Light at the end?


The Tunnel by Dorothy Richardson

Starting the second volume of Dorothy Richardson’s classic modernist work Pilgrimage was a little daunting, as this particular book only contains two titles – “The Tunnel”, the longest in the sequence so far, and “Interim”, a much shorted work. I was slightly apprehensive about how I would deal with the longer one, but pushed on nevertheless.

pilg 2

“The Tunnel” finds Miriam Henderson in a new phase of her life; having taken a room in London in the Euston area, she’s found employment in a dental practice in Wimpole Street. We later find out that this was obtained through a family connection, and indeed the practice is more like a little family. There are Mr. and Mrs. Orly; their son Mr. Leyton; and Mr. Hancock, for whom Miriam seems to do most of her work. All three dentists have very different styles of working, and Miriam has to undertake a bewildering array of duties: book-keeping, handwritten correspondence, preparing materials for the surgery, cleaning and sterilising instruments – I’m not sure she’d be allowed to do all that in a modern surgery! But despite the nagging feelings of inadequacy and of always being behind with her work, she enjoys the place. In particular, she holds Mr. Hancock in high regard, lauding his dental skills.

Outside of work, her great joy is in being in London and being free. She visits friends Mags and Jan; eats a meagre meal at an ABC cafe (money is always a problem); visits Harriett, now expecting her first child; and the world opens up to her a bit more as Mr. Hancock takes her to some free lectures, expanding her mind and her thoughts even more. All this we see, of course, through Miriam’s mind, with all its randomness, stream of consciousness and digressions, and this can sometimes be a little hard to follow. Nevertheless, what builds up is a rich, nuanced image of a life being lived; striking out on her own, Miriam still experiences highs and lows, but as long as she has her little room and London, she seems to cope.

Things are not always as straightforward as she would like, however. Despite her wish to be a modern, independent woman, she is still judged by others; and there is a fascinating sequence revealing the fact that her visiting lectures with Mr. Hancock unchaperoned is considered shocking by his visiting relatives. And she still experiences social difficulties and finds herself sucked into uncomfortable situations because of a kind heart. As the story progresses, Miriam’s sister Eve suffers some kind of nervous breakdown, and while convalescing she comes across Miss Dear, a nurse, and Miriam is draw into the latter’s circle. Miss Dear is a quietly demanding person; initially seeming vulnerable and in need of help, Miriam finds herself visiting regularly, reading to her while she’s ill and raging inwardly at the invasion of her private space and time. Yet Miss Dear is revealed as a complex and quite manipulative person, misleading and making use of others. However, Richardson is never really judgemental, recognising the difficult position women often found themselves in, either having to look for a man to be a ‘protector’ in real and financial terms, or trying to make a living in a man’s world. Miriam herself earns little and seems to be permanently hungry, a theme reiterated through the book.

Important events take place in the tunnel, not least the meeting between Miriam and Hypo Wilson (a portrait of H.G. Wells), when Miriam visits them Wilsons in the country. Hypo has married an old school friend of Miriam’s (although friend seems perhaps a slightly strong word here, as the relationship doesn’t appear to be particularly close); and through this connection Miriam is drawn into a world of writers and books, expanding her horizons even more. No doubt the Wilsons will recur in later books!

Rational dress

And of course there are bicycles! The liberating effect of cycling for women really can’t be underestimated. At the time, women were burdened with heavy clothing, dependent on walking or buses or trains to get anywhere, and when the craze for cycling took off it had a knock-on effect. The Rational Dress Movement, which had general links to other emancipation elements, opposed the ridiculous kind of clothing worn at the time, and encouraged the wearing of a kind of baggy trousers which would be more suitable for a cycle. Certainly, Miriam and her friends are known to sneak out in their knickerbockers for exhilarating cycling jaunts, and at one point in the book Miriam makes a long journey on two wheels to Marlborough!

The book ends with changes coming at Miriam’s lodgings. Mrs. Bailey, the landlady, is going to turn it into a boarding house rather than rented rooms (I’m not quite sure of the distinction here!) but Miriam is welcome to stay. Miss Dear has plans for the future which have been deviously made, and the future is still ambiguous for Miriam. I can’t wait to see where she goes next!

Despite the occasional opacity of the narrative, once I got going with “The Tunnel” I found it hard to put down. I remembered Miriam’s work in the dental practice and the bike riding from my first read, and Richardson’s prose creates such wonderfully vivid images – a few lines about Mr. Leyton, for example, conjures him up brilliantly!

The clattering of boots on the stone stairs was followed by the rattling of the loose door knob and the splitting open of the door. Mr. Leyton shot into the room, searching the party with a swift glance and taking his place in the circle in a state of headlong silent volubility. By the way he attacked his lunch it was clear he had a patient waiting or imminent.

