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“…you’ve made the world…” @sublunaryeds #rilke

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I have to confess to having been in a little bit of a reading slump recently; I read very intensely the wonderful book “Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me”, which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books, and it left me with such a book hangover that I’ve struggled to know what else to pick up. “Adolphe” was a pleasant distraction, and after that I decided to let my grasshopper mind settle for a little while on some poetry – a slim and fascinating collection by that wonderful versifier, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Here I need to add another confession; although I’ve read Rilke’s fiction and letters as well as a book about his time in Paris, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down with his poetic works… Which is a bit shocking, really.  So “The Voice and Other Poems”, translated by Kistofor Minta and part of my subscription to Sublunary Editions, was just right to pick up at the moment and rectify this.

This dual language collection brings together what the translator describes works which contrast with Rilke’s “thing-poems”; I’m of course not well-versed (hah!) enough to comment, but what I can say is that the works here were very beautiful and memorable. Most are drawn from the collection “The Voices”, where the poet speaks in the voice of others, such as the beggar, the blind man, the orphan, the leper and so on. Particularly striking was “The Song of the Suicide”:

They hold out the spoon to me,
The spoon of life;
No, I want and I want no more,
Let me spew myself up.

Other works are drawn from “The Book of Images” and “New Poems (1907-19080”; all somehow suggest people struggling and suffering yet somehow surviving; and all linger in the mind. “The Prisoner” was another standout, with its opening lines:

My hand has only one
gesture – I frighten them off with it;
Onto ancient stones,
drops fall from dank rocks above.

A work like “Girl’s Lament” demonstrates that very little changes in the world, as children quarrel and pick sides in their games; and “The Song of the Widow” was heartbreaking:

…we both had nothing but patience;
but Death has none.
I saw him coming (how wickedly he came),
and I watched as he took and took:
there was nothing that belonged to me.

I often find poetry very hard to write about, and I couldn’t honestly say I understand the meaning behind all of these verses. However, I did love reading them, once again wallowing in the beautiful sound of words. “The Voices…” has really whetted my appetite for Rilke’s poetry and I think instead of reading round the edges of his writings, I need to dive in and explore much more of his verse. This was the perfect read for an unsettled brain!

“Love is but a luminous point…” #adolphe #benjaminconstant @riverrunbooks

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Books tend to come into the Ramblings from all sorts of directions; a case in point being the title featuring on the blog today. “Adolphe” by Benjamin Constant is a work from 1816 which was reissued in 2021 by riverrun editions. My copy came via (I think) a Twitter giveaway and it turned out to be a fascinating read! Constant himself is an intriguing figure; a political activist and writer on political theory and religion, he was involved in the French revolution of 1795, then spent much time over the following decades switching allegiance to and from Napoleon, fleeing France and returning to it, and even supporting Louis Philippe I during the revolution of 1830! A very lively life indeed!

“Adolphe” was Constant’s only novel to make it into print during his lifetime, and has a somewhat convoluted history. After its publication in 1816, the author faced all kinds of accusations that the book was based on real people and events, and it was seen as a kind of act of revenge on his previous lover, Madame de Stael. The book had originally been published in French in 1816 by the Bond Street bookseller, Henry Colburn; the 1816 English translation by Alexander Walker was issued in 1817 in Philadelphia; and the version here is based on that edition. As well as the original text itself, it also includes prefaces to the second and third edition, plus a passage excised from the 1816 edition and restored to that of 1824. A book with a complex time-line, then!

On to the work itself. “Adolphe” presents itself as a ‘found’ text, handed to a stranger who then decides to publish it. The first person narrator, Adolphe himself, tells the story of his affair with his older lover, Ellenore; the Polish mistress of the Comte de P***, she has worked hard to get herself slightly accepted by society, and has children with the Comte. Into her life comes the alienated Adolphe, melancholy and introverted; and inspired by the affair of a friend, he decides that he should try his hand at seduction, settling on Ellenore. To be honest, she’s not the obvious choice; ten years older than him, and yoked to the Comte by bonds of loyalty and the many travails they have gone through, she does resist him at first. And the more she resists, the more he convinces himself he loves her. Inevitably, once he’s won through her reserve and she’s fallen in love with him, his ardour cools. Thus begins the emotional tug-of-war between the two which will lead to her leaving her security behind, to Adolphe vascillating between the demands of lover and family and duty, and ultimately to tragedy. More than that I will not say…

Whoever had read my heart in her absence, would have taken me for a cold and unfeeling seducer. Whoever had seen me at her side, would have believed he discovered in me a lover inexperienced, interdicted, and impassioned. They would have been equally deceived in these two opinions. There is no complete unity in man; and scarce anyone is entirely sincere, or entirely deceitful.

