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“When completely dead to the world I expect to see it all perfectly” #alasdairgray

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Ten Tales Tall & True by Alasdair Gray

Back in 2014 I made the acquaintance of Alasdair Gray when I read his great magnum opus “Lanark”. A bit of a behemoth of a book, it kept me company during all sorts of adventures (including a long train and tube trip to Kew Gardens where I was travelling to read “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf!). Reading “Lanark” was an immersive, magnificent experience and I considered myself a convert, picking up his other works when I came across them. However, I never actually got round to reading any of them, perhaps slightly nervous as to whether they’d pale in comparison. But news of his death just after Christmas saddened me, and so I searched the shelves for something of his to read before the end of the year – and “Ten Tales Tall & True” seemed like the perfect choice.

Gray changed the way Scottish writing was perceived with “Lanark”, and his writing style as well as the presentation of his books is particularly unique. He was a polymath, and his works are adorned with his own marvellous illustrations as well as little phrases at the side of each right hand page which kind of sum up what’s happening. Reflecting Gray’s wonderful idiosyncracies, “Ten Tales…” actually contains 14 pieces (if you include the introduction) and the author spells this out at the beginning, reminding us that even his title is a tall tale! The title page illustration also gives a hint at the kind of material inside, stating “Social Realism”, “Sexual Comedy”, “Science Fiction” and “Satire”. Well, you could apply those labels to some of the stories but Gray can never exactly be pinned down and it’s this elusiveness that I often love in his work.

So – on to specifics (always so difficult when reviewing short stories…) Gray’s writing works just as well for me in short form as it did in “Lanark”; his imagination is as wonderful as ever, his tales thought-provoking and their conclusions always unexpected. He’s particularly pithy on the complexities of human relationships, and several of the stories pinpoint the compromises we made to avoid loneliness. “YOU” is particularly harsh on the male/female, English/Scottish divide, and “Loss of the Golden Silence” discreetly dissects the differing perceptions of two protagonists in a relationship. Other stories, like “The Trendelburg Positon” and “Time Travel”, are more oblique, allowing Gray’s characters to muse on the state of the world, the meaning of life and the future. “Near the Driver” was a particular stand-out for me, looking at the consequences of handing too much control over to machines, and I rather felt that a lot of people who put their faith in technology nowadays could do with having a read of this!

An example of the inside layout of Gray’s books – I love this kind of thing! πŸ˜€

Gray also plays with the perceptions not only of his characters but of his readers. “A New World”, a very Kafkaesque kind of story, was all about perspectives and made me feel very claustrophobic; and “Fictional Exits” blurs the borders between the real and the imaginary in a very clever way. Lest this sounds a little heavy, all of these stories are immensely readable, often funny, littered with drops of Scots venacular and very, very entertaining.

“Ten Tales…” is a much shorter book than “Lanark”, and I read it in a day and absolutely loved it; but despite that relative slimness, it holds much that lingers in the mind. Looking back over it while I wrote this post, I was reminded what a truly individual voice Gray had and how important a writer he is. I wish I’d returned to Alasdair Gray’s work before now, although I do think it was necessary to have a break between “Lanark” and anything else of his. Fortunately, I have at least one other Gray on the shelves so I can make sure I don’t leave it so long before I read him again!

Grant has done a wonderful post on Gray and “Lanark” here which I do recommend reading.

A journey into the past… #Labels #EvelynWaugh

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Superficial thing that I am, I have to confess that I was attracted to this book when I saw it on Twitter by two things – the beautiful cover image and the fact that it was a Mediterranean travelogue from 1929. However, I’m not being totally trivial as I *have* read and loved Waugh before, and I adore good travel writing. So I wasn’t taking too much of a risk when I sent for a copy via Waterstones Click and Collect using some of my birthday book token… πŸ˜€

Waugh is, of course, best known for “Brideshead Revisited” (which I have to confess I’ve never read…); however, most of my reading of his work was pre-blog, apart from “The Loved One” (which was a real scream!) Satire is the word which usually springs to mind when Waugh is mentioned; “Labels” doesn’t exactly fit into that genre, although there is plenty of snidey snarkery, which is a real delight!

In February 1929, Waugh sets off on his travels round the Mediterrean, which a view to keeping himself afloat financially by producing a book. His stated aim was to visit Russia, but alas he never got there (which is a shame, as I’d like to have seem that). Instead, he cruises his way around the south of France, Italy, Egypt, any number of islands and bits of Greece, Spain, and even makes it to Constantinople. As he travels, he shares not only his impressions of the places he visits but also his travelling companions, art, architecture, antiquities and the whole concept of tourism. It’s a singular, often funny, provoking and entertaining mix and I laughted out loud in many places!

