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Recent Reads: Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell

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I’m cutting it a little fine with this review, but just managing to scrape together some thoughts on May’s “Dance to the Music of Time” volume before the end of the month! I’m now onto the fifth book of my reading, “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant” and I feel very much as if I’m getting into my stride with Powell. I think Keith Marshall from the AP society really nailed it when he commented that the books should read like anecdotes round a dinner table. I’ve stopped expecting a straightforward narrative or conventional character development and I’m just going with the flow!

Penguin Edition

Penguin Edition

The story opens with Nick observing a bombed-out public house so we are obviously starting off during the Second World War. However, Powell instantly wrong-foots us as Nick flashes back several years and introduces us to one of the main characters in the book, the composer Moreland. Although we have not come across him before (I think!), he turns out to be one of Nick’s good friends, and is also associated with old crony Mr. Deacon and also Barnby. We also meet some other new characters, notably Maclintick, Gossage and Carolo, who will all feature prominently in the story. The first long chapter culminates with them dining and discussing in the Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant of the title, and Powell will have his characters recall the significance of this meeting later in the book.

As the story moves on through the 1930s, Nick marries Isobel, although little is told about this marriage. The Tollands are much in evidence, including the wonderful Erridge who jaunts off to take part in the Spanish Civil War. There is much discussion of the politics of the time, although this is never boring. Both Isobel and Moreland’s wife Matilda become pregnant, but Isobel miscarries and Matilda’s baby does not live very long. Widmerpool makes a fleeting appearance, Stringham a longer one, there are marital issues, deaths and then an engagement.

It’s difficult as always to summarise the plot of one of these books because they are strands and events from a life. It’s now clear that Nick is going to tell his story as a series of vignettes, glimpses of particular experiences and people in his life that, put together, make up the whole. No-one can recall their life in a linear, sequential way and so the books are very true to life in that way. In each one, Powell focuses tightly on a specific group of characters – they overlap with others in Jenkins’ life, but each book chooses to relate a series of events with one particular central group/set of people.

And at the heart of this story are two marriages – that of the Maclinticks and of Moreland to Matilda. There is a third marriage mentioned in passing, that of Nick to Isobel, but Powell has his narrator state his position quite planly in a paragraph that makes it clear that he believes it is not possible to write about a marriage whilst in the middle of it; and therefore we know that we will have no deep study of the Jenkins’ relationship. However, the contrasting pairings of the McLinticks and the Morelands are covered in the some detail, and there is considerable anguish involved for both couples. Maclintick, who is a music critic, seems to be in a permanant state of war with his wife Audrey, who comes across as a harridan initially, but develops depth as the story goes on. In contrast, Moreland is an indecisive man, but falls deeply in love with Matilda (who has connections to characters in earlier books) and marries her just before Nick and Isobel’s ceremony. However, despite what seems to be an ideal match, Moreland strays after their baby dies and it takes a dramatic event to send him back home to his wife. Strangely enough, it is the warring Maclinticks who seem to have a stronger bond, at least on his side, so that when Audrey Maclintick leaves him, the critic is devastated and unable to cope.

First Edition

First Edition

Powell in fact sets the scene early for the kind of environment Macintick lives in, which in retrospect makes his fate quite inevitable:

“We took a bus to Victoria, then passed on foot into a vast, desolate region of stucco streets and squares upon which a doom seemed to have fallen. The gloom was cosmic. We traversed these pavements for some distance, proceeding from haunts of seedy, grudging gentility into an area of indeterminate, but on the whole increasingly unsavoury, complexion.”

As always, I marvel at Powell’s skill in interweaving his materials with previous volumes; although these new characters are acquaintances of Nick’s we haven’t met before, Powell blends them into his milieu perfectly. And it’s interesting to note how Nick in many ways thinks of his friends in particular groups or compartments, only to be surprised when they escape and intermingle when he least expects it. There are plenty of old favourites making reappearances, most notably that of Stringham in a long sequence at Mrs. Foxe’s party; and thinking about it, the relationship between Stringham and Miss Weedon (“Tuffy”) is another intriguing one. It has sinister undertones, as Stringham is almost being kept prisoner by his family, deprived of money and doted over by the old governess in an attempt to control his drinking.

I have started eagerly awaiting each book’s Unexpected Appearance of Widmerpool and I was not let down in “Casanova” as he turns up rather wonderfully where you really wouldn’t think he would be! He is still as appalling as ever, though peripheral in this book because he is not closely connected with the people whose tale Nick is relating. The wonderful eccentric that is Erridge only appears off-camera too, as do Quiggin, Mona and several other well-loved characters, but they are present enough to ensure continuity.

I seem to be enjoying these books more and more as I read on through the series. Powell’s prose is as lovely as ever, eminently readable and he has the skill to capture the strangeness, the unexpectedness and the interconnectedness of life beautifully. Roll on June’s book!

“In the end most things in life – perhaps all things – turn out to be appropriate.”

Virago Volumes: A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

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So we reach May – well, actually, nearly the end of May – and book five in the LibraryThing centenary read of Barbara Pym’s novels. This month’s book is “A Glass of Blessings” and I feel it’s fair to say it’s one I’ve had to struggle with a little.

