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Reads of the Year (possibly!)

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With the madness of Christmas receding a little, I thought I’d catch my blogging breath and try to put together a post on my favourite books of the year. It’s a hard thing to do, as looking back over the list I’ve kept of this year’s reading, there are so many wonderful volumes I’ve enjoyed. So I’ll probably summarise a little, but here are my thoughts about my favourite literary bits of 2014!

The Russians

russian lit week

No reading year of mine would be complete without some of my favourite Russian authors, and 2014 was a bumper one! As well as Dostoevsky’s long and involving “The Idiot“, I also lost myself in Bely’s “Petersburg”, a huge, impressionistic masterpiece. But there were also shorter works – newly translated gems from Teffi and Gaito Gazdanov, as well as previously unavailable treats from old favour Bulgakov and newer favourite Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I have plenty more Russians on Mount TBR – in fact, I could probably spend a good few years of the rest of my life reading only them! 🙂

European authors

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-B0509-0010-006,_Christa_Wolf

I spent time with a good number of European authors this year, including several from Germany. Christa Wolf, a Virago author long on my must-read list, was a revelation when I finally encountered her “The Quest For Christa T.” Timur Vermes shocked and impressed with “Look Who’s Back” and Laurent Binet’s unusual take on the historical novel, “HHhH”, was very special. I read more of the wonderful Stefan Zweig and also discovered Antal Szerb‘s very individual, quirky storytelling. And of course I made my first inroads into Proust, making my way through the first two volumes of his mammoth sequence.

Georges Perec

lifeperec

I guess Perec might well be my favourite discovery of the year. His writing is individual, brilliant, thought-provoking and very, very special. After being knocked out by “Life: A User’s Manual” early in the year, I went on to read several more of his books. All are different, all are excellent and none have disappointed me. I wish I’d discovered Perec earlier…

The North by Paul Morley

morley

Another chunkster – a huge, personal, absorbing and idiosyncratic book about what the north is and what it means to be a northerner by one of my favourite ever writers, Paul Morley. I guess you’d class it as non-fiction – I didn’t read a lot of that genre this year, but The North was probably enough on its own!

Rediscovering my Roots

lanark

Well, sort of. “Lanark” by Alasdair Gray is a very Scottish book and its epic, inventive and unconventional narrative really hooked me. One of those reads I couldn’t put down!

A Special Mention

The authors looking very cool!

“Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo was a short but exceptionally entertaining read, parodying the classic crime genre beautifully but with hidden depths. I wish the authors had written more in this vein!

I could go on and on – looking back I’ve been lucky enough to read some *amazing* books this year – but these are the ones that stand out and strike me most. Let’s hope 2015’s reading is just as wonderful! 🙂

So. I popped into the library yesterday to collect a book…

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This one in fact:

carey

I’ve enjoying reading and listening to John Carey’s thoughts for a while and I dealt with the book itch by reserving it from the library. Trouble is, it came in a couple of weeks ago and I forgot about it… Luckily (or unluckily) Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book mentioned it as he’d got a copy for Christmas and this reminded me and so I went to pick it up – which was a mistake, as it turned out, because the library sale section (old and unwanted books) had been revamped and I also came out with these:

library

I think I can hardly be blamed, though! The Orwell is a hardback of some uncollected pieces which will match my boxed hardback complete works thingy. The Persephone (a Persephone!) is the same collection of Dorothy Whipple short stories that captivated my friend J. in the Bloomsbury Oxfam. And the third book is a selection of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s letters (why does my library want to get rid of his books??) All for £3.40….. Not that I need any books after Christmas…

And then there was this in the Oxfam:

leeI read “Cider with Rosie” at school when we studied it in my Grammar School days. I loved it on first reading and hated it after we’d analysed it to death. But I’m intrigued by his Spanish Civil War days and so I figured maybe I should revisit and see what I make of it all those years late…. And £1.99 is not a bad price.