“Adolphe” was an intense and engrossing read, full of angst and emotion and duels and high dudgeon! I was reminded in places of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the authors of the time didn’t shy away from dealing with deeply romantic scenarios; in fact, it’s notable that we read much more about the emotions and the angst of the characters, with the settings and locations getting scant mention. The focus is on humans and their passions; the setting could be anywhere.

The riverrun edition is edited, with a preface by Richard Sieburth and this too makes fascinating reading. He provides background information about Constant, his relationships with women, and the inspiration behind “Adolphe”, all of which adds to the reading experience. He also draws parallels with the Byron/Shelley menage who were at the time writing at the Villa Diodati, which was unexpected. Most interestingly, he makes a strong case for the Walker translation being the best one to read; although there have been more recent versions (Leonard Tancock in 1964, and Margaret Mauldon in 2001), Sieburth is of the opinion that Walker’s is a more accurate rendering, and notes that the later translators have for example added quotation marks to the speech in the novel, whereas Constant explicitly excised these from both editions of the book he oversaw. That kind of sells me on this version…

So a slightly unexpected arrival, and one which turned out to be a thoroughly absorbing and transporting read. The book is only 128 pages long, which is probably just right for prose at such an intense level; the characters and their fate linger in the mind; and the emotions which spark back and forth between the two protagonists do seem very modern and recognisable… “Adolphe” is an excellent read and if you fancy spending some time with it, I do recommend this edition!

 

Drama, humour and mystery in the early days of the war! #BLCC @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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In complete contrast to my last read, today on the Ramblings I’m heading off to WW2 London with another marvellous release in the British Library Crime Classics range. Truth be told, a good number of my favourites have been set during that conflict, and the blessing of having crime fiction into which you can escape is something Martin Edwards picks up in his excellent intro. More of that later, maybe – but now onto the book, which has an interesting history of its own…

“Murder’s a Swine” was first published in 1943, and was the second crime book from Nap Lombard; the first was “Tidy Death” in 1940. However, fascinatingly, Nap Lombard was actually a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife writing team – Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart. Johnson would go on to be a successful novelist in her own right, later marrying the writer C.P. Snow; Stewart seems to have sliped into obscurity. However, on the strength of this mystery, they made a formidable writing team!

The protagonists/sleuths of “Swine…” are Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; and the setting is the ‘phoney war’, that period of time in World War Two from September 1939 to April 1940 when war had been declared but nothing much seemed to be happening apart from a lot of messing around with blackouts, sandbags and air raid wardens. In the middle of this set-up, Agnes, whose husband is away in the army, stumbles on a dead body hidden in the sandbags of their building’s bomb shelter. Fortunately, Andrew turns up on leave, as hot on the heels of this discovery, one of their upstairs neighbours is terrorised by the sight of a pig’s head at her fourth-floor window! This is followed by threatening messages signed “Pig-sticker”, and the amateur sleuths can’t help but get involved. Luckily, the wonderfully-named Inspector Eggshell is happy to have them on board, although Andrew’s cousin is not. The latter, Lord Winsterstone, ironically nicknamed by the Kinghofs “Lord Pig”, is something high up in Scotland Yard and is furious at them getting involved!

As the two detectives sleuth away, it becomes clear that someone in their block of flats is likely to be the guilty party. An old family feud is revealed; there is another death plus more and more frights and threats. But who *can* the culprit be? Madame Charnet, a deaf Frenchwoman, seems unlikely; Mr. Warrender, who works in Government, appears very respectable; and Felix Lang, the trainee doctor, surely has to be too scatty to behave in such a sinister way… With Andrew coming and going according to the vagaries of the army, Agnes getting herself into all sorts of scrapes, Eggshell beavering away behind the scenes to try to get to the truth, the entrance of a lovely young legatee, and Lord Pig attempting to control his temper and get the better of the Klinghofs, there really wasn’t a dull moment in the story! It builds up to a wonderfully dramatic climax (which is perhaps a tad unorthadox, but nevertheless really enjoyable), and the book left me wishing there were more Nap Lombard tales to read!

