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#1965Club – looking back at some previous reads…

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to do a post looking back at books from the particular year which I’ve read in the past; in some cases, there will be reviews here on the Ramblings, and in others they’ll be pre-blog reads. Either way, I always find it interesting to revisit previous books, and there were quite a number from 1965! First up, let’s look at the older ones.

Pre-blog reading

The pre-blog pile has a bit of a variety! There is, of course, “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss; it’s one of the pivotal books in my life and I’ve written about it before. When I borrowed it from the library in my childhood it obvs hadn’t been around for long! Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is a no-brainer; I’ve had my original paperback since my teens, and I can never read enough of her work.  “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a more recent arrival; Mr. Kaggsy bought me the whole sequence of Martin Beck crime novels (of which this is the first) many years ago and I love them to bits – my favourite Scandi crime books. Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” is also a book I’ve owned since my teens and I probably would be less tolerant of him and it nowadays; I would have liked to re-read had time permitted this week, but somehow I don’t think that will happen… And finally, the majestic “Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, a book I read when I first began to read Japanese literature. It’s powerful and unforgettable and I can’t recommend it enough.

There are no doubt many more pre-blog reads from 1965 (it was a bumper year!) but those were the obvious ones I could lay hands on. So let’s move on to 1965 books I’ve previously covered on the blog!

1965 Books on the Blog!

Let’s start with a couple of favourite authors. And in fact Italo Calvino has been a favourite since I was in my 20s; the rather battered copy of “Cosmicomics” on top of the pile is from that era. I revisited the book with “The Complete Cosmicomics” and was even more knocked out than the first time. I love his books. End of.

Stanislaw Lem is a more recent discovery, but his quirky and clever and thought-provoking sci-fi stories have been a fast favourite at the Ramblings. “The Cyberiad” came out in 1965 but my lovely Penguin Modern Classic is more recent. Definitely an author I’d recommend.

Here’s another pair of very individual authors… Nabokov needs no introduction and his book “The Eye” is a short, fascinating and tricksy book with a very unreliable narrator. Georges Perec‘s “Things” is another unusual one – from the amount of Perec on this blog, you know that I love his work, and this particular title, exploring ennui in the budding consumer society of the 1960s, was very intriguing.

It wouldn’t be the Ramblings without some Russian authors, would it? Here’s another of my favourite authors, Mikhail Bulgakov.Black Snow” and “A Theatrical Novel” are translations of the same book, one of the author’s shorter and more manic works. If I had time, I’d start a project of re-reading his works in order.

And “An Armenian Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman proved to me a. just how bad my memory is and b. that it’s a good thing I have this blog… I was all set to read this book as one of my 1965 choices, when there was a little niggle in my head. I checked, and I’d read and reviewed it back in 2013….  *sigh*

Finally, something a little lighter – or is it??

I’m a recent convert to Tove Jansson and the Moomins, but really this book should be subtitled “Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis“! The titular father has a bit of a panic at feeling useless and so drags the whole family off to sea. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on below the surface here…

So… that’s just a few of my previous reads from 1965. I’m sure there would be tons more if I looked harder, but I’m going to concentrate on new reads for the rest of the week. And while I do that, next up on the blog will be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

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#1965Club – on the run in 1960s France #astragal

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My second read for the #1965Club is very different from yesterday’s short story, and it’s a book I’ve had knocking about on the TBR pile for some time – “Astragal” by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate. I picked it up in the LRB Bookshop a while back simply on the strength of the fact that it had an introduction by Patti Smith; this is usually recommendation enough, but I liked the sound of the story anyway, and a quick flip revealed that the author herself (pictured on the cover) had a colourful, exciting and ultimately tragic life.

