Men are from Mars…


Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

My reading of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” series continues with the first book in volume 3, “Deadlock”, and I’ve just managed to squeeze it in before the end of the month! To be honest, I struggled a little with the last book and so I was vaguely apprehensive about picking up this one; however, I found no problems with it and loved it, so it just goes to show that attitude of mind may have something to do with your appreciation of a book!

pilgrimage 3

In “Deadlock”, Miriam is still living in Mrs. Bailey’s lodging house and working at the dentists’ practice, and the book opens with a comet visible over London – maybe Halley’s comet, from 1910? However, the focus in this book will not be on either of the usual aspects of her life (although they’ll feature) but on the coming of a new element into Miriam’s world – that of love. Mrs. Bailey has a new lodger, the Russian Mr. Shatov, and Miriam is introduced to him as being someone who can help him with his English. The two seem to develop an immediate rapport; they’re able to discuss philosophy and novels and the deeper things with no problem, and it may be that because Shatov is not English the two can develop an intellectual relationship in a way Miriam couldn’t with a traditional English man. They visit the British Museum to enrol him; walk, talk and have meals together; and Shatov is jealous when Miriam is embroiled in another lodger’s attempt to prepare a lecture on Spanish Literature. The book is not all about Miriam and Shatov though; she visits her sisters, now living in a seaside town where Eve has struck out on her own and is running a shop; and Harriett and Gerald are running a boarding house. In one brilliant sentence, Miriam reveals that the latter’s marriage has foundered, with the pair staying together for the sake of their child; and Eve’s situation is seen as no better, with Miriam considering her as playing at being independent, rather than really succeeding in this.


Through all, of course, runs Miriam’s great love of London, the backdrop for her life. She visits lectures, walks the streets and revels in her independence. As her friendship with Shatov deepens (and he becomes Michael instead of simply Mr. Shatov) it also becomes more complex; when he declares his love for her and she reciprocates, despite her happiness she perceives problems. Michael Shatov is a Russian Jew, and that in itself is not a problem; what *is* a problem are his attitudes towards women, which despite his respect for her intellect, he can’t help but display. Things are thrown sharply into focus with a discussion as to whether women should be satisfied being wife and mother, which Miriam obviously cannot accept, and the reader is left feeling that the relationship is alas doomed.

“Deadlock” was absolutely fascinating to read, and I realised even more so with this book how Richardson is choosing to allow us sight of the parts of Miriam’s life she wants us to see. For example, at one point Miriam translates some Russian stories from German to English and shows them to an unnamed *him*, receiving a disparaging comment about the content (though not her translation). It is only clear from the mention in this section of Alma that this must be Hypo Wilson and so obviously Miriam has kept up contact with them – not that we would know this from anywhere else in the story! A lot of what we learn about Miriam’s life almost takes place in parenthesis – for example, when she tells Michael at length about a cycling accident she had. The dentists’ practice features more as an irritant than anything else, almost a dead-end with no prospects of any change, and at one point Miriam is sacked (though I think reinstated!) for expressing displeasure at her employment terms! This is particularly interesting, as the dialogue that follows hints that her employers have seen her as more of a part of their extended family, and the lines have been blurred between employee and friend, which she may have misunderstood. Miriam’s friends Mags and Jan appear in passing, and it seems that normal life for Miriam goes on as usual, with Richardson simply pointing her magnifying glass at the parts of her story concerning Michael Shatov as that is her focus in this book.

london 1910

Much of the book is a dialogue between the opposing viewpoints of Miriam and Shatov, and although she’s maturing she still seems unworldly in many ways; at one point, as Miriam is about to leave for a day with the Brooms, Shatov reveals rather obliquely some hinted-at past indiscretion (presumably previous lovers?) This throws Miriam into a terrible tizz for the day, but from the reader’s point of view it would be unrealistic of her to expect a worldly, well-travelled Russian of that period to have had no liaisons. But their intellectual exchanges are fascinating, and of course I found Shatov’s championing of his Russian authors (‘Tolstoi’ and ‘Turgayneff!’!) irresistible. It seems that the two may have gone as far as an engagement, as Miriam visits a woman who has married someone Jewish to gain insight into the attitudes she might encounter; a visit that is in many ways anticlimactic, though it does serve to reinforce the limitations of Miriam’s mindset.

Richardson really hit a kind of peak with this book, exploring so well, as it does, the differences between men and women and their attitudes. Despite Shatov declaring himself a feminist, at the end of the day he will fall into the expected patterns of his caste and would want Miriam as a wife and mother. Miriam would be unable to accept that traditional role and so although there is a meeting of minds, it is unlikely to enable a lasting union. “Deadlock” is an excellent addition to the Pilgrimage sequence, and I’m actually very keen to hit the next book soon to see how Richardson resolves the relationship between Miriam and Michael.

