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Russian Reading Month – And some thoughts about translation

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The very lovely Tuesday in Silhouette blog, which I just stumbled across via Alex in Leeds‘ excellent pages, is running a Russian Reading Month which I have decided to tag onto – partly because I happen to have just read “Conquered City” but mainly because I have an abiding love of Russian Literature. TIS has provided an interesting little meme re Russian Lit so here are my thoughts below.

What has your relationship with Russian literature been like thus far? What are your expectations for the following month – and perhaps your expectations towards the novel/writer you’ve chosen to read?

My first real encounter with Russia came when I was in my teens at Grammar School and we studied the Revolution in History lessons. I was fascinated by the period and started to explore further, and the next influence was the film of “Dr. Zhivago” which was re-running at our local cinema. I then began to read Solzhenitsyn, who was very much in the public eye when I was growing up, and was knocked out by “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Luckily, my lovely old-fashioned school library was stuffed with glass panelled bookcases full of purple jacketed Russian classics so I was able to indulge.

I’ve continued to love and read the Russians ever since – everything from the classics to modern volumes like “Novel with Cocaine”. I was particularly taken with “Crime and Punishment” when I first read it, and also Gogol’s “Dead Souls” which I found amazingly funny. A more recent discovery was the wonderful Andrey Platonov who is unusual and strange and quite unique. I finally got round to reading “The Master and Margarita” a few years ago and was hooked, moving on to read everything by Bulgakov. I confess I still struggle with Tolstoy and there may be an issue with my attempts which I’ll get onto later.

My favourite Russian poet is Mayakovsky – he’s often dismissed as just a revolutionary hack, but this is so untrue – check out this heartbreaking final poem by him:

Past One O’Clock

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

I also love to read books about Russia and its history so I guess you could call me a real Slavophile!

The first book I read for the Russian month was “Conquered City” which I reviewed below. I had high hopes for this from what I had heard about it and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m currently re-reading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” which I’m enjoying even more than the first time. I hope to read Nabokov’s Gogol biog which I have on order, and I also want to re-read “The Master and Margarita” – for reasons I’ll expand on below!

Thanks so much to TIS for prompting my re-engagement with Russian literature – one of my long-term loves!

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So – a slight digression here, on the subject of translation. After reading TIS and some other reviews of Bulgakov I picked up on the fact that some reviewers were commenting on problems and differences with translations. It seems that particular MAM has had a chequered history owing to the censorship and translations of various partial versions etc. There have been several attempts and the one I read was a 1997 translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I didn’t know a lot about them, except that their names seemed to be turning up on a lot of newer translations of Russian classics and they were working on a new version of “Dr. Zhivago”. A little more research revealed that they seem to polarize opinions dramatically, people either singing their praises or condemning their work. I was particularly intrigued to read one piece by a Russian writer saying that their translations were terrible. There were quite a few blogs doing comparisons of some passages from MAM and I have to say that I didn’t find the P/V sections compared that well. I dug about in my collection and found that I had a volume of P/V translated Gogol stories and also some older versions by different translators. On doing a quick comparison of some opening paragraphs, I definitely DO NOT like the P/V versions – they seemed flat, literal and dull. I asked Youngest Child to give me an impartial opinion and she said, without knowing anything about anything, that the P/V paragraphs had “no flair”. So I have now sent off for two other versions of MAM (thank goodness for Amazon penny books!!!!) and a highly regarded translation of “Dead Souls” – apparently, the new NYRB one which I have been coveting may not be the be-all and end-all of translations either 😦

This set me off thinking about the whole nature of translation generally. With one of my favourite writers, Italo Calvino, it’s fortunate that there have only been a few scholars involved. The bulk of his work during his lifetime was skilfully handled by William Weaver who gave the books a consistency and a voice. Tim Parks did some translating after Calvino’s death and since then, Martin McLaughlin has taken over the mantle of presenting Calvino’s works for the English-speaking world – all the time he is careful to respect what has been done before and improve on it discreetly when he can.

With the Russian authors there are numerous different translations. The first, much maligned, translator of many volumes was Constance Garnett. It is fashionable nowadays to condemn her work as inaccurate and faulty, but I think it’s too easy to criticise. She was trying to present huge numbers of long works in a format that the English-speaking reader could deal with in the early 20th century and as a one-woman translating machine she did very well. However, I pulled out a number of my Russian novels last night and found there was a wide array of translators represented. Many of my older Penguin Classics were dealt with by David Magarshack and David Duff, and I never had any issues with reading them although Magarshack in particular gets bad press nowadays. But looking through my more recent volumes, I realised that there were two translators whose skills I really trust. The first is Robert Chandler, who is probably best known for bringing Platonov to us in English but has also produced an exemplary collection, “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”. To translate a writer as complex and subtle as Platonov takes real talent and love of the language, and Chandler has certainly served literature well. The other scholar, who seems to have been beavering away quietly in the background, is Hugh Aplin. Aplin has produced numerous translations for Hesperus Press of Chekhov, Lermontov and Turgenev – and is the name behind my current NFU as mentioned above. His work is elegant and consistently readable – there is no hype or fuss, just well presented and enjoyable volumes. Well done gentlemen!

Anyway, this exercise has made me realise that I need to think more about the translated literature I’m reading. This subject surfaced a little while back when I was considering Proust, and the advice I’ve come across then and now is to compare as many different versions as you can and choose the one you respond to best. So I think I shall try to ignore hype and publicity claims, and let my reading mojo respond to the prose!

