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Fact vs Fiction vs History vs Novel

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The Glory of the Empire by Jean D’Ormesson

Translated by Barbara Bray

As publishers go, NYRB can be relied upon to bring you something different or interesting or challenging – and always worth reading. “The Glory of the Empire” by Jean D’Ormesson, released today, is certainly one of the most intriguing they’ve put out for a while, and I was pleased to be provided with a review copy by the publisher. Wikipedia describes D’Ormesson as a “French novelist whose work mostly consists of partially or totally autobiographic novels” which grabs the attention to start with. I could only see one other of his works available in English, so kudos to NYRB for making “Glory” available.

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Subtitled “A Novel, a History”, the book tells of a fictional Empire, from its genesis as “the City” in the far past, through the height of its fame and glory, to its inevitable decline and fall. Parallels with Rome and Greece spring to mind immediately, and the tale has that kind of epic quality. Central to the work is the story of the Emperor Alexis, during whose reign the Empire reached its height, and much of the book tells of his picaresque and colourful life, from boyhood through an early life of excess, then to periods of wandering and asceticism till he finally ascends to the status of Emperor.

No one would dwell on this flash in the pan, these riches for a day, this weak showiness so soon swallowed up again in darkness, if the Empire yet to come had not lent them significance. But every element in every story derives its meaning and importance from the ever-open future, which will give it its place, role and rank. Nothing is ever complete at the time it happens. If the Empire had not come into being, if there had been no Arsaphes, no Basil, no Alexis, the City would have left behind only a minor trace. But the Empire did come into being, and Alexis did arise. And the first golden age of the City, instead of remaining in men’s minds as a dead end and a failure, was transfigured into a sign and a promise.

What’s so clever about the book, and this is an element thoroughly explored in the introduction, is the mingling of fiction and fact. D’Ormesson weaves into the fictionalised Empire elements of real history, from references to Rome and Greeks and Genghis Khan, through to more modern elements. The book has detailed notes, bibliography and an index, and you’ll read of a certain document from the Empire’s history that was translated into Russian by Esenin and Mayakovsky, for example. The notes refer to numerous (fictional) works by real writers and historians, and Jorge Luis Borges is mentioned (and channelled!) at many points through the work. In fact, having recently read Borges’ fictionalised retellings of historical lives, I really felt his spirit hovering over this book.

jean d'ormesson

The story the book tells is a fascinating one, though I would argue myself with the subtitle; I would personally think a more accurate one would be “A Fiction, a History” because although the book is made-up it certainly isn’t a novel. And ironically it is the book’s very strengths that create its weaknesses; as a fictional created saga it succeeds and convinces brilliantly; but as the story is told as an epic, sweeping piece of history the reader is kept at something of a distance from events and I did find that I never warmed to the characters in the same way I would have done with a novelistic telling of the Empire’s story. There are battles and tortures and countless, countless deaths which is some ways blunt the sensibilities; though I think what the author is doing is perhaps using the book as a vehicle to comment on the study of history itself, and perhaps even parodying the whole process of historical writing. Certainly, he ponders this at several points in the book, and the way it’s written, with the unnamed historian questioning sources, giving his opinion about controversies of interpretation, and discussing the whole act of writing history, makes the book itself an exercise in historiography.

History, though it consists of memory, has a poor memory. Death and disaster come fast, and so do forgetfulness and the wish to survive.

That said, “Glory” is a remarkable achievement of scholarly forgery; I was mightily impressed by the prodigious skill the author used to build in the real historical information and though I didn’t get all the references I knew enough to be able to see the amount of knowledge D’Ormesson brought to the book. At one point, he even refers to a particular opinion being held by four gentlemen, three of whom who happen to be aliases or characters of Borges himself, and I think there were probably plenty of in-jokes I didn’t get. There are even illustrations of artefacts, and a lovely map, all adding to the ‘authenticity’ of the book!

