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Differing Standards

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Interim by Dorothy Richardson

Volume 2 of Pilgrimage is made up of two books – the first, longer “The Tunnel”, which I reviewed here, is followed by the shorter “Interim” and finishing this means I’m now halfway through my read of this epic modernist sequence of novels.

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“Interim” takes up where the previous story left off – well, sort of. Miriam is still living in her garret but the start of the book finds her spending Christmas with the Broom family. As always, she struggles in situations which require her to deal with people – she’s always so much more comfortable on her own, and at the Brooms’ she find it hard to strike the right note. She’s also very aware of the subtleties of class, wondering why some should serve on others and not knowing quite how to address the maidservant.

Much of Miriam’s life continues in the same vein as “The Tunnel” – she works at the dentists, attends lectures and concerts, visits her friends Mags and Jan, and revels in a new bicycle. But it is the focus here that is different, which reminds the reader again of how we are seeing things filtered through Miriam’s eye. “Interim” is very much about her life in Mrs.Bailey’s lodging house, her interaction with the various lodgers and about how she not only misjudges social situations, but also how she is judged by men because of her behaviour. And despite the fact that sister Eve has left her governess post and moved to London to work in a flower shop, she makes only a fleeting appearance in the book.

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Miriam’s accommodation has changed since Mrs. Bailey started providing meals for her boarders, and Miriam is gradually drawn into the more social side of the house (and also the occasional meal, finally stemming her constant hunger!). There are a number of characters living there, mainly men, and Miriam is able to hold her own in discussions. They seem to be mainly Canadian doctors, and one in particular, de Vere, is very taken with Miriam. However, her friendship with Mr. Mendizabal, a Spanish Jew, is misunderstood; the simple act of spending time with him causes the doctors concern, particularly when he boasts about his influence over her. Instead of asking Miriam’s opinion, they jump to stupid conclusions and de Vere draws away from her. Most of the Canadians return to their home country, and it seems that Miriam has lost the chance of finding someone who loves her.

All of this might seem a little prosaic were it not for Richardson’s extraordinary ability to capture Miriam’s thoughts and emotions; in fact, the whole human condition as we stumble through life attempting to relate to, and understand, each other and very often failing miserably. Richardson’s prose does bring the complexities of life into sharp focus, but it creates complexities of its own; and there are sections of stream-of-consciousness here where it is very hard to know quite what is happening and who is thinking/saying what. The book ends with the somewhat odd re-appearance of Miss Dear, who seems to stay for a short while with Miriam, causes disruption in the Bailey house, and then leaves. The whole thing feels a little abrupt and rushed, and bearing in mind the shortness of the book I did wish that if Richardson was going to introduce this element, she’d done more with it.

Occasional confusion is an occupational hazard of reading Richardson, and I can understand that it makes her a writer not for all. Woolf, for example, seems more structured and her presentation of the randomness of thought processes is still comprehensible. Despite that, I’m still enjoying my reading of Richardson very much and I’ve learned to let the parts that don’t make total sense slide past me, because the majority of this wonderful work is quite spellbinding – and I’m looking forward to the next volume!

(Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, who’s responsible for motivating this read, has done an excellent review of the book here and Liz has a review here)

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The all-seeing “I”

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The Eye by Vladimir Nabokov

I came very close to reading another Nabokov for the 1938 Club in the form of “The Gift”, but alas ran out of time. However, when I was visiting Norwich earlier in the month and having a browse through the bookshops, I had a quick look at this title, one of the few by Nabokov I don’t have a copy of. It sounded fascinating (as do all his books) so I set about procuring a reasonably priced copy, and felt obliged to read it as soon as it arrived…. Well, it *is* quite short!

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In fact, at 103 pages it’s most definitely no more than a novella, and could indeed be a long short story (if we must put labels on things). However, this being Nabokov, there’s plenty to think about. The eye in question is the all-seeing one of the unnamed narrator, a young man living in émigré Berlin. He scrapes a living as a tutor, and entertains himself by having a rather unenthusiastic affair with a woman called Matilda. However, when her husband gives him a sound beating in front of his charges, he decides that the best thing to do is end it all and shoots himself. Or does he….

