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A Family Story

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Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun

July has been Spanish Literature Month and while I’ve been following all the wonderful posts by other bloggers, I thought I would fail miserably to join in this year. However, I’ve managed to squeeze one Spanish language book in, and it’s one that’s been receiving a lot of coverage. “Affections”, written by Rodrigo Hasbun and translated by Sophie Hughes, is published by Pushkin Press, who very kindly provided my copy via a giveaway on Twitter; the book is also the winner of an English PEN award. Hasbun is a Bolivian author, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that the book is set there; though the subject matter is anything but predictable…

hasbrun

“Affections” tells the story of Hans Ertl and his family; Ertl is a photographer, famous for his involvement with Leni Riefenstahl and her “Olympia” film, on which he worked. Post-war Germany is therefore not a particularly comfortable place for him, and he takes his wife Aurelia plus daughters Monika, Heidi and Trixi off to Bolivia (a country known for housing exiles, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Before long, he has set off on an expedition deep into the Amazon rainforest, in search of a lost Inca city, Paititi. Monika and Heidi accompany him, and this signals the start of the family’s disintegration. However, Bolivia itself is not a particularly stable place in which to live, and as the girls grow older a revolution takes place. By this time each daughter has taken her own path away from the family, and their fates will be very different depending on their beliefs and actions.

Hasbun has produced a remarkable book here; although short (142 pages) it has considerable depth, and the inventive structure is very revealing. There is no linear narrative; instead, short chapters told from differing viewpoints move the story on very effectively. Monika’s chapters are sometimes in the second person; Heidi relates in the third person; there is a character called Reinhard, Monika’s brother-in-law, who tells his story in short bursts, each section starting with the word “Yes” and ending with // to divide them up; and sometimes an omniscient narrator steps in. What might have been a disjointed story actually works very well; each new vignette cleverly fills in the gaps in the lives of the rest of the characters, letting us know sometimes almost in passing of fates dramatic and prosaic.

For there is plenty of drama here. Ertl was a real person, and his daughter Monika was a real guerilla, involved in the Bolivian revolution. It was a harsh conflict that brought about the death of Che Guevara (mentioned in passing here) and many, many others; and Hasbun does not hide the horrors that went on although he never lingers. As time goes on, the world changes and the surviving members of the family deal with the many disappointments in their lives – failed marriages, death, poverty and lack of direction. The family is eventually scattered, with Hans Ertl left in the end with only memories – and as Trixi remarks, these are a place where “things get distorted and lost.”

r hasbrun

At the start of the book, Hasbun places a disclaimer, acknowledging that although the Ertl family were real, his book is a fictionalization of their lives, and it’s certainly a most effective one. As for the title, I guess it refers to the affections felt within a family, which aren’t strong enough here to keep it together; other loves, other passions and beliefs draw the girls away from their father. The dislocation they feel at being pulled away from their native country probably contributes to the disintegration of the Ertls and Aurelia, in particular, never seems to fit into South America. And Hans and Monika, described as a “phantom” and a “mystery” in the book, seemed to be constantly searching for something unachievable and almost undefined. There’s so much bubbling under the surface of the narrative which keeps drawing me back to it – the relationship between Hans and Monika who seem in many ways very alike; again the closeness of Aurelia and Trixi, drawn together by being left out of things; and the middle-child syndrome of Heidi, fleeing the nest to try and make a more normal family of her own. As I said, there’s an awful lot there in such a short book!

Before I read “Affections” I’d never heard of any of the Ertl family, so I read this as pure fiction which I think is a good way to do so. It’s a rich and haunting portrait of a family living through unusual times and events, then slipping into a variety of dark fates. A remarkable achievement by Hasbun, particularly in such a short book, and highly recommended!

For other views, you can read the excellent posts by Jacqui, Grant and Stu.

Exploring my Library: George Eliot

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Perhaps it’s a little arrogant of me to regard my collection of books as a library; nevertheless, I do have quite a lot and I don’t spend enough time with those I already own, instead getting distracted by shiny new tomes that appear. However, there was some talk of George Eliot on the LibraryThing Virago group recently, and she’s also turned up on some blogs I follow. This set me thinking about the Eliot books I own, which I’ve mainly had for decades, and I was inspired to dig them out.

eliots

As you can see, I do own quite a few by this classic British author, but as I browsed I found myself wondering how many I’d actually read…

silas

Perhaps the oddest looking one is this rather strange American edition of “Silas Marner”. I had a few of these cheap classics which I picked up in the early 1980s, but I’ve replaced most of them over the years because they’re not particularly easy to read and they don’t look that nice. Obviously this one slipped through the net…

penguins

Penguins, however, are usually much nicer! These three are part of the Penguin English Library and date from around the same time. A bit bedraggled but more easily read than the American one.

