Weaving legends and memories


The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kiš

Despite my fairly rubbish memory, I think I can recall where I stumbled across mention of this book! A while back, I discovered that Penguin had issued a series back in the 1970s/1980s entitled ‘Writers from the Other Europe’. I was intrigued by many of the titles, one of which was “A Tomb for Boris Davidovich” by Danilo Kiš; and on researching his books, “The Encyclopedia of the Dead” popped up and sounded fascinating so I put it on my wishlist. It’s languished there until my recent attack of book-token-spending, when my local Waterstones had a copy; and as it’s short and appealed at the moment, I ended up reading it quite quickly.


First, some words about Kiš: “Danilo Kiš (22 February 1935 – 15 October 1989) was a Serbian novelist, short story writer and poet who wrote in Serbo-Croatian, member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Kiš was influenced by Bruno Schulz, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Ivo Andrić and Miroslav Krleža, among other authors. His most famous works include A Tomb for Boris Davidovich and The Encyclopedia of the Dead.”

“Encyclopedia” is a slim collection of short stories and it was Kiš’ final work, published initially in 1983. It contains nine pieces: “Simon Magus”, “Last Respects”, “The Encyclopedia of the Dead”, “The Legend of the Sleepers”, “The Mirror of the Unknown”, “The Story of the Master and the Disciple”, “To Die for One’s Country Is Glorious”, “The Book of Kings and Fools” and “Red Stamps with Lenin’s Picture”. Each is fascinating in its own way and they cover a variety of different topics, from ancient legends retold (“Magus”, “Sleepers”), through fantasies and myth (“Mirror”, “Master”), to more realistic texts (“Die”, “Last”) and finally to works dealing with words and the influence they can have (“Encyclopedia”, “Book”, “Stamps”).

When a lie is repeated long enough, people start believing it. Because people need faith.

All are dramatic and effective, all take the story in directions the reader wouldn’t necessarily expect, and all are multi-layered. The most powerful is probably the title story, based on a dream related by Kiš’ then wife, which tells of a woman scholar who spends the night unexpectedly in the Royal Library of Sweden. Here she stumbles upon the titular book (in reality several rooms!), which holds details of all the lives ever lived – the ordinary lives, that is, the ones not recorded anywhere else. The woman spends the night discovering and reliving all the experiences of her recently deceased father’s life, in vivid detail, as the Encyclopedia seems to have the ability to make these events almost real.

After all … nothing in the history of mankind is ever repeated, things that at first glance seem the same are scarcely even similar; each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never, all things repeat themselves endlessly and unrepeatably.

Obsessions with lost texts runs through many of the stories, especially “Kings and Fools” and “Lenin Stamp”. The former in particular is a complex history of the making of a book which is based on the notorious volume “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, showing how easily we can be duped by words and how much the human race loves conspiracy theories. “Stamp” is a wonderfully clever piece which takes the form of a letter written by an unnamed women concerning the apparently lost letters of Yiddish poet Mendel Osipovich. Addressing to his biographer, the woman throws scorn on all the bizarre literary theories which have been created about Osipovich’s work whilst revealing the real background to his poetry and life. It’s a brilliant commentary on the tendency of critics to over-interpret a writer’s work and read the most ridiculous things into it.


In fact, words and storytelling and their effects are a running theme in the tales, as well as the lives of ordinary people and how they are so often not recorded and taken for granted. In particular, in the title story the symbolism is clear, referencing all those unnamed victims lost during the 20th century to war and tyranny (and this is still relevant today with all the ongoing wars and violence in our world).

“Encyclopedia” was a memorable and fascinating read, and would definitely benefit from a second visit – the stories are full of allusion and references, and very thought-provoking. There’s a useful introduction by Mark Thompson, who revised the original translation by Michael Henry Heim; as well as an afterword by the author himself, giving context for each story. Kiš is a dazzling storyteller and I’ll definitely be looking out for more of his work.

Shiny New books reaches #8!


It somehow doesn’t seem possible, but Shiny New Books has reached issue 8. It’s live now here, so I’d encourage you to go and read – instantly! It won’t be good for your wishlist, but there’s going to be plenty to enjoy.

I have supplied a few reviews this time, and I’ll point you to them over the coming weeks. For today, I’d like to highlight a lovely new volume from Alma Classics, “The Same Old Story” by Ivan Goncharov.


My review opens: Russian author Ivan Goncharov is known to most Anglophone readers for his novel Oblomov; indeed, with that book he created a stereotype who’s become famous in his own right in Russian culture, ‘the superfluous man’. Oblomov himself personifies that type, and Goncharov is possibly considered a one-trick pony by many readers; certainly, I was unaware that the author had written anything else, and so the publication of his first novel under the title The Same Old Story by Alma Classics came as a very welcome surprise.

