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“… long mysterious words began to crawl across my soul…” #ToveDitlevsen #CoperhagenTrilogy #NordicFINDS

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Although I’ve had to drop out of some reading commitments this month, I *am* continuing to stick with Annabel’s lovely #NordicFINDS event; and actually it’s been a useful nudge to pick up an author I’ve been intending to read for a couple of years, ever since her books arrived as a Christmas gift from Middle Child. The author is Tove Ditlevsen, the series ‘The Copenhagen Trilogy’, and the book I read was the first of the sequence, “Childhood”, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

Ditlevsen (1917-1976) was a prolific Danish poet and author from a working-class background, and the Trilogy has been described as an autobiographical one. Certain, the young girl who is the narrator and protagonist shares the name of the author; born at the end of the First World War, Tove lives in a working class neighbourhood with her mother, father and older brother Edvin. It’s clear from the start that she feels she doesn’t fit in, and her relationship with her mother in particular is difficult. The child is constantly the subject of physical punishment by her mother, and despite Tove’s determination to be a poet she has to hide her ambitions.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.

So the novella follows Tove as she negotiates school, friendship with red-headed Ruth who is younger but wilder and more knowing, seeks her mother’s love and approval, and watches her father struggle with unemployment. The relationship between Tove’s parents seems something of a mismatch; Ditlev, as Tove’s mother calls him, is a left-winger who supports workers’ causes whereas his wife is more superficial, concerned about appearances and you sense underneath the surface she’s a fun-loving girl who had her wings clipped a little.

As the story develops, Tove develops a growing closeness with Edvin, who like her can’t wait to move out of the parental home and strike out on his own. He manages to do this, but the work he’s doing is a strain and I did worry about his health going forward. Despite Tove’s continuing attempts to write, and even hints she might be able to get poems published, her future seems bleak: no chance of further education and the prospect of demeaning and soul-destroying work to bring home money for the family. I’m keen to see how her life develops in the next book.

I thought my poems covered the bare places in my childhood like the fine, new skin under a scab that hasn’t yet fallen off completely. Would my adult form be shaped by my poems? I wondered. During that time I was almost always depressed. The wind in the street blew so cold through my tall, thin body that the world regarded with disapproving looks.

The story told in “Childhood” is an absorbing one, but much of the strength comes in the telling. It’s a window, of course, into another country and another world, but added to that Ditlevsen’s writing. I find it hard to pin down quite why it’s so good; certainly she’s one of those authors who’s brilliant at conveying a lot in a few words. Her prose is crisp and beautiful, full of stunning imagery, and she paints really vivid pictures of her neighbourhood and the characters who inhabit it. Much is told obliquely or almost by omission; for example, mention of the fact Tove shares her parents’ room reveals not only the fact that she has an early awareness of the facts of life, but also makes the reader wonder about the state of the marriage. Despite this, she still has a naivety and as you read through the novella, you watch her gradually come to understand the realities of the young woman neighbour who goes out every night to earn a living, the group of girls hanging about on the corner, and that the dates of her parents’ marriage and her birth reveal much.

… as usual, I’m afraid of being found out. I feel like I’m a foreigner in this world and I can’t talk to anyone about the overwhelming problems that fill me at the thought of the future.

Tove is a a misfit; her harsh surroundings and the narrow aspirations of those she knows contrast with her intense longing for something more, expressed in her poetry. The harshness of her environment is encapsulated in the coldness and distance between the members of her family, and you sense that she is girl desperate for love and approval, which just isn’t there. The eventual development of a closeness with her brother is a spark of hope, but as I mentioned above I fear for his future.

“Childhood” was a mesmerising read, particularly because of the quality of Ditlevsen’s prose, and she certainly deserves the acclaim she’s been getting recently; I just wish I’d discovered her sooner! Fortunately I have the rest of the trilogy waiting and other work by her has been released by Penguin. So despite the fact that #NordicFINDS will end soon, I’m definitely going to continue with the sequence – whch will also have effect of dimishing the TBR! 😀

 

Penguin Moderns 43 and 44 – more recent Japanese fiction plus a bit of a revelation

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When I was casting about recently to see what other Japanese titles I had TBR which could be suitable for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I realised that one of the next two books in my Penguin Moderns series featured an author I’d wanted to read for quite some time – Yuko Tsushima. So it seemed a good idea to dip into these two titles, particularly as they were short and engaging during stressful work times earlier in the month!