pans

I also have a number of Pan classics from the time (definitely some Brontes) – they’re quite attractive, although the paper (like the Penguins) doesn’t age particularly well.

amos barton

This is a more recent acquisition – a slim Hesperus Press volume I obviously picked up at some point and then just slipped onto the shelves with the rest of the Eliots without reading…

eliot viragos

And finally, two slim Viragos. “The Lifted Veil” gets some real stick on the LibraryThing group – not a popular title!

So – which of these *have* I read? The answer is that I’m not really sure. I think I might have read “Adam Bede”, “The Mill on the Floss” and “Silas Marner” – but this would have been back in the early 1980s and I kept no kind of record of what I was reading at the time. I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never read “Middlemarch” which is a failing on my part, as it’s so highly recommended by so many people (including Virginia Woolf).

Digging about on the shelves to find these was fun – I reconnected with books I tend to take for granted as they’ve been around for so long. I’m trying to read from the stacks more (and I think all of the books I’ll be tackling for The 1947 Club and the Jean Rhys Reading Week are ones I already own) – so it’s a useful exercise to go back to shelves and go through what you actually own. I may well share more of the collections in my library here soon  (if you’d care to see pictures of my books…) – and I really should read more George Eliot!

Sex and murder in suburbia

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The Riverside Villas Murder by Kingsley Amis

You can’t imagine a book more in contrast to Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” than this one; but oddly enough they both feature young men going through traumatic experiences! However, Russia in the 1870s is very, very different from the London suburbs in the 1930s; and the experiences of both young people are radically different!

Oddly, this is the first Amis novel I’ve read; I enjoyed his poetry very much in volume 2 of the Penguin Modern Poets, and I had read about “Riverside” on the excellent Tipping My Fedora blog (which I’d forgotten till I looked the book up after finishing it). The book is a slightly odd one – a mix of coming-of-age story and murder mystery, you find yourself expecting it not to work. However, I found it did and I enjoyed it very much.

riverside villas

The book is set in 1936, and 14 year-old Peter Furneaux is beset by puberty – not easy to deal with in 1930s England. Obsessed by the idea of sex, he spends his time torn between his boyhood pastimes of model planes and reading, and more adult interests such as jazz music on the radio or attempting to have sex with whichever girl he can persuade to consent (in this case, neighbouring Daphne Hodgson). However, the latter interest seems doomed to failure and so Peter and his friends spend a fair amount of time resorting to masturbation.

Being an only child did not mean that you were by yourself too much; on the contrary, you got the whole of your parents reserved for just you instead of divided up into three, say. Peter liked his father, but would have preferred on the whole to have him as an uncle, even one living in the same house.

Peter attends a local dance with his father, hoping to make some headway with Daphne. However, she is anything but interested and in fact Peter seems to get more response from the older (and very attractive) neighbour Mrs. Trevelyan, with whom he shares a close dance. However, the evening does not go well, as a local journalist, Chris Inman, starts making drunken insinuations and accusations. He’s hustled off, but it seems clear to the reader that he won’t be around for long – and indeed it’s no time at all till he staggers into the Furneaux front room with a dramatic head wound and dies in front of Peter.

Enter the local detectives: the most odd and engaging of whom is Colonel Manton, the Acting Chief Constable. Intelligent, obviously bored and not at all your typical plod, he decides to investigate himself. Detective Inspector Cox is sceptical and critical of Manton; however Barrett, Detective Constable in the local CID, has a more flexible turn of mind and is happy to go along with Manton. Watching the latter deal with his subordinates is one of the funniest parts of the book – his sarcasm is wonderful! There are several suspects, as it becomes obvious that Inman knew plenty of local secrets and may well have been a potential blackmailer. Alarmingly enough, suspicion falls on Peter’s father; meanwhile Peter himself is becoming embroiled with Mrs. Trevelyan and also spending time with Manton. The plot thickens and the reader starts to wonder which will come first; Peter’s loss of his virginity or the solution to the mystery. And what does *any* of this have to do with the theft of the local attraction, an ancient skeleton known as Boris Karloff, from the museum??