Sarrazin was French-Algerian and dropped out of formal education early to take up a life of crime and prostitution. She spent time in and out of jail, on the run from the authorities, and died startlingly young, from complications during an operation. Sarrazin left behind her a few works; and as far as I can see, “Astragal” (which was written while she was in prison) is the only one to have been translated into English. The passionate introduction by Patti Smith makes it clear that this is one of the inspirational, lynchpin books in Smith’s life, a kind of touchstone always with her; she mentions Sarrazin being described as a female Genet but that’s maybe a slightly simplistic way to describe her. Certainly, although she shares perhaps a similar outlook and view on life to Genet, her writing I would say is very different.

However – on to “Astragal” itself. The book opens with its protagonist, Anne, jumping from a wall to escape prison and breaking her ankle; she’s rescued by a passing motorist and then whisked off on the back of a motorcycle by Julien, who will become her lover, soul-mate and occasional companion. On the run from the authorities, the young woman is shunted from safe house to safe house, trying to mend her ankle (the broken talus bone is known as astragale in French) and keep Julien close. The latter, however, has his own issues with the law and so contact is often fleeting. Eventually, an operation is needed to stop Anne from losing her foot, although even getting her admitted to hospital comes with its own risks. Will Anne’s ankle be mended? Will she escape the law? Will she and Julien be together? Will the fact that she dabbles in prostitution and he has at least one other woman get in the way? Frankly, I’m not telling you – you’ll have to read it yourself. However, you can probably work some of it out if you look up Sarrazin’s short life, because this book draws heavily on her biography. Anne is obviously a stand-in for the author who indeed had similar experiences with broken ankles and running from the law. And Julien was his real name….

In that life, you were never carried off, petted, saved; you stood up straight, in the dark cages of the paddy wagon, or sat up on the hard wooden slats. But in that life, all the same, you could get your kicks in secret in the certainty of each day’s routine. My new freedom imprisons me and paralyzes me.

Initially, I wasn’t sure quite what I felt about “Astragal” and I expected to love it more, and love it immediately, particularly after the laudatory introduction. However, despite some beautiful writing, I didn’t actually warm to Anne. She was young, yes, and selfish too, which doesn’t mean she should be intrinsically uninteresting. However, the episodic nature of the story threw me a little, with Anne simply being shunted from one place to the next, being a bit sulky and difficult, and waiting for her lover to turn up. I wondered whether it was the fact that I’m frankly a bit too old to really relate to the book, and that it might have meant an awful lot more to me if I’d read it in my teens.

And yet…. The more I let the book, its characters and its author linger in my mind, the more they seemed to affect me. As I thought about it, I realised that there was an underlying theme of imprisonment; whether during her rotten childhood, her school days or her time in prison or her enforced confinement whilst her ankle is damaged, Anne is always constrained and held back. Her ultimate need is for freedom and she fights for that, even returning to prostitution to maintain her independence, rather than simply relying on someone she loves. Instead, she’ll take advantage of men’s needs and make her money that way, showing her contempt for a world which tries to hem her in.

…what does it matter where I was or what I was doing yesterday, yesterday is dead and we are alive; tomorrow, the limbo of the future, after all…

“Astragal” is a book which cannot be separated from the life of its author, which might by why in the end it stays in the mind; simply because it’s so painfully autobiographical (there is a very moving picture of Albertine with Julien just before she enters a hospital for her last, botched, operation). That somehow makes the events and the story hit home more, knowing she was drawing on her life and fictionalising it, recording her love for Julien, her need for freedom and her disdain for authority. I thought I wasn’t going to love the book, but somehow it’s got its hooks into me and if any more of her writings were available in translation I’d read them. I really ought to brush up on my very rusty schoolgirl French…

#1965Club – the unchanging nature of human beings…

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Today sees the start of another wonderful week of Club reading – yes, it’s time to welcome you to the #1965Club! For one week we’ll be discovering, reading and discussing books from the mid-point of the 1960s, and for my part the hardest thing has been choosing what to read. 1965 seems to have been a varied and bumper year, and one from which I’ve already read many books. However, I wanted to read from the TBR as much as possible and so I’ve settled for a few titles, which I threw myself into with gusto after finishing “The Devils”. The first one I want to share with you is a science fiction short story – “The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth” by Roger Zelazny.

