The pleasures of book collecting…


Book recommendations come about in the oddest of ways! This particular volume was mentioned by legendary rock writer Ian Penman (@pawboy2) in a conversation on Twitter and I liked the sound of it; then I remembered I’d read about it on Simon’s blog here, so getting a copy was a no-brainer.


As a bookaholic, books about books are a particular kind of pleasure. Bonnet is a book obsessive par excellence, owning a personal library of thousands of volumes. “Phantoms” is a slim work which contemplates the pleasures books bring; what motivates us to amass and keep our own collections; and muses on the thoughts of others about owning large numbers of books.

… reading expands indefinitely our perforce limited experience of reality, giving access to distant ages, foreign customs, hearts and minds, human motivations, and everything else. How can you stop, once you have found the doorway offering the chance of escape from an inevitably constricted environment?

“Phantoms” is divided into chapters, each of which focus on a particular aspect of our relationships with books; thus there are sections entitled “Bibliomania”, “Organizing the bookshelves” and “Real people, fictional characters”, for example. This gives a nuanced look at humans and books, enabling us to really consider what it is we get from them. And from the quotes Bonnet features it seems that this is a question that’s vexed us for a long time!

Luckily, Bonnet’s thinking about books chimes in with my own often; and so, for example, it was a relief to find that I’m not the only one who can read, love and recall the pleasure of a particular book without being able to bring any specifics to mind! 🙂

Even when the book really has been read and absorbed well enough to have a specific place in our minds, what we recall is often a memory of the emotion we felt while reading it, rather than anything precise about its contents.

Oddly enough, this was also a phenomenon mentioned by Patti Smith in her “M Train” which I read and reviewed recently; it seems that many of us live through our books without necessarily consciously absorbing them.


Of course, “Phantoms” being a book about books, there are an awful lot of authors, works and quotes scattered throughout, which is very, very dangerous to your wishlist… And the fact that there is a little bibliography at the end doesn’t help (although the fact that many were in French is perhaps a slight relief!)

In the end the book was both and enjoyable and revealing, if perhaps a little anticlimactic. I expected a little more in the way of, well, a conclusion really. Bonnet shared his thoughts and obsessions and tales of collectors and collecting, but I wasn’t convinced I actually knew any more about what drives someone to collect books than I knew before. That aside, I do feel a lot more reassured about my modest library which hasn’t as yet taken over the house…!


In search of lost European authors…


When I was in my 20s and going through my first big reading discovery binge, I could walk into any one of many book stores and be met by an array of translated works ready for me to explore. 20th century European fiction was in vogue and I could choose from a huge range, from Camus, Colette and Sartre through to Kafka, Hesse and Hamsun – and many of these were published by Penguin and considered mainstream.

There’s still a vast array of European literature available, and many might argue that the choice is even better than it used to be, with publishers such as Pushkin Press and Alma Classics (amongst many others) bringing out lovely editions of books from France, Germany, Italy et all. However, it seems to me that despite this, there are works that have slipped through the net and become less obviously available nowadays; and two particular books spring to mind.

lost europeans

The first, “The Other Side” by Alfred Kubin, was mentioned by translator Will Stone in his excellent interview on the Pushkin Press website. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but it still nestles on my shelves, having sat there since the 1980s. If I recall correctly, my old friend H. recommended it to me; the only novel of a visual artist, it’s what would probably now be labelled speculative fiction, but what I would have thought of loosely as fantasy, and we probably read it because we were very obsessed with Mervyn Peake at the time and thought this might be similar. It’s not a book I see mentioned often and certainly the Penguin Modern Classic seems to be no longer available.

The other is by German author Ernst Junger, best known for his WW1 memoir, “Storm of Steel”. His 1939 novel “On the Marble Cliffs”, which sits next to “The Other Side” in my collection, is an allegorical work, widely seen as a reaction to the rise of National Socialism. A tale of the destruction of a rural community, I’m not sure that this one is even still in print and old Penguin copies seem to be very highly priced.

This set me thinking about trends and fashions in books; why, I wonder, would these works, which were obviously popular and highly regarded enough to warrant mainstream Penguin editions, slip out of favour? In a culture we have now of celebrating European literature with sparkly new volumes, why would these two not be available with the rest? As I mentioned in my post on Herman Hesse earlier this month, apart from his best-known works, many of his books seem harder to track down and aimed less at the general reader than they used to be, and I can’t help thinking this is a shame.

