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Best Reads of 2012

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This is going to be quite a difficult post to do, as I’ve read so many books this year and loved so many of them, that picking just a few or putting them in order will be a bit of a strain! So I’ve decided to just list a few of the stand-out reads that really made an impact and stayed with me the most:

Elizabeth Taylor

This was the year I discovered the *other* Elizabeth Taylor, thanks to the wonderful LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group.  Over the 9 months since I did, I’ve read all 12 of ET’s novels and I think she’s an amazing and underrated writer. Her subtlety, her eye for detail, her economy of style and her ability to get to the nub of things have made her one of my favourite writers. It’s difficult to pick out a favourite – at the moment I’m tossing up between “A Game of Hide and Seek” and “Blaming” but I think this might change as I reflect on her books.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – definitely my Persephone of the year! I’m ashamed to say I only discovered this wonderful publisher in 2012 and am still on catch-up. I love the variety of their books – from thrillers to romances to cook books to – well anything that seems to be neglected and need rediscovering! “Miss Pettigrew” is one of the best feel good reads I’ve ever had!

In The First Circle– for Russian Reading Month I undertook a number of volumes, including this chunkster. I’ve read and loved Solzhenitsyn’s work since my teens and this book absorbed me for a number of days. Wonderful writing and wonderful translation – the later subject being something that exercised my mind a lot recently and still has me searching out the best versions of some of my favourites!

A Christmas Carol – a re-read for Dickens in December and my, did I enjoy it! A perfect little book packed with everything you need for a great creepy and yet  uplifting Christmas tale celebrating the best side of humans – lovely!

If on a Winters Night a Traveller / Cosmicomics – hard to pick just one Calvino, as I have re-read three this year and want to re-read more. These are very different books in many ways but still with Calvino’s distinctive voice. One of my favourite authors ever!

A Pin to see the Peepshow – this has to be my Virago of the year! I read this quite soon after joining the VMC group and loved it. A brilliantly written, very moving and absorbing story with a heroine who was flawed but who deserved more than life served up to her. I recommend it to everyone.

Guard your Daughters – surprise hit of the year amongst LT members, thanks to Simon‘s championing of the book. A lovely, surprisingly deep volume with a portrait of a lively and endearing family, and how they can conspire to keep an unnatural status quo going without realising it. As many have said, it cries out to be reissued by Persephone.

I haven’t read an awful lot of non-fiction lately but two volumes stand out:

Bright Young People by D.J. Taylor – an excellent read, telling the tale of the bright young things of the 1920s, even-handed and scrupulously fair – a great example of how all factual books should be written.

Nabokov by Gogol – and as if to contradict myself, Nabokov’s unconventional portrait of Gogol by concentrating on specific work still manages to bring the great Russian writer alive, while entertaining the reader with some amazing prose!

Honorable Mentions

A few titles worth mentioning that nearly made it onto the favourites list (and actually the list itself might well be different if I had written it yesterday or tomorrow!):

Conquered City – Victor Serge

What’s Become of Waring – Anthony Powell

Cruise of the Rolling Junk – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Red House Mystery – A. A. Milne

I’ve had a wonderful year of reading, only 6 months or so of which have been rambled about here since I started blogging. It’s possible that I’ll set myself some reading challenges for 2013 – but whether I stick to them is another matter!

Christmas Bookish Lovelies!

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Not content with spoiling me on my recent birthday, my family and friends provided me with some treats at Christmas too! First up are three rather nice volumes from OH, all of which are parts of ongoing serial-types:

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I’ve read all Mankell’s Wallander series and also all of Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde series, so both of these were well received. The Nicola Upson “Josephine Tey”  books are new to me but I’ve been wanting to read them for a while as I love Tey’s books.  However, OH seems to have presented me with book four, which is a perfect excuse to track down the other three….!

Next up, some gifts from Eldest Child:

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I confess to being a great lover of Cath Kidston, and a wannabee-sewer so her “Sew!” book may come in handy! As for the cookbook – I’ve been vegetarian since I was 18 and have drifted in and out of veganism many times (always being seduced by damn cheese) – but I think my health would benefit from the shift back to veganism so this is a rather timely gift.

Youngest Child came up with something very lovely too:

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As I’m a huge fan of Sylvia Plath, this book about her visual artwork is of course essential – very excited!

And finally the in-laws, under instruction from OH, provided this:

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Of course, I was lucky enough to see the actual Scroll on its recent visit to the British Library so I was very excited to receive this volume. I confess, it’s the first one I picked up from the lot to read! Thanks, lovely family!

