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The 1924 Club : Some Final Thoughts

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And so we reach the end of the 1924 Club, and what fun it’s been! When Simon first came up with the idea I had no idea how much I’d enjoy reading books from this year, and in fact I could happily have spread my reading over a whole month! In many ways I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface, and other books I would have liked to get to include “House of the Arrow” by A.E.W. Mason (vintage crime that I read a long time ago), “20 Love Poems and A Song of Despair” by Neruda and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” by Anita Loos (which would have been a re-read – I loved it first time round).

1924 stack

As it is, I feel I did read some wonderful volumes, all of which have made me look at 1924 (and indeed The Roaring Twenties!) in a very different light. Arlen’s book, in particular, was a very striking read and will no doubt be in my top 10 of the year.

It’s been lovely to see so many other wonderful bloggers joining in, and it’s been fascinating reading all of your reviews. If you have any more to share, please leave a comment on the 1924 Club page, where there are lots of links to some excellent pieces on volumes from the year in question. And in the meantime, I may well be continuing into November with some more reading from 1924…..! 🙂

 

The 1924 Club – The Final Tales of a European Great

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Franz Kafka – The Hunger Artist

There’s always the danger that when an author becomes absorbed into the mainstream consciousness, they become a bit of a clichĂ©, and that’s certainly been the tendency with the work of Franz Kafka. We hear the phrase Kafkaesque bandied around all over the place, to describe the latest TV thriller or political chicanery, all of which tends to obscure the works themselves. Kafka died in 1924, but luckily for me a collection of four short works of his was published shortly after his death and so I’m able to squeeze one last read in to the 1924 Club! 🙂

complete kafka

“The Hunger Artist” was the last collection which Kafka himself prepared for publication, and he was actually able to correct the proofs during his final illness, with the book appearing several months after his death. It contains four stories – the title one, plus “First Sorrow”, “A Little Woman” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”. I confess that I didn’t mess about trying to find a copy of this collection; instead, I splashed out on a volume containing the complete short stories because I figured that I need to start reading Kafka again, and also that the book might come in handy for German Lit Month in November…

But back to Kafka. “First Sorrow” is a wonderfully strange little tale about a trapeze artist who decides he wants to get away from the world in a most unusual way. Is it an allegory about wanting to escape? Or about taking the pursuit of your art too far? Or maybe about a quest for identity? Certainly it contains an awful lot in its few pages. “A Little Woman” is again a strange one; the narrator is convinced that his very existence is an irritation to the woman of the title – and yet they are strangers! Is he unreliable? Is there a story here we’re not aware of? Again, there’s much hidden beneath the surface here.

The title story relates the story of an actual hunger artist (I had to search online to find out if they really existed and they did – people would travel around in shows, fasting for a set period and making a spectacle of themselves). Again, there’s a lot going on in this story. The craft of starvation seems to be going out of fashion and despite joining a circus, the hunger artist is sidelined; people are not interested in watching him go without food and he in his turn is repelled by the animals and the noise of the crowds. As he declines and fades away we are left to ponder just why he tried to earn a living this way. Certainly, he could be meant to represent the misunderstood artist or perhaps a religious figure, as he usually fasts for 40 days.

Franz-Kafka

And finally, “Josephine the Singer”, an ambiguous little work. Josephine is the only one of the mouse folk who is able to sing, and the story tells of her life and her relationship with her audience. Capricious and demanding, while the other mice work, she entertains them – but the narrator is never clear as to whether Josephine really *can* sing or whether they’re all just fooled by the fact that she’s so convinced she can. In fact, it’s possible that she puts her people in danger by attracting attention with her singing, although she always manages to be whisked to safety. Oddly enough, it’s only the title that describes the people in the story as mice – despite references to fur, it isn’t explicitly made clear that these are real mice and they could just be a community of people with mice-like timidity and characteristics.

