The Current State of June’s Reading Plans


(or as we might call it, FAILURE!)

It’s not that I haven’t managed to read much this month – on the contrary, I’ve got through two chunksters and a number of other volumes. What has gone slightly wrong is the planned reading – I never have responded well to literary commitments, but thought I might get by with just a monthly read of a Pym and likewise a Powell.

(pic courtesy bubblecow.net)

(pic courtesy bubblecow.net)

However, June has not been a success. I haven’t gone near a Pym and have only just begun this month’s Powell, “The Kindly Ones”. So dare I risk making plans for July? Well, yes. I should finish the Powell not too far into July, and then I hope to read another Kerouac (“The Dharma Bums” – a re-read), then one of the Pyms, then “Hotel du Lac” for Ali’s Brookner read-along and then the other Pym. Phew! Then I shall have a lie-down in a darkened room.

Watch this space to see how things pan out! 🙂

Recent Reads: Rilke in Paris


“Rilke in Paris” is another treasure from Hesperus Press, a slim volume that was published last year. Rainer Maria Rilke is best known as a poet and the author of one novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”, and also for his intense friendships with other artists across different fields of work, from Rodin to Pasternak. Wikipedia describes him as “a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist … widely recognized as one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, writing in both verse and highly lyrical prose. Several critics have described Rilke’s work as inherently “mystical”. His writings include one novel, several collections of poetry, and several volumes of correspondence in which he invokes haunting images that focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. These deeply existential themes tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist writers.”

rilke in paris

He wrote in German but Paris was an adopted city for him, and this book covers his time in the French capital, which is where he conceived and wrote much of the “Notebooks”.

“Paris, of light and silk, faded once and for all time, as far as it skies and its waters, to the heart of its flowers, with the overpowering sun of its kings. Paris, in May, her white communicants who pass amidst the people, swathed in veils, like little stars, sure of their path and their hearts, for which they rise, set out and shine…”

The book is made up of  Maurice Betz’s essays on Rilke’s time in Paris (Betz was Rilke’s French translator) along with introduction and notes on the text by translator Will Stone. There is also a little gem at the end of the book in the form of a new translation of the prose poem “Notes on the Melody of Things” which rarely sees the light of day in other languages.

The essays are a fascinating insight into Rilke’s mind and way of working; they are generously sprinkled with extracts from his letters and Betz draws illuminating parallels between Rilke’s life in Paris and the way this ended up being portrayed in the “Notebooks”. Rilke lived through a turbulent era, including the First World War years, and left Paris several times only to be drawn back again.

Both Rilke and Betz use language which is rich and ornate and may not be to everyone’s taste. However, Rilke was definitely a one-off and this book is certainly a celebration of the poet as an outsider, a loner, which Rilke seems to have been, despite his numerous friendships and love affairs. He seems to have been constantly searching for the ideal state of mind to write, and solitude often seemed the solution.

“His life was a perpetual flight before social and human realities, towards that abstraction which is solitude, towards that preservation of the absolute that is infinite desire, nostalgia eternally unsatisfied, and towards those superior states of consciousness which give access, in the midst of the most beautiful and sorrowful landscapes of life, to the contemplation of death.”

The prose poem itself is very beautiful and dreamy, contemplating the human condition and the need for society versus solitude:

It occurs to me: with this observation:
that we still paint figures again a
gold background, like the early Primitives.
Before the indeterminate they stand,
sometimes of gold, sometimes of grey.
Sometimes in the light and often with,
behind them, an inscrutable darkness.

(on art)

It has proved that each lives on their island;
only the island are not distant enough that we might
live peacefully and in solitude. One can disturb another
or terrify them, or pursue them with spears – only
no-one cannot help no-one.

My one reservation with this book has nothing to do with the contents as such, but the fact that there is nothing in it about the translator! Normally Hesperus Press books have a little bit on the translator, but there was no indication at all as to who Will Stone was, apart from the fact that he wrote his foreword in Suffolk! This is all the more surprising as the final form of the book is very much dictated by him – his translation of the Betz and the prose poem; his notes on the places; and the fact that this volume is beautifully illustrated by photos taken by him. When I searched online it seems that he is a poet himself and also translates regularly. He has been very involved in the production of a lovely book here and should have had a little more recognition in it in my view!


Despite this, I highly recommend this to any lovers of Paris and poetry. Rilke had an epistolary friendship with Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, the book of which is currently moving up my tbr – I’m looking forward to discovering more about this intense poet!

Brookner in July Reading Event


I’m pleased to say that I shall be joining in as best I can (my current reading commitments are getting very behind!) with HeavenAli’s Brookner in July Reading Event – read her post here.


I confess to having not read Anita Brookner since “Hotel du Lac” won the Booker Prize (yes, that long ago!) But as I’m finding that my view of books does change over the years, I plan to revisit this volume to see how I respond to it nearly 30 years later! I do hope lots of you will join in, and as Ali points out, Brookner’s books do turn up in UK charity shops regularly – that’s where my copy came from! – so there is no excuse not to read her! Happy July reading!

Recent Reads: Loser Takes All by Graham Greene


Yes, time for another try with Graham Greene – after stalling on “The End of the Affair” I’ve had my confidence knocked with GG, which is a shame because I read several of his books in my teens and loved them. I also watched a really interesting documentary on him recently and couldn’t work out why I was struggling with his work. However, I picked up this slim novella as part of a 3-for-£2 deal in one of my local charity shops (the others were an Agatha Christie for middle child and Zola’s “The Ladies’ Paradise” for me – bargain!). It looked amusing and short and so I figured I would give it a go – and I’m glad I did!