Our narrator/heroine is Wilmet Forsyth. Wilmet is 30, married comfortably to Rodney and lives with him and his mother Sybil. Wilmet is unemployed, childless and mostly bored, and so occupies herself with church, shopping and seeing old friends, while Rodney works for the civil service. A chance reacquaintance with Piers, brother of her best friend Rowena, leads to flirtations and daydreams, all the while spiced up by the goings on of the various priests and parishioners around them. But disillusionment and some surprises lurk round the corner.

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In many ways we are in familiar Pym territory – a parish plus its priests and excellent women; a middle class setting; several misfits and Pym’s trademark acid wit. However, I found one big obstacle at the start of this book and that was Wilmet herself. Self-centred, self-interested and complacent, she really is a very unpleasant character. Although she mellows, and recognises some of her faults by the end of the book, I almost stopped reading after the first chapter because of her appalling smugness, and the bland, ready acceptance of the fact that it was ok for her to have no children, no job, and nothing to do but swan around all day shopping and thinking how nicely turned out she was!

“I amused myself by observing these students, who seemed to be of all ages, until I came to the conclusion that people who went to evening classes were all more or less odd. It was unnatural to want to acquire knowledge after working hours. A tall bearded young man, whose string bag revealed a loaf of bread (the wrapped sliced kind), a tin of Nescafe and two books from a public library, filled me with a kind of sadness, as if his whole life had been revealed to me by these telling details.”

Patronising or what!

Her light-hearted flirting with Rowena’s husband Harry seemed actually heartless and hollow, especially when it turned out that Rowena knew about it – and although Wilmet blithely thought how wonderful it was that they were good friends and that this was all ok, I’m not sure it really was. Likewise, the passion she develops for Piers turns out to be groundless as he is quite happily settled in his flat with his friend Keith, and they presumably simply admire her as a poised, elegant woman and nothing else!

If the novel had only consisted of these characters I would have been bored very quickly, but fortunately it is saved by the excellent array of supporting characters. The various priests (Father Thames, Father Bode and Father Ransome) are funny, individual and all likeable in their own ways. Mr. Bason, who leaves the civil service to cook for the priests and somehow ends up in Cornwall running some kind of an antique shop, is a hoot. And Sybil, Wilmet’s mother-in-law, is a joy – she provides a counter voice all the way through, and is a strong, sensible woman who ends up pulling off one of the biggest surprises of the book. Then there is Mary Beamish, a classic “excellent woman”, looking after an ageing invalid mother and unsure of whether to pursue becoming a nun or marrying a priest! I liked Mary immensely, in a way that I couldn’t like Wilmet – in fact, Wilmet’s treatment of her at the beginning of the book is really unpleasant – and I was glad to see Mary in the end find her place in life. There were several appearances of characters from previous books: Archdeacon Hoccleve; Catherine Oliphant; Prudence Bates; and even Rocky from “Excellent Women”, who it transpires that Rowena and Wilmet had both been in love with when they were in the Wrens in Italy, and then went on to meet their husbands. And there is a devastating depiction of the horrors of suburban married life in the form of the cocktail party thrown by Rowena and Harry when Wilmet is visiting for the weekend, which had me wincing and laughing at the same time.

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I finished the book perhaps a little unsure of the point Pym was trying to make; and also wondering if she had deliberately made Wilmet so unlikeable for a purpose? It may be that she was trying to show Wilmet’s transformation from a self-centred woman into a slightly more rounded person, with more understanding and genuine feeling for the people around her. However, I’m not sure that that really came across strongly enough. As Piers points out to her:

“… there are others in the world – in fact quite a few million people outside the narrow select little circle that makes up Wilmet’s world.”

though he does go on to try to soften the blow a little:

“… I didn’t really mean to imply that you’re to blame for what you are .Some people are less capable of loving their fellow human beings than others… it isn’t necessarily their own fault.”

By the end of the book, Rowena and Harry seem to just slip out of the story, presumably Harry’s flirtation with Wilmet having come to an end; Piers and Keith, Sybil and Arnold, plus Mary and Marius have settled down; and Wilmet and Rodney, having confessed their silly flirtations, buy a flat and are brought closer together. Are we to think, then, that finding a mate and making a go of it are the only options? Piers and Keith certainly seem to form a normal sort of domestic couple, although the glimpse the pampered Wilmet gets of the modern world of coffee bars is very far from her normal surroundings. Unlike her other books, Pym appears to be lauding the married state, albeit with a cynical enough eye to see that the handsome Marius Ransome is marrying the mousey Mary Beamish from any number of motives, including the fact that she has plenty of money and will be the perfect vicar’s wife!

“…I found myself wondering whether Marius would not find it all rather too exhausting. But perhaps with a good wife and a comfortable home, not forgetting the embarrassment of old Mrs. Beamish’s money, he would struggle through somehow.”