Quite clearly, there’s a running theme with Kafka, as his stories are laden with ambiguity and open to a variety of interpretations – which is half the fun of reading them! Kafka died young at the age of 40 and very few of his works had actually been published. It was only because of the diligence of his friend, Max Brod, who refused to burn Kafka’s manuscripts after his death, that the great works like “The Trial” and “The Castle” survived. However, “The Hunger Artist” is particularly interesting because it’s a work Kafka intended to see published; it’s an intriguing collection of stories and highly recommended!

The 1924 Club : Beneath the Veneer of the Jazz Age

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The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

When I cast my eye over the initial list of possible reads from 1924, the first title that jumped out at me was “The Green Hat” by Michael Arlen. It’s been lurking on Mount TBR for ages and seemed initially the ideal read for the 1924 Club. The twenties were, of course, a period of notorious decadence and indulgence and the blurb for this book read like it was the quintessential read. Michael Arlen was a fascinating character – Armenian by birth, he moved with his family to London in 1901; in 1913 he moved to London and embarked on a writing career. He seemed to fit in very well with the zeitgeist of the age and was often seen dashing around London in a posh car.

green hat

However, oddly enough I nearly stalled with “The Green Hat”. I picked it up after being knocked out by Colette’s short stories and I wasn’t sure I really felt like reading something so frivolous. And the initial pages were somehow very hard to read – I struggled on thinking I would have to give up on the book, until I looked at some online reviews which said how the book *was* hard to read at the beginning, so I persevered – and I’m really, really glad I did.

Our unnamed narrator introduces us to the main character in the book – Iris Storm, the wearer of the green hat and a woman of some fascination. Iris’s twin brother is known to the narrator (they live in the same building in Shepherd’s Market in London, at the time a haunt of writers such as Anthony Powell and Arlen himself); and Iris is on a fleeting visit to see her estranged sibling who’s sunk into alcoholism. The narrator is transfixed by Iris and the introductory chapter covers their first night-time meeting. As the book progresses we learn all about Iris Storm and her (indeed very stormy!) life – there is a significant back story, previous husbands, scandals and shocks. Iris is very much a scarlet woman, someone who’s betrayed her class and is considered something of an outcast. But we are in post-WW1 Europe and all the old certainties are crumbling. As Iris proceeds through a number of crises, her ultimate fate might indeed seem inevitable as she tries to grasp happiness against all the odds.

I sat there in that deep armchair, subdued by the thought of the awful helplessness of men and women to understand one another, and of the terrible thing it would be for some of them if every they did understand one another, and how many opportunities the devil is always being given to making plunder out of decent people.

Describing the plot of “The Green Hat” is in some ways irrelevant as although there is a plot, the narrative unfolds in a less than straightforward way. When I picked up the book, I expected a light, frothy Jazz age romance, which I wasn’t quite sure I was in the mood for; but what I got was something completely different. Much of what happens to Iris happens off-camera, in a series of set pieces, and we learn about it indirectly from the narrator. However, while he’s telling us about Iris’s life, he also manages to paint a devastating picture of a damaged, post-War generation.

Everything that happens in The Green Hat seems to be informed by WW1 and its after-effects. Not only has that conflict destroyed a whole group, it’s also undermined the social structure and way of life of the country. The cracks in the veneer are visible in the older generation, as they observe the younger partying its way to oblivion; and the mores and standards of the castes are being challenged constantly. Iris’s own behaviour is regarded as outrageous, as she’s stepped outside the boundaries of women of her class, and yet she purports not to care. How much she is really damaged by what people think of her is open to interpretation – certainly she regards her ancestral line as cursed and doomed. There are many subtle hints and themes that I think would come out on a second reading: the fact that many events take place at night; the recurring use of green (the hat, an emerald ring Iris always wears); and the book is more complex than might seem at first, demanding a further look. It also touches on quite deep issues: pre-marital sex, venereal disease, homosexuality and divorce.

You talk to me of your England. I despise your England, I despise the us that is us. We are shams with patrician minds and peasant faces… To me, a world which thinks of itself in terms of puny, squalid, bickering little nations and not as one glorious field for the crusade of mankind is a world in which to succeed is the highest indignity that can befall a good man.