And a last-minute addition from an old friend, V:

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I do love the original Holmes stories and have read some offshoot books, so I’m hoping this will be good! Thanks, V!

What about you? Were you spoiled this Yule?

Some Christmas Thoughts

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As Christmas arrives and the year draws to a close, I find myself wondering a little where the time has gone. It has been something of a year for me. Real life has been quite trying at time, with health scares (fairly manageable fortunately) for myself and OH. In March I stumbled across LibraryThing and its very wonderful Virago Modern Classics group. I joined instantly and have met online some amazing and generous people who are part of the group. This led me on to some equally wonderful book blogs and it was this that spurred me on to start my Bookish Ramblings here. I enjoy sharing book chat and thoughts with people, and I’ve come across some brilliant books I’d never heard of before – and probably wouldn’t have without these online folks.

One of the fun things on LT is the Virago Group’s Secret Santa, which I signed up for this year. My Santee is overseas and I haven’t heard yet that they’ve received their gifts – I do hope they get their safely. My wonderful SS sent two lovely parcels all tied up with ribbon – here they are:

Don’t they look gorgeous?

I managed to put off opening them until today and here they are in all their glory – “Miss Buncle’s Book” and “Miss Buncle Married” by D.E. Stevensons – two lovely Persephones!:

I confess I guessed who they were from when they arrived, as Kerry has been kind enough to send me a duplicate book in the past. But I was thrilled to bits to receive these as the Miss Buncle books have been on my wishlist for so long – and these are lovely new editions with bookmarks included. Thank you *so* much Kerry – I couldn’t have received anything better!

So, I hope all my fellow VMC groupers, and anyone else who reads this blog, has a wonderful festive season – see you all in the new year when I will try to sum up some of my best reads of 2012!!

Fabulous Finds: Some pre-Christmas Virago Lovelies

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OK, I know it’s nearly Christmas and I shouldn’t be buying any books, just waiting to see what Santa brings – but a couple of new Viragos have made their way onto my shelves. It just couldn’t be helped!

The first up is this lovely Elizabeth Taylor:

Previously I only had a modern version of this title, but I was lucky enough to be picked out of the (digital) hat to win this thanks to Dee and her lovely posts on Laura’s site – thanks Dee! The cover is gorgeous and makes me want to read this book all over again.

The second is this:

Now I confess that Northanger Abbey is one of my favourite Austens, but the copy I have is an ancient, tatty cheap one – so this lovely volume, for £2 in the charity shop, was impossible to resist!

So, sorry Santa – but I promise I will be *very* excited if I get any books tomorrow 😉

Virago Volumes: Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

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After a joyous year (well, about three-quarters of a year in my case) of the LibraryThing Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations, we have finally reached Taylor’s last book, “Blaming” which was published just after her early death in 1975.

“Blaming” opens with Amy and Nick holidaying in Istanbul. They are a middle-aged couple with children and grandchildren, and Nick is recovering from an operation. They befriend slightly a fellow traveller, Martha, an American author who is younger than them. Martha comes to Amy’s aid when Nick suddenly dies during the trip and back in England keeps in touch with Amy, who is trying to pick up some kind of life gain after her loss. However, truth be told, Amy does not really like Martha and when events in the latter’s life take a serious turn, Amy is left wondering whether she is to blame and if she could have done more to help Martha.

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Joanna Kingham’s introduction to my edition describes her mother’s struggle to finish this book while fighting her disease. But despite this (or maybe because of the effort she put into it) I found this one of Taylor’s strongest works. It has all her wonderful hallmarks – strong characterisation, acute observation, the ability to capture events in a few words – and is one of her most compelling reads.

Amy is an interesting protagonist, and as I look back on Taylor’s books, typical of many of the women characters she writes about. She is middle/upper class, with no particular occupation but defines herself in relation to her husband and children (and then grandchildren). I think we would find fewer female characters like her nowadays as culturally women generally have a less restricted outlook on life, but at the time Taylor was writing this was much more common. And like Midge in “The Wedding Group”, Amy finds it hard to cope with being alone. She has a son James and a rather intimidating daughter-in-law Maggie, whom she is determined not to be a burden on, and two grandchildren – Isobel and Dora. The two little girls were brilliantly portrayed – Taylor is so good at children! – but I think I would have had trouble dealing with Isobel on a regular basis, as does Amy. With Dora, she has a particular bond and this grandchild helps Amy to move on from her loss.