Waterloo presented its usual appearance of war-time excitement. Tired men in khaki and blue trailed the kit towards the platforms, wives and sweethearts roamed in search of their lovers through the bands of fog. In the buffets glasses and thick china rattled and clattered. The smoke from a thousand cigarettes rose to the vaultings above. Porters swung the trolleys wild just in time to miss the heedless lounger. Men and women kissed and clung, oblivious to the sifting crowds. Mothers, with nodding, wailing babies awake too late, sought their men folk.

One particular joy in “Swine” was the wonderful portrayal of the Klinghofs; as Martin Edwards mentions in the intro, there’s more than a hint of Nick and Nora Charles from “The Thin Man” (which is a huge favourite of mine) and their drinking, verbal repartee and obvious affection for each other is quite lovely (there’s even a sly reference to Myrna Loy, who played Nora in the films). Agnes is a particular standout; given by the author(s) plain looks but an outstanding voice and legs, she’s plucky and game for any adventure. The supporting cast is wonderful too, with Eggshell a real favourite; and watching Lord Pig failing to outdo the Klinghofs was hilarious. In fact, humour is a strong element of the book; although that doesn’t stop there being a corresponding darker side. The villain is really villainous; a right nasty piece of work, and there are times when I was on edge because of the genuine peril in which the heroes and their allies found themselves!

“Murder’s A Swine” has to count as one of the most enjoyable British Library Crime Classics I’ve read; and I *have* read a lot of them, and I *have* loved most of them, so the bar is high. But the combination of wartime setting, fiendishly clever mystery (I didn’t guess….), brilliant characterisation, plus laugh out loud humour balanced with creepy terror, made this one a real winner. I so wish that the Nap Lombard pair had created more books relating the exploits of Agnes and Andrew Kinghof; but they didn’t, so I can only hope that at least the British Library will release their other title as a Crime Classic! As Martin Edwards concludes, this kind of escapist, entertaining mystery must have been a wonderful distraction during the War, and he’s definitely right that it is during a pandemic too…

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher for which many thanks!)

April reading – and whence May??

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I really *don’t* know where April went to; I do think that living under a pandemic has done something weird to time. Nevertheless, it is now May and so I think I’ll have to regroup once more and consider what shape my reading will take this month!

April itself was, of course, brim full of (mostly) good books, and here’s what I actually read during the month:

As you can see, there are a number of chunky ones! Several were for the #1936Club (though I hasten to point out I did *not* read the whole Nabokov short story collection!); and I have a couple of titles to review for Shiny New Books. There was, of course, one dud for me, but c’est la vie – mostly I enjoy what I choose.

Looking forward to May, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to read next. I finished the “Monica Jones….” book last night and have a bit of a hangover, and probably want something of a change. Plus I have a number of review books in the stacks demanding attention, and they’re all very appealing:

Mainly chunky review books…
This one is calling strongly!
Some lovely titles from the British Library

These are some other options – what I’ll pick I don’t know!

Is there anything here which takes your fancy or which you’d recommend??? 😀

“My body was alive with the sounds…” @FitzcarraldoEds #fiftysounds

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Travelling to another country to live and work, with only a limited knowledge of the language, is a brave and perhaps risky thing to do. However when the culture you’re choosing to embrace is one which is a polar opposite to your own, the shock to the system is immense. That’s what author Polly Barton did, and in a recent release from Fitzcarraldo Editions she tells the story of the time she spent in Japan using elements of the language as touchstones. The result is the fascinating and absorbing “Fifty Sounds”.

Barton moved to a Japanese island at the age of 21; here, she was employed as an English teacher and simultaneously was trying to learn the language. Her travels would lead her to periods in Japanese cities and eventually to a career as a translator from that language. In “Fifty Sounds” she tells the story of that journey, but in a clever and unusual way.

Immersion in a foreign language is a bombardment of sounds, until you decide that you’re going to actually do this thing and learn, and then it becomes a bombardment of imperatives: learn this, learn this, learn this.

The Japanese language is a complex one (and even after reading the erudite explanations in parts of the book, I’m not sure I completely understand its structure…) However, the book is built around onomatopoeic words, which are an important branch of Japanese, and Barton uses fifty of the ‘sound words’ to illustrate the sections of her life. So there will be a chapter entitled “koro-koro: the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor”; inevitably, this deals her struggles with the language, even when she was well into her study; and there’s “pota-pota: the sound of red dripping onto asphalt”, relevant when involved in a car accident; or, more darkly, “bishi-bishi; the sound of being struck sharply and repeatedly by a stick-like object, or (infrequently) of branches breaking”.

