Back into the Swing of Things

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Getting my head round book reviews has not been uppermost in my mind lately, owing to life rather getting in the way of everything. But I *have* been reading (books having always been my coping mechanism) and I thought I would catch up with a couple of very disparate books I encountered recently.

Paris Tales ed Helen Constantine

paris tales

I read and loved Constantine’s “Moscow Tales” collection earlier this year, so it was a cinch that I’d want to follow up with her volume about Paris. I’ve not yet made it over the channel to the City of Light (though that’s on the bucket list) but I do have an eternal fascination with it, alongside my love of French authors). And “Paris Tales” is stuffed full of delights.

The book is structured around the various arrondissements (or districts of the city) and there’s a little map in the back showing which area relates to which story. Each tale has an individual photograph at the start to illustrate it, and it’s touches like these (and the quality printing/paper) which help to make the books in this series so special. “Paris” contains two works by Maupassant, who I’ve been meaning to read for decades and the first (which also opens the book), entitled “Nightmare”, is gripping and actually really scary. There are short texts by the always-wonderful Colette, which cover Montmartre and nature in Paris. And the book also has a story by my beloved Georges Perec, “The Runaway”. I’ve read the latter before but the impact isn’t lessened at all on revisiting this incredibly moving autobiographical tale of a young boy adrift in Paris – the ending is particularly emotive. There are also pieces by Gerard de Nerval, Balzac and Zola (to name but a few), all excellent.


But one of the joys of these collections is encountering authors new to you, and there were several here that I really enjoyed. However, the most stunning was “Blind Experiment” by Hugo Marsan; wonderfully written, evocative and going where you least expected it, this was one of those stories that took your breath away and sent you back to read over it again. I shan’t say much about the actual plot (with short stories, there’s such a risk of giving too much away ), but I’d urge any fiction lover to read it.

“Paris Tales” was perhaps not quite so strong a collection as the Moscow volume but still extremely enjoyable and I particularly loved discovering the Marsan story. Constantine’s collected together a wonderful and vivid set of stories and I’m even more eager to explore further cities, as I know several more volumes are available…. :)

Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars

dan yack

So when was it that Blaise Cendrars first strolled into my line of vision? I can’t recall – but I suspect it was in the 1980s, in my first flush of big reading. Certainly, I’m sure I had his “Moragavaine” on my wish list at the time, but I couldn’t tell you if I read it. Nevertheless, when I was browsing the Peter Owen Modern Classics list recently (as you do) I spotted a book of his called “Dan Yack”. The blurb sounded absurd and entertaining, so after a little browsing and clicking it was on its way to me.

Cendrars is an odd character (just check out his Wikipedia entry!) Briefly, he was of mixed Scottish and Swiss descent, running away at fifteen to travel the world having a series of picaresque adventures. And indeed, the titular character of this book seems to do much the same thing! The story opens in pre-WW1 St. Petersburg, where Dan has been abandoned by his lover, Hedwige. Wandering drunkenly into the Stray Dog nightclub, where Teffi is performing bawdy lyrics onstage, he passes out under a table only to come round listening to the conversations of the three men at the table – Arkadie Goischman, a Jewish poet; Ivan Sabakov, a peasant sculptor; and Andre Lamont, a French musician.

Yack is a very, very rich man and the three men are poor; on an impulse, he proposes a voyage round the world via the Antarctic, and amazingly enough all three agree. They set sail on a boat called the Green Star, and all goes (relatively) well until they reach pack ice and are put ashore on an island to wait out the long, dark polar winter. And it is here that things start to fall apart…


There are plentiful supplies of the superficial objects they need to physically survive the dark winter; but the four men are thrown back upon themselves and this is what causes the cracks to show. Each man becomes more and more eccentric, with their idiosyncracies becoming more pronounced and their behaviour more erratic. Gradually each man’s psyche disintegrates and whether they will all make it to the end of the winter is unclear.

It’s a wild tale, and Yack is a strange and wonderful creation; obsessed with gramophone records and his monocle, pining over Hedwige, his behaviour is often reckless to say the least. Goischman, Sabakov and Lamont are larger-than-life, caricatures perhaps, but representing the arts – one wonders whether Cendrars was commenting on the nature of art and whether or not it’s necessary to survival. The story is dramatic and unexpected, visceral in places, yet has moments of rare beauty when Cendrars’ writing captures the natural world. All in all, a very thought-provoking work, and I already have the follow-up, “Confessions of Dan Yack”, standing by….

