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A Lovely Hesperus Press Competition!

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I was excited to read on the Hesperus Press Blog that they’re launching a new imprint called Hesperus Minor, dedicated to rediscovering lost children’s classics. Despite my advancing age (ahem) – or maybe even because of it! – I’m quite partial to revisiting books from my childhood. I was lucky enough to be gifted a lovely copy of “Little Women” last Christmas, which I used to read over and over as a child, so it just proves you’re never to old to read a children’s classic!

hesperuslogo__1_The first titles Hesperus have mentioned are:

The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne (foreword by John Boyne)
The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit (foreword by Julia Donaldson)
The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald (foreword by Joseph Delaney)

all of which are tales worthy of the title ‘classic’. I’m particularly keen to revisit “The Coral Island”, as I read this as a child but haven’t ever gone back to it, and the promise of a nice, French-flapped Hesperus edition is very appealing! The publishers have kindly provided a review copy and I’m itching to sit down and sink into some escapism.

Coral-Island

As well as this, Hesperus are running a competition to nominate a lost classic to be republished by them – you simply have to choose a book and explain in 500 words why you think it should be republished. Not only will the winner’s book get published, but their name and submission will also appear in the book! I am wracking my brains at the moment for a suitable candidate, but in the meantime if anyone wants to have a go at entering, the blog post with full details of how to enter and plus criteria/judges etc is here. Full terms and conditions are here.

The hardest bit, of course, will be to think of a sensible reason for nominating something a reader has an emotional connection with from childhood…….. Off to put my thinking cap on!

Lucking out in the charity shops again!

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Yes, Mount TBR is so big it will topple, and yes I *am* supposed to be reducing the amount of books in the house instead of increasing them – but I’m not really sure that’s ever going to work….

The safest way would simply be to stop going to the charity shops – but Youngest Child is off to university soon and so we are having a last few shopping days before she goes. And today did bring a couple of fortunate finds!

semiFirst up is what was Virago Modern Classic number 16 – way back in 1979 this one came out, and this volume is a first edition from then, with the previous owner’s name and date inscribed in the front. It’s in such lovely condition that she obviously took great care of it – and I found myself wondering, in a slightly melancholy way, why she’d parted with it. At least it has gone to a good home and will join my collection of green spines quite happily. (And yes – it was only £1!)

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The second volume was a kind of ‘upgrade’ as I already have a brand new, modern version of this book courtesy of The Works, but a green is always preferable and although it’s been a bit more loved, it still will be happy with its fellows.

Despite slight feelings of guilt about yet *more* books, I think it would have been silly not to bring these two home….

Recent Reads: Smoke by Turgenev

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Despite my love of Russian literature, it actually was only last year that I first read a book by Ivan Turgenev (see here),  regarded as one of that country’s masters (and actually one of the masters generally – Hemingway says about him.’Turgenev to me is the greatest writer there ever was.’) Wikipedia has this:

“Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, November 9 [O.S. October 28] 1818 – September 3, 1883, was a Russian novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His first major publication, a short story collection entitled A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), was a milestone of Russian Realism, and his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is regarded as one of the major works of 19th-century fiction.”

Alma Classics, one of my favourite publishers, produce four of his works, and “Smoke”, a recent volume translated by Michael Pursglove, sounded very enticing so when I was given a Waterstones gift card recently, it made its way onto Mount TBR!

smoke
“Smoke”, published in 1867, tells the tale of Grigory Mikhailovich Litvinov, the son of a retired merchant official, who has spent some time living in the west and is travelling back to his homeland. He stops off in Baden-Baden, a well-known gambling town and haunt of Russian ex-pats where he is to meet up with his fiance, Tatyana, before they continue their journey. However, in Baden he encounters an old flame, Irina, who jilted him in his youth and his passions are once more inflamed. But Irina is now married and a highly regarded society woman and it is not clear how events will turn out; will Litvinov be seduced once again by his old love, or will he remain loyal to his fiance?

If this sounds a little like a simplistic love story, “Smoke” is emphatically much more than that. For Turgenev was writing against a background of intense debate about the future of Russia, where a huge schism had grown up between the Slavophiles, who deified the simple Russian peasant life above all, and the Westernisers, who thought that traditional Russian life had produced no intrinsic culture and that the Slavs needed to absorb western ideas to progress.

Turgenev is dealing with large topics here, but he has such a light touch that the book never gets bogged down by this. He has an odd, appealing and somewhat discursive narrative style, where he will break off from the main plot to fill the reader in with a piece of back story which we don’t even know if the characters even know! There is much discussion of the rights and wrongs of Russia and in fact Litvinov is a kind of everyman, caught between two different worlds and two different loves. The worlds are extreme opposites but that is what Turgenev intends to show. Set against this backdrop, our ordinary man tries to cope with conflicting emotions and the draw of passion matched against a sensible outlook.