From the start, it’s unclear whether the narrator really is dead. Although he thinks he is, some kind of consciousness continues and he (and we) can’t be sure if the surroundings and people we see are created by the narrator. They could be real, and the detachment of the narrator due to his recovering from his illness; or he could be in some other realm and simply imagining all that he tells us. Nevertheless he apparently has a job in a bookstore and mixes with a variety of other emigres – from the priggish Colonel Mukhin to the lovely sisters Evgenia and Vanya. One character in particular, the young man Smurov, fascinates the narrator and he spends much time observing the man as he falls in love with Vanya. Depending on where he sees Smurov, who with and in what circumstances, he’s presented with a different image of the young man. Who actually *is* this Smurov? Once again, the lines between reality and imagination are blurred.

Kashmarin had borne away yet another image… Does it make any difference which? For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me.With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist.

All becomes clear in the end and Smurov’s real identity becomes clear, but I shan’t say how. In a way, that isn’t really the point. Instead Nabokov takes us on a kind of journey through an inner life, and gets us questioning how much of what we perceive can be trusted. The narrator is, of course, completely unreliable (as so often with Nabokov) and that adds to the joy and confusion of reading this.

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Of course, this being Nabokov, the writing is also superb. The book was written in 1930, published in Russian in 1965 and translated by Nabokov and his son in 1966. Any reading of Nabokov’s work is fascinating, thought-provoking and sometimes difficult, but always worth the effort. And this shorter work would be a good place to try his writing out if his longer books seem a little intimidating. I’m rather wishing I *had* read “The Gift” for the 1938 Club now… 🙂

Getting back to Sci Fi

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The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

If you happened to cast an eye over the shelves with the ‘what I’m currently considering reading next’ books piled on them, you might well notice that there are several sci-fi titles there – including titles by Clifford Simak, Anne McCaffrey, Brian Aldiss and Roger Zelazny, as well as all of M. John Harrison’s books. Contrary as I am, however, when I decided I *would* pick up a sci-fi title recently, it was none of those, but instead one I’ve had lurking upstairs for a while after picking it up in a charity shop – “The Black Cloud” by Fred Hoyle.

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I know a little bit about Hoyle from watching too many BBC4 documentaries on space-type subjects, and I had heard of this book as being a seminal title. Plus the blurb describes it as Wellsian, which is so often my style of sci-fi, and it hit the reading spot at just the right moment.

“The Black Cloud” was published in 1957 and is set slightly in the (then) future of 1964. There’s a framing narrative, set in the far future, which is reassuring for us readers as we can assume that the human race is not likely to become extinct any time soon! As the action begins, American astronomers have spotted a black cloud of some sort moving in the direction of our solar system. Simultaneously, scientists in the UK have recognised the same cloud through calculations. Fortunately, the two groups are known to each other and can get together quickly to study this strange phenomenon. And it’s a good thing that they do, because it soon becomes clear that the cloud is moving directly towards us and is likely to block the sun for at least a month. This is likely to be catastrophic, of course, but plans can be put in place to cope with it until the cloud has passed so that the human race and the earth can survive.

Complicating matters, as always, are the politicians; fortunately, chief amongst the scientific community is the British maverick Chris Kingsley who’s as brilliant at manipulating people to get what he wants as he is at understanding what’s happening in space. He quickly arranges things so that there’s a secure base in the Cotswolds which contains not only the cream of UK and American science, but even manages to get a taciturn Russian flown in. They soon become a stand-alone unit, not answerable to any authority, which is what Kingsley wants, so that they can control how the cloud is dealt with.

And soon it arrives, encircling the sun and dramatically affecting the climate on Earth so that millions perish. However, something odd seems to be happening – instead of carrying on its journey and passing the solar system, the cloud *stops*. This is unprecedented, causing untold misery to the planet and causing the scientists to rack their brains trying to work out what’s actually going on. The conclusions they reach are shattering and unexpected…

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I can see why “The Black Cloud” is regarded so highly, because it’s a remarkable piece of storytelling; in fact Richard Dawkins, who provides an excellent afterword, describes it as “One of the greatest works of science fiction ever written” – high praise indeed. It’s certainly a gripping book to read – the pace never slackens, there’s loads of action and to those of us who are old enough to have watched things like “Quatermass” and the original “Doctor Who”, this is familiar territory. There are constant clashes of scientists and politicians, with the latter always been proved wrong, and much tension and excitement as we watch events unfold.

