So – What exactly *is* inside the Virago Book of Love Letters?

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…. a query that has come up a couple of times since I posted that I got a copy recently – and honestly, I had no idea that Virago had published quite so many collections?

The quickest way to answer is probably to post some pictures of the contents pages, and here they are:

First page of contents!

Second and third pages – excuse Middle Child’s thumbnail!

Final page of contents!

As you can see if you click to enlarge them, the letters seems to be divided into sections by themes and there are some fascinating authors there, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Colette to Emily Dickinson to Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf – so, something for everybody by the looks of it!

Unearthing the Past


A Late Phoenix by Catherine Aird

Sometimes book finds can be so serendipitous – you can stumble across something in a second-hand bookstore; a cover can catch your eye; one of your favourite publishers can bring out a new-to-you author. Nowadays, however, many of my fun finds come from recommendations from other bloggers, and this book is no exception. Furrowed Middlebrow, a wonderful blog from Scott in SFO, covers all manner of obscure women writers from the early to mid-20th century and he’s compiled a staggeringly impressive set of lists of authors to along with it. However, it was a recent review of Aird’s “A Late Phoenix” which particularly caught my eye, and I picked up a copy as soon as I could.

Aird is one of those solid, reliable crime writers of the late 20th century, not perhaps that well-known (well, I confess I hadn’t heard of her) but nevertheless steadily producing quality mysteries over the years. Wikipedia says: Catherine Aird (born 20 June 1930) is the pseudonym of novelist Kinn Hamilton McIntosh. She is the author of more than twenty crime fiction novels and several collections of short stories. Her witty, literate, and deftly plotted novels straddle the “cozy” and “police procedural” genres.  “A Late Phoenix” is the fourth in her Calleshire series, published in 1970, and it features her regular detectives, Sloan and Crosby.

The book opens in the town of Berebury whether the new local doctor, Latimer, is taking over a practice after his predecessor of long-standing has passed away. However, he is soon being called to the building site across the road, lately the site of some failed excavations. The archaeologists failed to find any remains, but the builders have succeeded – however, the skeleton they uncover turns out to be only 25 years or so old, and therefore recent enough for Inspector Sloan to be called in to investigate.

It soon becomes clear that the death is linked back to wartime – still a relatively recent memory – and the victim was a pregnant young woman, shot with a rifle. This area of Berebury suffered a dramatic air raid, and it seems as if the death may well have occurred around that time. Sloan begins to investigate, tracking down the owners of the land, the owners of the houses lost in the bombing and tapping into local memories of the drama. He’s hindered rather than helped by young Constable Crosby, who seems to have little idea about anything, and his boss Superintendent Leeyes who seems to go off on several different tangents in each conversation. Leeyes is actually really funny, totally obsessed with the horror of the youth of today, men with long hair and the coffee bar over the road from his window known as “Dick’s Dive”! And then there is a second murder, and the past starts to affect the present…

“Otherwise what he saw at the site was still the same save for the swarming police. The timbers still shored up the adjacent house. The narrow, neglected gardens still ran away from the ruins. Desolation was still the order of the day. What difference there was between then and now lay in the minds of the policemen who were there. Before, their view of the site had merely been the beginning of a new job. Now, they were investigating an old death and a new one. With undertones of war. And overtones of murder.”

The mystery itself is an excellent one: well plot, well paced, absorbing and enjoyable. I confess to guessing the victim quite early on, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book one bit – and much of this has to do with what Scott picked up when he read the book (and I’d refer you to his excellent piece here). “A Late Phoenix” has a wonderful sense of place and time because of when it was written. The Second World War *was* still a recent event, clear in people’s memories, and there were plenty of folk around who’d witnessed it.