I found myself looking at the business of writing about the past with a new eye after reading this book; I’ve often thought to myself that history is a remarkably subjective thing, depending on your bias, the information available and how it’s interpreted, and “The Glory of the Empire” throws this strongly into relief. It’s a clever, brilliantly written and challenging work – definitely worth exploring if you’re a fan of the history of fictional regimes!

Reading “Pilgrimage” : An Update

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June is the month when I’ve been supposed to be reading the next book in Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” – “Revolving Lights”. However, I confess I’ve got a bit behind and in all honesty I shan’t finish it this month so the review will follow in July.

revolving

There are a couple of reasons for the hiccup: firstly, I spent a *looong* time reading a review book “The Glory of the Empire” from NYRB and so got quite behind; and secondly, “Revolving Lights” itself. Having glided through the last Richardson, this one is proving much harder – the opening chapter is an enormous stream of consciousness one, where you have to guess who’s talking about who and what most of the time and it isn’t an easy read. I’m not going to beat myself up and force myself to read it quickly just to meet a deadline – I’ll probably do as others on the Virago group are doing and space it out a bit it a time while reading something else. Much as I admire Richardson’s work, at the end of the day writing a book is about communicating *something* and there are times I wish she’d made things a little easier for the reader….

Love and loss in post-WW1 Europe

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Confessions of Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars

Back in August last year, I read Cendrars’ first book about the picaresque adventurer Dan Yack; I’ve had the second volume sitting on my shelves for a while and the sad passing of its publisher, Peter Owen, recently prompted me to pick the book up. At the end of the first story Yack had escaped from the arctic and straight into WW1. This book continues his story, but not in a linear fashion as much of it is told retrospectively.

confessions dan yack

Yack was a man obsessed with technology in the form of record players, and in this book he has discovered dictaphone cylinders. In a series of chapters corresponding with the nine cylinders he’s recorded, he tells the story of his love for Mireille. He encounters the latter on Armistice Day in Paris; the daughter of one of his many lovers, she immediately captivates Yack and is herself smitten by him. Yack sweeps her off her feet, providing her with money, a palatial lifestyle and even setting up a film studio so that she can take up acting. However, watching him looking back from his vantage point in 1925 we know that things did not go well, and in alternating narratives made up of Yack’s voice and Mireille’s diaries, we learn their story.

Mireille is a damaged, troubled girl; growing up in the country with an adored father, after his death she’s thrown into a convent by her mother where she languishes. Her attachment to Yack is intense, and he will do anything for her; the cinema is one of their joint loves, and so it seems inevitable that she’ll end up acting. However, the parts she ends up taking on are strange, wraith-like roles inspired by Poe, which seem to drain her of energy. Her health is weak in any event and it becomes clear that she’s not long for the world. As counterpoint to the love story, Yack reaches back to his life in the arctic and the arrival of the Germans as the war broke out, relating his escape and return to Europe.

But always he returns to Mireille. As he gradually reveals their story, Yack begins to explore their relationship and it becomes clear that it was not a conventional one; it seems that it was not consummated and the reader can’t help thinking that Mireille was looking for a father-figure, and perhaps Yack a daughter-figure. It’s a dark and melancholy tale which I read rapidly but which is still resonating with me quite some time after reading it.

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Much of Cendrars’ work is described as semi-autobiographical although to what extent he drew on his own life for “Confessions…” I don’t know. Certainly he fought in the First World War as did Yack, but Cendrars lost his right arm in 1915 and was invalided out. He went on to be a significant presence in modernist writing but seems to have slipped out of sight again, which is a shame. I shan’t forget the tales of Dan Yack in a hurry and kudos to Peter Owen for keeping his work in print and available.

