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“…out of my guts, like one condemned to die, I write…” #MarinaTsvetaeva @archipelagobks

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When Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog mentioned he’d like to host an Archipelago Books reading fortnight from 9th-23rd May, I was reminded that I do have one of the publisher’s books on the TBR, and thought now would be a good time to pull it off the stacks. I think the reading fortnight is not going ahead, but nevertheless I thought I would share my thoughts about the book anyway. It’s a collection of verse by one of my favourite Russian poets, Marina Tsvetaeva, and it’s called “Moscow in the Plague Year”, translated by Christopher Whyte.

Tsvetaeva is a long-time favourite, and I although most of my reading of her poetry was pre-blog, I found “Letters: Summer 1926” which collected together letters between her, Pasternak and Rilke particularly moving. “Plague…” is a very special volume, however, representing as it does the first English translation of verses she wrote during the years of the Russian Revolution subsequent famine. Tsvetaeva was stranded in the city for most of that period with her two young daughters, as her husband was away fighting against the Reds, and she endured unimaginable privations and tragedies. Despite that, verse continued to pour from her pen and the collection of those writings makes stirring, often emotional, reading.

The poems are sometimes fragments, sometimes longer sequences, but all uniquely Tsvetaeva. Despite the horrors of daily living, which seep into the poems, she can write about love, attraction, the heartache of loss, her children, rings, dancing and the past. It’s worth remembering that Tsvetaeva was born into a rich, upper class family – as the afterword stages, she and her sister could have been ladies-in-waiting at court – so to go from that kind of background to scraping out an existence and trying not to starve in a freezing cold attic is a shock to the system. Despite that, and the tragic loss of one of her children, she survived and went on to continue living and working until 1941.

Dying, I’ll regret the gypsy songs.
Dying, I’ll regret my […] rings,
cigarette smoke, sleeplessness, a flock
of weightless verses underneath my hand.

“Moscow…” makes wonderful reading, although I have a couple of caveats; I would for a start have appreciated some notation. Despite my knowledge of Tsvetaeva and the period, for some of the poems I felt I needed a little more context. Although a note at the end indicates that the poems were pulled from a number of sources to produce this volume of works from the period in question, I would have liked a little more bibliographical information, particularly on which verses had been previously published, which were the ones left in manuscript at her death and so on. I sensed a little uneveness in the collection and I did wonder if this was the mix of published and unfinished works.

These are minor issues, though, as the main thing is to have more of Tsvetaeva’s work available in English. Deeply personal, often lyrical and fanciful, and full of wonderful imagery, the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva are stunning and memorable. I’m so glad that I was nudged into reading this book right now, and I’m reminded that I have an unread Virago collection of her prose lurking somewhere in the stacks – must see if I can pull it out soon… 😉

“Book-collectors – they are as deep as the sea.”@BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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It’s been a little while since I featured a British Library Crime Classic on the blog, but I wanted to share my thoughts today on a recent release from the publisher which is a rather special one. The book is “Death of a Bookseller” by Bernard J. Farmer and it’s the 100th release in the series – what a milestone! And it’s an apt choice for a celebratory release, being set as it is in the arcane world of second hand book selling, particularly as the BL have brought back into print so many titles which had disappeared into obscurity and couldn’t even be found to purchase in a used state! So I approached this book with interest, particularly drawn in by the lovely image on the cover.

Originally published in 1956, “Death… has been out of print for decades and has apparently been much sought after by collectors. Author Farmer had a lively life, including a stint in Canada as well as time spent in the police force (which probably informs his strong sense of the kind of way a policeman should behave). He was a book collector himself and wrote a number of mysteries featuring his protagonist, Jack Wigan, who in this book is a Sergeant. As the story begins, Wigan encounters a drunken man on his way home. This is Michael Fisk, a book dealer who is celebrating the discovery of a signed copy of Keats’ “Endymion”. Wigan escorts Fisk home and the two become friends, with Wigan subsequently taking up book collecting in a minor way as a hobby. However, when Fisk is found stabbed in his library, the CID call upon Wigan to help the investigation, as his friendship with the victim and knowledge of books will be of use. A suspect is identified; there is circumstantial evidence against him; and a jury find him guilty, with a hanging scheduled.