Penguin Modern 43 – Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima

Tsushima was a renowned author of fiction, essays and criticism whose work has had a recent renaissance in translation, with two full length works appearing in Penguin editions, as well as these stories in the Penguin Modern, all translated by Geraldine Harcourt. Born in 1946, she was the daughter of the sometimes controversial author Osamu Dazai, who committed suicide when she was one year old. The two stories in this collection, “The Watery Realm” and “Of Dogs and Walls” both seem to contain autobiographical elements, which I guess is not surprising…

You’re afraid of the water that stole your husband, but all you can do is consort with it. It’s always around you. As far as you’re concerned, he didn’t die, he turned to water. What happens on land vanishes in water, and the reverse is true, too. Water is your greatest fear…

“Watery…” is a beautifully written short work which intertwines narratives from a daughter and her mother, and explores their lives, as well as that of the daughter’s brother who suffers from learning difficulties. The narrative is as fluid as the watery images which pervade it, and looks back at the lost father who drowned himself with a lover (as did Dazai) as well as the relationship between mother and daughter and their misunderstandings. The narrative in “Of Dogs…” could almost be a continuation of the first story as again we have a mother, daughter and troubled brother. The story has a more conventional structure and is set at a later date where the characters are looking back to the sister and brother in their younger years, the dogs and houses of the families and the blurring effects of time on memories. In both cases, as I implied, it’s impossible not to read these stories autobiographically.

I’d heard good things about Tsushima’s writing and she certainly lives up to her reputation with these two short works (which I believe aren’t available anywhere else). Evocative, poignant and moving, the stories reveal the complexities of family relationships and explore how easy it is to misunderstand someone close to you. The story of the brother was particularly touching and the dream-like quality of the prose is haunting. A definite winner in the Penguin Modern set, and I shall obviously have to check out her other works in translation.

Penguin Modern 44 – Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias

Well, this was something of a surprise! I have only ever tried to read Javier Marias once – well, twice I suppose, as I had two goes at one book and didn’t get on with it so abandoned it. So when I picked this out of the Penguin Moderns set I had no expectations at all. It turns out that “Madame…” is non fiction; five short portrait of famous literary figures, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and I absolutely loved them!!!

The pieces cover the title lady, Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde and Emily Bronte. They’re certainly brief, and each has a small picture heading the essay, but they’re sparkling, witty, slightly cheeky takes on each of the figures – and despite his often irreverent stance, Marias really does seem to have an affection for his subjects and captures them beautifully in wonderfully readable and entertaining prose. The Nabokov portrait was particularly affecting, as was that of Oscar, the latter looking at his life after he left prison – always something which makes me emotional.

This was a wonderful little gem of a Modern, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m sorely tempted to read the whole collection from which they’re drawn. I’m also obviously going to have to rethink my attitude towards Marias, because if I can enjoy his non fictions so much, maybe I *would* like his fictions – I’ll just have to try a different book to the one I failed with twice!

*****

This particular pair of Penguin Moderns were memorable and wonderful, both great introductions to authors whose work I need to explore further. Plus another read for the Japanese Literature Challenge! Has anyone any recommendations of where I should go if I fancy exploring Marias’ work further??

“All the demons of the modern age had been swept away…” #LifeForSale #Mishima #JapaneseLiteratureChallenge

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Having spent some time in Japan with Uno Chiyo, I thought it would be nice to continue with my reading for the Japanese Literature Challenge, and as I featured in my start-of-the-year post, I did have a number of options – in particular two titles by the great Yukio Mishima. He’s another long-time favourite of mine, and I was so happy when previously untranslated works by him began to appear in English. I’ve recently read and enjoyed The Frolic of the Beasts and “Star (which appeared as an extra edition no. 51 in the Penguin Moderns set). Another new title, published in English in 2019, and originally in Japan in 1968, is “Life for Sale” and so after an interesting, but not sparkling, experience with Uno Chiyo, I thought the Mishima might be a little livelier. Boy, was I right…

“Life for Sale”, translated by Stephen Dodd, opens with our protagonist, Hanio Yamada, coming round from an attempted suicide. As he’s failed to end his life, he now regards the latter as expendable and so offers it as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. Having placed an ad to this effect in a Tokyo newspaper, he’s unprepared for the madness he seems to have unleashed as one crazy event happens after the other. An old man who hisses between his false teeth appears, wanting Hanio to have a fling with the old man’s ex, so that mobsters will kill them both. This does not go to plan, however, and Hanio is then drawn into a complicated plot involving a rare library book. Then there’s the affair of the vampire woman, whose son ends up bonding with Hanio. And the coded messages for Countries A and B. Then the affair with the druggy heiress with a posh annexe house. All the time Hanio has the feeling that he’s being watched. And who *is* this mysterious organisation called the Asia Confidential Service? As Hanio staggers from one madcap event to another, he begins to wonder what his life really *is* worth…

It was a strange, bright afternoon. An afternoon in which something gigantic had been misplaced, a spring afternoon that felt empty and full of light.