This wasn’t a bad book – I doubt Pym could write such a thing as her prose and wit are excellent – but I found it difficult to get past Wilmet’s character and it was an interest in the subsidiary characters that kept me going until the end, and not in the main protagonist. Enjoyable but flawed would probably be my summing up!

 

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(As a postscript, I should say that I’ve continued thinking about this book since finishing it and writing my review, and I found myself recognising several other themes hidden in there: the glamour that must have attached to Rodney and Harry when the two Wrens met them during the war, and the inevitable change in their relationships when returning to peacetime and ordinary life; the pointless state of middle class women with literally nothing to do but fritter away their lives in a little gilded cage, remote from reality; the capacity in human beings for self delusion. Pym always has plenty to say about life and living, but I’m now even more frustrated about the fact that the unloveable character of Wilmet gets so much in the way!!)

Virago Volumes: A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden

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bawden

Nina Bawden is a Virago author with quite a few volumes on my tbr mountain, so when Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book suggested we do a readalong, we picked the one book we had in common which is this one!

Before I started to seriously collect Viragos, I only knew of Bawden as a children’s author, notably of “Carrie’s War” (which I have to confess I haven’t read). However, she seems to be rated highly as an adult writer too, so I was interested in advance to see what her work would be like. I can’t promise to avoid SPOILERS so if you intend to read the book yourself, please read on with care!

“A Woman of My Age” is narrated by Elizabeth Jourdelay, a woman who at 37 regards herself as middle-aged (gosh!). She is married to Richard and they have two teenage sons; as we encounter them for the first time, they are holidaying in Morocco, travelling through the heat and the desert. On their journey they have run into an older couple, Mr. and Mrs Hobbs; she is a large, unwell lady, he is a book-loving, kind man. Other fellow travellers are Flora, an old acquaintance, and her toy boy Adam.

As Elizabeth starts her story, we go into flashback, and it is clear that we are going to learn the story of her life this way, while she travels on through the desert reflecting on her past. She is an orphan: her mother died in childbirth, and she was brought up by two militant aunts. Elizabeth’s university life is broken off by her meeting with Richard; she falls pregnant and he marries her when she is 20, the book being set in a time when this was considered the only respectable thing to do. But as the book continues, it becomes clear that the marriage is a troubled one and we learn of the changes Elizabeth went through, her frustration at the restrictions of her life and the falsities in her relationships.

This is not, however, just a polemical, feminist book – it’s a little more subtle than that, as although much blame about things can be attached to Richard and his behaviour, Elizabeth is a detached woman with repressed emotions. The lack of parents and her upbringing by her aunts have given her a cerebral outlook and she is in some ways remote from real humanity. Her interest in abstract issues leads her into a political life which has a divisive effect on her relationship with Richard; and her lack of understanding of the effect her actions will have on real lives puts her and one of her sons into a dangerous situation.

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As the book progresses and we learn more about Elizabeth’s past, we simultaneously watch both now and then unravel. Facts come to light about Richard and Flora’s behaviour and previous relations, Mrs. Hobbs is taken ill, Adam abandons Flora and Elizabeth flirts with Mr. Hobbs. The heat of the desert, the niggles and tensions between the major characters and some surprisingly developments all take the story in unexpected directions until what is intended as a shocking climax occurs.

But is it? To answer that, I suppose I need to go more into my reactions to the book. Firstly, I loved Bawden’s writing – very atmospheric, very good at building up character and her descriptions of the landscape are really evocative. She creates a sense of Elizabeth’s persona and her state of mind very well, and although all of the characters are flawed and not always likeable, in that sense they are very real.

This book is very much of its time, too. It was published in 1967 and set in the decades leading up to that year – post war, where women’s roles were changing and there was still much emotional conflict about whether women should have careers or be carers, whether it was realistic to be a working mother with political interests, and indeed the debate about communism vs fascism was raging. In some ways, Elizabeth’s situation reminded me of that of the heroine in Celia Fremlin’s “The Hours Before Dawn” (also published by Virago); although there is a class difference between the two women, both are struggling for mental clarity about their lives and situations, but the exhaustion of caring makes this very hard for them to do. This could perhaps be seen as an analogy for the difficulty women face in having a clear idea of their role in the world and what they want to do, which is still relevant nowadays with all the conflicting images and identities flung at them by the media every day.

Additionally, it is quite shocking to realise how recently it seems to be acceptable for a husband to hit a wife, and also for a husband to philander; it is still assumed that Elizabeth should have no ambitions outside caring for her husband and family, despite her intelligence, and that the most important thing for her is to tailor everything around Richard’s needs.

But putting this aside, the novel does indeed work as a complex dissection of a marriage. The Jourdelays have a very ragged relationship and there are poignant moments when Elizabeth watches the tenderness between the Hobbs’:

“This is what marriage should be, I thought: two people comforting each other in the dark. There’s no need for love in the daylight. I ought to tell Richard this, and we won’t leave each other.”

I found Richard annoying and infuriating (as was his mother, who poor Elizabeth had living with them) and found it hard to understand why he had not been permanently abandoned. There are constant comments about his nastiness and bullying, almost in passing sometimes:

“In the mirror his face glowered over my shoulder. ‘Don’t be a bitch, Elizabeth,’ he said, and bit my ear, rather harder than was pleasant.”