Finding books in Pound shops…

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Since stumbling upon books by Doris Lessing and about Rebecca West in the local pound shops, I’ve been keeping an eye on stocks locally in case anything else interesting turned up. I certainly felt the need of some (cheap!) retail therapy yesterday, after Friday’s news, and so I did the full round of the three Poundlands and one Poundworld we have locally – if nothing else I could pick up some nice stationery and craft items to distract me. However, in the Poundworld I found a single solitary copy of this:

vermes

I read Vermes wonderful and troubling book in a library copy, so to find a hardback edition for £1 was not to be sneezed at – though with all the xenophobia floating around at the moment, I don’t think I can face a re-read for a while. However, the find *did* set me thinking about whether it would be possible to read only books from Pound shops… I think it would be possible, though difficult, and only if the stock changed frequently enough. There have been books I’ve considered picking up over recent weeks but haven’t, because I’m trying to clear books from the house not amass too many more. But should things continue to go financially awry in the country, I could at least make do with cheap books and the library…

And of course the charity shops. A nip into the Oxfam turned up these two lovelies this weekend:

mandel berger

Berger is a fairly recent discovery for me, and he’s not an author whose work I’ve come across in the charity shops before – and G. was only £1 so it would have been churlish to ignore it. As for “Hope Abandoned”, I’ve had Mandelstam’s two books on my wishlist for absolutely donkey’s years; so even though it’s the second one of the two, I wasn’t going to pass it up. Of course, now I’ll just have to look for the first one online somewhere…. 🙂

Murder in the foggy East End

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The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

The regular sound of a Book People catalogue plopping onto the doormat has signalled doom for Mount TBR over the years, but I have started to exercise a little willpower and not buy up lovely looking collections at cheap prices in the hope that I’ll get round to reading them eventually (because mostly I don’t…) However, I was sorely tempted recently by a collection of three ‘Gaslight Crime’ novels reprinted recently; I restrained myself, because I already owned one of them, but when, as so often happens, the other two turned up in the local branch of The Works, I gave in – I really have no willpower with books!

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I was determined that I would read them soon, rather than let them languish on the pile, and so “The Big Bow Mystery” seemed ideal to pick up after the Bulychev as I really didn’t know what to read next. The Gaslight Crime books come with a generic introduction and also a specific one, and this book is touted as ‘the first locked room mystery’. That, of course, is not quite the case, and the introduction acknowledges that the first locked room story was Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and indeed this tale is referred to within the text of “Bow”; however the latter is regarded as the seminal first full length novel dealing with this particular method, and it certainly is a cracking read!

The “Bow” of the title is not, of course, a large piece of decorative ribbon; the mystery is set in the East End of London, where landlady Mrs. Drabdump discovers her lodger Arthur Constant foully murdered. Fortunately, one of her neighbours is a retired Scotland Yard detective, one George Grodman, whom she summons for help. Constant’s throat has been cut, but the door was locked from the inside, there is no weapon and no means of entry; yet Constant did not kill himself, so how was he murdered and by whom??

Needless to say, the press take up the story in a big way and the main suspect is Tom Mortlake, a popular and charismatic trade union leader who may have been a rival to Constant in love and work, despite their apparent friendship. There is also the poet Denzil Cantercot, who flits in and out of the action, constantly short of money; Lucy Brent, Mortlake’s fiancée, who has gone missing; and Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard, Grodman’s great rival. There are riots, red herrings, arrests and trials and the plot gets thicker and thicker till all is revealed at the end.

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“The Big Bow Mystery” was an enjoyable and fun read, which I think was probably not meant to be taken completely seriously…. The quirky Dickensian-style names give a hint of that from the very beginning, and there is plenty of broad humour throughout the book. Cantercot and his friend the cobbler Crowl, have little to do with the plot but provide confusion, but they’re very funny while they do this. Gladstone makes a guest appearance at one point, and the number of different solutions suggested are ingenious and entertaining.

Zangwill was an interesting man: from a family of Russian Jewish emigrants, he spent much of his life championing those he felt were oppressed, so it’s not surprising that his hero is a left-wing Union man and he has little swipes at Gladstone. I’m not sure if he wrote any other crime stories, but this one is a fabulous comfort read and I *am* glad I finally picked up a copy!