… I left the Crillon for cheaper accommodation. My next hotel was remarkably less comfortable. It was exactly facing into the Metro, where it runs very noisily above ground, and the bed was, I think, stuffed with skulls. The only furniture was a bidet and a cupboard full of someone else’s underclothes. There were some false teeth under the pillows, and the door opened oddly, being permanently locked and detached from both hinges, so that it could only be moved at the wrong side just far enough to admit of one squeezing through. However, it was cheaper than the Crillon, costing in fact only 18 francs a night.

This is certainly no saccharine account of a trip round pretty places; if Waugh dislikes a place, he says so in no uncertain terms; and he’s clear-eyed about the squalid aspects of the trip, from the constant harrassment by locals exploiting the tourists, to the red-light entertainment mostly laid on just for the monied visitors. He’s often critical about tourism as a concept, seeing it as a kind of descendant of the Grand Tour, which he disses beautifully. It’s a little bit shocking to realise that this is getting on for a century ago, and yet Waugh is already meditating on the evils of mass tourism, commenting that “…places like Venice and Constantinople swallow up this influx without undue indigestion, but the spectacle, which I once saw on a previous visit, of five hundred tourists arriving by car to observe the solitude of a village in the Greek mountains is painful and ludicrous.

There is much discussion of art and architecture, which of course Waugh encounters in quantities wherever the cruise ship lands him, and even then many antiquities had been insensitively wrenched from their original locations. Much leaves him cold, and he’s not afraid to say so; however, when he’s moved by something his commentary goes into raptures about it, and the pages about his reactions to Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona are fascinating and lyrical. However, he’s always ready to subvert the reader’s expectations and puncture pretentiousness:

I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.

As I read, I was reminded that the book was written at an intriguing time; Waugh is situated at the end of the Roaring Twenties as the world was about to hit depression and the rise of fascism. A frank discussion of drugs is balanced with reflections on Mussolini, who was already on the rise, and the fate of various countries which had been parcelled up and handed over to various rulers at the end of the First World War. Despite the wit and frivolity and name-dropping, there is an underlying seriousness in Waugh which I’ve sensed before in his writing.

Waugh in later years by Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) [Public domain]

And his writing is *excellent*! Occasionally, he launches into a wonderful tirade against something, which is what I would call a “‘Watney’s Red Barrel’ moment (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you’ll know what I mean!) It’s quite glorious and here’s an example where he rails against the bucolic and twee countryside of his home country:

The detestation of ‘quaint’ and ‘picturesque bits’ which is felt by every decently constituted Englishman, is, after all, a very insular prejudice. It has developed naturally in self-defence against arts and crafts, and the preservation of rural England, and the preservation of ancient monuments, and the transplantation of Tudor cottages, and the collection of pewter and old oak, and the reformed public house, and Ye Olde Inne and the Kynde Dragone and Ye Cheshire Cheese, Broadway, Stratford-on-Avon, folk-dancing, Nativity plays, reformed dress, free love in a cottage, glee singing, the Lyric, Hammersmith, Belloc, Ditchling, Wessex-worship, village signs, local customs, heraldry, madrigals, wassail, regional cookery, Devonshire teas, letters to the Times about saving timbered alms-houses from destruction, the preservation of the Welsh language, etc. It is inevitable that English taste, confronted with all these frightful menaces to its integrity, should have adopted an uncompromising attitude to anything the least tainted with ye oldness.

“Labels” turned out to be a delight; funny, thought-provoking, lyrical and entertaining, it was the perfect post-Christmas read. There were a couple of points where I was reminded that I was reading a book by somebody upper-class from the 1920s; the terminology is often not what we would use today, and I found his dismissal of much Oriental art baffling (although that *may* just come down to personal taste, as he didn’t dislike it all). Nevertheless, this was a wonderfully enjoyable and relaxing book; and as I believe he’s written more travel works, I’m going to have to do some careful consideration of what I’ll be spending the remainder of the book token on… ;D

A new challenge for February – FitzCarraldo Editions Fortnight! :D @FitzcarraldoEds #fitzcarraldofortnight

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Founded in 2014, Fitzcarraldo Editions’s distinctive blue/white paperback originals with French flaps are gaining steady recognition in the literary world, winning the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize in 2017 with John Keene’s “Counternarratives”, and the 2018 Man Booker International Prize with Olga Tokarczuk’s “Flights”. In 2019 the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation was awarded to Annie Ernaux’s “The Years”.