Iris herself, though the central character, is an elusive figure and we see her more through the effect she has on others than directly. This oblique approach is convincing, imbuing her with a kind of glamour and mystery, and she almost exists only in relation to other people and not in her own right. It’s clear that Iris is judged by others for a number of reasons: she’s betrayed her class; she’s indiscreet; but most pertinently because she’s a woman and the most ridiculous double standards apply. Alas, not much has changed, has it?

“The Green Hat” builds inexorably to a dramatic climax, and I came out of it stunned and a little bit breathless. Yes, the book and the characters are sometimes a little melodramatic, but oh! the writing! Arlen’s prose is just wonderful – poetic, hypnotic and incredibly evocative, he captures place, mood and ambience perfectly. You feel as if you’ve been in nocturnal Paris or London, swimming in the river on a hot, dark summer’s night or driving madly alongside Iris.

Paris rises in a cloud of chill darkness, the rain falls like whips of ice, the street-lamps loiter on vague, bitter errands, confused strings of light, a stealthy idiot wind glories in being corrupted by corners. the platforms of the omnibuses are packed tight with small men whose overcoats are too short for them, the brims of their felt hats too narrow, their trousers turned up too high, their eyes too dark, their faces too pale. The jargon of the traffic on the rue de Rivoli, as it squabbles for every step between the deserted pavement beneath the railings of the Tuileries and the reeking pavement under the long archway lit by imprudent shop-lights falling on imitation jewellery, is multiplied an hundred-fold by the shrewish air into a noise that hurts like warm water on a chill hand.

by Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 8 December 1930

In some ways, I was a little apprehensive about reading “The Green Hat”; I’d read that Iris was based on Idina Sackville, ‘The Bolter’ (I reviewed a book about her here), and I hadn’t taken to Idina at all. However, this novel helped me relate to the characters of the 1920s much more strongly, and I gained a real sense of how that post-War generation suffered and reacted from what was a devastating and destructive conflict. The madness, the selfishness, the desperation and the search for happiness at all costs become much more understandable in this context. But as well as giving me this new understanding, “The Green Hat” was a wonderful, wonderful read; unusually but poetically written, absorbing and involving, and quite impossible to forget. 1924 really *was* a year that produced some amazing books!

The 1924 Club: A Different Perspective

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Simon’s tongue-in-comment on my post about Zamyatin’s “We”, to the effect that he was glad I’d found something Russian to read from 1924, actually led me onto some quite deep thoughts about the state of Russia in the 1920s. The country had been ravaged by years of conflict – the First World War followed by successive revolutions and then a devastating Civil War. The fledgling Soviet state was suffering from famines and shortages, isolated from the rest of the world and trying desperately to keep itself together as an entity. Amazingly enough, in the middle of all this the arts continued to flourish. The visual artists had embraced Constructivism which spread from painting and sculptures into film and theatre. Writers like Mayakovsky used their work for propaganda, slipping into agitprop posters as well as poetry and plays. The initial cultural boom would be crushed by Stalin’s increasing iron grip, but for a while the arts were in the vanguard.

I wondered whether I had any other Russian works on my shelves that would fit into the year we’re following, and hit upon the idea of short stories. I have a number of Russian collections but alas, many don’t give information about the dates of publication. But fortunately one did – “Soviet Short Stories”, edited and introduced by F.D. Reeve. Three of the tales featured in the book appeared in 1924 and so I set about reading them.

1924 soviet

The stories are Isaac Babel’s “A Letter”, Alexander Fadeyev’s “About Love” and Mikhail Sholokov’s “A Family Man”, and they’re all short and dramatic pieces. The first and the last are particularly strong, both telling of the harsh aftermath of the Civil War. Babel’s “A Letter” contains just that – a moving missive home from a soldier, revealing the dark extremes of behaviour. Sholokov’s brutal tale, set amongst the Cossacks, shows just how families were torn apart and turned against each other in an ideological war that really did rip the countryside to pieces. Both of these short pieces show the divides within families and how different generations reacted to the conflict and chose sides regardless of familial loyalties. Fadeyev’s “About Love” is a different kind of story, all about the contrariness of human emotions, and how we love someone more when they don’t love us and vice versa,