Recent Reads: Conquered City by Victor Serge

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I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature – since I first studied the Russian Revolution in my teens and following on from that dragged my friends to see “Dr. Zhivago” at the cinema. Since then I’ve read a *lot* of Russian books, both classic and modern literature, but this is my first experience with Victor Serge. Which is odd, really, as I’ve been aware of his name for years – maybe it just took NYRB to reprint and bring him back to prominence.

Wikipedia says:

Victor Serge, born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich (December 30, 1890 – November 17, 1947), was a Russian revolutionary and writer. Originally an anarchist, he joined the Bolsheviks five months after arriving in Petrograd in January 1919 and later worked for the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He was critical of the Stalinist regime and remained a revolutionary Marxist until his death.

That really just scratches the surface as the excellent introduction to this volume makes clear. Serge had an exciting and active life, moving from country to country, and although he hated what Communist Russia came to stand for, he never lost faith in the force of revolution. “Conquered City” is an intriguing book, about a year in the life of occupied St. Petersburg during the civil war which followed the Bolshevik revolution and it’s certainly unforgettable.


The first thing that hits you is the power of Serge’s prose. The book opens with a description of a wintry, frozen city where you can walk on the ice of the river and there are hardly any hours of daylight. There is instant contrast in the beauty of the language and the city, which is suddenly juxtaposed with filth, waste and dead bodies. The book follows the fates of several characters who are gradually introduced, often a chapter at a time, and whose destinies turn out to be intimately entwined. We meet hardened Reds committed to Marxism, romantic Whites determined to return Russia to its past, Greens living in the forest and trying to stay neutral, various other factions fighting for whatever aspect of the cause they deem fit, plus the ordinary people of the city who are simply trying desperately to survive.

This is not an easy read, understandably. Any war is brutal; any civil war perhaps more so because the people fighting are countrymen. The Russian people had suffered years of deprivation in the First World War and entered revolution and civil war already exhausted and starving. The chaos that followed meant famine and disease ravaged the country and it must have been hard for the ordinary folk to understand why they were fighting and for what cause.

But despite the horrors, this is a compulsive book. Each character is well-defined, clinging onto life in their own way, determined that their ideals will not be the ones which fail. There is Danil, the White soldier, who returns to the city on a mission and by his presence implicates and destroys his sister Olga; the scholar Professor Lytaev, who despite being imprisoned on very little evidence is content with his lot and can still believe in a better future; Zvevera, an unhappy and unpleasant woman who has found a niche in the new set-up and wields far too much power while reaping many benefits; the Communists Arkadi and Ryzhik who are colleagues in the struggle but are torn apart by the betrayal of another character; Xenia, who represents the young modern woman, in conflict with her mother over her beliefs, and sacrificing all for the cause. I don’t want to reveal too much of the intricate narrative as much of the pleasure in reading this book is watching events and connections unfold.

The book is skilfully constructed so that each character is gradually introduced and their links with the others are revealed as the tale progresses. There are groups of women queuing outside shops who act as a kind of chorus, summarising what is happening in the city, as do the newspaper headlines and quotes, and the titles of proclamations displayed around the city. We watch human beings behave like monsters and many of them find this almost impossible to deal with; the emotional strain on them is enormous.

“Conquered City” ends almost literally as it started. The cyclical nature of a year has taken us back to winter again, and Serge repeats much of his initial description of the city. St. Petersburg has held out against the Whites, the revolution is continuing and there have been losses along the way. But human beings are portrayed as sacrifices made to keep the cause alive – an unpalatable situation and one with which many would disagree. Nevertheless the book is surprisingly optimistic in places with many of the characters accepting the hand that life deals them. Lytaev perhaps sums up best the overall attitude of the characters:

“After us, the stars will shine for other eyes, which will be better able to see them. Men are on the march, Marie. Whether it is by an absurd chance or by necessity that they must pass over our bodies, they are on the march.”

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the book is no blatant act of propaganda: we are shown the fact that there is corruption in high places and that certain types of people will always manage to find their way into privilege, whatever the regime. The common folk will still suffer and the devious clever ones will manage to manipulate things to their own advantage. The violence and the tragedy and the suffering inflicted on the innocent is never denied or hidden from the reader. Serge is a wise enough Marxist to recognise the flaws in the new dictatorship which has replaced the old one, and he continued to rail against this all his life. This a powerful, sad, stark, beautiful and moving work; I look forward to reading more of Victor Serge.

The Liebster Award

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Wow! The lovely Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library has kindly nominated me for Liebster Award. According to Florence, “the word comes from the German, meaning “dearest” or “beloved” and is granted by fellow bloggers to new blogs with fewer than 200 followers and deserving of recognition and encouragement.” Apparently, you answer the questions set, and then set some of your own – what fun! So here are my answers:

What is your favourite reading spot?

To be honest, I don’t think I have one. I’m a bit of an obsessive reader, really, so as long as I have something reasonably comfy to sit on I can read anywhere (and nowadays of course my glasses are essential!) Curled up on a cosy sofa is nice, or in bed propped up with lots of pillows – winter is a particularly lovely season for reading!

What do you think of movie adaptations of famous books? Do they enhance or hinder your appreciation of the book?


I’m afraid I hate them! Reading to me is an all-encompassing thing. When I read and love a book, it paints strong images in my head which stay with me. The response I have is personal, it’s mine and I find I’m very resistant to other people’s interpretations. Also, a film can never have the depth of a book – they’re two completely different art forms and a great work of literature will be truncated and lessened by being filmed. I wouldn’t watch “Mrs. Dalloway” because it was the first Virginia Woolf book I read and I fell in love with it (and her!) Any film of this amazing book would diminish it. When I was much younger I watched the film of “The Great Gatsby” with Robert Redford and I did enjoy it very much. When I read the book afterwards I was initially disappointed as it was different to the glossy beauty of the movie. However, returning to it later I can see how much more depth was in the novel and how much better it is than the film. So I think movies certainly do hinder rather than enhance!