I’m a bit partisan, but I tend to think that the 20th century produced some of the finest works of literature, and many of the European authors I read are amongst the best ever. I could pick up a Sarte or a Simone de Beauvoir, a Calvino or a Camus or a Colette, a Kafka or a Hesse and be assured of reading something different, wonderful and mind-expanding. Alas, I do find that what passes as mainstream nowadays is much, much less interesting than what used to be available.

So I suspect I will still keep returning to my older books to get the kind of bookish joy and thrill I used to, as well as discovering new authors thanks to my favourite indie publishers. And if you have any suggestions of any neglected European authors I should explore, I’d be very interested to hear them! 🙂

Announcing the 1938 Club!


The 1938 Club

When Simon suggested, towards the end of last year, that we co-host a mini-project of reading books from a particular year, in this case 1924, I was delighted to join in. I don’t know that either of us foresaw how popular this would be, but loads of bloggers had great fun joining in. So we are reprising the event with a new year – 1938! The week concerned is 11th – 17th April and this time you have a reasonable amount of warning in which to start planning and reading.

I think this year might have been suggested by a number of participants (I’m sure Heavenali was one) and it’s a great choice. The thirties were an odd decade, full of fear and trembling and change in Europe, and 1938 in particular was a year where a cataclysmic event was brewing, which will no doubt be reflected in some of the works.

And there are some fabulous books to choose from! I’ve been ferreting through my stacks and I’ve come up with a number of possibles so far. Some would be new books which have been lurking on Mount TBR for a while:

Young Man with a Horn – Dorothy Baker
Enemies of Promise – Cyril Connolly
Antidote to Venom – Freeman Wills Crofts
The Gift – Nabokov

1938 unread

But there are quite a lot of possible re-reads too – for example, these ones, and I had no idea I’d read so many books published in 1938!!

Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre
Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis
Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
Appointment with Death – Agatha Christie
Death of the Heart – Elizabeth Bowen
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson
The Children Who Lived in a Barn – Eleanor Graham
Child of All Nations – Irmgard Keun

1938 read

There are no doubt many, many more and we’ll look forward to your suggestions in due course. So please do join in with The 1938 Club and let’s get more discussion and thoughts and ideas going. I’ll do a separate page here where I’ll link to other reviews and you can leave comments. So here goes with planning for The 1938 Club – get reading! 🙂

A Wild Ride on the Mind Train


M Train by Patti Smith

Back in 2005, my brother and I went to see Patti Smith perform her seminal album “Horses” at the Royal Festival Hall for its 30th anniversary (supported by John Cale – that was some night!) I was one of the people entitled to wear the “Horses changed my life” t-shirts they were selling, as indeed it did. I purchased a copy from the Virgin shop at Marble Arch in 1975 on its release (as the little town I lived in didn’t have anywhere that would sell such things); and I’d never heard anything like it. Music and poetry fused in a way like never before, and it was truly mind-blowing.

patti books

My original Patti collection

Smith has been one of the constants in my life; I bought all her records, tracked down her rare poetry pamphlets and books, have seen her live several times (usually with my brother in tow!) and I think I’ll always listen to her music. However, it’s worth recalling that she started her career as a visual artist and a poet, only stumbling into music by accident, and I’ve read her books with pleasure over the years. So the announcement of a new work by her last year, “M Train” was occasion for great celebration.

xmas patti

Christmas Patti books!

The book has gone on to be lauded and win awards, so it went straight onto my Christmas wishlist, and duly arrived, along with her Collected Lyrics. I decided I needed a little change after all the Europeans recently, and so Patti seemed the one to pick up.

The book takes its title from one of the trains which actually runs through Smith’s home city, New York; however, in an interview I saw on YouTube, she stated that the title actually refers more to her memory train of thought (and I’ve also seen her describe it as a Mind Train that you can get off at any stop you want). The book is indeed a rich collage of dreams, memories and events from her current life, liberally illustrated with her trademark Polaroids, and it’s a real joy to read.


