Home

A love-hate relationship #Edinburgh #RobertLouisStevenson @RLSonline

14 Comments

Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Just over a year ago, I took a trip north with my Aged Parent; our road (or, rather, train) trip was to revisit the city of our birth, the very beautiful and atmospheric Edinburgh. My mum had been back more recently; I hadn’t visited for decades; and it was an emotional visit for both of us.

However, one thing I wanted to do while up there was to connect with the cultural aspects of the city, and in particular her famous son, Robert Louis Stevenson. It took a while, but I eventually tracked him down via the Writers’ Museum, just off the Royal Mile, as well as passing by his childhood home in Heriot Row. I came back with a collection of his poems, which I dip into regularly; and of course I’ve followed his journeys through the mountains of France with a hapless donkey… However, a browse online earlier this year reminded me that I wanted to read his little book about our home city, “Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes“, although getting a nice edition was not quite as straightforward as you might expect – more of which later…

… for after a hospital, what uglier place is there in civilisation than a court of law?

Anyway. RLS’s book was published in 1878 and was actually his second work to make it into print. Drawn from a series of essays, it takes a look at the city of Edinburgh and although described as a paean, RLS is not always complimentary about the place – which actually makes entertaining reading! There are ten chapters, focusing on different aspects, and RLS delves into the history and legends of the city, the famous characters who’ve passed through, the customs of the people – and of course, the weather, which is a recurring issue… When ruminating on the effects the climate has on the populace, driving them to either hearth or drinking establishment, RLS is very funny:

To none but those who have themselves suffered the thing in the body, can the gloom and depression of our Edinburgh winter be brought home. For some constitutions there is something almost physically disgusting in the bleak ugliness of easterly weather; the wind wearies, the sickly sky depresses them; and they turn back from their walk to avoid the aspect of the unrefulgent sun going down among perturbed and pallid mists. The days are so short that a man does much of his business, and certainly all his pleasure, by the haggard glare of gas lamps. The roads are as heavy as a fallow. People go by, so drenched and draggle-tailed that I have often wondered how they found the heart to undress. And meantime the wind whistles through the town as if it were an open meadow; and if you lie awake all night, you hear it shrieking and raving overhead with a noise of shipwrecks and of falling houses. In a word, life is so unsightly that there are times when the heart turns sick in a man’s inside; and the look of a tavern, or the thought of the warm, fire-lit study, is like the touch of land to one who has been long struggling with the seas.

Stevenson was only 28 when this book was published, but he’d already started to display the restlessness that would lead him to travel for the latter part of his life. It’s clear that he had a complex relationship with Edinburgh, and his continuing ill-health must have had a lot to do with this (hence the constant grumbling about the weather!) He can be forgiven for being snarky about that, after all, and he obviously still had a great affection for the place which does show through. His writing about Edinburgh is often lyrical, he knows its history well and is happy to share to share stories and opinions on the city, the Scots and their habits. I had to laugh at his asides about the horrors of eating Black Bun, and his pithy commentary on the gruesome architecture of Scottish churches and graveyards was a joy.

Setting aside the tombs of Roubiliac, which belong to the heroic order of graveyard art, we Scotch stand, to my fancy, highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death. We seem to love for their own sake the emblems of time and the great change; and even around country churches you will find a wonderful exhibition of skulls, and crossbones, and noseless angels, and trumpets pealing for the Judgment Day. Every mason was a pedestrian Holbein: he had a deep consciousness of death, and loved to put its terrors pithily before the churchyard loiterer; he was brimful of rough hints upon mortality, and any dead farmer was seized upon to be a text.

And yet, he’s always a thoughtful observer. He’s realistic about the hardness of life in the Old Town, and even-handed in his discussion of the New Town. It’s worth remembering that the building of the New Town, a long and complex process, was only really completed around the time of Stevenson’s birth, and Princes Street, with its Gardens constructed on the bed of the drained Nor’ Loch, was still a shiny new thing. Stevenson was therefore writing about relatively recent changes to the city, which had not always been popular, and it’s fascinating to read his take on it.

