recently (as you do) I spotted a book of his called “Dan Yack”. The blurb sounded absurd and entertaining, so after a little browsing and clicking it was on its way to me.
Cendrars is an odd character (just check out his Wikipedia entry!) Briefly, he was of mixed Scottish and Swiss descent, running away at fifteen to travel the world having a series of picaresque adventures. And indeed, the titular character of this book seems to do much the same thing! The story opens in pre-WW1 St. Petersburg, where Dan has been abandoned by his lover, Hedwige. Wandering drunkenly into the Stray Dog nightclub, where Teffi is performing bawdy lyrics onstage, he passes out under a table only to come round listening to the conversations of the three men at the table – Arkadie Goischman, a Jewish poet; Ivan Sabakov, a peasant sculptor; and Andre Lamont, a French musician.
Yack is a very, very rich man and the three men are poor; on an impulse, he proposes a voyage round the world via the Antarctic, and amazingly enough all three agree. They set sail on a boat called the Green Star, and all goes (relatively) well until they reach pack ice and are put ashore on an island to wait out the long, dark polar winter. And it is here that things start to fall apart…
There are plentiful supplies of the superficial objects they need to physically survive the dark winter; but the four men are thrown back upon themselves and this is what causes the cracks to show. Each man becomes more and more eccentric, with their idiosyncracies becoming more pronounced and their behaviour more erratic. Gradually each man’s psyche disintegrates and whether they will all make it to the end of the winter is unclear.
It’s a wild tale, and Yack is a strange and wonderful creation; obsessed with gramophone records and his monocle, pining over Hedwige, his behaviour is often reckless to say the least. Goischman, Sabakov and Lamont are larger-than-life, caricatures perhaps, but representing the arts – one wonders whether Cendrars was commenting on the nature of art and whether or not it’s necessary to survival. The story is dramatic and unexpected, visceral in places, yet has moments of rare beauty when Cendrars’ writing captures the natural world. All in all, a very thought-provoking work, and I already have the follow-up, “Confessions of Dan Yack”, standing by….
(As an afterthought, as “Paris Tales” contains Colette, I guess that counts for Women in Translation month!!)