However, I got home to find a lovely review book from Michael Walmer:

charteris

And there is the Willa Cather from Heaven-Ali’s lovely giveaway:

my antonia

Well, I can’t deny that Mount TBR is out of control – it’s the floorboards I fear for most at the moment….. :s

…in which a variety of Santas *do* bring books!

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After the recent birthday bonanza of books, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a huge book haul over the festive period. However, I was delighted to receive several gems and surprises, as well as a lovely Secret Santa – I’ve been very blessed with books recently!

First up, OH surprised me with some unexpected titles (as he always manages to!):

bright particular

This rather appealing sounding book is nothing I’ve ever heard of – but as I’ve not read a lot of non-fiction in 2014, it’ll be ideal for next year!

russian books

He also tracked down a couple of Russian titles – one I’d heard of and one I’d not. Fascinating fact of the season – I went to school with Catherine Merridale! She was in my form at Grammar School and ended up being our Head Girl – small world!

colette

Middle Child came up trumps with this lovely new Colette title. I put it on my wish list recently to try to restrain my buying impulses, so I was very excited that she chose this – thanks, MC!

george sand

This was from my lovely friend J. who decided it would be a Good Thing for me after I reviewed my first George Sand book earlier in the year. Translated by Robert Graves, no less! 🙂

humans covenant

These two lovelies came from a work colleague and an old friend – I know nothing about either but they sound varied and interesting so that’s got to be good!

plath drawings

And from mother-in-law (with a little help from OH I suspect!) Sylvia Plath’s drawings – very exciting!!!

Last, but most *definitely* not least is the Virago Secret Santa. On the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group some of us do a Secret Santa every year, and my wonderful gifts came from the lovely Genny T (who I’d been lucky enough to meet up with earlier in the year at a London get-together). The parcel arrived adorned intriguingly with tape quoting L.M. Alcott:

pkg 2

pkg 1

Inside were three beautiful packages wrapped in bookish paper plus a card:

vss parcels 1

vss parcels

The contents turned out to be as fabulous as the exterior!

vss2014

“Bid Me to Live” by HD is probably the Virago I’ve been most keen to find but have failed most miserably to get, so I was *so* excited to receive this! And the Persephone is “Flush” by Virginia Woolf which I also don’t have! The tape is emblazoned with a Woolf quote and as Genny surmised will come in very handy this year! I was bowled over by my lovely VSS gifts; they’re just perfect – thanks Genny!

So Mount TBR gets a little larger and creakier – I will *definitely* have to do more book pruning in the new year….. =:o

Happy Christmas from the Ramblings!

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christmas_feature

(image courtesy untitledbooks.com)

Just a quick post to send good wishes to all readers of my ramblings! I do hope you all have a wonderful, relaxing and bookish festive season – posts will resume when I’ve recovering from opening all the oblong parcels under the tree! 🙂

2014 in First Lines!

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Image courtesy freewallsource.com

Image courtesy freewallsource.com

I don’t often pick up on the memes floating about online, but this one is very appealing and as I’ve found the ones I’ve read on other people’s blogs (Stuck-in-a-Book, Annabel’s House of Books, Fleur Fisher in Her World) fascinating, I thought I’d have a go to see what this tells me about the Ramblings! So here goes…

January:

Today is the birthday of author E.M. Forster…

February:

Echo – by Anna Akhmatova

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart

March:

Every so often I feel the need to dive into a chunkster – I got through a few last year, including “Anna Karenina” and “The Brothers Karamazov”, as well as “Life: A User’s Manual”. All hefty tomes, but it’s so enjoyable to sink yourself into a big book and really wallow in it for a while, not worrying about rushing to finish it and letting all the other books go to the bottom of Mount TBR….. 🙂

April:

Having really enjoyed my read of “Journey to the Centre of the Earth“, I’ve been keen to read another Verne – so stumbling across this Everyman edition of “Around the World in Eighty Days” in the local Oxfam book shop for 99p was rather timely!