However, Wigan is not convinced that the man is guilty. The evidence seems too slight, the man’s motive not quite right and Wigan’s judge of character leaves him to doubt that the condemned prisoner could do such a thing. However, he’s up against a hard-nosed DI who’s convinced the verdict is right and Wigan has no authority whatsoever to investigate. But he’s a persistent man, and employing the help of a ‘runner’, Charlie, he tries to dig deeper. The pair are running out of time, and the case seems no clearer – will they be able to find out the truth and make sure the right man goes to the gallows?

“Death…” is an entertaining and, towards the end, quite gripping story! Wigan is an engaging sleuth, although hide-bound by procedure; however, the action steps up a bit when Wigan gains an ally in Charlie, and even more so when one of the second-hand booksellers also gets involved. Ah, the booksellers! They’re a fascinating lot, and I would love to know if they’re at all based on any real-life individuals or firms! There are the honest dealers, the large auction houses and also the individuals chasing down rare copies to sell on to the rich.

One particularly lively character is Ruth Brent, employed to search out rare editions for an American client (who also makes an appearance); neither of these two is that honest or above breaking the law. Then there’s the wonderfully eccentric Searle Connington who lives with his strange sister and has the imagination to see how the killer may be tracked down. And throughout the narrative are books; rare editions, banned and arcane witchcraft books, the Keats, and a lot of G. A. Henty, the children’s author who was apparently a great favourite of Farmer’s. Having a glimpse into the world of book-dealing over half a century ago is quite fascinating, and I wonder if it’s still like that?

“Death of a Bookseller” was a marvellous choice for the 100th British Library Crime Classic. The plotting is great, the setting wonderfully evoked, the rare books mentioned quite tantalising, and the race against time did have me on the edge of my seat! I enjoyed watching the straightforward Wigan doing his detecting, and the contrast between him and the more sophisticated types in the book collecting world was well done. However, the introduction of Connington as detecting ally was inspired and added much to the narrative – so entertaining!

So I must congratulate British Library Publishing and series consultant Martin Edwards on the success of the Crime Classics; they’ve certainly brought much joy and distraction for me when I needed it, particularly over the difficult last couple of years. “Death of a Bookseller” is a worthy addition to the series and if you love GA crime and books, this is definitely one for you! 😀

“So she lays the trail…” #MurielSpark #TheDriversSeat

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It’s been quite a while since I read anything by the great Muriel Spark, but I’ve had in the back of my mind for ages that I wanted to read her dark novella “The Driver’s Seat”. The trouble has been that I can’t actually find my copy; so in a fit of frustration and irritation recently I sent off for another copy and read it in a couple of great gulps – and what a brilliant book it turned out to be!!

“Driver’s” tells the story of Lise who, as the book opens, has been working in the same office for sixteen years and it’s obviously getting to her. After buying some brightly coloured and clashing clothes, she sets off abroad from the holiday of a lifetime. It’s not quite clear where she’s going or what she hopes to find – love, sex, adventure maybe? – but what is clear is that she’s in a febrile mental condition. The wrong response from a colleague or a salesperson sends her off into temper or hysterics; as she sets off for her journey she forgets to do important things; and her encounters with officials or fellow travellers are anything but normal. However disturbing this is, more alarming is the fact revealed very early in the narrative (so no spoiler to say this) that Lise is going to be murdered – although Spark does not reveal why or by whom…

The book obviously makes uncomfortable reading, as Lise is clearly a woman who needs help; she is fixated with meeting someone who is waiting for her, and every contact is potentially that person. She unnerves most of those she comes across, although an encounter with a macrobiotic food guru on the plane will feed into her destiny. She also spends much time with the widowed Mrs. Fiedke who is waiting for her nephew to arrive; although her treatment of this older woman is often cavalier, particularly when they get caught up in a demonstration. As the story proceeds, Spark allows us glimpses of Lise’s fate and the effect on those who have had contact with her; this foreshadowing is also unsettling. The end of the novella is troubling, if inevitable, and is one of those literary conclusions which has you wanting to go back to the start and read the book again, just to pick up the clever hints you might have missed.

At the Post Office they pay the fare, each meticulously contributing the unfamiliar coins to the impatient, mottled and hillocky palm of the driver’s hand, adding coins little by little, until the total is reached and the amount of the tip equally agreed between them and deposited; then they stand on the pavement in the centre of the foreign city, in need of coffee and a sandwich, accustoming in themselves to the lay-out, the traffic crossings, the busy residents, the ambling tourists and the worried tourists, and such of the unencumbered youth who swing and thread through the crowds like antelopes whose heads, invisibly antlered, are airborne high to sniff the prevailing winds, and who so appear to own the terrain beneath their feet that they never look at it.