(For other views, Liz’s review is here.)

Clashing Cultures


The Chaplin Machine by Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley is something of a prolific author; since bursting onto the scene with his “MIlitant Modernism” book in 2009, he’s produced another five varied titles as well as a vast number of articles, most often on architecture, politics and culture. It was “Militant Modernism” that first attracted me to his work; a short and fascinating book from Zero, it threw new light on a number of aspects of the subject. I went on to read his “A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain” from Verso, and have his others on the TBR. You might have picked up that Hatherley is usually published by left-wing publishers, and his most recent work, “The Chaplin Machine”, was produced by the venerable independent, Pluto Press, and I was so pleased to receive a review copy of the book from them.


We’re used to thinking of Russia and America as enemies, two diametrically opposed forces in conflict ideologically. However, as Hatherley shows here, the West had a considerable influence on the East, and in unexpected ways. “The Chaplin Machine” takes us back to the early days of the Soviet Union when the Russians were fascinated by America, and in particular its industrial methods. At the time, the USA was in the grip of mechanisation and automation, with new methods of production line working coming to the fore; Taylorism was a kind of theory of scientific management, intended to increase the efficiency of manufacturing but often at the cost of workers, who were often regarded as no better than beasts of burden.

Such views would of course have been at odds with the Communist beliefs, but the Soviets were hypnotised by the modernity of the American workplace, and in fact often used US companies to supply (and run) their factories in an attempt to drag feudal Russia into the 20th century. The American methods didn’t only dazzle the businessmen; they also had an effect on Soviet art, in particular theatre and film-making, which was heavily influenced by the early cinema of Hollywood. Chaplin was lauded by the Russians, celebrated as not only epitomising the little man against the state, but also seen as representing a modern, almost mechanistic type of human being, with his jerky movements. Until I read Hatherley’s book I hadn’t quite appreciated how popular Chaplin (and his peers Keaton and Lloyd) were in the Soviet Union, but from the amount of material quoted here, it’s quite clear they were huge!


The book is divided into sections, broadly covering the influence of American comedians on Constructivist art, how the science of biomechanics was used in visual arts, architecture and the use of sound films. This heady, cross-cultural mix allows Hatherley to expand his arguments about the importance of the American influence on Russia and these are never less than convincing. The absurd and eccentric was present in both American and Soviet art at the time, and was often all the more effective in the latter by taking place in an unlikely setting. The discussion of a number of well-known and lesser Soviet films was fascinating; Eisenstein is of course a film-maker I know and love (his Ivan the Terrible films are stylistically stunning), but there are a *load* of other titles I now want to seek out. And I have to say that the book itself is a lovely object; a nice hardback with a eye-catching cover, it’s illustrated with a number of film stills and posters, all of which strikingly illustrate Hatherley’s arguments.

Certainly, the early days of Soviet Union seem to have been either misjudged or dismissed, but the different influences affecting the nation at the time were fascinating. The book was developed from Hatherley’s postgraduate research but despite the occasional academic tone, it’s an absolutely exhilarating read; the breadth of his knowledge and the wide range of sources he draws on is impressive. If you have a love of Constructivism, Eisenstein, Russian film, slapstick, architecture and politics, then “The Chaplin Machine” is most definitely for you – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by Pluto Press for which many thanks!


As an aside, it’s all to easy to forget the effects that the avant-garde of the early 20th century still has on our modern art forms – until you see something like this!

“…the soul is but a manner of being…”


The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

The test of how much you’ve been involved with a book is the hangover it gives you, and I really had a massive one after finishing “Glory”! I spent a day humming and hawing, picking up books, reading a few pages, putting them down again and just being incapable of deciding what I wanted to read next. In the end I gave in – and picked up another Nabokov!


“The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” is Nabokov’s first major work to be written in English, and according to online sources, he wrote it sitting in the bathroom with a suitcase balanced across the bidet to lean on… The story is narrated by V,. apparently the half-brother of the late famous author Sebastian Knight (they share the same father). V. is unhappy about a book written about Sebastian by his former secretary, Mr. Goodman, which he declares is misleading; and so he sets out to put the record straight and write about the real life of Sebastian Knight.

The trouble is, of course, that V. himself has only had limited contact with his brother over the years, owing to the difference in ages, loss of parents, displacement because of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and so on. So he begins a journey to piece together the facts of Sebastian’s life by tracking down those who knew and loved him. Childhood years are relatively easy, as there was some common contact at that time, but once they’d all fled the country Sebastian decamped to Cambridge; V. tracks down his friends from that time, followed by his long-time love Clare Bishop (who was also something of an amanuensis).