I’ve always felt an affinity with Smith; I recognise in her my tendency to obsession with writers and musicians and artists, my love of simple everyday rituals and my need for some solitude and space. And the book weaves in and out of Smith’s life, as she sits in her favourite Cafe ‘Ino, drinking coffee, eating brown toast and olive oil, and musing. She recalls different events and people from her past, tells of her travels round the world and mourns the losses she’s suffered. The parts of the book where Smith tells of her married life and the loss of her husband Fred are almost unbearably poignant and I found them hard to read.

I had read it some time ago but was so completely immersed that I retained nothing. This has been an intermittent, lifelong enigma. Through early adolescence I sat and read for hours in a small grove of weed trees near the railroad track in Germantown… I would enter a book wholeheartedly and sometimes venture so deeply it was as if I were living within it. I finished many books in such a manner there, closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content by the time I returned home. This disturbed me but I kept this strange affliction to myself. I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember.

But so much of the book covers the art of creation, and writing in particular. Smith’s literary passions are wide-ranging, stretching from the Beats and Jean Genet to encompass writers like Bruno Schulz, Hermann Hesse, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Yukio Mishima. In fact, one of the dangers of reading any book that mentions other books is the effect on your TBR, having you rush off to search out copies of interesting sounding works. With Smith it’s different; as so many of the books she reads and loves are ones which I read and love too, much time was spent rushing off to pull beloved volumes off the shelf, and in fact I managed to get through M Train and only make two purchases!


Much of her life nowadays is spent roaming the globe in search of talismans to photograph – the grave of Sylvia Plath; the typewriter of Hermann Hesse; the walking stick of Virginia Woolf; the bear of Leo Tolstoy. These items are invested with a significance for Smith, representing something of the spirit of the authors she loves. In particular, she feels a strong bond with artist Frida Kahlo and, when taken ill while visiting her home, rests on her bed and communes with her spirit. However she also has a rather unlikely addiction for TV crime shows, ranging from “Midsomer Murders” to more modern shows like “The Killing” – which I wouldn’t have expected!

Lost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in helpless disorder. The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen.

Patti Smith is an inspirational artist and never a dull writer; in fact, I loved this book so much I never wanted it to end. Her life has not been an easy one, with the loss of her husband, brother Todd and old flame Robert Mapplethorpe informing much of the narrative. Yet she’s resilient, always bouncing back and remaining optimistic. She has the misfortune to buy a small property on Rockaway Beach just before it’s hit by Hurricane Sandy; but despite this, the book ends on a positive note with her watching the gradual rebuilding of the house which will become a home for this wonderful woman.

I’m doing well with my reading this year; in fact, several are already jockeying for the number one position, and this book will be one of them. I reached the end of my exhilarating and emotional ride on Patti’s M(emory) Train rather breathless and completely inspired. In fact, I’m quite keen to go back to her earlier works to start dipping in and rediscovering….


Just in case anyone was wondering which books it was I was impelled to buy, here they are! 🙂

astragal artaud

Coming to a blog near you….



hesse revised

When Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat suggested the idea of a Hermann Hesse Reading Week (back during the German Literature Month last November), I jumped at the idea, delighted to co-host. Hesse is an author with whom I have a long history; I first read his work in my 20s, and I was absolutely absorbed by his books, with their vivid ideas and fascinating tales.

Hesse was a Nobel prize-winner, with an illustrious writing career: his first novel “Peter Camenzind” was published in 1904, and his final one “The Glass Bead Game” in 1943. It was this latter, widely considered his masterpiece, which was cited in particular when he receive the prize; but his works are wide-ranging, from the earlier, more pastoral and evocative tales, to the later novels dealing in high concepts of morals, ethics and meanings.

hesse covers

Hermann Hesse’s works were very fashionable in the late 20th century, in particular works like “Demian” and “Steppenwolf” which drew on lifestyles and beliefs being adopted by the counter-culture. They also reflected his anti-war views which of course were much in vogue, and his spiritual side typified by his love of Buddhism. However, I do feel that he may have slipped out of sight of modern readers, so I’m really happy to be involved in any kind of initiative which brings his works to potential readers!

In recent years I’ve read his “Knulp” for the first time and revisited “Siddhartha”. However, I’d like to go back to at least one of his later and more substantial works for this reading week; there are plenty to choose from and so actually deciding which book(s) will be the hardest thing!