Has it every occurred to you, Geoff, that in spite of all the changes wrought by science – by our control over inanimate energy, that is to say – we will preserve the same old social order of precedence? Politicians at the top, then the military, and the real brains at the bottom. There’s no difference between this set-up and that of Ancient Rome, or of the first civilizations in Mesopotamia for that matter. We’re living in a society that contains a monstrous contradiction, modern in its technology but archaic in its social organization.

Where the book differs from others I’ve read is the amount of actual scientific information it contains; there are equations and scientific theories and explanations which I’m assured are accurate, but which went a bit over my head. However, this doesn’t detract at all from the reading of the book; in fact, it just reassures you that we’re in good hands with a bunch of scientists who know what they’re talking about.

It’s difficult to discuss too much more of the book without giving away crucial parts of the plot; and I must admit that I guessed what the true nature of the cloud would turn out to be, which is perhaps inevitable nowadays, but that didn’t lessen the impact of that section of the plot. The ending was very exciting and plausible, and very satisfying.

Criticisms can (and have been) made about the book; the characters, apart from the main handful, aren’t particularly well-developed; and the role of women is somewhat in line with the time the story was written. Also, it’s rather shocking how casually the millions of deaths are mentioned, as if the higher purpose of science is the only thing that matters and in a way the ordinary people are just a lot of cannon fodder. Nevertheless, “The Black Cloud” is still a gripping and absorbing read and one that I absolutely loved. Definitely I need to read more science fiction!

Discovering Decadent Prague

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Severin’s Journey Into the Dark by Paul Leppin

I’ve said before on the Ramblings what a fickle reader I am, easily swayed in the direction of tracking down a new book when I have plenty already on the shelves waiting to be read. This one is a case in point; if I remember correctly, [P] at books, yo mentioned it in passing on Twitter and I was intrigued enough to go and check it out. It’s from Twisted Spoon, a Prague-based publisher who bring out some lovely and fascinating books (I have two beautiful hardbacks from them already) and so I didn’t need any more urging to send for a copy…

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Author Paul Leppin (1878-1945) was born and lived in Prague; despite writing in German, he translated from Czech and also wrote articles on Czech literature and obviously had a deep love of his native city. “Severin’s Journey Into the Dark”, subtitled “A Prague Ghost Story”, was first published in 1914 and the city it portrays is decadent and mysterious.

Severin is a young clerk; bored to death and worn out with his office work, he sleeps in the afternoon when he’s finished there, and then roams the street at nights. Despite the fact he has the love of a good woman – Zdenka, who worships him – he’s dissatisfied with everything, suffering from nerves and ennui. A chance encounter with a bookseller leads him into a different world – apart from the charms of the bookseller’s daughter, he is introduced to the Bohemian circle of Dr. Konrad.

Something about Severin seems to attract every woman who comes his way, and he certainly takes any that he can; there are wild parties, alcohol, drugs and death. Through all this floats Severin, constantly searching and constantly failing to find what he’s looking for – perhaps because he doesn’t really know what that is. He seems incapable of finding love and at one point reacts against the decadent lifestyle he’s leading and returns to Zdenka for peace. But this is never going to satisfy him, and nothing does until he falls for Mylada, singer in a cafe; she becomes his all-consuming passion, but there is a strangeness to her also and it seems that Severin will never achieve any kind of happiness.

More than ever he thirsted for a genuine life, one that bestowed flowers and terror and blew the daily round to pieces with its stormy jaws.

Well, if anything is certain it’s that Twisted Spoon can be relied on to bring us strange, intense books. Severin is an unpleasant character in many ways; his attitude towards the women he meets is cruel and dismissive, if nothing else, and he seems tormented by strange visions and the constant reappearance of a nun who may or may not exist and may or may not be Mylada’s sister. Often Severin himself seems something of a hollow man with little substance – maybe the ghost of the title? – and he’s really not easy to like, despite his despair. I found myself pondering on the choice of name, too, as Severin is not a common one and is best known (apart from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ bassist!) as the main character in Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” – I assume the choice was therefore deliberate!

Author Paul Leppin - maybe the prototype for Severin?

Author Paul Leppin – maybe the prototype for Severin?

However, the strongest element in the book is actually Prague itself; the city, its streets and buildings, its atmosphere and weather, come alive in Lepper’s wonderful prose. It’s a place I’ve often thought I’d like to visit and although this version no longer exists, it sounds fascinating. This is not so much a novel with a plot, but an extended meditation on Severin’s plight, his state of mind, his sense of emptiness and his inability to feel real emotion.