I’m old enough to have grown up in a small town in Hampshire during the late 1960s/1970s and this book gives the flavour of the time with immense accuracy. Our house was on a newish estate, built in the early 1960s, but we played in what was known as The Woods nearby. This was a piece of wasteland on the site of demolished houses (whether by bombs or not, I’m not sure, but there were plenty of ruins in the area). Part of the woods still had bomb shelters built during the War which we used to dare each other to go down (which was pretty scary as they were dark and damp), and there was very much the sense that the War was not long ago. Some areas damaged by bombing obviously sat for decades before being redeveloped (I think it was the 1980s before The Woods were finally built on) and the past and the present were still intertwined.

This kind of murder mystery, where the past informs and affects the present, is one of my favourite type (Christie’s “Postern of Fate” is a book I can read again and again) and Aird does it brilliantly. Berebury is a town on the cusp of change, as were so many at the time – dragging themselves forward from a past of outside toilets and Victorian slums into the brave new world of concrete and glass. Brutalist architecture does get bad press nowadays, but I confess quite a fondness for it; possibly because it was being built as I grew up! But that’s by the by. “A Late Phoenix” is an excellent, well-written and enjoyable murder mystery and on this evidence, I’d very much like to read more Catherine Aird. Thanks for pointing me in her direction, Scott!

More Library Love – and a little bit of wickedness…….


Yes, the local library has come up trumps again – following the arrival of several British Library Crime Classics, another has appeared, along with a novel by Raymond Queneau (an OuLiPo member like Perec), and here they are:

Mavis Doriel Hay’s “Murder Underground” is actually her first crime novel, so I’m reading them out of order – but no matter. Queneau is best known for “Zazie dans le Metro” – but we’ll got onto that later…

…because, of course, I have been having a bit of a turn out of books, and have literally got rid of hundreds from the house. Some have gone to charity shops, some to a local school (from the collections of the Offspring mainly) and some are on Read It Swap It. However, OH had a bit of a shock when several parcels arrived this week containing these:

They are, from top to bottom, Q’s “Cambridge Lectures”, “Ten Tales Tall and True” by Alasdair Gray, “Zazie in the Metro”, “Japanese Pilgrimage” and “Japanese Inn” by Oliver Statler, “The Virago Book of Love Letters” and “Tales of Suspense” by Poe. So this is where the wickedness comes from, because I’m supposed to be ridding myself of books, not amassing more!

However, in my defence several came from RISI, so it was a case of one out, one in for those. The few I bought weren’t readily available in the library and so if I want to read them I have no choice!

And finally today a little review copy arrived via the very wonderful Overlook Press – another Gaito Gazdanov book!

Gazdanov is one of my favourite newly discovered authors so I’m very excited about this! Off to see how quickly I can get through my current read, “Lanark” by Alasdair Gray, so I can get onto the others…. 🙂


Fantasy vs. hard truths during the First World War


This is the End by Stella Benson

Stella Benson is an author new to me, and it was the reprint of this novel by Michael Walmer that brought her to my attention. Michael kindly provided a copy for review, and I have *finally* got round to reading it – and, my goodness, I’m really wondering why a. she’s not better known and b. I’ve never read her before, because the book was stunning!

this is the end
A little bit about the author first. Wikipedia has quite a lengthy entry, but the bare facts are: Stella Benson (6 January 1892 – 7 December 1933) was an English feminist, novelist, poet, and travel writer. So Benson’s life was not a long one, and she died of pneumonia in Vietnam. She’d recently visited Virginia Woolf who makes reference to this in her diaries, ruing Benson’s passing and commenting on the fact that the newspaper hoardings carried the announcement of her death.

“This is the End” was Benson’s second novel, set in 1916 and published the following year, in the middle of the First World War. It tells the story of an orphaned brother and sister, Jay and Kew Martin; Kew has been away fighting and is on leave, while Jay has run away from the Family – Cousin Gustus, his alarming novelist wife Anonyma, plus Mr. Russell who has been ‘adopted’ by them. Jay has left to find her independence and do something of substance, so has become a bus conductor; the rest of the time she spends in her ‘bubble world’, a fantasy place where she has a Special Friend. The Family decide they will set off and look for her in Mr. Russell’s car; unfortunately, owing to the fantasies that Jay’s been spinning in her letters home, they have completely the wrong idea about where she is and head off into the country looking for a house on a cliff!