Well, “Life for Sale” is a hell of a read! The narrative itself is a rollercoaster of crazy happenings; I hesitate to use the word madcap for a book which actually explores quite dark material, but there *is* the feel of an old Hollywood screwball comedy at times, mixed with some of the violence and insanity of something like Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest.” Hanio rattles from one adventure to another, all the while wondering what the point of anything is. It’s worth remembering that this book was published only two years before Mishima’s attempted political coup and ritual suicide, and certainly death seems to have been much on his mind. Also shining through is his contempt for modern Japanese culture and his hankering for the old ways. A telling part of the book for me was when Hanio encounters the heiress’s parents, who are content with their tranquil lifestyle, happy to wait for their death to come naturally. It’s rather chilling to comtemplate how the book kind of reflects his fatalistic frame of mind and lack of connection with life in the 1960s.

There he had been, putting all his effort into hurrying towards death. But here were a husband and wife in no hurry to die. A scattering of cherry-blossom petals, blown on the wind, lay in the garden. In the pleasant midday cool of a shaded room, the old man’s white hand turned the pages of his Tang poetry book. These people were taking all the time in the world to weave together their own deaths, calmly, as if quietly knitting sweaters in preparation for the coming winter. Where did such tranquility come from?

So Hanio expresses contempt for the modern hippie lifestyle, but is equally repelled by the concept of settling down to a ‘normal’ domestic life with the heiress. He’s a man constantly on the run, sometimes unsure it seems about what he’s running from, and it’s only when he realises that other forces are manipulating that his life starts to take on some value in his eyes – at least to the extent that if he is to die, he wants to control how this happens.

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

“Life…” was an absolutely fascinating and quite thought-provoking read, one I think I will have to go back to at some point and read again, to pick up the underlying nuances as I must confess I raced through the book to find out what would happen to Hanio. I really can’t understand why the book hasn’t been translated before; I know I’ve seen others mention that the new works to appear in English are minor works but “Life…” definitely seems to be have a lot more depth than you might think. Although styled like a pulp narrative, the underlying existentialist themes linger in the mind and end making the reader (at least this one!) wonder about the price of a life and whether we should strive for a steady, productive life or go all out for hedonism!

Mishima published his “Sea of Fertility” series, generally reckoned to be his finest work, during the 1960s and superficially this is a different beast from those books. But it seems to me that Mishima is always exploring the point of existence and although “Life…” looks at the topic in an ostensibly lighter way, I would argue that it’s by no means a minor work. I absolutely loved the book, and it’s definitely going to stay with me – a real winner for the Japanese Literature Challenge, and a really strong incentive to read more of the great man’s work! 😀

Exploring a pioneering woman author for the #JapaneseLiteratureChallenge #unochiyo

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Well, I started the year with a number of tentative reading plans, which I thought were reasonably modest, but needless to say several have fallen by the wayside… Real Life has made complex reading plans impossible – even coping with one page of Finnegans Wake a day plus Durrell to a schedule wasn’t going to work alongside other reading I wanted to do and hellish times at work (my job is in a school…) So I abandoned those two, but have stuck with the Japanese Literature Challenge, and the first book I’ve read is the subject of today’s post!

I have, in fact, been wracking my brains to work out where I heard about this author; I know the book came to me in November 2020 or thereabouts, but I must have read about her somewhere. No doubt all will become clear at some point… Anyway, the book is The Sound of the Wind and the author is Uno Chiyo (to give her name in the correct way of her country, surname first). Uno was born in 1897 and died at the great age of 98, having lived through most of the 20th century, and during that time she was something of a pioneer. An author, a fashion designer, editor of a magazine and a real trendsetter, she had a considerable impact on the culture of her time and also the women of her time. “The Sound of the Wind”, first published in 1992 (by Peter Owen in this country), brings together an account of her life by Rebecca L. Copeland, together with translations of three of her works (presumably rendered into English by Copeland, although that isn’t made clear). As the book has notes, a bibliography and a section of images of Uno over the years, it therefore should be the perfect introduction to Uno’s life and work.

And in some respects it is… Uno’s life was certainly full of drama; married multiple times, often to younger men; bobbing her hair in a Western style and adopting Western fashions; having lovers, being betrayed and negotiating all manner of business ups and downs; certainly, Uno lived a memorable life! The biographical section of the book covers this in detail, exploring Uno’s early years, her marriages and the traumas they brought, how her life experiences informed her work, and how she negotiated all the changes which took place in the Japan of the 20th century, ending up being recognised by the Emperor which gave her formal status as a writer. Some of the things she had to deal with would have floored the strongest of women, so her story is inspiring.