And there is a wonderful array of characters in “Smoke”, from the outwardly solid but inwardly passionate Litvinov, to the manipulative and intense Irina, the loyal Tatyana, the officers and society people who mix with Irina and the group of Slavophiles trying to draw Litvinov into their circle. But there is one character who stands out and that is Potugin (who seems to be intended to represent Turgenev in the novel.) He is the bridge between the two worlds portrayed, having regular contact with both, and he is also the book’s conscience and voice of reason. It is Potugin who tries to talk sense to Litvinov and Potugin who is the sane, sober person trying to point out the dangers of his position.

“It’s a fact – there’s no avoiding falling into someone’s hands… There’s no avoiding it. Men are weak, women are strong. Fate is omnipotent. It’s difficult to reconcile oneself to a colourless life; it’s impossible to forget oneself completely. There lies beauty and affection; there lies warmth and light. How can one resist?… And it ends with your losing the taste for everything and ceasing to understand anything. First, you won’t understand how it’s possible to love, then you won’t understand how it’s possible to live.”

This is a very readable, well written book and whilst reading I sensed echoes of Anna Karenina, particularly in the concept of the debate of peasant vs. nobleman and the best way for Russia to progress. However, interestingly enough Smoke was published several years before Tolstoy’s masterpiece. However, both books capture the same zeitgeist but from different perspectives: Turgenev was writing in effect from outside Russia and was something of a Westerniser, whereas Tolstoy was very much a Slavophile. The books share themes and there are superficial similarities between Litvinov and Kostya Levin; but Turgenev stops short of the religious aspect of Tolstoy’s work.

Turgenev in many ways takes the middle ground, lambasting both groups equally – this is his view of the Slavophiles:

“Take the Slavophiles…. everything is in the future, they say. There is nothing substantive at all, and in the course of ten whole centuries old Russia has produced nothing of its own, in government, the judicial system, science, art, or event in crafts… But wait, be patient. Everything will happen. But, pardon my curiosity, why will it happen? Because, so they say, we educated people are rubbish, but the people… oh, they are a great people! Do you see this peasant coat? That will be the source of everything. All other idols are destroyed; let us believe in the peasant coat. But if the peasant coat betrays you? No, it won’t betray you.”

But when it comes to the ex-pat aristos he is quite sarcastically scathing:

“… three carriages appeared, from which there emerged a fairly large group of ladies and their escorts. Litvinov immediately recognised them as Russians, although they were all speaking French, or rather because they were all speaking French. The ladies’ outfits were notable for their stylishness; their escorts were wearing frock coats, brand-new, but tight-fitting and waisted, which is somewhat unusual nowadays, grey-striped trousers and extremely shiny town hats. A black cravat, tied low, constricted the neck of each of these gentlemen and there was something martial in their whole deportment. They were indeed military men….their importance was everywhere manifest: in their restrained casualness, in their affably lordly smiles, in their tense, distracted looks, in the effeminate twitching of the shoulders, swaying of the waist and bending of the knees. It was manifest in the very sound of their voices, which appeared to be thanking a crowd of subordinates with affection and loathing.”

Irina is foolish enough to expose Litvinov to the society she has bought into by in effect selling her beauty in exchange for luxury; she is not strong enough to break away from it (unlike Anna K) and so gives Litvinov the chance to be her lover, following her and her husband round slavishly – a demeaning offer which fortunately he has the strength to reject.

“Would that there had been even a drop of living water beneath all this discarded rubbish. What outmoded, useless nonsense, what miserable trivia occupied all these heads and hearts on that evening, not just in high society, but also at home, every hour and every day, throughout the length and breadth of their being! And what ignorance, when all’s said and done! What failure to understand everything on which human life is built and which with it is adorned.”

The book ends on a positive note with the possibility of a reconciliation between Litvinov and Tatyana; although Turgenev does not let up on the society dandies or the Slavophiles. At the end of the stories, many of the ex-pat Russians have returned to their estates and instead of finding salvation in the land are seen tyrannising the peasants and each other, their lives wasted. Turgenev certainly knew how to mock the cult of the peasant.

Turgenev_by_Repin5
Much of what takes place in the story is seen as just smoke and mirrors, illusions; the glossy, glamorous image of Irina; that of the Slavophiles, with their pie-in-the-sky notions; the officer class with their posing, their idiocy and their mad beliefs. Very little separates them under the skin in real terms, both groups following chimeras and having no grounding in reality. Litvinov, the ordinary man, is the only one with a chance at survival.