It’s a clever way to tell her story, and also in itself gives some hint of the diffulty of dealing with the Japanese language. Barton spends a long time in the country; during her tenure teaching on the island, she has an affair with an older, married fellow teacher, Y, which informs much of the narrative. The relationship adds another level of complexity to her feelings about Japan itself, and it did strike me that she was very vulnerable and young when she travelled to the country. The break with Y, moves to big cities, relationships with women and trips back to England do tend to undermine Barton’s stability, and she becomes clear towards the end of the book that she had desperately wanted to get away from her home country. However, despite her willingness to meld with Japan, that isn’t in the end so easy.

From the point of view of language, Barton’s attitudes are underpinned by her study of Wittgenstein and her knowledge of Barthes. The longer she practices and learns the Japanese language, the more she becomes aware of how it is near impossible to translate without a complete understanding of culture and nuance in both languages. This is probably more pronounced where you have countries and lifestyles that are very, very different; but again and again Barton finds herself stumbling and making basic errors when she thought she had a grasp of Japanese idiom.

Really, you are not just translating ‘two words’, but also a broader cultural heritage leading back decades or centuries which those two words conjure up, and about which the average Anglophone reader or listener knows nothing. In order to truly understand – in order to sense things slotting into place or ‘falling to your internals’ as they say in Japanese – you need more.

And despite her determination to become fluent in Japanese language and culture, she begins to become out of kilter with Japanese society, perceiving herself as large and loud compared to the country’s native population. Eventually Barton comes to the realisation that to completely assimilate would mean losing too much of herself, suppressing parts of her real nature to comply with the cultural requirements of Japanese society. The language is tied up with the bigger issues of cultural difference, and it finally comes as something of a relief to Barton to be with people who have the same expectations and understandings as her.

How I imagine Japan – which is probably very inaccurate… (Tokyo – Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) – MuckDiva, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Fifty Sounds” was a fascinating read on so many levels. As someone who is Anglophone and relies on translators to read much of the literature I love, I was absorbed by the discussions of the difficulties of complete understanding and the need to grasp those cultural nuances. And Barton’s story was also an engrossing one; her struggles on a personal and linguistic level, her need to belong somewhere, and her view of Japan always engaging. She doesn’t shy away from approaching the darker side of life in Japan, including oblique references to her own experiences, but is always discreet – and, in fact, the book is dedicated to Y.

So I found “Fifty Sounds” an immersive read from start to finish. The device of using the sound words was brilliant and so interesting to someone with no real knowledge of the Japanese language; the discussions of language itself fascinating; and Barton’s story, and view of Japan, quite unforgettable. Even if you aren’t particularly keen on linguistics, “Fifty Sounds” is a unique and absorbing book and I really recommend it. Barton won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for the book, and it’s not hard to see why.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

A disappointing excursion to the Channel Islands… :(

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If you’re a regular visitor to the Ramblings, you’ve probably gathered that I don’t as a rule read many books which would be called bestsellers; in fact modern fiction rarely appears here unless it’s translated! So you might have been vaguely surprised seeing “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” appear on the TBR in my recent Book Table post; and I was actually a little taken aback too, when Mr. Kaggsy presented it to me as a little gift. Whilst I was impressed that he’d actually found me something I don’t own and hadn’t read, it wasn’t really a title I’d ever considered reading. But as it was a gift, it would have been churlish not to give it a go – and it was very much in contrast to the book I’d been reading which was all about creatives in Paris between 1900 and 1950!

“Potato Peel..” has an intriguing backstory; the book was written by Mary Ann Shaffer, but then completed by her neice Annie Barrows when Shaffer realised she was suffering from a terminal illness. It had always been Shaffer’s ambition to see her book in print, so it’s rather lovely that family completed it for her. The book is an epistolary one, a format I usually like, which tells the story of Juliet, author of a successful wartime newspaper column, who’s struggling with writing in the immediate post-War period. By a somewhat unbelievable series of events, she fetches up on Guernsey, bonds with the residents, and learns about their past. It’s a light read, if I’m honest, that I whizzed through in one setting, and is a book which in many way confuses me.

Bookertalk has written eloquently here about why she didn’t like the book, and I’m in agreement with what she says. I didn’t personally find the writing particularly sparkling, and the characters were fairly interchangable; but my main problem was the fact that I felt there were almost two books here, and they didn’t go well together.