What’s surprising is how scattered Hesse’s work is in translation; a few books are available as Penguin Classics, but some of the earlier ones only appear to be in older, out of print versions. Surely he’s an author that needs to be brought to modern readers in a nice new edition of his complete works!

hesse spines

So what Hesse to read? Well, as far as I know, not all of his works have been translated into English, but here is a partial list of possible titles, based on what I could see online and what I have on my shelves. I imagine Caroline may well be reading in the original language but alas, I will have to stick with the versions other people have kindly rendered understandable for me…

Peter Camenzind (1904)
Beneath the Wheel (also published as The Prodigy)(1906)
Gertrude (1910)
Rosshalde (1914)
Knulp (1915)
Strange News from Another Star (1919)
Demian (1919)
Klingsor’s Last Summer (1920)
Wandering (1920)
Siddhartha (1922)
Steppenwolf (1927)
Narziss and Goldmund (1930) (yes, I know it’s now translated as “Narcissus” but I’m sticking with my original Penguin!)
Journey to the East (1932)
The Glass Bead Game (1943)

If the War Goes On (collected 1978)
Stories of Five Decades (collected 1954)

There is also poetry, which I may try to track down, and plenty of autobiography and essays. For me, I think I shall definitely revisit “Steppenwolf” but apart from that I’m not sure. “The Glass Bead Game” is calling too and also “Narziss and Goldmund. However, I appear not to own “Peter Camenzind” so there’s another possibility.



So please do join in if you fancy exploring the work of this wonderful German writer; I may well put up a separate page and please leave any comments and links to reviews, thoughts on Hesse or anything else relevant. Check out Caroline’s blog where she’ll be posting and linking too. Hermann Hesse Reading Week promises to be a great experience and we’ll look forward very much to a joint rediscovery of this great German author!

… in which Philip Trent makes a grand return!


Trent’s Own Case by E.C. Bentley and H. Warner Allen

One of the joys of my Christmas bookish gifts this year was a complete set of the Trent books by E.C. Bentley – not that that’s a huge collection, as he only wrote three! I reviewed the first, the seminal and very wonderful, “Trent’s Last Case”, here, and I loved this so much that I didn’t think it would be long till I got onto the second…

trents own

Fascinatingly enough, there’s quite a long gap between the first and the second of Trent’s adventures – “Last” was published in 1913 and “Own” didn’t appear until 1936. Bearing in mind the success of Bentley’s initial foray into detective fiction it *is* a little odd that he didn’t do more – but maybe he was just happy with the ones he wrote!

We are some years on from the events of “Last”, although the timing is kept vague and to be honest, there’s no real hint of the world being in the complex decade of the 1930s, with all that was going on in Europe at the time. Philip Trent is now married to Mabel, his beloved from the first book, and they have a small son. Conveniently, his family is away at his home in the Cotswolds and Trent is up in town doing a portrait of James Randolph, a rich philanthropist. Unfortunately, the millionaire is discovered murdered, and one of Trent’s friends is on the run as a suspect. However, the case is not so straightforward as it seems; and Inspector Bligh of the Yard, an old friend of Trent’s, is bothered by some peculiar aspects. Mix in a missing actress, an unpleasant playwright, a dodgy manservant, tons of blackmail, lots of red herrings and a mysterious champagne cork, and you have the ingredients for a cracking murder mystery!

One of the things I loved about Bentley’s books is the cleverness of the writing and plotting; this is a convoluted and complex story, with a number of different strands, false paths and twisty turns. Yet it reads brilliantly and it all comes together brilliantly at the end, making perfect sense. With “Last” I had no idea until the very end who had done it; but I have to confess that with this one I *did* work out who and how (but not quite why) fairly early in.

bentley drawing

However, this didn’t spoil the enjoyment of reading the book; because it’s not only an excellent mystery, it’s also an excellent novel. Trent is a wonderfully engaging character, and the supporting cast are brilliantly portrayed too. Bentley is very good at letting a person’s true nature be gradually revealed, until we find out they’re really not the nice type we thought they were.