“Smoke, smoke,” he repeated several times, and suddenly everything appeared to him to be smoke, everything: his own life, Russian life, everything human and especially Russian. “Everything is smoke and steam,” he thought.”

Part of what drew me to this book initially was the Baden-Baden connection – I loved Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler” when I recently re-read it, and it’s fascinating to see what a different focus each writer has. Dostoevsky’s is determinedly personal, dealing with the effects of gambling on the soul and telling a rollicking good tale; whereas Turgenev, although again telling a great tale, has much to say about the state of the Russian soul. As always with Alma Classics, there is excellent material at the back giving an outline of the author’s life and work. The detailed introduction also send me off in search of the cult book “Summer in Baden-Baden” which I’ve never read and which presumably features the stand up row between FD and IT in that very town! This was a great and very enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward now to exploring more Turgenev.

The Launch of the Hesperus Book Club!

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A little belatedly, I thought I would give a quick heads-up for anyone interested in Hesperus Books that the publishers have launched their very own book club!

Basically, one title a month will be allocated and copies available to interested readers, and the first book to be discussed is “The Merman ” by Carl-Johan Vallgren:

the-merman

I’ve just finished reading my copy, and will be posting a review soon! In the meantime, if you are interested at all the book club can be found here.

Happy reading!

All Virago/All August: Blood on the Dining-Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

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Although it’s now September, I did just manage to finish this book before the end of Virago month, so I’m going to count it as an August read! Alas my edition is not the lovely Virago with the cover below, but the Dover Edition – about which I actually have no complaints at all, as it was reasonably priced and had a *lot* of pretty essential extra material

virago
Wikipedia has this to say about Stein: “Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) was an American writer of novels, poetry and plays that eschewed the narrative, linear, and temporal conventions of 19th-century literature, and a fervent collector of Modernist art. She was born in West Allegheny (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, raised in Oakland, California, and moved to Paris in 1903, making France her home for the remainder of her life. For some forty years, the Stein home at 27 Rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank of Paris was a renowned Saturday evening gathering place for both expatriate American artists and writers and others noteworthy in the world of vanguard arts and letters, most notably Pablo Picasso. Entrée into the Stein salon was a sought-after validation, and Stein became combination mentor, critic, and guru to those who gathered around her, including Ernest Hemingway, who described the salon in A Moveable Feast. In 1933, Stein published a kind of memoir of her Paris years,The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the voice of Toklas, her life partner. The book became a literary bestseller and vaulted Stein from the relative obscurity of cult literary figure into the light of mainstream attention.”

My first reading of Stein was that very book, “The Autobiography….” and it’s generally accepted to be one of her more approachable books. I read it in my early 20s and then moved on to other of Stein’s works, many of which are much more obscure and hard to follow than “The Autobiography…” However, “Blood on the Dining-Room Floor” is regarded as a lost work – published after Stein’s death and coming from a time when she was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block.

Stein’s main modernist artistic purpose seemed to be the deconstruction of language and depending which text of hers you happen to be reading, her work can be more or less intelligible. Some of her works are stream-of-consciousness, some almost word games, some rhythmic and musical. This book is one of the more obscure ones, and is frankly difficult to handle in places. Yet despite the difficulty of disentangling meaning, Stein’s writing is somehow compulsive. And it is possible to glean facts and meaning from her repetitions so that although you haven’t been told something directly, you still have learned what Stein wanted you to know.

dover
To talk of plot is pointless here: basically, a woman has fallen out of a hotel window and died, there have been a succession of servants (some of whom sound decidedly dodgy), visitors to a country house in France and family angst. In effect, this is all that is revealed and without the excellent notes to the volume by John Herbert Gill, there would be no context for Stein’s words. However, Gill (a Stein scholar) is able to explain the background to the writing of this novella, pointing out the real events that inspired it, and there are two other short pieces included by Stein which also cover the same ground. He also points out a salient fact that is worth remembering – in the same way that an artist like Picasso had to be able to paint conventionally before he could deconstruct the form into something like Cubism, Stein has be able to write conventionally before experimenting the way she did.

Gertrude and Alice

Gertrude and Alice

And despite its frequently being somewhat difficult, the prose can be quite lyrical.

“He saw a young girl who was also small but rather flat of face, who had a smile and who also later on would be stout but she would be stout and charming and be very steadily moving. She would be occupied with every little thing that she ever saw. She would know about clean linen, about peaches and little cakes, as few as possible of each, and yet always enough. She would oversee the maids at work, she would push them gently forward to do what there was to do and there was always all of that to do. For them and for her. All day and every day. She was always very nearly perfect when she stood. She never sat. Except when it was late and he and she would dine.”

Gill suggests it works best when read aloud, with almost a musical intonation, and perhaps you need a better ear than I do to fully appreciate Stein’s more obscure works. Nevertheless, this was a fascinating read from (and about) a fascinating woman and I think I will search out and rediscover more works by Stein and about her life.