Zelazny is a name I’ve always been aware of, in my various flirtations with sci-fi writing, but I’ve no idea how well-known he is in mainstream terms. He’s probably an author I’ve never read as I consider him more straight sci-fi, whereas I like my science fiction a little warped or off-kilter… However, he apparently also wrote poetry and fantasy, producing a massive body of work. This particular story was published in 1965 (of course!) and won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in that year; it originally appeared in the March 1965 edition of “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and gave its name to the collection I have, which appeared in 1971. There is a story behind by obtaining of this particular edition, as I was in search of the cover art by one Dennis Leigh – the real name of musician John Foxx, who has a sideline in the arts! You can read about that here; that’s by the by, really as it’s the story we’re interested in, and I chose to just read the 1965 tale from the collection; although on the strength of it I plan to read more…

“Doors…” is set on the planet Venus at an unspecified time in the future when travel between planets seems routine; the planet is Earth-like and inhabitable, unlike the real Venus, and of course has been colonised by those voracious humans. The narrator is one Carlton Davits who describes himself as a baitman. As the story progresses it becomes clear that humans haven’t changed a lot; they still want to hunt, destroy and conquer, and the prey here is a Venusian creature called Icthysaurus elasmognathus – 300 feet long and known as Ikky. Davits has had a run-in with Ikky before, failing to capture the creature; however, an old flame, media celebrity Jean Luharich, is determined to capture an Ikky and recruits Davits to help. The dynamics are difficult, with tensions running beneath the surface and old wounds reappearing; will the search succeed and will Davits and Luharich survive the encounter?

Sci fi can be difficult, particularly when you’re dropped into a new world constructed by the author and with only hints of how it works. I always find it’s best to just go with it and see how the place develops; with a good author things will fall into place, and that certainly happens here. Zelazny’s Venus is a vivid and memorable place that really comes alive, despite his often spare narrative (I’ve seen it described as Hammett-like, which may be why I gelled with it). In 32 pages the characters and location develop, with their quirks and their baggage, so much so that you end up caring very strongly about their fate. Davits in particular has been affected by his surrounding, his encounters with Ikky, and the damage these encounters have caused; and Zelazny brilliantly captures the sense Davits has of meeting with something other, something different and unfathomable, on an alien planet.

However, as with all good sci-fi, I found myself pondering the deeper implications. Wikipedia reckons the story is a deliberately retro look at romantic pulp sci-fi which was apparently coming to an end. Yes, I can see that; however, I ended up considering what the story said about humanity and its selfishness and intransigence. Here is a brand new world, a planet humanity can travel to and inhabit; but what do we want to do? Hunt, catch and kill the indigenous creatures of the place. Plus ça change, as they say – colonialism of all sorts extends as far as rapacious humanity will take it and even crossing the final frontier will not change our species’ nature. It’s a thought-provoking story which raises all manner of issues – at least in my mind, anyway

So my first read for the #1965club turned out to be a good one; a new author, an intriguing and absorbing piece, plus perhaps an indication of 1965 works reflecting the changing times of that decade. I was pretty sure when we chose the year for April’s club that there would be some interesting reading turning up, and I can’t wait to see what bookish discoveries await… 😀

Who was changed and who was dead – some thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Devils” – @almaclassics

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The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Roger Cockrell

Okaaaaaaaayyyyy… I’ve reached the end of my marathon read of Dostoevsky’s masterly book, “The Devils”, and I have the book hangover to end all book hangovers! My marathon served me well, but I had to sprint at the end because I couldn’t stand the suspense and *needed* to find out what happened; I’d become so invested in the characters that they were at times more real than the reality around me – always the sign of a good book. I’ll try to string some coherent thoughts together, but forgive me if I babble a bit occasionally…

First up, it’s worth remembering that this is a BIG book; not only in size (my edition is 698 pages plus notes and extras) but also in its epic narrative sweep and in the range of events and ideas it takes in. It’s stuffed to the brim with fascinating characters, and I’ll only be able to touch on the main ones – so here goes with my impressions of “The Devils”.