“Loser Takes All” tells the story of Bertram, a middle-aged accountant about to embark on his second marriage to Cary, 15 years his junior. He muddles along in a not-outstanding fashion in his firm until one day fate takes a hand, and he is summoned to the realms upstairs, for a meeting with the Grand Old Man (known as The Gom mostly in the book). After solving an intricate accounting problem, The Gom is impressed enough to decide that instead of a quiet church wedding and a week in Bournemouth, the couple will get married in Monte Carlo and honeymoon there. After persuading Cary, they head to Monte Carlo only to find that the Gom does not appear. After a frantic marriage ceremony, our happy couple are stranded in the South of France with no rich patron and no money. To survive, Bertram tries winning at the casino, and after many losses uses his accounting talents to devise a system which wins them a fortune. However, money cannot buy love and it seems that the marriage may be on the rocks owing to Bertram’s obsession the gambling. Can the last-minute arrival of The Gom save things?


Thankfully, I *loved* this novella. It’s witty, well-written, the characters come to life instantly and it has a lot to say in a short work. There are plenty of complications in the form of business rivals and shareholders, along with a penniless young man who attracts Cary for a while until she is allowed to see him as he really is. The characters were fleshed out enough to be believable in the context of the tale, and I ended up quite involved in whether Cary would stick with Bertram.

“She was not too young to be wise, but she was too young to know that wisdom shouldn’t be spoken aloud when you are happy.”

There is course the obvious moral – the proverbial gaining the world but then losing your soul; the fact that there are plenty of things that money cannot buy; and that gambling is not a solution. Obviously this is not one of Greene’s major works, rather one of the “entertainments” that he wrote to pay the bills. Nevertheless it still says much in its few pages, the love story is very sweet and the fact that the book managed to make a good few points without being heavy-handed shows what a great writer Greene was. An enjoyable page-turner – recommended!

Recent Read: Knulp by Herman Hesse


From one extreme to the other – the long, long work that was Anna Karenina, an abortive attempt at a ‘lost’ Kerouac book, and now I’m reading a very short volume by Herman Hesse! For some reason, I keep finding myself drawn back to authors I read extensively in my twenties, many of whom were European ones – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Kubin, Calvino, Junger, Hamsun and of course Hesse. I have a big block of original volumes from that time still on my shelf, but this is one I never tracked down – an earlier work called “Knulp”.

Hesse was it seems a very trendy author to read in the latter part of the 20th century. His books are quite philosophical and he embraced Eastern religions in an era where many were questioning the rapidly accelerating, modern way of life. I’m keen to revisit his work, and I’ve picked up a new translation of “Steppenwolf”, one of his best known works, to see how it stands up to a 21st century reading! But for the meantime, some thoughts on “Knulp”.

The original German subtitle for this novella was “Three Stories from the life of Knulp” which gives a much more accurate idea of what the reader is going to encounter. In the first part, titled “Early Spring”, we meet our hero, the title character, although he is actually something of an anti-hero. Knulp is a vagabond wanderer, a young man with a knowledge of all trades and walks of life, but no actual experience of hard work, as is shown by the references to his fine hands. He travels around from town to town, lodging and taking food from friends and acquaintances where he finds them, with no cares and bringing a lightness which lifts others. Here, he is a little unwell and drops in to stay with Rothfuss, an old friend, and his new young wife; the latter is obviously very taken with Knulp and makes her feelings quite clear. Knulp, meanwhile, befriends a homesick maid living nearby and brings some happiness into her existence, before moving on to escape from the clutches of Mrs. Rothfuss. He debates whether to reveal to his friend what his wife is really like, but decides against it. Rothfuss sums Knulp’s character up well:

“A man who worked hard and got ahead was better off in many ways, but he could never have such delicately graceful hands or walk with so light and jaunty a step. No, Knulp was right in going what his nature demanded and what few others could do, in speaking to strangers like a child and winning their hearts, in saying pleasant things to ladies of all ages, and making Sundays out of weekdays. You could only take him as he was, and when he needed a roof over his head, it was pleasant and an honour to give him one; indeed, you almost wanted to thank him, for he brought lightness and gaiety into the house.”

The second story, “My Recollection of Knulp”, is narrated by a one-time fellow wanderer of Knulp’s (possibly meant to be Hesse himself?), remembering a time when the latter was still alive. They are roaming without a care in the world, but despite their apparent camaraderie, it becomes clear that Knulp is destined to travel a lone path – when his friend will not fall in with his wishes for rest, but simply wants to drink beer, Knulp departs in the night to continue his travels, leaving his friend feeling guilty.

“I still had no experience of the sorrow that is part and parcel of every human relationship, nor had I learned that no matter how close two human beings may be, there is always a gulf between them which only love can bridge, and that only from hour to hour.”

The final story, “The End”, finds Knulp in poor healthy, suffering from consumption and obviously his situation is becoming terminal. He is drawn to his old home where he grew up and whilst travelling back their encounters one of his best friends from school, Machold, who is now a doctor. Knulp’s friend immediately recognises his condition and takes him in, giving him shelter and clothing, and treating him as best he can. Machold wants to send Knulp to a hospital in his hometown to see out his final days in comfort, but our hero is having none of that, and gives his escort the slip, taking off into the surrounding area. He wants to spend his remaining time revisiting his past, and reckoning his life.