However, I must admit to struggling a little with the narrative of Uno’s life and if I’m honest I didn’t find that the biography really sparked at any point. The book has an academic dryness, there’s something of a distance between subject and reader, and I did wonder if this was because much of the narrative is drawn from Uno’s own memoirs which are, as Copeland implies, quite selective. I ended up feeling a bit detached from the story Copeland was trying to tell and never really felt as if I got close to the personality of Uno. Of course, when the book was published the author was still alive, and I don’t know whether this impacted at all on how Copeland wrote about her subject – but I would have liked a little more warmth in the story, somehow. However, despite the dryness of the tone, Uno’s story is a compelling one and where the narrative excels is by providing a marvellous overview of the context in which she was writing. That background is particularly useful when considering a woman author during the period, particularly in a country subject to such cultural shifts.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As for the actual works, these are “The Puppet-Maker“, “The Sound of the Wind” and “This Powder Box“. All three are discussed in Copeland’s biography, where she gives the background from Uno’s life which informed them, and certainly it seems that the author drew very much on her own experience for her fictions, barely bothering to conceal the real sources! The first story is of a kind she turned to later in her writing career, an almost journalistic technique where she interviews someone for their life story and frames it with a narrative of her meeting them. “The Sound of the Wind” and “This Powder Box” draw on Uno’s relationships, in particular a scandalous one where she hooked up with a man who had survived a love-suicide pact (the woman survived too). “The Sound of the Wind” is rather shocking in that the narrator is a naive 16 year old who’s married off and suffers for her love, yet never seems capable of recognising the abuse she receives from her husband or how badly she’s being treated. She’s in effect blinded by her illusions of love. Uno’s stories are fascinating reading, and interestingly one of the things which seems to have made her stand out amongst Japanese women authors is her ability to convincingly write in the male voice.

So my first reading of Uno Chiyo, both her biography and her work was interesting, and I’d definitely like to read more of her writing. I’d also be keen on finding a work about her that was a little more lively and engaging; Copeland does tell the tale, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it a wee bit of a slog at times. Intriguing, though – and my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge is one which has definitely left me wanting more! 😀

“From any life, what remains? Its poem.” #JeanGenet #TheCriminalChild @nyrbclassics

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I’ve probably mentioned before on the Ramblings the potential issues faced by all readers when returning to a favourite author after a long period of time, and this came up recently when I revisited a writer I read a lot of in my twenties. That was one of my periods of huge exploration of different authors and kinds of writing, and also when I first starting a wider reading of translated literature. Many of the books I read were from the French, and one author I came to was Jean Genet.

Genet may well need no introduction; a fascinating and often difficult character, during his younger years he was a petty criminal, living rough; however, he went on to become a novelist, playwright, poet and essayist, and I read his major fictions and plays at the time I first discovered him (and the books are still on my shelves). However, a recent gift from my BFF J. (which featured in my round up of Christmas and birthday incomings) started me thinking about his essays, which I’d never read. After J. first mentioned his essays, I recalled that there had been a slim volume of these issued in 2020 by NYRB under the title “The Criminal Child”; and so it wasn’t long before a copy of this was winging its way to me!!

“The Criminal Child: Selected Essays” is translated by Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman, and contains eight pieces: the title essay, ‘adame Miroir, Letter to Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, Fragments, Letter to Jean-Jacques Pauvert, The Studio of Alberto Giacometti, and The Tightrope Walker. The essays are varied, from the title piece which Genet prepared for a radio broadcast which was never made, through a portrait of the great Cocteau, meditations on the life and art of a tightrope walker, poetic fragments and a masterly study of Giacometti. Genet’s range was obvious wide, and his choice of subjects fascinating.

The essays are drawn from the late 1940s and the 1950s, and it’s particularly wonderful to have the title essay available as it’s never been translated into English before. Dating from 1949, it was commissioned by Radiodiffusion Francaise while there was a national debate about the French reform-school system; Genet was expected to provide a piece exposing the horrors of the system and condemning it, but instead wrote a radical piece praising the system, celebrating the private language the criminals used and the rituals undertaken there. As an early celebration of those who stand outside of society and its normals, the essay is groundbreaking.

…We violently refuse this compromise and come to claim our rights over a poet who is not light, but serious. We deny Jean Cocteau the stupid title of “enchanter”: we declare him “enchanted”. He does not charm: he is “charmed”. He is not a witch, he is “bewitched”. And these words do not serve just to counter the base privolity of a certain world: I claim that they better express the true drama of the poet.