The war tales in particular made for stark reading – neither author pulls his punches and the visceral events and human impact is powerful. Fadeyev’s story has a bleakness less physical but still ends up making you wonder about the point of life and love. None of these stories was easy reading, but they did serve as a reminder of how different 1924 was depending upon the country in which you lived. Although all of Europe was recovering from conflict in different ways, it could be argued that the Russian people suffered more than most – a timely illustration of the fact that the 1920s were not all glitter and parties and jazz…

The 1924 Club : Exercising those little grey cells…

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Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

1924 was a very good year for rising young author Agatha Christie. Following the success of her first three novels (“The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, “The Secret Adversary” and “The Murder on the Links”), she produced during the year in question her first stand-alone thriller novel “The Man in the Brown Suit”, as well as a collection of short stories featuring the exploits of her most famous detective – Hercule Poirot.

poirot

“Poirot Investigates” gathers together eleven stories which were originally published in The Sketch magazine, and their history is fascinating. It was the magazine’s editor, Bruce Ingram, who suggested that Christie wrote them, as he’d been so impressed with “Styles”, and they appeared as follows:

The Adventure of “The Western Star” – 11 April 1923, Issue 1576
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor – 18 April 1923, Issue 1577
The Adventure of the Cheap Flat – 9 May 1923, Issue 1580
The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge – 16 May 1923, Issue 1581
The Million Dollar Bond Robbery – 2 May 1923, Issue 1579
The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb – 26 September 1923, Issue 1600
The Jewel Robbery at the “Grand Metropolitan” – 14 March 1923, Issue 1572 (under the title The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls)
The Kidnapped Prime Minister – 25 April 1923, Issue 1578
The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim – 28 March 1923, Issue 1574
The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman – 24 October 1923, Issue 1604
The Case of the Missing Will – 31 October 1923, Issue 1605

When published by Bodley Head in 1924 Christie was astute enough to insist that Bodley’s accept this as one of the books she was contracted to do with them. The stories feature Poirot and Captain Hastings, with Inspector Japp making appearances, and so you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re in traditional Poirot territory – well, not quite…

Poirot8-thumb-380x294-17853

All of these tales are excellent of course; full of Christie’s misdirection, wonderful puzzles, sparkling repartee between Poirot and Hastings, plenty of twists and turns and satisfying solutions – one even has a little map! However, what’s particularly fascinating is that we’re seeing an *early* version of Poirot, before all the characteristics we think we know him for have developed (although much of the Poirot we know is already there). His lodgings are anonymous, on a street described as “not aristocratic”; and when he and Hastings arrive at Marsdon Leigh in “The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor”, Poirot decides they will *walk* the mile from the station to the manor house. We even see, in “The Adventure of the Cheap Flat”, Poirot and Hastings lowering themselves down a chute in a coal lift! Miss Lemon and the more palatial Whitehaven Mansions are absent, and in these early tales, Christie’s debt to Conan Doyle is much clearer, and the relationship between Poirot and Hastings is noticeably Holmesian

However, it seems that as Christie was writing the stories, she was developing and refining her character. By “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”, one of the later 1923 works, Poirot is suffering in the Egyptian heat and sand, and exclaims at one point, in recognisable Poirot fashion:

“And my boots”, he wailed. “Regard them, Hastings. My boots, of the neat patent leather, usually so smart and shining. See, the sand is inside them, which is painful, and outside them, which outrages the eyesight. Also the heat, it causes my moustaches to become limp – but limp!”

By the time we reach the end of the stories, Poirot has settled into the detective we know and love, with his vanity intact, his amused tolerance of Hastings’ blunders and his ability to predict events and prevent disasters. He may not quite have the majesty of the Hercule of, say, “Murder on the Orient Express” , but he is still Poirot. But even in one of the early stories, “The Kidnapped Prime Minister”, Poirot states his credo as a detective strongly:

“It is not so that the good detective should act, eh? I perceive your thought. He must be full of energy. He must rush to and fro. He should prostrate himself on the dusty road the seek the marks of tyres through a little glass. He must gather up the cigarette-end, the fallen match? That is your idea, is it not? … But I – Hercule Poirot – tell you that it is not so! The true clues are within – here! … All that matters is the little grey cells within.”