Absolute freedom will come only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies. That’s the whole aim.

The story is set in a provincial town and in simple terms tells of the dramatic events that take place when two prodigal sons return to the fold, bringing with them some very modern and disruptive ideas. The sons are Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky and Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, men who have been associating abroad and whose parents are scions of the local social circle. Verkhovensky senior is Stepan Trofimovich, an educated gentleman and sometime tutor who in effect has been living off his dear friend, the separated and wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, mother of the other returning son. Stepan Trofimovich had in fact been tutor to young Pyotr so the whole motley crew are deeply interwoven. Stepan considers himself a man of learning, having spent his twenty years sponging off of Varvara supposedly working; and Varvara herself enjoys being the local society queen bee. However, prior to the return of the prodigals, rumours starting seeping into town about events in Switzerland; romances are hinted at between Nikolai and Lizaveta Tushina, a local beauty also returning to the fold from Switzerland. And what of the mysterious revolutionary pamphlets which keep appearing? Add into the mix personalities such as the Lebyadkins, brother and sister; the mysterious Shatov; several other characters who make up the nebulous “our group”; the violent and wilful Fedka the convict; plus the local governor von Lembke and his status-conscious wife Yulia Mikhailovna, and you have the recipe for a brilliant and involved novel which follows the disruptive effect of a mix of revolutionary and personal politics on a provincial town.

People were in a strange state of mind at the time. A certain light-headedness became apparent, particularly among the ladies, and it would be wrong to say that this emerged only gradually. Several extraordinarily free-and-easy ideas were blowing about everywhere, as if carried on the wind. There was a light-hearted merriment in the air, which I wouldn’t say was always particularly pleasant. A certain mental derangement had become fashionable.

I’ve commented before, I think, that Dostoevsky tends to write very much in set pieces and “The Devils” is no different – which is not a criticism! The book is narrated in the main by one Anton Lavrentyevich G—v; a close friend of Stepan’s, he’s in many ways a minor character, yet he’s a thread running through much of the story, until the rush of the narrative kind of takes over from him at the end of the book. And the plot is a long and complex one, with many different strands and many different issues; there is critique of social-climbing and status; discussion of new ideas and the ‘women question’; debates on the existence or not of God; moral dilemmas; and of course, revolution, mayhem and murder. Nikolai and Pyotr are contrasting studies in evil – because both *are* evil, though in very different ways – and the development of their characters is chilling to watch.

… As a rule, the Russian people are never more entertained than by some uproarious social scandal.

As Cockrell’s foreword explains, Dostoevsky was initially inspired to start writing a short pamphlet after the real case of the murder of a student by a group of radicals. However, what started as a short work expanded, and ended up as what is really Dostoevsky’s discussion of the ‘Russian question’, the politics of his day, the way forward and the larger questions of what man should actually believe in. As so often, he chose a provincial setting to discuss his major issues; I suppose the shocking effect of the outsiders on a place away from the centre of things can be more spectacular, and he did love his drama. In fact, there are always elements of dramatic farce in Dostoevsky’s work (“The Gambler” springs to mind particularly, with its manic qualities); and he loves to create a story which inexorably builds to an explosive climax!

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

And that kind of narrative is definitely on show here. Dostoevsky is masterfully in control of his material: after he’s established his protagonists (with some vivid – and often very funny – character sketches), hinted at events gone by and introduced the ideas of revolutionary goings on, he hits the reader with a number of dramatic revelations about what’s actually happened abroad. Of course, all of this is building up to a spectacular and marvellous set-piece; this is Yulia Mikhailovna’s fete in aid of governesses, which turns from farce to tragedy and takes up much of the start of part three of the book. However, as well as set-pieces, Dostoevsky is exceptional on characterisation, and his skill at gradually revealing the reality behind the masks of some of his protagonists was stunning. Verkhovensky in particular starts the book coming across as just a slimeball, but as the narrative goes on his real fanaticism is revealed and it’s frightening. Make no mistake, despite the wonderful humour (and I’ve never read a Dostoevsky without any) this is a very dark book that deals with dark topics.