Once again, Richardson succeeds in bringing to life how it was to be a woman in the early party of the 20th century; the obstacles and the difficulties; the joy of new discoveries; and the strength it took to forge an independent path. Roll on the next book! 🙂


(As an aside, I should note that I was rather ironically suffering with an abscess and root canal treatment while I was reading “The Tunnel” – and I *so* appreciate the advances in modern dentistry…..!)

Rediscovering Mayakovsky


Down unshaven plaza-cheeks
flowing like an unneeded tear,
may be
the last poet.

The Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is an author I’ve written about here on the Ramblings before; a long time favourite of mine, when I first stumbled across his work over 35 years ago I was lucky enough to be able to borrow his work from the local library. A wonderful old tome from 1965, collected and translated by Herbert Marshall, contained all kinds of wonders by and about Mayakovsky; and 35 years later, thanks to the wonders of online shopping, I own my own copy – but that’s another story.


However in the interim his work, which is notoriously difficult to render into English, has been tackled by a surprising number of different translators in different ways and with differing results (and I know that Marshall has also had his critics). A new volume from Enitharmon Press entitled “Volodya” aims to bring together a broad selection of these different renderings in order to give a more rounded view of the poet and his work – which is a laudable aim, and one which seems to me to have succeeded!

It’s actually surprising how many translations of Mayakovsky’s work have been made, although as VM scholar Rosy Carrick (editor of this edition) points out in her excellent introduction, many of them have a particular agenda. She cites specifically “Night Wraps the Sky”, a volume I read pre-blog and wasn’t particularly taken with; the translator excluded many of Mayakovsky’s politically charged works, which gives a terribly unbalanced view of a man committed to the revolution. Personally, I particularly fell out with “The Stray Dog Cabaret”, a collection where the translator actually *changed* the poet’s words, adding extra bits to his verse! So what Carrick is aiming for here is a more even-handed treatment, and it’s a laudable goal.

progress mayakovsky

My Progress Press Mayakovsky books

Many of the translations of VM’s works are out of print, particularly the long, elegiac work “Vladimir Ilych Lenin”; my copy of the latter is a little Progress Press Russian-produced English language hardback, but this seems to be very pricey online if you want a copy. Similarly, a pivotal work, “How Are Verses Made?” is obscure and not currently in print. The wide cross-section of works and translations featured here certainly redresses the balance and presents Mayakovsky’s politicised verse alongside his more personal works; and it really paints a wonderful picture of a powerful poet, bursting with life which he placed at the service of the revolution, with enough left over to have a lively emotional life! Interestingly enough, one of the translators cited as having provided comprehensive volumes of his works is Dorian Rottenberg; several of his translations are featured here, and indeed it’s Rottenberg who translated my copy of “Vladimir Ilych Lenin” and another Progress Press book I have, “Poems”. It’s his rendering of “What about you?” that I’m most used to:

What About You?

I splashed some colours from a tumbler
and smeared the drab world with emotion.
I charted on a dish of jelly
the jutting cheekbones of the ocean.
Upon the scales of a tin salmon
I read the calls of lips yet mute.
And you,
                could you have played a nocturne
with just a drainpipe for a flute?

Interesting to note that he renders here the word often given as “backbone” instead as “drainpipe”!

Excitingly enough, Carrick has translated some works herself, and there are several items never available to Anglophones before. I was particularly pleased to see a full version of Mayakovsky’s speechifying from an evening dedicated to celebrating 20 years of his work; Herbert Marshall’s translation, acknowledged by Carrick as the best, was incomplete, so she’s melded this with missing bits rendered by Rottenberg to come up with a complete version – quite fitting really! And it’s poignant to think this was the poet’s last public appearance…

Translating poetry is *always* going to be a very individual art, and probably each translator could come up with a different and satisfying version. The array of names involved is impressive, and I recognised several from other books I have in my collection, though others were new to me. I confess I’m not entirely at home with Edwin Morgan’s renderings of the poems in Scots vernacular; because despite having been born in Edinburgh, I need help in translating them again! And if I’m honest, I would have liked to see more of Marshall’s translations, as these are the ones I’m familiar with, having read them first. But that’s personal taste, and there’s no denying that “Volodya” is an excellent way to get a flavour of what Mayakovsky’s work is like and which translations might be best for you – and fortunately there is nothing from “Night Wraps…”

My copy of the Marshall book

My copy of the Marshall book

The book features a wonderful selection of photos as well as images of Mayakovsky’s agitprop work, which is another aspect of his work which shouldn’t be forgotten. The final picture we get of the poet from “Volodya” is a much more rounded one than you would get from other, more selective works and it’s an ideal place to start exploring his writing. Enitharmon Press and Rosy Carrick have done all lovers of Mayakovsky’s work a great service by collecting his work together in this way, and I can’t recommend the book highly enough! 🙂