“Real Life…” is scattered with references to Knight’s few published works, and V. treats us to extracts at times, also tying in the events in those narratives with Knight’s real life and feelings – and some of them do indeed sound rather fascinating. Succumbing to ennui and a heart condition, Sebastian eventually splits with Clare and his last years are blighted by an affair with a mysterious Russian woman. V. makes it his task to find out her identity and much of the rest of the book is taken up with this chase.

His struggle with words was unusually painful and this for two reasons. One was the common one with writers of his type: the bridging of the abyss lying between expression and thought; the maddening feeling that the right words, the only words are awaiting you on the opposite bank in the misty distance, and the shudderings of the still unclothed thought clamouring for them on this side of the abyss.

Despite sounding relatively straightforward, this book is anything but – we are dealing with Nabokov here! “Sebastian Knight” is a many-layered work with Nabokov playing with all our perceptions, and the narrative is quite brilliantly put together. As the book goes on and V. gradually begins to unravel his brother’s life, we undergo the same experience as he does – instead of a simple, linear biography, a ‘real life’, we are in fact reading the story of V’s life as he tracks down the truth about his brother!

What Nabokov is doing is deconstructing the whole narrative structure so that the reader ends up totally wrong-footed. How do we actually *know* the narrator really is Knight’s half-brother? (Goodman expresses surprise when V. introduces himself as the former was unaware Sebastian *had* a brother). Can we accept anything he says, or indeed anything he reports others as saying? Did Knight ever really exist or is he simply a wild figment of someone’s imagination? That’s perhaps taking the meta element a little far, but the unreliability of Nabokov’s storyteller has you questioning literally everything – and certainly the ending is rather ambiguous.

nab young

I’ve seen several of Nabokov’s books described as “detective stories” and in many ways “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” is just that. As we follow V.’s attempts to find out the truth about Sebastian, what he was really like, who the last love of his life was, we become as involved in his quest to sold the mystery as he does. But there are so many layers to this short book that I think a second reading would definitely reveal more; for there are digs at best-selling authors whose books really aren’t so good, while the good authors sell little; wry comment on the shady behaviour of literary agents; and even hints that the capricious behaviour of Knight himself is not necessarily the best way to behave…

All in all, this was another masterpiece by Nabokov, wonderfully written, evocative and very, very clever. It’s going to take a lot of willpower to not just pick up another one of his books…

The Life of an Ordinary Man


Glory by Vladimir Nabokov

Back when we were running the 1938 Club I came very close to reading another Nabokov title in the form of “The Gift”, but alas ran out of time. However, I did enjoy his novella “The Eye” recently and as I was dithering around, trying to decide what to read after “Solaris”, I thought another Nabokov might be the thing. However, choosing which one was the hardest as I have pretty much everything he wrote on the shelves. I pulled out several volumes to flick through but for some reason, “The Gift” caught my eye; I’m not sure why, although it could be that it’s a pretty pale blue Penguin hardback (shallow? me?)… But whatever the reason, it captured me from the first pages, so I kept reading.

glory penguin

Nabokov wrote nine novels in Russian, starting with Mary (first published in 1926) and ending with “The Gift” (from 1952). However, he’d published “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight”, his first novel in English, in 1941 and there’s a gap in the Russian novel writing dates between “Invitation to a Beheading” (1938) and “The Gift” (written in 1952). No doubt this will all be explained when I one day read a biography of the man….

However, many of the Russian novels weren’t translated until the 1960s and 1970s, with “The Gift” being the final one to make it into English. Fortunately, translation woes aren’t usually an issue, as the books seem to be translated by Nabokov’s son, in conjunction with the author himself, so the reader can at least be assured that they’re as Nabokov wants them.

“Glory” is the book that followed “The Eye”, and it was published initially in 1932 (while the Nabokovs were based in Berlin). It tells the life story of a young man, Martin Edelweiss, who grows up in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg. With Swiss heritage (hence the name), he’s especially close to his mother and grows up in a happy atmosphere, fairly unmoved by the divorce of his parents and the death of his father. However, with conflict looming, Martin and his mother have to flee Russia; first they spend time in the Crimea, and then eventually take a boat to Athens (now why does that kind of escape from the Civil War sound so familiar….?) The pair take refuge in Switzerland with Martin’s uncle (who eventually becomes his stepfather) and Martin continues his life; he attends Cambridge university, maintains contact with the Zilanov family (and in particular the daughter, Sonia, for whom he has an unrequited passion), and flits all over Europe at will. But he’s an unsettled ocharacter, driven by a constant need to be on the move, and it’s not quite clear where he will be finally drawn to….