(As an afterthought, as “Paris Tales” contains Colette, I guess that counts for Women in Translation month!!)

Home Alone for All Virago/All August


The Children who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

It’s been a while since I picked up one of the lovely Persephone volumes I have on my shelves, and I’m not sure what attracted me to this one at the moment, although All Virago/All August (which includes Persephones) is one possibility! “The Children who Lived in a Barn” was a Christmas gift from my dear pal J. and as usual it’s a lovely one. The book is of course a classic, and Graham was editor for Puffin Books, Penguin’s children’s arm; this was her only proper work of fiction.

The original Puffin cover

The original Puffin cover

“The Children who Lived in a Barn” tells the story of the Dunnett family: Sue, Robert, twins Sam and Jumbo, plus the ‘baby’ Alice. The family live in a rented ramshackle old house near a village, and at the start of the tale their parents are called away unexpectedly by a family illness, rushing off to take their first plane flight. Amazingly (to modern eyes, anyway) they choose to leave their children at home alone, with Sue (the eldest at 13) and Robert (next down, but a boy) in charge of the younger ones. All does not go as planned, however, as the family are behind with the rent and their nasty landlord decides to evict them. A friendly local farmer offers them a barn to live in; the children move in and try to get by on their own, and also to win over the initially suspicious locals. Will they cope with cooking, cleaning, school work and the lack of money? Will they defeat the local do-gooders who want to farm them out to various carers? And what did happen to their parents.

On surface level, then, the book is very reminiscent of Enid Blyton, who wrote a number of books about children managing on their own (“The Secret Island” springs to mind instantly). However, there are differences: “Barn” comes across as having a much more adult perspective, and unlike many of the Blytons (which often involve children running away), these youngsters are staying put and carrying on with a relatively ordinary life.

So the chores are divvied up; alas, the children fall into traditional roles and Sue ends up with most of the domestics (which *did* rankle a little); but they all have tasks, they all learn to pull together and have adventures along the way. Their relationship with the villagers improves, the do-gooders get their comeuppance and at the end equilibrium returns. There *are* a few strange gaps in the story, particularly dealing with the Dunnett parents – their rushed departure and sudden return does rather stretch credibility a teeny bit in a book that’s striving to be more realistic than the usual childhood fare. And although the central character of Sue is believable and well-drawn, the rest of the family are perhaps less developed – Robert is stolid, Sam and Jumbo naughty and it was probably the whiney and selfish youngest, Alice, who really stood out in her own right alongside Sue.

Lovely Persephone endpaper

Lovely Persephone endpaper

Nevertheless, these are minor niggles, because I really enjoyed my read of this novel. Like so many Persephones, one of the most rewarding things about this book is the glimpse it gives us into the past. We take our mod cons so much for granted, and the thought of getting up at 4 a.m. on a Monday morning to hand-wash the family clothes and linen is terrifying. It’s staggering what housekeeping involved back in the 1950s and watching the children struggling to deal with endless cooking, cleaning, shopping and account-keeping alongside going to school is quite an eye-opener.

The book as a physical object is, of course, a delight. It comes beautifully reproduced with original drawings and I do wish all reprint publishers would take as much care as Persephone do. “The Children who Lived in a Barn” was a wonderfully enjoyable wallow in a tale from a lost world, and it’s really whetted my appetite for picking up more titles from my pile of Persephones!

Leaving July Behind – and thinking about August reading


July is a month that I’m going to be happy to leave behind, for obvious reasons. It’s not been easy, but books have as always been a place to hide. I’ve found non-fiction to be quite a support and I’ll catch up on the reviewing eventually.

August, however, is traditionally designated as “All Virago/All August” as readers of this blog will know and we members of the LibraryThing VMC group always try to read as many Viragos or Persephones as we can this month. I, of course, being rubbish at challenges never commit to a whole month of these books, but I’ll try my best to fit some in.