It *is* literally decades since I read Genet, so in many ways I was coming to writing cold and I found his voice wonderfully individual. His portrait of Cocteau is a powerful yet somehow tender one; “Fragments” is a beautiful prose-poem; and “The Tightrope Walker” a wonderful celebration of an artiste who risks all for his art. I think the stand-out for me might be the Giacometti portrait which vividly captures the man at work in his studio with a deep understanding of his art. Genet’s writing is lyrical and poetic as well as powerful and often ribald, and he’s never less than entertaining.

Beauty has no other origin than a wound, unique, different for each person, hidden or visible, that everyone keeps in himself, that he preserves and to which he withdraws when he wants to leave the world for temporary, but profound solitude.

Revisiting the work of Jean Genet through these essays was a real treat, and of course I had to go and dig out my whole collection to make sure I still have them safe. Of course, I still have unread the essay collection J. presented me with, and also a wonderful collection of his poems which lovely Melissa sent me; both have now moved up the TBR! I was also happy to discover I still have a grainy old VHS tape with a recording of a 1985 BBC Arena programme on Genet – I knew there was a reason I was hanging onto all those dusty old cassettes!

My complete Genet collection. Yes, there are two copies of “Funeral Rites”. No, I don’t know why….

“The Criminal Child” was actually the last book I finished in 2021 and it was a joy to go back to a favourite author. Will 2022 be the year I continue to rediscover his work? I certainly hope so!! 😁

“… we make mistakes. What of it?” #tovejansson @SortofBooks

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It’s been a little while since the wonderful writer and artist Tove Jansson made an appearance on the Ramblings, although a quick search will definitely find you a good number of posts about her! During the lifetime of this blog, I think I’ve read all of the Moomin novels and most of her adult novels; and I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition of her work with my BFF J. back in 2017. There are still a few volumes in English which I haven’t read, and I’ve been intending to pick up one in recent months but other lovely books got in the way. However, like all Tove fans I was very excited to hear about the 2021 release of “Notes from an Island” by Tove and her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietila (translated by the redoubtable Thomas Teal and published by Sort of Books – both are responsible for the wonderful array of translated adult writings of Tove!) The book went straight on my Christmas wishlist, then came straight off again when a Very Kind Friend passed along a duplicate copy they had – thank you so much! And the book turned out to be perfect December escapist reading!

Tove and Tooti (as her partner was known) spent twenty-six of their summers on a remote, almost barren island called Klovharun, located in the Gulf of Finland. Rather radically, Jansson was in her late forties when the cabin on the island was first built, and the women had help from a maverick seaman called Brunstrom. Each summer, the two women would eacape to their island to paint and write, living their life in solitude, surrounded by the sea. “Notes…” is a book that tells the story of their lives on the island, and it’s a wonderful, evocative read.

The written narrative is drawn from two sources: notes and diary entries by Tove, and extracts from a logbook kept by Brunstrom. These elements are enhanced by twenty four beautiful illustrations by Tooti, in the form of copperplate etchings and wash drawings; and the writing and images together make up a wonderful portrait of life lived in extreme conditions. Because make no mistake about it, living on a tiny rock in the middle of the sea was not easy…

So the book follows the initial explorations of the island, the building of the structures, the constant fight against violent weather conditions, the strength of the sea, plus Tove and Tooti’s deep love for the island. These are practical women, used to living independently, and it’s inspiring to watch them construct and build and provide for themselves. It’s worth remembering, also, that Jansson had previously spent time with her family on the nearby island of Bredskar (which features in her wonderful work, “The Summer Book”) so she was no stranger to island living. However, compared with the latter island, on which vegetation grew and which was easily accessible by boat, Klovarhun was an austere setting. Nevertheless, the women lived there until they were in their seventies and felt it was no longer safe to do so. The closing pages, where they leave their island, are quite heartbreaking.

So, I would never again fish. Never again throw dishwater in the sea and be sparing with the rainwater. Never again suffer agonies for “Victoria”, and no one, no one, would ever again worry about me!

“Notes from an Island” is quite a quick read, but it’s an absolutely beautiful one. The prose and the illustrations evoke the solitude, the extremity of the conditions and above all the power and majesty of the sea. I’ve always been drawn to the ocean, perhaps because my maternal grandfather was a merchant sailor, and I can understand its deep appeal. I’ve also shared that longing for solitude and quiet, away from the constant buzz of humanity, and so I empathised deeply with the book; in fact, I ended it feeling as if I needed to rush to the nearest piece of coastline!