It was then that Martin understood for the first time that human life flowed in zigzags, that now the first bend had been passed, and that his life had turned at the instant his mother summoned him from the cypress avenue to the terrace and said in a strange voice, ‘I have received a letter from Zilanov,’ then continuing in English, ‘I want you to be brave, very brave – it is about your father – he is no more.’ Martin turned pale and smiled a bewildered smile.

At first, it’s tempting to see the book as simply taking elements from Nabokov’s own life and turn them into fiction, and although the author acknowledges in the introduction that Martin is something of a cousin, the actual events of their lives diverge quite strongly. And Martin is certainly *not* Nabokov, as there is a bit of a vacancy in his life.

Martin’s problem is an unusual one; gifted with a particularly sensitive nature, responsive to nature, beauty, travel and the like, he has no way of expressing this. Instead, his life is one of calm and solidity, relatively untouched by the events that take place around him. Even having to flee from his home country leaves him fairly unmoved; or is he? There is a thread running through the narrative of an emotion perhaps best expressed by the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’; it has no real meaning in English but online sources state “The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”. Certainly, Martin feels drawn towards Russia (albeit probably a lost Russia from his childhood) and also feels the need to make some kind of grand gesture. Because he’s seen as so, well, *ordinary*, he despairs of making Sonia love him, and feels he needs to take a course of action that will bring him the glory of the title.

Nabakov and wife to be Vera in Berlin, 1924

Nabokov and wife to be Vera in Berlin, 1924

Pivotal to the portrayal of his character is a picture which was on his wall as a child. Showing a winding path leading deep into a forest, in many ways this foreshadows his journey through life; following the route it portrays he will eventually disappear into the forest… He’s captivated by train travel, by the glimpses of lights in the distance and these again will influence his behaviour as he constantly searches for something more. And despite trying any number of things, from supporting himself by giving tennis lessons, to working in the fields, he never finds satisfaction.

But the heartache did not dissipate, although Martin was one of those people for whom a good book before sleep is something to look forward to all day.

Russia itself is always in the background of the narrative; both Martin and Sonia (as well as many of the other characters) are exiles, and despite Martin’s loving his English education and success at football, he’s very protective of his native land. One of the tutors at Cambridge, Archibald Moon, is writing a mammoth book on Russia and although Martin is initially drawn to the man, he eventually rejects his parceling up of a living country in a book. With Sonia he invents the mythical land of Zoorland, a thinly disguised Russia, which is the only way Martin and Sonia can talk about their lost homeland.

The ending of the book is ambiguous, and I’m not going to say too much about it, but despite the uncertainty it creates it’s surprisingly satisfying. This was also a remarkably easy Nabokov book to read; his works are often complex but I just seemed to glide through this one. The writing is of course gorgeous – Nabokov seemed to be a master, no matter which language he chose to write in. “Glory” is wonderfully structured, and there are some very clever transitions between points in Martin’s life, unusually mid-chapter, where Nabokov moves the narrative along in a quite unexpected way.

I’ve read that parts of “Glory” mirror “Speak, Memory”, Nabokov’s autobiographical memoir (which I’ve yet to read); well, that may be the case, but this work of fiction stands on its own. If this is minor Nabokov (I’ve seen it described as such), it’s streets ahead of everything else….

In Search of New Worlds


Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

I’ve had “Solaris” sitting on my TBR for some time now, and despite loving the Lem I’ve read, for some reason I’ve held back from picking this one up. I’m not sure if it’s the film tie-in cover that’s put me off, or what, but as I’d hit one of those phases where I wasn’t sure what to read next, I decided this would be the time for “Solaris”.

solaris paper

Film tie in paperback

I had imagined that this would be a more serious type of science fiction than the slightly lighter collections of his I’d read, and indeed it is. The book is narrated in the first person by Kris Kelvin, a psychologist. The story begins with Kelvin travelling to Solaris where there is a space station studying the planet. However, on his arrival things are not as they should be; the station seems almost deserted, there is nobody there to meet him and if it wasn’t for the remote-controlled systems helping with his entry from space he might not have made it. There should have been three men on Solaris, as well as a number of robots, but the latter are entirely missing and Kelvin’s first encounter with one of the crew (Snow/Snaut) is problematic; the man is edgy, unnerved and unwilling to have much contact with Kelvin. It is revealed that the captain, Gibarian has committed suicide; and Sartorius, the other crew member, is locked away elsewhere in the station.

Solaris itself is a mystery; there have been enormous amounts of research, books, theses, investigations and experiments, none of which have revealed its real nature. It is made up of what appears initially as a kind of sea, but it eventually has become clear that this is a living entity of some kind, although no way has been found to contact it in any kind of meaningful way. The living ocean creates fantastic structures and destroys them; exhibits no hostility but can destroy if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time; and all the humans can do is observe.

