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A great writer in transition

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In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov

As I rambled on in an earlier post, I was very excited to find out that Alma Classics were releasing a lovely new translation of a collection of Chekhov’s works, “In The Twilight”. Although Chekhov is possibly best known for his plays like “Cherry Orchard”, he’s also the acknowledged master of the short story form. His life was tragically short (he died in 1904 age 44 of TB) but despite this he was a remarkably prolific writer, producing literally hundreds of works. Numerous collections have been released over the years, containing the compiler’s favourite stories, the ones they feel best represent him. However, the Alma Classics volume is a fresh translation of that rarest of things – a collection put together by the author himself!

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Chekhov was a doctor of medicine and practiced as such. However, he was also an inveterate scribbler and his early stories were mainly humorous pieces published under a pseudonym to make money and help support his family. However, when he was 26 he reached a turning point in his life, when critical appreciation made him realise that he was capable of serious work; and despite his failing health, he turned to stories with more substance.

“In the Twilight” catches him at this point, at the cusp of the transition, and it’s a wonderful collection. Alongside such well-known tales as “On The Road”, “Agafya” and “Misfortune”, there are lesser-known stories like “Dreams” and “In Court” which are just as powerful and a delight for the reader to discover.

It’s sometimes hard to pin down quite what makes Chekhov’s works regarded as the definitive short stories. The form itself is not as straightforward as it might seem – the author risks trying to pack too much in and smothering the tale, or not giving enough to the story and producing a thin, undernourished piece of literature. With Chekhov, there is never the risk of either of these states. His stories are perfectly formed pieces of art which the reader comes out of feeling satisfied with having read something complete, even though in many ways they’re not.

Chekhov’s short stories drop us into action and events which are already taking place in many cases, and leave them at a point which is not necessarily the final ending of the tale. We get a snapshot, a short part of a person or group of people’s lives, but because of the skill of the author, this is enough to tell a complete story.

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“In the Twilight” contains 15 works, and none is set in a large city. Instead, we get glimpses of people travelling, living in small towns, struggling to make a living and existing in the twilight margins of life. And Chekhov’s brilliance is in capturing the essence of people’s being in just a short tale that brings them to life completely.

“In the autumnal quiet, when a cold, stern mist from the earth lies upon your soul, when it stands like a prison wall before your eyes and bears testament to a man of the limitations of his will, it can be sweet to think about wide, fast rivers with free, steep banks, about impassable forests, boundless steppes. Slowly and calmly the imagination draws the little patch of a man stealing along an unpeopled, steep bank in the early morning, when the blush of dawn has yet to leave the sky; age-old, mast-like pines, towering in terraces on both sides of the torrent, gaze sternly at the free man and grumble gloomily; roots, huge rocks and prickly bushes bar his way, but he is strong in flesh and hale in spirit, he does not fear the pines, or the rocks, or his solitude, or the rolling echo that repeats his every step.” (from “Dreams”)

My favourites were probably the classic “On the Road”, one of his earliest serious stories which tells of a random meeting while travelling between a nobleman fallen on hard times and a noblewoman on the way to her family estates, and how they briefly connect to the point that the womanising man thinks he has almost the power to persuade her to leave her everyday life and follow him; “Verochka”, a sad little tale of missed love and how emotions can be misread and then change forever the way you see things; and “A Nightmare” which in a short, intense few pages conveys the misery and difficulty of surviving in feudal Russia. But there are no duds here and whether relating the story of an unfaithful wife being accused of witchcraft, or a tale of the importance of the arrival of puppies in the lives of two children, Chekhov is always compelling reading. The stories are full of atmosphere, full of snow, wind, big landscapes, woods, storms and cottages; and always with the feeling of small human beings battling against circumstances.

Alma have produced a lovely little volume here, fluidly presented by one of my favourite translators, Hugh Aplin, along with his sensible and unobtrusive notes. As always, their books have extra material in the form of a picture section at the beginning, as well as a useful biography and additional information at the end. I found it fascinating being able to read a selection of Chekhov’s works as he had collected them and as he wanted them read, and kudos to Alma for bringing out this volume, allowing us to watch the early development of the world’s greatest writer of short stories – highly recommended!

A little thank you….

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to the very lovely MacLehose Press, who were running a series of giveaways on Twitter recently. One was for “The Library of Unrequited Love” by Sophie Divry, and you had to tweet your favourite library and why – quite difficult to do in 140 characters!