Meanwhile, Mr. Russell runs across a beautiful bus conductor and is smitten(!), Mrs. Russell returns from doing good works abroad, Jay continues to fantasise and the realities of war come closer and closer…. Which side will win in the fight between reality and fantasy?

WW! clippy
I have to say that this book was an unexpected revelation and really not what I was expecting at all. Benson’s a remarkably witty writer, very conversational in tone and chatting away to the reader. Her description of Anonyma is priceless:

“… she was conceived on a generous scale, she was almost gorgeous, she barely missed exaggeration. In her manner I think she did not miss it. She had therefore the gift of coping with colour. It remains for me to add that her age was five-and-forty, and that she was a novelist. The recording angel had probably noted the fact of her novelism among her virtues, but she had an imperceptible earthy public. She wrote laborious books, full of short peevish sentences, of such very pure construction that they were difficult to understand.”

And there’s plenty more wit, from Mr. Russell’s conversations with his Hound (actually a Pekingese) to Cousin Gustus’s constant pessimism. However, there are more serious matters in the book, alongside the levity. For a start, there is the status of women – Jay has obviously run away from a stifling atmosphere, determined to do something of worth and gain some independence. WWI was a time of course when the suffragette movement was strong and life was changing – the book reflects this, and also the position of many females within the family set up, and the expectations society and men had of them.

“A Family’s just a little knot of not necessarily congenial people, with Fate rubbing their heads together so as to strike sparks of Love.”

The other serious subject is of course the War itself. Initially, this is not the dominant factor, although Kew is home on leave and there is reference to his health having suffered. However, as the book progresses, things take a more serious turn and the horror of what is happening abroad is brought home. Benson is not particularly graphic, but she is marvellous at getting across the human cost of fighting and death by showing the effect on individuals, which in some ways may be more effective. And be warned, there are encounters that will break your heart. The story is deeply poignant and I was reaching for a tissue in several places. There is a sense that the War and reality are making people grow up, and they really don’t like it. As Mr. Russell says:

“I used to think that growing up was like walking from one of a meadow to the other, I thought that the meadow would remain, and one had only to turn one’s head to see it all again. But now I know that growing up is like going through a door into a little room, and the door shuts behind one.”

Things come down to a kind of battle – between Jay’s fantasy world and the realities she can only avoid for so long. As the equilibrium of the Family is disturbed and events go in unexpected directions, I found myself totally caught up in the book, knowing the inevitable would happen but dreading it. I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, except to say the end is very powerful indeed.


“This is the End” is a quirky, individual book – beautifully written, with little poems in between chapters; eminently readable; and very moving indeed. On the evidence of this, Benson was a talented novelist and her early death was justifiably noted by Woolf. I’d recommend TITE to anyone who’s reading books about the First World War in this centenary year, as it’s not graphic, but has a potent message. And the fact that I’m still thinking about it several days after finishing is a tribute to Benson’s strength as a writer. It’s criminal that Stella Benson is not better know, and kudos to Michael Walmer for making her works available.

(Book kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Ennui in the Consumer Society


“Things: A Story of the Sixties” and “A Man Asleep” by Georges Perec

The way I’m feeling about Perec at the moment, it was inevitable I would return to his work and this volume (picked up recently thanks to a gift voucher!) contains his first published works. The former was published in 1965 and the latter in 1967, and both have a common tone to them. The stories pre-date his involvement in the OuLiPo group and aren’t laden with the wordplay his later books feature. However, they’re fascinating tales and it’s easy to see why they were so popular and became cult books at the time.