Has a book ever made you want to travel to a particular place?

I can think of a couple of books that have such a strong sense of place that they’ve drawn me to wish I could visit. Colette’s “Break of Day” brings the south of France alive in an earthy, vital way – I’ve often longed for a time machine to travel back in time to the Cote d’Azur before tourism and billionaire’s yachts ruined it. Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” is possibly my favourite of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and her portrayal of Oxford University had me longing to dash off to the sheltered cloisters of higher education and stalk around the old corridors in a gown. I can still pick up that book and get lost in it instantly. And although I never attended university, I was lucky enough to have a friend who attended Oxford and spent a weekend staying in a little room at the top of a windy old staircase in an ancient tower – magical!

I have a huge passion for Russia and its literature and it’s difficult to pick one book that really started this off as I’ve read so many. Oddly enough, it may have been the film adaptation of “Doctor Zhivago” that was the genesis of this love, but again the book is so much more than the movie!

What is your reaction when someone you know dislikes a book you are especially fond of? Have you ever quarrelled over a book?

I’m a lot more tolerant now than I was in my younger years! In my twenties I tended to be very evangelical about a book if I loved it. A case in point is the first time I read “The Plague” by Albert Camus – I was entranced, and thought it was one of the best things I’d ever read, so I fired off a series of postcards to everyone I knew (this was in pre-Internet days!) demanding that they read it. I was very disappointed if any of them didn’t think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I have had a few minor quarrels with friends and family in my time over books but nowadays I think I have a more live-and-let-live approach – I accept that a reader’s response to a work is always going to be a personal one and that we won’t all like the same thing. It’s disappointing if someone can’t see that your favourite writer’s book is a work of genius but not worth falling out about.

Do you like knowing all about an author before you start reading their work or do you think biographical details aren’t necessary to understand and appreciate a book?

That’s a tricky one! In theory, a book should stand on its own and I do try to read a new book/author without going into the biography first. But sometimes it’s hard to avoid – for example, I’ve come to writers like Michael Arlen and Beverley Nichols through reading about them in the book “Bright Young People” and so it’s inevitable that my reading of their work will be informed by the biog. And with Elizabeth Taylor, who I’ve read this year for the first time, I found that reading Nicola Beauman’s book on her halfway through the year did change the way I approached her, and in a positive way. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing as there is often an autobiographical impulse in what novelists write about! And often knowing what kind of life the author led, the kind of circles they moved in, their beliefs etc does help you to come to terms with a work. Having said that, I don’t think this carries through to something like Golden Age crime fiction (of which I’m particularly fond) as I don’t visualise Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers going out and committing murders!

In your opinion, what makes an excellent book review?

Other book bloggers mainly! I’ve come to realise over the last year or so that I really have no patience with pompous media reviewers who are more concerned with their own ego than actually giving the reader some idea of whether they want to read a book or not. I need to know a little bit about the plot, a little bit about the themes, maybe a little bit about the author and what the blogger thought. There needs to be some personal response to the book, whether positive or negative, perhaps some quotes to give you a sense of the prose you will be reading. And enthusiasm helps! There are several bloggers whose opinion I’ve really come to trust and if they say a book is good I usually like it too. A perfect example of this was Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book’s Review of “Guard Your Daughters” – sales of the book on Amazon soared and he was right about the book – it’s excellent and unjustly neglected. That’s one of the joys of reading book blogs – finding these unearthed treasures which are being rescued from oblivion.

And just for fun: Mr Darcy or Mr Rochester?

On balance Mr. Rochester – I like all that intensity!

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Thanks to Florence for the nomination! I would like to suggest Emily at The Matilda Project, a wonderful blog devoted to real bookshops; and Erica and her colleagues at Reading 1900-1950 who are reviewing lost books from the Sheffield Hallam University collection and have already pointed me at some new books/authors. My questions are:

Do you think that eBooks and mechanical devices are killing tree books?

Bestsellers – a good thing or a bad thing?

Do you have a favourite lost classic or a book you would recommend to everyone?

New or secondhand – does it matter?

Are you the kind of reader who will struggle through a book to the end no matter what?

Can you describe your ideal bookshop?

And for fun: have you every had a crush on a book character?

The Balkan Trilogy: Book 1 – The Great Fortune

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Many moons ago, my BFF at the time G. used to nag me to read Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy” (and its follow up, “The Levant Trilogy”). I suspect now that she was drawn to them from having watched the TV adaptation, as she was very much a Ken-and-Emma fan. However, I was in my French existentialist phase and refused to have anything to do with the books.

Fast forward a good number of years, and I came across the two fat Penguin TV tie in volumes in a charity shop for not many pennies. I read the first couple of pages and figured that as Manning was a Virago author I really ought to give these a try.

I knew enough about these books to know that Manning based much of the story on her real-life experiences in Romania during the early part of the Second World War. The first book, “The Great Fortune”, opens with newly married Guy and Harried Pringle travelling across Europe by train. Guy is a lecturer in Bucharest and is returning to his work after a summer at home. We get an instant hint of Guy’s character by the interest he takes in the strangers around him, talking at length to a troubled refugee. Already Harriet seems not to know her husband very well and one would imagine it was a quick marriage of people only recently in love under wartime circumstances. As the Pringles travel through Europe they encounter a British-educated, exiled Russian prince, Yakimov, who will become an important character in the first book.