Interestingly enough, I was browsing the shelves to see which volumes appealed, with half an eye out for translated works to fit them into August’s Women in Translation Month, and I was surprised at how few of my Viragos were actually translated books. There’s at least one Persephone I have on the TBR that’s translated, and so I’ve come up with a collection of possibles for August:


I think there’s quite a nice selection of books in there with a lot of variety and I’m sure some will be ones I want to pick up. Then again, contrary as I am, I may end up reading something completely different that isn’t any of the ones above….. :)

Dispatches from Under the Iron Fist


Diaries and Selected Letters by Bulgakov

Russia in the 1930s was not a comfortable place for writers to be. The Soviet authorities spent much of the decade purging and cracking down, and being in the arts was no guarantee of safety. Many great writers (Babel, Mandelstam, Pilnyak) and other luminaries of the art world (including the director Meyerhold) were victims of the terror, and one of the surprises is that the magnificent author Bulgakov survived the purges, to die of natural causes in 1940.

What’s also amazing is that so much of his work survived; and his novels, novellas and plays are now widely available. Additionally, a lovely recent volume from Alma Classics (which my brother kindly presented me with on my birthday) brings together some surviving diary entries and a selection of letters – all of which are a great joy to any lover of Bulgakov’s work.

MB was never from the working class; a qualified doctor with decided upper class tendencies, he was thrown into the hell of the revolution and civil war, surviving by treating whoever needed treating and eventually making his way to Moscow where he tried to carve out a new life for himself. The diary entries run from 1921 to December 1925; nothing exists after this point as his apartment was raided in May 1926 and his diaries confiscated. Thereafter, up until the time of his untimely death in 1940, we see inside Bulgakov’s head via his letters, to everyone from his wife and his brother, to Stalin and the authorities.

And these writings certainly enable us to follow Bulgakov’s emotional journey through life; the ups and downs of his psyche, his attempts to become a writer, to make a living out of this art, and his terrible frustrations at the restrictions he faced. For under Soviet rule Bulgakov became in his own words “unthinkable”. His plays were going to be staged, and then were cancelled. Nobody would publish his work. He burned the first draft of his great novel “The Master and Margarita”. He tried writing biographies. But nothing worked – he could barely scrape along, he was not allowed to travel abroad and frankly it’s surprising he found the strength to produce so many wonderful works.


Some of the writing here is heart-rending and intense. In one of several impassioned letters to the Soviet authorities (this one addressed to Stalin himself) Bulgakov does not try to hide his views and is quite frank about his beliefs, while desperately appealing to be able to continue his work as a writer or to make a visit abroad (a wish he never fulfilled, alas):

I would scarcely be presenting myself to the government of the USSR in a favourable light, were I to write a mendacious letter which was nothing more that an unsavoury and, what’s more, a naive political about-face. And I have not even made any attempt to write a communist play, fully aware that I would never be able to do such a thing.

In the same letter he bravely goes on to declare:

It is my duty as a writer to fight against censorship, whatever form it may take, and whatever authority it may represent, just as it is to call for freedom of the press. I am fervent believer in such a freedom and I maintain that if any writer were to think of showing that he didn’t need it, then he would be like a fish declaring publicly that it doesn’t need water.

Reading remarks like this, you might be forgiven for wondering how Bulgakov survived the repression of the 1930s whilst many other authors didn’t, and it’s often said that it’s because Stalin enjoyed Bulgakov’s play “The Days of the Turbins” so much. Or maybe it was just that he liked to have a live victim to torment…

The later letters give a fascinating insight into the final genesis of the second version of “The Master and Margarita”. We read about the long and tortuous process of reconstructing manuscript, typed out by his sister-in-law:

About 327 pages of typescript are lying in front of me (about 22 chapters). If I stay fit and healthy the typing will soon be finished. Then the most important thing will remain: the author’s correction of the manuscript – important, complicated and painstaking work, including possibly retyping some pages.

“What’s going to happen to it?” you ask. I don’t know. You’ll probably put it away in your desk or in the cupboard, together with all the rejected plays, and you’ll think about it from time to time. However, we don’t know the future.

Bulgakov was clear-eyed enough to know that his work was unlikely to be read in his lifetime; and indeed many Russian authors wrote “for the drawer (i.e. posterity). Bulgakov certainly didn’t *know* the future, but at least he had enough faith in it to get his works down on paper for us to read nowadays.

This is a truly wonderful collection from Alma, translated by Roger Cockrell. The notes are copious and informative, there is a lovely plate section, and “Diaries and Selected Letters” gives a real insight into Bulgakov’s life, work and struggles. It’s sad to read of his frustrations and difficulties during his life, but the insight gained from this collection certainly will add to my future readings of Bulgakov – and I think a re-reading of “The Master and Margarita” is definitely overdue.