“Stop bullying me, will you? You’re a frightful bully, I feel sometimes as if I’m being hammered flat. Do you know what Willy said? He said, ‘Has Richard stopped bullying you yet?'”

The plot mostly works and is revealed skilfully as the narrative progresses. However, I was left with a couple of reservations about the ending of the novel. Firstly, I wasn’t entirely convinced about the relationship which developed between Mr. Hobbs and Elizabeth. Although this was signposted quite early on, I found Elizabeth’s attitude towards him ambivalent – he is a complex character, sometimes portrayed in a sympathetic manner but at other times mocked a little – and I wasn’t sure things would have turned out this way. Whether this was meant to contrast Flora’s relationship with a younger man, or simply a plot device to bring events to a climax, I’m really not sure. Bawden discreetly lets us know that there is a sexual void between Elizabeth and Richard, and her encounter with Mr. Hobbs seems to bring about fulfilment for her in a way she did not expect, although she still seems somewhat detached. I guess in a novel written more recently this might have been covered in a little more detail!

Additionally, I found Elizabeth’s final acceptance of things at the very end of the story frustrating. I find it very hard to accept that after the horrors and the revelations of the book she would stay with Richard and I found the reason for her staying to be a bit trite – in fact, the more I think about, the less I can see any reason for the couple to still be together and this strains the believability of the plot a little. I guessed what would be the result of the flirtation of Hobbs and Elizabeth and this lacked credibility for me – is the solution to all problems another baby?? In some ways this coda, as the blurb described it, seems tacked on and doesn’t ring true.

“I leaned against the parapet. The air was so dry that my cheeks burned with it. The early morning was still and beautiful: I felt too tired, to heavy and puffy for this beautiful worlds. I should have loved Richard. There was no other way of containing sadness, of healing over that open, weeping sore. Action couldn’t heal it, only love or death, and death was easier. I thought: this is why men go to war.”

Despite these reservations I did enjoy this book. The writing is skilful and enjoyable, the story engrossing and characters involving. Elizabeth’s aunts are beautifully and movingly portrayed, Richard’s mother Nonni is awful but believable, although oddly enough the Jourdelays’ two sons never really come to life much.  But Bawden handles her material well and I  look forward to tackling the other books by her languishing on the tbr.

Recent Reads: Despair by Nabokov

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I picked up this particular book for no other reason than I liked the sound of it – I’ve gradually been reading more Nabokov over the years (particularly loving “Pnin” recently) and this one intrigued me. It’s one of Nabokov’s Russian-written titles, translated (and revised) by himself later, and my edition is a nice old Penguin with a very atmospheric painting on the cover!

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The book is set in 1930s Germany and Hermann Hermann is a Russian émigré who works as a chocolate salesman. He lives with his wife Lydia, and a regular visitor is her cousin, the artist Ardalion – it is hinted that they might be lovers, but never made clear. On a business trip to Prague, Hermann encounters a man who he believes to be his double – a tramp called Felix. Hermann is attracted and repelled by Felix, but eventually hatches a plan to use his double in an insurance fraud. But all does not go as planned.

That’s a short summary of what is a complex piece of work, and one that cannot easily be pinned down! From the start, we are aware that Hermann is a very unreliable narrator, and particularly in the early chapters he finds it hard to set down his story in a coherent way. There are constant digressions, discussions of the best way to tell a story, and it seems that Hermann is in some ways trying to avoid getting to the point. And as with “Pnin”, there are times when Nabokov seems to be positioning himself between the narrator and the author, putting an extra layer of storytelling into the mix.

It’s perhaps a little trite and obvious to draw comparisons with other Russian authors, but the story is strongly concerned with doppelgängers and there is much referring to Dostoevsky (as well as many other classic Russian writers). However, with “The Double” it was unclear if the second version of the narrator existed; in this story Felix definitely exists, but his resemblance to Hermann is what is in doubt.

“A few days before the first of October, I happened to walk with my wife through the Tiergarten; there on a footbridge we stopped, with our elbows on the railing. Below, on the still surface of the water, we admired the exact replica (ignoring the model, of course) of the park’s autumn tapestry of many-hued foliage, the glassy blue of the sky, the dark outlines of the parapet and of our inclined faces. When a slow leaf fell, there would flutter up to meet it, out of the water’s shadowy depths, its unavoidable double. Their meeting was soundless. The leaf came twirling down, and twirling up there would rise towards it, eagerly, its exact, beautiful, lethal reflection.”

In essence, this is a fascinating look inside the mind of a deranged killer – Hermann obviously believes Felix to be his exact double, which is revealed to be false as the story goes on. He has based his whole perfect murder plot on this resemblance, and so the whole plan collapses like a house of cards when it comes to fruition, owing to his mistaken impression. But the narration is very unsettling in that we are never sure whether Hermann is telling the truth, whether his perceptions are accurate and indeed at one point he almost insinuates that the two men have changed places and he is Felix! By the end of the story, our views of both Lydia and Ardalion have changed and they seem completely different to the portraits painted by Hermann – Lydia becoming a bullied, crushed woman and Ardalion having more strength of mind than Herman would admit.