“Severin’s Journey Into the Dark” was a powerful and memorable read; his journey back and forth between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, searching for some kind of redemption, is a difficult one and the ending is perhaps a little abrupt and inconclusive. Nevertheless, the image of old Prague which springs vividly from its pages will stay with me – and I’m more convinced than ever that I need to explore more of Twisted Spoon’s output.

The calm before the storm

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More was Lost by Eleanor Perenyi

Even though the 1938 Club reading is finished, I still seem to find myself reading books from that period; a case in point being a new volume from NYRB. Eleanor Perenyi’s poignant memoir “More Was Lost” is issued by the publisher today, and it’s firmly set in late 1930s Europe.

Perenyi was the daughter of an American naval officer and his author wife, and at the age of 19 was holidaying with her parents in Hungary. She crosses paths with the dashing Baron Zsigmond Perenyi, known as Zsiga, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. After a rapid courtship, and a separation to make sure they really know what they’re doing, the pair are married and head off to Zsiga’s crumbling country estate on the border of the Danube and the Carpathians. Here they set up home, renovating the building and farming the land. However, there are several flies in the ointment and their life will not go as they planned.

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To start with, there’s the geographical issue. Hungarians had a rotten time of it in the early 20th century, with border shifts, treaties giving their land to other countries and fluid nationalities. Zsiga, for example, is Hungarian but his property is now in a territory owned by Czechoslovakia, which causes endless issues. And the region is home to all number of different races and creeds, co-existing uncomfortably at times.

But the icing on the cake is that the pair were married in 1937; and we all know how unstable things were in Europe at the time. So the first part of the book is something of an idyll, while the happy couple settle in; they modernise the house where they need to, befriend the locals, busy themselves on the estate and enjoy their married life. But reality starts to seep in; laws against the Jews are introduced and the German influence becomes stronger. The couple have a front-row view of what’s happening in Europe and it’s startling to see how their realistic perspective varies from the blinkered outlook of those they encounter in Paris.

At first we assumed that the Czechs would fight. Obviously England and France would have to back them up. I had been to Germany the winter before, in 1937. It was quite clear to me what the Germans were going to try to do to the world. I found it unbelievable that everyone else, especially those whose business it was to know these things even better than I did, would not know it too. And that meant, simply, that we would have a war.

Perenyi is probably best known for her later work “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden”, and certainly her love of her adopted land and the whole estate shines through here. This is a feudal landscape; barter, privilege and ancient customs prevail, and it’s fascinating watching a modern, American girl fit in to a totally new kind of world. But that world is under threat, and as Hitler starts to press forward into other territories, the world of the Perenyis begins to shatter. Zsiga is called up for the army; Eleanor visits him at his barracks; they make the rather reckless decision to have a child; and then events make it impossible for Eleanor to stay safely on the estate or with her husband. She makes the decision to move back to the USA with her parents, to have their son in safety, and that’s the end of her dream and of her marriage.

The book was published in 1946, just after the war, and finishes with Eleanor and Zsiga finally making contact again after years of her not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The informative and sensitive introduction by J.D. McClatchy (who knew Eleanor), possibly best read after finishing the book, fills in some of the gaps for the curious (which I was!) wanting to know what happened to the Perenyis after the war. It’s a poignant tale, and you find yourself wondering how their lives would have turned out if war had not intervened.

“More Was Lost” was a wonderful, evocative memoir; illustrated with snaps of the house, relatives, plus Eleanor and Zsiga themselves, it brings alive the land and the people, the way of life which had existed for hundreds of year and how it felt to be in Europe on the brink of a crisis. Highly recommended, not only for those who love memoirs, but also for the insights into the way it felt to be in the midst of an oncoming storm, and for the way it shows the effects on ordinary people. Yet another winner from NYRB!

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

A rediscovered pleasure

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By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Middle Child is most definitely going to take the blame for this one! I was in the middle of preparing for the 1938 Club with a little stack of books for that, sitting alongside some review titles, when over the Easter break Middle Child returned a couple of Agatha Christies she’d borrowed from me. MC is nearly as big an Agatha fan as I am, mainly the Poirot stories, but I had loaned her a Tommy and Tuppence basically because I love them so much! And it was sitting on the side waiting to go back on the shelves, and I just picked it up and there you go – I had to read it!