Blurring the Lines


I’m always really pleased to discover an unknown-to-me author and being involved with Shiny New Books has given me a chance to encounter some wonderful writers. A new name I reviewed in the current issue is Leonard Michaels, better known I think in his native USA than here.

Watercolor by Leonard Michaels of his first wife, Sylvia Bloch, 1964

Watercolour by Leonard Michaels of his first wife, Sylvia Bloch, 1964

His novel “Sylvia” has been reprinted by the excellent Daunt Books, and I was intrigued by the premise:

The blurring of the lines between fiction and fact is an artistic trope which is very much in vogue in current writing. Novels abound featuring real people, from Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson in fictionalised retellings of their lives, through to Oscar Wilde and Josephine Tey in completely made up crime-fighting adventures. This tendency somewhat obscures the fact that much fiction has its basis in fact; and so how is the reader meant to deal with a book like this which is billed as a fictionalised memoir?

To read the rest of my review you can pop over to Shiny New Books here. “Sylvia” is a thought-provoking read and it’s clear Michaels never really got over his first wife. Highly recommended – and don’t forget to check out the other wonderful bookish content on SNB!

Pinning down those moments of being…


Selected Short Stories by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is best known for her novels, the writing of which often caused a huge amount of strain to her already fragile health. Her short stories were often written as a kind of relaxation, during or after a novel, and she often seemed to dismiss them, unsure of their quality. However, my memories of reading them (many moons ago) is that they were anything but minor works, and a chance stumble upon a copy of “Selected Short Stories” made me determined to return to her shorter writings.

I first read Woolf’s short stories in a collected volume “A Haunted House and other Stories”, collected by Leonard Woof after Virginia’s death (my edition was a small Triad Panther copy – in fact, most of my first Woolfs were from this publisher). This collected together many of the stories which are in the Penguin Selected Short Stories volume I have, but as I can remember so little about my early readings I thought in some ways this might be like a fresh reading.

woolf stories

And fresh is the word! The Selected volume is a lovely one, with an excellent introduction by Sandra Kemp setting out the background to the stories. The book reproduces Woolf’s 1921 collection “Monday or Tuesday”, complete with original woodcuts by Vanessa Bell; and in addition there are 7 extra stories, in order of publication. The notes are informative, giving original publication dates, background and context plus specifics about each piece.

But what of the stories themselves? Well, some are short experimental pieces, no longer than a page; others are more substantial works; all are dazzling and brilliant. Woolf used her shorter fiction to make early experiments in writing, using techniques she would later incorporate into her novels as she became more adventurous. The short prose pieces are the results of a writer playing with words, seeing how she can stretch sentences into different shapes to catch those moments of being, those everyday pieces of life that seem more vivid that the quotidian.

And Woolf could play with words like no other, using them to draw out thought processes and tease meaning out of the seemingly banal. Some of the stories have plot (“Lapin and Lappinova”, still one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read; “The Duchess and the Jeweller”, something of a parable about how we deceive ourselves and each other). Some are meditations, capturing the way mind flits around from subject to subject, musing randomly (“The Mark on the Wall”). Each is a joy to read, and it’s wonderful to see Bell’s woodcuts complementing her sister’s words, and also to encounter the quite beautiful prose of word paintings like “Blue and Green”.

Virginia Woolf

I was spellbound by this collection and came out of it stunned once again by the genius of Woolf’s writing; her way with words, her spiralling flight of fancy, is truly unique and I don’t think there’s another writer to touch her. Picking out quotes would defeat the object and spoil the effect of reading her pieces, where every word is considered and perfectly placed. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the many books you read, to forget how truly great some authors’ works can be; but going back to Virginia Woolf’s shorter fictions was a revelation, and I’m certainly not going to leave it so long before re-reading more of her writing.

Thank you…


… to everyone who left such kind comments on my post about the loss of my father. All your lovely words were so much appreciated.

It *has* been a hard week, supporting mum and trying to come to terms with things. The offspring and OH have of course been wonderful and although there is much grief, there is also a sense of relief that he’s no longer suffering. Dad had had several small strokes over the years, becoming ever more frail, and seeing someone you love lose their faculties is painful. Mum had taken on the burden of caring for him, and although she’s lost her life partner, she has memories of an amazing life of travelling, living, bringing up her children, all with my dad.


Dad always had a great love of travel and rambling, and we’ll be seeing him off on his final voyage next week. Meantime, we’re trying to get back as close to normal as possible as he’d want that. So thanks once again for your kind words, all.

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