And needless to say, in several stories Poirot solves the mystery by just sitting still and exercising them. As Hastings says, in exasperated fashion at the end of one of the tales, “Poirot was right. He always is, confound him!”

christie

There is an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt; and although I could never feel contempt for Poirot there’s the risk that he’s become so familiar to us nowadays that we see him as a bit of a caricature and don’t look past the surface image. However, rereading “Poirot Investigates” has been something of a revelation; I’ve reconnected with Christie and her creation in a big way and I’ve rediscovered how much I love her books. So thank goodness for Simon’s wonderful idea for the 1924 club…!

The 1924 Club : An Austrian Classic

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So much of the fun of the 1924 Club has been searching out titles to read and discuss; but one of the books on the Wikipedia list (which was where I started looking) was a work I’d read before and been mightily impressed by – Joseph Roth’s “Hotel Savoy”.

Like many of the works from that year, the book reflects the aftermath of the First World War; indeed reading the books I’ve chosen, it’s become crystal clear that the 1920s were the way they were because of that conflict, with each country involved reacting differently and recovering differently.

savoy

My review of “Hotel Savoy” is here, and I shan’t add anything to it, except to say it’s an excellent book, powerfully capturing some of the post-war chaos in Europe – highly recommended as a 1924 read!

The 1924 Club: 1924 and not 1984…

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Given my love of Russian literature, it’s obvious that I’d be looking for any titles from our year of 1924 from authors from that country. Oddly – or perhaps not oddly – there aren’t really that many. Bearing in mind that the post-revolutionary civil war only ended in 1922, it would perhaps be too much to expect great works of Russian literature to have been published in the 1920s. And yet there were several – notably Bulgakov, whose “The White Guard”, “Heart of a Dog” and “The Fatal Eggs” are all from that era, though none were published in 1924.

220px-We_first_ed_dust_jacket

However, one seminal work from the Soviet era *was” published in 1924, and that’s Zamyatin’s “We”. A dystopian novel set in a future police state, it’s set in One State, an urban landscape built almost completely in glass. This enables citizens to be constantly spied on by the secret police and spies, enforcing a collective consciousness from which there’s no escape. The characters have numbers not names – our main protagonist is D-503, a spacecraft engineer – and people wear identical clothing in a society that is mechanised not only in a technological way, but also in the way it controls the populace.

D-503 is helping to build a space ship; however, an encounter with a woman called O-90 sends his life off-trajectory, and he discovers that not all people behave in the same way as him; he discovers part of the planet is not like One State; and his comfortable, if restrictive, mindset and life is shattered forever.

Yevgeny_Zamyatin-1

I’m not going to say too much more about the plot because a. I’d like you to read the book itself and b. I read the book pre-blog so I don’t have a review to point you to and I’ve not had the time to re-read! However, “We” is known for its influence on later writers, in particular Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (a fact that George himself acknowledged). Elements such as the relationship with a woman and a discovery of a different way of life will be familiar to readers of Orwell’s great novel, although both books have different foci and different strengths. And Orwell himself was of the opinion that “We” influenced “Brave New World”; additionally Nabokov was reading “We” while he wrote “Invitation to a Beheading”. So it’s a book of great import.

“We” was of course subject to censorship, and eventually reached publication in 1924. However, Zamyatin’s position after publication became more and more precarious, and he was eventually allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1931 when he moved to Paris. He died there in poverty in 1937, having produced an influential piece of work which had an incredible influence on later writers.

1924 We

I have three copies of “We” – predictably enough, as I often seem to have multiple copies of books I like and which are in translation. I originally read the book as a fragile Penguin Modern Classic some years ago, and found it complex and gripping; it’s translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, an American translator whose name has turned up a number of times recently on books I’ve been gathering, and the introduction is by Michael Glenny. That copy went walkabout a while back (I have a sneaking suspicion I loaned it to Eldest Child for his degree course and never saw it again). However, I picked up a duplicate copy, plus also a more modern Penguin just because I liked the cover – this one translated by Clarence Brown, who also edited the Portable Twentieth Century Russian Reader. The most recent version is the lovely Hesperus Press volume translated by Hugh Aplin, which I intend to re-read one day. In the meantime, I’d encourage anyone who loves speculative fiction and something inventive and unusual to give “We” a try – it’s very thought-provoking, and a great advert for 1924!