“This bit of the world belonged to him, he had known every inch of it and loved it; every bush and every slope had held meaning for him, had had its tales to tell; every rain or snowfall has spoken to him; the air and earth had lived in response to his dreams and desires.”


It’s so long since I read any Hesse that I’d forgotten how simple and beautiful his language is. The wanderer is a recurring theme in his work and although this is an earlier, less-known book, it still tackles big themes: human relationships, the point of existence, whether we are born with a particular kind of temperament or whether events shape us. In the last section, particularly, we find out much more about the wanderer; Knulp reveals events from his childhood which made him take up his nomadic life and it is clear that they still haunt him. He questions whether he should have lived differently, but concludes that he could not have, although he is still unsure whether he has made any contribution to humanity. As he sees out his last moments in a snowstorm, he has a reckoning with God and is reassured that he had a purpose, in a very moving sequence.

Apparently, this was one of Hesse’s most popular early books, and I can see why. It’s lyrical and evocative, easy to read and very thought-provoking. I’m glad I revisited Hesse and I intend to (re)read more of his work soon!

The Beats of Summer: The Sea is My Brother by Jack Kerouac (DNF)



Wow! Yes, that’s right – I did not finish a Jack Kerouac book, one I’d been looking forward to reading! I’ve been reading Kerouac since my teens and never failed to finish one of his books, even the more dense volumes like “Visions of Cody” (which did take a bit of perseverence). So what went wrong here?

Let’s start with some basics: “The Sea is My Brother” is trumpeted as Kerouac’s ‘lost’ novel. That’s a bit misleading, really, because it wasn’t lost, it just hasn’t been published before. It was his first attempt at writing a novel, when he was just 20, and he dismissed it later as a “crock” and wouldn’t publish it in his lifetime. Fair enough, but posterity often want to see what a writer has left behind, and particularly their juvenilia (into which category this falls). There have been a number of posthumous Kerouac publications and so it seems inevitable that “Sea” would find its way into print.

One of the first peculiarities is the timing and content of the British and US publications. The Penguin UK edition came out *before* the US edition and contains a considerable amount of extra material. The Penguin has the title story (about 150 pages) plus several shorter fragments of stories and journals, plus a section at the back focusing on Jack’s relationship with the Sampas family, particularly Sebastian, a fledgling poet who was killed in the war. In contrast, the US edition contained only the story, although I believe the other material has been published in America since.


The UK version (which is the one I read, borrowed from my local library) is edited, put together and with notation by Dawn Ward, who seems to be an art teacher rather than a literature scholar, and I have to say that I found the layout of the book a bit odd – the editorial comment in italics didn’t stand out enough, and there was unclear division between the different pieces. And the notes were mostly unnecessary and superfluous – if I was an inexperienced 17 year old, I might have found some of them useful, but I’m not, and I doubt that this book is aimed at such a reader.

As for the content – well, “Sea” is juvenilia for sure. It’s obviously a first work and if it was by any other author than Kerouac I doubt I would have picked it up. It’s not that it’s terribly bad (I’ve read *much* worse) but it’s unformed, unfinished and obviously a book by someone who still has to find a style. Parts read terribly awkwardly, parts are repetitive and parts show hints of the kind of prose Kerouac would soar to later in his career. It was, in all truth, a bit dull and as it was obviously incomplete and unpolished, in many ways it would be of interest mainly to scholars. I’m not sure the casual reader would get much.

As for the other pieces – well, in many cases they’re just fragments and I wondered why these particular pieces had been chosen. I’m not against posthumous publication, far from it – I have several of the latter-day collections of Kerouac’s shorter pieces, and very much enjoyed “And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks”, the joint work by Kerouac and Burroughs which came out recently. I also saw the Scroll last year, and found the publication of it in book form a fascinating read (although I can understand why people got frustrated with the *long* introductions!) However, the fragments included here didn’t seem to have particular merit, imho, and didn’t sit well alongside the main story.

As I tried to read on through this book, I was feeling more and more uncomfortable. The words “scraping” and “barrel” kept coming to mind, and I found it hard to work out what it was that was bothering me most. I wondered what other people had thought and popped online to see what other reviewers had said. There seemed to be quite a mixed response, but then I stumbled across Paul Maher’s excellent site here, and what he said about “Sea” crystallised for me the problem I was having with the book. I won’t repeat all Paul says, because I recommend you read it yourself, but in effect I agree with him that this is a book with an agenda – it is more about Sebastian Sampas than Jack Kerouac and seems to be trying to promote him as a lost poet in his own right. Anyone with more than a passing interest in Kerouac’s life is probably aware of the controversies that have surrounded his estate, and I’m not going to go into them here – I have my opinions and beliefs on the rights and wrongs as I’m sure most readers do – and so the timing this book, coming very close to the release of the “On The Road” movie, is interesting.

So I didn’t finish this book, because in the end it didn’t feel to me by or about Kerouac. I felt like it detracted from his legacy, instead of adding to it, and I’m going to go back to some of his works I love most to reinforce what I feel about him. When his poetic prose soars, his long descriptions paint wonderful pictures in your head, when his characters whoop and laugh and rush out to embrace life – that’s the Kerouac I love and will continue to read.