Like all mad murderers, Hermann thinks he is an artist – that his plot is perfect – and he cannot cope when everything goes wrong. The final chapters are written in diary form as it is revealed that Hermann has made a fatal mistake in his plan and is being pursued by the authorities. The story ends on April 1st and in many ways we are still unsure of the truth of anything we have read. What the title refers to becomes clear during the finale of the story, but could also be a pun on the concept of twins, particularly as Nabokov was fluent in French and so would have understood the phrase “des pair”…

“Woe to the fancy which is not accompanied by wit.”

The theme of doubles obviously obsesses Hermann (he senses splits in his personality concerning his relationship with Lydia), and it is obviously a theme which interests Nabokov too. There is constant play with the imagery of mirrors and also prominently the portrait of Hermann painted by Ardalion, which our narrator disparages – but we are left wondering if it is a truer picture of him than he would like to admit!

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Nabokov’s use of language is deliberate and precise, very clever and quite beautiful in places. This is not an easy book to read, but rewarding and involving, and towards the end very exciting. I think there are many deep themes being explored here and that it would take another read for me to really get to the bottom of it. Certainly “Despair” has made me even keener to read more Nabokov.

Revamping the Bookshelves – plus the Joy of Unexpected Finds!

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Any reader of this blog might have guessed that, from the amount of book making their way onto Mount TBR recently, a bookshelf crisis might be brewing – and they would be right! The Virago and Russian shelves have been filling up to the extent that I couldn’t cram any more volumes in, even lying on top of other books. Enough became enough, and I had a bit of a shuffle around this week.

Why is it, though, that moving books about is so exhausting? All I did, in essence, was move a couple of shelves of not-often-read volumes into Middle Child’s old room where there was a little space, plus free up one shelf which had non-books on it. That was ok, but the actual expanding of the Viragos and the Russians onto the newly cleared areas seemed to be unnecessarily stressful, and I ended up dropping a large Nabokov on my toe at least twice. However, the books are now in a much more manageable state and here are some images of the improvements:

Newly tidied Viragos

This is the main VMC collection – it may look smallish but it is two deep so there are quite a few volumes here…

More Viragos - not the main collection!

More Viragos – not the main collection!

I pulled these Viragos out of the main collection for a number of reasons – firstly, the books at the back are non-VMCs like the Travellers or Biographies or fiction books or even modern fiction. Secondly, at the front are may Taylors and Pyms and Lehmanns which in some cases are mixed editions and it seemed to make sense to have them separate.

Persephones

Persephones

Then there is the Persephones – not so many of those so far, but they are given pride of place at the front of a shelf (particularly the two “Miss Buncle” books which were my LibraryThing Secret Santa gift and which I really *must* read soon – half term next week should be very busy….

General Russian Fiction

On to the Russians – there are a lot of them…. (well, I have been collecting them since about 1972).These two double depth shelves have general Russian fiction – note the large Nabokov which is very bad for toes.

Bulgakov and Dostoevsky

Bulgakov and Dostoevsky

Bulgakov and Dostoevsky – well, there are so many of them that they get shelves to themselves. Behind the Bulgakovs are the Mayakovskys, which are just as numerous…

Russian non-fiction

Below the Russian fiction is the Russian non-fiction – again, much of this I’ve had since my teens so there is quite a lot. And I have to say that I *have* read most of these as I had/have quite an interest in Russian history.

Solzhenitsyn and others

Solzhenitsyn and others

The Solzhenitsyn collection also takes up most of a shelf on its own, which is understandable as most of them are rather old too. Underneath are other books of interest – Bright Young Things and Mervyn Peake mainly.

This was a job I’d been putting off for a while (well, since my last revamp) and I’m glad things are a little more in order. I’ve also left space for expansion…. not that I should, but knowing what I’m like I will need it! And despite my best resolutions, I did come home from Saturday’s trip to town with a few bargains.

First up, a really lovely Book Club edition of Rumer Godden’s “The Greengage Summer”:

I picked  up three of her Virago titles via The Book People last week and then came across this – for the ridiculous sum of 75p and it’s in really marvellous condition. Frankly, the cover alone is worth the price – I do love Book Club covers!

This modern Virago edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” was a 30p library decommissioning bargain – it has the title story plus other pieces, so I was well pleased!

But the final find was the most interesting – in one of the newer charity shops, Youngest Child pointed out a box of hardback book club editions lurking, and a dig through brought up this book:

I confess to  never having heard of Fred Basnett or his books, “Travels of A Capitalist Lackey” but the title attracted my attention and I think this is going to be a gem – a travel book of Fred’s experiences going through Soviet Russia and beyond in the early 1960s! The book is in perfect condition and comes with map and pictures – all for £1.50. Very happy to say the least…

 

The Japanese have a word for it…..