The Channel Islands were occupied during World War 2, and suffered greatly under Nazi rule (as did any occupied territory, really). Juliet sets out to write about one local person’s story under the jackboot, and as she digs out the islanders’ stories there is some really dark material, which you would expect. However, the love story itself is trite and predictable and for me, the light tone of Juliet’s adventures and the romance don’t sit comfortably with the darkness of the war themes. Perhaps in different hands the book would have worked better, but here I felt it didn’t and I actually felt uncomfortable when contrasting the occupation sections with what in effect is a plot that could have come from a lightweight romance novel. The characterisation is broad-brush; the newspaper reporter Gilly Gilbert was particularly hard to stomach; Juliet’s slimy boyfriend frankly unacceptable; and the eventual love interest, Dawsey, could have been a lump of wood…

Guernsey Castle Cornet (Unukorno, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

So in the end this wasn’t a book for me, despite Mr. K’s good intentions! It filled an afternoon when I was feeling too whacked after a heavy week at work to read anything serious, but in the end I just felt disappointed by it. I know some love the book; equally others feel strongly that it’s not great. I fall into the latter camp, so I’m afraid this one will go off to the charity shop when they’re collecting again! ;D

On My Book Table… 11 – regrouping!

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Well – that was a week that was, as they say! The #1936Club was such a success, but very busy and I went off at a tangent reading books for it, when I really should have been dealing with some of the other lovely titles on Mount TBR. So as I haven’t shared what’s on the book table for a while, I thought it was time to take stock and regroup – as well as sharing some gratuitous book pictures! 😀

First of all, let’s take a look at the bookish arrivals so far this month. I *am* trying very hard, as usual, to be restrained – but it doesn’t always work, and these are a mixture of review books and purchases, with one gift!

The review books are the two BL titles and the Orwell (which you’ll obvs have seen me review last Sunday!) British Library books are always beautiful and I could happily spend a few weeks reading nothing but them. The du Maurier was one I came across in a recent book on Literary Paris in the first part of the 20th century; I’ll be reviewing the latter for Shiny New Books, but “I’ll Never Be Young Again” intrigued… Showa, Stepanova and Proust were purchases; and “The Guernsey Literary….” a gift from Mr. Kaggsy at Easter. I’m still amazed at how he manages to track down books I’ve not read…

Next up, review books:

Yes, there are a lot of them. No, that is by no means all of the review books I have in the house… Some are for Shiny New Books and some for the blog; all are very, very appealing. Which will I get to first? Who knows….?

Of course, a section of the Ramblings is devoted to the various Penguin challenges I have set myself, and I have a neat little pile of the next books to be read in each of the various categories:

Technically speaking, these are all short and should be easily read in one sitting. But my reading is driven by mood so I do need to decide where my whims are taking me next!

Talking of challenges, I am vaguely committed to a couple of external reading events over the next month or two, involving these:

On the left we have the first in the Chronicles of Carlingford sequence by Margaret Oliphant. There’s a read-along of these starting on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, and I’m going to try really hard to get onboard, as I’ve been meaning to read these stories for ages. On the right is a collection of stories by lovely Olga Zilberbourg, which she kindly sent me a while back. I keep getting sidetracked when I go to pick it up, but a Twitter readalong in May may well be helpful…

Finally, there’s this little pile:

“Fifty Sounds” is a review copy from Fitzcarraldo and I suspect it may be what I read next. The Arendt biography is also for review; and that whole pile is calling to me very, very strongly… Of course, not all of these piles are on the book table at the same time – it would collapse, frankly – but every one is so appealing and shouting for attention. As I’ve said before, so many books and so little time… Watch this space to find out which book wins the Battle of the Book Table!!! ;D

#1936Club: the ones that got away – and where next…?

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Phew! That was an amazing week of reading, wasn’t it? I can’t help feeling that 1936 was such a bumper year that we could easily have filled a fortnight with books!! I’m really happy with what I read – GA crime, Beverley, Nabokov, Japanese lit and Orwell – very me!!

Inevitably, however, there were plenty of books I would have liked to read and didn’t get the time for – and here are just a few!

As I mentioned previously, I could easily have done a week of just reading Golden Age crime – so many brilliant books were published in 1936, and maybe I’ll have to have a classic crime week at some point in the future! I would have liked to spend time with Simenon and Gladys Mitchell but alas, it was not to be…

I would also have loved to read some of these – in particular, “Greengates” has been lurking on the TBR too long. Graham Greene is always a joy, too, and he has a fiction title from 1936. But there are only seven days in a week and only so many hours a day I can read (I *do* need to sleep), so alas it was not to be! But there were so many other titles – books I already own, like “Locos” by Felipe Alpau, “South Riding” by Winifred Holtby, “The Thinking Reed” by Rebecca West and “St. Joan of Arc” by Vita Sackville-West, none of which I can be sure I’ve actually read. Then there’s ones I *have* read, like “War with the Newts“, “Death at the President’s Lodging“, “Novel on Yellow Paper” (pre-blog), “Confession of a Murderer” and “Bookshop Memories“. The list could go on forever – such a bumper year!!