(Looking back over this post I see that I’ve actually mentioned little about the actual story itself. Basically, “Sea” concerns a live-at-home-with-the-family college lecturer who hooks up with a drunken merchant seaman on leave and ends up taking off to sea with him – then the story stops. Probably based on Kerouac’s short-lived experience at sea – 8 days if I recall correctly – ’nuff said!)


Paul Maher has posted a couple of ‘follow-ups’ to his piece linked about on the Empty Mirror site and they are definitely worth reading for an insight to the oddities behind the publication of this book:



Recent Reads: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy


Wow – I’ve definitely got a book hangover after finishing this chunkster! I’ve spent a week and half living this book, and it’s been one of those experiences where you feel as if you’ve been on a journey, joining the characters in what they’ve been through, so that it becomes personal. It’s going to take me a little while to get out of this tome and into another one, and also for my feelings to settle about it.


I feel that I approached AK with very few preconceptions, and as the Vintage edition I read has no extra material at all, I was in effect reading it ‘cold’.  Literally all I knew about it was that it’s trumpeted by Nabokov as “one of the greatest love stories in world literature”; it’s one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces; and what happened to Anna at the end! Knowing the latter actually didn’t bother me because in many ways it took the pressure off and I wasn’t rushing to find out what happened to the heroine!

Of course, AK has been written about *a lot* over the years and is studied everywhere, so what I can add to that body of commentary is debatable, but I’ll give my thoughts for what they’re worth. So, a quick summary: AK tells the story of a doomed love affair between the title character and Count Vronsky. Anna is married to an older man who she feels little for, and has a young son she adores. Vronsky is a rich society officer who falls head over heels and pursues Anna until they have an affair. She falls passionately in love, and in this lies her mistake – most of her society acquaintances have affairs left, right and centre, but these are casual liaisons, discreetly handled and then broken off. But Anna loves and is not discreet and by leaving her husband and son, and initially refusing a divorce, becomes an outcast, a scarlet woman. Can Vronsky and Anna’s love survive the ostracization and the strain of the scandal?

Frankly, to sustain that plot for 950-odd pages wouldn’t be likely, but Tolstoy presents us here with a remarkably rich and deep novel, peopled with a vast array of characters, from the Oblonskys (Anna’s brother Stiva, sister-in-law Dolly and numerous others) to Vronsky’s army colleagues and society friends, Kostya Levin and his family and farming, Kitty Oblonsky who initially attracts Vronsky but ends up marrying Levin – well, you see what I mean. There is even a family tree for the book on Wikipedia! There’s no point in attempting a full plot summary – you can get that online and frankly you’d be better off reading the book.

But despite this apparent complexity, this is a remarkably easy book to read. It opens with marital dissent between Stiva and Dolly – Stiva is an inveterate womanizer and one of the most engaging characters of the book. The other major characters are gradually introduced one after another and as the story develops Tolstoy weaves all the strands together expertly. However, this is not rushed or forced but flows naturally and the changing viewpoints are never confusing. My  book is the Maudes translation and I believe that they actually knew Tolstoy and he approved their version. The structure of the book is short chapters (sometimes only a couple of pages) and somehow this helped the reading of it to stay manageable. I never felt bogged down and the prose was in the main light and easy (and very beautiful in places).

Oleg Yankovskiy as Karenin and Yaroslav Boyko as Vronsky

Oleg Yankovskiy as Karenin and Yaroslav Boyko as Vronsky

Although the book is a joy to read, there is considerable depth in AK. We are not dealing with a simple story of a tragic love affair here – rather we are dealing with moral choices, right and wrong, hypocrisy and issues in society and the difference between men and women. This latter seems to me one of the most dominant elements in the book – there are regular illustrations of the differing perceptions and reactions of men and women to issues and events, and also of society’s expectations of the different sexes. The phrase “it’s different for girls” certainly applies here: Vronsky, although having taken up with Anna and living with her, is accepted in his normal circles when not accompanied by her; Anna by contrast is shunned and regarded as an evil woman, for having left husband and child and for living ‘in sin’ with Vronsky. We are presented regularly throughout the book with examples of Stiva (and others) having liaisons with ballet dancers etc, and this is given tacit approval by society (although pure souls such as Levin and Kitty cannot bear the thought of this). The difference between the attitudes faced by the brother and sister are quite dramatic, and Tolstoy has many digs at the hypocrisy of Russian society (particularly in St. Petersburg, where the reception given to Anna is particularly hostile).

With a cast as interesting and varied as that presented here, it’s sometimes hard to pick out favourites. I did find myself fascinated by Karenin, the wronged husband, and his development throughout the book. He is initially totally repressed, a buttoned-up man who cannot express his feelings or even recognise them himself. He is unable to comprehend that Anna might be unfaithful to him, and then goes into denial, trying to ignore the fact out of existence.

“He now experienced a sensation such as a man might feel who, while quietly crossing a bridge over an abyss, suddenly sees that the bridge is being taken to pieces and that he is facing the abyss. The abyss was real lilfe; the bridge was the artificial life Karenin had been living.”

When he finally allows his emotions through, it’s a revelation, but this doesn’t last for long and he soon gets himself under control again. I was glad when we finally got a bit of back story about why he was like he was (orphan) and how he came to marry Anna (coerced into it). I did find myself wondering about Anna’s motives in marrying him – security and status presumably had much to do with it, but we find out very little about Anna’s past. Karenin goes through many stages ending up passing from a kind of real spiritual discovery and Christian forgiveness of Anna, to a warped, fake religion dealing with spiritualists and the very unpleasant Countess Lydia. Despite this, he loves and cares for both Anna’s children and in many ways redeems himself.