To read more, go here – and don’t forget to check out all the lovely new reviews on Shiny!

Life at the edge of things


Backwater by Dorothy Richardson

And so I reach book two of Richardson’s wonderful”Pilgrimage” series, and I was even keener to read this after enjoying Louisa Treger’s excellent book “The Lodger” earlier this month.

pilgrimage 1

“Backwater” picks up Miriam’s story after her return from Germany. Against an increasingly dysfunctional family background, Miriam takes employment as a teacher at a North London school run by the Misses Perne, presumably the backwater of the title. It’s a milieu in which she feels less than comfortable, constantly comparing the ‘hardness’ of the people in that area with those from her part of the city; and indeed the book has chapters of contrast, with Miriam some of time being at the school teaching, and at other times with her family during holidays.

Change is coming to the Henderson family: sister Eve is a live-in governess; Harriett is engaged to be married; quiet Sarah is still living at home. We see the girls against the backdrop of a dance they hold, where despite Miriam’s intentions to spend the night dancing with Ted (who seems to be her current beau), she instead spends much of the evening in the company of his visiting friend Max.

Back at the school, Miriam is struggling to deal with the divide between the two kinds of life, feeling a kind of alienation as she loses touch with her family during the teaching months. She is aware of the scraping, grinding poverty in the world, as people struggle to work and keep body and soul together, and this exists in both halves of her life. Literature becomes a crutch, and a way of escape, with her discovery of a lending library and the books of Ouida being particularly pivotal.

Ouida, Ouida, she would muse with the book in her hand. I want bad things – strong bad things… It doesn’t matter, Italy, the sky, bright hot landscapes, things happening. I don’t care what people think or say. I am older than anyone here in this house. I am myself.

As the book progresses, the girls have a last holiday together in Brighton, where Miriam meets another man who is interested in her, Mr. Parrow; and there is a sense that things are ending, as their mother has had an operation and their old house is having to be sold.


We learn, almost in passing, of the fate of Max. It becomes clear that Miriam will not be able to stand teaching at the Pernes’ for very long, as the stifling atmosphere and the religious convictions of the ladies are too much in conflict with her own intransigent nature. The book ends with Miriam preparing to take another decisive step as her family fragments.

Once again, the events of the book are filtered through Miriam’s perceptions, and the reader comes to realise quite what a sheltered life she’s led; which may, in fact, account for her difficulties in relating to people. Watching her having new experiences and revelations – such as smoking her first cigarette and reading her first newspaper – are fascinating; in particular the latter, when she comes to understand how women are discouraged from reading papers and kept from a wider knowledge of how the world works.

It’s also interesting to note how Miriam has no real self-awareness, no understanding of how she appears to others or affects them – a trait that was evident in the first book. She epitomises the human condition of trying to relate to other and failing, often not picking up the signals from others accurately and not realising how her behaviour will appear.

A lovely picture apparently of DR I found online but with absolutely no information about it!

A lovely picture apparently of DR I found online but with absolutely no information about it!

As in “Pointed Roofs”, Dorothy Richardson’s writing is quite wonderful. The stream-of-consciousness technique takes you right inside Miriam’s head and gives a remarkable immediacy to the narrative. Reading this, you experience the events, thoughts and emotions alongside Miriam in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator (or even, indeed, with a ‘normal’ first person narrative). Emotions, images and sensations are filtered through her consciousness so that in many ways you become Miriam and share her life. A wonderful achievement, and I can’t wait for volume 3!

Celebrating Margery Sharp’s birthday with The Nutmeg Tree!


Margery Sharp is a much-loved author amongst bloggers I follow, and in particular by those lovely people on the LibraryThing Virago group; indeed, one of Sharp’s novels (“The Eye of Love”) is a VMC. So when Jane at Beyond Eden Rock decided she would hold another celebration of Sharp’s birthday this year, I was determined to join in (I failed last year!) I do actually have a copy of “Eye” but I decided instead to go with the other Sharp I own, “The Nutmeg Tree”, which I believe is one of her best-known books and has also been filmed as “Julia Misbehaves”.