“Things” ostensibly tells the story of Jerome and Sylvia, a pair of young Parisians. We are introduced to them via their flat, in the first chapter, and initially the description sounds as if it’s a place the young couple might be happy in; simple but functional, with all the basics to live a life together. However, it soon becomes clear that this is not the case, and the focus on the objects during that introduction has been deliberate. For Sylvia and Jerome are obsessed with possessions; the ones they have, the ones they want (and can’t afford at the moment) and the ones that are completely out of their reach. They dream of being rich and having all these desirable things; but they’ve dropped out of college, taken up part-time jobs as market researchers and can only manage to subsist at the level they’re at.

“… they possessed, alas, but a single passion, the passion for a higher standard of living, and it exhausted them”

As the story progresses, we find out more about them – they seem stuck in a kind of stasis; unable to earn the kind of funds they want with the jobs they have, but unwilling to give up their perceived independence and somewhat bohemian lifestyle to take up regular employment and earn a better wage. So they dream of objects, watch the glamorous images on the cinema screens, gaze into antique shop windows and define themselves entirely in terms of things.

“It was not they who had decreed it; it was a social law, a fact of life, which advertising in general, magazines, window displays, the street scene and even, in a certain sense, all those productions which in common parlance constitute cultural life, expressed most authentically.”

As their friends start to cave in and settle down, with regular jobs, the couple are thrown into turmoil. They attempt a total change by taking jobs in Tunisia but even this seems doomed to failure. Will the possessions win? Will Sylvie and Jerome ever be able to conceive of a life not run by objects?

consumer soc

“They lived in a strange and shimmering world, the bedazzling universe of a market culture, in prisons of plenty, in the bewitching traps of comfort and happiness.”

This is such an intriguing book and quite frightening in a way. Perec seems to have tapped in to the dawn of the consumer society, the time when objects, acquisition and possession became the be-all and end-all. The quality of one’s life was assessed by the style of your flat, what you wore and what you owned; the new advertising and modern standards of living, post-WWII, dazzled people to such an extent that they thought that the most important thing was to own the latest gadget – and in many ways, it’s difficult to see what’s changed in our modern, fast-turnover, mad-consumer society. The culture of consumption has gone a little crazy and the roots of it are shown here in Perec’s fascinating story.

The subject of “A Man Asleep” is not obviously connected to “Things”, although taking place in a similar time (the early 1960s). It’s a much darker piece of work, with the narrative voice being a second-person one, for example:

“In the course of time your life will be there in front of you: a life without motion, without crisis and without disorder, a life with no rough edges and no imbalance. Minute by minute, hour after hour, day after day, season after season, something is going to start that will be without end: your vegetal existence, your cancelled life.”

It’s an unusual construction, and in many ways helps you get inside of the man of the title; for he is a young man obviously in a state of grand ennui. On the day of his exam he simply does not get up. Missing his exam, he ignores all attempts at contact from friends and fellow students, and slips into an isolated, depressive state. His detachment is almost complete for most of the book, during which he exists on a basic level; eating, going to the cinema, reading newspapers, walking endlessly round Paris; and at one point even visiting his parents in the country. But none of this breaks through his state of indifference and it is only towards the end of the story, when his psyche reaches almost rock bottom, that there is any sign of emotion breaking through the shell.

A still from the film

A still from the film

Perec apparently based this work on a depression he went through himself, and it’s quite chilling to read. The technique is striking, written almost as if a narration to a film (and indeed Perec did film the story, with the book as shortened narration over footage of an actor carrying out the actions, at a later date). It’s a remarkably effective way of getting across the depressive state of mind – and quite alarming in many ways. There is a hypnotic, almost dream-like quality to the student’s days, as he carries on his routine with his body going through the motions of life with his mind totally removed from it.