However, it transpires that shortly before Kelvin arrived, the crew had tried an unauthorised experiment by bombarding the ocean with high-energy x-rays. The results were unexpected; each crew member has received a ‘visitor’ apparently created by the living ocean from somewhere deep down in their psyche. Gibarian’s was a “giant Negress”; we never find out who or what visited Snaut/Snow or Sartorius; and Kelvin soon encounters a perfect replica of a dead woman, Harey/Rheya, whose suicide he regards as his fault.

Human beings set out to encounter other worlds, other civilizations, without having fully gotten to know their own hidden recesses, their blind alleys, well shafts, dark barricaded doors.

The replica is perfect, but needs to be close to the subject who created it; and Kelvin is torn between a wish to believe that this is the really Harey/Rheya, and the knowledge that it isn’t. While he grapples with the guilt tormenting him, the other two crew members struggle with their demons, and Sartorius attempts to find some way to destroy the visitors. Kelvin is face with a dilemma; if he leaves Solaris, then Harey/Rheya will die, but to stay means madness…

Ebook cover

Ebook cover

As soon as I put aside the silly film images on the cover, “Solaris” was a winner on so many levels. The book excels in capturing the creeping menace of dealing with something completely unknown and the atmosphere of the space station is conjured brilliantly. As Lem so clearly identifies, when men reach into space they’re looking for something human-like – more advanced than us, yes, but similar. In all of his fictions I’ve read so far, contact is often a fumbling, difficult affair (in Star Diaries an ambassador was mistaken for a soft drinks vending machine!) but here it seems impossible. The entity on Solaris is something completely incomprehensible to the human mind and this is a more likely scenario for finding life in the stars than some bug-eyed alien from a 1950s trashy movie.

A human being is capable of taking in very few things at one time; we see only what is happening in front of us, here and now. Visualizing a simultaneous multiplicity of processes, however they may be interconnected, however they may complement one another, is beyond us. We experience this even with relatively simple phenomena. The fate of a single person can mean many things, the fate of several hundred is hard to encompass; but the history of thousands, millions, means essentially nothing at all.

Not only does Lem suggest that it’s pointless for us to look to space for contact, he also suggests that we don’t really know what we are yet ourselves and until we do we would do best to avoid alien cultures.

s lem

“Solaris” is a wonderful and thought-provoking book, though it isn’t perfect; the narrative is a little uneven, and there are long sections looking at the history of Solaristic studies which perhaps don’t sit quite comfortably into the story. However, putting this aside, it has to be one of the most interesting and provocative science fiction books I’ve read. The concept is brilliant; the idea that there are creations we can’t even begin to understand is a novel one for the time the book was written; and the tale itself is gripping and spooky. The science lost me occasionally, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the plot. And the descriptions of the ocean’s creations were so vivid that the images they painted in my head will stay for a long time.

I’m now very glad that I haven’t seem either of the “Solaris” films, because I imagine that particularly the US version would have focused very much on the story of Kelvin and Harey/Rheya at the expense of the philosophical ideas behind the book. As it is, I’m even more convinced of Stanislaw Lem’s greatness and I really can’t wait to read more of his work.


You might well have wondered why I gave alternative names to some of the characters above, and I think an extra paragraph or two needs to be spent explaining the translation issues I had with “Solaris”. The version I had (tree book) was the Faber film tie in version translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steven Cox. However, I had also picked up an e-book version and when I had a chance to read a few pages on the electronic device, I did so, but noticed that this was a different version, by Bill Johnston. A little online research led to me finding out that the Faber version was a translation of a French version of the Polish original, which Lem had described as poor (the French version, that is). The Johnston version, direct from the Polish to (American) English, was described as “careful and accurate”.

Some of the differences were obvious – the names, for example; in Polish, the woman’s name is Harey, but this was changed to Rheya for no apparent reason, and the same with Snaut/Snow. As for the other differences, I can’t say as I haven’t made a comparison, but I did end up switching from the paper book to the e-book halfway through as my confidence in the Kilmartin/Cox version had been shaken.

And yet – that’s not the full story, as just because a translation is “careful and accurate” doesn’t mean it’s going to read best… When I was preparing this review, I compared the two versions of a particular passage I wanted to quote and here they are:

We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. (Kilmartin/Cox)

We’re humanitarian and noble, we’ve no intention of subjugating other races, we only want to impart our values to them and in return, to appropriate their heritage. We see ourselves as Knights of the Holy Contact. That’s another falsity. We’re not searching for anything except people. We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. One world is enough, even there we feel stifled. (Johnston)

There are quite a few differences here, and I have to say that if I was ignoring the background issues to the translation, I would certainly prefer the Kilmartin/Cox. Whether that’s a US English vs proper English thing, I don’t know – but it certainly muddies the waters of appreciating “Solaris” a lot!