Well – “The Driver’s Seat” is definitely Muriel at her Sparkian best, and I’m not sure I’ve read another book like this. There are so many possible elements packed into it; the state of Lise’s mental health; her obsession with meeting someone who’s waiting for her; the twists and turns of the narrative which lead her to her fate; and the shock of her eventual end. I was left wondering if we were to think that Lise willed her end on herself, and the question arises – who actually *is* in the driving seat of life, and should we be applauding Lise for being in control of her own destiny? From the very start of the book, her fate seems preordained and impossible to avoid – not that she wants to. No action she takes – and they often seem remarkably random – removes her from the path that will lead her to her death, which is unsettling for the reader…

I’m not going to say much more about the book, and I’ve deliberately made my comments a little vague so as not to spoil the book for any potential reader. What I will say it that it’s a dark, tense and very unnerving read which left me thinking about Lise and her eventual fate. It’s worth remembering that Spark was a convert to Catholicism, weaving religious themes into several of her works and I did wonder if underlying “Driver’s” were concepts of religious predestination – but I’m probably not qualified to explore that element. However, I’m glad I finally got to read this book; a reminder, if it was needed, what a brilliant and clever writer Spark was. A reminder, also, that I have many of her books still TBR – so there are lots of treats ahead!!

 

Reading Renard – Cats and Kew! @RenardPress #Saki #VirginiaWoolf

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The observant reader of the Ramblings will have noticed my love of the books issued by the indie publisher Renard Press; I’m happy to have a subscription with them which means I get a book a month, and their beautifully designed releases are a joy. I’ve written about them extensively before, as well as interviewing the man behind the press, Will Dady, for Shiny New Books. I’ve covered works they’ve published by authors such as Orwell, Washington Irving, Tolstoy, Sarah Bernhardt and Bram Stoker plus many more – I do encourage you to check out their website as there are some marvellous books to choose from.

Anyway, the most recent arrivals from Renard made an interesting pairing, and I thought I would feature them together in a post. Here they are, and don’t they look pretty??

First up is Saki’s Cats. I’ve written about Saki before; his real name was Hector Hugh Munro and he wrote prolifically before being tragically killed in WW1; despite being too old to be called up, he volunteered to fight. His personal life is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery, but he left an impressive (and usually very funny!) body of work behind and is still very highly regarded. This little collection contains exactly what it says on the cover, bringing together Saki’s wonderful writing about cats and they really are a treat.

‘Tobermory’ is probably the best known story, which skewers quite wonderfully the hypocrisies of Edwardian society. When the titular cat is taught to speak, it turns out he’s overheard all manner of conversations the speakers would rather nobody knew about; and he has no problem with telling the truth! Similarly, ‘The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat’ touches upon the lies we tell ourselves and the public image we project; ‘The Penance’ is a rather dark tale of the revenge of children; ‘The Guests’ and ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’ feature the larger members of the feline family, and expose more Edwardian posturing; and ‘The Achievement of the Cat’ is a non-fictional short piece exploring how moggies have managed to make themselves aloof yet indispensable.

Most poignant of all is the opener to the volume, some selections from Saki’s letters to his sister about a pet tiger to which he was very attached, illustrated with one of his drawings. These and ‘Achievement…’ are drawn from a posthumous volume “The Square Egg” which collected together some sketches as well as a biography of the man by his sister. Although she may have glossed over some parts of his life, I really do think I’ll have to track it down. That’s by the by, though; bringing together all of Saki’s cat-related writings was a wonderful idea by Renard, and this volume comes with their usual notes and supportings information – a lovely little read!

The second arrival from Renard was a reprint of a short story they’d issued previously in the form of “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf, and it’s a gorgeous edition with one of their signature design covers. “Kew…” is a story I love, and I previously made a point of reading it on site when I made a pilgrimage to the gardens themselves. The story was first published privately in 1919, then made more widely available in 1921 in the collection “Monday or Tuesday”, and it’s a beautiful, impressionistic piece of writing. During a hot July day, whilst a snail makes its way painstakingly through a flower bed, a number of groups of people float in and out of its range, thinking their thoughts, discussing their feelings and attempting to communicate. The beauty of the setting and the snail’s progress is set against human issues and the story is a wonderfully atmospheric read conjuring the summer day and the gardens vividly. Needless to say, I fell in love with Woolf’s writing all over again.