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Whilst browsing on Tumblr recently, I came across a post which pointed me to a very apt word which I think certainly applies to my book-collecting habits…

‘tsundoku’ – is defined as “the Japanese word for buying books & not reading them, leaving them to pile up”

japanese booksWell, that’s definitely me – I could illustrate this post with lots of pictures of Mount TBR but I won’t – what I will be posting tomorrow is pictures of the recently tidied shelves as I have been having a bit of Book Guilt. But I’m not worried – I’m sure it won’t last long…. 🙂

Recent Reads: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Leskov

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My recent reading of Chekhov’s “The Shooting Party”, and consideration of the state of women in Russia (and Russian literature) reminded me of a shorter piece I hadn’t read for some time – Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” – so I thought this would be a good time for a revisit.mtsensk

This work, which should more accurately be titled “A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, is a surprisingly dark and dramatic work, packing an awful lot into less than 100 pages. The Lady Macbeth of the title is Katerina Lvovna, married to an old, dull, provincial landowner. She is stifled at home and unable to produce a child (which is blamed on her, but transpires not to be her fault, as is revealed during the story).

“Katerina Lvovna would pass to and from through the empty rooms, start to yawn from boredom and then climb the stairs to the conjugal bedroom… She would steal an hour or two’s nap, but awake from it once again to that peculiarly Russian boredom, the boredom which reigns inside the houses of merchants, and which, it is said, makes even the thought of hanging oneself seem a cheerful prospect… no-one paid the slightest attention to the boredom that was weighing her down.”

Naturally, the moment a handsome young worker called Sergei appears on the scene, all is lost… Katerina’s young man is shiftless and disloyal, and she is forced to take desperate action to keep hold of him as her lover. Dark deed follows dark deed until we come to the blackest of all – a crime so shocking that it even shakes Katerina herself. She is not a hard woman, but desperate, and she lets her needs overcome her scruples and her knowledge of the evil she is undertaking.

Natalia Andreychenko as Katerina

Natalia Andreychenko as Katerina in the Roman Balayan film adaptation

But this evil does not go unpunished, and Katerina and Sergei are caught. There is a brutal reckoning, they are shipped off to Siberia, and soon it is clear that Sergei no longer has any interest in his old lover as she no longer has money and status. His cruelty, however, will be repaid in kind.

This is a harsh but lyrical story. It paints a vivid picture of the lengths a woman in love will go to in order to keep hold of her lover. The physical side of the relationship is obviously important to Katerina, and presumably she found no pleasure or satisfaction with her husband. The issue of the status of women comes to the fore again, as Katerina marries the first man who asks her in order to find a “good husband”. But she is trapped in an unhappy situation and so vulnerable to manipulation by the first man who gains her love. And certainly Sergei soon learns he only has to plant a seed in her mind for it to take root and the action he desires will follow, however drastic, to ensure he is kept in comfort.

Aleksandr Abdulov as Sergei

Aleksandr Abdulov as Sergei in the Roman Balayan film adaptation

I was impressed again on my re-reading of this powerful work. It is highly regarded in Russia, so much so that Shostakovich turned it into an opera, and there have been several filmed versions. I only wish that more of Leskov’s work was available in English!

Recent Reads: The Shooting Party by Chekhov

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I’ve slipped back into Russian reading mode, as I wanted to explore Chekhov’s longer works a little more, having had mixed reactions to my two other recent reads. I think “The Shooting Party” might be his longest work, but it’s not often talked about compared with his short stories. I picked up a Penguin Classics version, nicely translated by Ronald Wilks, and dipped in!

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The book begins with an editor (AC) receiving a visitor who wants to leave him a manuscript to read. The editor is reluctant, but finds his visitor an honest-seeming, handsome man and so takes the manuscript and after a couple of months picks it up to read – and finds he cannot put it down! It is the core story of the “The Shooting Party”, which the visitor, a country magistrate, has subtitled “From the Memoirs of an Investigating Magistrate”. He informs the editor that it is based on true events, but the name he gives himself as teller of the tale is different from the one which he uses to announce himself in person. Already we can sense we are in the presence of an unreliable narrator.

The story is set in a small provincial town. Zinovyev is a young magistrate, and spends his life swinging from one extreme to another: at times, he does nothing but work diligently, leading a quiet life; but when his friend, the dissolute Count Karneyev, visits his local crumbling estate, Zinovyev is instantly drawn into a world of debauchery – drinking, orgying with gypsies and even assaulting local people. At the beginning of our tale, the Count has returned, bringing a strange and taciturn Pole with him, and the two friends begin an instant round of bad behaviour. During the Count’s stay, they encounter the heroine of the story, Olga. She is the young and beautiful daughter of a drunken forester and both the Count and Zinovyev are instantly captivated, as is the Estate Manager Urbenin.

The three men pursue Olga in their different ways, but she shocks them all by announcing she will marry Urbenin, and does so. However, on her wedding day she reveals that she loves Zinovyev and in fact instantly becomes his lover. Passions continue to rise and fall, and then Olga runs off to live with the Count. Things continue to deteriorate until a shocking attempt is made on Olga’s life – the central puzzle of this story – but who was responsible? All the various mysteries are revealed by the end of the tale, but I won’t say too much about the plot strands so as to avoid spoilers.