Visiting the Russians at the NPG – plus some bookshop thoughts


With my well-known love of all cultural things Russian, it was a given that I’d want to visit the National Portrait Gallery in London when they held their exhibition of portraits from the Tretyakov Gallery in Russia. And I was lucky enough to win a couple of tickets (plus some wonderful Russian books!) thanks to a Twitter competition – thanks to both the NPG and Alma Books for this! 🙂

I chose yesterday for the visit as I was hoping the trains would be in sensible mode – for several months at the beginning of the year there were no direct weekend trains to London without hideous bus journeys – and they were pretty much well-behaved, if a little delayed. I could have done with the Central Line being open, though!

I spent the day in the company of my dear friend J. and we met up in the lovely Foyles cafe for a catch up. It’s rather alarming to think that we’ve been visiting the Charing Cross Road bookshops for over 30 years, but nice that we can still do so! J. had very kindly brought me along some Beverley Nichols books she had procured for me, which was exciting:


I was so pleased with these, particularly “Yours sincerely” which still has a dustjacket of sorts. The others are two of his children’s books which will be in their original unedited form – apart from a slight issue in that each has had a page removed! J. is investigating possibilities to find the missing pages…

Of course, I couldn’t resist a look around Foyles, and picked up this:


I am having a bit of a Victor Serge thing at the moment, as I’m in the middle of “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” which is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read – so there may be more Serge below…


After Foyles, we wandered down to the NPG and the exhibition – and it really was quite magical. I was keenest, of course, to see the famous Dostoevsky portrait in real life. It’s the only one of him painted from life, and it’s quite remarkable – you can see the sufferings of his life in his eyes.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery

Who else was there? Well, amongst others Tolstoy, Turgenev, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky – and Chekhov! The latter’s portrait was also quite amazing – the best portraiture really does make you feel as if you’re in the presence of the subject.

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Anton Chekhov by Iosif Braz, 1898
© State Tretyakov Gallery

We went back to the Dostoevsky and Chekhov portraits a lot, but there was also this very striking image that drew us to it:

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914 © State Tretyakov Gallery

Anna Akhmatova by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia, 1914
© State Tretyakov Gallery

All in all, this was a remarkable exhibition – some wonderful and evocative portraits and a rare chance to see them in real life without having to travel to Russia. It runs until 26th June and I really recommend visiting it!

After the culture, we decided to head to Piccadilly, as I had a yen to visit the Waterstones there, and J. wanted to pop into Fortnum and Mason! Waterstones Piccadilly is touted as the biggest bookshop in Europe, sited in a beautiful art deco shop, and it certainly is lovely. Stretching over five floors it even has a Russian language bookshop within it, with some very pretty looking books that I couldn’t read! We decided to lunch on the top floor restaurant, which was a treat:


The bookshop itself is gorgeous, with an excellent selection, some shelves devoted to small publishers and lots of chairs to sit in while you consider what to purchase. I spent a *looong* time browsing while J. sat and finished this book which she then donated to me – how kind!

reader for hire

It was unlikely I would get out of the shop without purchases, and that was the case. As well as finding the perfect birthday present for my brother, I chose these for myself:

graveyard unforgiving

J. picked up a lovely little hardback collection of Akhmatova’s poetry but was much more restrained than I was today.

On to Fortnum and Mason – well, let’s just say it’s the poshest place I’ve ever been! I bought a little something for OH, and certainly thought that this was a glimpse of how the other half live…

After Piccadilly, we decided to head back to the Bloomsbury end of town, and fortunately J. spotted a useful bus! A quick visit to the Bloomsbury Oxfam revealed not a lot, and some very over-priced volumes – this is obviously a current trend on Oxfam shops which is a bit of a shame. So we decided to end the day with a cuppa in the LRB Bookshop cafe (they do *lovely* tea) and of course had a bit of a browse. I was particularly keen on looking for this title, which hadn’t been in either Foyles or Waterstones – but the wonderful LRB shop did have it!


So, another fab day out in London, with good company, artistic stimulation and books! It was interesting to range a little further with the book shopping and I got to thinking about the differences between the type of shops I visited (I’m thinking new books here, as I didn’t do any second-hand shopping). Despite its hugeness, and the loveliness of its architecture, I didn’t think the Waterstones was particularly superior to Foyles. The selection at the latter is just as good – in fact, they had titles that Waterstones didn’t – and I got the feeling that there is more in the way of mainstream fiction in Waterstones than the more out of the way books I like. Certainly the Waterstones biography section was remarkably good, and I imagine that they carry more stock of different genres, non fiction and the like. But interestingly it took the LRB Bookshop to come up with the Shklovsky I was looking for – so I guess it goes to show that there is room for a large number of bookshops, and I’m all in favour of that! 🙂

The Joys of Re-reading


A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

Re-reading is usually a great pleasure, especially when it’s an old favourite that you know and love and aren’t at risk of being disappointed with. Imagine, therefore, spending a year simply revisiting some of your most-loved volumes as you go about your life, travelling round the world and making notes as you go. That’s the premise of this book by Alberto Manguel from 2004, and it certainly is a thought-provoking work.