“Nutmeg” is a lovely, ostensibly light-hearted romp featuring the titular lady, Julia Packett (also known as Mrs. Macdermott…) The book opens with her singing lustily in her bath while fending off bailiffs and creditors, and we’re obviously instantly in the company of a very irrepressible heroine. Julia’s back story is soon revealed: a ‘good time girl’ who loves showbiz theatricals, the smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd, and of course men, during WW1 she met and married Mr. Packett, a soldier on leave. Her husband was killed in the war and she was left a young widow with a baby daughter, and was taken in by her saintly and monied in-laws. She sticks living in the country for as long as she can, but the quiet, ladylike life is not for Julia; by mutual agreement she hands over her daughter Susan to the grandparents to bring up and heads off for city life. However, after years of happy times on stage and with a variety of gentleman companions, she is surprised to receive a letter from her daughter Susan asking for her help; Susan is in love and wishes to marry, but her grandparents disapprove. Maternal instincts kick in, and Julia dispenses with her creditors and rushes off to France to help. En route, attempting to act like a lady, she encounters a troupe of acrobats and is temporarily dazzled by the amazing Fred! But she puts this behind her, and is disconcerted to find that Susan’s intended, Bryan, is a man of similar temperament to herself, and completely unsuitable for the glowingly moral and frankly priggish Susan! Further complications arise in the form of Susan’s guardian, Sir William Waring, and it begins to seem unlikely that anyone will manage to attain a happy ending…

I have to say that my first experience of reading Margery Sharp was a wonderful one. Her prose is lovely, easy to read and thoroughly engaging, and her characters such fun! I laughed out loud in several places and followed the various scrapes into which Julia got herself with glee. However, I said above that the book was ostensibly light-hearted and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

For a start, there’s Julia herself and her frankness about her lifestyle and her love affairs. Let’s not forget that the book was published in 1937, when England wasn’t particularly swinging, and so the fact that Sharp allows her heroine to be honest about her fondness for men and preferring a lively life on the stage, as opposed to a dull and respectable life in the country, is very refreshing.

It was not in her nature to deny: if she took lovers more freely than most women it was largely because she could not bear to see men sad when it was so easy to make them happy. He sensuousness was half compassion; she could never keep men on a string, which was perhaps why only one had ever married her…

In fact, with her cheerful amorality and zest for life, Julia seemed to me very much an English version of one of Colette’s heroines. However, the difference between France and England is very pointed here; the class system in this country was still well enough defined that Julia feels that she does not fit, and has to behave like a lady. Colette or one of her characters would most likely have not given a damn, and would have just been herself. And indeed, it’s when Julia relaxes and simply acts naturally that things start to go right for her… More I shall not say because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone.


When it comes down to it, despite her apparently ramshackle lifestyle, Julia is a good and moral person and makes the right decisions whereas less scrupulous characters will not; at a decisive point in the plot, Julia realises she’s misjudged a particular character and they are “bad”. The book ends in a slightly ambiguous fashion, with hints that all will be well for the main characters but with nothing set in stone; a nice touch by Sharp as life is not always predictable!

The book was just a delight to read and I could list so many things I loved about it; for example, Julia’s mother-in-law, who’s described as “one of the type, not rare among Englishwomen, in whom full individuality blossoms only with age: one of those whom at sixty-one, suddenly startle their relatives by going up in aeroplanes or by marrying their chauffeurs…” Julia’s attempts to manipulate her daughter into a path she thinks better are very clever and funny, and her growing relationship with Sir William is delicately handled. All in all, my first read of Margery Sharp was a wonderfully positive one; so thanks to Jane for hosting the Margery Sharp Birthday event and prompting me to read her work – I’m sure this won’t be the last! 🙂

2016 – the year of the #Woolfalong!


I suppose Virginia Woolf is not going to need any introduction to those pass by the Ramblings – I’ve written about her several times, and my love of all things Bloomsbury is well-known. So I was very excited when I heard that lovely blogger HeavenAli was planning a year-long read of Woolf’s works, which she’s titled #Woolfalong.


Ali has a separate page on her blog here with a nice schedule for the year, and the first two months are concentrating on the seminal works “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse”. As I’ve read both of these relatively recently, I shan’t re-read (though I am looking forward to joining in later in the year). However, I thought I would do a short post linking to my reviews of these two books and I’d encourage everyone to join in with the #Woolfalong – it promises to be a wonderful event and thoroughly enjoyable!

“Mrs. Dalloway”

dallowayI re-read this wonderful book and reviewed it a year or so ago, and concluded: “Mrs. Dalloway” is in my mind a work of genius. On my first read I was simply dazzled, but second time around the book is just as stunning but I can appreciate her artistry more.

My full review is here.



“To The Lighthouse”

lighthouseI took the opportunity to revisit TTL while Youngest Child was studying it, and at the time I thought: “No short review or summary can really do justice to this rich and complex novel.”

Further thoughts here.

A multiplicity of narrators…


A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov

NYRB have, over recent years, become one of my favourite publishers, and I always check out their list of forthcoming books with great interest. So I was very excited when I saw that they’d be publishing a sparkly new translation of Sasha Sokolov’s “A School for Fools” (which is out today) and was delighted to receive a review copy from the publishers.