Although there is autobiographical content in both of the stories, translator (and Perec’s biographer) David Bellos warns in his introduction about reading too much of this into the work. He’s right to do so, because it’s important to remember that although authors may use the stuff of their lives in their fictions, their books are just that – fictions, stories, tales. And these are as thought-provoking and fascinating as any other works of Perec I’ve read. In many ways, I wish I’d discovered his work earlier; but I’m glad at least I’ve found it now, because it means there is still more Perec for me to read!

Reasons to Love your Local Library #1


I have to confess that I don’t need much persuading to love libraries – after all, since I was very young I’ve been spending happy hours within their walls discovering all manner of wonderful books!

My local one, in the nearest Big Town, is a very well stocked one – in fact, county-wide there are plenty of Persephones and the like that I’m happy to borrow and enjoy, and the Reserve Stock always has little surprises.

However, the reason I’m currently singing their praises is these lovelies:

I’ve been very keen to read more of the British Library Crime Classics series, but a little reluctant to start buying lots of copies as I’m in the middle of a book cull. And I’m trying to be strict with myself and not obtaining books I suspect I’ll only read once. Alas, the local library had none of the titles available BUT I discovered that you can suggest books that you might like them to stock. So I hopefully sent off a little list of suggested BL titles and waited…

Lo and behold, a couple of weeks later the titles started appearing in the catalogue – and I instantly reserved them – and picked up the first three books they have in at the weekend! Talk about wonderful service – I am now reading brand new books which I really wanted to read courtesy of my amazing local library, with more to follow. How good is that?

So really, it can rain all it wants today – I’m having a happy Bank Holiday wallowing in classic crime! 🙂

The View from the Occupied Zone


The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

As you might have guessed from my reviews here, I’m something of a fan of Pushkin Press’s very beautiful books. So I couldn’t let my first visit to the sparkly new Foyles in Charing Cross Road go by without picking up one of their volumes, and this was it. I knew nothing about AymĂ©, but I liked the sound of the stories so there you go! And having had a look online Wikipedia tells me: Marcel AymĂ© (March 29, 1902 – October 14, 1967) was a French novelist, children’s writer, humour writer and also a screenwriter and theatre playwright. The title story of this volume seems to have been his best known work and is immortalised by a sculpture in Paris.  walls
The book contains ten stories, often very different, but many distinguished by the time when they were written. Published in 1943, the works are informed by the ongoing presence of war and occupation by Germany. Several cover war and its effects, and it’s worth bearing in mind that these were written at a point when it was not possible to know how things would turn out (for example, one story mentions the 1939-1972 War, which emphasises how it must have felt to be in the centre of these events with no sign of hope).

However, on to specifics. The title story is a clever, funny piece of work about an unassuming clerk, Dutillieul, who discovers that he can literally walk through walls. All goes well and he has no need to use this skill until bureaucracy gets in the way and threatens his life and his status quo. Dutillieul rebels, and has a brief time of glory – but alas, rather over-reaches himself! Strange powers are also featured in “Sabine Women”, in which the woman of the title discovers she has ubiquity and can split herself into as many duplicate women as she wants. This becomes useful when she wants loves, but becomes more sinister as they populate the world, and ends up musing in somewhat satirical fashion on the soul. Then there are a couple of strange time-shifting tales dealing with less useful members of society only being allowed to stay alive for part of the month, or a switch to summertime taking time travel to the furthest extent. There are sadder stories, too, about poverty, madness and cruelty.

As Nicholas Lezard, reviewing in the Guardian, pointed out about the stories: Many were written in occupied France and conjure, obliquely, with the absurd horrors of wartime. Obliquely is correct here, as the stories are not really escapist, but look at things in a slightly skewed way as a method of coping and trying to make sense of the situation. Lezard, a huge fan, compares Aymé to Kafka and Will Self, but I was more reminded of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, his strangeness, the surreality of his settings and the manipulation of space and time in his stories.

This was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, full of unexpected twists, emotions and humour. Once again, I’m going to have to throw bouquets at Pushkin Press for bringing us this book – they’re turning out to be awfully reliable publishers!