The first part of this volume is titled “The Assassination”, and it covers the arrival of the Pringles back in Bucharest and Harriet’s early experiences in this new country. She does not speak the language and in some ways feels an interloper as she meets her new husband’s friends and acquaintances. There is a wide array of characters – Clarence, one of Guy’s colleagues; Inchcape, their head of department at the University; the aforementioned Yakimov; a group of journalists holed up in a hotel bar; Sophie, a local girl who obviously had designs on Guy and is furious that he has brought a wife back with him; and, as the saying goes, many many more! This section ends with assassination of a minister and reprisals on those suspected of carrying this out.

In part 2, “The Centre of Things”, the Pringles are becoming more established. They find themselves a flat in close to the centre of the city and are witness to the funeral of the assassinated minister. There is a strong German faction in the city which seems to be in effect waiting for an invading army from either side to take control. Harriet is more settled and is making contacts – apart from the Jewish Drucker family (who are later arrested), she makes a friend of her own called Bella, whom Guy does not like.

Winter sets in during the next section, “The Snow” – the weather dominates and becomes a major issue. Peasants freeze and starve to death, a rather strange maverick British soldier turns up to try to lead sabotage attempts, and the Germans continue to advance. Harriet gains a cat and has her first big quarrel with Guy. The attitudes towards the peasantry continue to be more harsh and brutal.

The fourth and final section is entitled “The Fall of Troy”. The English contingent throw themselves into a performance of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” with Guy as the obsessive maestro behind the whole production. Tensions are hinted at between the Pringles when Guy replaces Harriet with Sophie for the role of Cressida. Initially hurt and upset, Harriet comes to realise that she would have been bored by the whole thing. As the book ends, Paris falls to the Germans and the triumph of the performance is counterpointed with the tragedy occurring in France.

It’s taken me several days of thinking about this book to come to any real conclusions about it, and I’ve found it difficult to explain why. The book is well written; the descriptions of Romania are excellent and the story gives a good sense of the uncertainty and day-to-day uneasiness of living in a potential war zone with both sides of the conflict represented. But although I ended up quite enjoying the book, some of it just doesn’t quite gel for me, and I think much of the problem is with the Pringles. Harriet has a real lack of depth; it may be that this is meant to represent her naivety, and she does come alive a little bit more as the book progresses. But she is still a cipher – hardly anything is revealed about her past, and her personality is a bit undefined.

Guy is unfortunately an extremely irritating character. His all-encompassing interest in humanity in general means that he actually has very little time for his new wife who is left to her own devices constantly. She consequently ends up spending a lot of time with Clarence, who obviously carries a torch for her, while Guy is off lecturing, having meetings from which Harriet is excluded and producing his Shakespeare. You don’t actually see the Pringles in relation to each other, having a normal life together or any real evidence of closeness. When Guy talks about the effect that producing Harriet in “Troilus” would have on their relationship, you think “What relationship?” His behaviour concerning Sophie is ridiculous and if we are meant to believe that he has no idea what Sophie feels for him and has been happy to in effect string her along, this reduces him as a person. The Pringles marriage is an odd one; they seem almost strangers, know nothing of each other and learning as they go along. While this may have been the case for many rushed war-time pairings, it stretches credulity a little bit here because we are given very little idea of what the attraction would have been between them. They’re not often seen expressing emotion towards each other – there’s a kind of coldness here. I think Harriet may have married him in a kind of bid for security which turns out to have been a mistake – in a flash of inspiration, she sees him clearly:

“He was one of those harbours that prove to be too shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfilment came from the outside world.”

In many ways the subsidiary characters are often better developed than the two main protagonists. Yakimov, the White Russian wearing his father’s coat “Given to him by the Czar, dear girl”, is by far the most memorable, emerging fully rounded from the tale. His ups and downs and final emergence at the end in the play are some of the most interesting aspects of the story. He makes more impact on the reader than Harriet, and although this may have been Manning’s intention (as presumably Harriet represents herself and is in the position of observer/narrator) I did feel that the balance was wrong. We find out considerably more about Clarence and his past and his feelings than either Guy or Harriet which is odd, as they should be the focus of the story.

I ended up feeling that Manning is in many ways better at evoking place than people. A wonderful array of mortals passes us by but they drift in and out of the story with no apparent reason, and their characters in the end mostly make no impact. Bucharest itself however comes across vividly, with its changing seasons and parks, and Manning does give a convincing portrait of what it felt like to live through the early part of the war somewhat stranded in middle Europe. Because it is based on life there is a lack of structure that pure fiction would have had; this would be acceptable in autobiography but not so in the traditional novel form which demands more control. I found the last section, “The Fall of Troy” to be the strongest because of the extraordinary portrayal of the English frantically burying their heads in the sand, obsessively producing a Shakespeare play while Europe crumbled around them. Troy in the play obviously represented the falling Paris, and Manning succeeded most here with what I think she was trying to say – that all the faith in the world in civilisation and culture will not stop the barbarian at the door.

I have heard this series described as “a triumph of style without substance” and I think this is fair comment. There are good points about the book – some well-developed characters, a wonderful sense of place, descriptions of the foot, the location, the lifestyle in Bucharest. But Manning doesn’t pull all the threads into a coherent enough narrative for my liking, and there are too many peripheral characters and sidelines drifting in and out.