Sokolov and his book have a fascinating history. The author was born in Canada in 1943, where his father was a Soviet diplomat; they were deported in 1946 for spying and returned to the Soviet Union. After studying journalism at Moscow State University, Sokolov made numerous unsuccessful attempts to leave the country (after all, he *was* a Canadian citizen!). “A School for Fools” was written in a remote part of the upper Volga and as it could not be published in Russia, was smuggled to the west by his second wife. Here, it was picked up Carl and Ellendea Proffer of the Ardis publishing house and became a sensation. Sokolov was finally allowed to emigrate in 1975 and although he has published three other works, he is quoted as saying that he keeps writing, but doesn’t want to be published any more (I wonder if this qualifies him as one of the Bartlebys?)


You might be forgiven for being a little apprehensive about approaching a book which is described thus on the reverse: “If Joyce had written the last chapter of Ulysses in Russian it would have sounded like this”. And indeed, it’s difficult to know quite how to summarise such a unique book, but I’ll try to give a little bit of an outline. “A School for Fools” is narrated by a young man who is actually two young men – or more precisely someone suffering from a split personality. He/they attend the titular school as they obviously don’t function well in r/l, and their time is divided between the city (Moscow) and a dacha on the outskirts. The cast of characters is fairly small – the narrator(s) and his/their parents, the staff of the school (including the headteacher Perillo and his deputy Trachtenberg/Tinbergen, the latter often doubling as a building superintendent), and the narrator(s)’ favourite pedagogue, Savl/Pavel Petrovich Norvegov. There are also “Those Who Came”, the postman Mikheev/Medvedev, the narrator(s)’ beloved Veta Akatova, Veta’s father and Rosa, beloved of Norvegov. As the story progresses we learn of the narrator(s)’ love of Veta, something of his/their background, his love of butterfly collecting, of life in the School and of the fate of Savl/Pavel.

I am talking like a novel and that makes me uneasy and ridiculous…

None of this, of course, unfolds in a straightforward linear narrative – in fact, “A School for Fools” has to be one of the most arresting books I’ve ever read (and I *have* read some unusual ones in my time, including Burroughs’ cut-up masterpieces). Initially, on approaching the opening pages, you do rather wonder if you’ll actually be *able* to read the book or make any sense of it, but oddly enough it ends up being surprisingly understandable. Despite the apparent disconnectedness of the narrative, a vivid picture builds up of the little settlement by the river, and its inhabitants, as well as the city school and its pupils. The narrators converse with themselves throughout, and this is often a book of digressions, with the story going off in several tangents and eventually coming back to its starting point. Nevertheless, it *does* always make sense and by the end you have a strong sense of the narrator(s)’ life and also what it must be like to live with multiple personalities.

Forgive me, sir, it seems to me that I digressed too far from the essence of our conversation.

The narrator(s) also struggle with a confused sense of time, and the story slips backwards and forwards so that it’s not always clear what is past and present, who is dead or alive. The river of Lethe is referenced often, in particular as running through the little dacha village, and the forgetfulness this implies is often felt by the narrator(s). There is much talk of crossing the river to the other side, which ties in the uncertainty about the state of the living or dead, and the vivid imagery of the story builds up a stunning and intoxicating narrative.


With a book as involved as this there are obviously going to be many different levels, and as the excellent notes by translator Alexander Boguslawski reveal, there is a dazzling array of references in the book to Russian history, customs and literature. The notes guide you through some, and there are obvious nods to Nabokov with the butterflies (apparently he loved the book); but there are others I picked up that hadn’t been highlighted – for example, a reference to Mayakovsky’s poem which ends:

And you
could you perform
a nocturne on a drainpipe flute?

as well as a desert crucifixion scene which not only contained hints of “The Master and Margarita” but also reflected the split personality of the narrator.

In fact, this is very much a book of dualities and bearing in mind its history, it seems clear to me that Sokolov is also meditating on the double nature of Soviet life. If anything, the book made me think of Christa Wolf’s “The Quest for Christa T.”. I commented when I reviewed that book “All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully” and I felt this element present in ASFF, as the author gradually builds up layers of the story. Under the Soviet regime what was important often had to be hidden and little phrases slipped into the narrative, like “resurrecting from the dead all those whose mouths uttered the truth”, emphasise this point.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the sometimes paragraph-long sentences, the prose is quite beautiful and hypnotic (and indeed, Sokolov has coined the term ‘proetry’ for such writing). Little gem of sentences and truisms jump out at you all the way through until you end up with a forest of sticky notes marking particularly striking sections.