The story is supported with biographical information, and such a lovely edition will be a welcome addition to my Renard shelf! The publisher also releases contemporary works, and I was most impressed with “Women and Love” by Miriam Burke, for which I was happy to take part in a blog tour. I’m a great fan of indie publishing generally – hence why I’m happy to co-host #ReadIndies with Lizzy – and Renard are a favourite. Do give them a look – you may be tempted by some of their titles!

Penguin Moderns 47 and 48 – poles apart poetry and prose…

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There’s a palpable sense of excitement at the Ramblings as I get ever closer to the end of my reading of the Penguin Moderns box set! I have now reached books 47 and 48, which means that there are only two more to go after today’s post! How exciting! Anyway, lets take a look at the penultimate pair and see what they’re like! 😀

Penguin Modern 47 – Fame by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol began his journey into the public eye as an artist; first producing drawings for advertising and then moving on to create his own pop art during the 1960s. As well as visual art, he also made films, managed The Velvet Underground, and became a celebrity superstar in the 1970s and 1980s. A number of books were released under his name, and the pieces included in this Modern are drawn from his 1975 release “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”; they were selected by the editor of the PM series and had not previously been issued separately.

The biggest price you pay for love is that you have to have somebody around, you can’t be on your own, which is always so much better. The biggest disadvantage, of course, is no room in the bed. Even a pet cuts into your bed room.

Divided into three sections, Love (Senility), Beauty and Fame, the book draws together a number of aphorisms and thoughts by Warhol on what constitutes those three things. He’s a humorous commentator and I couldn’t help but hear his distinctive voice in my head as I read this little book. Although his writing is often light and humorous, he sees the darker, sadder side of things and his thoughts on drag queens, poverty and the advantages/disadvantages of love are very pithy. He may have put on an inarticulate, vague persona when on film, but I suspect there was a lot more to Warhol than appeared on the surface. A really interesting read.

Penguin Modern 48 – The Survivor by Primo Levi

In complete contrast, PM48 is a selection of poetry by Primo Levi, translated by Jonathan Galassi. The author of “The Periodic Table” amongst many others, the blurb on the reverse of the book describes his as a writer “who bore witness to the twentieth century’s darkest days”. If I remember correctly, he may have rejected that witness status; but there’s no denying the incredible power and sadness of these poems.

I wouldn’t disturb the universe.
I’d like, if possible,
To get free silently,
Light-footed, like a smuggler,
The way one slips away from a party.
(from “Still to Do”)

Inevitably, many of the verses featured are informed by Levi’s experiences as a Jewish chemist in a Nazi concentration camp; and I often sensed a ferocity creeping in here that was absent from his prose about the same incidents. I’ve always felt he tried to be neutral in tone when describing what happened in the camps, but the horror of what happened and the tragedies he experienced are very clear here. Of particular note is “Shema”, which contains the line “if this is a man”, later used for one of his memoirs. Powerful, too, is the title poem which explores the survivor’s guilt which haunted Levi from after the war until his death. And “Still to Do” hints at his wish to be done with living despite the commitments he had. Levi died in 1987 in what was officially a suicide but this has been debated; however, he left behind him a compelling body of work which should remind us to remember the past and learn from it. Alas, despite his best efforts, it doesn’t seem that we’re doing so.

*****

Such a different pairing of moderns, yet both explored, in different ways, the darkness of living and the problems of being human. Although the authors are poles apart, both most definitely deserve to be read and are worthy entries in the list of Moderns. And now – only two more to go. How will I find them? And what will I do when I’ve finished the box???!!!

Into peril in the depths of Mordor… #ReturnOfTheKing #Tolkien

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If you happened to see my end of April round-up picture, you would have noticed that I did indeed go on to read the final part of the Lord of the Rings, “The Return of the King”; really, having adored my revisit to the first two books in the sequence, there was no way I was not going on to finish off the story!