It happened in the courses of a long tramp in France with which Trent was refreshing his spirit after a long spell of work extending through a breathless London summer. It was now mid-September, and for a fortnight he had carried his nap sack through Lorraine and Burgundy, keeping up our national reputation for lunacy by marching long distances without being compelled to do so, avoiding cities, and halting for food and sleep at small country inns where an Englishman was as unfamiliar a sight as a crocodile.

Another lovely element is the range of the story; Bentley doesn’t just stick to one location (e.g. London), but instead has his characters roaming wide and free, from France to the Cotswolds, the boat train to the continent and back again. The denouement was very satisfying and Trent’s method of trapping his murdered was ingenious.

All in all, “Trent’s Own Case” was a great Golden-Age read, and I’d highly recommend it for any fan of the genre. As for why it’s the detective’s ‘own’ case? Well, that would be giving away too much – you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out…. 🙂


As an intriguing aside, it’s interesting to note that H. Warner Allen wrote detective stories of his own, featuring a wine-expert-sleuth called Mr. Clerihew, apparently named for his friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley – and that wine expert makes an appearance in “Trent’s Own Case” to advise on the subject of champagne! 🙂

Evoking a Lost Europe – Part 2


Messages from a Lost World by Stefan Zweig

To accompany their rather lovely edition of “Summer Before the Dark” (which I reviewed here), Pushkin Press have brought out a collection of Stefan Zweig’s essays. Subtitled “Europe on the Brink” they touch upon one of Zweig’s lasting obsessions (and in fact the one that would probably bring about his death) – the loss of the Europe of the mind, the civilised world of arts and culture which he saw being buried by barbarism.


In fact, Zweig witnessed this twice: firstly, with the First World War, which was cataclysmic but in some ways less apocalyptic; and with the lead up to WW2, where he saw culture being trampled under the Nazi boot. He came out of the first conflict desperate to see civilization rebuilt and the birth of a truly united Europe; however, the rise of Nazism was to put a stop to this dream.

I have to confess that up until now I’d only read Zweig’s fiction. However, as translator Will Stone points out, the majority of Zweig’s work is actually in essay form, so it’s about time these started to appear in English too! Stone has already translated a collection of Zweig’s travel writings, “Journeys” (Hesperus Press) and here he also provides an erudite and invigorating introduction which throws much light on Zweig’s eventual fate in Petropolis in 1942.

The pieces in “Messages” have been collected together for their commonality, sharing the running theme of the need for humanity to get past the divisive effects of the Tower of Babel (an image he uses repeatedly) and work together. Zweig had a vision of Europe as a cultural and spiritual whole, taking the Vienna he loved and recalled as its model, and the essays are a clarion call for peace and unity. Far ahead of his time, he envisaged a union of European countries where there were no borders and people from all nations could mix freely and exchange ideas, in a celebration of European culture and its possibilities.

And it’s culture that is the watchword here; for Zweig was not interested in the economic unit we’ve become nowadays, but in the union of the mind. Pre-WW1 Vienna was his image of perfection, a cultural state he lauds at several points during the book, and he hearkens back to this age repeatedly. His essays are informed by his yearning for this lost Europe and his great wish for it to be reborn.


The cynical amongst you might wonder what relevance this can possibly have nowadays, but in a world where civilisations are crumbling, intolerance is once more on the rise and culture is under threat, Zweig’s plea for us to understand one another is remarkably timely. Europe itself is struggling with all kinds of crises which are exacerbated by suspicion and mistrust, and it is only if humans can get past this that we’ll progress.

There is no longer any pacifist organisation to speak of and barely any will to form one. Even the artists and intellectuals are weary of signing manifestos, for they know well enough how absurd it is to wave a scrap of paper at an onrushing locomotive.

The presentation of the essays in chronological order makes for a fascinating read, as we watch the evolution of Zweig’s thought, his gradually diminishing hope for a successful future for Europe and his poignant evocation of the Vienna he recalls. Despair finally gripped the author in South America, when the resolution of the War looked hopeless and he could see no future for himself in the world that would follow.

“Messages” is an essential and timely book from Pushkin; a reminder of what a wonderfully talented and varied writer Stefan Zweig was, and also an opportune look at how the hopes and dreams of the past have not come to fruition. Zweig was a humane and thoughtful writer and thank goodness his work is now back in favour!

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy)

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