May:

Finnish author Tove Jansson is probably best known as the woman behind the Moomins – certainly, that’s how I’d heard of her, although I confess that I’ve never read (or watched) the adventures of the little white creatures!

June:

Yes – that means I’m actually considering reading plans for this month; and we all know how disastrously things like that tend to go for me! For example, I honestly intended to take part in the LibraryThing Virago group’s First World War read-along – and I’ve totally failed to read even one book for that, despite having several on the shelves.

July:

I love reading a new author for the first time, and Boll is one of those – although I have been aware of his name and work for a little while.

August:

And let’s face it, I’m not knowing for succeeding with reading schedules! 🙂 However, August is the month designated by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics to read just Viragos (and Persephones, which are counted as honorary Viragos!).

September:

… plus other niceness in London!

Yes, I managed to escape for another day out in the Big Smoke at the weekend – a joint visit to Kew Gardens and also the lovely bookshops of the Bloomsbury/Charing Cross Road area!

October:

As I’ve mentioned before, way back in the early 1980s, in my early days of exploratory reading, I stumbled across the book “Literary Women” by Ellen Moers. It became a book that shaped my life in many ways, because it sent me off in pursuit of a number of women writers including Colette, Simone de Beauvoir (and then Sartre) and of course Virginia Woolf.

November:

November is German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life. And what a good idea, because there’s so much wonderful German literature to be read and celebrated!

December:

I don’t often wish I was in other countries (except when I’m having grand dreams of travelling round Europe and Russia by train!) but I confess that I would rather like to be in New York next week!

Hmm – so what does that all tell me about my reading year?

1. I’ve read a lot of Russians

2. I’ve read a lot of Germans

3. I’ve shopped quite a bit

4. I still love Virginia Woolf!

You can read the original posts by clicking on the links; I shall do a proper sort of round-up before the end of the year. Having kept a little spreadsheet of all I’ve read, it will be interesting to see what I think are my best reads of the year! 🙂

 

Reading challenges ahoy!

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I often feel somewhat notorious (and a bit of a failure!) because of my inability to complete reading challenges! The first one I tried was the LibraryThing VMC group’s Elizabeth Taylor readalong a couple of year’s back, and I just about made it (though I did join in halfway through….). In 2013 their group read was for Barbara Pym and I burnt out mid-year. And this year, they went for a Great War themed readalong which I didn’t even get started with! I *did* succeed with my plan to read Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” series, however, and I’ve also completed the first volume of Proust (out of three I have) plus Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy”, so I suppose I’m not doing too badly!

I'm particularly keen on this era of Penguins

For 2015 I’ve decided, along with HeavenAli, Liz and possibly others, to read “The Forsyte Saga” – nine novels plus the odd interlude so at less than a book a month that should be manageable. However, a couple of other possibilities have reared their heads…

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The most recent edition of Slightly Foxed magazine had an article on C.P. Snow, which reminded me that I have his “Strangers and Brothers” series of 11 novels on my bookshelves. I think they would be a remarkably interesting exercise following on from the Powells, particularly as Snow was satirised in “Dance” as J.C. Quiggin. The main issue I have with Snow is deciding on the order of reading, as the early novels were published in one order, but later Snow recommended a different reading order. I am one of those odd pedants who insists on reading the Narnia books in the order published, refusing to read “The Magician’s Nephew” first, so I think if I do read the Snows I shall be awkward and stick to the publication order.

Then there is Lawrence Durrell. I read and enjoyed “Prospero’s Cell” earlier in the year, and have been humming and hawing about whether to try his fiction, in particular his Alexandra Quartet. The question was decided in the Samaritan’s Book Cave at the weekend, when I popped down in search of books for Youngest Child’s university studies and instead came out with these:

alexandria

Yes, all four volumes of the Alexandria Quartet in lovely old Faber editions for £1 each. Cheaper than online with no postage involved (just the wear on my shoulder carting them around town).