But the choice was obvious for me – when I was growing up in Andover, in a family with no spare money for books, the local library was a mind-expanding place for me and made me very much the reader I am today. And wonderfully enough my tweet won and the book arrived today:

It sounds fascinating, and ideal for a very bookish person like me – I’m looking forward to it, and thanks MacLehose Press! 🙂

Some thoughts on The North…

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…by which I mean Paul Morley’s book “The North (and almost everything in it)”. And I’m not even going to attempt a formal review because that frankly isn’t the sort of approach I feel you can have to such an idiosyncratic and wonderful work!

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I’ve already declared here my rather obsessive love of Morley’s writing, ever since I first stumbled across his pieces for NME in the late 1970s/early 1980s and his memoir “Nothing” would definitely be one of my Desert Island Books. “The North” in many ways is a companion volume/prequel/sequel to that book as there is much autobiography and I think it helps to have read “Nothing”. Nevertheless, Morley’s range is more sweeping here, covering not only *his* north, and the town he grew up in, but also the history of the region. It’s a heady mix of autobiography and history all filtered through Morley’s unique vision and wonderfully individual writing.

The book is structured unusually in that it goes in two directions at once. There is the main narrative, which encompasses Morley’s growing up and coming of age in mainly Stockport and Reddish, as well as looking back to the very early evolution of the north and the tribes that settled there. This progresses forward in a relatively linear manner (nothing Morley ever writes is straightforward and you will have to deal with constant, often fascinating, digressions). Running alongside are listings of dates and notable events, starting in 1976 with a young Morrissey writing to the NME and going backwards in time, covering anything of interest you could think of, from the births and deaths of notable northerners, war events, thoughts of J.B. Priestley, the Industrial Revolution, all the back to when the great cities of the north were just settlements or didn’t even exist. There is a paean to L.S. Lowry and an extended celebration of Liverpool, scattered with lyrics and references (many of which I *got*, but some of which I’m sure I didn’t.) The forward narrative ends up, inevitably, with the tragic suicide of Morley’s father Leslie in 1977 and with Paul himself leaving the north for London. The backward narrative stops in the early 1500s when the north as a unit really didn’t exist.

If you’ve read “Nothing” this book will update you on some changes in Morley’s life since then. His mother, Dilys, has sadly passed away; his daughter Madeleine has surpassed him academically; and yet he is still trying to deal with the death of his father. Sadly, Paul was still left with unanswered questions he hadn’t been able to ask his mother and it’s an understandably difficult subject to approach your mother about.

Morley’s writing captures brilliantly the confusion and uncertainty of growing up, trying to find yourself and your place in the world. In many ways the book is a search, a quest to discover what it is that made Paul Morley what he is today. It’s a process I recognise in myself: as you get older you look back more to events in your past you simply lived through at the time, to try to make sense of how you got to this place and to be who you are, and it’s very engagingly done here.

The breadth of Morley’s knowledge is quite breathtaking; despite his acknowledgement of the Internet as being a source for much of the facts in this book, his weaving of them into the book’s narrative is a measure of his skill as a writer. I just love Paul Morley’s imagery, his amazing way with words:

“Compared to Bramhall, there seemed to be whole parts of Brinnington that had just gone missing, or had never been there in the first place. Most of the people living there found ways to deal with where they found themselves, even as it seemed to be disappearing into a hole the shape of a broken window, a portal through which you entered another dimension.”

His lyrical portrait of Lowry has made me want to go back and look at his work afresh, and Morley comes up with a wonderful description of the artist (which could almost be applied to Morley himself!):

“He creeps through his own life and the lives of others, compiling fragments, morsels of experience, searching for answers about death, disappearance, the past, why we live, why we die, where we go, where we come from, the oddity of everyday life, the pinched dead-eye ordinariness.”

The book is also something of an education and an eye-opener, with its potted histories of, and wonderfully phrased comments on, people and places I’ve never heard of. For example, of artist Trevor Grimshaw, who died in a fire, Morley states:

“The smoke of infinity he set his north inside gathered him up, as though he had known all along where he was heading and was using his paintings to predict that his end would involve light and murk and ash, and a final, comprehensive veiling of compressed energy.”