I even printed out a text copy of an out-of-print Reggie Fortune collection, but ran out of time!!!!!

Anyway – we do hope you’ve enjoyed taking part in the #1936Club and I will continue to add links to my dedicated page. So if I haven’t spotted your post, do let me know in comments and I will add you to the links! Thank you, 1936, for some wonderful reading!

Of course, you might be wondering which year we’ll feature in six months’ time… 😀 Well, Simon and I had a chat, and he suggested we whizz forward to the 1970s for the next club; and so (drum roll, please!), in October we’ll be time-travelling forward 40 years from this club to – THE 1976 CLUB!

Of course, it’s a very different year and a very different world from 1936; and initially, I wondered what kind of titles I would be thinking about reading. However, it didn’t take me very long to track down a number of books which are already on the shelves and some of which are unread… So here are some possibles for those of you who like to plan ahead!

I was pleased by the variety on offer after just a quick rummage – and in fact feel like reading some of these now, so will have to exercise a little restraint. What will you read for 1976? Do join us! 😀

#1936Club – “…money, like murder, will out.” #georgeorwell

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My final read for the #1936Club is one which took me a little by surprise! My love of George Orwell and his work must be quite clear from even a casual glance at the Ramblings. I have numerous paperback editions of his work, as well as a lovely boxed collection which Mr. Kaggsy presented me with many moons ago. So when we decided on 1936 for the club, and I realised his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was published that year, I thought it would be perfect for a re-read – as I had, I thought, read all of his fiction.

Aspidistra x 2!

Well – a quick dig on the shelves made me question myself; because rummaging revealed that I had *no* paperback edition of “Aspidistra”, only the nice hardback in the set, and I was sure I’d never read that copy. Then I started to actually explore the text and it didn’t seem familiar at all… So now I’m beginning to think that somehow I’d missed reading “Aspidistra” over the last few decades and that my encounter with it here is a first-time read – how exciting is that!!!

My posh hardback edition.

Anyway, I was faced with reading my posh book, which always stupidly makes me a bit nervous. However, fortune stepped in, in the form of Oxford University Press’s Word Classics series (I have quite a few of these – it’s always a toss-up whether to get an OWC or a Penguin Classic of a particular book, and I sometimes pick up both!) OUP have just issued a beautiful new set of Orwells in their OWC range, and were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Aspidistra” – what perfect timing!!

In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.

On to the story. “Aspidistra” was Orwell’s third novel (fourth published full-length work) and its epigraph, dealing as it does with all things fiscal, sets the tone for the book. Money really is the root of all evil, or at least the problems besetting the main character, Gordon Comstock, and many of those he encounters. Gordon is in effect the last of the Comstocks; a fairly feeble family who have gradually died out through mediocrity, the only members left are Gordon, his sister Julia, and the occasional aunt or uncle. Gordon’s mother and sister have scrimped and saved to get the young man an education, feeling that he has a chance to make something of himself. But Gordon has always been aware of the poverty in which his family have existed, the fact that he is of the wrong class and that those with money look down on them while living lives of ease. And so as the book opens, we encounter him having chucked up a reasonable job with decent pay in an advertising agency, and now slumming it by working in a bookshop and living in fairly unpleasant digs.

Gordon was not impressive to look at. He was just five feet seven inches high, and because his hair was usually too long he gave the impression that his head was a little too big for his body. He was never quite unconscious of his small stature. When he knew that anyone was looking at him he carried himself very upright, throwing a chest, with a you-be-damned air which occasionally deceived simple people.

Gordon is really not a happy man; his girlfriend Rosemary declares that she loves him but won’t sleep with him, which he puts down to money; he’s published a book of poems “Mice”, which was well reviewed but failed to earn him much; he’s struggling to write more, but his mood swings aren’t helping; and his friendship with the wealthy Ravelston is complex, poisoned once more by money. Money, money, money – that *is* very much what Gordon bangs on about all of the time, and bearing in mind the time when the book was written, he does have a point.

Lovely new OWC edition!