I’m trying not to sound too negative because there is a lot I did like about the book  and the fact that I’m still pondering on it several days after finishing it proves it has power. I found it picked up a lot in the third and fourth sections where I was more eager to read on. However, I didn’t feel a huge emotional response to it, such as that I had to a book like, say, “A Pin to see the Peepshow”, where I feel the need to recommend it to all and sundry! This rather pinpoints the fact that I hadn’t come to care about many of characters at all (particularly the Pringles), which is essential in fiction – even if they are not likeable people, the author should make you care about what the protagonists are experiencing and their eventual fate. I’ve read some reviews since finishing this volume that say the series improves with the later books so I shall read on – though at the moment it is mainly Yakimov and Clarence (who I found the most interesting, well-developed characters) that I want to follow to the end of their journey.

Recent Reads: The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton

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I must admit to becoming very intrigued by G.K. Chesterton. Up until recently, I knew him only really as the author of the Father Brown mystery stories. I read quite a few of these years back, and remember them as being – well, a little strange, really. But earlier this year I picked up yet another set of books from The Book People, and one of them was “The Man Who Was Thursday”. This turned out to be, yes,  strange but also surreal and very entertaining, so when I came across CQT in a charity shop I snapped it up. Here I should say that I think I may have read it before – but with my increasing age and the amount of books I’ve read, I can’t actually remember so I’ll treat it as a new one!

Anyway – “The Club of Queer Trades” is a slim volume, first published in 1905, collecting together 6 short tales featuring the narrator, a Watson-like character called Charlie Swinburne; an enthusiastic amateur sleuth by the name of Rupert Grant;  and the main protagonist, his brother Basil. Basil Grant is a judge who took retirement from the Bench after apparently have an attack of madness! He is a man of intellect, preferring to use his faculties rather than running around madly like his brother Rupert, who flings himself at a problem with great abandon. The first story sets the tone for the book, being the tale of a strange and inexplicable set of events that happen to a friend of Grants, Major Brown. After a little deducting on Basil’s part, all is explained and the happenings are found to have emanated from a business which belongs to the Club of Queer Trades, a mysterious organisation who will reappear throughout the book.

Any astute reader will already have sensed similarities with another great fictional detective, although it seems to me that Basil resembles much more Mycroft than Sherlock in his willingness to sit in one place and solve the problem! In many ways the book is a pastiche of Conan-Doyle but it has enough individuality of its own for that not to matter. The adventures get stranger and stranger, the explanations more and more unlikely, until in the last story there is a denouement almost on the last page that perhaps should have been obvious but wasn’t!

By Ernest Herbert Mills [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

CQT is a little more straightforward than “The Man Who Was Thursday” – it manages to bring in the surreal and the silly and the slight suggestion of supernatural (which I seem to recall from “Father Brown”), but in a way that doesn’t detract from the wit and enjoyment of the linked stories. It’s a very clever, funny and original little book and very diverting – it kept my mind well and truly off the horrors of a complex, cold and dark train (and rail replacement coach) journey home from London, so that’s saying something!

Virago Volumes: The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington

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I’ve headed this Virago Volumes, although that’s a little bit of a cheat as my copy is Penguin. However, I would have read the Virago version if I’d been able to find one, so I think that counts! I was lucky enough to come across my copy in the local Oxfam charity shop – I love it when you find a book you’ve been after for a while!

Leonora Carrington is of course well-known as a surrealistic painter and author. The Hearing Trumpet seems to be her best known work and starts conventionally enough with 92-year-old Marian Leatherby being given a splendid hearing trumpet by her best friend Carmella. Despite her advanced age, Marian’s hearing seems to be the only thing she has issue with and she is still living at home with her wonderfully named son Galahad and his family. However, the hearing trumpet allows Marian to overhear them plotting to put her into a home. Alas, despite Carmella’s wonderfully bizarre plans, Marian is unable to resist and is taken off to the Institution in Santa Bridiga to be parked with a lot of other old ladies. However, the Institution is not at all your typical old person’s home. The buildings are all in bizarre shapes – a birthday cake, a boot, a mummy case, a tower. The place is run by Dr. and Mrs. Gambit and the other old ladies seem decidedly unusual. There are chores to be done, various bizarre and spurious religious teachings and a very strange portrait of a winking nun looking down on the inmates as they eat their meal.

After a relatively straightforward start, things start to get odder and odder. Some of the old ladies are decidedly sinister and there is a poisoning incident. The story of the strange nun is revealed, a dramatic apocalypse takes place and we are left surviving in some kind of post-nuclear type wilderness with wolves and starvation at the door. Luckily Carmella sweeps in to the rescue and our very resilient old ladies survive – but what does the future hold for the world?

This is a remarkably multi-layered book, and not at all what I was expecting! It encompasses a remarkable variety of topics, from the more straightforward (the way we treat our old people) to the deep and complex (the failure of science and male religion, a resurgence of the female goddess cult). The story is peopled with a marvellous array of characters, from Marian’s old friend, the poet Marlborough (whose mysterious sister turns out to have a very important role to play) to Taliessin the travelling postman, carrying news from place to place and obviously referring back to the earlier bard! It’s also a very funny book, and in many ways the writing of the old ladies at the start reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark. Each character is beautifully defined, and Carmella, with her cigars, letters to strangers and port smuggled in a hot water bottle, is my favourite.

But Carrington was remarkably perceptive in many ways, and you could read her descriptions of the poles changing and the new ice age as a kind of warning of forthcoming climate changes. Bearing in mind the book was published in 1974, she was somewhat ahead of her time! Mainly, though, this books is a joy to read – despite its weirdness, it’s great fun, thought-provoking and very well written – and as you would expect of this type of artist, very surreal!