So a wonderful, wonderful book. If you’re a fan of Jansson’s writing you will, of course, need to read this (if you haven’t already!) If you’re new to her, I do urge you to read her work – maybe starting with “The Summer Book” (which is where I began). After that, you could certainly do no worse than to move onto “Notes from an Island”, which gives a marvellous insight into her life and work, as well as allowing a look at Tooti’s lovely artwork. Highly recommended!

*****

I’m counting this as my first read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge!

 

“…Paris’s blood takes on a color that is decidedly red…” #IBurnParis #BrunoJasienski @TwistSpoonPress

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I’m rather horrified to find that “I Burn Paris” by Bruno Jasienski (translated by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski) has been languishing on Mount TBR since 2014, when I picked it up hot on the heels of reading and reviewing “The Legs of Izolda Morgan” for Shiny New Books (you can read that post here). Both of Jasienski’s books are published in beautiful hardback editions by Twisted Spoon, an independent publisher based in Prague, and in fact I read and enjoyed another of their releases, “Severin’s Journey Into the Dark” by Paul Leppin, back in 2016.

As I said about Jasienski at the time, “born in Poland in 1901, his family moved to Russia in 1914 (before returning to Poland in 1918). He was old enough to be affected by the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, as well as the Polish-Russian war, and this coloured many of his writings. During his peripatetic life Jasieński moved about between Paris (from where he was expelled for writing the subversive novel, “I Burn Paris”), Poland and finally Russia, accepting Soviet citizenship.” Sadly, he was executed in 1938, a fact which was only confirmed in the 1990s.

However, it certainly seems that “Paris” is his best-known novel, so why has it taken me so long to pick it up?? Well, to be truthful, this is at least the third time I’ve started the book, and I’ve always stalled at the sections where the protagonist, Pierre, starts to unravel mentally and imagine he’s seeing his erstwhile love, Jeanne, in the arms of every fat capitalist he comes across. However, this time I was determined to read to the end, because the writing is excellent and there’s no reason not to; although I rather ended up with more than I bargained for…

The book (which was published in 1928) opens with Pierre, a lowly and impoverished factory worker, finding himself out of work. It seems impossible for him to find another job, and his beloved Jeanne has expensive tastes. Pierre is soon on the streets, starving and struggling to survive, and then imprisoned. On his release, a piece of luck comes his way when an old friend finds him work in Paris’s water system; but this gives the disillusioned man, still suffering from what’s happened to him, access to a laboratory containing all manner of viruses. Before long, he’s released a deadly plague into the water of the city and the residents begin dropping like flies. The resultant chaos sees Paris disintegrate into a dystopian nightmare, with various characters coming to the fore. There is a Chinese communist, a group of rabbis, disillusioned scientists, a cynical American millionaire and all manner of different groups fighting for survival in a plague ridden place. The French authorities wall off the city, the various groups grab a section each, banding together on the basis of ideology, religion or race, and plots develop to escape the blockade and make it into the wider world. Will they succeed – and what’s the future for the City of Light?

One evening the tide chucked him from the Montmartre boulevards and thrust him against the glass frontage of a grand music hall. A gigantic fiery windmill slowly turned its blades on their axis, summoning the ludicrous Don Quixotes of pleasure from the endless avenues of the world. The windows of the surrounding houses glowed with the bright-red embers of the unquenchable fever burning within.

It was time for the show to begin. The lobby was glassed in like a lighthouse, and around it a furious wave of automobiles crashed onto the sidewalk, only to recede moments late, leaving the white foam of ermine capes and tuxedo mantles, shirtfronts and sleeves on the rocky shore of the pavement.

“I Burn Paris” is such a deep and multi-layered book that it’s hard to summarise, and what I’ve said above can only give a flavour. For a start, the writing is superb; Jasienski’s modernist montage techniques give a vivid visual impression of the action and settings, while the metaphorical desciptions he uses are just stunning, and he brilliantly captures a world which had certainly moved irrevocably into the machine age, with all the dehumanisation that came with that. His narrative ranges far and wide, too; the characters he introduces, most particularly P’an Tsiang-kuei, are given a lengthy backstory and have a real depth, so that their actions are always believable.

The clash of various belief systems allows Jasienski to explore these thoroughly too, and it’s quite clear he feels nothing but distaste for corruption, decadence and the bourgeois liberals in Paris. The working class are always his heroes, and in fact it will be those from the lower echelons of society who will have more chance of making it through the plague. However, Jasienski is not so shallow as to condemn all non-working class characters, and the thread of the story following the American millionaire, David Lingslay, is powerful and moving, allowing the man redemption for his past. The resolution of the story is dramatic and perhaps unexpected, but I shall reveal nothing because this book greets you with unexpected twists and turns all the way through and I would hate to spoil this for anyone.