A particular chapter springs to mind, entitled here simply “At Tikhon’s”. It was censored at the original point of publication and never saw the light of day in Dostoevsky’s time; and it *is* distressing, dealing as it does with abusive behaviour by Nicolai Stavrogin (although never in graphic detail). This edition reinstates the chapter at the point in the narrative where Dostoevsky originally placed it, and to my mind it’s essential to the plot, revealing as it does the real character of Nikolai – a debauched, degraded and dissolute person who has nothing to offer the world.

Of course, central to much of the book *is* moral discussion; that of the older generation like Stepan, and the younger group of revolutionaries. Dostoevsky’s aim seems to be to try to get to heart of both group’s beliefs and he in fact seems to find both wanting. It all boils down, I think, to the generational conflict which was such a topic in Russian literature; Turgenev, of course, springs to mind, and in fact Dostoevsky provides a funny, merciless and heavily satirical lampoon of his literary rival in the form of the famous novelist Karmazinov. However, the conflict is also that between the Superfluous Man (exemplified by Stepan) and the new generation of destructive, active men who want to change everything; the latter, however, have no more to offer than the older generation, and simply degenerate into evil wherever they go. And age is no barrier, as by his rejection of the revolutionaries, Nikolai in effect transforms himself into a superfluous man. Yes, “The Devils” is a clash of generations a la Turgenev, but with so much added fire, venom and disaster! The older generation are portrayed as blustering, out of touch idiots, convinced of their status in Russia and blindly believing they’re universally worshipped. The young are seen as mad or dangerous or deluded or simply hooligans. The generational divide never seems to change much, does it??

It is difficult to change gods.

This being Dostoevsky there is, of course, discussion of God and faith; and many of the characters are suffering from the loss of the latter. That disillusionment is what the author seems to think leads to the madness and depravity of many of the characters, although frankly the religious figures are not free from ridicule if Dostoevsky thinks they deserve it. No-one escapes from his relentless pen, neither the old fools nor the young madmen. Where Dostoevsky really excels, however, is in how he captures the mind of the extremist; there was passage after passage that struck a chord with me, and made me realise that little changes under the surface of progress; humans are much the same as they always were. I’ve already quoted one piece which stood out in an earlier post, but I could have pulled out so many – well, here are just a few:

He’s got this system of spying, in which all members of society watch one another and are obliged to inform on each other. Each belongs to all, and all belong to each. All men are slaves, and are equal in this slavery.

You see what happens when you slip in the reins for just a tiny little bit! No, this democratic rabble with their groups of five is of little use as a support; what we need is a single, magnificent, monumental, despotic will that relies on something external and premeditated then the groups of five will gently put their tails between their legs, and the subservience will come in useful when the occasion arises.

This’ll make you laugh: the first thing that everyone finds terribly impressive is a uniform. There’s nothing more powerful than uniform. I purposefully invent ranks and positions: I have a secretary, secret spies, treasurers, chairmen, registrars, their assistants – all much appreciated and splendidly endorsed.

I’ve found my own data confusing, and my conclusion directly contradicts my original idea, my starting point. Beginning with the idea of absolute freedom, I end with the idea of unlimited despotism. I should add, however, that there can be no solution to the social problem other than mine.