Martha herself is a complex character, and it would seem from reading Nicola Beauman’s biography of ET that she is based on a friend of Taylor’s, who tragically took her own life in somewhat similar circumstances to Martha. In many ways it is hard to sympathise with Martha – she has an irritant quality which affects Amy (who thinks she should feel grateful to Martha but is annoyed by her) and also us as readers (well, me in any case!) She is the complete opposite of Amy – untidy, fidgety, scruffy and in many ways detached. Taylor describes the Anglophile writer’s career in a very few words:

“Her few books were…well reviewed, and more or less unknown. Without fretting, she waited to be discovered.”

I wonder here if she was having a little dig at herself and her neglect as a serious novelist. There are also possible generational and class differences which are also manifested in the contrasts between Amy and her daughter-in-law Maggie. This is demonstrated by such simple comparisons as the way in which Amy will eat formally at a table served by Ernie whereas her son’s family eat at the kitchen table – and the fact that Amy is somewhat fazed, when looking after her granddaughters, at the thought of having to defrost and cook a meal. But Martha does make it very hard to like her – her brashness, nosiness and well, rudeness repel the other characters and the reader. She eventually marries but one wonders really why she did so – she wishes to stay in England, not return to small town America, and seems to have little in common with her husband Simon. Her descent into a depressed mental state is handled delicately by Taylor – hinted at more than stated outright – but her lonely suicide is terribly sad and despite her irritating habits you would not wish her to end her life this way.

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Once again, we have a wonderful cast of supporting characters painted by ET. Ernie, Amy’s cook and general factotum, is an ex-forces man and entertaining in his own right. Then there is Gareth Lloyd, family doctor and friend of Amy and Nick, whose wife was Amy’s great friend and who died a little while ago. Amy is in many ways steered towards Gareth and it becomes inevitable that they will marry. This relieves Amy’s family of any necessity of taking care of her, gives Gareth a purpose in life and gives Amy someone to base her life around. Perhaps this resolution was a little un-Taylor-like – I don’t usually look to her for a traditional happy ending – but is quite a neat tying up of things.

As for the title – well, there is plenty of guilt and blame going around in this story. Amy feels guilty about Nick, about how she behaved on their holiday, about how she treats Martha; James feels guilty about his mother and how she will cope on her own (to the extent of bullying her a little bit about her spending and hinting she should move from the house she loves to a flat; and there is the final huge guilt Amy has about Martha and how she behaved towards her. The final scene between Amy and Simon is heartbreaking, where Amy reveals the truth about Martha’s “escape money” which she left with Amy. Should she have said nothing and left him with her illusions? Should she blame herself more for letting Martha down and not getting in touch with her on her return to England? In the end, the final blaming and assigning of guilt is left slightly ambiguous and perhaps for the reader to decide.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Elizabeth Taylor’s work this year – it’s been a voyage of discovery for me as I hadn’t come across her novels before – and this one ranks as one of my favourites. Her character portraits were spot on and the locating of the start of the novel away from the home counties was refreshing. I warmed very much to Dora, the eldest granddaughter and I came out of this book feeling that I would want to re-read it despite the sadness.

So many thanks to the LibraryThing Virago group for introducing me to this wonderful novelist (and particularly Laura who curated the event so beautifully) – and now I’m very much looking forward to next year’s Barbara Pym readalong!

Dickens in December: re-reading A Christmas Carol

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In this year of celebrating one of the country’s greatest novelists, Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Postcards from Asia are running a “Dickens in December” event and I have decided to join in by reading at least one of the great man’s works! Today is the day earmarked for a readalong of “A Christmas Carol”, probably his best-known book, and one I’ve read many times over the years – though not recently, I must say.

xmas vintage

I should confess up front that I have had to re-read this book before today as I this is my final day at work before the Christmas break and so finding any reading time today will be very unlikely (despite ACC being a short work!). I have a lovely new volume of ACC (plus other Christmas stories) in the Vintage set presented to me by my lovely OH earlier in the year, so this is the one I read.

There can’t be many people who don’t know the plot of “A Christmas Carol “- miserly old man is visited by ghosts and is redeemed and turned into a Good Human Being in time for Christmas. The story is ingrained in our collective consciousness – the name of Scrooge is now synonymous with meanness and the expression “Bah, Humbug!” was plastered over Christmas Santa hats when I went round town last weekend. So you might be forgiven for approaching this book with a slight sense of knowing the plot and wondering what the point of reading it again is.

Alistair Sim as Scrooge

Alistair Sim as Scrooge

Well, the joy of the language for one thing. From the opening sentence, Dickens draws you straight into the plot and writing is just wonderful. In a short work like this, Dickens’ wordplay is condensed to the essential and in some ways is all the better for it. He can paint a picture in a short paragraph that will stay with you and haunt you, appropriately enough.