A book is the best gift, everything best in me I owe to books, book after books, cherish books – they ennoble and refine one’s taste, you look in a book but see gobbledygook, a book is a man’s best friend, it enhances interiors, exteriors, and fox terriers.

And there are so many themes here, including the constant coming of the winds (perhaps an allegory for the sweeping down of the Soviet authorities) but most importantly the question of identities; these are fluid in the book, with the shifting and changing of names, and this is something that’s very relevant to life under Soviet rule when many were not who they seemed to be. Time is seen as flexible and as uncertain as identity.

And you yourself, who are you? You don’t know. You’ll get to know it later, when you string the beads of memory. When you consist of memories. When you turn entirely into memories.

I’d be lying if I said “A School for Fools” was a light or easy read, because it isn’t. It’s a complex, brilliantly structured exploration of any number of themes, and I think best read in as few sessions as possible. I spent a couple of days in its company and absolutely loved it, despite its intricacies. Sokolov has created a way of writing and a world of his own, a pair of remarkably unreliable narrators and a portrait of life on the margins in Soviet society – a gripping and essential book.


I should commend separately Alexander Boguslawski for rendering what is obviously an extremely complex book into English, together with the helpful and unobtrusive notes (Boguslawski mentions that these are not indicated in the text so as not to interrupt the flow of the reading and I think that’s excellent in this case). In particular, he seems to have captured the absurdity and sense of word-play present in the original. The book was original translated rapidly by Carl Proffer and was in need of an update; add to this the fact that Sokolov has tweaked the novel over the years, and that he was consulted by Boguslawski during the translation process and you end up with what is obviously the essential version!

(Many thanks to Emma at NYRB for arranging the review copy – much appreciated!)

Imagining Dorothy


The Lodger by Louisa Treger

When I mentioned my posts about Dorothy Richardson (here and here) on Twitter last month, I was contacted by author Louisa Treger, a fellow Richardson enthusiast. Louisa is of course the author of “The Lodger”, a novel based on sections of Richardson’s life which has had a part in spearheading the reawakened interest in the author; and she was kind enough to arrange a beautiful review copy of her book for me. Despite my normal reservations about fiction based on real historical figures, I was keen to read “The Lodger”, as I felt sure that someone who cared as much about Richardson and her work as Louisa obviously does would make a good job of fictionalising her life – and indeed she does!


The book opens with our protagonist, Dorothy, arriving at the house of Herbert and Jane Wells for a visit. Jane (or to give her her real name, Amy Catherine) is an old school friend of Dorothy’s, but much water has passed under the bridge since their school days: Dorothy has had to deal with the loss of her mother and the poverty of her family, while Jane has endured the disapproval of *her* family because of her liaison with, and eventual marriage to, Wells. Dorothy is now living in an attic room in London, working at a dental surgery and relishing her independence, while Jane is comfortably off in her married life, but suffering agonies of jealousy because of her husband’s constant affairs.

We follow Dorothy as she encounters Wells; the meeting of minds they have, and eventually the meeting of bodies; and the relationships Dorothy has with her fellow boarders, and in particular a young Russian student, Benjamin, and a young woman, Veronica. Dorothy loves Bertie, but his love is more physical and detached, and it isn’t until she falls pregnant that Dorothy feels she has any hold over him. However, Veronica has awaked feelings in Dorothy which were hidden and the latter feels torn between her two lovers. With Veronica throwing herself into the Suffrage movement and Dorothy’s pregnancy not progressing well, the scene is set for a dramatic climax.


This is of course a novel; the cover even signals this under the title; and Louisa Treger has in effect taken facts from Dorothy Richardson’s life and woven them into a fascinating tale. The affair with Wells happened; there was a close friendship with Veronica; and during this period Richardson began to write. As Treger acknowledges, she’s compressed the relationship with Wells from years into months and by doing so produced a snapshot of Richardson’s life which is illuminating and engaging.

She…was immediately pierced by the beauty of London at night. There was a new moon rising, peering out between clouds, its frail radiance mingling with the misty darkness along the quiet roads, the haloes of lamplight at intervals on the pavement. At last, she was anonymous and free in London. Who could want anything more from life….?

One of the strongest things in the novel is the sense of the city of London and its importance to Richardson. Treger vividly brings alive the capital of the time, revealing the ambivalence it produces; Dorothy loves the city as it has given her freedom but finds it exhausting and draining as well. In the metropolis she has found her independence at last, with that all-important ‘room of one’s own’, in which she revels. However, the flipside of the coin is struggling to live on the bread line, coping with low wages, near poverty and bad nutrition through lack of proper food. It’s a fine line many young women are walking and often ends tragically, when the women can no longer cope.