Britain in the 1930s was a land of extremes; the rich were trying to hold on to money and status, while the poor were struggling dreadfully. There was no welfare state, and some of the poverty portrayed in the book is devastating. I know other readers have perhaps had difficulty in warming to Gordon, but I think without insight into his circumstances, it’s hard perhaps to understand why he’s in the state he’s in.

Gordon also puts much of his situation down to lack of sex, and the book does discuss this issue a fair bit. In the 1930s contraception was relatively primitive (and presumably also cost quite a bit) and so any kind of sex life brought risks, particularly for the women involved. Gordon might seem to be being a bit selfish in his desire to sleep with Rosemary, but my reading of him is of a damaged, depressed man who lacks human warmth in his life, and I think he’s representative of many at the time.

Marriage is only a trap set for you by the money-god. You grab the bait; snap goes the trap; and there you are, chained by the leg to some ‘good’ job till they cart you to Kensal Green. And what a life! Licit sexual intercourse in the shade of the aspidistra. Pram-pushing and sneaky adulteries. And the wife finding you out and breaking the cut-glass whisky decanter over your head.

So Gordon and Rosemary attempt a day out in the country, on not very much cash, and that doesn’t go well at all. In our modern world, where sex is everywhere, it’s somehow shocking that the couple’s only chance for a physical relationship is if they go off into the woods for the day… Then Gordon has a windfall, and this is where things get really problematic, as events spiral out of control and he ends up in an even worse situation. He *could* go back to his old job, but refuses on principle – he doesn’t want to be sucked into the money world, tied to work and the 9-5 grind just to earn enough to live and have an aspidistra (the symbol for him of normality and conformity) in his front window like the rest of the respectable world. His stubbornness is infuriating at times, although you can understand his feelings. However, a crisis will come along and change everything – but how will Gordon respond?

There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

I don’t want to give away any more plot elements, because “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is such a wonderful and fascinating book. I just can’t believe I hadn’t read it before! Orwell apparently always regarded 1936 as a pivotal year in his life: he visited the north, which led to “The Road to Wigan Pier; he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, with all that brought; he broke through as a novelist, with “Aspidistra…” bringing him in some income; and from that point on he regarded his work as to be to fight against fascism in all its forms, which led to seminal works like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen eighty-four”. He apparently dismissed “Aspidistra” but I think he shouldn’t have, because I feel it does explore very deeply and bitterly the pernicious effects of poverty. Gorden is angry and indignant; his sister Julia works all hours of the day just to survive; Rosemary is no richer either; and the degradation of some of the boarding houses in which Gordon stays is just awful. I believe “Aspidistra” draws on some of Orwell’s own life experiences, and of course he was well aware of what it was to be down and out, both in Paris and London! He may seem to be going on a bit about the evil of money, but we only have to look around us, in a world which is still anything but equal, to see that he has a point…

The next seven months were devastating. They scared him and almost broke his spirit. He learned what it means to live for weeks on end on bread and margarine, to try to ‘write’ when you are half starved, to pawn your clothes, to sneak trembling up the stairs when you owe three weeks’ rent and your landlady is listening for you. Moreover, in those seven months he wrote practically nothing. The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought.

The end of “Aspidistra” is interesting, although I’m loath to discuss it in detail because of spoilers. It might be the only logical one, and it does suggest perhaps that Gordon has been going through some kind of breakdown from which he *does* recover. The themes are often dark, the portrait of London between the wars often grimy and gritty, and the living conditions squalid. However, the book is not without its humour: Orwell’s portrait of the advertising business, with its corny slogans and ghastly advertising campaigns, has not dated, and his contempt for it is palpable! He definitely seems to feel that slavishly following the media is a Bad Thing (that’s a pretty modern attitude, too) and complains about the populace being so easily influenced. Well, not much changes.

My lovely Orwell box set

So I ended up thoroughly impressed with this Orwell which I hadn’t read, and yes, convinced again that he really was a genius. He captures brilliantly the post-war era, the struggles of the poor, the difficulty of coping on a few bob a week, and how the class system in England cripples the country and prevents it moving forward (hmmmm – familiar, that….) Although an early novel, it still features Orwell’s regular preoccupations, and I found the characters quite rounded too. His women characters were believable: sister Julia (interesting choice of name) with her self-sacrifice, and Rosemary, a well-defined character in her own right, caring for Gordon but often struggling to understand his principles. The latter, of course, can only be held successfully by people with money; if you’re poor, they go right out the window! I finished the book several days ago, and I’m still thinking about the many elements and issues it raised – such a thought-provoking read. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was the perfect way to end my reading for the #1936Club – what a week it’s been and what an amazing choice of books there was from the year!