Kingsley Amis by Godfrey Argent, c. NPG

Kingsley Amis by Godfrey Argent, c. NPG

“Riverside” was actually a really fascinating and enjoyable read; despite the oddities of the subject, it actually pulled together well and I suspect Amis intended several subtexts to the book. The sexual element, although initially unusual, actually is very relevant to the story – and a little hard to discuss without spoilers. Let’s just say that one character is able to understand the mindset and motivation of another, which enables a solution to be reached. The characters are well drawn and the portrait of suburbia and its constraints spot on. In particular, the relationship between Peter and his father is sensitively shown and quite touching in parts. Peter himself is a convincing mixture of teenage bravado and youth, obviously still needing the reassurance of his parents. It’s a credit to the adults around him (and also to Amis’ skill as a writer) that he emerges from the events relatively unscathed and with his reputation intact.

As for his father, in a different book and in different hands (Patrick Hamilton? Julian McLaren-Ross?) Furneaux senior would have been a very different, perhaps darker character. As it is, his situation and his failings are only hinted at in the book; his less-than-glowing war career, his somewhat seedy and low-paying job. Class differences are important in this suburban setting, with the size of a meal served being the defining factor in one’s status in the world!

Then of course there is the sexual element; well it was fascinating too to see the differentiation the boys make: fiddling with your friends for sexual relief is fine, but anything more or involving anyone older is pervy and dodgy. In fact, the undercurrent of homosexuality is prevalent throughout the book, whether it be the hinted-at previous indiscretion of one of the neighbours or the reason that Colonel Manton is still single… Again, Amis handles this element sensitively; there is what we would now call an act of paedophilia involved, and this is used as a plot device and a weapon for good; no one is emotionally damaged and I can’t help feeling that Amis is applying common sense to a situation which has probably arisen many times over the decades.

The mystery itself is interesting though probably not the most complex one I’ve read; in fact, I did guess the solution comfortably before the end. Amis is obviously a fan of Golden Age mystery, as he has the Colonel reading classic stories and lending one to Peter. The names and titles dropped include John Dickson Carr, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, John Rhode, The Nine Taylors, The House of The Arrow – Amis really knows his classic crime fiction, and some of those authors are ones who’ve slipped out of favour but are coming back into the public eye now. Amis plays fair with the reader, offering three page numbers on which to pay particular attention if you’re trying to outwit the author, and this, with the other references to murder mysteries, adds a sense of fun to the book.

“Riverside” ends in with Peter having come through his rite of passage relatively unscathed and a little more mature. I’m finding that the more I think about this book, the cleverer it seems and the more depth there is to it; for what is ostensibly something Graham Greene would have called and “entertainment”, it certainly raises a lot of issues to mentally chew over. This was my first Amis novel, and I’m sure it’s not going to be the last.

Reading updates – plus a very special arrival!

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You might have noticed the sparsity of reviews on the Ramblings lately, as I am still in the depths of Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” although reaching the end – it’s a fascinating and neglected book, and I’m looking forward to covering it for the next “Shiny New Books”.

I took a little detour back into Soviet sci-fi earlier in the week with Kirill Bulychev, and the fascinating introduction by Vladimir Gakov ran through the history of Russian science fiction writing and highlighted a book I’d often thought of reading. “Aelita” is probably best known as a pioneering 1920s Soviet film, featuring striking and beautiful sets and costumes by the Constructivist artist Aleksandra Ekster, but Alexei Tolstoy’s novel came first, in 1923. A quick search online revealed that the book was mainly available in a fairly ugly modern edition – until I popped onto Abe and found mention of a Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow version. I own a few books from this publisher, and the listing mentioned a fairly good dustjacket; the cost was more than I would usually pay, but I took a deep breath and sent for it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

aelita cover

As you can see, the small but remarkably well-preserved hardback has a really beautiful cover and it’s in better condition than I expected. The inside is equally lovely too – here’s the title page:

aelita title page

And here’s the first page of the book:

aelita opening

So I’m happy that this was money well spent, and I’d rather have an old and lovely version of a book than a new but modern and dull one – and hopefully this will get to the top of the reading pile soon!

As for any more new arrivals – only one this week! In the Oxfam I spotted this:

riverside villas

If I remember correctly (and that’s always debatable nowadays!) the only Amis I’ve read so far is his poetry, and I liked the sound of this (and also the chapter I read over lunch in Nero) – so this may be a bit of suitable light relief after being absorbed in Fyodor for so long!

What it means to be human

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Two more short stories by Kirill Bulychev

As you might have noticed, I was mightily impressed with the sci-fi short stories of Kirill Bulychev when I read his collection “Half a Life” recently. He was a very prolific author in his native language, but a quick search online revealed that not an awful lot of his works have been translated. However, I had a browse on the wonderful resource that is the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and found that there are some of his short stories in other collections and so I sent off for one that sounded particularly appealing – “World’s Spring”.