View of the Pentland Hills – cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Anthony O’Neil – geograph.org.uk/p/5835135

However, it was the final chapter, “To the Pentland Hills”, that spoke to me most personally. The southern edge of Edinburgh is bordered by that range, and I grew up in a house overlooked by them. When we returned to it last year, mum and I stood and studied them, and she recalled looking out of our home’s window at the hills all those years ago. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of hills and mountains to this day… The area we lived in was the Colinton Mains one, and that of course is a very recent development – in fact, mum revealed to me that my great-uncle’s building firm constructed the house we lived in, which she had lived in with my nana, so I learned a new bit of family history. Anyway, in Stevenson’s time the area was of course undeveloped country, but the following passage caught my eye:

The district is dear to the superstitious. Hard by, at the back-gate of Comiston, a belated carter beheld a lady in white, ‘with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon her feet,’ who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner and then vanished; and just in front is the Hunters’ Tryst, once a roadside inn, and not so long ago haunted by the devil in person. Satan led the inhabitants a pitiful existence. He shook the four corners of the building with lamentable outcries, beat at the doors and windows, overthrew crockery in the dead hours of the morning, and danced unholy dances on the roof. Every kind of spiritual disinfectant was put in requisition; chosen ministers were summoned out of Edinburgh and prayed by the hour; pious neighbours sat up all night making a noise of psalmody; but Satan minded them no more than the wind about the hill-tops; and it was only after years of persecution, that he left the Hunters’ Tryst in peace to occupy himself with the remainder of mankind.

We got about by bus while in Edinburgh (the Lothian Bus app is amazing!) and frequently jumped aboard conveyances with “Hunters’ Tryst” on the front (the number 27 – our favourite one!). I checked out Wikipedia and the inn is still there and in use – so that was a lovely little case of synchronicity and I felt rather happy about discovering another connection with RLS.

Edinburgh Castle from the illustrated Seeley edition

This post seems to be drifting off in a weirdly autobiographical direction, which wasn’t quite what I intended. However, it was inevitable that I’d have a deeply personal response to this book, and I loved following Stevenson round my home city while he shared his thoughts on it. It’s a wonderful city and what a marvellous writer he really was!

*****

As a coda, I do feel I need to have a word about editions! When I decided I wanted to read this book, I did a bit of an online search as I couldn’t find anything in a bricks and mortar shop. As I’ve grumbled about before, if you go on Amazon there are all sorts of odd and nasty-looking editions; if a book is old and out of copyright, I guess people think they can produce random copies all over the place, and there’s no real guide to what they’re like. But I could see no decent, modern edition, so I turned to the rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Club (who can be found here) and dropped them a message asking for advice.

The cover of the illustrated Seeley edition

Their very helpful Duncan Milne confirmed that there was no decent modern volume, so I followed his suggestion of picking up a pretty second-hand one. He recommended the Seeley edition of 1903; mine is actually from 1910 and alas lacks the illustrations. However, archive.org to the rescue with a scan of the 1903 Seeley complete with lovely engravings and etchings! So I had the pleasure of reading a pretty vintage edition obtained at a Very Reasonable Price, and looking at the illustrations I’d found online. Which just goes to show it’s worth researching a bit to find a nice copy which makes the reading experience so much better!

Advertisements

Mapping the imaginary – gratuitous book pics and #utopia again!

16 Comments

A recent post on the excellent Science Fiction Ruminations blog on the subject of maps and diagrams of fantasy worlds from science fiction reminded me that I had a rather old and lovely book which collected some of those together – and this is it!

I was gifted “The Atlas of Fantasy” by J.B. Post by Mr. Kaggsy longer ago than I care to acknowledge (well, it came out in about 1982 I think…) It gathers together an eclectic collection of plans, maps and diagrams of places unreal, and as I was a keen reader of sci-fi and fantasy at the time I was very taken with it. I’ve always been fond of maps – I think it’s because my geography is rubbish and I’m not so good at visualising. Give me a map or a plan or a chart and I’m happy.

Anyway, this rather fab volume is stuffed to the gills with places I have or haven’t heard of, and a quick look at the contents pages gives you an idea of what to expect:

You probably can’t read all of that, but there’s basically everything from Eden and Hell up to Stephen R. Donaldson taking in all manner of interesting locations and oddities in between.

Favourites? Impossible to pick – but at the time I loved having the maps of Narnia and Middle Earth to hand, and there were several variations of each. And of course, you have to love a book that includes the Hundred Acre Wood…

It’s a long time since I had a look at the Atlas, and I would love to share a few more favourites but it’s now so fragile I was reluctant to manhandle it too much. However, this time round a couple of obvious entries caught my eye (ahem!)..