St. Pancras clock struck ten. Mary-Lou was part of a growing army of outwardly confident young female office workers in the city. But their independence came at a price. Dorothy understood very well the precipice edge the girl had walked, the constant pressure of keeping everything going.

There’s also some fascinating writing about the Suffragette movement, a cause which Veronica has embraced. After a march which ends in violence against the women protesters, Veronica is imprisoned in Holloway; and the violence meted out at the march, as well as the details of the force feeding she receives in prison, are still shocking. And Treger wonderfully captures parts of Richardson’s life which will be familiar to any reader of “Pilgrimage”, such as the delirious feeling of freedom she experiences when she discovers cycling.

It’s probably not revealing too much to acknowledge that one of the most powerful parts of the book is when Dorothy miscarries, and the devastating effects of losing the child are handled sensitively. The physical side of the affairs is dealt with more candidly than Richardson would ever have written, and of course we don’t actually *know* (I believe) if the relationship between Dorothy and Victoria ever progressed further that a close emotional friendship. Certainly, DR’s relationships were unconventional and it’s a fair assumption to make that they might have crossed over into the physical.

Dorothy was beginning to realize that one’s inmost self was lost and not found through close relationships.

The underlying message of the book seems to be that Richardson needed solitude and independence to work; it was only by retaining her whole self that she could give herself to her writing, and the book ends with her looking forward with hope to a new kind of relationship, with a man who has enough sense of his own self not to demand too much of her. Certainly, the section of the book where DR is starting to write and pondering the kind of form she wants her work to take is impressive and reflects Treger’s real empathy with, and understanding of, Richardson’s work.

Something at the core of life steadied and clarified. She wrote because she had to; it was salvation, as essential as breathing. For the sake of her writing, she needed to free herself from those who would shape and possess her. It was for this she had smashed her way to a clear horizon.

“The Lodger” is eminently readable and Treger certainly can write well with some lovely turns of phrase; for example, she describes Wells’ constant talking thus: “Words seemed to stream off the ends of his mustache and tumble down his waistcoat.” If I had any reservations at all, I did personally find some of the love scenes a little over-intense. Also I would have liked the book to be longer; the characters could have been developed and fleshed out even more and we would have had longer to spend in DR’s company But this is a minor quibble, and the supporting cast in the book *are* real and alive. The female characters are particularly strongly drawn, and Richardson’s sympathy with, and anger on behalf of, other women is reflected in a number of encounters and relationships within the book; her affinity with her landlady Mrs. Baker, a kind of substitute mother figure, is particularly poignant.


Author Louisa Treger

In “The Lodger” Louisa Treger has taken the facts of Dorothy Richardson’s life and used them as the basis on which to build a fascinating tale of a pioneering woman writer. In its own right, as a story of how women lived and coped in the early part of the 20th century, it’s a powerful and engrossing read; and if, by drawing on Dorothy Richardson’s life, “The Lodger” does anything to help bring more readers to that pioneering author, then Treger’s achievement will be even greater.

(Many thanks to Louisa for kindly arranging the review copy – you can visit her website here)

Penguin Modern Poets 4 – David Holbrook, Christopher Middleton, David Wevill


In a flurry of post-Christmas reading, I made my way to the end of the volume 4 of the Penguin Modern Poets collections. Once more we have three male writers, and once again two I’d never heard of. So I approached with an open mind, and again I didn’t look into the poets till after reading their work – I think this is an approach I’ll stick to all the way through, although I suspect I will recognise more names as the series progresses.


So, the three poets concerned this time are David Holbrook (9 January 1923 – 11 August 2011), Christopher Middleton (10 June 1926 – 29 November 2015) and David Wevill (born 1935). Wevill is the first in the series so far who is still living, and I had heard of him previously in connection with Assia Wevill, his wife, who’s probably most notorious for her involvement in the lives of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Sadly, Middleton passed away at the end of last year, but no doubt as the poets get younger later in the series I may be encountering more living writers. Of the three, Holbrook seems to have been the most prolific, so let’s see what I make of them.


Beginning with Holbrook, I was quite taken with his verse; personal, accessible and with striking imagery, it’s exactly the kind of writing I like. As I mentioned when discussing volume 3, I’m finding I like directness in my poetry; something I can respond to instantly, and feel a link with. Holbrook’s poetry deals with the daily life, the struggles of family life, landscape and nature, and of the three writers featured here, he’s the one I’d like to read more of.