(Emma has also read the book for the club, and you can read her post here!)

*****

I though I’d also share a few separate thoughts on the new OWC edition of “Aspidistra”, as my hardback from the box set comes with limited notation which is mainly to do with textual variations. As this edition originally hails from 1987, much of the landscape of Britain and the terminology would be quite familiar to the reader then. However, getting on for 35 years later than that, there’s the need for a little more explanation and the new edition has excellent notation which explains many terms which might seem strange or exotic to a younger, modern reader! Additionally, there is detail on the money of the time; as that subject underpins the story, it certainly is important that the reader understands ‘old money’ (I can just about remember it…) The notes are provided by Benjamin Kohlmann, who also supplies an excellent introduction which discusses the book in the context of the 1930s – it definitely is a book of its time and that needs to be remembered, I think, to get the most out of it. Sensibly, readers are advised to treat the foreword as an afterword if unfamiliar with the plot, and I wish all books would remind us of that before we embark. There’s a bibliography and a chronology, and so really there’s all you need. As you’ll guess from my review, I really loved “Aspidistra…”; and I think if you plan to read it, the OWC would be the perfect edition to choose!

#1936Club – a witty and entertaining novella from a legendary Japanese author… #tanizaki

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Some Japanese fiction for the #1936Club today, in the form of a novella from one of the masters of writing from that country – Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. I’ve owned this particular book for decades (I have a variety of Kodansha Editions books on my shelves), but as far as I can tell, I’ve never read it. So what better time to pick up “A Cat, A Man and Two Women“, translated by Paul McCarthy? My edition is from 1991, and interestingly at that time the trend seems to have been not to mention the translator on the cover of a book – I’m glad this is now changing…

Anyway – in 1936 Tanizaki was working on a massive translation project, that of bringing “The Tale of Genji” into modern Japanese; and as McCarthy’s introduction discusses, the writing of a novella length tale like this must have been a lovely contrast to his larger work. And “A Cat…” is certainly a more modern tale… The story is a domestic one, focusing on Shozo, a lazy man, his ex-wife Shinako, his current wife Fukuko, and the cat Lily. In truth, though, I did think the title might be better given as “A Cat, A Man and Three Women”, as Shozo’s mother does have quite a bit of influence on events…

As the novella opens, Fukuko has been unsettled by a letter from her predecessor, in effect warning her that Shozo loves the cat Lily more than anything else in the world, and to watch out because her days are numbered too. Shinako suggests that Fukuko gets Shozo to hand the cat over to his first wife. Fukuko is supicious and inclined to be dismissive; however, as she observes Shozo with Lily, her jealousy is aroused and a whole series of events are set in motion which will affect all of the participants. Will Shozo part with Lily? Is Fukuko likely to stay in this marriage for long? Will Shinako get Shozo back? And what will happen to the cat?

(She) asked herself how she could ever have hated this lovely, docile little creature. The woman she had been came to seem to her now a very mean and nasty sort of person – a real monster, in fact.

“A Cat…” is a quite brilliantly written book, mainly because of its constantly shifting perspectives. We see a character or event from Fukuko’s point of view and think we have a handle on what’s going on; then the narrative shifts to Shozo’s gaze and suddenly things seem very different. Shinako has a particular take on events, but a return to Shozo’s point of view reveals her as apparently very mistaken. And Shozo’s mother adds another angle to the mix…

It’s a very clever way to tell the story as the changing viewpoints build up a picture of the various participants, and also reveal quite how mistaken many of them are in their perceptions of the other characters. Of course, the one viewpoint we don’t really get is Lily the cat… Various emotions and motivations are ascribed to her by the human characters, but we see her actions rather than thoughts and frankly can’t help feeling sorry for her, being used as a pawn by the humans. However, it does seem that it’s only in relation to Lily that the human characters develop real emotions and empathy, which says much about the tangled web the man and the two women have woven!

Tanizaki is known for producing longer works like “The Makioka Sisters”, so a shorter work like this is perhaps unexpected, and certainly a treat! The novella is very witty in places, with the author regularly skewering his characters’ motivations. It also reveals much about Japanese life at the time, and as McCarthy points out in his introduction, is unusual in that Tanizaki sets his work amongs ordinary, working class people as opposed to the more moneyed classes he often writes about. “A Cat, A Man and Two Women” was a wonderful read, and proof, if it was needed, that I really need to dig more of those unread books off the shelves!

 

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