Gulliver’s Travels has slipped onto my radar as it featured in Professor Richard Clay’s excellent “Utopia” series; I can’t say that I’ve ever read the book, although I have a vague idea of the plot. And then there is this:

There are actually a few Utopia images, and of course I might have been considering curating a sort of Utopian reading list recently. And these would help it:

Yes – there’s another copy of “Utopia”, a brand new shiny freshly translated version by Roger Clarke from the lovely Alma Classics (thank you!) And I may have to have invested in a copy of “Gulliver…” too. Utopia or the French Revolution or Russia – where next???? 🙂

Sharing some lovelies from my own personal library!

24 Comments

The trouble with reading anything like the wonderful Ozerov volume I reviewed a couple of days ago is the massive list it creates of authors you want to explore further. However, I *was* quite familiar with a lot of the names, and in fact the book acted as a reminder of some of the volumes I already own but which are languishing unread. And I have a lovely collection by one particular author – Konstantin Paustovsky.

Unknown Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paustovsky was a Russian author who lived through turbulent times (as did so many!) Born in 1892, he survived world war, revolution, civil war, Stalin’s purges, another world war and the thaw, passing away in 1968. Nominated for the Nobel Prize and influenced by Kataev, Babel and Olesha, his sequence of six books loosely categorised as autobiography are probably his most famous. These books, known as “Story of a Life”, are not necessarily an accurate historical document, but apparently regarded as a record of the times and his reactions to them.

Well – I remembered that I have these books; something prompted me a while back to collect a beautiful set of hard back editions, as well as a lovely Progress Press edition of some of his short works. And here they are:

They’re all pretty hardback editions with dustwrappers in some shape or form. Some are ex-library, all have been loved in the past, but I’m so happy to have them just as objects – well, just look at the jacket covers!

I just absolutely love, love, love those covers! Just stunning artwork, and when I’d picked up the first couple of volumes I knew I had to own the set. And yes – I need to read these books, because there’s absolutely no point in them just sitting on the shelves. Maybe that could be a project for 2019…

So thank you Lev Ozerov (and his marvellous translators!) for reminding me I owned all these lovely Paustovsky books. I definitely prefer vintage-style book design!

 

“…sometimes, the heart knows when it’s the last time.” @GrantaBooks #levozerov #borisdralyuk #robertchandler

15 Comments

Portraits without frames by Lev Ozerov
Edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk
Translated by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski

There are some books that you spot on the horizon and just *know* that they’re meant for you; and “Portraits without Frames” was one of those for me. I’m well-known for my love of Russia and its arts, and yet poet Lev Ozerov was a new name to me. I spotted the book in the NYRB catalogue, and the fact that it was rendered by such an esteemed list of translators would be recommendation enough. However, the subject matter sounded essential too, and I knew I had to read this book. Unfortunately, NYRB don’t have the rights for the UK; very fortunately, Granta *do* and they’ve been kind enough to provide a review copy.

This poor book has been carted around in my bag for days, I got so attached to it, so it has taken a bit of a battering…. 😦

Lev Ozerov was born Lev Goldberg in 1914; of Jewish Ukrainian origin, he made his name as a poet and literary critic, and was an important figure in Soviet literature. The verses in “Portraits…” were written towards the end of his life, and not published until 1999 (three years after his death in 1996). In this long and profoundly moving cycle of poems, Ozerov recalls his meetings with the great and notable in Russian arts over the Twentieth Century, and the results are breathtaking.

And I recalled
…the wall of books,
all written by a man
who lived
in times that were hard to bear.

The collection has been edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk (which is frankly recommendation enough!) and is divided into categories, such as “The Poets”, “The Prose Writers” and “Music, Theater and Dance”. The format is free verse – readable, beautifully lyrical and haunting – and each pen portrait brings the subject vividly alive. Ozerov certainly mixed with just about all the great and good in Soviet art, and the fifty accounts of his meetings with them reminded me just how many incredible artists the country and the era produced – even if they had to write for the drawer a lot of the time. Each poem is preceded by an introduction outlining the life and work of the subject; each translation is individually credited; notes are provided when necessary to illuminate the poems; so this really is an exemplary volume and a flawless reading experience.

As for the poems themselves, they really are something special. Each verse brilliantly conjures place, character, atmosphere; each subject exists in their own right and emerges fully formed from their word portrait. The parts build to a whole which is a wonderful primer on Russian creatives but also an incredible work of art in its own right. The stunning imagery of Ozerov’s verse is lyrical and often profoundly moving, never shying away from the harsh reality many of these artists faced. There was torture, exile, imprisonment, murder – yet the art survived and the book is a lasting testament to the power of words.