Manguel is an author and essayist; originally hailing from Buenos Aires, he’s lived in Italy, England, Tahiti and Canada, finally winding up in France. The book spans the time from June 2002 to May 2003, and the dates are relevant, because the book is firmly rooted in the context of world events. The author visits a variety of places, from his family Buenos Aires (where he reads Adolfo Bioy Casares), London (The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Canada (Elective Affinities), as well as spending much time in his home in France. But filtered in with his thoughts on the books he’s re-reading are memories of the past and reflections on the state of the modern world.

The fact that Manguel is writing in an immediately post-9/11 landscape is particularly relevent; war is being declared on Iraq and the author watches in horror as history begins to repeat itself. Pertinently, much of the chaos he perceives around him is reflected in the novels, and Manguel ends up meditating on reading and its connections to reality. Perhaps the greatest books are timeless and can always be applied to the human condition?

… what I no longer recall is there, somewhere, on one of the carefully numbered pages of one of my books. And I, of course, will disappear; the new wall too will fall away, the books will be scattered. But that of which we all form part, a part however small, will stay on, fixed under the stars. And, as in the eye of a sculptor chiseling away at a stone, the whole will be all the more beautiful for our absence.


Despite the somewhat serious subject matter, the book has a light touch, and Manguel certainly has a wide knowledge of literature. As well as the books he’s discussing, ARD is scattered with gems from other authors. I was particularly taken with his quote from Nabokov’s “Pnin” which I must have overlooked on my reading of it:

He never attempted to sleep on his left side, even in those dismal hours of the night when the insomniac longs for a third side after trying the two he has.

“A Reader’s Diary” is described on its cover as “a love letter written to reading” and in a sense it is. However, it’s so much more than that; ranging over time back to Manguel’s childhood, and covering parts of his life and his experiences, it has a wider outlook on how things have changed during his lifetime. But it also makes the reader really stop and think about what great literature is; how it speaks to us over the centuries; and how books and writing are one of mankind’s greatest creations. Manguel’s written a good many more books about reading, I believe, and so this certainly won’t be the last of his I pick up.


For those wondering about the books covered, they are:

The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (Wells)
Kim (Kipling)
Memoirs From Beyond the Grave (Chateaubriand)
The Sign of Four (Doyle)
Elective Affinities (Goethe)
The Wind in the Willows(Graham)
Don Quixote (Cervantes)
The Tartar Steppe (Dino Buzzati)
The Pillow Book (Sei Shonagon)
Surfacing (Margaret Atwood)
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (Machado De Assis)

“Memory wails in my faraway home”


Poems by Katherine Mansfield

Hot on the heels of my discovery of George Orwell’s poetry came the discovery that the wonderful prose stylist Katherine Mansfield was also a versifier – thanks to the fact that Michael Walmer has reprinted a beautiful collection of her poetry from 1923 and he’s been kind enough to provide a copy for review.

mansfield poems

Collected by Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, after her death, the book also contains an introduction by him; and interestingly he states that little of her poetry was published during her lifetime – which is a shame. The book is divided into sections, covering verses from 1909-1910, 1911-13, “Poems at the Villa Pauline: 1916”, 1917-1919 and what are listed as “Child Verses: 1907”. Apparently, some of the most beautiful were refused by editors because they didn’t rhyme, and Murry implies that they straddle the line between poetry and prose. Well, whatever you class them as, they really are quite lovely!

O waters – do not cover me !
I would look long and long at those beautiful stars !
O my wings – lift me – lift me !
I am not so dreadfully hurt…

(From “The Wounded Bird” – 1919)

If there’s a running theme in Mansfield’s poetry, it certainly is one of melancholy and nostalgia. The verses reflect her longing for her homeland; they evoke her early life and her relationship with her beloved brother, Leslie, who was lost in the First World War; and a strong feeling for nature. The sea is a constant presence in her work, along with fantastic creations like “The Sea Child” and the Earth Child who features in the poem “The Earth Child in the Grass”, both of which works feature striking imagery.

Through many of the poems run Mansfield’s memories of New Zealand, appearing as almost a magical place; family and heritage are obviously important to her, and in fact Murry chose to dedicate the collection to Elizabeth von Arnim, Mansfield’s cousin.