When it (finally) turned up, it was a lovely hardback edition – ex-library from the USA but in pretty condition despite that and the collection as a whole sounds really interesting. It’s one of the Macmillan Best of Soviet Sci Fi collections (as was “Half a Life”) and is translated by Roger DeGaris. The book is edited by Vladimir Gakov, apparently a sci-fi critic from the Soviet union, and he also provides a short introduction to each story. The volume is divided into four sections, entitled “Space: Amid the Stars – and on Earth”, “The Future – Fears and Hopes”, “Parallel Worlds: Space and Time” and “Aliens: Human and Nonhuman” . Bulychev’s two tales fall into the second and the last sections, and are just as good as the previous ones I’d read.

worlds spring

Bulychev really is a master storyteller, and in both stories he wrong-foots the reader from the beginning, not letting on quite who/what the protagonist is. In “An Ugly Bioform”, we meet (logically enough) a bioform – a human who has been surgically altered to survive extreme conditions on other planets and in other environments. Returning from his mission, he is somewhat alienated back on earth and unsure of his future until local events thrust him into a situation where his physical condition can be of use. The second story, “The Choice”, features someone who initially appears to be human, albeit with powers to change form and influence people. However, as the tale progresses it becomes clear that there is more to this person that meets the eye and they have a big decision to make about their future.

There is a consistent theme in both stories about belonging; whether you are a human originally or not a human, how much of your identity is defined by where you live and where you grew up? The stories explore these aspects of living very thoughtfully and Bulychev never hits you in the face with his message. Whilst celebrating simple human existence and the joys of life on earth, he shows the possibilities that could be out there in the universe. He also tells his story brilliantly, drawing you in and gradually revealing more about his characters and their setting until you’re completely involved in their fate – a real achievement in a short story. There’s a poignancy in both stories as we watch the characters wrestling with their circumstances and trying to make the right decision. In an era when the world is full of horrors, it’s timely to consider what it is to be a human being and what our responsibilities are to each other.

The introduction to the first story by Gakov is revealing; he discloses that Bulychev is the pseudonym of an academic and sings the praises of his prolific works, describing his work as “psychologically penetrating”. Of course, Wikipedia will tell you much, much more nowadays, but at the time of this book’s publication (1981) there was probably very little known in the west about the author. Gakov rates Bulychev highly, putting him as second only to the Strugatskys. I’ve probably not read enough of either of these to agree or disagree with that opinion, but I certainly rate Bulychev highly myself – and I fear another visit to the ISFDB may be due…. 🙂

(As an aside, this whole collection does look rather lovely – it contains a number of names I’m not familiar with, and when things are a little less frantic, I’ll spend some time exploring it!)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…

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The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin

It isn’t often that you’ll drop into the Ramblings to find a negative review; I tend to try to read things I think I’ll like, as life is too short to waste on rubbish books, and usually I succeed. However, I’m afraid that this time things went horribly wrong and I ended up reading a book that I didn’t like and which made me angry… (and there *will* be SPOILERS in this review).

sherlock

The book in question is The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin. The author is well-known for his Aurelio Zen series of mysteries, which I haven’t read, but this one-off novel is a Holmes pastiche (from 1978). You might wonder why I persevered if I didn’t like it; well, it was a gift from OH, so I kind of felt obliged to. And I *have* read a number of Holmes spin-offs over the years and mostly liked them (“The Italian Secretary” by Caleb Carr is probably my favourite).

However, I should have guessed from the cover, which pretty much gives away what’s going to happen (at least if you have a half a brain)… The book purports to be a story found amongst the papers of one John D Watson MD. The one bit of the story I liked was the slightly metafictional element Dibdin introduced with Watson feeding Holmes tales to his fellow MD, Arthur Conan Doyle for the latter to turn them into popular tales. However, the story here, fitted in amongst the canonical tales, tells of Holmes and Watson investigating the murders of Jack the Ripper. For a start, that really isn’t an original idea, as several books and films have already done this, and quite effectively. And I have to say that the details of the murders are given in all their gory detail here, so graphically that I had to skip over those bits.