(Many thanks to Enitharmon Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

Witty Words


The Complete Clerihews by E.C. Bentley

One of the joys of last Christmas was being presented with a set of E.C. Bentley’s classic “Trent” crime books by OH; he only wrote three, and the two I’ve read so far have been absolutely marvellous. However, there was a 4th Bentley volume in the form of “The Complete Clerihews”; a collection of short, snappy rhymes named after their inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley himself!

complete clerihews

The Wikipedia definition of the Clerihew is “a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced.” The introduction of the book goes into some detail as to what attempts by others can really be called Clerihews, and which ones fall by the wayside. They’re very, very funny, of course, and rather than spend time going on about them, I thought I would reproduce a few of my favourites here for you to enjoy – well worth a moment of anyone’s time! 🙂

goeringAs you can see, each Clerihew comes with an illustration, from a variety of sources (including Bentley’s son Nicholas) – and even some from G.K. Chesterton!

e a poe(Poe has gone a little lopsided, sorry – it’s not like that in the book!)

bev nOne of my favourites is, of course, the Beverley Nichols one – I think it captures him quite well, despite being a back view!

Another side to Gazdanov….


The Flight by Gaito Gazdanov

As well as bringing us lots of lovely Stefan Zweig books, Pushkin Press have also done fans of Russian authors a great service with their lovely translations of Gaito Gazdanov’s novels. I’ve written about several on the Ramblings, hypnotised by his wonderful prose and dreamlike narratives; so I was very excited to see that Pushkin were bringing out another Gazdanov title, and they were kind enough to provide a review copy.

“The Flight” was Gazdanov’s third novel, written in 1939, but not published in its first complete edition until 1992. Set in the émigré world of the 1930s, it tells the story of the interlinking lives of a disparate group of characters. There is Sergey Sergeyevich, a millionaire ex pat, who seems to display no emotions and has a public, mask-like persona. His wife, Olga Alexandrovna staggers from one affair to another, constantly walking out on him and then returning when all goes wrong. Also on the scene is her sister Liza, who just happens to be the mistress of Sergey Sergeyevich and also of her nephew, his son Seryozha!

the flight

Then there are the slightly more peripheral characters: Lola Ainee, an ageing actress with a gigolo husband, who sponges from Sergey; Yegorkin, a penniless painter who’s another one dependent on Sergey’s good nature; Sletov, Sergey Sergeyevich’s old friend who’s permanently suffering from the fall-out of his latest love affair and regularly washes up to cry on his comrade’s shoulder.

The final pair in the mix are Arkady Alexandrovich, an author and his wife Lyudmilla; Arkady is Olga Alexandrovna’s latest love, but it appears that he might be a more permanent fixture in her life. And as Lyudmilla is in love with a rich Englishman and desperate for a divorce, it seems that Sergey Sergeyevich’s comfortable regime may be about to crumble.

They all flit from Paris to London to the Midi and back again; and their main problems in life revolve around love and money, those old perennials! The central core of the story is Sergey Sergeyevich; he’s a man who’s been through many dramatic experiences, as we learn, in his flight from the Russian Civil War, and yet he’s managed to come through it all apparently untouched. Yet the mask is always present, and there is the suspicion that his lack of real emotion and total control hides an interior self we’ll never see. In many ways, the rest of the characters orbit him; the two sisters who are in effect his love life are dependent on him and yet somehow despise him; his son, for who he’s an elusive figure, coming and going through his younger life depending on the whims of Olga Alexandrovna; Sletov and Yegorkin, who rely on his charity, but are both clear-eyed enough to see his faults.

The book’s publicity makes much of the element of Liza and Seryozha’s secret and somewhat forbidden love, and this is quite a striking and perhaps alarming turn of events; only when Seryozha starts to think clearly of Liza in terms of her being his mother’s sister do we really get a sense of how the two are transgressing. Add into this the age difference, as well as the long relationship between Liza and Seryozha’s father, and it really does all seem quite scandalous.


As the narrative progresses and the tale starts to take flight, the interlinked destinies of all the characters start to draw together. There are a series of dramatic events as matters come to a head; secrets are revealed, lovers are separated and reunited, and many of the characters make a desperate attempt to grasp happiness.

As for the title, you might be wondering what it refers to…  Well, there’s mention of the flight of life itself; several of the characters have taken flight from their partners and their normal life; and others are in flight from poverty or their past. However, all will be revealed by the stunning ending.