The 1924 Club : A Confusing Challenge!

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The Internet is notoriously unreliable, and a little confusion has arisen around one of the books we’ve been considering for the 1924 Club – Vita Sackville-West’s “Challenge”.

The Virago Modern Classics collection tracker has this listed as a 1924 publication; however, a number of readers have commented that this information differs online, with 1923 often cited as the publication date. So I decided to do a little digging…

I possess a copy of “Challenge” – not a nice green Virago, but an old and rather gnarled volume from Avon (whoever they were!) and it looks like this:

challenge front

The crucial point here is the wording about the book being suppressed, as it wasn’t published in the UK  during Vita’s lifetime – only in the USA, and that’s where the 1920s date comes in.

The back cover reveals a little more about the book:

challenge backSo I had a look inside to see if the first publication date was given, but it wasn’t – only some later dates in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the book’s foreword came up trumps!

challenge foreword

As this states quite clearly that “Challenge” was published in New York by George H. Doran Company in 1924, I think if anyone wants to read it for the 1924 club, they’ll be quite free to do so! :))

The 1924 Club : Choosing a Virago!

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The Other Woman by Colette

Today sees the start of the 1924 Club, Simon’s clever idea for us to look at, read and enjoy books from that year! When he first mooted the idea, one of the first things that probably sprang into both of our minds was to check which of the Virago titles were published that year, and then to see which ones we had in our collection! Fortunately, the very handy Virago Collection tracker on LibraryThing (cleverly prepared and maintained by members of the group) enables sorting by year and these were the titles which came up:

Precious Bane by Mary Webb
The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
Old New York by Edith Wharton
The Matriarch by G.B. Stern
The Rector’s Daughter by F.M. Mayor
The Other Woman by Colette
Challenge by Vita Sackville-West

An intriguing and mixed bunch, no? Certainly, the first title on the list, “Precious Bane”, seems to inspire either love or hate in a reader; I’ve never had the courage to approach it after reading the parody of it in the form of “Cold Comfort Farm”. However, I do own several of the titles on the list and here are some of them:

1924 viragos(I know I’ve got at least one copy of “The Constant Nymph” in the house; and I do have “Challenge” too, but in a non-Virago edition).

I also might just have downloaded a copy of Wharton’s “Old New York” just for the fun of it…

It’s a tribute to the strength of the Virago list that these are all titles that are highly regarded and could be picked up and read quite happily (but then VMCs are known for their quality). I had to make a very difficult decision as to which one I’d read and in the end I went for the Colette – it’s ages since I read any of her short stories and they rather appealed to me. The collection consists of 20 short stories ranging in length from a couple of pages, to round forty for the closing piece in the book “My Friend Valentine”. And every single one is a gem – I don’t think Colette could write a bad piece of work if she tried!

In a few pages she can lay bare a relationship, expose a woman’s everyday deceptions or reveal the excruciating loneliness when love comes to an end. Her eye is always objective but compassionate – she never judges, but observes, and you can feel her warmth and sympathy and love of life coming through whatever her subject.

The aforementioned “My Friend Valentine” is one of my favourite of Colette’s shorter works, and one in which she features herself as a character. Collecting together a sequence of pieces, we see Valentine as she chastises Colette for dining at a disreputable bar run by the formidable Semiramis; the two ladies take part in the vine harvest; they discuss how to bring up their daughters; and in a pivotal passage, Colette considers the reasons why cutting her hair short is so liberating for a woman.

1924 colette

A case could be made for asserting that Colette’s greatest creation was herself; certainly many of my favourite of her works are those in which she projected herself as a character. I say as a character because the Colette she chose to show to the world was probably not the real woman behind this image; but it’s delightful to feel that you’re in touch with her and getting a glimpse into her world.