The second book, “The Two Towers” ended on a massive cliffhanger, with Frodo and Sam in dire straits whilst attempting to get into Morder; however, the first book in this volume focuses on the various peoples who will take on Sauron in battle. Rohan, Gondor and their allies will join together to form a force for good. There are sieges and battles, madness and death, and the returning king will dispense healing. It’s in this part of the tale Aragorn comes into his own, taking command as the king he is and leading his party through the Paths of the Dead, one of my favourite sequences of the whole trilogy. Merry and Pippin play an important part in the narrative too, attaching themselves to two great leaders and proving to be brave hobbits. The Nazgul will meet opposition from an unexpected combatant, Gandalf will continue to rally the troops and this section ends with the armies of the good poised for battle, hoping that their combined forces will distract Sauron and his troops enough to allow the two hobbits to complete their mission.

Meanwhile, all is not going easily for Sam and Frodo. At the end of “Two” Sam had to make some very difficult choices, which seemed to be the wrong ones but actually were probably not; and as events move on in Mordor, with Orcs at every turn, he takes centre stage in the final part of the journey to destroy the One Ring. It’s a difficult and painful trek, which will take every ounce of strength and cunning they have; and needless to say Gollum/Smeagol still has a part to play in the story. More than this I shall not say, except to note that matters build to a dramatic climax which is the perfect resolution.

The book ends with Middle Earth settling itself down into a new era; the King has returned, some elements will fade and leave the world, the survivors of the conflict will need to move on and make themselves new lives – and there is plenty of mopping up to do… This latter element is again one of my best-loved parts of the story, with the “Scouring of the Shire” chapter being a long-term favourite – it’s just so satisfying seeing things being put to right on a small scale, as well as on a large one! The ending of the book brings many farewells and is really poignant in places; and the story comes to end surprisingly quickly, partly, I suppose, because over 100 pages of this volume are appendices, which *are* quite interesting but into which I only dipped this time round.

As with the other two volumes of “The Lord of the Ring”, I was completely absorbed into “Return”; Tolkien’s narrative never flags, his writing is so beautiful and evocative, bringing Middle Earth alive, and the battles, conflicts and race to get to Mount Doom are completely engrossing. Once again, I was living the adventure alongside the characters, who by this point have become dear friends again, and I really didn’t want the book to end. When there is closure for many at the Grey Havens, I experienced the same massive sense of loss I always had when reading these books, having become totally absorbed into a world and characters I’d come to love; and I understand why I went through a phase of going straight back to the start to enjoy the quest from the beginning all over again! I shan’t be doing that at the moment, but I’m certain I *will* read “The Lord of the Rings” again.

I arrived at the end of “The Lord of the Rings” convinced more than ever that it’s Tolkien’s work of genius; I’ve tried reading some of his other works but they never gelled in the same way, and I suspect that that’s because of the hobbits; those little creatures, so very human in many ways, give the reader a way into Middle Earth that isn’t there is the grander tales of his mythologies. I do accept that he had a much bigger world and mythology he was constructing around, and in the background to, this story; but LOTR will always be the star for me. Needless to say, I ended my re-read knocked out and in an emotional state, as well as with a massive book hangover – it took me a while to pull my thoughts about the whole experience together. All I can say is that I’m *so* glad that we chose 1954 for the last club as it finally nudged me into this re-read; and revisiting “The Lord of the Rings” was pure joy from start to finish. If you’ve not read the series, I recommend you have a go – you may well end up as hooked as I am! 😀

“…right now the other nations are just cheating us Germans…” #MH20 @MelvilleHouse #EternalPhilistine

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Today on the blog I’m delighted to be kicking off a series of celebrations for the indie publisher Melville House Press on the occasion of their 20th anniversary! MHP is based in New York and issues a wide range of works; on the Ramblings I’ve previously covered books from their Art of the Novella and Neversink Library series, with authors from Irmgard Keun and the Strugatsky brothers to the eponymous Herman Melville; and I confess I still have a few unread on the TBR… However, they also publish works covering just about all of the genres – do check out their website! Anyway, when I was invited to take part in the celebrations, I decided to focus on one of the Neversink titles from an author new to me: the book is “The Eternal Philistine”, written by Ödön von Horváth and translated by Benjamin Dorvel.

Von Horváth was an Austro-Hungarian author, son of a Hungarian diplomat, and his family was always on the move. He studied in Vienna and Munich; began writing plays in German; and settled in Berlin, where his plays were raved about by everyone except the Nazis. Inevitably, the rise of the Fascists led to him relocating to Vienna, Budapest and finally Paris. It was here that his untimely death took place when he was sheltering under a tree in a rainstorm; a lightning strike brought down a branch which killed him outright at the age of only 36. Despite his youth, he’d published 21 plays and three novels (of which “Philistine” is the first), so his death was a tragic loss.