I’ve previously been mesmerised by Gazdanov’s slightly surreal, fanciful and complex works; however “The Flight” is a completely different kettle of fish! This is Gazdanov in playful mood, spinning a tale of emigres and their romances, dysfunctional families and lost loves. However, look closer and you can see a darker, satirical side to the book. The high life and the glossy facade are in the end worthless, and it takes Sletov to see that Sergey Sergeyevich is suffering from a lack of real emotion – which becomes clear to the latter towards the end of the story.

Suddenly Sletov turned to him – he was undoing his tie in front of the mirror – and said:
“You know, Seryozha, there’s something dead about your face.”
“You’re no expert when it comes to men’s faces, Fedya.”
“No, Seryozha, I’m not joking. You know, that constant smile of yours, as if you’re always happy about something – it’s like a wax figure in a museum. Such jovial eyes and teeth that are too regular, like an advertisement for toothpaste, there’s something very unnatural about it.”

About the resolution I will say little… For “The Flight was one of those novels which had me careering headlong to the end of the tale, totally gripped by the events and storytelling; and when I *had* got to the end I felt I instantly wanted to go back to the beginning and read it all over again, just to be able to appreciate it even more without needing to find out what happened to the characters. Gazdanov’s writing and plotting are magnificent, and the book is again beautifully translated by Bryan Karetnyk (who also did the two previous Pushkin Gazdanovs) and he’s quite obviously the man for the job!

“The Flight” is one of my stand-out reads of the year so far. Really I can’t thank Pushkin Press enough – not only for bringing Gazdanov back into general circulation, but also for the ongoing loveliness of their books! If you’ve been considering reading GG (and I really think you should!) but are perhaps uncertain about the dreamlike narratives of his other novels, “The Flight” would be a great place to start – it’s a wonderful, wonderful book and highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, for which many thanks!)

Caught Between Past and Present


The Book of Blam by Aleksandar Tisma

I suppose I should be used to it by now, but I’m not; that is, the fact that even after decades of reading, I’m still able to discover wonderful new books and authors! A case in point is this one, published today by NYRB ( who kindly provided a review copy) – and it certainly is a powerful and original work.


Author Aleksandar Tisma was a Serbian novelist; his father was also Serbian and his mother a Hungarian Jew. Much of his early life was spent in Novi Sad, site of a notorious massacre during World War 2, and it is this setting and event that informs “The Book of Blam”.

Blam is Miroslav Blam, a Serbian Jew living in Novi Sad. The war is over and he is one of the few survivors – possibly helped by having married a Christian, and also being protected by a colleague of his father. He carries the memory of the town and his populace with him; wandering the streets, his can recall the former owners of the shops he passes, and he sees the footprint of the former occupants everywhere around him.

The memory of the family that emerged from the car to act out a scene of their life for him is still fresh in his mind; he goes over the way they moved and gestured. But the houses he is passing also claim him – their proportions and materials, the stains and scratches so long familiar. One side of the street is the past, the other the present. He can’t get at the present, he knows he can’t, though he feels it, feels it bodily, on his skin, like the sporadic gusts of air from the boulevard that lash him and move in, carrying off group after group of people like those he has just seen.

As Miroslav wanders, his thoughts flash back to the past and we learn of his life and how it developed; of the loss of his parents and sister and friends; of the occupation by enemy troops and of the tortures and massacres; and also the personal failures. For Blam’s life is itself something of a disaster; his marriage is unsuccessful, his job a dead-end one provided by a contact, his wife’s child is probably not his, and his main function seems to be to carry the memory of the lost Jewish population with him.

“The Book of Blam” is a startling work in many ways, because it takes a subject that’s been much written about – the holocaust, the fate of Jewish people under Nazi occupation – and gives it a twist. It’s a very nuanced book, capturing brilliantly that sense of guilt and unreality that seems to be felt by survivors of anything cataclysmic; in fact, that survivor’s guilt was something I remembered reading about in Primo Levi’s magnificent books, that sense of unworthiness – why did I survive and not the next person.


The structure of the book is clever, with the narrative slipping backwards and forwards in time, reflecting Blam’s state of mind. He is unable to forget the past and move on, and so is therefore trapped by it; in fact, the past seems more real to him than the present. And yet despite all the horrors he’s seen, and his sadness about his loveless marriage, he clings onto existence even though (as he realises at one point) it would be very easy to end things here and now.

Death is terrifying no matter where and when it comes, and life, though it brings us closer to death with every instant, is wonderful.

“The Book of Blam” is a compelling work and beautifully written; it’s translated by Michael Henry Heim, who also worked on books by Danilo Kis, a friend of Tisma. The writing is lyrical in places, despite the often horrific subject matter, and there is a sense of yearning for the past. TBOB doesn’t seem to be as well-known as other literature about the Holocaust, and it should be; it’s a powerful book, opening the door on an area of WW2 I wasn’t aware of, and I certainly want to explore more of Tisma’s novels.