“Do you see, nothing is surprising but a coincidence. A fact is not surprising, a coincidence is surprising and that is the reason that crime is surprising. There is always a coincidence in crime.”

Recent Reads: The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

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Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Hotel” is only the second book I’ve read by this author – which is a crying shame, bearing in mind that her books have been on Mount TBR for, oooh, at least 25 years. Shocking, isn’t it? I finally broke my duck and read “The Death of the Heart” last year which I did enjoy very much. “The Hotel” is Bowen’s first novel, quite a slim volume, and I was inspired to pick it up after reading Booksnob’s lovely review here.

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TH is set on the Italian Riviera of the 1920s. The eponymous building house a variety of British ex-pats spending their summer months in the sun – amongst others, we have the Misses Pym and Fitzgerald, loving companions; Mr. and Mrs. Lee-Mittison, heartily enjoying the company of younger guests and organising picnics and outings; the Lawrence family, with their perfectionist father and three lively daughters; Mrs. Kerr, a manipulative, middle-aged woman; and young Sydney Warren and her cousin Tessa. Sydney is in thrall to Mrs. Kerr, and it seems as if there are lots of female emotions under the building’s roof, as the book opens with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald having a dramatic quarrel.

Into this volatile mix are thrown the middle-aged Rev. James Milton, who instantly offends two of the lady guests by using a bathroom they’ve reserved for their exclusive use; and Mrs. Kerr’s son Ronald, a strange, surly character who seems out of the place in this genteel milieu. Milton is immediately struck by Sydney, who is displaced from Mrs. Kerr’s affections by Ronald, and the delicate balance maintained in the hotel is thrown out of alignment.

“It was another one of these idyllic evenings, agonizingly meaningless; the evening air brought out the scent of the lemons. The Lawrences, shrugging up their wraps round their shoulders, slid forward in their chairs luxuriously and sank down into themselves like cats into their fur. Thin blue smoke drifted away through the clearness.”

This is an intriguing novel in which, on the surface of things, not a great deal happens. However, underneath there is seething emotion of all sorts: the relationship between Sydney and Mrs Kerr is never entirely made clear (in the way that that of Misses Pym and Fitzgerald is) but Sydney obviously very much worships Mrs. Kerr. The latter is an unpleasant, manipulative character but ultimately pathetic as we see at the end when Sydney leaves. Milton is a sad specimen too, and exists more to be a foil for Sydney than anything else. The various ex-pats who live in the hotel are all in some way damaged and there are so many undercurrents that it’s rather alarming.

First off, I should say that the writing is quite beautiful, as you’d expect from Bowen, and the whole book is so atmospheric that I felt as if I was on the Riviera myself.

“Three days afterwards the weather along the coast was once more fulfilling the expectations of visitors. Only a little wind remained to disturb the sea, to rustle dryly through the palm-trees out on the promontory where the coast road disappeared towards Genoa and to rush to meet one round street corners with a disconcertingly ice-cold whistle. Against an opaque, bright blue sky the expressionless faces of the buildings had again their advertised and almost aching whiteness. The sounds, like the shadows, were exact and clear-cut, no longer blunted by the rain.”

Bowen is an expert at nuance and says plenty without actually saying it. Oddly enough, I found myself thinking that the writing was somehow like a hybrid of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, with a slightly glacial quality to it. Her descriptions of the landscape and nature are spectacular and she’s expert at capturing how surroundings can affect mood. When a love-affair of sorts develops around Milton and Sydney, we are not surprised but it would be a foolish reader who expects a traditional happy ending from a Bowen book!

NPG x127602; Elizabeth Bowen by Bassano
I read this book quite rapidly for a Bowen, eager to find out what happens, and yet at the end I was left with a tiny feeling of dissatisfaction. I think this was because of the subsidiary characters – Bowen peoples the start of the book with a wonderful array, gradually introducing them one at a time, and yet once the Milton/Sydney plot takes off they are almost abandoned. The Lee-Mittisons in particular were a loss – a potential plot here of why they flitted around hotels with no children of their own was underdeveloped. And the Lawrence family, with the three marriageable daughters, could have been so much more. Much as I enjoyed this book, I was left with a nagging feeling of something missing – there were too many untold stories, lost characters and their tales, only hinted at in the narrative, and that niggled. It may be this was the effect that Bowen was striving for, to emphasise the transient, shallow nature of acquaintance in a hotel, but I personally felt there was a slight imbalance in the book when Sydney and Milton took centre stage.

However, this is a small quibble and I enjoyed The Hotel very much. The quality of Bowen’s writing alone makes her work worth investing time in and I very much look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

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