Like a shoddy machine, the world destroys more than it produces. This cannot go on. You have to strip everything down to the screws, throw away whatever’s useless, and after taking it apart, build it all over again, once and for all! The plans are ready, the builders’ fingers are itching, but the old, corroded scrap iron won’t give away. It has taken root, a coat of rust has formed in its seams, they’d have to yank out every screw with their teeth.

Had I known quite what I was getting into, I suspect I wouldn’t have chosen a dystopian plague novel to read right in the middle of a pandemic, although it’s reassuring to be living in a time when there are proper medical procedures and vaccines to help deal with such things… But having committed to the book, I carried on to the end and it was an exhilarating, often very moving, read. Despite the darkness he portrays, Jasienski *does* offer hope at the end, and the chance for humanity to move into a better, fairer phase. And stylistically, the book is stunning – Jasienski’s descriptions of the city, his use of metaphor, his characterisation are all unforgettable and the book really did get under my skin. There *were* minor flaws; a book written in 1928 does at times use character descriptions that might be a little unacceptable nowadays; and the influence of communist beliefs is perhaps a little naive, knowing what we do about the Soviet regime now. These elements didn’t detract for me, however, and I found “I Burn Paris” compelling reading all the way through.

So more than seven years after I bought it, “I Burn Paris” found its time, jumped off the TBR, and actually turned out to be an absolutely unforgettable book. I said in my (much) earlier reviews of Twisted Spoon books that they were a publisher I wanted to explore more, and of course I’ve completely failed to do that. However, I’m really, really glad I chose to read this brilliant, dark and haunting work just now; not always an easy read, but certainly one which will stay with me. Yes, I know I’m meant to be denting the TBR this year – but I may have to take another sneaky look at Twisted Spoon’s website… 😉

 

Torrid Translation Troubles… #Baudelaire

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There’s a saying that goes ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, and alas I tend to find that can be the case when I’m reading translated works… I’ve grumped a bit about translation issues in the past, and these can be a particular problem when I’m reading from the French; in particular a dual language edition of poetry. A case in point is a recent book which became such a struggle that I actually stopped reading it, although the problem may be more my expectations than the book itself…

The author is Charles Baudelaire, who’s appeared on the Ramblings before; and I *am* a bit of a fan of his work. When I was perusing the Seagull Books sale last year, I initially intended not to purchase from it, but did get hold of a volume of his they’d issued via a second hand site. The book is “Invitation to the Voyage”, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic, and it’s an anthology featuring selections from his prose and poetry arranged thematically, so that works in the two different forms relate to one another. The poems are presented alongside their French originals, but not the prose.

Baudelaire poetry

So I started reading with enthusiasm, but soon began to stumble. The problem is my schoolgirl French, and the temptation to compare the translation with the original; and then finding that I would prefer a different rendering!! This is not me being arrogant, as I would never presume to translate and can’t imagine how complex it is, but there were places where I was uncomfortable with what was being presented in English…

Now, I *know* a literal translation is not necessarily going to be the best, and that any translation of a poem (in particular) is going to be an interpretation. But the renderings weren’t working for me and when I got to “The Balcony” the disjuncture between what I felt I should be reading and what I was reading was too much – I abandoned the book…

Baudelaire is an author whose poems I have in several different translations, as you can see from the book pile above, and I dug them all out to compare the various versions of “The Balcony”; and the one which appealed to me most, oddly enough, was from the Penguin Classics Selected Poems which contains what they call a plain prose translation by Carol Clark. Simply a literal prose rendering, but I found it the most moving and the one which spoke to me most – go figure…

This leaves me with a bit of a dilemma, really, as another slight quibble I had with “Invitation…” was its selectiveness. As I read through, I was reminded that Baudelaire’s one great poetic work was “Les Fleurs du Mal” which kind of is a complete whole of its own. Reading selections from it just felt a bit wrong, but the dilemma I now have is that the Penguin only has part of it so I’m not sure where to go next with reading Baudelaire’s poetry.

Baudelaire Prose

Really, I’m my own worst enemy I suppose; maybe I would be better off sticking large post-its over the French originals, finding the translated voice I like best and just reading that. The danger is that I will always have that question mark in the back of my mind as to whether I would prefer different words; if I can get past that, I may be ok!

Baudelaire has, of course, been translated many, many times and so it may be that I just haven’t found the right version for me yet. For the time being, however, I shall stick to the literal prose translations for a little while (and these are also the form used in my Penguin Book of French Poetry, which is a help). And I can also dip into his prose as I have a number of collections of this too. But if anyone can recommend a translation of Baudelaire they think is particularly good, please do let me know!