“Philistine” is set in Europe between the two World Wars and the main focus is on one Alfons Kobler, a failed car salesman who dominates the first of the three parts of the novel. The world is in a strange, unstable state thanks to the aftermath of the first conflict and the forthcoming war which is regularly signalled throughout the book. Therefore Kobler, who wishes for a comfortable life, attempts to make his living in all manner of ways, including sponging off women. After conning a poor sap into paying over the odds for a clapped out car, he has a moment of inspiration and decides to travel to the World’s Fair in Barcelona. Here, he hopes, he will meet a beautiful, rich woman (preferably Egyptian…) who will keep him in the style he deserves. As you might guess, things won’t be quite as easy as that…

For a starts, there’s the journey itself; the train takes a bizarre route from Germany to Spain, which has endless changes and for some reason travels via Italy – even someone as geographically challenged as I am can see that that’s a bit silly. En route, Kobler meets a strange and often disturbing array of characters who are xenophobic, dishonest and frankly a bit mad. Eventually Kobler and one of his fellow travellers encounter a beautiful and rich woman who’s also on her way to Spain; will Kobler’s plan work out or will wealth and luxury elude him?

The second section of the book follows the adventures of Anna Pollinger (who appeared briefly in the first part), one of many who found themselves out of work in the unstable financial situation in Europe of the time. Anna’s search for a job leads her to a try at modelling for an artist, which does not go so well. She soon comes to realise that she has one asset to sell, and thereby takes control of her own destiny… As for part three, in this section Anna meets an unemployed Austrian man who fails to recognise her profession. But one good turn deserves another, and he may be able to offer her some help, allowing the book to end on a note of hope.

It has to be said that von Horváth was a very funny writer, and this is a wonderfully dark and satirical book. It gleefully punctures the conventions of the time, and reveals how most of the characters really are philistines, with no love or understanding of art or culture, ready to switch political allegience at the drop of a hat, and desperately bigoted. The drily witty narrative allows the protagonists to reveal themselves in all their awfulness, but it’s never done in a slapstick fashion – von Horváth is too subtle an author for that. In contrast to Kobler and his cronies, however, the author hints at more sympathy for Anna who may be a philistine because she’s forced to sell herself, but as an impoverished women of that time and place really has no choice.

The novel is cleverly constructed so that the three section are linked by characters, and it’s a wonderfully entertaining read. However, there’s inevitably that underlying darkness; this is a world where anti-semitism is taking over, where fascism is rampant in both Germany and Italy, and there are many references to the ‘next war’; bearing in mind the book was published in 1930, this is worryingly prescient. The world portrayed here reminded me a little of that reflected in the books of Irmgard Keun (who’s also published by MHP), and it does seem that Germany in the 1930s was a very uncomfortable place to be. One particularly interesting matter which comes up regularly in the discussions of the characters is whether any kind of ‘Pan-Europe’ is possible (presaging, I suppose, the eventual formation of the Common Market and the EU). Of course, it wasn’t going to happen in the 1930s though as we know Europe eventually pulled itself together for a while; alas, some rather foolish country decided to pull out, but that’s another topic…

As you might have gathered, I thought “Philistine” was a marvellous read; funny, satirical, dark, and very entertaining, I would highly recommend it. It surprises me that von Horváth is not better known (or maybe he is, and I just hadn’t stumbled across him yet). His short life was highly prolific, and as well as the three novels published in his lifetime, there is apparently an earlier (untranslated) one issued posthumously. “Philistine” is wonderfully translated by Benjamin Dorvel (kudos to MHP for naming him on the cover of my copy!) and comes with a hugely entertaining introduction by Shalom Auslander who berates all of our friends for not reading this book when we encourage them to! I can see his point – Ödön von Horváth’s wonderful book “The Eternal Philistine” was a treat from start to finish, and MHP are to be applauded for issuing its first translation into English. It’s a perfect illustration of why they’re such a successful indie publisher and I can only hope my post will encourage you to check it out!

The 20th anniversary celebrations for Melville House Press will be continuing until 2nd June and as you can see from the graphic, there are some great books and bloggers involved; do check them out and explore MHP’s catalogue – there are some excellent books and authors to be discovered!