Tatyana Drubich as Anna and Yaroslav Boyko as Vronsky

Tatyana Drubich as Anna and Yaroslav Boyko as Vronsky

Anna herself is in some ways hard to discuss. Beautiful, lively and favoured by society, we actually don’t really know what made her how she is. She has a passionate nature which is unfulfilled by her marriage (and the unanswered question of why she married Karenin constantly came back to me), and most of her emotion seems to have been transferred into an almost obsessive love for her son. I found myself wondering if Tolstoy was trying to make Anna seem an unnatural women. Although he presents a wide variety of viewpoints in AK, the predominant message I got was that he felt that marriage was for procreation and fulfilling God’s will by having children. Certainly, the union of Kitty and Levin is very much presented in this light, and Tolstoy gives Anna very little true happiness from her relationship with Vronsky – the actual consummation is discreetly portrayed, but in dramatically negative terms, reading more like a murder than an act of love. Her rejection of her daughter by Vronsky, little Anna, implies that she knows her union with him is wrong and despite her passion for him, her son has come from a legal, religious marriage and the daughter from an illicit affair. I wondered whether she saw herself in her daughter and feared for her future.

As the relationship with Vronsky implodes, she is unable to cope and resorts to opium to sleep. The almost psychotic state she ends up in during her final moments could have been exacerbated by the drug-taking and the strain of trying to cope with jealousy, loneliness and insecurity. She is unable to see that her behaviour is driving a wedge between herself and Vronsky. Yet, despite all this,Tolstoy doesn’t make Anna unsympathetic – we feel for her deeply, having escaped from a loveless marriage into a passionate relationship which is doomed to fail. Her temperament makes it impossible for her to find calm, rational solution to her situation. And had she lived in another time and place, she would not have been judged so harshly.

However, this book is not just about one set of lovers – there are many, the other most prominent couple being Kitty and Levin. Their courtship is a long and troubled one, aggravated by Levin’s continual soul-searching and Kitty’s need to mature and get through her adolescence. Levin is actually a bit of an irritating character in some ways – unsettled, constantly changing his mind and altering his opinions about things at the drop of a hat. He tries to be strong and stable, constantly sorting things out for people. However, there are numerous occasions when he cannot cope, the prime one being when his brother is dying and he simple does not know how to deal with this. Kitty is the stronger of the two in this situation and nurses his brother with a natural understanding of how to help him best, something which Levin could never have.

Aleksandr Abdulov as Stiva and Oleg Yankovskiy as Karenin

Aleksandr Abdulov as Stiva and Oleg Yankovskiy as Karenin

Then there are Dolly and Stiva. Oblonsky is actually one of the most essential characters in this book, a kind of link between the various groups and sets of people, a sort of glue holding things together and bringing the different circles into contact. He’s the type of man you would probably still find today, the overgrown adolescent who will never get past that age, unable to accept that he has responsibilities.

“Try as he would to be a considerate husband and father, Oblonsky never could remember that he had a wife and children. He had the tastes of a bachelor and understood no others.”

Dolly is in constant emotional flux: betrayed by her husband, she actually considers divorce at one point, but meeting up with Anna and seeing how she suffers has a salutary effect and in the end she carries on putting up with her husband’s infidelity.

There are many other relationships shown in AK: Levin’s sick brother with a women he has rescued from a house of ill repute; Vronsky’s initial courting of Kitty; the missed opportunity of Varenka and Levin’s brother, when the moment to speak passes and nothing will ever come of the mutual attraction. And the reader ends up wondering which relationship Tolstoy is saying is best: Stiva and Dolly’s unhappy marriage; Anna and Vronsky’s obsessional love which turns in upon itself and destroys itself; or the marriage of Kitty and Levin, which is not what Kostya expects but ends up with the most chance of being a happy and long union. Tolstoy is looking for the perfect relationship and his various characters go through the tortuous events of their lives to allow him, through Levin, to find moral peace and a conclusion.

As for Vronsky – I felt angry with him and sorry for him at the same time. He loves Anna passionately and initiates the affair, but in doing so loses his career and in the end probably his life. He is constantly torn in opposing directions and driven to distraction by Anna’s demands and jealousy. What started as love ends up as a battle of wills – they say there is a thin line between love and hate, and that’s certainly demonstrated here. When Vronsky, late in the book, refers to “…this dismal burdensome love…”, you know that things have got to rock bottom and there is no going back to their earlier happier times. Once again, the differing needs and expectations of men and women come into play here – as long as Anna has Vronsky, she could be happy living abroad in obscurity, but he needs more; he is bored and restless abroad and cannot really survive without career and society to mix in. I found it interesting that Tolstoy gave both husband and lover same first name, as if they represent two sides of the same coin. In fact, at one point Anna dreams that she has two husbands, and of course both men have their careers ruined by her.

There’s so much to think about after reading this book that I’m sure people write theses on it! Tolstoy’s writing style is excellent – compelling, readable and not just reportage, as has been suggested by some critics. The chapters where Kitty is nursing Levin’s brother; the section where she gives birth to Mitya; the descriptions of Anna’s deteriorating psyche and mental anguish; and those of Karenin when he finally allows his emotions to exist are remarkably powerful writing and stayed with me after reading. He constructs the book brilliantly, switching from one character to another’s viewpoint which apparent ease, and never losing the reader.