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And what’s not to love about someone who can describe their strict paternal grandmother’s house as smelling of “a blend of boiled sweets and dismay”?!

As I’m almost contemporary with Morley age-wise, so much of what he describes during his growing up years resonates with me – the grimness and tattiness of the 1960s/1970s in the provinces, the transition into a modern world that now looks incredible quaint, the awful fashions, the feeling out-of-place at a Grammar School (I also came from a financially challenged background and somehow passed the 11-plus, but like Morley never felt I fitted in).

“In four years of Latin I learned perhaps one fact: boredom is an extraordinary thing, somewhere between a time machine and a near-death experience, in which you become increasingly aware as a distant light beckons you that words are mere sounds containing only the meaning you can muster up from within your fear that nothing makes sense.”

Whilst acknowledging that he was desperate to get away from the grim north and all its associations, Morley laments the loss of a way of life. At the end of the book he suddenly comes bang up to date with an oblique commentary on how the north has changed, how the rough edges (like those everywhere) are being smoothed over by corporate identities, how the modern world has removed us from our outside environment which has almost become static while life continues inside houses and on gadgets – and the contrast is quite a shock.

“There had been a material improvement in people’s lives, an invention of new traditions, a creation of relative comfort, but there was also a cost, a kind of imprisonment in a mental and physical landscape that was now feeling old and drained, with the only signs of modernisation emerging from inside the houses, and cars, and buildings, from inside the screens that were being carried around by people.”

Nothing I say can in the end really do justice to the wonders of this book which defies categorisation. This is, ultimately, Morley’s own personal north and much centres around that pivotal event in his life, the death of his father . Occasionally frustrating but mostly brilliant, packed with knowledge and thoughts and poetically charged words, it’s another one-off from Paul Morley and a rare 5-star read for me. “The North”, now nestling on my bookshelves next to “Nothing”, has become another Desert Island Book.

How to sort your thoughts – or not!

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Thoughts of Sorts by Georges Perec

Perec, one of my favourite authors and only a relatively recent discovery, was an inveterate scribbler and seemed to be publishing articles and short pieces all over the place, as well as writing his novels (and holding down a day job!). After his early death in 1982, a collection of his shorter works was put together under the title of “Thoughts of Sorts” and it’s available in a number of editions. Mine, however, is a beautiful little Notting Hill Editions clothbound hardback, translated by his biographer David Bellos, and reading it recently was a joy!

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I was in a Perec kind of mood anyway, having been delighted with the recently published “Portrait of a Man” (kindly sent by MacLehose Press) and this seemed the ideal dipping into kind of volume – which it was! TOS collects a miscellany of essays and short pieces, all different but all bearing the distinctive imprint of Perec’s mind. Some read simply like lists; some are autobiographical; some take a seemingly straightforward subject like spectacles and run away with it! All are curious, fascinating and mentally stimulating.

I’d read a few of the pieces before, in the collection “Species of Space”, but it was a delight to experience them all together, in a lovely volume with an excellent introduction by Margaret Drabble. One of my favourites is “Brief Notes on the Art and Craft of Sorting Books” which covers the kind of issues all of us booklovers experience regularly:

“Torn between these two poles, the right to be laid-back, easy-going and anarchic, and the virtue of a clean state, the steely efficiency of the great clear-out, you always end up trying to sort out your book collection. It’s a nerve-wracking, depressing operation which can nevertheless bring pleasant surprises, such as when you find a book you had forgotten you had from not having seen it for so long and, putting off to the morrow what can’t be done today, you lie flat on your bed and re-read it from cover to cover.”

Another, perhaps more profound, essay called “Backtracking” covers the experience of undergoing analysis, which Perec himself did over a period of years. Given his upbringing it’s perhaps no surprise that he needed this. “Reading” is a little study of how we physically read and, like all Perec’s work, it takes a seemingly surface level subject and somehow manages to end up being a quite profound and revealing exposition of the subject at hand – I don’t quite know how he does it.

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This book is most certainly the perfect introduction to Perec’s shorter works, giving examples of most of the styles he used. As for sorting out your thoughts – well, this collections of thoughts of sorts won’t necessarily do that, but it certainly will stimulate a lot of new thought! 🙂

… in which I *do* buy a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists!