…. in which Perec plays more word games…


I told you I got book obsessions, didn’t I?? And so here is more about Perec. I felt the need to read more of his work after “Species of Space” and this little volume had arrived at the same time:


So, what’s it about and what’s so special? Well, this is what it says on the back:

art back(Sorry for the lopsided scan)

And that’s no word of a lie. There are no full stops and no capitalisation and the only punctuation I think was dashes. You’d think that 84 pages of that would be hard to read, but amazingly it isn’t – Perec’s brilliantly constructed the rhythm of the book so that it reads easily! It’s like a kind of flow chart with options translated into text and it’s clever and also very, very funny! So the poor man being advised has to contend with all the possibilities that might come up on such a chart (is it Friday? Yes. Is it in Lent? No. Has your boss swallowed a fish bone? etc etc) and goes round and round in circles like you can on these things, as your life ticks away.

I shan’t say any more about this except that it’s utterly brilliant, Perec was a genius and this is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. ‘Nuff said!

Oulipo and Word Games – reading Species of Space and Other Pieces by Georges Perec


There’s something about having a literary crush (and goodness knows I’ve had enough in my time!) that makes it hard for me to write rationally about an author or explain why I think they’re so wonderful – and I’m at that point with Georges Perec’s works at the moment! Instead of being able to discuss things in a sane manner I shall go all fangirl and rant on about how utterly brilliant his books are and how everyone should read them – which is really not constructive, is it??

However, I shall do my best….

In retrospect I’m surprised I came across Perec so late, as he seems so closely linked with Calvino (one of my biggest author loves). Nevertheless, I adored “Life: A User’s Manual” and I’ve since read “W” which was also pretty impressive. “Species of Space” is a collection of mainly non-fiction works (the title piece plus excerpts from others) and in many ways these defy classification. Perec turns his eye to all manner of subjects, from space itself to a collection of holiday postcard texts to a list of what he had eaten throughout a whole year, lists of objects on his work desk and thoughts about how to classify books in your library.

This is such a fascinating book, with so many quirky unusual pieces, all in Perec’s trademark tone. Several pieces prefigure other works such as “Life” and “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”, and they all have the effect of making the reader look at things with fresh eyes as if from the outside or for the first time. We’ve all had that experience where if you look at a word for long enough it becomes strange and loses its meaning; in the same way, Perec is urging us to look at things until they are no longer familiar, until we lost a little of our grip on reality and the world becomes odd.

As with “W” Perec’s work seems very much informed by his past and it definitely helps to know some of the facts of his life, ably provided in the introduction by his biographer (and translator of this selection) David Bellos. Perec has a way of circling round the facts and approaching them obliquely, which may be his way of trying to deal with things when it is too painful to do so head on.

This is fiction and reminiscence as classification;  Perec’s day job for a large part of his life working as an archivist in a science laboratory and its often reflected in the structure of his work and the way in which he presents his writing. It could of course be argued that this is his way of trying to exert control over a life which was blighted by trauma and loss, a way of trying to classify his life so it makes sense. And there is the sense that from the very act of classification comes clarity, as if it teaches us to *really* look at things, really see them.

I was thinking how much his narrative voice reminded me of my beloved Calvino, when lo and behold Perec dropped a quote in from Italo’s “Cosmicomics” – synchronicity or what! In fact, the presence of Calvino permeates the book; apart from two parts that refer to or quote his works, “Two Hundred and Forty Three Postcards in Real Colour” is dedicated to him, and there is a quote from him on the back of the book.

There is much that is moving here, in particular the section “The Rue Vilin” where Perec makes several visits back to the street where he spent the first five years of his life. Each time, more has changed and more decay is evident – it’s as if he’s trying to gain a sense of place, to grasp hold of the memories before the tangible evidence is gone. This work sent me off to the Internet, looking up the street, and I found several astonishing things: firstly, the steps at the end of street are really iconic and have featured in a number of French films (see here). Secondly, the place no longer exists (which was quite shocking) and is now a modern park….. But thirdly, there is film of Perec visiting the Rue Vilin and then being interviewed here – I only wish my French was better….