What also impressed me about this work was the incredible amount that Dickens packs into his 100-odd pages. You get four main ghosts (and a host of others); misery and poverty; life stories; comments on the state of humanity; and at the end of it joy and redemption. It takes a real skill to get so much into a story which is so well told. As for the characters – well, there’s a beautiful cast and they come alive instantly. Scrooge and his late partner Marley, who are driven by business; Scrooge’s poor clerk Bob Cratchit and his happy but impoverished family, including poor frail Tiny Tim; Scrooge’s family including his nephew Fred; his first employers, the Fezziwigs; his lost love Belle – to name but a few. Yes, that many living and breathing amazing characters in such a slim novella – a sign of genius in my opinion.

And there are many messages embedded in the story about charity and meanness; the poverty and suffering in Victorian society, particularly among children; the curse of acquisitiveness; the joy and happiness that can be gained by having a family – but this never gets in the way of the plot. One of the most chilling parts is when The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two emaciated children beneath his robes and declares that the boy is Ignorance and the girl is Want. Dickens was a crusader for social reform and the book reflects his deeply felt concerns without the story suffering.

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This *is* the quintessential Christmas story and it would also be a fabulous introduction to Dickens for anyone who hasn’t read him yet and is a bit intimidated by the size of some of his books. I found this moving, scary and uplifting and I was knocked out by it after not reading it for many years. Thanks to the ladies for organising the readalong and getting me to revisit this one – I love it all over again!

Birthday Bookishness!

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It was my birthday at the weekend (I’m not saying which one….) and my family were kind enough to spoilt me with some very bookish gifts! Some of these were as a result of hints, but some they came up with on their own, so I was very pleased (to say the least!)

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First up, other half very cleverly found a couple of books on Agatha Christie’s Notebooks, with unreleased stories. As a life-long lover of Dame Agatha’s work, this was a great treat!

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Next up, Youngest Child presented me with a beautiful US Penguin edition of “Little Women” to replace my childhood volume which I’ve lost over the  years. This has a lovely faux-embroidered cover and the ragged-cut edges US paperbacks have – gorgeous!

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Middle Child produced a rather wonderful treat in the form of a signed copy of Will Self’s latest novel, “Umbrella”! I love Self’s work and saw him give a very funny talk and reading session a few years back. He did the same thing recently in her local town and she went along and picked up a personalised copy for me, which I’m very excited about!

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And Eldest Child went to my wish list, circulated among family, and came up trumps with Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’ve read a lot about this book recently so I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

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Last but not least on the bookish front, OH treated me to a CD – a BBC/British Library collection of Sylvia Plath (and Ted Hughes) interviews and readings – much excitement!

So I am in the luxurious position of having lots of reading material to choose from and not knowing what to pick up first – thank you, lovely family!

Virago Volumes: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

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I’m afraid I’ve got very, very behind with the LibraryThing VMC group readalong of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels – and have only just finished November’s volume, “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont”. I *do* have a very good excuse, in the form of 750 pages of Solzhenitsyn’s “In The First Circle”, but at last I have read this book, which I think is ET’s most famous work and some rate it as her best.

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Laura Palfrey, an ageing widow, arrives at the Claremont Hotel in London to take up residence. She has had to abandon her retirement home in Rottingdean after the death of her husband, and as her daughter lives in Scotland, is intending to eke out her capital by living quietly at a reduced rate in a small hotel. Her only other relative is her grandson Desmond who she seems to hardly ever see.

The Claremont is peopled with other retirees – arthritic Mrs. Arbuthnot, timid Mrs. Post, alcoholic Mrs. Burton and dirty-minded Mr. Osmond. Much rivalry exists between the old people about relatives and their visits, and Mrs. Palfrey is under pressure to produce her grandson. Enter Ludo, a young man who helps Laura when she falls over in the street. Ludo is a would-be novelist, whose subject is the old, and so Mrs. Palfrey is ideal subject matter for him. From her point of view, he is entirely unlike her stolid, uninterested grandson and so it somehow seems natural to invite him to dinner at the Claremont with her and ask him to masquerade as Desmond – which he does, with great aplomb, becoming an instant hit with the other residents. The deception is not something that Mrs. Palfrey would normally undertake and there is a kind of underlying tension – will they be found out or will Ludo continue the masquerade?

But the subject matter of this book is something deeper and sadder than just wishing you had nicer relatives and pretending that you do so. The novel takes old age head on and pulls no punches about the indignities it piles onto the residents of the Claremont. Poor Mrs. Arbuthnot deteriorates and has to go to a home where she declines and dies. Mr. Osgood recognises something in Mrs. Palfrey that sets her apart from the rest of the inhabitants and invites her to accompany him to a Lodge Dinner. However, he is seeking more than friendship as he sees in her a chance for freedom from the Claremont, a marriage of two companions who could set up somewhere in a little place and see out their days. But Mrs. Palfrey is having none of it, and it is her recoiling from Mr. Osgood that eventually leads to the climax of the story.

I have to say that this is one of the saddest books I have ever read, because it captures brilliantly the pathos and horror of old age when, instead of learning something new every day like a child, you forget something different every day as your faculties decline. The inhabitants of the hotel bravely put on a resistant, unconcerned face when they feel lonely, displaced and without a real home. They recognise bitterly that the manager would prefer to let his rooms out to higher-paying transient guests and they know that “We are not allowed to die here”. It is significant that Ludo takes this statement of Mrs. Palfrey’s and turns it into the title of his book, because death is all the old people have to look forward to.

Taylor also captured quite brilliantly an issue which haunts us nowadays – the fact that our parents and grandparents are living longer than ever, but there is no place for them in Western culture. Many countries and races cherish their old, looking to them for wisdom and guidance – we shunt them off into rest homes and assisted living flats and try to pretend this is best for them. Whether it is or not, our culture is not structured for extended families under one roof, and it’s a problem with no solution that I can see.

All of the ageing residents have issues with their families, and Mrs. Palfrey is no exception – the physical distance between Laura and her daughter in Scotland echoes the emotional gap between them. She has no relationship with her real grandson who has no interest in visiting her, and receives more kindness and concern from a stranger like Ludo than she does from her real kin.

There has been some discussion on LibraryThing about the relationship between Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey, and whether he is taking advantage of her so he can use her as material for his book. I don’t see it quite like that – I think both of them use the other for something they want (subject for a book, substitute grandson) but I think that they also fill a need for each other. Ludo gets a kind of mothering interest from Mrs. Palfrey which is very much lacking from his own parent; and Mrs. Palfrey gets kindness and consideration from a young man who might as well be her grandson when compared with her real, indifferent one. And at the end of the story, it is Ludo who visits Laura in hospital and Ludo who is with her, reading her poetry at the end.

Is this Taylor’s best work? I’m not sure about that because I’ve still to read “Blaming” and the short stories. Certainly it’s one of her finest, with all the usual attention to detail and her ability to capture a character in a few well-chosen words. The phrase “We are not allowed to die here” is tragic and prescient as it is the moving of Mrs. Palfrey after her fall so that she will not be seen lying in the lobby which contributes to her demise. The descriptions of the privations of old age are heartbreaking:

“Mrs. Palfrey was trying to walk off a stiffness in her hip, but it would not be walked off. It seemed, instead, to be settling in, locking her joint, so that every step was consciously achieved. She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of her reach.

Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed.”

The book does have its humorous moments and it’s also peppered with in-jokes, slightly acerbic remarks about other novelists like Lord Snow (married to Pamela Hansford-Johnson, who was not a fan of Taylor’s work), Elizabeth Bowen (who was a fan) and Olivia Manning (also very anti-Taylor). But the overwhelming atmosphere of the work is so sad and downbeat that I don’t know that I could read it again – certainly not for pleasure – so although it is a marvellously written book I don’t think it will be one that comes down from my shelves very often.

Recent Reads: Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome

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After the length and depth of “In The First Circle”, I thought it might be nice to try something a little shorter and lighter – and this book certainly qualifies! “Diary of a Pilgrimage” is of course written by the author of “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)”, a book which I first read many years ago and which I’ve returned to many times. 3 Men is of course hilarious and so although I hadn’t heard of DOAP, I snapped up the lovely little hardback version I found in the local Oxfam bookstore on the strength of the first page or two.

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DOAP was published only two years after 3 Men (in 1891), and it tells the story of the journey of the narrator and his friend B. as they travel over Europe by train to visit the Passion Play at Oberammergau. En route they suffer a bad channel crossing, problems with language and diet, the stress of foreign trains and other assorted difficulties. Finally they reach their destination and then, having had a transcendental experience with the play, return back to earth to deal with the journey home.

Despite some passages of great humour, this book does not quite capture the magic of 3 Men and it took me a while to figure out why. I think personally it was a lack of balance – 3 Men is a beautiful mix of humour and philosophising, with its 3 Men (and dog) adventuring along the Thames and having mishaps on the way. But DOAP was perhaps a little too restricted in its focus, and the two chapters of description covering the religious element of the performance and its execution were just a bit dull. The humorous pieces were in some cases wonderful – the chapter where B. wrestles manfully with European timetables in an attempt to work out connecting trains, which goes off into an extended flight of fancy about missing trains, was hilarious and had me laughing out loud. But the work was not consistent enough to scale the heights of 3 Men and I can identify with Wikipedia’s statement: He wrote a number of plays, essays and novels, but was never able to recapture the success of Three Men in a Boat.

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But there were enough lovely phrases and pieces of wit to make me glad that I did read this book:

“It is easy enough to talk about nothing, like I have been doing in this diary hitherto. It is when one is confronted with the task of writing about something, that one wishes one were a respectable well-do-do sweep –  a sweep with a comfortable business of his own, and a pony – instead of an author.”

“And then you can….give your impressions concerning it. Never mind their being silly. They will be all the better for that. Silly remarks are generally more interesting than sensible ones.”

There is another hilarious sequence where our two gentlemen are eating in a beer-garden and all of their courses are eaten in time to the music, building up to bolting their cheese down to the ballet music from Carmen “after which we rolled about in agonies to all the national airs of Europe.”

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So, on balance, definitely worth a read for the humorous bits!

(And incidentally, the drawings, three of which are on these book covers, are a delight!)

Recent Reads: In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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After about ten days of joyous reading, I have actually finished the chunkster! And I must say that it has been a remarkably rewarding experience. This is one of the longest books I have read in a long while, and sinking myself into the depths of it, not rushing myself, becoming involved in the characters and their lives and fates, has been marvellous – and has also convinced me that I haven’t lost the knack of reading long works!

“In The First Circle” has had a chequered history. On the back of the success of “One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich”, which Solzhenitsyn had somehow managed to get published in the Soviet Union in 1962, the author decided to try to get more of his work out there. He knew that ITFC was unlikely to be published in its original format, so he edited it heavily, changing a number of plot details and removing whole chapters in the hope that the censors would pass it. They didn’t – but the truncated copy was smuggled to the West and published there in 1968 to great acclaim.

However, once Solzhenitsyn had defected to the West, he worked on reinstating the missing material and putting ITFC back into its original state. This 96 chapter version was finally published in English in 1999, translated by his approved linguist, Harry Willetts, and this is the volume I read.

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Firstly, a short plot summary from Wikipedia:

In the First Circle depicts the lives of the occupants of a sharashka (a R&D bureau made of gulag inmates) located in the Moscow suburbs. This novel is highly autobiographical. Many of the prisoners (zeks) are technicians or academics who have been arrested under Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code in Joseph Stalin’s purges following the Second World War. Unlike inhabitants of other gulag labour camps, the sharashka zeks were adequately fed and enjoy good working conditions; however if they found disfavour with the authorities, they could be instantly shipped to Siberia.

The title is an allusion to Dante’s first circle of Hell in The Divine Comedy wherein the philosophers of Greece, and other non-Christians, live in a walled green garden. They are unable to enter Heaven, as they were born before Christ, but enjoy a small space of relative freedom in the heart of Hell.

Innokenty Volodin, a diplomat, makes a telephone call he feels obligated to his conscience to make, even though he knows he risks arrest. His call was taped and the NKVD seek to identify who made the call.

The sharashka prisoners work on technical projects to assist state security agencies and generally pander to Stalin’s increasing paranoia. While most are aware of how much better off they are than “regular” Gulag prisoners, some are also conscious of the overwhelming moral dilemma of working to aid a system that is the cause of so much suffering. Lev Rubin is tasked with identifying the voice in the recorded phone call, he examines printed spectrographs of the voice and compares them with recordings of Volodin and five other suspects. He narrows it down to Volodin and one other suspect, both of whom are arrested.

By the end of the book, several zeks, including Gleb Nerzhin, the autobiographical hero, choose to stop cooperating, even though their choice means being sent to much deadlier camps. Volodin, initially crushed by the ordeal of his arrest, begins to find encouragement at the end of his first night in prison.

However, a bare bones description of the plot gives no real hint of the richness and complexity of this novel. It’s remarkably well constructed and features a disparate cast of characters who are in fact connected by a complex web, which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. The story features a wide range of people, from the zeks, who are portrayed as having a relatively comfortable existence in the special prison, compared with those in Siberia; their wives and families, trying to scrape out an existence in the free world but often shunned because of their prisoner family members; the free employees of Marfino, who supervise the work of the zeks but in many cases become involved with them; the officers and the officials of the various state agencies who are often in conflict with each other while desperately hanging on to their positions; even the Great Leader, Stalin himself, is portrayed.

Because the book is so rich in characters, it’s hard to pick out just some to focus one, but my favourites included:

Ruska, a young zek mechanic who falls in love with Klara, a prosecutor;
Klara herself, who finds this love so unexpectedly, only to have it snatched away.
Gleb Nerzhin, the main autobiographical character, a mathematician who represents Solzhenitsyn
Nadya, Gleb’s wife, a student in Moscow, waiting patiently for her husband, but has been unable to see him for a year, and is afraid to let anyone know her husband is a prisoner because of the consequences to her
Lev Rubin, a hardened communist who refuses to accept that the regime is wrong, despite having imprisoned him. Rubin is instrumental in the downfall of Volodin and the character is based on one of Solzhenitsyn’s friends
Sologdin is another designer working on the various scientific projects, and apparently based on another friend of Solzhenitsyn.
Innokenty Volodin, a diplomat, used to the good life and married to another daughter of the prosecutor. It is his actions at the start of the book that have such a dramatic effect on the rest of the characters.
To say that the action takes place over 4 days is perhaps slightly misleading. Although the actions of the first chapter set in motion a train of events which will come to fruition over the following 96 hours, Solzhenitsyn does not restrict our understanding of the characters to only what we see happen to them during that period. Instead, he enriches our experience of them with the use of flashbacks and memories, each character recalling events from their lives and things that have brought them to this point in time. Some of these ‘back stories’ occur over several chapters, as in the sequence in which the Great Leader recalls his life and his rise to power. And each is illuminating and speaks with the individual voice of the character who is narrating it.

The structure of the book is unusual in that the narration is described as “polyphonic”. Although in the third person, each chapter or sequence of chapters is told from the viewpoint of a different character. This enables us to get to know them all well and also creates a more intimate style of storytelling than that of an omniscient narrator but without the restrictions of a first person narrative. These shifting perspectives enable us to see events outside the sharashka and also allow us to appreciate different characters’ views of the same situation.

Lev Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn and Dmitri Panin(Lev Rubin, Gleb Nerzhin and Dmitri Sologdin in The First Circle)

Lev Kopelev, Solzhenitsyn and Dmitri Panin
(Lev Rubin, Gleb Nerzhin and Dmitri Sologdin in The First Circle)

The story is of course based on events in Solzhenitsyn’s life and men he knew. Like Gleb, he was imprisoned in a scientific research prison (Marfino) and we presume that the book is in fact a roman-a-clef. This is no criticism however – it would be a foolish author who claimed that his work was not influenced by his life, and if you have lived through remarkable experiences and times it makes sense to turn them into fiction, into a work that will outlive you and talk to future generations.

And this book does talk to us – it paints a remarkable picture of what it was like to live under the Soviet regime: the fear; the impossibility of fighting back against a complex and iron-fisted bureaucracy; the distrust of fellow man; the mindless cruelty; the blind following of the cause. There is a magnificent chapter where many of the prison staff have to attend an educational talk on the Soviet state which is littered with meaningless sentences and statements which make no sense at all, which nevertheless they all have to pretend to agree with.

Marfino

Marfino

One of the most moving sequences in the book is the chapter 61 when Innokenty visits his mother’s brother, Uncle Avenir, whom he barely knows and has not seen since her death. Despite this, and Ink’s initial doubts, the two men discover an instant family bond and are soon exchanging deep and treasonous opinions. Uncle Avenir is a secret memory man, retaining old newspapers back to the time of the revolution which show how the party line has changed and history has been re-written. His connection with his Uncle is one of the things which changes Innokenty irrevocably so that he goes on to take the momentous action of the first chapter.

And irrevocable actions happen at several points during the book. Many of the characters make heartbreaking decisions which they know they will result in them being sent to Siberian camps and probable death, but they also know that they will be failing themselves morally if they do not make those decisions. Innokenty’s phone call, Gleb’s refusal to join a cryptography research group, Gerasimovich’s refusal to work on a project which will enable the Cheka to spy on other citizens, Ruska’s decision to put his status as an informer at risk by letting other zeks know who the informers are – these are all moral decisions with far-reaching consequences but which allow their makers to rise above their captors.

The book also captures brilliantly how institutionalised the zeks have become after years of captivity – a kind of captivity with no hope of justice or freedom at the end of it. In the West, a prisoner knows he or she will be released when they have served their term but under this regime there is no prosect of escape:

Their dreams were all different, but whatever they dreamed, the sleepers were miserably aware that they were prisoners. If in their dreams they roamed over green grass or through city streets, it could mean only that they had tricked their jailers and escaped or had been released in error and were now wanted men. That total, blissful forgetfulness of their shackles imagined by Longfellow in “The Prisoner’s Dream” was denied them. The shock of wrongful arrests, followed by a ten- or twenty-year sentence, the baying of guard dogs, the sound of escort  troops priming their rifles, the nerve-racking jangle of reveille in the camps, seep through all the strata of ordinary experience, through all their secondary and even primary instincts, into a prisoner’s very bones so that, sleeping, he remembers that he is in jail before he becomes aware of smoke or the smell of burning and gets up to find the place on fire.  (chapter 71)

Solzhenitsyn allows his characters free rein to discuss their beliefs. And many of them do disagree quite violently – the chapters covering the disagreement of the communist Rubin and the religious Sologdin being a case in point, where the author describes the argument beautifully:

Like an express train rushing through the night, stopping nowhere, past rural stops, past wayside signal lights, across empty steppes, and through brightly lit towns, their argument sped over light and dark places in their memories, and everything that briefly loomed threw an uncertain light on, elicited a muffled echo from, their uncontrollably swaying, coupled thoughts. (chapter 69)

The irony is that it is only in prisoner that the characters can discuss their beliefs and feelings this freely – outside in the so-called free world they would be arrested instantly for any of the views they profess. Nerzhin starts the book as a sceptic having reached that point after much reading and thought, and he has a somewhat cynical outlook:

…..Nerzhin saw the People differently. None of his books had prepared him for his new insight. “The People” did not mean all those who speak your language, nor yet the chosen few branded with the fiery mark of genius. Neither birth nor the labor of your hands nor the privileges of education admit you to membership of the People.
    Only your soul can do that.
    And each of fashions his soul himself, year in and year out.
    You must strive to temper and to cut and polish your soul so as to become a human being. And hence a humble component of your people.
    A man with such a soul cannot as a rule expect to prosper, to go far in his career, to get rich. Which is why for the most part “the People” is not to be found at the higher levels of society. (chapter 66)

Solzhenitsyn is a master at portraying the realities of the Soviet regime – the chapters where Innokenty is arrested, then transferred to prison, give a chilling and detailed description of the whole dehumanising process. But it is not just the men who suffer – the women characters have to endure separation from their loved ones, a scrabble for survival, lack of money, the endless bureacracy which affects everything from their chances to qualify through university or the simple ability to eat well. Chapter chapter 82 indoctrination in optimism – women on the outside and their hideous lives of grinding poverty and shortages

I should say here that I hadn’t actually read all of the truncated version “The First Circle”, only the first half-dozen or so chapters – but a quick comparison reveals how much more powerful the original, restored version is. The catalyst for action in the first chapter is watered down in the cut version from the passing of atomic secrets from the USA to Russia, to a warning to a doctor that he is about to be arrested. The impact is considerably lessened and it is hard to accept that Innokenty would risk his comfortable in the cut version, whereas it is entirely believable in the original, restored book.

I find this book easy and a delight to read, but I do accept that it’s not for everyone and the fact that I’ve steeped myself in Russian culture and history helps! A basic knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet years that followed it would be useful to any reader, but it isn’t essential – there is always the Internet to check up on an unclear reference! And on a practical level, there is a useful list of characters names and who they are at the front of the book.

I find it astonishing that people have criticised Solzhenitsyn’s writing and claimed that he has only received attention because of the circumstances about which he is writing. This book is a remarkable piece of work – brilliantly written and constructed, populated with real, believable characters and painting a living picture of a group of human beings’ lives. I came out of the book feeling as if I had lived alongside the events in and around Marfino and I still have mental images of the action and the characters in my head.

As Wikipedia states:

The novel addresses numerous philosophical themes, and through multiple narratives is a powerful argument both for a stoic integrity and humanism. Like other Solzhenitsyn works, the book illustrates the difficulty in maintaining dignity within a system designed to strip its inhabitants of it.

My personal belief is that Solzhenitsyn’s reputation has suffered because of his refusal to embrace Western values. When he left Russia, the West (America in particular) seemed to want him to reject his cultural heritage and espouse Western views. But he never did this, pursuing his own beliefs and agenda to the end. Whether or not you agree with his views (and I don’t always) this doesn’t give you the right to condemn his writing with no grounds. His books are wonderful windows into a dark time, peopled with living characters and situations, and I highly recommend them to anyone who loves literature.

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