Sebastian Peake

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Sometimes life can be full of strangeness and sadness, and sometimes both of these together. Yesterday I posted about my trip to London and mentioned how J. and I used to be involved in the running of the Mervyn Peake Society. Today, while stumbling across some literary blogs in a random kind of way, I learned that Sebastian Peake, son of Mervyn, died suddenly in September.

Sebastian was Mervyn Peake’s eldest son, and he tirelessly promoted his father’s work during the time I knew him. He was kind and friendly, and very supportive while we were running the society. Mervyn Peake is an acquired taste, but those of us who love his work spend many hours trying to convince others of his genius. Sadly, I believe he is simply too talented and to unique to be appreciated by the mass public; but nevertheless I will always love his work.

I first read Peake’s “Gormenghast” books when I was 19. My then flatmate had given me a set of the three books at a Christmas gift, and I took them with me when I went home for the holidays. Needless to say, I was rather anti-social that Yule – I spent the break with my head in the books, entranced by Peake’s language and his illustrations, the pictures he painted in my head and the crazy and wonderful story he told. Nobody wrote or drew or painted or composed poetry like Mervyn Peake; he was a one-off.

Sebastian was a lovely man, but he seemed in some ways to live in the shadow of his father. However, he was always good company, fond of good food and wine, and his support made our involvement in the Peake Society great fun. His passing is sad, and I’m sure he will be missed by his lovely family plus brother Fabian and sister Clare.

(There is a very nice interview with all three Peake children here)

A Visit to London – and Persephone Books!

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Back in the 1980s, I used to spend regular weekends meeting a friend or two in London for a day trawling around the bookshops int he Charing Cross Road area. In those days (ahem) we didn’t have things like the Internet (!) so the tracking down of rare or unusual volumes for a collection was much more involved. Of course, we did have the advantage of a lot more second-hand bookshops generally – I used to work in Salisbury and there were lots (which I’ve blogged about before). Nowadays, it’s all Internet shopping, which is great for a quick fix but does take a little of the thrill of the chase out of it.

The friend I used to book shop with most was Jools, and although we keep in regular touch still I haven’t actually met up with her for about 13 years (when the sprogs were small). But things came together quite serendipitously recently – OH told me about the Jack Kerouac “On The Road manuscript scroll being exhibited at the British Library, which I felt I must see; I was overdue for a visit to my brother and family in south London; and YC needed a trip away in half term. So I contacted J. to see if she was available at all and fortunately enough, this weekend was the one time she was free in about a month! Obviously the stars were right and so we arranged to meet at Waterloo station under the clock at 10.30 a.m.

I did wonder a little whether we would recognise each other after all these years and how we would find spending a day together. I needn’t have worried – we knew each other straight away and it was like we had only had a day in London together a week ago! YC very patiently accompanied us round central London (she’s the perfect shopping companion!) and the weather blessed us – cold but bright and sunny.

We started off our trek at the bottom of Charing Cross Road. A number of lovely Library Thing members on the Virago group had kindly made some recommendations of likely book shops and the first one we came to was Any Amount of Books. This is a super shop with a great array of second-hand paperbacks but I did restrain myself and just came away with these two volumes:

I’m particularly fond of this design of Penguin Simenon which was about when I was buying them in the 1970s and 1980s. There were Penguin Colettes with a similar sort of French font design and these are equally lovely – I have many in my library already!

Next stop was Henry Pordes a door or two up the road. This shop seems to have bad press for rude staff – we didn’t encounter anything like this here, just some slightly fussed gentlemen who were quite courteous. The basement paperbacks had a *lot* of Viragos and reasonably priced ones too, so I had to be selective – and just bought these:

I was pleased to find the Beryl Markham as I am trying to fill in my Virago Travellers and this was in lovely condition.

We ambled on further up Charing Cross Road, having quite a reminisce about the bookshops we recalled from the past, including the lovely “Murder One” store which specialised in crime – much missed, alas. There are of course a fraction of the tree book stores there used to be in the area – there were several specialist ones, including Silver Moon which was a woman-only shop specialising in feminist literature – not sure they’d be able to get away with that any more (tho’ if there can be men-only clubs I don’t see why there can’t be women-only bookshops!)

Next stop was Foyles. This was a place we avoided in the past because in the 1970s and 1980s it was a hard place to find a book you were searching for! All the volumes were displayed by publisher and it seemed to be inordinately complicated trying to track down which floor your book was on and if it was in stock. Nowadays it’s been modernised and laid out nicely and is actually a lovely place to browse. I very rarely buy a new book nowadays (these go on Christmas and birthday lists) but there were some lovely classics in hardback and a lot of NYRB volumes as well. It was nice to be able to actually pick these up and have a flick through them to see if the book was one you would read – I miss being able to do that online, and not everything you’re interested in is browsable on Amazon. Amazingly, J and I did not buy – although YC did a bit of Christmas shopping and indulged her passion for Batman graphic novels!

As the day was getting on and we were starting to think of lunch, we followed J to a rather lovely little cafe she had been recommended near the British Museum. I always love being in this part of London anyway, as I feel spiritually close to Virginia Woolf here and like to imagine her stalking the streets, thinking up her latest wonderful sentences. Anyway, the cafe was a little Vietnamese place tucked away down a side street (and I’ve forgotten the name for the moment!) but it’s highly recommended. We enjoyed Sweet Potato Noodles, sushi rolls, fritters and miso soup – all veggie and all reasonably priced. Yum!