The prose is, of course, gorgeous and I could have pulled out masses of quotes but frankly I’d rather just recommend that you get a copy of this book (or indeed her collected short stories, or any of her novels, or basically anything she wrote) and just read it. In 1924 Colette had published many of the great works we still know and love her for, and was a writer at the height of her powers. “The Other Woman” is a wonderful way to get to know her!

Don’t forget to let us know what books you’re reading from 1924, what exciting titles you’ve uncovered and what you think of them all! 

Guest Post : Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

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Eldest Child has long been a fan of sci fi and fantasy – so much so that he’s always scribbling short stories! – and so when he was given the chance to review the new Brandon Sanderson novel, thanks to the kindness of NetGalley, he jumped at the chance. So, to make a hat-trick of guest appearances by the offspring, here is Eldest Child’s review of “Shadows of Self”, Sanderson’s new book, due out in the UK tomorrow!

When I settle down to read fantasy fiction in all its escapist, wish-fulfilling glory, I am always struck by an uneasy hesitancy than can best be summed up in one word: accessibility. Will I be able to read this novel without having to read a dozen prequels, sequels and everything in between? Do I need to cross reference any and every mention of continuity and lore with all the other stories by its author? Will any of this even make any kind of sense? Should I just settle for reading about garden parties and infidelity instead? These are just some of the thoughts that plague the Fantasy Journeyman donning adventurer’s gear and preparing for the latest excursion into the wilderness of an unread story. And with the growing trend in popular culture to link stories across mediums in order to create a kind of vast meta-story — from the cat’s-cradle of interlinked movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the upcoming resurrection of the Star Wars galaxy — it seems like we’re all becoming just a little obsessed with ‘making it all fit together’. But how easy is it then to pick up a book and, you know, just read it?Shadows-of-Self-by-Brandon-Sanderson-UKEnter Brandon Sanderson, one of fantasy’s main players and bestselling wordsmiths. Sanderson is the single-handed creator of what he and fans have come to refer to as ‘the Cosmere’, a make-believe playground where the majority of Sanderson’s stories take place. A universe made up of different worlds where magic is drawn from rare minerals and heroism comes dressed in bespoke tailored suits. From his stand-alone debut novel Elantris, to the gothic-swashbuckler-meets-ancient-mystery of the Mistborn trilogy, to the unfurling epic of the Stormlight Archives, Sanderson continues to populate his Cosmere with a mixture of cultures, genres and writing styles that makes it a living, breathing organism. And in a time where George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire still remains two verses short, Sanderson’s Cosmere novels meanwhile drop onto the fantasy scene with a regularity that matches a Hobbit’s mealtimes.

With each novel set in the Cosmere forming a ‘hidden epic’ that resembles a mosaic of storytelling, I wondered how easy it would be to pick up Sanderson’s latest yarn Shadows of Self without having first read the myriad Cosmere novels taking place before it. Would I be buried under a slew of continuity references and mythological avalanches? Would the story be able to stand alone on its own merits, or is the allure of a Brandon Sanderson tale less a sum of its parts and more its connection to the greater scheme being put into motion?

Shadows of Self is the second in what has come to be known as the ‘Wax and Wayne’ trilogy, which in itself is a sequel to Sanderson’s bestselling Mistborn series. It is a time of change as industrialisation takes over the city of Elendel. Motorcars, pistols and rudimentary technology are replacing the sword and sorceries that the original trilogy focused on. The age of heroes is all but a memory, although fan-favorite characters such as Vin, Kelsier and Sazed are mentioned in almost religious tones, and the age of capitalism and industry is creeping in. It is a time of conflict between the tenuous optimism of the rising economy and the cultural clash of religion, which remains as dominant as it was in earlier novels. Civil unrest is brewing behind the scenes and forces that remain unseen for the majority of the novel seem intent on stultifying the cultural progress of Mistborn’s setting.