Talk about doublespeak and rampant cynicism; Dostoevsky knows human nature well and could recognise where things might end up. As Cockrell states in his foreword: “Dostoevsky went further than any of his predecessors and contemporaries with his insights into the psychology of terrorism, his depiction of what he saw as the catastrophic consequences of atheism and his prescient vision of a society driven to the brink of anarchy, with the spectre of totalitarianism waiting in the wings.” Prescient indeed! And if that doesn’t convince you, just read the chapter depicting the chaotically funny and shambolic meeting of revolutionaries who are all at odds and all with different beliefs and very probably couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag. It’s hilarious and chilling at the same time; however, as always, when the general mass of people have had enough and start to take action, things begin to go awry. Stepan’s belief in art and beauty seems very naive when faced with the mob…

Don’t you know, do you really not know, that mankind can survive without the English, without Germany, most certainly without the Russian people, without science, without bread, but that without beauty it won’t be able to survive, for then there’d be nothing left to do on earth…

Well, I could go on and on about this wonderfully immersive reading experience but I’d end up risking doing a post almost as long as the book…. 😉 There are so many moments to enjoy in “The Devils”, from the narrator’s breathless and sometimes disingenuous take on events to Stepan’s petulant quarrels with Varvara to the marvellously worded puncturing of the pomposity of Russian society; particularly memorable is Dostoevsky’s fabulously worded description of Karmazinov’s writings (i.e. Turgenev) through the voice of the narrator, which I can’t reproduce here because it’s too long. However, suffice to say he simply dismantles the character’s writing and takes it to pieces in a cleverly done “Brutus is an honourable man” sequence! I got quite attached to the loquacious narrator (even though he can’t possibly have witnessed everything he relates) and on occasion, when discussing “our town”, his voice was very reminiscent of that of the narrator of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (which Dostoevsky slyly references at one point…) But there are tragic consequences for some participants that will break your heart, and I confess to becoming quite emotional at one small family’s fate. “The Devils” is most definitely a book of light and shade, deftly and expertly contrasting comedy and tragedy, and it’s quite obvious to see why it’s regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

So that’s my response to “The Devils” and I know it’s a book that’s going to continue resonating with me for a long time. It’s a complex, immersive, rambling, thought-provoking, deep, funny and dark book which gets under your skin and inside your soul. My choice of heading for this post was deliberate, as the dramatic sequence of events in the book either changes or destroys pretty much all of the participants; no-one really gets out unscathed at all. Having lived in this book and alongside these characters for a month, the devastating end left *me* emotionally drained and exhausted; although reading “The Devils” didn’t kill me, it’s certainly changed me….

*****

A word on the edition I read; this was a lovely new translation by Roger Cockrell, published by Alma Classics (who kindly provided a review copy – thank you). As usual, there was extra material, extensive notes and supporting information so an ideal version to pick. I have to applaud the translator for his epic undertaking and the narrative read wonderfully, as far as I was concerned; it felt authentically Dostoevskian to me! 😀

If it’s London, there must be books…. @Foyles @secondshelfbks @JuddBooks

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Unfortunately for the shelves in my house, visits to London are inextricably linked with bookshopping, and Saturday was no exception to the general rule… My BFF J. and I managed to miss out on our usual pre-Christmas get-together back in December, and so as it was her birthday yesterday, we decided to have a catch-up, a gossip and a general bimble round London (as she puts it) on Saturday – which turned out to be a relaxing, fun and profitable trip! 😀

The KBR tote came in handy as always….

Inevitably there were bookshops and after we’d done a bit of general browsing (clothes, fabric and art shops!) we decided to give Second Shelf Books a look, as I’d been very impressed by what I’d seen and heard about them (and Ali thought very highly of them on her visit!) We rolled up fairly early (we’re morning birds), wondering if they’d be open and even though they weren’t officially, the very nice person behind the till let us in! And what a lovely place it is! We had a wonderful browse through all the wonderful rarities and first editions, with me eventually settling on purchasing this:

It’s by Elaine Feinstein, who translates Tsvetaeva wonderfully and whose biography of Anna Akhmatova I have lurking and it’s a mixture of novel set in Russia amongst real writers as well as her poetry. So it was most definitely coming home with me… ;D