Many thanks to Emma at NYRB for kindly arranging a review copy.

What happens when Charity Shops get in new stock…


…. fortunately the damage is not too bad!

I *have* been very restrained the last few weekends, as I’m being strict with myself and only buying books I’m sure I want to read, and relatively soon! I confess that there might have been a few review copies sneaking into the Ramblings recently, but I can’t be held responsible for that. However, the local charity shops have definitely been replenishing their shelves, and I stumbled across these beauties at the weekend:

newbies march 2016

I’d rather wanted to read Eco’s “The Prague Cemetery” when it came out and never got round to it; but his recent passing reminded me of this, so I grabbed this copy for £1.75 when I saw it in the Samaritans.

“The Joke” is an upgrade – I have a tatty King Penguin which isn’t very nice, and I also wanted to check I have the authorised translation, as apparently there have been several. Plus I like Faber volumes and this one was only 95p!

And the Durrenmatt was a must-have when I spotted it in the Oxfam! A lovely Picador collection containing 5 works – The Judge and his Hangman, The Quarry, The Pledge, A Dangerous Game and Once a Greek – I just couldn’t ignore it. I’ve read “Judge…” before (I think I have a green Penguin of it knocking about); but having read reviews by Jacqui and Marina Sofia of its follow-up, I was keen to read more. Interestingly, they have the title translated as “Suspicion”, whereas this volume renders it as “The Quarry” – but I’m sure it’s the same story as the opening pages have the same action they describe. Interestingly, considering Sarah’s post here about the cost of some books in charity shops, this one was £4 – more than I would normally pay, but the condition was pretty good and I’ve never seen it before.

So – time to donate a few more books to make some space! 🙂

Colette’s Missing Link


Mitsou by Colette

I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet during Women in Translation month last year, when I discovered that there were a few things by the wonderful Colette that I didn’t own and hadn’t read – and one of those was her 1919 novella “Mitsou” which for some reason wasn’t available in the lovely Penguin set I bought in the early 1980s. It seems to bridge a gap between her first ‘adult’ novel, “The Vagabond” (1910) and the very famous “Cheri” from 1920, and of course I had to track down a copy. I picked up a lovely old hardback initially; and then, while recently in Leicester, I came across an old Corgi paperback version, which was the one I eventually read.


I’ve seen “Mitsou” described as a war-time novella, and it’s certainly that. It tells the story of the titular lady, a music hall artiste in Montmartre during the Great War. The book is set in 1917 and Mitsou is somewhat oblivious to the effects of the war; she has an older sugar daddy and is insulated from a lot of the reality around her.

In contrast is her fellow artiste known as Bit of Fluff, or Fluff for short. A lively good-time girl, she happily throws herself at any soldier that comes along without compunction or guilt. Mitsou rather looks down on Fluff; however, things change a little when Mitsou has to hide a couple of Fluff’s visiting soldiers in her wardrobe backstage so that they won’t get into trouble. A lieutenant in a blue uniform is smitten with Mitsou, and despite her denials, she’s rather taken with him. However, his leave is over and he’s sent back to the front – and Mitsou begins to write to him…. Will they ever meet? How will they find real life as opposed to letters? And how will Mitsou’s special friend take to this dalliance?

Although “Mitsou” might sound simply like a love story, it’s a lot more than that (which is hardly surprising from a Colette book). Mitsou herself is a strange, almost detached character at the start. In control of her life, rather dead emotionally, even her name is not real as it was visited on her by her older lover, an acronym made from the initials of the two companies he owns. She’s an old head on a young body, and seems to have lived her life already.

In contrast, Fluff is full of life, throwing herself into the joy of existence as if there’s no tomorrow. Mitsou disapproves of her behaviour, of her contact with all the soldiers, but finds herself developing a passion for the Blue Lieutenant despite herself. Intriguingly certain parts of the story are constructed almost as a playscript, and the rest is composed of letters exchanged by Mitsou and her Lieutenant while he’s away. It’s fascinating watching their tentative relationship develop through the letters, but alas real life turns out to be less of a thrill, and although it’s unlikely that they will stay together for long, at least Mitsou has developed emotionally, enough to condemn “.. that stupid sensible Mitsou, who never laughed and never cried, that poor creature who didn’t even have her own private sorrows.”