Second to be featured was Middleton. I must say I just didn’t gel with his writing at all. The poetry was just too elusive, too obscure, for me to relate to; and obscure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Eliot, for example, can be obscure, but even if I don’t always quite get what he’s saying, the musicality and beauty of his language make reading his work rewarding and enjoyable. With Middleton, I felt I was hacking my way through a dense forest and not getting anywhere at all. Not someone I instantly responded to, then!

Last up was Wevill. His work sat somewhere in the middle of the two other poets – less accessible than Holbrook, but not so dense and obscure as Middleton. Some of his poetry was very beautiful and the imagery striking. I had to stop myself trying to read too much into the verse, knowing what I do about his life and wife, although as this book was published in 1963 it’s not likely that much of this fed into the poetry.

Interestingly, this is the first volume of the series where I felt no great influence of WW2. Instead, the concerns were either personal or abstract and there was a definite sense of moving on from the previous generation; Wevill in particular was too young to have taken part in the conflict.

Choosing a favourite is difficult from this volume, because there’s nothing really that leapt out at me. I’m coming to the conclusion that with poetry, much more so than prose, there is no middle ground. For me, I either love a poet’s work or am indifferent to it – it has to resonate, speak to me and have the instant *Wow* factor. Although I liked Holbrook’s verse best, it was in many ways the best of an indifferent bunch. His “Winter Sunday” opens with these lines:

So severe this black frost that it bent
The white blurred burden of asparagus,
Hooped the old docks and broke the thistle’s spent
Grey screws of spine and floss.

and that probably gives you enough of a flavour to know what his work is like.

Ever onward – the next volume contains the beats: Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. It’s a *long* time since I read any of them, so it will be interesting to see what I make of them all these years on!

Seminal Golden Age Crime


Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley

If you’re a long-term reader like me, you probably have lists of titles you meant to read, you should read, you’d like to read, you think you’ve read but you want to read again, and so on. “Trent’s Last Case” is one of those titles, and it’s been on my radar for ages. It’s a pivotal book in the development of the Golden Age crime novel; published in 1913, it marked the transition from the more serious Victorian detective story (as exemplified by Holmes and his ilk), to the Golden Age tales, lighter in tone and often frivolous, although still with a core of steel. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a *long* time (in fact, I thought I might have read it once, but recognised nothing at all when I *did* read it) so being presented with a copy by OH at Christmas (and a first edition at that!) was a real delight.

trent 1st

“Trent’s Last Case” is in fact the first case we encounter him in and author E.C. Bentley wrote the book for his friend G.K. Chesterton (as is made clear in the dedication). Bentley had been very taken by his friend’s book “The Man Who Was Thursday” and had promised a detective story in return. The book opens with the murder of American tycoon Sigsbee Manderson, who has a country house in England (yay! classic country house setting!) As Manderson was not a pleasant person (what tycoon is?) there don’t seem to be too many people mourning him, but the markets are of course wobbly as a result! Enter Philip Trent, artist and amateur detective. We learn in back story that he’s investigated a number of mysteries on behalf of Lord Molloy, another tycoon (this time in the newspaper business), and he’s sent off to the country to look into the murder. There are peculiarities – Manderson was found fully dressed in the garden shot in the eye, fully dressed but missing his false teeth; his secretary Marlowe was sent off to Southampton on a strange wild goose chase on the night of the murder; and Manderson and his wife had seemed estranged in the time leading up to his death.

Fortunately, Trent’s reputation precedes him and so he’s allowed access to all areas. In addition, the Scotland Yard man on the scene, Murch, is an old colleague; and Mrs. Manderson’s uncle is an old friend of Trent’s. We’re treated to some lovely detection – footprints, alibi checking, fingerprints, cross-examining the servants – until Trent comes to a conclusion which he doesn’t actually want to reach…

To say too much about the book would spoil the joy of reading it, and it *is* a great joy. It’s wonderful written, very engaging and Trent is a fabulous character. This is no flimsy tale of mystery, but a substantial story, not only of murder and deceit, but also of love and emotions. Trent is smitten and after drawing his conclusions leaves the scene, only to return later and try to finally sort matters out. He’s a fallible hero, setting the pattern for later detectives (and I must admit that Wimsey sprang to mind more than once). Bentley plays with the reader wonderfully, and there are twists a-plenty, almost up to the last page.


“Trent’s Last Case” deserves all the accolades it’s received. It’s an absolutely engrossing read, one of those unputdownables that you almost want to read in one sitting because it’s so good and you want to find out what happens. Bentley went on to produce only two more Trent books (which are nestling nicely on Mount TBR!) and I’m really looking forward to reading them and finding out how Trent’s life progressed. If you have any love of Golden Age crime, this is an essential read – and if I gave star ratings this would definitely get a 10/10!