After interludes for getting vaguely lost, stopping for lunch at Leons (with much gossip and catching up) as well as a very tempting visit to Paperchase, we headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street. They’re a stone’s throw from Skoob (which we managed to resist) and I can’t recommend them enough. Judds is a shop always stuffed with unexpected treats and I was lucky to get out with only these:

I’ve wanted to add Marianne Moore to my poetry pile for yonks and this was at a fraction of the price it is online (bricks and mortar shops win out again!). As for the book on Peake, I’m not sure how I missed out on this when it originally came out, but it’s absolutely stuffed with the most amazing artworks, essays and writings, and a steal at the price. Both J. and I left with copies…

Inevitably, we ended up at Foyles – well, how could we not? – and partook of tea in the cafe, while J. finished reading a book she’d brought with her for me. Yes, she’d managed to procure me a beautiful first edition of a Beverley I needed!

As it comes with a dustjacket, I was doubly pleased and now I can get on with reading the rest of this particular house/garden trilogy of Bev’s! Dead chuffed!

We didn’t get out of Foyles unscathed, needless to say. Although I *did* exercise restraint, picking up and putting down any number of books. J. indulged in some poetry in the form of Roger McGough and Willa Cather (two of her favourites), whereas I eventually settled on these:

I’ve been circling the Gamboni for a while and finally decided to go for this new, reasonably priced edition (the old ones were priced at scholarly book rates…). As for the Kate Briggs, it’s all about translation and I love translated books and I love translators so it’s a no-brainer. Very excited about this one…. 😀

That’s it book-wise. We were in any number of stationery and art shops, and bearing that in mind I certainly think that the small haul I have was very well-behaved of me…

The tea is green with mint (my favourite) which I decided to treat myself to from Fortnum and Mason (yes, really!) We were in there to pick up some favourite marmalade for J.’s hubby, and I decided to treat Mr. Kaggsy to some posh coffee flavoured choc (not pictured). The tea just fell into my hand as I was queuing to pay…

So a fun day out gossiping, playing catch-up and shopping – lovely! It *is* nice to live close enough to London to pop up there (and especially go to Foyles, although those visits always bring a sense of despair at the *mess* of construction that’s going on in the area). Now it’s just a case of deciding what to read next… 😉

However, before I finish this post, there was *one* more book which sneaked into the house at the weekend, and that was a volume I ordered online after reading a review of it here. Kate Macdonald picked up her copy, oddly enough, at Second Shelf, and wasn’t so enamoured with Priestley’s grumbling. However, I’ve found his grumpy narratives oddly entertaining, so I though I’d give it a try! 😀

Counting down to 1965… #1965club

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As  you can see from the dates in the snazzy little graphic Simon prepared, it’s not long till the start of the 1965 Club! 😀

If you’re a newbie to our reading clubs, Simon at Stuck in a Book came up with the idea a while back and asked if I would like to co-host – to which I happily agreed! The idea is to focus on a particular year and get people reading books from the chosen date, blogging about them, posting on LibraryThing or Goodreads or Twitter or Instagram – or even in our comments! That way, we all get the chance to discover great books we might not have known about, revisit ones we’ve forgotten and just have fun in doing so and in interacting about them.

And 1965 looks to be a bumper year for titles. A quick bit of exploring online reveals all manner of interesting books to choose from, spanning literature, poetry and children’s books, to name just a few. I’ve had a rummage in my shelves and come up with many possible choices, including new books, re-reads and titles I’ve been dying to get to for ages – but which will I pick?