So there are several series I could pick up and run with (let alone all the other recent arrivals). I am *definitely* going with “The Forsyte Saga”; but as for the others, I shall keep my mind very much open and free, and if those books happen to float past me, I may well be picking them up…! 🙂

Dimensional Doodlings

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Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

Science fiction is a bit of a knotty topic for me, as I like some of but I’m a bit picky! In my twenties I did go through a phase of reading some ‘hard’ science fiction (alien battles and strange worlds) but if I’m honest I’m more attracted by the Star Trek / Doctor Who / fantasy and classic sci-fi type of work than the space army sort. I’ll happy read H.G. Wells and Douglas Adams but I’m not so comfortable with Asimov and Peter Hamilton!

flatland

“Flatland”, therefore, is the kind of speculative fiction that falls into my remit: described as a “mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world”, it was first published in 1884. Abbott, according to Wikipedia, was an English schoolmaster and theologian and although he wrote many works, this is the one that’s still read today. I picked my copy up while passing through St. Pancras station recently (no, not on my way to Hogwarts!) and it’s a very pretty little black Penguin Classic.

“Flatland” is a place of only two dimensions, and the story is narrated by an anonymous Square. He describes his world thus: “Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it… and you will have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.”

So far, so good. However, this world of flatness has a rigid social hierarchy, at the bottom of which are women (straight lines) and at the top of which are the Polygons (the more angles you have, the higher your status). Everything is controlled by this hierarchy, and no progress is possibly through society for certain of the shapes; for others, the right sort of marriage or dangerous surgery when young to produce more angles or more equal lines, can help them rise in status. Abbott helpfully provides little diagrammatic illustrations in places to help us understand his concepts.

The Square tells us of life in Flatland; how the shapes learn to move around without damaging each other; the danger of women who, being straight lines, can seriously injure or kill anyone with whom the come into contact; and how any attempts to conceive of a world outside this one are punishable by destruction. However, the Square has strange experiences to come; first he dreams of a Lineland where creatures of different lengths exist along a line and communicate by song; then, as the millennium turns, he is visited by a Sphere from a three-dimensional world who opens his eyes to the reality of things like cubes that are not flat. It seems that every millennium this kind of visit happens, and attempting to pass the information on about three dimensions will have severe consequences for the Square…

Of course, we are very much in the land of satire here! Abbott was using his analogies here to comment on the rigidity of Victoria society and the restrictions placed upon people at that time. Social definitions were all (you only need to read Dickens or the Brontes to see that) and “Flatland” throws this into sharp relief. Particularly apt is the attitude towards women – let’s not forget that the Brontes published their books initially under male pseudonyms, and many of their subjects were women restricted by the mores of the era).

Abbott_older-medium

However, the book also has a scientific angle which is fascinating. It’s a little hard (for me, at least) to get your head around the concept of existing in one or two dimensions, as we’re so used to the three we have. Equally, the Square pushed the Sphere to reveal further secrets and consider if there is a fourth dimension – an idea that had been around for some time before Abbott was writing. The Sphere is a little resistant, but the point I think the books is ultimately making is that our perceptions and our understanding of the world are limited by our circumstances. This chimes in with the message in a James Burke programme I was watching on the BBC recently – everything is relative, there are no scientific absolutes and what we think at the moment may radically change as we discover more about ourselves and the universe around us. The Square struggles to hang onto the concept of three dimensions once he is back in Flatland – but once having been shown something new, he can never go back to his old way of thinking.

This was a fascinating little read, and I can see why it has survived as a classic. I’m no scientist, but I do like to watch popular science progs on TV, and “Flatland” still seemed relevant to our modern ways of thinking. Even if you haven’t got a scientific bent I still recommend Abbott’s book – it’ll certainly get you thinking about the space around you if nothing else! 🙂

Let There Be Books!!!!

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So there I was, talking about avoiding amassing more titles and scratching the book itch – and of course, it’s all gone pear-shaped and out of the window! I have to say that I won’t entirely take the blame and here is a little run-down of what’s been arriving recently…

First up, a number of new items which have crept onto the shelves by various means (sandwiched between my two editions of Priestley’s “English Journey”):

shelf
Two of these were unexpected review books from the lovely MacLehose/Quercus Press (“News from Berlin” and “Island Where I Flee”). Both sound intriguing and so I’m looking forward to them, particularly as I don’t read that many new books.