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I have been doing quite well recently in controlling the book buying – in fact, since coming back from Leicester with a relatively small haul, I have been doing the rounds of the charity shops and rejecting many books that I *could* take hom with me, simply because of space and time. So I am feeling a little pleased with myself.

However, a few have trickled through the net, including the aforementioned Ragged Trousered peeps – shown here with a sparkly new copy of Nairn’s London which I couldn’t resist picking up new (I’ll be reviewing another of his books on here soon).

I grabbed the Tressell book the minute I saw it in the Oxfam, because I hesitated about buying a copy some months back and it had disappeared the next time I visited the shop. I’m not sure when I’ll read it, but at least I have it hanging about for when the mood takes me!

The final find was an unexpected one in a charity shop I don’t usually visit – it’s by Robert Gibbings, about whom I knew absolutely nothing, and it was the spine that attracted me:

and then the cover design:

(as well, of course, as the title – “Trumpets from Montparnasse”.

The book is full of lovely plates like this:

and also black and white illustrations like this:

Gibbings is obviously an artist and the first few pages sound intriguing – so I’m looking forward to finding out more. It for this kind of random find that I *love* second-hand bookshops of any sort!

The art of passive resistance

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Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

I suppose if you compared the size of Melville’s “Moby Dick” (over 600 pages) with his “Bartleby the Scrivener” (64 pages) you might be inclined to consider it a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous (or the other way round!) Certainly, I’ve never been particularly drawn to a long volume about a man battling with a whale; however, “Bartleby” slipped into vision when I was reading George Perec’s wonderful “LIfe: A User’s Manual”, as the character was apparently part-inspiration for Bartlebooth, one of Perec’s main protagonists. Somehow, the name popped up again recently and I tracked down a very pretty and quite appropriate Melville House Press ‘Art of the Novella’ version recently as I had a sudden need to read it (as you do!)

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The story is subtitled “A Tale of Wall Street” and it’s set in that very location during the 1890s. Our narrator is a lawyer with an office on Wall Street, a successful one at that. He employs two scriveners plus an office boy called Ginger-Nut. The two scriverners have some rather strange characteristics of their own and so our narrator decides to employ another – enter Bartleby, a pale, quiet young man about whom we (and the lawyer) know absolutely nothing.

Things go well at first: Bartleby is placed behind a screen in the lawyer’s office and writes away efficiently. It’s worth reminding ourselves of what a task it must have been in offices in the past, with no technology, no computers or even typewriters – so that everything was done by hand, and a complex, 500 page legal document would have to be written out as many times as was required. So the scrivener’s job was an important, but probably mind-numbingly dull, employment.

The crunch comes when the lawyer asks Bartleby to come and read through a document with him to check all is correct (a regular occurrence when dealing with hand-written documents). Bartleby’s classic reply is “I prefer not to”, with no other comment. He won’t answer questions about why, simply repeating his statement over and over again. His boss and fellow workers can’t understand why, and initially try to work round it. However, as the tale continues the situation deteriorates and Bartleby begins to make a gradual withdrawal from the world.

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I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from “Bartleby” but I got a fascinating and affecting tale, showing the strength of passive resistance. In many ways this seems to be a very prescient book – Bartleby is part of the early rat-race, stuck at a desk all day with a sea of paperwork, which it could be argued is no good occupation for a human being. So his rejection of the modern world of law and business could be seen as some kind of existential crisis. But the book is also something of an unsolved mystery in that we don’t know who Bartleby is, where he came from, what motivates him or anything. He could be a symbol of the little man, crushed under the wheels of big business, making a small stand against it and actually causing it some problems.

And that’s actually a demonstration of Melville’s achievement. You come out of this novel with half a dozen theories, your thoughts well and truly provoked – which is hopefully what Melville intended! I shall keep ruminating on this one (along with reading the helpful extra material MHP provide to go along with the book). Apparently Melville was roundly criticised for this novella, so obviously it was very ahead of its time. But I found it moving and strange and unforgettable – highly recommended!

Perec’s lost work – “Portrait of a Man”

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You don’t have to have done much more than dip your toe into the Ramblings to realise that I’ve developed a bit of a literary thing for Georges Perec recently…. 🙂 So I was very, very excited to hear that his biographer and regular translator, David Bellos, had discovered what is something of a Holy Grail – Perec’s first novel, rejected in the 1960s and thought lost but lurking in copy typescripts tucked away with old friends.