Enter Wax and Wayne, two self-appointed gun-slinging ‘lawkeepers’ who both owe a heritage to the lofty Houses of the city. Both wield a powerful magical ability known as Allomancy, a technique Sanderson first introduced us to in The Final Empire. By ingesting small fragments of certain rare metals, the user is granted specific powers for a short amount of time. For instance, ingesting pewter will grant the Allomancer increased physical strength for a short spell of time, whilst steel allows a user to ‘Push’ metals away in an almost Jedi fashion. Sanderson’s magical system makes for a far more plausible kind of sorcery than we often see in mainstream fantasy. Characters are made to seek out or conserve their allomantic metals, or to combine the use of metals to achieve a specific goal. I’ve always felt drawn in by this sense of ‘resource management’ that Sanderson subjects his characters to; often I would find myself unconsciously thinking about which allomantic metals a character would need to use to, say, reach a high ledge or catch up with a fleeing target.

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Shadow of Self explores these allomantic users whilst focusing on a unfurling conspiracy brewing underneath Elendel’s surface. Somebody is murdering officials and politicians, and it is down to Wax and Wayne to track down the suspect. But all is not what it seems, and as the layers begin to peel away we find a larger mystery with links that reach all the way back to the very first Mistborn story. But Shadow of Self is so much more than a bridge between previous novels; it is a fully realised adventure with a clear identity of its own. I was actually taken aback by the stark contrast in tone and voice with the first Mistborn stories. The language is short and clipped, spoken in an almost East End London dialect. The narration is formed of brief sentences that often contain only two or three words, and the ‘wordiness’ of Sanderson’s world-building in some of his other works is completely stripped back here to create a gritty, harsh setting. Likewise, the scenery is painted in stark, sparse language; gothic streets and rough tenements dot the landscape, whilst an almost Steampunk vibe creeps in at times.

Then there is the humour. The original Mistborn trilogy was a brooding tale of desolation and oppression, often creeping towards being melodramatic at times. In contrast, the time spent with Wax and Wayne is a far more lighthearted affair. Banter and sarcasm is flung between the two characters in a constant barrage. Short one-liners and witty remarks become a cultural currency between the duo and the supporting cast. Even Wax’s love interest Sterris (who seems much more realised and developed than when readers were introduced to her in the previous novel) and Marasi, a young woman who works for Elendel’s corrupt law enforcement whilst taking part in the investigation with Wax and Wayne, are prone to sharp and hostile comedy. And while Shadows of Self had me laughing out loud at the friendly confrontations, the comic element never once reduces the drama of the novel’s action.

But, fun as it was to return to the setting of Mistborn and its dreary gothic setting, in the end just how readable is a novel that is the fifth in a series that in itself links to the rest of the authors back catalogue? Having only read the first two books in the original Mistborn trilogy, I was greeted with my usual ‘pre-fantasy’ hesitancy as I decided whether or not to give Shadows of Self a go. Would I be able to make any kind of sense from the intricate setting and complicated mythology of Mistborn, let alone pick up on the wider ramifications of the entire Cosmere? Surprisingly, Shadows of Self was a remarkably easy read, and stands alone firmly with its own identity and personality. While there are plenty of ties to the wider story being told, from the minutiae of references to the original trilogy to the story’s tense conclusion, Shadows of Self still manages to provide a gripping, compelling mystery that remains self-contained and entirely singular. If anything, its ramifications towards the greater Cosmere narrative remain so light it may even seem a little undercooked to Sanderson diehards; I noticed a few mentions of some familiar concepts, including one particularly infamous character showing up for a brief cameo. But ultimately the novel remained focused on its tight plot and developing its characters.

Is Shadows of Self a reasonable place to start with Sanderson’s work? It certainly doesn’t hurt to have at least read The Alloy of Law beforehand, if for no other reason than to be introduced to Wax and Wayne’s debut. But in terms of dense continuity and established lore, Shadows of Self provides a wonderfully accessible fantasy adventure that was as gripping and as exciting as I’ve come to expect from Sanderson. If you’re looking for intelligent, well-crafted storytelling and a unique approach to wizardry and spellcasting, you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Shadows of Self.

Thanks for visiting and reviewing, Eldest Child – and thanks to NetGalley and the book’s publishers for providing the ARC!

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