Two of the Canongate titles were a moment of weakness when I saw their wonderful offer on Twitter – 60% off plus a free book. Let’s face it, that’s just too good to resist…. So I chose the Willa Muir and received the very interesting-looking Kate Riophe book – I like bookish surprises!

odile snow

And there were a couple of small volumes I *may* have just ordered a while ago – the last C.P. Snow I need to complete the set of “Strangers and Brothers” (I may even read these next year…); plus a slightly uncharacteristic Raymond Queneau book, “Odile”, which is apparently based on his time with the surrealists.

Then there was London… At the weekend, I had a lovely day out in the Big Smoke, meeting up with my old friend J. for some pre-Christmas shopping and mooching about. We met at Foyles (always a good place to rendezvous, I find!) and I was persuaded to pick up the Modiano and the Machado de Assis. I’d wanted to read Modiano since hearing about him when he won the Nobel, and his works were initially difficult to track down – so I feel no guilt about buying this! Machado de Assis is my current read and this story is highly recommended! The Lermontov came from the Bloomsbury Oxfam and is translated by the Nabokovs, father and son, so I couldn’t resist.

Allan Ramsay Self Portrait : NPG

Allan Ramsay Self Portrait : NPG

After a little visit to the NPG for the Grayson Perry exhibition (and to see my current favourite portrait, Allan Ramsay’s self-portrait, which wasn’t out when I last visited), we took a scenic bus ride in the sun to Chelsea, to have a look at the Anthropologie shop and a little exhibition there. The shop is *gorgeous* and *not cheap* but we enjoyed window shopping! And just off the King’s Road there was another Oxfam wherein lurked “Twilight of the Eastern Gods” – which has been on my wish list for a while, so it would have been rude not to take it home!

ju

Whew! To add to the book count, J. had very kindly brought me birthday gifts, and a Beverley Nichols! In fact, it ended up being two Beverleys, as one was a lovely hardback of “A Case of Human Bondage”, and the birthday Beverley turned out to be a beautiful old hardback of “A Thatched Roof – which J. made me open in the Foyles cafe as she wanted to see my reaction when I saw that it was signed! (Reaction = very, very happy!). The other gift, which I opened yesterday, was a lovely Persephone I don’t have (but am very keen to read) – “The Children Who Lived in a Barn” by Eleanor Graham, complete with bookmark! The contents are a lovely facsimile of the original Puffin edition. So thanks go to J. for the lovely gifts (and we had a fun day out, too!)

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The final incoming heap were as a result of my birthday – my friends and family know me well and so there are always bookish gifts!

First up, Eldest Child chose two titles from my wish list:

tea aerodrome

The don’t have much in common except that they piqued my interest!

spectres

“Red Spectres” came from mother-in-law via the wish list – yet another title I’ve been after for a while!

bulg

The Bulgakov title likewise – from my brother, who is happy to simply buy me whatever I ask for! 🙂

tea architecture

Tea and Architecture – not obvious bedfellows, but both interests of mine, so OH (who knows me well) did good here by choosing these two lovelies!

vintage

I have a weakness for vintage crafty stuff too, so this book was an ideal choice by a work colleague:

chox

And last, but definitely not least, OH got his priorities right with a non-bookish gift!

So I have been very blessed and spoiled with books lately – and with Christmas coming too, I think I really will have to have a bit of a January cull…… :s

Scratching the book itch

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I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the worst things you can do as a bibliophile is read book blogs – especially if you’re a reader who’s as fickle and impressionable as I am! Unfortunately, book blogs are one of my favourite things, and I *love* a good recommendation or discovering a book/author I haven’t come across before. It’s not good for the TBR or the bank balance (or indeed the space in the house!) and it’s something I’ve been trying to address lately.