A belated round up of some short Christmas reads! 🎄🎄📚📚

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Christmas 2021 seemed to come and go very quickly, although it was lovely while it lasted; and I did manage to squeeze in a few festive titles which I thought I would round up briefly in one post. One was an old favourite book, one a favourite author making a polemical point, and one a lovely gift I received – let’s take a look!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I might as well come straight out with it and say that this is one of my favourite, desert island books. I’ve read it so many times it’s ridiculous, and I’ll watch pretty much any adaptation of it (I’m even convinced by the Muppet Christmas Carol!) So during a particularly trying time over the festive period, I picked it up and re-read it in one sitting and loved it all over again. Unforgettable characters, wonderfully creepy ghosts, such a clever narrative and completely unputdownable. A nasty protagonist who gets redemption and a second chance – what’s not to love? I think I need to re-read this every Christmas!!

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding by Fyodor Dostoevsky (with spoilers!)

Still in the mood for something Christmassy, I saw this get a mention on Brona’s Books, and discovered that I have a copy in the nice chunky collection translated by Constance Garnett which I picked up recently. Truth be told, it’s not really that warm and cuddly (well, you wouldn’t expect that from Dostoevsky, would you?) The story opens with the narrator attending a Christmas party; something of an observer rather than a participant, he particularly notices a beautiful 11 year old girl who eschews the boisterous play of the rest of the children and goes off quietly to another room to play with her doll. However, she’s attracted the attention of an older business man (particularly as her family are rich) and in a toe-curling scene he follows her to the other room and attempts a mild kind of flirting. My skin crawled, I must admit, and even more so when five years later the narrator sees the young girl being married off to the same man in a society wedding. This is something which has come up before in Russian literature, and the famous painting “Unequal Marriage” by Vasili Pukirev (which I’ve mentioned before on the blog) exemplifies the issue. An uncomfortable and unsettling read, and evidence of Dostoevsky’s social concerns.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

My final Christmassy read was a real treat in the form of a lovely gift from my blogging pal HeavenAli. A Christmas Memory is a beautiful little hardback collection of five stories by the great Truman Capote, none of which I’d read before, and they made the perfect companion to New Year’s Eve!

The five titles are A Christmas Memory, The Thanksgiving Visitor, One Christmas, Master Misery and Jug of Silver. The first three stories are autobiographical tales based on Capote’s childhood, with the young boy Buddy standing in for the author. Basically abandoned by his parents to live with relatives in the country, he had a strong bond with a much older cousin who he calls Miss Sook. Despite the vast difference in their ages, the two are mentally sympatico and very close; and two of the stories explore their Christmas rituals, the comfort she provides when he’s bullied and the deep love which exists between them. The third Christmas story tells of Buddy’s reaction to spending one holiday season with his father in New Orleans; the stark contrast to his normal life unsettles him, as do the glimpses of the adult world, but the book still ends on a moving note. All three stories are beautifully written, capturing so vividly Buddy’s life in the country which although hard, still seems idyllic to him, spending his time making and flying kites, and going off on adventures with Sook and their dog Queenie. The title story in particular is an American classic, and I can see why – it’s beautiful and poignant, and a reminder (if I needed it) of what a very great author Capote was.

The other two stories in the book are standalones; Master Misery is a strange and disturbing little tale of a young woman struggling to make a living in winter-time New York, who ends up selling her dreams to a mysterious man; it’s dark and intriguing with a very unsettling end. And Jug of Silver is set in the country again, where a kind of Christmas miracle takes place, and again Capote brilliantly captures his setting and characters. I loved the whole book – thank you Ali! 😊

So that’s it for Christmas reading for a while (or at least until December this year!) Three very different but all very interesting books, and I enjoyed them all in different ways. Now, it’s onward into the new year and some non-seasonal reading! 😀

Announcing Reading Independent Publishers Month 2 #ReadIndies (February 2022)

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Following the success of last year’s #ReadIndies event, Lizzy and I thought it was worth repeating. So to support all the wonderful independent publishers, who continue to spoil us with a wealth of rich and entertaining reading material during the pandemic, we will read exclusively from their catalogues during the month of February.

We can’t read from them all, so we’re hoping that the many fellow bibliophiles, who joined us last year, will do so again. Newbies are most welcome too.

Don’t know what to read? Take some inspiration from the books that were read last year, (you can find it here), or from the catalogues of publishers featured on our new badge.

Incidentally these publishers are different from those featured on last year’s badge – there’s no favouritism here! Any book, magazine, comic or pamphlet, in any language, in any format, from any independent publisher around the world can be read for this event.

So there should be no difficulty in finding appealing reading material. The only problem Lizzy and I can foresee is cutting down our available choices to manageable levels …

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