Somewhat refreshed, we headed off in search of the nearby Oxfam bookshop. The first thing we spotted was a Persephone – “The Closed Door and other stories” by Dorothy Whipple! This was complete with bookmark and J. started reading the first page and got hooked so we decided she should have this one. J. is a recent convert to Persephone – I wrote to her and rambled on so much about how wonderful “Miss Pettigrew” was she got it out of the library and loved it. YC found some sociology based Viragos for her studies so the Oxfam was judged a success.

Our next destination was the Persephone Shop, which was a bit of a walk but the weather was still great so off we trotted. We made a quick detour to a lovely bookbinding supply shop that J. is very fond of, and drooled over all the wonderful handmade paper and journals. The Persephone Shop was easier to find than we thought it might and was quite busy. It was a little smaller than I expected but very lovely inside and the piles of grey volumes were *so* appealing! Being able to browse the books was lovely to and I came away with this:

It is, although you can’t see, Diana Gardner’s “The Woman Novelist”. I wanted to get this for a particular reason as many, MANY years ago J. and I were involved in the running of the Mervyn Peake Society. Gardner was a friend of the Peakes and we met her at a memorial service we attended for Peake’s wife Maeve Gilmore. She was quite inspirational (Gardner that is) – off to the country painting and refusing to conform to age or society’s expectation of women. So it seemed appropriate I should buy this book today. J. wanted her own copy of “MIss Pettigrew” but also ended up getting “Making Tea for Mr. Rochester” so we clubbed together to take advantage of the 3 for £30 offer. Here is a somewhat fuzzy pic of us outside the shop – J. is on the left with the red skirt:

Frankly, at our age, we’re quite happy with blurry pix!

After all this excitement, and with a short hop into the nearby Lambs Bookshop, we set off to search for Skoob, another LT recommendation. We stumbled into a rather modern precinct in Brunswick Square, with a bookstall in the middle that turned out to be related to Skoob and the helpful lady pointed us in the right direction (only after I had found another couple of interesting items):

Skoob is underground and rather wonderful (if a little more expensive than some of the other places we have visited). Their Penguins in particular are great and I’m afraid that I filled quite a few holes in my collection here:

(Some green Maigrets I don’t have.)


(A few orange Penguins – Powells and a Snow I am missing.)

I could of course have gone much madder here but budget and weight of the backpack got in the way. After all this mad spending, we decided it was time for a free treat and headed off the British Library to see the scroll.

I confess I was inordinately excited about this. “On the Road” is a book I first encountered in my teens, and it sent me off on a huge voyage of discovery with all the beat writers. I’ve read and revisited the beats many times over the years and it felt actually quite important to me that I should see this manuscript while it was in the UK. Also, I must confess I’ve never actually been into the best library in the world (!) so that was another consideration. The BL is very impressive, I have to say – when you walk into the lobby and see floors of rare books ascending up into the ceiling, behind glass, it kind of takes your breath away. The scroll was impressive too – it’s just a simple little exhibition with some pictures, quotes, timelines and the like, and part of the scroll extended and laid out under glass for you to look at. Gave me a little thrill seeing the original typewriting and his hand-written amendments, I must say. After reading and inwardly absorbing for a while, it was time for a lovely latte and a sit down as we had done a *lot* of walking. The bookshop at the BL is pretty fab too, and there is a permanent exhibition of Treasures from the British Library which we are determined to go back and see.

Finally, we popped off to Shaftesbury Avenue to indulge YC with a visit to Forbidden Planet. She is a bit of a gamer (as well as a reader) and so we felt it only fair to give her free rein after she had so patiently trudged around bookish places with us. This turned out to be a vaguely interesting visit as we got talking about classic “Doctor Who” (not the modern abomination) with some guys who it turns out attended many of the DW conventions that J. and  did in the 1980s – and in fact the one at which we met at Longleat in 1983 (but that’s another very long story…..)

After which it was time to say goodbye to J. and head off to our various trains home. I won’t talk about our journey, involving as it did changes and connecting buses – suffice to say it was good to be home!

We had a fabby time in the Big Smoke – not only the lovely book shopping, but the good company, catching up with an old friend and visiting the BL. It’s too long since I did this kind of trip and I’m certainly not going to leave it so long next time!

Recent Reads: The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

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And time for another little dip into non-fiction! This volume is another charity shop find – I’ve been seeing out about for ages now (it came out originally in 1998) and I finally decided I fancied reading it.The fact that Will Self describes it as “a tour de force” on the front cover is neither here nor there….

Anyway – the story is subtitled “a tale or murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary” and that pretty much sums up what it is! Dr. James Murray was the Editor of the OED and came from a poor Scottish background with no training. Yet through hard work and being in the right place at the right time, he ended up spending a good chunk of his life overseeing the compilation of the definitive English dictionary. Up till that time, there had only been partial attempts at such a thing – the most prominent being Samuel Johnson’s version – and it’s hard for us to realise in these times of instant reference sources that when Shakespeare was writing there were no standardised spellings or meanings for language. In fact, this is something I came across when I read an interesting book about Marlowe called “The Reckoning” as a lot of the confusion around his death stems from the fact that in those days, people did not even spell proper names consistently – so there is no way of knowing for sure which person might be referred to in a document!

The murder and madness in the title are courtesy of Dr. William C. Minor. This American surgeon had fought in the civil war there and come out of it mentally changed. Whether his condition was caused by events in the war, or whether he would always have developed his madness, is impossible to say (as there are hints at strange tendencies during his upbringing). However Winchester makes a strong case for him being affected by the brutality and horror he witnessed. After moving around the USA, Minor came to London and whilst under the influence of delusions committed an unprovoked murder. He was sent to the newly established Broadmoor and spent most of the rest of his life there.