Any down points? Well, there is a *lot* of discussion – of politics, the peasant question, the meaning of life etc. Levin is the most soul-searching character, I believe normally taken to represent Tolstoy himself and his search for faith. Certainly he reflects Tolstoy’s almost schizophrenic nature, the spiritual fighting against the material. There were times when I wanted to shout “Just get on with it!”, but I imagine that on a re-read I would find these sections more absorbing, because even though I knew Anna’s eventual fate, I did want to find out what happened to all the other characters! By necessity, any first reading of AK is bound to focus on the plot  but the issues probably come out more on a second or third read.

At the end of the day this was a thumping good read, as well as being filled with the issues Tolstoy was trying to debate – the sort of book you live through and which is utterly unputdownable. I think the “Anna Karenina” book hangover will be with me for quite a while!


As an aside, the Vintage edition I read was easy enough to handle, but found the lack of notes, introduction or anything a bit strange. Having read a lot of Russians, there wasn’t too much that was mysterious for me as a reader. However, someone with less knowledge of the context might have found some of the phrases or references a little puzzling, and any classic deserves an introduction. Oddly enough, the reasonably priced Wordsworth Edition is the same translation but with introduction and notes – perhaps more suitable for the general reader and a bargain at £1.99!

(Stills are from the 2009 Russian TV miniseries of “Anna Karenina”)

Some Thoughts on Hesperus Press


Even the most casual reader of this blog can’t have failed to notice that I am quite a fan of independent publishers, and one of my favourites is Hesperus Press – in fact, one of my earliest blog reviews was of their lovely collection “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve been reading their books for many years, and I’m delighted that the Hesperus blog – on hiatus for a couple of years – is now back in action here. The publisher seems to be going from strength to strength with a lovely mixture of classics and new works and there are quite a few forthcoming titles I’m looking forward to. And of course the fact that they publish a lot of my lovely Russian authors is a bonus…!

What I’ve always liked about their books is a combination of elements: the discovery of obscure and often neglected titles; interesting forewords and useful notes; and books that are well-designed and lovely to look at and read. Searching back through my blog, there are quite a few Hesperus titles I’ve reviewed…! I started reading their book many years ago, when they seemed to be limited to around 100 pages, and this made them manageable – particularly when my offspring were smaller and reading had to be fitted into short packages of time. However, they seem to have diversified and now publish a remarkable variety of titles, and of differing lengths!

Anyway the publishers are flying high at the moment with “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” selling phenomenally well, and a new Finnish thriller “Cold Courage” on its way out into the world and much-lauded. They’ve also reprinted four H. Rider Haggard classics about “She” and have been kind enough to provide me with review copies. As I’m currently in the middle of “Anna Karenina” it will be a little while until I find a moment to review the contents, but I wanted to pass on a few words about the books as physical objects!

The four "She" novels - aren't the covers striking?

The four “She” novels – aren’t the covers striking?

Hesperus books are always a delight to handle and these are no exception: the complementary matching covers are colourful and attractive and will look very nice on my shelves! There are the usual sturdy covers with little flaps which add a nice touch to all Hesperus volumes and make them stand out a bit from ordinary paperbacks. Having books in a set is always a delight and these do look lovely together. These are classic adventure stories, and in fact Haggard is credited with the invention of the “Lost World” literary genre. Interestingly, one of the books “She and Allen” is an early example of the crossover novel, featuring Haggard’s most succesful characters, Ayesha and Quartermain, in one volume. Allan Quartermain is, of course, the main protagonist of “King Solomon’s Mines”, featured in other Haggard works, and is apparently the inspiration for Indiana Jones!

The question always arises as to why, when a book can be obtained for free via e-readers or from sources like Gutenberg, you should spend out good money to buy a tree version. To answer that one I ended up thinking quite deeply about what it is I feel about the printed volume. There is a physical, tactile pleasure to be obtained in picking up a book – opening the cover for the first time, the smell of new printing, flicking to indices or notes, and then back to the story. All of these things are an important part of the reading experience, and I somehow feel I have far more respect for a book that exists as an object, rather than as pixels on a screen. The weight of the printed book in your hand, the way you can read at a measured pace – all of these joys of reading seem to me to come from a printed volume, not from an electronic version. And books from publishers like Hesperus, beautifully produced as an attractive item that you want to read, and keep, and experience again one day, are for me infinitely preferable to having a digital copy. And don’t get me started on how much would be lost from some of my more collectible, hardback books by way of missing illustrations etc!

A review of the actual content will follow, but for now I’m very much looking forward to reading these books – I’m a sucker for classics – and thanks again to Hesperus for providing copies!

Recent Reads: A Pair of Books about the Underground

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As regular readers will know, I had a bit of a ramble here about one of my favourite authors, Paul Morley, and his little Penguin book about the underground “Earthbound”. As I’d enjoyed this so much, I thought I might have a look at another one or two of these little volumes – they’re nicely produced and also bite-size length so ideal for a quick read. I had been attracted by “Blue Riband” by Peter York, as I used to find his programmes on style and design quite entertaining back in the 1980s. However, when researching the various titles, I spotted another one that sounded amusing by John O’Farrell – “A History of Capitalism According to the Jubilee Line”. I decided it could be interesting to read both, and I was right – what a contrast between two books, ostensibly on the same subject!