“The air was saturated with the exhalations of vernal greenery and caressed my healthy lungs with its softness. I breathed it in, and as I surveyed the open prospect with my enraptured eyes, I sensed the presence of spring, of youth – and it seemed that those young birches, the grass by the wayside and the incessantly humming cockchafers were sharing my feelings.

‘But why is it back there, in the world,’ I reflected, ‘that men herd themselves together in wretched, cramped hovels, confine themselves to narrow, constricting ideals, while there’s such freedom and scope for life and thought here? Why don’t they come out here?’

And my imagination that had waxed so poetic had no desire to encumber itself with thoughts of winter and earning a living – those two afflictions that drive poets into cold, prosaic St. Petersburg and filthy Moscow, where they pay fees for poetry, but provide no inspiration.”

“The Shooting Party” is often touted as no more than an early detective novel, and therefore unusual because it is a Russian one. However, it seemed to me a lot more than that and I feel it’s rather unjustly neglected. Certainly, it’s not often listed among Chekhov’s major works but it has many merits.

For a start, the writing is lovely, particularly some of the descriptions of nature and the countryside. The reader really gets a feel for the location, and nature itself seems to be taking quite a part in the plot!

“It was a fine day in August. The sun shone with all the warmth of summer, the blue sky fondly beckoned one into the distance, but there was already a feeling of autumn in the air. Leaves that had come to the end of their lives were turning gold in the green foliage of the pensive forest, while the darkening fields had a wistful, melancholic look.

Presentiments of inescapable, oppressive autumn took hold of us too and it was not difficult to foresee that things would very soon come to a head. At some time the thunder had to rumble and the rain start pouring to freshen the humid air! It is usually close and sultry before a thunderstorm, when dark, leaden clouds approach, but we were already being stifled morally: this was evident in everything – in our movements, our smiles, in whatever we said.”

The characterisation is excellent too, and the various players in this drama are wonderfully portrayed: the dissolute Count, the stolid Urbenin, the local dignitaries, Zinovyev himself. Olga is intriguing, because despite being the ostensible heroine, she is not really a very sympathetic character. Capricious, self-centre and vain, her main interests seem to be dresses and status. She is foolish and coquettish and I could not even take seriously her protestations that she loved Zinovyev, because despite giving herself to him, her desire for marriage to a Count, status and dresses seemed stronger than that love.

Although this book was written in Chekhov’s early years, perhaps intended as a pot-boiler to earn a quick rouble, it does address some serious issues. The status of women in Russia was very low at the time, as can be seen in any number of works of literature, and they were often married off to much older men where they were little more than slaves; beating and domestic violence was the norm. More liberal Russians were starting to find this state of affairs unacceptable and there is a very famous painting by Pukirev, referred to in the notes, known as “Misalliance” or “The Unequal Marriage” which sums this up.

misalliance

So despite Olga’s character flaws, we can sympathise with her desire to escape from poverty and servitude, and just wish she had made better choices. Interestingly, despite our narrator’s contempt for her affairs, she married the first man who offered her a formal union and so obviously neither he nor the Count were prepared to commit to Olga but simply wanted to seduce her. As he is an unreliable narrator, she may not be as fickle as she is portrayed.

Another astonishing element to this book is how explicit the content is. The Count and Zinovyev are smacking their lips (metaphorically) at various points at the thought of new girls (presumably virgins) and there is plenty of booze and orgying with the gypsies. Zinovyev carries Olga off and has his way with her before her husband, and there is much general debauchery going on. Compared with what was happening in Victorian literature at the time, this is quite an eye-opener!

The format of a novel within a novel is effective, and also allows AC to present himself in the role of narrator and even detective! I’m not going to say too much about the solution, but personally I found it so obvious that I was actually expecting another twist that did not come! AC flags it up quite early and any seasoned crime novel reader should guess quite early on. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, the identity of the murderer was probably quite shocking. Interestingly, Chekhov has his narrator self state at the end of the book “There is no villain” but equally it seems there is no hero in this story. Our flawed, unreliable narrator ends up being quite a different character from that presented at the start of the novel, and the character development is well handled.

Chekhov himself somewhat disowned this early work, but I think it deserves better treatment. The writing is excellent, the plotting and characterisation vivid, and it’s a very readable, clever book. Although Chekhov focused very much on shorter works, on the evidence of this novel he certainly was able to put together a coherent, longer work that’s a very satisfying read! Despite its flaws, this is a complex and intriguing book with some startlingly beautiful descriptions of the Russian landscape and some wonderfully memorable characters. It’s a shame that AC never took his excursion into detective fiction any further (apart from the odd short story) as if this volume is anything to judge by, further works could have been very readable!

Treats from Leicester!

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We were lucky enough to have a visit from Middle Child this weekend, coming home from Leicester to check up on OH’s recovery, and that of course was the main treat!

However, she was lovely enough to bring me home some wonderful green Viragos she had picked up for my collection (I have raved about the Leicester charity shops before – it’s a close competition between here and there for the best!)