I mentioned at the end of last year that I have a profusion of Fitzcarraldos lurking on my TBR and could easily handle a month of reading nothing else; Lizzy took a look at hers and decided that she had sufficient to keep her well read for a fortnight. Cue the birth of a Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight – Lizzy’s idea, and an excellent one!

Diaries have been coordinated, and Lizzy and I will be reading and blogging our way through our Fitzcarraldo Editions stacks from 16-29 February 2020. All are welcome to join us. Will you?

“The dead are the imagination of the living” – meditations from John Berger

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For some reason, I took great comfort towards the end of December in non-fiction writing, and I followed up my reading of the very pithy George Orwell anthology with another slim volume of John Berger’s writing. Entitled “and our faces, my heart, brief as photos”, it was originally published in 1984, although my edition is a 2005 reprint. In much the same way “Confabulations“, it’s a bit of a pot pourri of a book; combining poetry with meditations on art, mortality, love and the distance from a lover, it’s a heady mix and one which chimed in with my mood as well as occupying my mind and heart for some days.

This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on the line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.

Berger’s writings are often eclectic and hard to define; he’s not an author who you can summarise easily and this is not a book where you can give any kind of ‘plot summary’. Instead, it’s perhaps best regarded as some kind of ‘commonplace book’, collecting together poems, fragments of autobiography, thoughts on art or the natural world and extended meditations on the nature of time. This latter element, of course, formed the subject of Berger’s final book for Notthing Hill Editions, which I reviewed here; and it seems to be something which constantly exercised his mind. Certainly our concept and understanding of time has changed over the centuries, and it was fascinating reading Berger’s thoughts on the topic.

Central to the book is love , of course, and Berger contemplates somewhat elliptically an affair in which he is involved. We never know with whom, why they’re separated and whether the love endured; but the passages Berger addresses to the unknown other are moving and lyrical (like all of his writing) and allow a strangely intimate look at the affair even though we’re kept at a distance.

A lilac branch, subject of contemplation for Berger…

Berger was, of course, a political animal with a deep distrust of authority and this element is present in the narrative. He had a great sympathy with those struggle to make change for the better and it does seem that little has changed since this book was first published.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most direct protests against social injustice were in prose. They were reasoned arguments written in the belief that, given time, people would come to see reason, and that, finally, history was on the side of reason. Today this is not by no means clear. The outcome is by no means guaranteed. The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality.

In the end this book is probably unclassifiable, and that’s fine by me. I love Berger’s books of meditations, full of thought provoking writing, lyrical and meditative. Though written many years ago, like Orwell, Berger’s words contain thoughts which are still relevant, and reading through the book I constantly felt I was encountering little nuggets of truth and meaning.

The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.

Although he was a very different kind of thinker and writer to Orwell, Berger shared the same distrust of those in power and the same anger at the suffering of those being controlled. An odd pairing of books to start of the year with, maybe, but I was in need of writing which took me away from the everyday horrors and convinced me that the words of thinking people were still there to reassure. “and our faces…” did just that and will find a welcome place amongst my growing pile of Berger’s books!

2020 – will there be challenges???? ;D

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Traditionally, the start of a new year in bookish circles means making plans for future reading, deciding on challenges and projects, as well as setting up piles of prospective reads. I’ve done all those things in the past, but more often than not I fall by the wayside; I’m very much a person who reads by whim and mood, and I’ve found I don’t respond well to restrictions. I prefer to follow my reading muse and pick up whichever book I fancy. So in recent years I’ve tended to avoid most formal challenges, sticking instead to the Club reads I co-host with Simon, and of course WIT Month which is a big favourite. Having said that, I *have* been considering dropping in on a few upcoming reading events:

First up is the Japanese Literature Challenge, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. I love Japanese literature and as the challenge runs until the end of March there’s plenty of time for me to participate, particularly as I have at least one lovely Japanese title on the TBR! I think I *will* sign up for this one, because even if I only manage *one* book at least I’ll have taken part! πŸ˜€

Next up is this event:

The European Reading Challenge is hosted by Rose City Reader, and as I read a lot of translated literature, once again this should be no problem – particularly as it runs all year long! πŸ˜€ Plus France and Russia are included so really I have no excuse for not succeeding with this one! Again, I have any number of appropriate titles on the TBR, and as the top (deluxe!) level is to read just 5 books from Europe – well, if I don’t manage that, what the heck will I be doing this year????