Frankly, I’m not sure at the moment… I’d like a little variety, and there are so many interesting titles available. Mr. Kaggsy will no doubt provide one of his guest posts, but apart from that, I’m still undecided. Watch this space to find out what I actually *do* read, and please join in with us. I’ll have a dedicated page for linking to #1965Club posts so please leave a comment and let me know – it’ll be a blast! 😀

A provocation – differing views on Venice: Part The Second…

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Against Venice by Regis Debray
Translated by John Howe

Debray’s book is the third of the titles discussing Venice I’ve read in recent months; and honestly I’m not sure quite why I’ve been drawn to them at this particular time! I’ve never been massively attracted to the city, although it *has* featured in books I’ve read like Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight“. My views on the city may well have been a little disparaging, from reading about the mass tourism which afflicts the place and also from hearing about the smelly flooding my aforementioned boss suffered on a visit! Nevertheless, both Brodsky and Simmel laud the place; Regis Debray, however, offers a counterview which is just as interesting as the arguments in the two other books and which is one which might be expected to find favour with me. But I’m not so sure…

Debray himself is a fascinating character. A noted French intellectual born in Paris, his life includes a spell fighting with Che Guevara in Bolivia, a period as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Havana, and even working as a Government adviser back in France. “Against Venice” was originally published in French in 1995, and then issued by Pushkin Press in 2002, with an afterword by Debray written at the end of 2001. Mine is a later Pushkin edition from 2012, with lovely French flaps and gorgeous design, and I happily picked it up in a sale at the LRB Bookshop! But enough of that – what of Debray’s essay?

It is a polite place, where people get depressed but stop short of suicide.

Well, it’s very clear from the start that Debray is declaring himself as emphatically not a fan of Venice. He deplores its artificiality which he equates with a lack of spontaneity; and he makes numerous comparisons with the living, changing city of Naples, the latter always coming out on top. He rails against its falsity, the vulgarity of the place and its occupants, as well as the social-climbing of the latter. This is a Venice seen in the middle of its busy season, swamped by tourism (unlike Brodsky’s off-season visits) and it’s not a pretty sight. Debray seems to feel that the city has been so commercialised that it has in effect been ruined and even if you were to allow for its various attractions, any appeal has been wiped out. Certainly, as Debray makes clear, it’s hard at times not to see the city as a cliché of gondolas, canals, masks and glitter.

Regis Debray in 1970 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The author, as befits someone with his intellectual pedigree, is an erudite commentator and the essay is littered with literary references to everyone from Proust to Paul Morand. However, he’s perhaps being a little disingenuous in his railing against Venice as he does claims in his afterword that it is only what has become of the city, what’s made of it by tourism that he has an issue with. Certainly tourism can set a place in aspic; once it ceases to evolve and change but is (as Debray calls it ) museumised, then the real appeal, the living breathing heart of the place has gone. I can’t judge if that’s the case with Venice, as I’ve never been, but I’ve certainly seen it happen with places I love and I understand what he’s saying (though I don’t know if the original essay is always clear enough about this aspect). Debray reminds us that the Italian Futurists condemned Venice for being fixed in the past, wanting it smashed up, and it’s a provocative viewpoint.

Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it. Like urchins, like actors. With time for a time suspended, we abandon the seriousness of real life for the as-if of a charade of life. It’s like going up in a balloon.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Debray’s viewpoints on art of all types; he’s pretty dismissive of much of Baudelaire, for a start! His insistence on the authentic is almost strident at times, and I found myself questioning just how subjective his (or anyone else’s) view of what is authentic might actually be. If you approach Venice expecting it to be smoke and mirrors, mask and illusion, where is the harm in that? I suppose his point, perhaps, is that Venice is too venerated when you bear in mind what it actually is, which is an artificial construct built on a piece of reclaimed land with a debatable function. Is it art? Is it a living city? Who knows? And like so many places we might dream of visiting, but never do, there is the question of whether the Venice of the mind lives up to the real city; which is doubly so in a place so rooted in illusion.

… here we are, elsewhere and moving differently, on foot or like a cork on the water; no doubt about it, we have passed through from the other side of the mirror.

So “Against Venice” ended up being a slightly ambiguous, often playful, never dull and probably never entirely serious take on “The City of Masks”. Debray is perhaps less seduced than the other two writers I’ve read on the subject, preferring the hustle, bustle and down to earth nature of Naples to the artificiality of Venice. Nevertheless, his essay took a fascinating look at this very individual city; and all of this reading about Europe is giving me very itchy feet… 😀

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