But the undercurrent running through the book is the distant conflict; initially seeming not to matter to Mitsou, it becomes real and threatening as she develops her relationship with the Blue Lieutenant. Colette captures brilliantly the knife-edge on which civilisation seemed balance at the time; and Fluff’s spirited defence of her conduct with men who might die at the front tomorrow really brings home the effect that such a colossal conflict had on society. As the Blue Lieutenant says in one of his letters:

Mitsou, we boys of twenty-four, the war grabbed us just as we came out of college. It made us into men, and I am afraid that we shall never recover from having missed the time of growing up. We lost forever that precious period, in which we might have learned poise and balance in voice and manner, and the habit of being free, and how to treat our families and how to approach women without being afraid or acting like cannibals…

As always with Colette, there’s not only wonderful writing and wonderful storytelling, but also an underlying point. The poignancy of the young people grasping what they can in case life is stolen from them is powerful, and reinforces Colette’s strong and earthy love of life. When she wrote “Mitsou”, she had been married since 1912 to Henry de Jouvenel, her second husband, and her music hall days were behind her. She spent much of the Great War bringing up her daughter, who had been born in 1913, and writing journalism; but later in the decade she returned to fiction, drawing on her stage life which helped her create this excellent book.

Colette with her daughter Colette de Jouvenel (Bel-Gazou) around 1918

Colette with her daughter Colette de Jouvenel (Bel-Gazou) around 1918

“Mitsou” is certainly not minor Colette (though minor Colette is better than major anybody else!); it’s a thought-provoking, moving snapshot of life during World War 1, and most definitely deserves more attention than it usually gets. Oh, for a complete, translated edition of all Colette’s works!


Intriguingly, the Corgi paperback gave no indication I could see of who had translated the book; however, as it was the same version as the hardback I was able to identify it was by Raymond Postgate – who must have been very cross at the Corgi omission!

Snapshots of Modern Life


Treats by Lara Williams

As I’ve said many a time, I’m notoriously cranky about modern writing, preferring mostly classics, modern classics or translated literature. However, I had a very good experience last year with a collection of Marina Warner‘s short stories from Salt. So when an unexpected review copy of Lara Williams’ “Treats” popped through my door, courtesy of Freight Books, I gave it more attention than I might normally have.


Williams is being lauded as “Young, gifted and feminist” – which is a pretty good byline, and did make me keen to read her collection. A slim volume containing 22 works, it’s her debut, and the stories are an intriguing selection. Ranging from very short (less than three pages) to a length more in keeping with a traditional short story, Williams’ tales take on a variety of experiences, mostly from the female point of view.

From taxidermy to abortion, relationships and break ups, the difficulty of negotiating the modern world, keeping a grasp on your sanity and getting older as a single woman, the stories are powerfully told and very compelling. They’re also darkly funny in places, and I defy any woman reader not to find something with which to identify. Williams’ style is quirky and individual, and very readable – in fact, her distinctive voice captured me from the very first paragraph:

And so it begins. You graduate university. You move back home, slotting neatly into your single bed, examining the tears in the wallpaper, the posters on the wall. You sleep in till eleven. Your mum cooks you porridge, setting it down on the kitchen table, the mealy textures of your childhood. ‘I’ve got a good feeling about this one,’ she says. ‘You were born to work in an art gallery.’

Often using this clipped, almost shorthand style, Williams brilliantly captures the bleakness of life, the constant struggle to find a purpose and a motivation, and the constant misunderstandings between men and women. It’s an effective technique and always insightful.

And despite the modern trappings, there are situations here that women of all ages will identify with. The story “Both Boys”, for example, where the narrator is courted by two boys, best friends but complete opposite, reminded me of the Dory Previn song “Angels and Devils”. In Previn’s work, the rougher of the two was the more genuine, and here Williams’ character is attracted to the boy who’s more casual and less interested.

Williams’ women, in fact, often brought to mind older heroines like Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam Henderson. Watching them searching for love, debating if marriage or commitment is the thing or dealing with loneliness, I found myself wondering if anything had really changed for modern women. The stories are harsh and raw in places, and there is the sense that the world is not a nice or happy one – certainly it’s not all flowers and butterflies and chocolate boxes. But there are life affirming moments and the book ends on an upbeat note.


I was mightily impressed with “Treats” and I’m really glad that Freight decided to send a copy my way, because it’s not a book I’d necessarily have picked up myself. Williams spent some time drumming for the band Pins, and she’s written essays and non fiction as well; and on the evidence of this collection she’s chosen the right profession! It’s reassuring to see, with collections like this and last year’s Marina Warner offering, that the art of the short story is alive and thriving – it’s obviously in very safe hands.

Soviet Satire is Dead – Long Live Russian Satire!


Fardwor, Russia by Oleg Kashin

Soviet satire, from Bulgakov to Kataev, is something I go on about a lot on the Ramblings. So I was very pleased to find out that the tradition is being carried on in modern Russian, after being kindly provided with a review copy of OK’s Fardwor, Russia! As far as I’m aware this is Kashin’s first work of fiction, published by Restless Books, and the man certainly has had a dramatic life so far…

A Russian journalist known for his political articles for a variety of publications, Kashin has always been critical of the authorities. In 2010 he was the subject of a violent assault near his Moscow home, and hospitalised with several fractures. The police treated the attack as attempted murder, and despite some apparent culprits being accused, no-one has ever been convicted of the attack. Kashin now lives in Switzerland.