But nothing in Russia lasts
like a damaged reputation.

The book opens with Akhmatova; it takes in the likes of Pasternak, Platonov, Babel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tatlin, Meyerhold – so many familiar names, and yet also many new to me. And the outside world impinges; there are chinks in the Iron Curtain, when “with a painful grinding” it would part and let an artist in or out for a visit; for example, Andre Malraux makes a memorable appearance (and I may well have gone off down a rabbit hole looking up his work..)

One of the most powerful sections was that of the Yiddish poets. Boris Dralyuk has written movingly about the “Night of the Murdered Poets” and it’s chilling to see how many artists were wiped out on that one night on trumped-up charges. As well as painting portraits of the subjects, the poems gradually bring Ozerov himself to life for the reader; in his relationships with the subjects we see hints of the actions he took to help and support his fellow artists. The introduction sets out Ozerov’s life and work, and the impact and legacy of what Dralyuk calls his “quiet activism” is immense.

How does it start –
the mad day, the mad life
of a writer? What whim,
what overwhelming force
presses a pen into some poor fellow’s hand
and lead him down
through all of Dante’s
twisting circles?

Really, I can’t recommend this book enough. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, well, you can read this as poetic prose. If you think you don’t know enough about Russia and its culture, there is supporting material enough for any novice. And you’d be reading the results of work by a collection of stellar translators; no messing about with Russian books which have been rendered in English in umpteen versions already. Instead, they’re bringing us groundbreaking translations of new and wonderful works, and I for one can’t thank them enough.

Lev Ozerov – unknown photo studio, possibly before or soon after the end of World War II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how I seem to stumble on works that will be standouts of my reading year as we edge closer to the end of that year; it happened in 2017 and I suspect the same may happen again in 2018. Certainly “Portraits without Frames” is an outstanding book, a haunting work of remembrance and celebration, and a book I’ll return to. I’ve ended up with a long list of poets and artist to research and explore, which will be good for my soul though bad for the bookshelves. But as well as introducing so many artists new to me, this book has also acquainted me with Lev Ozerov, a poet I really want to read more of. I do hope there are other works by him in translation…

(Review copy kindly provided by Granta Books, for which many thanks!)

An amble around London – plus, of course, books…! @Foyles @PersephoneBooks @Glagoslav

36 Comments

I often like to pop up to London near Christmas for a bit of shopping and browsing, so when the lovely Ali from HeavenAli suggested a meet up and a trip to the Persephone Shop, how could I resist? We settled on 1st December as that avoided hideous engineering work issues on the train for me (I’m still recovering from September’s issues) and another lovely friend, Claire from the LibraryThing Virago group, joined us too.

I do enjoy a train journey with a coffee and a book!

I got up to London ridiculously early thanks to having to get a train at silly o’clock to get a cheap fare. So it would have been rude not to pop over to the kikki.k shop in Covent Garden and indulge in a little sale stationery – I do love stationery, and their ridiculously cheap traveller’s notebook refills will fit beautifully in my Webster’s Pages organiser! 😁

Before meeting the others I popped into Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes on the Charing Cross Road (they seem to be the last bastions of second-hand bookselling there) and might have come away with these…

The Flora Tristan Virago was essential as I have her London Journals but not this one; and the Leopardi intrigued me, although I know little about him.

And then it was onwards to Foyles and meeting up with the lovely ladies! There was a lot of browsing and temptation, but in the end I came away with only three slim volumes (one of which I cannot show here as it’s a Christmas gift!) The Lem was irresistible as was the small poetry collection – I have no willpower…

We lunched in a nearby Nero (which catered for all our dietary needs including my vegan requirements!) and here I developed a bag crisis, when the zip on my new backpack completely died. Memo to self – never trust a Primark backpack… 😡 Fortunately, I had the trusty KBR tote with me, but it’s not so huge, and although I had a paper kikki.k bag I didn’t trust it to last the day out. So it was back to Foyles to follow Ali’s example and purchase one of their lovely and very sturdy tote bags – as you can see it’s substantial and attractive so was the perfect solution!