A gripping tale of Feisty Victorian Women!


Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins

Victorian author Wilkie Collins is probably best known nowadays for “The Woman in White”, “The Moonstone” and being best buddies with Dickens. However, a quick glance at his Wikipedia entry reveals that he wrote an awful lot of books! I read both of his most famous works many, many moons ago and loved them – particularly because of the fact that “The Moonstone” is regarded as the first proper detective story and features the wonderful Sergeant Cuff. I’ve often considered exploring his other works, but have simply never got round to it; so I was delighted to be offered a review copy of a new edition of a later novel, “Jezebel’s Daughter”, by the Oxford University Press. The book, published today, is the only critical edition available, and contains all the extras you’d expect from the publisher – an excellent introduction (best read after the book if this is your first time!), notes, background information and chronology. It also looks very pretty…!


“Jezebel’s Daughter” was published in 1880, and Collins used some elements from his earlier (unsuccessful) play “The Red Veil” in the novel. However, the success of the book proved that drama wasn’t particularly his métier, and certainly on the evidence of the books I’ve read he definitely was better at telling an exciting story. The book’s protagonists are, somewhat unusually, two middle-aged widows and the story is narrated in the main by David Glenney, looking back from 1878 to the time of the events in the 1820s. He is the nephew of Mrs Wagner, the wife of an English businessman; the latter has been left his share of his firm on his death and she is determined not only to carry on running the business, but also to continue his planned good works. One of the pivotal parts of the story is the tale of ‘Jack Straw’, a poor inmate of Bedlam; and Mr. Wagner and his wife had been appalled at the cruel treatment that lunatics had been receiving. Mrs. Wagner is convinced that humane treatment will be more effective than harsh, and to prove this takes Jack into her home, where he becomes completely devoted to her.

Mrs. Wagner is the good side of humanity; the evil is represented by Madame Fontaine, a German woman of good family who married a poor French scientist. She had dreamed of glittering Parisian society, but her husband refused to follow the career path she had planned for him, instead remaining in Germany and becoming obsessed with the science of poisons. Madame Fontaine becomes embittered, seeing all her dreams slip away, and all she is left with is her obsessive love of her daughter Minna. When she is widowed, she is in effect left destitute (because she has frittered away what little money her husband earned on clothes and the like); her obsession with her daughter’s happiness becomes all-encompassing, and when Minna and Fritz Keller, the son of Mrs. Wagner’s German business partner, fall in love, the scene is set for plenty of high drama.

Keller senior does not approve of the match; Madame Fontaine has a reputation which has preceded her, and he is a man of rigid principles. Madame Fontaine sets out to win the Kellers over, but things are complicated by the arrival of Mrs. Wagner and Jack Straw from London. There is the hint of Lucrezia Borgia to Madame Fontaine; who will live and who will die? Will the happy couple ever be able to marry? And what secret in Jack Straw’s past links him to the Fontaines? A dramatic denouement in the Deadhouse will reveal all…


Boy, could Wilkie Collins spin a gripping yarn! This was one of those books I just couldn’t put down as I was desperate to find out what happened. The storytelling is excellent, the suspense tantalising, and I really couldn’t foresee how it would end. The finale in the dark morgue was really chilling and I ended the book quite breathless. Really, if you want great storytelling you don’t you need look any further than Dickens, Collins and their ilk – they’re incredibly readable and so enjoyable.

However, there are several elements which lift this book above others. Having the main protagonists as a pair of middle-aged widows is very engaging, and both are well-developed personalities. Mrs. Wagner is the ‘good’ character, but she is not without flaws, displaying a stubborn streak and not recognising the danger Madame Fontaine represents. And the latter, despite her murderous intent, is not entirely evil; the love for her daughter is represented as redeeming her, and when committing vile acts she suffers fear and attacks of conscience. All the supporting characters are well-rounded and if I’m honest, the weakest was Minna, who was simply a bit wet.

Another striking facet was Collins using the novel to champion humane treatment for those who were ill or disabled. The book’s framing narrative is set in 1878, but looks backwards and comments on how attitudes have changed, but also how they still need to continue to evolve, as if Collins was reinforcing the need for constant change. Additionally, Mrs. Wagner’s attitude towards women and their employment is liberal, as she is determined to give them positions in the German arm of the business, despite Mr. Keller’s misgivings.

However, at the heart of this book is a cracking good story – exciting, twisty, thought-provoking and very unputdownable. On the evidence of “Jezebel’s Daughter”, Collins was more than just a one (or two!) trick pony, and I’m definitely up for reading more of his work!

(Many thanks to Katie at OUP for kindly arranging a review copy – much appreciated!)

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