“Fardwor, Russia!”, translated by Will Evans, tells the story of a man called Karpov. The book opens with our hero travelling with his wife Marina back to his homeland in the Russian South; they’ve abandoned their Moscow life so that Karpov can work in seclusion on a strange invention he’s stumbled across. In a makeshift laboratory, he develops a growth serum (think Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs”!) and it proves to work very well on livestock, much to the delight of the locals!

However, Karpov is not satisfied with experimenting on animals and tries the serum out on a circus dwarf – with remarkable results. The potion comes to the attention of a number of interested parties, including local meat producers and scientists, as well as a miniature oil mogul. He too soon grows, and runs off with Karpov’s wife; however, the inventor has more problems in the form of the authorities and the secret service, all of whom are after the serum. Can Karpov ever get the peace to invent, and will he ever get Marina back?

It’s quite clear that this marvellous book is the latest incarnation in a grand tradition of Russian/Soviet satire. There are echoes back to the past, most strongly Bulgakov, and Kashin is happy to have a swipe at everything from Russian big business to the olympics. Despite the recognisably modern setting and traits, the same kind of corruption and incompetence that the classic satirists were lampooning still exist, and under any kind of repressive regime the best way to fight is to use satire as a weapon.


As well as being clever and pointed, the story is also very funny, as the different elements fight it out and struggle for control of the serum. Kashin is clear-eyed about his homeland and happy to mock the stereotypes!

Surprisingly, the next morning Karpov encountered around eight local residents by the shack who looked as if they had been specially selected for a photo shoot of “The Common Peoples of Rural Southern Russia”. They included a timid, suntanned grandmother in a snow-white headscarf and a clearly intoxicated man in a dusty jacket and cap (he had most likely taken the calf without asking his wife and a week later he would steal the money from her and sell the cow too) and a teenager with a fishing rod and a young goat (Karpov had not mentioned goats in his ad, he forgot) – basically, a feast for the eyes, but without any audience.

And although we are in the modern world, it still seems like there are the haves at the top and the have-nots at the bottom – plus ca change, as they say.

Through it all sails Karpov, like some kind of fabled innocent. Despite setbacks, beatings and the temporary loss of his wife, he seems untouched, totally obsessed with the one task at hand – his serum. He’s an engaging character; a typical mad inventor who can’t see past his dream, regardless of the effect it will have on everyone and everything else; and all those with vested interests are desperate to stop him.

Both Kashin and Restless Books are new to me, and both are to be applauded – Kashin for writing such brave and funny satire, and Restless Books for bringing it to us Anglophones. “Fardwor, Russia” (the title is a comment on a misspelled tweet) comes with an excellent introduction by Max Seddon which gives the context of the book and highlights some of its targets.

Needless to say, I loved “Fardwor, Russia!” and I salute Kashin for his bravery in writing it. If you’ve enjoyed Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov, Yuri Olesha, Kataev and co, you probably would enjoy it too – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Restless Books for kindly providing a review copy

The Master of the Game


The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

Choosing my final read for Hermann Hesse Reading Week was very difficult; there are so many wonderful books by this author, and I could have gone for an early work, more poetry or autobiography. However, in the end, I felt I’d like to revisit his masterwork, “The Glass Bead Game” and so I dug out my old, frail Penguin Modern Class; as after my experiences with the “Steppenwolf” translation, I wanted to read again the work I’d read decades ago.

glass bead

My Penguin has nothing but the bare text of the book (as they did in those days) and I actually found it very refreshing to read an older book not riddled with note, forewords and afterwords. Instead, I was a left as a reader to judge the work in isolation on its own merits, and treated as having enough intelligence to look up or work out any reference I didn’t understand – which I enjoyed very much.

“The Glass Bead Game” was Hesse’s final work, the one specifically cited by the Nobel Board when awarding him his prize, and is regarded by many as his finest book. Set in the future, in the elite world of Castalia, it tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a Master of the Glass Bead game, and his life and experiences and philosophies. Hesse uses a similar framing narrative structure to “Steppenwolf”, placing himself as biographer and editor of Knecht’s surviving works, and at times employing a similar authorial tone.

Knecht (the word in English can denote servant or knight) is a man with no family; brought up as a scholarship school pupil, he’s picked out by a visiting Music Master to be sent to the Castalian schools to study. Joseph shows a talent for music and does well at the school, even being picked as a kind of debating champion to defend it in argument against a guest student from outside, Plinio Designori. The debates between the two are enlightening, and their friendship will have an important effect on Knecht’s life.