People are the same the world over…

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Half a life by Kirill Bulychev
Translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson

Around the time I picked up my copy of “Dead Mrs Stratton”, I also tracked down a copy of “Half a Life”; I’d read about it on the Science Fiction Ruminations blog and it sounded fascinating. Iron Curtain sci-fi has become something of a thing with me recently; the Strugatskys and Stanislaw Lem have produced some of my favourite books, but Bulychev seems less well-known in the UK and I was keen to explore a little more widely. Bulychev, in fact, was extraordinarily prolific if you check out his Wikipedia page. However, very few of his works have appeared in English, and this collection, first published in the USA in 1977, is becoming harder and harder to track down.

half a life

“Half a Life” contains 7 short works, including the title piece which is the longest, and each is a little gem of tale. The book opens straightforwardly enough, with the setting of a small, oblast near the Volga. We are in post WW2 Soviet Russia and the army veteran ranger is waiting for a visit from his sister-in-law Natasha. Widowed Natasha is in the habit of leaving her daughter Olenka in the country for a break, and when she visits to collect her we sense a growing attraction between the two adults. However, this will be cruelly disrupted, as the story makes a sudden shift to the future, when an abandoned spaceship is discovered by a party from Earth who decide to tow it home. Exploring the wreck, one of the astronauts discovers a kind of journal kept by Natasha, and begins to piece together the story of a woman abducted by an alien ship as a specimen for a roving intergalactic race, trying to hold onto her sanity and her humanity. It’s an inspiring tale of resilience, strangeness and braveness, and left me feeling very moved.

Could he had missed traces of Natasha, walked right by them? Even on Earth, when one withdraws from the everyday world of airports and large cities, one loses the ability, as well as the right, to judge the real meaning of the things and phenomena one encounters. How much more true this was for the objects on an alien spaceship: the hemisphere, rolling away so easily from his feet; the recesses with their forgotten objects, and tools whose functions were a mystery; the tangled maze of wires and pipes; the bright stains on the walls; the bars on the ceiling; the sections of slippery floor; and the ruptured, semitransparent membranes. What sort of creatures had controlled the ship?

Although this is very much the centrepiece of the book, the rest of the stories are just as engrossing. “I Was the First to Find You” takes us along with a space expedition searching for signs of intelligent life on other planets; however there is an ironic temporal twist that affects their findings. “Protest” tells of the issues facing the Galactic Olympics – how is it going to be possible to have rules and regulations when the physicality of each race is so different? “May I Please Speak to Nina?” is a lovely little tale of telephone calls that transcend temporal boundaries. “Red Deer, White Deer” is set on a distant planet which has parallels with the development of early intelligence on our own. “Snowmaiden” again touches on the impossibility of connections between different races from different planets with completely different physical requirements to live. And the final story, “First Layer of Memory” is a very clever take on the trope of memory transfer.

Nature is cruel to intelligence. Still untempered and unaware of its potential strength, intelligence finds itself surrounded by powerful enemies; it hovers always on the brink of extinction. Enemies, both here and on Earth, are always more insolent and equipped with sharper and bigger teeth than the forebears of intelligent creatures. One must outwit them, hide from the, survive – on the other hand, without powerful enemies, one’s intelligence would not be sharpened.

Really, this is a wonderful collection of stories. I suppose I consider myself as a bit of an amateur when it comes to sci-fi as I haven’t read great amounts, and it’s a long time since I read any hard sci-fi and fantasy. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the best of the genre speaks to us about the human condition and how we would behave in certain circumstances. As this is Soviet era writing I found myself inevitably wondering if there was a subtext to the tales; and certainly it’s possilbe to draw some comparisons from the title story, where a woman is taken into custody and imprisoned for no apparent reason. And there is a specifically Russian feel to the stories, particularly in the time shifting “Nina”, which uses a specific historical setting, during food shortages in WW2, to tell another touching tale. There’s a poignancy in many of the stories, although there is also humour, with “Protest” reminding me very much of the light, ironic touch of Lem.