“…the light is liquid, radiant, heartbreaking…” #rolandbarthes #incidents

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It won’t have escaped the notice of the most casual of visitors to the Ramblings that I’ve written quite a lot about Roland Barthes over the last few years…! I’ve read several of his major works, but I’m often attracted to more marginal writings; so when I stumbled across mention of today’s book I couldn’t resist. “Incidents”, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull books, draws together four essays and was originally first published shortly after Barthes’ untimely death. These are more personal works than might be usually expected from such a theorist, although of course he did write the extremely personal “Mourning Diary“. As the jacket of “Incidents” states, Barthes was wary of keeping a journal just with a view to having it published; however, these are diary-like experiments and they’re all very different and all quite fascinating.

The first section of the book is a fairly straightforward work called “The Light of the South West“. It’s something of a paean to an area of France from which the author came and loved very much and this comes through in his lyrical prose. The second piece, “Incidents“, give its title to the collection and this is very different to the first. In this, Barthes records his experiences on a visit to Morocco; the structure is fragmentary, much like “Mourning Diary”, and this is a very personal work as it reveals the author paying men and boys for sex.

Isn’t the great material of modern art today, of daily art, light? In ordinary theatres, the light originates at a distance, directed onto the stage. At Le Palace, the entire theatre is the stage; the light takes all the space there, inside of which it is alive and plays like one of the actors: an intelligent laser, with a complicated and refined mind, like an exhibitor of abstract figurines, it produces enigmatic shapes, with abrupt changes: circles, rectangles, ellipses, lines, ropes, galaxies, twists.

Next up is an essay entitled “At Le Palace Tonight…” in which Barthes gives his impression of a then-fashionable theatre-house in Pars; it’s a remarkably evocative piece, capturing Parisians out and about and enjoying themselves, thought interestingly Barthes comes across as very much an observer rather than a participant. Finally, there’s “Evenings in Paris“, a series of journal entries recording Barthes’ experiences as an older gay man in Paris; again, there’s very much a sense of him feeling like an outsider, and more often than not he ends up at home alone, listening to the radio.

“Incidents” is a fascinating book, and it was published posthumously by Barthes’ literary executor; part of me wonders what the author would have thought about that? As far as I’m aware he kept his private side to himself during his lifetime, and “Mourning Diary”” was also published long after his death. I suppose you could argue that if an author writes *anything* he’s expecting it to be published at some point; and if we argued with that we wouldn’t have Kafka!

However, I found this a fascinating and atmospheric read, and one which shone a new personal light on Roland Barthes. In many ways, he seems to have been a solitary, melancholy man, possibly because he apparently never publicy acknowledged his homosexuality during his lifetime. His more complex works are fascinating, often difficult though always rewarding; however, these fragments of his personal writings are beautiful and haunting, ranging from his romantic attractions to his love of the writings of Chateaubriand.

“Incidents” is published by Seagull Books, and they’ve accompanied this edition with photographs by Bishan Samaddar. They’re fine photographs in their own right, but I have to be honest and say that for me, they didn’t really sit that comfortably with the text; and in fact at times they seemed to be at odds with it so that I was pretty much ignoring them by the end of the book. That aside, however, I found this a thought-provoking read; a glimpse at the man behind the theories; and I’m happy to recall that I have another five volumes of Barthes translations from Seagull lurking on the shelves! Maybe they can be a summer project… ;D

“…a grand old dame reduced to dishabille…” #myhollywood @BorisDralyuk

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It’s been a little while since any poetry featured on the Ramblings, so I’m happy to share today some thoughts on a wonderful collection I read recently (you might have seen it sitting in the pile of April reads!) The book is called “My Hollywood and other poems” and it’s by a poet who’s made several appearances on the blog, but as a translator – Boris Dralyuk!

“My Hollywood” is his debut poetry collection and it’s been garnering well-deserved praise all round; as well as being a brilliant translator, Boris is obviously a fine poet in his own right. A Ukranian-American writer whose family immigrated to Los Angeles when he was eight years old, he’s the Editor in Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books, editor/co-editor of numerous collections of poems and stories, as well as a lauded translator of authors like his fellow countryman Isaac Babel and modern voices such as Maxim Osipov. “Hollywood” focuses on his adopted home city, specifically his experience as an emigre in Los Angeles; and also those of many other Russians who came to the city during the twentieth century.