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I was *very* pleased with these lovelies as you can imagine, as they’re not titles that turn up every day and they are in pretty good nick apart from a little fading on one and sticker damage on another – thanks, Middle Child!

We had a lovely girly shop on Saturday too and I found a few more treasures locally:

renaultThese came from a charity shop which prices its books as 2 for £1, so having found the Renault I had to get something else and the Dinesen seemed the ideal choice (and a Virago for 50p is not to be sneezed at!)

gibbonsThese two and the following came from the British Heart Foundation charity shop – slightly more expensive at £2 each but if I bought them online they’d cost more than that and the actually condition of online books is often so variable.

This, of course, is essential for the Pym read-along so I was happy to pick it up.

Finally this:

zweigA very sweet little Pushkin Press Stefan Zweig book I don’t have.

Enough reading matter to keep me going for ages – and to make the tbr mountain even more unstable……. :s

Recent Reads: Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham

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One of the things I love about books is following my reading muse randomly and finding an unexpected gem. “Ashenden” by Somerset Maugham, the second book I’ve read by this author, turned out to be one of those! I picked up a set of his books via The Book People, a lovely collection of Vintage paperbacks with gorgeous covers at a ridiculously cheap price. I read “Up at the Villa” last year, and liked it but wasn’t really overwhelmed. However, I wanted something to contrast with what I’ve been reading recently and a book about espionage adventures during the First World War sounded like it would be quite readable – which it was!

ashende

“Ashenden believed much more in his acuteness than in a firearm, which is apt to go off at the wrong time and make a noise, but there are moments when it gives you confidence to feel your fingers round its butt, and this sudden summons seemed to him exceedingly mysterious.”

“Ashenden” is more of a collection of linked episodes, almost short stories, than a coherent novel, but is none the worse for that. The title character is apparently based on Maugham himself, and the tales on his own experiences doing just this kind of thing in WWI. Ashenden is a well-known playwright and he is approached by a Colonel, known only as R., who recruits him to collect information for the allies. Based mainly in neutral Switzerland, Ashenden undertakes a number of missions, encountering some larger than life characters along the way –  diplomats and adventurers from all manner of countries, the wonderfully named Hairless Mexican, the traitor Grantley Caypor, a travelling salesman from the USA by the name of Mr. Harrington, and even his ex-lover Anastasia Alexandrovna, an exiled Russian revolutionary. The settings are wide-ranging, from Switzerland, France, unnamed Balkan countries and ending up in revolutionary Russia.

Maugham is a deceptively good writer. What seems like simple prose is not, it’s wonderfully constructed and he’s very good at building up characters in a subtle way until you suddenly realise you have a perfect picture of them. There are long digressions which are not necessarily relevant to the business of spying, but which paint pictures of men and women and their lives, and so add to the richness of the book. Certainly this work encompasses many facets of human nature: love, adventure, cruelty, violence, art, poetry – the whole gamut of emotions and reasons for living. It is also very realistic in that much of Ashenden’s time is actually routine and dull – long hours labouring over coding a message; endless days travelling in boredom across Siberia in a train; hanging around waiting for orders. According to Wikipedia, this book was very influential on later works by authors such as Fleming, and certainly this seems to be the first work of fiction portraying a spy boss known by a single letter! This boss, R., is a masterful creation – stern, with an incredible amount of power but out of his depth in some situations where Ashenden is much more in control.

“Luxury is dangerous to people who have never known it and to whom its temptations are held out too suddenly. R., that shrewd, cynical man, was captured by the vulgar glamour and the shoddy brilliance of the scene before him. Just as the advantage of culture is that it enables you to talk nonsense with distinction, so the habit of luxury allows you to regard its frills and furbelows with a proper contumely.”

(Yes, I had to look up ‘contumely’ – which apparently means “Insolent or insulting language or treatment”!)

The book is full of bon mots and clever comments, but this apparent lightness hides much deeper subject matter. Maugham has perfected the art of wrong-footing the reader. Just as you start to think of Ashenden as an aloof, foppish kind of Bertie Wooster type, Maugham shakes you by casually dropping a shocking event into the narrative – the cold, bare portrayal of an execution; a dog’s chilling reaction to the death of its beloved master; the discovery of dead bodies on the streets of revolutionary Petrograd.

“Though he had both esteem and admiration for the sensibility of the human race, he had little respect for their intelligence; man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.”

Ashenden himself is an engaging figure; shy, a little detached, full of dry wit, and gradually revealing himself more as the book goes along until towards the end we find out about his love affair with Anastasia Alexandrova. He describes this in a humorous, self-mocking way, but it is still nevertheless very affecting and we become interested in seeing how he will respond when they meet again. The ending of the book is sad and unexpected and left me quite shocked, actually.

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I really enjoyed my first proper excursion into Maugham’s work and if I wasn’t halfway through a readalong, I’d be grabbing another volume off the tbr – highly recommended!

(A word of warning to those of sensitive disposition – and I hate myself for even saying this – the book is of its age and so inevitably displays some racial stereotyping. Ignore this as being something that will displayed in all books from this era, and just enjoy great writing.)

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