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BTPOMT is a later Christie, first published in 1968, and the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford we meet here have grown up a little since their original appearance as a couple of slightly dizzy characters in the 1920s. Middle aged or old (depending on your viewpoint), they have grown up children but are still looked after by the faithful Albert. The story opens with the pair visiting Tommy’s ancient aunt Ada in a rest home, and while Tommy is spending time with the aunt, Tuppence goes off and encounters another resident, Mrs. Lancaster. The latter suddenly comes out with the spooky question, “Was it your poor child?” She goes on to talk about the child being behind the fireplace, and Tuppence (and later Tommy when she tells him) comes to the conclusion that the old lady is just a bit batty. However, Tuppence being Tuppence is not quite satisfied…

Shortly afterwards, Aunt Ada dies, and when the Beresfords return to the home, Mrs. Lancaster has been mysteriously swept off by a relative, and neither of them can be traced. Tuppence is convinced there is something wrong – she has had a feeling, sort of like “the pricking of her thumbs” where she’s convinced something wicked is happening. Tommy, prosaic as ever, is less convinced and so while he’s off at a conference Tuppence begins investigating. Pivotal to the mystery is a painting of a house given by Mrs. Lancaster to Aunt Ada, and Tuppence sets off to track the house down. This action sets in place the rest of the story which involves murder, madness, kidnap, crime gangs, mistaken identity and all sorts of general mayhem. I’m not going to say any more about the plot because that might spoil it!

James Warwick and Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence int he 1980s

James Warwick and Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the 1980s

The received wisdom is that later Christie is not so good, and certainly her last Tommy and Tuppence book “Postern of Fate” comes in for a lot of criticism. However, I just loved this one! It’s absolutely ages since I read it, but it felt wonderful to be back in the world of the Beresfords – although Christie only wrote a few titles featuring them, I do love them. And this is a very clever book, with that wonderful element I always like in Christie of investigating things that happened in the past. It’s a trope she used often and well, and I always admire what she does with it. There’s also a real feeling of menace in some of the characters, and although you suspect the heroes will come out well in the end, there’s always a suspenseful point in the story where you wonder if they won’t.

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I guess BTPOMT might be more of a thriller than a straight murder mystery, and certainly Tommy and Tuppence’s novels veer more towards spies than ordinary detecting. That doesn’t make it any less good because I’m one of those who’s of the opinion that substandard Christie is better than anybody else’s best! If I had to make any criticism it would be perhaps that Christie does over-egg the pudding a little when it comes to plotlines; there are a *lot* of different strands, many of which are red herrings, and she manages to pull them all together at the end – though I did wonder if she needed quite so many! But the book is full of twists and turns, absolutely gripping and has a wonderful denouement that I had fortunately forgotten and so took me by surprise – lovely!

In an ideal world with infinite reading time I would sit down and read everything Agatha Christie wrote in chronological order and have the most wonderful time. As it is, I really must make a habit of going back to her books more often – there’s nothing more comforting and satisfying than a Christie when you want classic crime!

The 1938 Club : Some Final Thoughts

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So, what an incredible week it’s been for the 1938 Club! When we embarked on this, I didn’t intend to read and review quite so many books from the one year, figuring that we only had a week to look at it. But there were so many wonderful titles that I got a bit carried away and I’ve loved everything I’ve read for 1938.

What’s been fascinating is the variety – from classic crime that seems untouched by the world situation through a novel of American jazz life to books set in the ominous world you would expect in that era. The contrasts have been striking and thought-provoking.

Alas, I didn’t get on to every book I hoped to read – these three in particular never made it:

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I was keen to tackle all of them – two new reads and one re-read – but there just wasn’t the time. But having made it to the top of the pile, hopefully I’ll now get to them sooner rather than later!

Thanks so much to Simon for coming up with the idea in the first place and for co-hosting The 1938 Club, and to everyone who’s joined in, posted reviews, discovered wonderful titles and made suggestions – there’s been such an overwhelming response, which is fantastic!  If I’ve missed your reviews/posts, please let me know in the comments so I can link. You can read Simon’s wrap-up post here.

It’s been fabulous fun – and Simon has suggested a great year for our next Club in October, which is going to be (drum roll!) 1947. Having had a quick look at the books available from that year, it looks there will many more fantasic choices to be made – so do join us for The 1947 Club in October! 🙂

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