These two unlikely men came into contact through the OED. The compiling of the dictionary was undertaken with the help of hundreds of volunteers, checking words and meanings and citations, and Minor was an educated man. One of his comforts in Broadmoor was his books and he ended up being one of the major contributors to the work. What is amazing is the amount of time it took Murray to realise that he was dealing with someone who was classed as insane, but Broadmoor did not have the reputation then that it does now!

This was a fascinating little read. The story of the making of the dictionary itself was fascinating (and I may have to look out the book that tells that tale in more detail.) But the strange intersection of these two men’s lives was also intriguing and it made a gripping read, albeit one tinged with much sadness. Minor was plagued with delusions all his life and of course nowadays we would have medication to treat such things. But his work on the OED gave him purpose and pleasure and he had the best life he could hope for in the circumstances. It’s an admirable and enjoyable book and I think Winchester obviously succeeded in his aim to ensure that all the protagonists are properly remembered for posterity. If you like words, dictionaries and historical detecting, you’ll love this book!

Recent Re-reads: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

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In the early to mid-1980s I went through my first Big Reading Binge, when I devoured umpteen newly discovered authors – Virginia Woolf, Colette, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Cocteau, Camus, Calvino – and of course Kafka. I was like a kid in a candy shop, having discovered all these wonderful writers, and fortunately when I’ve revisited them over the years, I haven’t been disappointed. I re-read some Woolf, Colette, Camus and Calvino recently, and the sight of a little bargain in Poundland sent me back to Kafka!

Poundland? I hear you exclaim! Yes, Poundland. We have a rather large branch in the Big Town, which lodges in the old, much-missed Woolworths store, and up at the back there is a section with books for £1. Understandably, these are most often rubbish but occasionally there is a little gem. I picked up a copy of Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma” a while back and recently I was browsing with Youngest Child when we spotted some hardback “Banned Books”. There were only a few titles but they were two for £1! I decided to have a fresh copy of “Metamorphosis” and YC settled for “Lolita” (“to see what all the fuss is about”). The books appear to have been produced to sell with a newspaper, but are nice little hardbacks with a dustwrapper and introduction.

There can’t be many people who don’t know what “Metamorphosis” is about but here goes – it’s a short (77 page) story about a young man called Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning to find he has turned into an insect. Gregor works as a travelling salesman, supporting his mother, father and sister after some kind of financial disaster which has left the family owing money to the company. His dream is to send his sister to the conservatory as she plays the violin and he works hard to earn and save enough for this.

Much of the story is told from the thought-stream of Gregor, as he is unable to communicate with his family now that he is a bug. The family recognise that he is their son/brother, but are repelled by his appearance. Initially, the sister Grete feeds and cares for her brother as much as she can, despite the repulsion she feels, and Gregor attempts to adjust to his new status. The whole family has to take on work to cope without Gregor’s income and tensions build up when they take in three lodgers.

Of course, this surface level description doesn’t really hint at the number of themes explored here. Firstly, if the family are all capable of working, why does poor Gregor have to work so hard to support all three of them – the burden could have been spread equally and everyone would have been under less pressure. It is hinted, through the response of the three lodgers to some violin playing by Grete, that she is not actually that good a musician so it might have been more practical for her to think of a proper job than waste time dreaming of the conservatory. Similarly, Gregor’s father, who was apparently unable to work after the problem with the company, manages to find a job after Gregor’s change and is also revealed not to have been as bankrupt as he made out as there are bonds and savings to be drawn on. Gregor, in his simplicity, sees this as sensible behaviour on the part of his father, whereas the reader is more likely to think that the father has been taking great advantage of the son.

There is also the company that Gregor works for – a large, impersonal organisation whose functionaries are known by their title rather than a name: Mr. Manager, Mr. Chief, Mr. Chairman etc. The company is such a demanding one that they send a member of staff to check up on Gregor at the first moment he is not in work on time. There are echoes of future themes in Kafka’s books here, with the faceless officials in control of the hapless little man who loses control of his situation.

Public domain via Wikipedia Commons

Of course, there is a huge analogy at work here. Gregor has obviously become an insect emotionally before he became one physically – a worker ant, slaving away for three ungrateful family members, with no time for himself or for a proper life apart from his work. When he becomes an insect physically he actually becomes more human emotionally, as he no longer has to rush about frantically pursuing money, but can sit back and lovingly observe his family. He is as considerate as he can be of their needs, covering himself with a sheet when they enter his room or hiding under the sofa. The family, conversely, initially try to care for , but as things progress begin to shun and hate him when he is need of their love and support. In a reversal of roles, they become the emotional insects, rushing about working, and they feel nothing but relief when the inevitable result comes about.

The ending I thought to be rather ambiguous. The remaining family are out in the sun, a burden lifted from them and Grete growing into a woman who will presumably marry and have a normal life. They have shed the past and are moving on to the future – was the sacrifice of Gregor necessary to get them to this point or is it only their cruelty that has made this possible? It could be said that at the start of the story the three other members of the family were completely passive and powerless, and it is only Gregor’s transformation and passing that allows them to develop into functioning ‘normal’ human beings – although whether that is a good thing or not is debatable!

“Metamorphosis” is a thought-provoking story, which demands contemplation and consideration. It’s obvious that Kafka wanted to explore many themes: alienation, transformation, the strains of work, the structure and relationships within a family – but as well as all this, it’s a very readable and intriguing tale and I’m glad I returned to it.

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