After the bag drama, we headed off to the Persephone shop (with a dangerous detour to the Bloomsbury Oxfam – I escaped unscathed, although Ali and Claire didn’t!) The Persephone Shop is, of course, always a delight and Lambs Conduit Street looked lovely and festive as we arrived. Ali and Claire had both come with lists; I was being restrained however as I’d put the Persephones I want on Christmas lists, so I didn’t dare buy any books there (which was very difficult!) So I restricted myself to an art card and some endpapers from the books to use in crafty ways!

After shopping, we repaired to a local cafe for coffees and cakes (vegan) and a good old book gossip, which was just lovely, before wending our various ways home.

Very weird-looking vegan pastry that actually tasted yummy!

So a lovely day out in the Big Smoke, with a little shopping, bookishness and good company – the perfect start to December, and thanks for your company, ladies! 😁

*****

Inevitably, however, there have been other bookish arrivals this week….

First up, a couple of images I shared on social media of some absolutely lovely volumes received from Glagoslav, an independent publisher specialising in Russian and Eastern European translated literature – so kind of the perfect publisher for me! I was so happy they reached out to me, and I can’t wait to get reading some of these books!

Additionally, I bagged this one from an online auction site because it sounded absolutely fascinating. I read about it on a page of recommendations on an AHRC site, of all places, and as I come from the North-East originally it was very appealing. It’s actually calling to me from the TBR right now.

And finally, this little lovely arrived as an unexpected treat from Annabel (she’s also one of the editors of the wonderful Shiny New Books). I love to share books around myself, and it’s such a nice treat to also be on the receiving end!

So – more books trickling into the house, but I *have* been getting rid of some! I sent four off to Liz this week, took two up to Ali and will be posting one off to Claire. Plus there’s a big box of donations building up in the hall. Is the ratio going in the right direction? Maybe….  But I still have an awful lot of books that are unread! 😀

Sharing the love for Margaret Atwood Reading Month #MARM

31 Comments

I have to confess that I do love an excuse to rummage amongst my bookshelves; so the fact that I managed to get involved in Margaret Atwood Reading Month, and also that so many people have been sharing pictures of their Atwood collections kind of spurred me on to take down all of my copies of her books with a view to providing some gratuitous book images. What I hadn’t quite taken on board was the number of Atwoods I actually own… Here they are, firstly, in a little row:

So – quite a few…

And here are the lovely Green cover Virago editions:

I prefer to get the Green Virago versions when I can, though they’re becoming harder to track down. I read these decades ago, so memories of them are fairly fuzzy. There are a couple of what I would class as Green Viragos, although they only have a green coloured spine, and these are they:

As you can tell, “Conversations” was picked up from the Loros charity shop on a visit to the Offspring and if I recall correctly was spotted by Eldest Child.

And here are the non-Green Viragos:

Some are much older than others, and I *do* quite like the modern style ones. As not everything she wrote is available in Green, there’s not much I can do about it, is there??? 🙂 These two, however, are big chunky book club editions:

The image on “The Blind Assassin” is striking, but I don’t find the format particularly nice.

Then there are the hardbacks:

I don’t think I bought all of these new, although I’m pretty sure I picked up “Alias Grace” as soon as it came out – it’s one of my favourite Atwood books. They’re bulky and heavy to read, but I do like a chunky hardback.

Last but not least are the oddities!

“The Tent” is a small format hardback; “Lady Oracle” is an American edition with a striking cover which I don’t need as I have a Green Virago but I don’t like to get rid of it; and “The Labrador Fiasco” is the Bloomsbury Quid I reviewed a couple of days ago.

So there you are. My Margaret Atwood collection. She’s a very prolific author and I don’t have anywhere near all of her books. Except – I have a collection of her poetry (and I know this because I’ve reviewed some on here) and it’s not with the rest of the books and that’s most annoying….  😦

Some Christmas gifting recommendations @shinynewbooks

8 Comments

I’ve been happy to be a contributor to Shiny New Books since the online mag first started up getting on for five years ago; and last year the editors decided it would be nice if we made some suggestions of books that we’d recommend as gifts to people at Christmas, an idea that’s being repeated this year too.

I seem to have had quite a successful reading year in 2018 and it was actually difficult to make my choices. However, I managed to select three titles in the end which really made a big impression on me during the year. Inevitably there are Russians…

The whole feature has some wonderful ideas for Christmas shopping – or indeed for books you might like to suggest people get for you! So do pop over to Shiny and have a look – you can never have too many book ideas to my mind… 🤣

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: