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Recent Reads: The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell

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This is the third volumes in my monthly read of AP’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence (see earlier reviews here and here) and with this book I feel that I’ve really hit my stride with Powell! The title refers to a type of financial trading, but Powell applies the phrase to life – more of which later.

acceptance

The book’s opening chapter has Nick Jenkins visiting the elusive Uncle Giles for dinner at his slightly seedy hotel. Uncle Giles seems rather friendly with a fellow guest Mrs. Erdleigh, who is something of a fortune-teller. Our next setting is the Ritz, where Nick is due to meet Mark Members but instead bumps into his old crony Peter Templer and ends up dining with him and his wife Mona, and also his old love Jean Templer (now Duport). Members does not show, but instead sents another old acquaintance, Quiggin – he and Members have been rivals for the position as secretary to St. John Clarke, a somewhat out of fashion novelist. Nick is invited back to the Templers’ house for the weekend, where he rather suddenly begins an affair with Jean, which continues throughout the rest of the book. Also invited to the house party are Quiggin, Mrs. Erdleigh and Jimmy Stripling, yet another old acquaintance. A rather surreal seance is held using a device called a planchette but the weekend disintegrates with the news that Clarke is ill and the rapid departure of Quiggin for London.

Events move on and the next set piece  has Nick coming across a workers’ demonstration in which the unlikely figure of Clarke is taking part, pushed along in a wheelchair by Quiggin and Mona Templer. The affair with Jean continues and they come across the wonderfully named Umfraville, who Nick has heard of in the past and whose presence will also impact on the complex relationships of his circle. The book ends with Jenkins, along with Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool, attendaning an Old Boys dinner at the Ritz hosted by their old housemaster Le Bas. Needless to say, all does not go well – Stringham is late and drunk, Nick picks up more gossip about his circle and  Widmerpool makes a dreadful, unexpected speech which is only halted when Le Bas collapses with a stroke. Stringham is so wasted that Nick and Widmerpool (I can’t bring myself to call him Kenneth!) have to take him home in a taxi and put him to bed. The book ends with Nick visiting Jean, although whether their affair will continue is not clear, as her husband is returning from abroad, perhaps a slightly reformed character?

This simplistic summary does not of course do justice to the richness and complexity of the narrative and the apparent ease with which Powell weaves all the strands of Jenkins’ life together. The prose is again beautiful and you can’t help but admire his deftness of touch as he handles the various elements of his plot. There are old characters and new, some making fleeting appearances or just being mentioned, and some taking a larger part in affairs, and Powell’s hand never falters as he manages them all expertly, controlling the dance.

“Pausing, with a slight gesture of exhaustion that seemed to imply arduous travel over many miles of arid desert or snow waste (according to whether the climate within or without the hotel was accepted as prevailing), he looked around the room; gazing as if in amazement at the fountain, the nymph, the palms in their pots of Chinese design: then turning his eyes to the chandeliers and the glass of the roof. His bearing was at once furtive, resentful, sagacious, and full of a kind of confidence in his own powers. He seemed to be surveying the tables as if searching for someone, at the same unable to believe his eyes, while he did so, at the luxuriance of the oasis in which he found himself. He carried no hat, but retained the belted leather overcoat upon which a few drops of moisture could be seen glistening as he advanced farther into the room, an indication that snow or sleet had begun to fall outside. This black leather garment gave a somewhat official air to his appearance, obscurely suggesting a Wellsian man of the future, heirarchic in rank. Signs of damp could also be seen in patches on his sparse fair hair, a thatch failing to roof in completely the dry, yellowish skin of his scalp.

This young man, although already hard to think of as really young on account of the maturity of his expression, was J.C. Quiggin.”

Thus Powell brilliantly introduces one of the main players in this particular volume by describing his incongruous arrival at the Ritz. So much is revealed by this one extract – the change in the social order, the conflict between old and new beliefs and systems, the hint of the political upheavals to come. We are in the 1930s, a tumultuous decade, where life is changing and it seems that the old order is well and truly on the way out. Nick straddles these various worlds and observes the polarised political differences, watching artists adopting different positions in an attempt to keep up to date; we are shown the extremes, from the young Italian following the Fascists to the far left in the form of Quiggin and co. So many characters flit in and out of the dance – Templer and Stringham plus Las Bas and Sillery; fairly briefly but memorably Widmerpool; Anne and Peggy Stepney; Baby Wentworth; many just by a mention; and most remarkably the novelist St. John Clarke (based on John Galsworthy, I believe) who, although he is an important character in the story, we never actually meet. The representation of political and social change is not always dealt with head on, but subtly so it is all the more effective. And Powell is the master of the sudden surprises of life: the discovery of that unlikely couple, Mona and Quiggin on a workers’ march is brilliantly done, and also represents the strange nature of life and the fragmented times in which this novel is set. He’s also a wonderful observer of how pivotal some moments in life can be e.g. the dinner where he once again meets Jean:

“Afterwards, that dinner at the Grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned. At the time, its charm seemed to reside in a difference from the usual run of things. Certainly the chief attraction of the projected visit would be absence of all previous plan. But, in a sense, nothing in life is planned – or everything is – because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step dance, the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be.”

“The Acceptance World” is definitely the book where this series starts to really shine for me. Much as I loved the first two books, I struggled in places with the density of the prose and the obliqueness of what Nick was telling us. Powell seems to have gained a little clarity in this book – the writing is still gorgeous and I hope some of the quotes I’ve pulled out will illustrate this – but without sacrificing anything in the quality of what he’s written, Powell somehow manages to make things more transparent, easier to grasp. Things gelled for me while reading TAW in a way they hadn’t quite done so in the first two novels. Maybe this is because of the slightly harder edge of the world Powell is writing about, with the intrusion of politics and the societal changes around him. There is still humour – Widmerpool is always good for a laugh, let’s face it – and Nick still has a wry, dry way of expressing himself – but it feels more like we are being narrated to by a real person in TAW and less of a cipher.

spring

There is also more about love and Jean (Templer) Duport takes centre stage as Nick’s first love returning for an affair, so that we can see him actually involved with another person – though once again there is that slight detatchment:

“There is always a real and an imaginary person you are in love with; sometimes you love one best, sometimes the other. At that moment it was the real one I loved.”

Although their affair appears to continue over a period we only see glimpses of it, and indeed of Jean’s life. There are absences from the story – Jean’s daughter barely gets a mention which is perhaps indicative of a world where children were palmed off on nannies and governesses, or simply because she is not allowed into Nick’s sphere at all. There is the sense that Jean gives herself to Nick in compartments and keeps most of her life separate from him; and with the imminent return of her husband, the reader is left wondering if there is a future for them.

I ended this book eager to simply jump into the next one and carry on living these characters’ lives with them, but I’m going to pace myself. Powell’s books are too good to be rushed and I feel you need to give yourself time for your impressions to keep forming and for the book to settle in your brain. Fiction of this quality is, alas, sadly lacking in modern times and I’m very glad I’ve embarked on my monthly read of this great work.

“When, in describing Widmerpool’s new employment, Templer had spoken of ‘the Acceptance World’, I had been struck by the phrase. Even as a technical definition, it seemed to suggest what we are all doing; not only in business, but in love, art, relligion, philosophy, politics, in fact all human activities. The Acceptance World was the world in which the essential element – happiness, for example – is drawn, as it were, from an engagement to meet a bill. Sometimes the goods are delivered, even a small profit made; sometimes the goods are not delivered, and disaster follows; sometimes the goods are delivered, but the valule of the currency is changed. Besides, in another sense, the whole world is the Acceptance World as one approaches thirty; at least some illusions discarded.. The mere fact of still existing as a human being proved that.”

A Poem by Poe: A Dream within a Dream

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EdgarAllanPoe

 

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

 

Recent Reads: A Theatrical Novel by Mikhail Bulgakov

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I’ve titled this review deliberately as this particular book by  Bulgakov has appeared under the name of “Black Snow” and “A Dead Man’s Memoir” and possibly even other titles! However, they are all pretty much the same book (more about that below) and this is an unfinished novel by MB which is a satirical look at theatre life.

 dead man's
The book tells the story of Sergei Leontievich Maksudov, who has written a novel and then a play called “Black Snow”. Early in the story, he describes his life so far:

“I examined my past.

‘And so,’ I said to myself as I sat by the kerosene stove during the March blizzard, ‘I have visited the following worlds.

‘World one: the university laboratory, in which I remember the fume cupboard and flasks on tripods. I left that world during the civil war. Let us not argue over whether I acted frivolously or not. After incredible adventures (although why really incredible? – who did not go through incredible adventures during the civil war?), in short, after that I found myself in the Shipping Herald. Due to what reason? Let us hold nothing back. I cherished hopes of being a writer.”

Of course, this is, like much of Bulgakov’s work, heavily autobiographical. “Black Snow” is “The White Guard” and the book tells the story of MB’s experiences in the literary world – firstly trying to get his book published, and secondly in turning it into a play and attempting to get it staged.

Whilst working at the Shipping Herald, Sergei writes his book and after a series of ludicrous and Kafkaesque encounters, part is published in a journal which immediately goes bust. Our hero tries to kill himself but fails and then miraculously is approached to stage a dramatised version of the story. Sergei is captivated by the theatrical world, but out of his depth, and we are presented with some remarkably funny and pointed pen portraits of life in a busy theatre, where tickets are much in demand (presumably as this is one of the few forms of entertainment available in Soviet Russia?) The play is to be prepared for production and the chapter where Sergei is dictating his play to the almost supernatural typist Poliksena Toropetskaya (based on his sister-in-law Olga) is a standout. It’s brilliantly written and wickedly funny, as she types, interprets what the author wants to say, answers the phone and deals with the endless stream of people coming past her with queries, all the time without turning a hair.

But nothing is straightforward in this bizarre thespian world and the completed play must be read to the theatre’s supremo, based on Stanislavski, who is portrayed as a somewhat eccentric recluse. After his disapproval, things are put on the back burner until suddenly out of the blue Sergei is summoned back to the theatre, and all seems on track for a performance of the play finally to go ahead. But nothing is that simple…

There can be no doubt that MB poured into this book a lot of his frustration at the tortuous processes he went through in trying to get his plays staged – constant problems with censors, actors, temperamental producers, changes of plan, rewrites – all of these element are reflected here, but also his love of the stage and ongoing wish to be part of presenting plays for the public.
The Moscow Arts Theatre is satirised, as well as Stanislavski, the inventor of method acting, as Ivan Vasilevich. However, when MB wrote this book he used a number of experiences over many years, and from many years ago, condensed into a short period of time to make a point. In reality, he was not an isolated man like Sergei and he had mainly a good relationship with Stanislavski.

Mikhail Bulgakov in 1935

Mikhail Bulgakov in 1935

The theatre, as represented in this novel, reflects something of the manic quality that was present in MB’s early prose, but he has become much more measured in his portrayal of this chaos. “A Theatrical Novel” is a wonderful portrait of the madness of theatre life; a milieu in which MB longed to move but in which he struggled to cope – the complexities and the temperaments were always too much for him to deal with and they made him almost hysterical at times with the frustration he felt. Although there is humour and absurdity in this work, there is also the sadness we perceive while seeing all MB’s frustrations at being unable to get his work into the public realm:

“Meanwhile the rain stopped and without any warning at all a frost set in. The window in my garret was decorated with lacework and as I sat there, breathing on a twenty-kopeck coin and pressing it into the icy surface, I realized that to write plays and not have them performed is intolerable.”

“Look at the way life rushes along, like water over a dam,” I whispered with a yawn, “and it’s as if I had been buried.”

In the end, Bulgakov was not buried by the system or the regime or anything else, as his works were strong and powerful enough to survive all these. “A Theatrical Novel” is a great read, even if you’re not a particular fan of the acting fraternity, and if I did star ratings I’d give it 5!

*****

A note on the text

BS, like many of MB’s works, seems to have had a tortuous route into print and there are still some discrepancies between various published versions. The novel was unfinished at MB’s death, and he put it aside in the late 1930s to work on his magnum opus, “The Master and Margarita”. I have two versions of ATN, the Harvill edition (entitled simply “Black Snow”) translated by Michael Glenny and the Penguin – called “A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel)” – translated by Andrew Bromfield. I read the latter volume this time and enjoyed it immensely, but although I haven’t made much of a comparison of the two versions, there is one substantial difference which does affect the reading of the book dramatically (and here I should insert a SPOILER ALERT of sorts).

b snow

The Penguin version opens with a foreword in which an unnamed friend of Sergei’s relates that his friend has committed suicide and left this manuscript to tell of his life and what had happened to cause him to end his life. However, the Harvill edition appends this as an afterword!  The novel is described as being unfinished, but by putting this section at the end, not only does the reader only find out properly about Sergei’s fate until the end, but also the novel appears more finished as if Sergei has broken off his narrative and not Bulgakov! This radically affects the balance of the book depending on which version you read and on a superficial skim of the Internet I haven’t found anything much definitive about this apart from a Wikipedia entry which begins:  “The novel begins with a preface – the alleged author is not the author, but only a “publisher” of notes of Sergei Maksudov from Kiev, who sent the essay “to his only friend” with a request to correct it and publish under his own name.” This implies that MB intended the suicide to be known from the start and if this is the case, why on earth Harvill or Glenny chose to move the foreword to an afterword is anyone’s guess! If anyone knows anything more about this, I’d be very interested to hear…

A poem by Mayakovsky: You

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(For no other reason than that I love Mayakovsky’s poetry…)

mayakovsky

You came –
determined,
because I was large,
because I was roaring,
but on close inspection
you saw a mere boy.
You seized
and snatched away my heart
and began
to play with it –
like a girl with a bouncing ball.
And before this miracle
every woman
was either a lady astounded
or a maiden inquiring:
“Love such a fellow?
Why, he’ll pounce on you!
She must be a lion tamer,
a girl from the zoo!”
But I was triumphant.
I didn’t feel it –
the yoke!
Oblivious with joy,
I jumped
and leapt about, a bride-happy redskin,
I felt so elated
and light.

(Translated by Max Hayward and George Reavey)

Recent Reads: The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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“The Letter Killers Club” by SK is the last of his volumes currently available in English and the longest single piece so far published by NYRB or Glas – it’s novella length at just over 100 pages. I confess to approaching this one with great anticipation, but also a little trepidation as the subject is books – or rather, the absence of them!

letter-killers

The blurb for the novella on Amazon reads thus:

Writers are professional killers of conceptions. The logic of the Letter Killers Club, a secret society of “conceivers” who commit nothing to paper on principle, is strict and uncompromising. Every Saturday they meet in a fire-lit room hung with blank black bookshelves to present their “pure and unsubstantiated” conceptions: a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role; the double life of a medieval merry cleric derailed by a costume change; a machine-run world that imprisons men’s minds while conscripting their bodies; a dead Roman scribe stranded this side of the River Acheron. The overarching scene of this short novel is set in Soviet Moscow, in the ominous 1920s. Known only by pseudonym, like Chesterton’s anarchists in fin-de-siècle London, the Letter Killers are as mistrustful of one another as they are mesmerized by their despotic president. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is at his philosophical and fantastical best in this extended meditation on madness and silence, the word and the soul unbound.

Hyperbole? I don’t think so, although I’m not sure I’m in the best position to do a rational, measured review of this book because I just came out of a bit boggled at the brilliance of the concepts and the writing. This is a book I need to read again in a more considered manner, now that I know what actually happens, in order to really judge it properly. But here goes anyway.

Our unnamed narrator is taken by an acquaintance to attend the Letter Killers Club meeting. The letters of the title are not items of correspondence but the actual building blocks of language itself – the alphabet. We never learn any real names in this book – the club’s attendees are known by nonsense aliases: Das, Tyd, Zez, Hig, Mov and Rar. The narrator’s acquaintance is the President and he has strong ideas about books:

“… if our letterizations stifle one another, if writers prevent each other from writing, they don’t allow readers even to form an idea. The reader hasn’t a chance to have ideas, the right to have them has been usurped by word professionals who are stronger and more experienced this matte: libraries have crushed the reader’s imagination, the professional writings of a small coterie of scribblers have crammed shelves and heads to bursting.”

The domineering president explains that pure stories do not exist as trapped by letters but only as verbal tales, and each week one of the attendees relates a story to the other members. There is a tension in the air during these meetings, as if not all the members approve of the lack of paper with symbols on it – in fact, one member actually has written notes which crackle and give him away, so they are burned. In Soviet Russia, the written word could kill you – so it is no surprise that the members of the Letter Killers Club refuse to commit their titles to paper.

“…no-one searching emptiness has ever managed to find anything.”

The narrator is intrigued by one particular member of the group, Rar, and attempts to talk to him outside the meeting, where Rar reveals the reason they have asked the observer to come along to the meetings. But the group implodes with the unexpected death of one of its members, which brings an end to the gatherings. It is left to the narrator to break the cardinal rule of the Club and commit his experiences to paper – but with what consequences is never revealed.

That’s just a superficial reading – but what of the stories-within-the-story? Well, there are actually five chapters with individual conceptions, and these are all excellent in their own right – tales which could have been expanded or presented as one of SK’s own short stories. The Hamlet story from Rar dips into the idea of the double (a regular theme in Russian literature) and also ponders on the authenticity or not of an actor’s rendition of a famous part – is each one creating a different version of the character? Tyd presents the merry olde cleric story which is actually two stories with similar character names but different plots and features a double of sorts. The centrepiece story is a long, fantastical tale by Das about “Exes” (i.e. external or ex-people), telling of a futuristic world where a scientific experiment has enabled the ruling class to detach people’s brains from the control of their muscles, isolating their thought processes and producing an army of automatons – the ultimate totalitarian state. It’s superbly written, mind-boggling and inventive, and very telling about the desire for control and power. The writing and sweeping imagination displayed in this particular story took my breath away – pages 62 and 63 are in particular wonderful pieces of prose, but too long to quote here. Firstly the madmen are “converted”, then the dissenters and finally everyone not of the ruling elite – a simple allegory of life under Soviet rule? Not quite – this could be any totalitarian state, not just Soviet Russia.

“One cannot force a person to live an alien, manufactured life. Man is a free being. Even madmen have a right to their madness. It is dangerous to entrust functions of will to a machine: we still don’t know what that mechanical will may want.”

Fev’s tale is a weird fable of three characters with a travelling dispute about why God created the mouth. And the final story, from Mov, deals with death and payment of dues, with the various members of the club offering alternate resolutions to the tale. This resonates with the fate of the members of the club and leads the reader on to wonder how much of each conceiver we should see in his story – and indeed how much of SK we should look for hidden away in his work.

So, putting these concepts aside, it’s worth considering what SK is actually trying to do with this novella. The subject of the art of storytelling is one which recurs often in his work (or at least that which is available so far in English!) and he’s featured the idea in at least two other stories I’ve read – “Someone Else’s Theme” and “The Bookmark”. In this novella hunting of themes and telling of stories and is taken to its logical conclusion – no story can be written down. Russia has a strong bardic tradition (as do most old countries) and using the written word to contain and set in stone stories is relatively recent – in fact, it could be argued that by imprisoning a story in a finalised form, a writer is actually killing what in the oral tradition would have been a living, breathing organism, expanded and improved upon and polished as the bard told it over and over again. Each of these tales has a message or moral of its own, but has the narrator damaged this by fixing the stories in a permanent form? SK was very much a theme-catcher himself, a conceiver, and many of his short stories are more like sketches or outlines than traditional stories. It is a form he seems to excel in and even this, notionally a novella, is more like a collection of briefer works. He had an astonishingly fertile mind and it must have caused him some hardship to simply stop writing stories in 1941 (SK had finally had a collection of stories approved for publication, when the German invasion put a halt to this and he never wrote another one).

The Arbat in the 1920s, where SK lived in a tiny room.

The Arbat in the 1920s, where SK lived in a tiny room.

Of course, there is also the aspect of storytelling in the Soviet world, something I’ve touched upon quite a lot recently on this blog, particularly in my comments on Bulgakov. The 1920s and 1930s in particular were a dangerous age to be an artist in Russia, and the real writing of the era was buried, hidden in drawers or sometimes even in minds. There are many recorded cases of writers memorising their work and destroying the paper copy (Akhmatova’s Requiem, for example), which leaves the chilling realization (after reading Das’s story) that if the mind was then separated from the rest of the body by sinister machines (“ether winds”), the stories would be lost forever. SK seems to have shared MB’s mistrust of science, although SK goes into much more depth with his fictional scientific concepts. Many seem to have a basis in real science or philosophy and they are sometimes hard to grasp, so the notes in this volume are very useful (if not essential!) Bulgakov’s attitude toward other writers in the Soviet system (see particularly “The Master and Margarita”) is very scathing. And they both share such superficial features as the housing problem and the ubiquitous appearance of the primus stove!

SK was just as much affected by the inability to publish as was Bulgakov – he described himself: “I am a crossed out person” which could well apply to B – but the work he produced in reaction to this is very different. SK’s stories look inward to the craft of storytelling itself, the hunting down of themes and the oral tradition. The world of dreams appears more than once, but these stories are perhaps more elusive than MB’s. Bulgakov’s fictions are also fantastical and surreal but in a more biting, obviously satirical way, and perhaps wider in range – particularly with “The Master and Margarita” – although I’ve only so far read a fraction of SK’s work so it might be too early to judge. Although there are superficial similarities and influences in these two Kievan writers, in the end there is no point in comparing them – both produce greatly individual works of genius which still speak to us down the decades. So is this SK’s main statement on the place of artists under totalitarian rule? That remains to be seen when more of his work is translated into English. I’ve been very mentally stimulated by the work of SK I’ve read so far, and enjoyed it very much – carry on producing these originals, please, NYRB!

Another poem by Anna Akhmatova – for World Poetry Day (a little late…)

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Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova

(untitled and from 1940, around the time of Mikhail Bulgakov’s death)

When a man dies
His portraits change.
His eyes look at you
Differently and his lips smile
A different smile. I noticed this
Returning from a poet’s funeral.
Since then I have seen it verified
Often and my theory is true.

(translated by D.M. Thomas)

Four Fabulous Finds – and my first Dial Press Virago!

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So, I have finally found 5 minutes to take snaps of the lovely finds from last week’s charity shop searches – truly, this is disastrous for the TBR, but still very satisfying. Three of these lovely books come from my favourite place, the Samaritans Charity Book shop. The staff are so lovely and helpful that they now look out for green Viragos for me, and told me last week that when they went to the central storage place to pick up more books they were trying to spot the green spines – isn’t that amazing?

Anyway, this week I came away with three nice volumes from this place – firstly:

english 1

“English Journey” by J.B. Priestley is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and this nice hardback was reasonably priced and is quite an early edition – so it made its way into my shopping bag!

Next up was a green Virago by an author I’ve not read before:

godden

in very lovely condition and saved for me by the Samaritan shop people!

I was very chuffed with my third find – a black cover Dial Press Virago!

dial

“Mrs. Palfrey” is a book I already have, of course, but I thought it was about time I had a Dial Press Virago in my collection, and for £1this fitted the bill! Great finds at a great shop!

The other acquisition was from the Oxfam Book Shop:

wentworth I confess to being unable to remember whether I’ve actually read a Patricia Wentworth ‘Miss Silver’ but I read so many crime novels in my youth and twenties that I’m sure I must have. However, I can’t recall a single detail, so as these are classic crime stories, I’m picking them up when I come across them, hoping I will like them! So, some nice finds and now I should try to have a slight prune of the books I have but don’t really need to keep – just to free up a little more shelf space!!

Recent Reads: 7 Stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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After my recent read of SK’s “Memories of the Future” (review here) I did a bit of digging about on the Interweb and found that his work was first published in English by Glas with their collection “7 Stories”, published in 2006. The stories are also translated by Joanne Turnbull, who is shaping up to be the dedicated translator of SK, in much the same way as Robert Chandler is connected with Platonov’s writings. The introduction is useful and informative (though it isn’t stated who wrote it).

seven-stories-sigizmund-krzhizhanovsky-paperback-cover-art

The seven stories in this volume are:

Quadraturin
In the Pupil *
The Runaway Fingers *
Autobiography of a Corpse
The Unbitten Elbow *
The Bookmark
Yellow Coal *

The asterisked ones are new to me, as the others feature in “Memories…”, and these four are corkers! “In the Pupil” is a strange tale of the narrator’s love for a woman and as he falls for her and she for him, he spots a little man in her eye – a reflected image of himself who seems to have an existence of his own. The narrator becomes fixated upon this little man, always looking to see him when he meets his love, until one day he mentions it to her. She dismisses his comment scornfully, and the little man is seen waving goodbye and walking away. The affair continues unconvincingly until suddenly the little man manages to escape one day and tells his tale to the narrator, of how all the images of all the women’s previous lovers live inside her head, jockeying for position, but with the certainty that the first love will also take priority. The narrator tries to pop the little man back into his eye, with tragic consequences.The story is apparently representative of SK’s views on relations between men and women, as he lived separately from his long-term partner, Anna Bovshek, until his last illness forced him to move in with her.

“For the real love object is constantly changing, and to love you today is to betray the person you were yesterday.” (“In the Pupil”)

“The Runaway Fingers” tells the tale of a pianist’s hand that makes its escape from the owner and runs off into the streets, where it finds that freedom comes at a price. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a citizen who is trying to bite his own elbow becomes a media sensation, spawning philosophical systems, lotteries and political machinations.

“Yellow Coal” is a remarkable story. As R.H. (presumably translator Robert?) Chandler has pointed out in his review of “Memories of the Future” on Amazon.com, this tale “anticipates global warming. It is set in a time when we have run out of coal and oil and the sun is drying up our reserves of water”, which is remarkable when you think when SK was writing. The authorities offer a reward for a solution and one scientist, after stumbling one day from his protective motor car out into the real world of rushing, bustling people, recognises the human emotion of spite as a source of energy which can be exploited. SK goes on to spin an imaginative and fanciful yarn about the rise and fall of this energy source, which eventually self-destructs by lulling humans into a bland, self-satisfied comfortable state where they are no longer spiteful.

SK’s writing is wonderfully inventive and fantastic. These stories are allegorical, obviously – there is no way they can be taken literally but this does not detract from their power when we realise which systems they are parodying. SK stated:

 “I’m not alone. Logic is with me.”

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The world around him was illogical and one of the ways to fight it was with logic and the absurd. It is really not surprising that the Soviet authorities could not deal with them and in fact two of the pieces in this collection (TRF and TUE) are the only two works of SK’s published during his lifetime. Like his fellow Kievan author, Mikhail Bulgakov (who died the same year as SK), Krzhizhanovsky’s brand of surreal writing was a world away from socialist realism and both were well aware that the kind of literature that was allowed in Soviet Russia was basically a dead art form.

“Now nowhere could one find – not for a seven-, eight- or even nine-figure sum –  the old embittered minds, the furious inspirations, the pens sharp as stingers and dripped in bile. Today’s insipid ink, devoid of blood and bile, pure and unfermented, produced nothing but silly scribbles and vague, blot-like thoughts. The culture was dying – in disgrace and silence.”

The unpublishable Russians have had to bide their time and save their work for an era that wants more than just bland, mass-produced pap (although there is plenty of that still out there nowadays). I’m mightily glad that SK’s works survived until the thaw which has allowed them to make their way out into the wider world – I believe there are more volumes to come from NYRB which is excellent news!

Virago Volumes: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

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In complete contrast to other recent reading – and I’m a great believer in contrast in reading to stop you getting bored – I have now finished March’s book in the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly readalong – “Jane and Prudence.”

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The book opens with the two heroines attending a university reunion. There is an age difference between these two as Jane actually taught Prudence having made a brief return to her career. Jane is comfortably married to Nicholas, a Vicar, and has a teenage daughter Flora. Prudence is single, with a stream of paramours behind her and currently enamoured of her boss, writer Arthur Grampian. Jane and her family are moving to a country parish and she hopes to find a suitable partner for Prudence, as she is determined to marry her off.

We are on familiar ground here with Pym – a parochial setting, a Vicar and his retinue of “excellent women”, the desperate decision to marry or stay single – and yet, the book is not dull or predictable and as always Pym’s characters sparkle. We are still in the 1950s, a time when girls were still expected to find a husband and be a good wife. I was, however, still a little shocked when, even though Flora is at University, Nicholas expresses the certainly that she will settle down and marry.

But Pym is very clever in the way that she uses Jane and Prudence to personify the opposing sides of the dilemma for women. They have differing expectations of life, perhaps owing to the age difference, and Jane on the surface seems sure that she has done the right thing; although the reader does find him or herself musing on her “unsuitability” as a Vicar’s wife and wondering how significant are her regrets about her literary ambitions. The difficult decision of whether to marry or not seems to have been one which preoccupied Pym, certainly in her early works. As one of their old university friends muses, “Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; one couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.”

There is an interesting side-plot with Fabian, the local good-looking widower who Jane has lined up for Prudence. Although they make a pretty couple on the surface, he actually has no depth at all despite his looks, and Prudence has glamour AND brains. Instead of taking a risk and marrying Prudence, he eventually goes for the safer option by replacing his late wife Constance with a younger version of herself, one of the neighbouring women, who will be comfortable rather than challenging.

As always, this book is full of lovely, sharp dialogue – this about Fabian Driver:

“You see, her husband was more interested in other women than he was in her. I believe that does sometimes happen. Her death came as a great shock to him – he had almost forgotten her existence.”

Pym shows her female characters observing men through the rose-tinted glasses of love – Prudence’s Arthur Grampian, when seen by Jane, is actually old and ordinary; Fabian is good-looking but shallow; Mr. Oliver, whom Flora adores when she sees him in church surroundings, is very disappointing when out of them; Mr. Manifold is an “ordinary young man”; even Nicholas, though criticised affectionately by Jane, is only a man. I’m not sure if Pym is a bit of a man-hater but she definitely thinks we deceive ourselves into love!

“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time, thought Jane. Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of these things – enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it didn’t matter which.”

With the rather grumpy character of Geoffrey Manifold, I think Pym is throwing a little something extra into the mix and hinting that it will do Prudence good to be involved with an ordinary young man rather than daydreaming unsuitably about Arthur Grampian. I confess I saw this development coming, and I wonder if anything long-term might come of it, or if Jane’s emerging plan at the end of the book, to pair Prudence off with the local MP, might be Pym’s intention?

Jane, it must be said, is a wonderful creation of a character – scatty, untidy, apt to quote poetry at the most unsuitable moments, you can’t help but love her. Everything about her is well-meaning and despite her rather feeble grasp on the reality around her, she’s great fun!

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As an aside, I was tickled pink that Pym resolved the end of “Excellent Women” by dropping into a conversation the news that Mildred Lathbury had married Everard Bone! I kind of expected that was what Pym was hinting at, and I do wonder if this will be a tendency in her books, as she’s carried forward characters from STG to EW, and then EW to J&P – I rather like this and I hope it will carry on.

In the end, I enjoyed this book very much and it had a lot more to it than might initially appear. Although on the surface light and frothy (and alas, this is what I think the cover and Jilly Cooper foreword are trying to project), it is in fact a quietly subversive little book with plenty to say about men and women. Pym obviously takes seriously the issue of what women should do with their lives – whether they should compromise and sacrifice individuality in a marriage, or stick to the single life and have the freedom without the comfort of companionship. It’s a big topic and one which is still relevant today, and Pym’s quiet but pithy novels adds a lot to the debate.

A Poem for Monday

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In Memory of Mikhail Bulgakov

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova

(by Anna Akhmatova – translated by D.M. Thomas)

This, not graveyard roses, is my gift,
And I won’t burn sticks of incense:
You died as unflinchingly as you lived,
With magnificent defiance.
Drank wine, and joked – were still the wittiest,
Choked on the stifling air.
You yourself let in the terrible guest

And stayed alone with her.
Now you’re no more. And at your funeral feast
We can expect no comment from the mutes
On your high, stricken life. One voice at least
Must break that silence, like a flute.
O, who would have believed that I who have been tossed
On a slow fire to smoulder, I, the buried days’
Orphan and weeping mother, I who have lost
Everything and forgotten everyone, half-crazed –
Would be recalling one so full of energy
And will, and touched by that creative flame,
Who only yesterday, it seems, chatted to me,
Hiding the illness crucifying him.

(House on the Fontaka 1940)

Bulgakov by Volkov

Bulgakov by Volkov

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