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Bellos has translated the book and provides an excellent foreword which explains the history of the book, why it wasn’t published, how it was found and the background to it. Intriguingly, the protagonist is named Gaspard Winckler, the title given to one of the characters in “Life: A User’s Manual” and also the semi-autobiographical “W, or the memory of Childhood”. It’s tempting to see this recurring character as perhaps representing Perec…

As the book opens Winckler, a forger of paintings, has reached a crisis in his life. We meet him immediately after murdering his employer, Madera, by cutting his throat. To escape from Otto, the servant, who is pursuing him with a view to vengeance, he locks himself in the cellar where he has been working on his latest pastiche. His only way out to freedom is by tunnelling through the cellar wall and making a run for it; so as Gaspard works away at the wall, he reflects on his life and the events which have brought him to this point.

Much of the second section of the book is taken up by a dialogue between Winckler and an old friend, Streten, which covers similar ground but in perhaps a more detailed and coherent way. Gaspard again relives his life, trying to rationalise his existence and work out why he chose the path he did, and where he will go next.

The slightly unusual format of a book split in two is one that Perec would return to with the later book, “W” and it’s very effective here. The opening section is full of dazzling prose with frequently shifting viewpoints (from first, second and third person perspectives) which at times almost make the book read as if Gaspard is having a dialogue with himself. These fractured thoughts capture brilliantly the panicky state of mind when cohesive and coherent understanding is impossible.

“What remained was the feeling of an absurd undertaking. What remained was the bitterness of failure; what remained was a corpse. a life that had suddenly collapsed, and memories that were ghosts. What remained was a wrecked life, irreparable misunderstanding, a void, a desperate plea…”

As the narrative continues, we learn that Winckler has, after a lifetime of faking, conceived a wish to create a work of art which is a masterpiece in itself, but in the style of “The Condottiero” (also known as Portrait of a Man) by Antonello da Messina. It’s a painting with which Perec had an emotional connection, often citing the scar on the subject’s lip which was similar to one he had, and the portrait features on the cover of the book. But a forger attempting to create an original work but in another’s style simply won’t work – Winckler’s painting has failed, and it is this failure which brought about the crisis, leaving him to blame Madera for keeping him a prisoner, to all intents and purposes – a prisoner of his own talent as a forger. Killing Madera was the only way he believed he could escape this life and as he flees to Paris, he is unsure of what he will do next; the only thing that is certain is that he no longer wishes to produce counterfeit art. Every attempt he has made at something real in his life, from the failed painting to the loves he has lost, has gone wrong.

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Although this book was written before Perec’s real experiments in literature began, the opening section *is* a little challenging, with its constant shifts and the staccato nature of Winckler’s thoughts. Nevertheless, you soon get into a rhythm with the writing, and start becoming intensely involved in Winckler’s life and fate. He is certainly an artist, but the abuse of his talent has caused him to reach a crisis – a need to create an original work of art, and a frustration at his failure. Questions of identity are pertinent here, as well as authenticity, while Winckler fumbles through, trying to justify his past and then discard it and move on. It’s a thought-provoking tale, setting you thinking about whether it matters who you really are, whether it matters if the painting you think is a van Gogh really *is* one, or if all that matters is whether you like it or not. And the importance of veracity versus falsity is pivotal to Winckler’s behaviour and eventual crisis. He has seen how his teacher, the man who taught him his craft, ended his life in seclusion, burnt out – and he has no wish to end up like this. However, what happens to Gaspard we never find out; having spent 12 years or more as other people, submerging himself into their psyche to recreate their work, he sets off to try to forge a new identity and find a new role in life. Whether he succeeds or not, at least he has managed to escape the trap he was in, living a lie.

“Portrait of a Man” would be a remarkably good book from any writer – challenging, thought-provoking, individual – but considering it was Perec’s first novel makes you realise just what a talent the man was. And kudos, bouquets, awards and the like need to be flung at David Bellos for services rendered to English-speaking readers of Perec. Not only has he translated major works and written the biography, he’s also managed to find this wonderful lost book! Published today by MacLehose Press, this is a worthy addition to Georges Perec’s canon and essential reading for anyone who wants to watch the development of a genius.

(Review copy kindly provided by MacLehose Press – for which many thanks. Actually, they also deserve kudos and bouquets for publishing the book !)

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