The book goes on to trace Knecht’s path through the hierarchy to reach the high title of Magister Ludi, Master of the Glass Bead Game. His way is not as straightforward as many a Master, taking in a period of study with a reclusive Elder Brother in his Bamboo Grove, and also a series of politically motivated visits to a Monastery in the outside world. Here he encounters Father Jacobus, a renowned historian, who gives him a wider perspective on life than he receives from just Castalia.

Interestingly enough, the further Joseph progresses up the ladder of status, the more he finds himself questioning the raison of Castalia; and when he becomes Magister he carries out his duties brilliantly, all the while with a mind that is perhaps yearning to be elsewhere. He eventually reaches a decision about his future which will have dramatic consequences for him, but may lead to Castalia surviving as a repository of culture for a little longer than it might otherwise…

People know, or dimly feel, that if thinking is not kept pure and keen, and if respect for the world of the mind is no longer operative, ships and automobiles will soon cease to run right, the engineer’s slide rule and the computations of bank and stock exchanges will forfeit validity and authority, and chaos will ensue. It took long enough in all conscience for realization to come that the externals of civilization – technology, industry, commerce, and so on – also require a common basis of intellectual honesty and morality.

I’m not going to give more than a plot outline here, because I’m sure hundreds of theses have been written on “The Glass Bead Game” which barely scratch the surface. This is one rich, complex book chock full of ideas and I can see why it would have been cited by the Nobel committee. Published in 1943, at the height of WW2, it’s in many ways a cry out for civilisation and humanity. Castalia came into being after a period referred to as The Age of the Feuilleton, which is pretty much the 20th century, full of its wars and crises. It’s a country where civilisation and study and education have reached a high peak; and yet it’s an oddly sterile place. For example, they study the greats of classical music but don’t try to create any, and the same goes for the other arts. In fact, Knecht is unusual in writing poetry (some of which is presented at the end of the biographical section, along with some of his other writings.) It’s rather as if you can have a lively, messy, vibrant but violent world that creates great works of art, or a civilised world of the mind that cannot create, only study.

The game itself is a unique synthesis of several different artistic disciplines which is never completely defined but of which mathematics and musical seem to be the strongest threads. It’s never given a tangible, physical structure; instead, it exists as an abstract concept, an ideal which unites all the arts and sciences in one complete whole.

Generations ago this famous Game had begun as a kind of substitute for art, and for many it was gradually developing into a kind of religion, allowing highly trained intellects to indulge in contemplation, edification, and devotional exercises.

But despite the heights that Castalian culture has reached, it is not enough to hold a man like Joseph Knecht. For all its admirable traits and achievements, the inhabitants are living in an ivory tower, too detached from the everyday world; and I did wonder if Hesse was making an analogy here with the 20th century intelligentsia, many of whom spent the 1930s ignoring the forthcoming conflict.

The wave is already gathering; one day it will wash us away.

There is a very strong sense of a civilisation in decline and Knecht (and the reader!) is aware of the inability of intellect to resist the tendency of war. Throughout the book I also felt the subtle influence of Eastern religions, which is prevalent in so many of Hesse’s works, and it adds another element to Knecht’s journey through life.

The one flaw I found in this glittering gem of a book was the fact that the world of the Elite and the Glass Bead Game is entirely male; the constant analogies to religious orders seems to reinforce the ascetic, restricted world view held by the Castalians. However, there were female religious orders, and at the time Hesse was writing, women were a prominent feature in art, literature, mathematics and the sciences. So why Hesse chose to make his order entirely male is something that’s up for speculation.

The biographical story of Knecht ends dramatically, and perhaps a little unexpectedly; however, this is followed by the sequence of poems I mentioned above, as well as three biographical sketches supposedly penned by Joseph as part of his studies. These could be read as alternative lives of Knecht, and covering the life of a pagan shaman, a Christian hermit and a Prince. All are fascinating in their own right, but also shed light on the man as he was and as he could have been. There is a common theme in all the stories – one perhaps that runs through all of Hesse’s work – of searching; it’s a trait we humans have of wanting to look for more and certainly it seems as if Hesse’s spent much of his life searching for knowledge and wisdom. And the poems attributed to Knecht share that same kind of longing as those in the collection of Hesse’s verse I reviewed earlier this week.

There’s so much more you could say about this wonderful, luminous book but I’ll stop here. Hesse created a rich and complex mythology of an intellectual pursuit and its champion; a book full of philosophy and speculation, debate about the best way to live your life, and with a central character who is alive and loveable. It’s no wonder that this book has become such a classic, as the issues it discusses are still vital and important. I’m so glad to have revisited “The Glass Bead Game” and it’s been a wonderful way to finish off Hermann Hesse Reading Week!

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