Bulychev

But I think Bulychev’s work transcends boundaries; whether we read of Piotr or Peter, these are all human beings with whom we can identify, experiencing extraordinary situations and trying to cope wherever they are. Bulychev’s book is a remarkable and moving one, and it’s just a terrible shame that more of his work hasn’t been translated.

Amorality in the Golden Age of Crime

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Dead Mrs. Stratton by Anthony Berkeley

If in doubt, grab the nearest Golden Age mystery – that’s a mantra that usually works for me, particularly when I’ve been flinging myself through as many books as I did during half term! The mystery in question has a bit of a history – back in the 1980s (as I’ve probably rambled on about before) the Hogarth Press had a bit of a reboot. Originally the name of the publishing venture of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Chatto and Windus revived the name and brought out a number of intriguing books in distinctive purple covers. One strand was Hogarth Crime, and I had a number of these books as well as a very fetching dagger shaped bookmark listing other titles. One of those other titles was “Dead Mrs. Stratton” by Anthony Berkeley, an author I hadn’t read, and I never did get round to getting a copy at the time. However, in the interim I’ve discovered Berkeley and his detective, Roger Sheringham, properly and so when I spotted a copy of “Dead Mrs. Stratton” in a local charity shop I grabbed it – well, some of your interests don’t change over the years, do they?

stratton

“Dead Mrs. Stratton” was first published under the title “Jumping Jenny” in 1933, and as it opens Roger Sheringham is attending a rather macabre Murder Party being hosted by his friend Ronald Stratton (a detective novelist…) Hurrah, thinks the reader, a country house setting – and you wouldn’t be far wrong, although this isn’t a big Downton Abbey-style place, just a more modest and quirky one, with a large roof terrace upon which is set a gallows. At present, it has three dummies hanging from it, one female and two males (the Jumping Jenny and Jumping Jacks); however, it doesn’t need a Poirot to see that someone more substantial will end up hanging there.

The party is populated by an interesting collection of relatives and locals; there is Ronald’s ex-wife, her man friend, and Ronald’s new fiance; Ronald’s brother David and his hideous wife Ena; David and Ronald’s sister Celia; some local doctors plus their wives; and a forthright Scottish journalist. The complex relations between this group of people gradually develop as the party and the night goes on; and it seems that the vicious and unpleasant Ena is lining up to be the perfect victim. There is in fact a murder which happens very much on camera, and that’s when things start to get complicated…

I shan’t reveal too much more about the plot because this is such a joy to read that I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Let’s just say that much of the so-called detecting in fact involves efforts to convince the local plod that the victim committed suicide and Sheringham is as inaccurate in his deductions as everyone else. In fact for a substantial part of the story, he’s under suspicion himself and so has to do plenty of sleuthing to try to clear himself. There are twists and turns up till the very end, and I didn’t see the final page’s revelations coming at all. Berkeley can plot and write remarkably well and he’s head and shoulders above some of the writers from the Golden Age whose works have also gone out of fashion.

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I’ve headed this post “Amorality…” because when you stand back and look at it, the plot is in fact strikingly *wrong*! Someone is killed, and regardless of their faults, the usual modus operandi is for the Golden Age detective to solve the mystery and thus put the world to rights. The world is certainly put to rights here, but in fact it’s the murder that’s done so, not the solution of it. The victim is described as mad at several points, and the modern me feels just a little uneasy at the fact that it was considered better by Berkeley to kill off a (fictional) mad person rather than have them get some help.

But putting this slight discomfort aside, “Dead Mrs. Stratton” was a cracking read, if a little dark, and I really do like Sheringham as a detective; in fact, I don’t know why his books aren’t more in fashion nowadays because they’re eminently readable and great fun. Fortunately, the British Library Crime Classics imprint is bringing him back to the fore, with his short stories appearing in a couple of collections which I read – and I see that “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” is due out later this year. I’m glad I finally got to read this book after a few decades, and I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Roger Sheringham’s escapades.

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