Peter York’s tome covers the Piccadilly Line, hence the punning title referring to the colour of the line and also the prize awarded to ships for the fastest crossing of an ocean. York’s focus is firmly on the posher part of the line, relating the history of various buildings, occupants, past and current uses, and the stations themselves.

“In 1928 Piccadilly Circus Station stood for Things to Come. The drum concourse and the original escalators will have said The Future as clearly as the vast Jubilee Line extension steel-and-glass cathedrals of 1999 do now.” (York)

He is very much a born-again Tube fan, having only recently started travelling on them again, and his enthusiasm transmits itself to the reader. He’s also very funny in places, with witty little asides, much like I remember from his TV experiences – like this footnote:

“In his “London: The Biography”, Peter Ackroyd gives Piccadilly about a page, and then it’s only about the Circus and the sex; boys and girls having adventures and selling their bodies. And he’s only got a line each for Jermyn Street and Mayfair – more whores – and nothing at all for St. James’s. He is a funny one.” (York)

By contrast, I know nothing about John O’Farrell, who covers the Jubilee Line in a slightly longer and more involved fantasy in which he has a real nightmare  journey on the train (rather than the *nightmare* of a difficult commute so often quoted). In his fantasy, the world systems collapse owing to the financial crisis, and O’Farrell is trapped underground between stations with a motley collection of fellow passengers, ranging from an ageing professor to a couple from Yorkshire. There is much debate about the causes of the failure, the political systems that allowed this to happen, and a fist-fight between Noam Chomsky and Roger Scruton who have mysteriously materialised in the carriage. Even Margaret Thatcher makes a strange appearance…


If this sounds odd, it’s actually surprisingly light and easy to read, very witty and not too dogmatic – O’Farrell is a left-winger who actually challenges his own assumptions and preconceptions here, in a funny book with characters that you actually start to like; and even care about whether they escape from drowning underground or not! There are plenty of potted quotes about political issues, so many good ones that I found myself jotting down loads:

“Like the venomous snake that sedates its prey before swallowing it, the dull complexity of twenty-first-century capitalism numbed its victims into confused submission before swallowing it whole.” (O’Farrell)

“Because people don’t actually need “Hot Babes in Bikinis”. They need housing and hospitals and schools, and a public transport system that doesn’t seize up because the bankers have crippled the economy.” (O’Farrell)

“Is that genuine freedom, though? If you are being lied to and don’t know it? Isn’t the ignorance and prejudice that is cultivated within our system its own form of imprisonment? Was it Goethe who said, ‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe themselves to be free’?” (O’Farrell)

“How could I have lost sight of that simple inescapable truth that my personal interests and the needs of society as a whole would ultimately be the same thing?” (O’Farrell)

“It seemed that the world wasn’t just divided by ideologies; it was also divided by those who tried to make a difference and those who couldn’t be bothered.” (O’Farrell)

And reading these two books together actually provided quite an intriguing contrast. I found myself a little uncomfortable with the celebration of wealth and power in York’s book: I wasn’t actually clear where his opinions were, if he disapproved of the huge amounts some people possessed or whether he celebrated it. Certainly he is not happy about the commodification of certain shopping areas, which end up identical to those all around the world, and one paragraph lists the designer shops that can be found in every major luxury shopping street in the world – yes, we are in the Global Village! However, I found myself wishing that, as he was touching on what could be a controversial subject (extreme wealth, while there is such extreme poverty in the world), he would actually state his own views.

O’Farrell, however, certainly states his views but is prepared to be challenged on them, and actually provides what is an interesting, never dull discussion within the format of a short, humorous book.

“I wandered out of the station and followed the crowd into Stratford City Westfield. The enormous shopping mall looked different seen through the eyes of a man who has just had the capitalist system explained to him by his subconscious. It seemed to be a monument to the gods of unnecessarily spending money. Branded shop after branded shop selling you things you didn’t actually need but had been persuaded that you really ought to have.” (O’Farrell)

He certainly provoked a lot of thought in my mind and in the end I found this to be the better book of the two: funnier, more entertaining, and with a lot of hidden depth. These were enjoyable books to read and the O’Farrell I would definitely recommend for those who like something quirky and involving!

“The Jubilee Line had showed me the way. I had seen how our political and financial system had evolved to keep exploiting the majority while enriching those at the very top. I had learned that politics is about the choices you make, not about the things that you say. I had seen that violence solves nothing and been shown that there is good and bad in everyone, even my greatest enemies.” (O’Farrell)

Recent Reads: Travels of a Capitalist Lackey by Fred Basnett


Time for some non-fiction – and what a joy this book was! As I mentioned here, I came across this book totally by chance in a charity shop box, thanks to Youngest Child’s eagle eye, and was attracted to it by the title, then discovering it was a record of the author’s travels through Soviet Russia and beyond in 1961. It sounded right up my street and it was!

I’d never heard of Fred Basnett or his book before finding it, and there is precious little about him on the Internet – all I have managed to discover is his obituary here which makes mention of his as a writer and broadcaster. He seems to be a forgotten figure but on the basis of this book I’m not sure why.

Alas - not my edition!

Alas – not my edition!