So, as with Orwell, the question has to be asked as to whether Mansfield is as good a poet as a prose stylist, and I have to say that I think that’s not something that should even be considered. Certainly Mansfield’s poetry is often very beautiful and if read in isolation without knowledge of her prose would stand up in its own right. However, her prose was so perfect that there’s no point in trying to make comparisons of such different types of writing.


Mansfield’s life was a short one, blighted by her ongoing illness and the search for a cure. The pensive quality of many of the lyrics here can’t help but suggest that they reflect a side of Mansfield that’s not so obvious in her prose. She’ll always be remembered for her remarkably fine short stories, but “Poems” is a valuable addition to the canon of Katherine Mansfield’s work and most definitely deserves to be back in print in this beautiful hardback edition.

(Many thanks to publisher Mike Walmer for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

Inheritor of a Grand Tradition


Fantastic Stories by Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky)

And the tradition I’m referring to here is one I love – that of surreal, fantastic satire which runs through so many Russian books. Bulgakov is of course one of my favourite purveyors of this kind of writing, but there are so many others, stretching back to Gogol and forward to Ilf and Petrov, Kataev and modern authors like Mikhail Elizarov and Andrey Kurkov.


Tertz has a fascinating history; his Wikipedia entry is quite involved, but the short version says: “Andrei Donatovich Sinyavsky (8 October 1925, Moscow – 25 February 1997, Paris) was a Russian writer, dissident, political prisoner, emigrant, Professor of Sorbonne University, magazine founder and publisher. He frequently wrote under the pseudonym Abram Tertz”. He wrote during the Thaw but his works had to be smuggled out of the country and published under his pseudonym. With his friend Yuli Daniel, he was subject to a show trial which caused international comment, and he eventually emigrated to Paris in 1973. His works are varied and he seems keen to reclaim Russian writing from Socialist Realism and bring  back the unusual and outlandish.

“Fantastic Stories” is certainly the right title for this collection, as each story is a gem of strangeness and wonder! The first “You and I” has a shifting, split narrative telling of an observer and his prey – or is that their true role or are one or both imaginary? Then there is” Tenants”, a slightly spooky mix of mob mentality and superstition which left me very unsettled. “At the Circus” tells the story of Konstantin, who works behind the scenes for the circus but longs for more. A chance encounter with a large sum of money sends him off on a life of crime, which is just as much of a performance as a life under the big top would have been.

The longest of the tales, “Icicle”, which really is a novella, again subverts your expectations; the narrator, in love with his Natasha, is suddenly gifted with strange powers. He sees into the past and future – where a person stands in their place in the world, he has visions of the past and future occupants of the same space, kinds of ghosts. He can predict the future with ease, but this gift is something of a curse and he finds it hard to try and change the inevitable.


The final story in this collection, “Graphomaniacs”, is a marvellously playful piece, poking fun at the mania for writing and the number of talentless authors in the country scribbling away madly and flooding the market with worthless stuff. Bearing in mind how long ago this story was written, I wonder what Sinyavsky would make of the plethora of modern pulp writing…

The stories in the book are wonderfully ambiguous, playing with the reader’s perceptions and often subverting them. What’s striking too is how each story stands out and the fact that they’re still so clear in my mind so long after reading them is a tribute to their strength. The danger with shorter works is that they can blur together when you read a collection, but this certainly isn’t the case here. The metafictional aspects are fun, and Sinyavsky’s definitely carrying on the grand tradition of Russian fantastic literature. I came to the book not really knowing what to expect, and I was instantly absorbed and transported. Luckily, I have more of his works on the shelves and I can’t wait to pick up another.

And it was all going *so* well…..


… my decluttering of the house, that is – as I’ve been carting off books to the charity shops every week and even selling a few online. However, I’m still not sure the ratio is right, and the four I took in to donate yesterday have alas been replaced by five…

The problem is that yesterday I decided to pop into *all* of the local charity shops, which I haven’t done for a while – and these the are the ones that came home:

finds 14 5 16 b

I have perfectly good reasons for all of them: “Kolymsky Heights” has been on the wishlist since it came out and couldn’t be turned down for 75p; the rather frail Wharton is a Virago I’ve never seen before so it was a no-brainer; the British Library edition of “The Hog’s Back Mystery” is in perfect condition for £1.75; the Stephen Spender I’d never heard of, but sounded fab; likewise the Mary McCarthy – I have several of hers and I really need to get reading her!

finds 14 5 16 a

So basically I spent £6.20 on five rather wonderful books. And apart from the issue of space, I really don’t think I can be blamed for that – do you???? 😉

(As an aside, there were a couple of tempting titles in the Oxfam – but their prices have gone rather silly again, so I figured I should quit while I was ahead and just settle for these five….)

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