Finally, there is Robert Musil… I’ve considered his massive magnum opus “The Man without Qualities” and there is a year-long Twitter readalong which has just started. It’s a *big* book – 1152 pages in the easily available all-in-one Picador version – which is vaguely intimidating, although spread out over a year maybe not so. However, I felt I would probably struggle physically and mentally with a book that fat and after a little investigation discovered that Picador had issued in the past in three separate volumes. Well – after a bit of humming and hahing and chatter on Twitter about ripping books into sections (!!), I succumbed and the three separate volumes are on their way. Will I read them? Who knows – I may well have a go! ;D

Apart from these challenges and the others I’ve mentioned above, I think I will try to keep my plans fluid, light and stress-free. Oh – well there might be *one* more event coming up during the last couple of weeks of February… But more about that will follow later! ;D

“Every thinking person nowadays is stiff with fright” – #Orwell on Truth

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I guess no-one can be unaware of the the awful mess the world seems to have got itself into; or rather, the humans on it, because I often think that nature and the animals would manage quite well without us here. The last couple of months of 2019 were particularly hideous, and we seem to be surrounded by hate and lies wherever we turn. After the result of the UK General Election (one I was expecting, but was particularly unhappy about) I found myself drawing much comfort from reading George Orwell, and in particular a book which Youngest Child gifted me a while ago; a lovely anthology entitled “Orwell on Truth”. Bearing in mind how many lies seem to be thrown about wildly nowadays, his views were prescient, trenchant and so very relevant.

Orwell made great company on a train journey from hell in December… Here we are in Ely Station waiting room… (at least it wasn’t snowing!)

“Orwell on Truth” draws quotations and extracts from a wide range of his works, starting with “Burmese Days” in 1934 up until his final masterwork “Nineteen Eighty Four”. All are startling, enlightening and bracing, showing for me what a unique thinker and commentator he was, and also how we’re missing someone of his stature nowadays. Interestingly, the extracts revealed the fact that there were recurring motifs in his work (the ‘boot in face’ one from “Nineteen Eighty Four” turned up surprisingly early in 1941).

Rather than go on and on about how brilliant Orwell was, I thought I would just share a few favourite quotes here; and if they encourage you to go and read him, so much the better. As Alan Johnson says in his pithy introduction, “Orwell’s writing brought clarity and an understanding of the dark and dangerous times we were living through” and I think that statement applies very much to today. I certainly found reading Owell helped my mind to settle and clarify, and as Christopher Hitchens said, he is still “vividly contemporary“. Orwell’s writing is always clear and pertinent, and I doubt we will see his like again.

*****

The monied class can keep all the important ministerial and official jobs in its own hands, and it can work the electoral system in its own favour by bribing the electorate, directly or indirectly. Even when by some mischance a government representing the poorer classes gets into power, the rich can usually blackmail it… (1941)

*****

One of the worst things about a democratic society in the last twenty years has been the difficulty of any straight talking or thinking. (1941)

*****

If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of Socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. (1945)

*****

It is not said often enough that a nation gets the newspapers it deserves… When the bulk of the press is owned by handful of people, one has not much choice… (1946)

*****

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. (1945)

Here comes 2020! (well, almost…)

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I can hardly believe it’s 2020, but there you go – it is, so Happy New Year to all readers of the Ramblings! Traditionally, I should be announcing all sorts of shiny reading plans and challenges for the new year (and new decade) but I haven’t got my head around that yet, to be frank. I have my eyes on a couple of low-stress projects involving translated literature, and of course there will be our Club week reads. So I shall ponder on plans for the next few days and a post will follow…

Meantime, just for fun, here’s an image of the books I read in December. I’ve got into the habit of taking a snap of each month’s reading, inspired by Andy Miller’s pictures on Twitter; however, December’s reading was a bit thin, thanks to me being screamingly busy at work and home. Never mind – a new month, a new year, a new decade and so hopefully more impetus for reading! πŸ˜€ As you can tell, I’m a bit behind on my reviewing and several of these will be covered in January. The Lem is for Shiny New Books, and was a great joy!

As for what my first read of 2020 will be? Well, it’s this:

That birthday book token is coming in very useful, because this *didn’t* arrive from Santa and I wanted it so much, so it was purchased straight after Christmas (ahem…) I love James’ writing and I love Larkin, so I’m hoping it will be the perfect read for me. What books are you starting 2020 with???

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