The trouble is, I think, the ready availability of (often cheaply priced) books. The minute I read a review that enthuses me, it’s tempting to just order a copy to have ready for when I want to read it. This way, I’ve ended up with shelves of wonderful (unread) books and I’m constantly being distracted from them by the next shiny recommendation. So I’ve hit upon a couple of ways to try to counteract the mad urge to buy.

First, there is the library. If a book is there, I’ll reserve it – chances are it will be available just as quickly as one I’d order online, and more often than not I’ll decide I don’t need to read it at the moment, add it to the wish list and then take it back.

basketIf it’s not in the library I go to phase 2. I add it to the shopping basket of a selected online retailer and then leave it there – usually all day, while I’m working or doing something else. Most often, when I go back to it, I’ve decided I can wait so I add it to the aforementioned wish list and don’t buy it.

Both approaches are working fairly well (!) and help to deal with that book itch I get when I read about an intriguing volume.

However, I don’t know if this book urge is exclusive to me, as when I was packing my shopping bag to take a library book back the other day, OH asked me if I’d read it. I replied that I hadn’t, but I’d got it out to see if I’d like – I thought I would but I didn’t have an urgent need to read it right now. He queried if I got “urgent needs” to read a book as if it was unusual. Well I do – and I hope I’m not alone in that!

But in the meantime, I’ll use the above methods to scratch the book itch and hopefully keep the TBR down! 🙂

Word Games from a Master of the Genre

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Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

I’ve been circling Raymond Queneau’s books for a while – in fact, I own several, and given my love of Calvino and Perec and literary wordplay it’s not surprising I should want to read him. And at last I have, though not any of the volumes I already had… In my defence, I was placing a Christmas order somewhere unmentionable which I had to get over £10 – so it figures I should treat myself to something and it turned out to be “Exercises in Style”.

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Apart from “Zazie in the Metro”, this is probably the book that Queneau is best known for. Born in 1903, he’s possibly something of a missing link between the Surrealists and OuLiPo, as he briefly flirted with the former organisation before going his own way – never really agreeing with their politics or their views on art. In simple terms, they favoured an *anything goes* approach, whereas Queneau believed that structure and restrictions brought liberation as you were free to create within that structure.

“Exercises in Style” is quite fascinating. It takes a simple premise – a short paragraph relating a man on a packed bus accusing another passenger of jostling him, throwing himself down in an empty seat and then later on having a conversation with a friend about moving a button on his coat. Queneau then proceeds to retell the story in 98 different styles – the same actions, but each story is completely different because of the stylistic devices, ranging from Retrograde (understandable) through Reported Speech (very clever!) to Aphaeresis (unintelligible!).

As the exercises continue, there are subtle developments; the jostling becomes stepping on toes; extra characters(like a Dr. Queuneau  in Reported Speech) and an unnamed observer, put in appearances. This is storytelling as an organic form and each different retelling makes you look at the incident in a different light.

Raymond_Queneau

If you described this book to someone, it might well sound dull, but it certainly isn’t. It’s a revelation as a reader to see how much we’re manipulated by the style and the word games adopted by an author. A simple incident has a totally different complexion depending on the way the author writes it. The book is a game, playing with words, but with a serious intent: telling us not to trust words, to be aware of this and look behind the words in each case to try to find the truth.

The book is issued by one of my favourite publishes, Alma, and so of course there is plenty of extra material. The foreword is by Umberto Eco, and there is an excellent little essay by another OuLiPo member, Italo Calvino, which throws light on Queneau’s career and work. Special praise needs to be given to translator Barbara Wright, too. When translating a book like this, so dependent on wordplay, the work becomes very much case of interpretation as well as translation. In some cases Wright created an English language version of the particular exercise, which was approved by Queneau – a wonderful case of writer and translator working together, and she deserves kudos for what she did with this!

“Exercises in Style” made me smile, laugh and think, which is a pretty good result really! And I shall definitely be exploring more of Queneau’s work. 🙂

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