In August 1961, Fred found himself co-piloting an ancient (1926!) Alvis car with his friend Paul Redfern, as they have somehow been convinced it would be a good idea for them to drive it through Russia then on through Iran and Turkey before returning to the UK. This would be something of an undertaking at the best of times, but bearing in mind that this was at the height of the Cold War, not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis, then it starts to seem foolhardy. Fred and Paul set off nevertheless, travelling with the car by boat to Sweden, then up to visit the Arctic Circle, before heading south through Finland and crossing into Soviet Russia. Somehow the car holds together and they manage to survive through Leningrad, Moscow and right down through Georgia to Tbilisi. After complex border negotiations they pass through Iran, spotting Mount Ararat on the way, before finally arriving with car in Turkey and enjoying slightly more civilised living in Ankara and Istanbul. The book ends as they reluctantly take their leave of Turkey, and alas we don’t get to enjoy their final drive home – maybe this was less eventful than the rest of the journey!

Fred and the Alvis near St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Fred and the Alvis near St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

This is a wonderful book on several different levels. Firstly, as an illustration of the kind of travel book described by Hilary on Vulpes Libris as “brilliant reading for anyone who enjoys perceptive, personal travel writing for its own sake”, it’s exemplary. It’s funny, opinionated, poignant and infused with a genuine love of the people Fred met on his travels. Secondly, it gives an excellent snapshot of what it was like to travel through Soviet Russia at the time. Whether dodging potential informers or controlling Intourist “guides”, Fred and Paul are always aware that they are being observed and it is a rare occasion when they can sneak away to get a glimpse of the reality behind the Iron Curtain. When they do meet the ordinary citizens they get on like a house on fire, and are met with constant kindness (and a desire to buy anything western they are prepared to part with!). The book is almost a historical document and worth reading to remind yourself what life was like for Russian citizens at that time. There is a desperate need for anything from the outside world, and at one point they are even approached for the printed word:

“Lingering in the corridor of the train, not knowing how to say goodbye, the shy youth opened up a little and told us that his father was a languages professor who translated English books. I gave him Muriel Spark’s ‘Memento Mori’, and then he asked, with tense off-handedness, if there were any English newspapers I’d finished with. All I could find was a tattered copy of The Guardian…”

I wonder what the professor made of Ms. Spark’s novel?

The constant run-ins with Intourist (the Soviet travel agency), the endless waiting around for visas, paperwork and even meals, the interminable bureaucracy were unbelievable and the frustrations the travellers had to put up with would have tried the patience of a saint! Fred and Paul at one point end up stranded in a border town that is no more than a railway station whilst waiting for the car to catch them up by train, and as they sink into torpor, Fred finds amusement in watching the antics of local ants!

Thirdly, this is a glimpse of a lost world – a world where travel still seemed like exploration and to set off on a whim in an old car was carrying on one’s travelling heritage (e.g. Robert Byron’s “Europe in the Looking Glass”), where the globe seemed large and regular jet-setting had not reduced the excitement of discovering a new land. And finally, this is just such a readable book – the writing is lovely, evocative and I became completely absorbed, ending up feeling as if I’d made the journey with them.

Lovely map from the book - all good travel books should have a map!

Lovely map from the book – all good travel books should have a map!

I can’t recommend this book highly enough for those who enjoy travel writing – it seems to me that this is such an unjustly neglected book which should be up there alongside Newby et al. It’s full of lovely descriptions of the regions they passed through and also some very funny sections – here are some examples, but I could have pulled out loads:

“Still looking like an inland sea, Lake Sevan must have been even larger before they started tapping off water for a hydro-electric scheme whose pylons go striding off in all directions over the naked hills. What was once an island out in the lake is now a peninsula, an over-large head on the end of a thin, chalky neck of land, which sent the sun bouncing into our eyes as we walked across. Two cosy little churches of the ninth century squatted comfortably at the turfy summit of the former island. The steep path leading to them passed a clump of intricately carved tombstones, as ancient and withdrawn as a group of geriatric patients. The carving was blurred by strata of lichens, which overlapped like stained, corroded, paper-thin medals.”

“The last call was to the covered market to buy some food for the train journey. Ambivalence again – this time of old and new, of apathy and ebullience. A colossal bronze screen, fretted and pierced like a giant doily, fills the arch of the portico. The fifteen-foot door cut through this looks like a mouse-hole; you scuttle through and find yourself in a high, spaciously echoing vault, more like a hygienic hangar than a market. The traders seem cowed by this space, and cling unhappily to the walls like people who’ve come to a dance too early. Old men squat on their hunkers among green-marbled hills of melons thinking nostalgically of the dirty, bustling life of the old street markets.”

“For all I know, the approach to Maku may be beautiful, even spectacular, when the sun is up, but it is very different on a blind, moonless night. The road runs through a strangely brooding valley, thickly peopled with tall boulders which stand humped like cloaked trolls, sometimes in quiet groups, sometimes alone and waiting with terrible patience at the very edge of the road. The silence was a straining drum-skin waiting to burst in one dreadful boom – and the rocks would then stir stiffly and begin to lurch forward. In this context Maku appears like the good fairy….”

“The dome rang with the sound characteristic of swimming pools everywhere – a compound of the baying of muscled extraverts (sic) and the cries of the drowning. The only thing missing was the whiff of chlorine. The water needed more than a whiff. It was opaque enough to make  your hand disappear six inches down and, after swallowing a half-pint, I rejected any idea of joining in the wrestling.”

Negative points? I can’t really think of any – perhaps there is the occasional slightly politically incorrect reference (mainly to women rather than ethnic minorities) but there was nothing that made my hackles rise. In summary, this book is going to have pride of place on my travel shelf and if you have any love of travel writing at all, please track down a copy – there are plenty of low-priced ones online, and you’ll be in for a treat! Loved this book!

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