The Rue Vilin Steps

The Rue Vilin Steps

“My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory. I shall look at a few old yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognising them.”

I’ve always liked ‘clever’ writers – ones who play with words, twist the genre, taking writing somewhere unexpected. And I love Perec’s playfulness and his profundity; and the fact that reading his work makes you look at the world completely differently. He’s definitely going to be one of my favourite writers for a long time to come.

Recent Reads – Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb


And yet again I fling myself into a book! I was searching around for something to take to London with me recently to read on the train; that’s always tricky because you don’t want a particularly nice edition knocking around in your bag all day getting bashed. Fortunately I had a spare copy of this Szerb (as I somehow managed to pick up two after my enthusiastic reading of his “Pendragon Legend” earlier this year) so it seemed the ideal train read!

Antal Szerb is another Pushkin Press find, and I was provoked into picking “Pendragon” up after reading Annabel’s enthusiastic review. “Journey by Moonlight” seems to be reckoned very highly from what I saw online so I approached it with high hopes – and I wasn’t disappointed, although it wasn’t quite what I expected (but then neither was my last Szerb!)

JBM opens with Mihaly, a bourgeois Hungarian businessman, on honeymoon in Italy with his wife Erszi. It is her second marriage but his first, and the story begins with hints of things going wrong. Mihaly wanders off and gets lost; he and Erszi seem to be slightly at odds about where they’re going, what they’re doing and life in general.

“She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihaly had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?”

Suddenly, a figure from Mihaly’s past turns up abruptly, delivers a message, insults Erszi and leaves. This prompts Mihaly to tell his wife about his youth – a wild time when he mixed with the strange Urpius children, Tamas and Eva. Dark secrets are revealed and then Mihaly manages to take the wrong train, lose Erszi and end up lost in Italy – a situation he seems not unhappy about. Erszi somehow washes up in Paris, still hankered after by her ex-husband, but also pursued by Mihaly’s friend. Meanwhile, Mihaly befriends an American woman and an English doctor, revisits elements from his past, confronts them and faces death.

Does that sound a little dazzling and overwhelming? Perhaps – but I think I’m learning to expect the unexpected from Szerb, because people and events will come flying into the story unannounced and it still carries on making a perfect kind of sense. Szerb is wonderful at literary effects – as Nicholas Lezard pointed out in his laudatory review in The Guardian, the arrival of the old friend at the beginning is “one of fiction’s great entrances”.


There are echoes here of other things I’ve read, particularly Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” which seems to be mirrored (intentionally or not) in the antics of Tamas and Eva, and in their dark side. The characters are alive and vibrant, as are the settings, and Szerb gets us inside Mihaly’s head quite brilliantly. He’s not an author that seems to go for the usual solutions – in fact, one of the joys of the book is finding out how Mihaly and Erszi, as well as most of the others, are not at all like we initially think, or how they think they are. Mihaly’s worst enemy all the way through seems to be his imagination and his warped perceptions of things.

“Our civilisation presents us with a marvellous mental machinery designed to help us forget, for most of our lives, that one day we too will die. In time we manage to push death out of our consciousness, just as we have done with the existence of God. That’s what civilisation does.”

It’s a roller-coaster ride of a book, with perceptions and understandings switching and changing. Szerb is a wonderful storyteller and this is the kind of book I’d like to go back to and re-read, now that I know the ending, to pick up all the little hints and significances throughout. Again, as with Pendragon, he almost seems to be mixing genres and presenting us with very unlikely heroes and heroines. Both Mihaly and Erszi are flawed, but still protagonists you can care about. I’m growing to love Szerb’s work the more of him I read – and the delightful thing is, there are still several other volumes available from Pushkin Press… 🙂

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