The book is divided into four sections; three contain Boris’s verse, and one some sensitive and moving translations of those earlier emigres. As all of the poems make it clear, the emigre experience was a strange and difficult one; going from a rich titled existence in Imperial Russia to scraping a living in Hollywood cannot have been easy. It’s not only the lives of his fellow exiles which Dralyuk explores, however; he also looks back at the golden days of the City of Angels, when the film industry was in its heyday and the glamorous stars of the silver screen floated about in gloriously luxurious mansions. That world had declined when Boris arrived and the crumbling buildings and faded glory he describes is familiar; my one visit to the USA was a month on the west coast in my teens, and I recall Hollywood being very much as Boris describes here.

Intriguingly, Boris uses traditional forms for his work, including the villanelle (of which I’m very fond). His poems are quite beautiful, and the impact of some of the shorter works is surprisingly powerful; sometimes his verse can no more than four lines (“Old Flame”, for example) and yet the effect is stunning, which just proves just how effective words and poetry can be. The translated verses, from five Russian-LA poets including the composer Vernon Duke, are beautifully evocative and sit well, bookended by Dralyuk’s own work. This is a very rich collection; of Boris’s verses, “Emigre Library” was a particular standout, as was “The Catch: On Translation” and “The Flower Painter” (part of “My Hollywood: A Triptych”); but all are striking and often so moving.

“My Hollywood” is a wonderful debut poetry collection and I really hope we’ll see more of Boris’s verse appearing in print. He captures a Hollywood far from the one portrayed in the mainstream media, hearkening back to earlier times when those escaping from the conflicts in the east could find refuge on the other side of the planet. At a time when our world is once again being torn apart by war, it’s worth remembering how previous generations of refugees made a new life on the west coast of America, taking their creative talents with them. “My Hollywood” is a marvellous tribute to their (and Boris’s) spirit and new homeland. Highly recommended!

More than a manual… #mervynpeake #craftoftheleadpencil

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When I was scouring the shelves to find out what books I had available for the #1954Club, there were a number of books I pulled out as possibles that I suspected I wouldn’t actually get to; and “The Craft of the Lead Pencil” by Mervyn Peake was one of them. Peake is a long-term love of mine; I read his Gormenghast books when I was in my teens and they changed me. However, this short work, his take on how to learn to draw, wasn’t on my radar to read now. But there was a DNF for 1954, about which I said more on my closing 1954 post, and the Peake was there and I thought to myself that I probably hadn’t read it since I obtained my fragile, foxed copy and before you know it I was reading it… Alas, it was only as I got to the end that I realised the book was actually published in 1946 – I did get in a tangle with some dates for this club; but I thought I would share a few thoughts here anyway.

I’ve written about Peake before, as he’s an author who whose books were some of my formative reads, and I’ve revisited the first of his Gormenghast books here. As well as an author, however, he was a magnificent artist – his works are like no-one else’s as far as I’m concerned – and “Lead Pencil…” was published in the same year as “Titus Groan”. “Lead…” is a short work, just over 20 pages, and yet contains much to feed the artistic mind.

There are, of courses, many ‘how-to-draw’ books, and speaking as someone who can’t, I’ve never found them a lot of help. “Lead…” however, takes a straightforward view, breaking down the art into short sections of instruction, with headings such as ‘Direction of Light’, ‘Line’ , ‘Minor Shadows’, ‘Proportion’ etc. These sections are illustrated with examples from Peake and he’s remarkably good at convincing the reader they *can* draw; I must admit to wishing I’d had such practical instruction in art classes at school, as unless you showed natural talent you were pretty much ignored. Peake is clear that to draw you need to practice, but to be able to practice you need guidance such as that provided here.

The drawings are distinctively Peake, and so if you like his style you’ll definitely like this book; I know he doesn’t appeal to everyone but I think his work is stunning. There’s an underlying darkness running through both his writing and his art, and even a simple drawing of a head (like the one shown above) is far from ordinary. With so many of my older books, it’s probably decades since I looked at this one; so even thought it wasn’t one I could include in the #1954Club, I’m so glad I was nudged into picking it up. I’ve been enjoying reconnecting with authors from my earlier years, and I rather think I’d need to recommence my re-read of the Gormenghast books sooner rather than later! 😀

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