However, Dibdin’s main aim here seems to be to completely destroy the character of Sherlock Holmes. (SPOILER ALERT). Almost from the start of the book it was obvious that Dibdin was going to have Holmes being the Ripper and I really couldn’t believe that it was that obvious – I kept hoping there would be a twist and that the Moriarty he was pursuing would be the Ripper. Then I thought there might be a double twist and we would think it was Moriarty and it would turn out to be really Holmes. As it was, it ended up that Moriarty didn’t exist, Holmes had a split personality and was a sick killer, Watson was a dolt, and Holmes chucked himself off the Reichenbach Falls so as not to kill Watson. Oh dear…

You could argue, I suppose, that Dibdin is presenting a supposedly real-life Holmes that the fictions we know and love are based on. But that doesn’t wash with me – none of this was convincing, it was so predictable I could hardly bear to read it and in the end I just didn’t get the point. Online reviews seem to fall into the extreme love it or extreme hate it camps, and I know which one I fall into. Not a book I ever want to have anything to do with again and the only point in its favour is that it’s less than 200 pages and didn’t take me long to get through…. 😦

Some newbies hit the shelves…

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It’s a busy time of year for me at work, and I’ve been struggling a little to keep up with the reading; and so I’ve tried to stem the amount of books coming into the house. But that usually fails a bit, and there *are* a few new arrivals I’d like to share with you! 🙂

I’m still taking donations to the local charity stores and doing quite well at not bringing replacements home. However, these two slipped into my bag somehow – well, they really couldn’t be left behind…

simenon st exupery

The Saint-Exupery is a title I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and such a beautiful Penguin edition in lovely condition couldn’t be ignored. As for the Simenon, well I’m intrigued – it’s one of his non-Maigret titles and is set in a Soviet port in the 1930s, where the new Turkish Consul has an affair with a local woman and has to deal with the consequences. I’m really keen to read this one soon!

The other arrivals are all new books, which is rather fab! First up, a prize in a giveaway from the lovely Pushkin Press:

Affections

Again, this one sounds really good and I can’t wait to read it. The other books are all review ones, planned for forthcoming editions of Shiny New Books:

PMP new

New Penguin Modern Poets – what more can I say????

Grand

Grand Hotel – very excited about this one too, as it’s being raved about.

And finally, the reason I’m not reading much else at the moment:

adolesc

600 pages of Dostoevskian loveliness! So if my reviews are not so frequent for a while, you’ll know why! 🙂

Tales of Siberian Exile

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Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge
Translated by Richard Greeman

Victor Serge is fast becoming an author I turn to when I want a book that I know will be enthralling and beautifully written. After discovering him via his “Conquered City” in 2014, I was recently bowled over by “The Case of Comrade Tulayev”. And after spending some time in the rarefied world of (fictional) history (I’m reviewing a little out of order here), I felt that I needed to read something that dealt with the human side of the past and how it affected people on a smaller scale – so Serge seemed the ideal choice.

midnight

“Midnight in the Century” was first published in 1939, and whilst looking through the introduction I realised that I was slightly reading Serge’s books out of order; events in this one, though not directly leading onto “Comrade Tulayev”, do feature at least one character who will turn up in that book. However, that didn’t faze me too much…. 🙂

“Midnight” is a story about exile; most of the action takes place in the Siberian town of Black Waters, where a number of political deportees have been sent. There is the old Bolshevik Rhyzik (who will play a crucial part in “Tulayev”); Varvara, determined yet vulnerable; Avelii, drawn to Varvara despite the risks involved in becoming emotionally attached; Kostrov, a late arrival, whose presence will have a destructive effect; Elkin, ex-president of the Kiev CHEKA; and young Rodion, a somewhat naive comrade who struggles to understand the dialectic behind the revolution.

The little town is a strange outpost of the Soviet Union; built on a history of dissent, it still houses Russian Orthodox Old Believers whose faith is an anathema to the Communist authorities. A mixture of old ways and modern attempts at technology exist side by side, and the locals struggle to meet the quotas imposed on them for fishing and the like. The people here are still rooted in the land, and regardless of the political system imposed on them, their lives still go on much as they always have.

The Trust occupied a long, narrow suite of rooms inundated by the ceaseless crackle of typewriters and adding-machines, on the corner of Prison Street over a co-operative full of useless neckties and tooth-powder which people used to whitewash the insides of their houses in the spring.

Against this background, the political exiles struggle to maintain their belief in the revolution despite their betrayal and imprisonment. Items of news are smuggled in from outside; rumours of a Trotskyist organisation are whispered about; and they all try to make sense of what has happened to them and to anticipate the ultimate fate of the revolution (which they still regard as going on). But with spring comes another purge of sorts from the nerve centre of Moscow, and the exiles are arrested and imprisoned. Only Rodion is able to make a bid for freedom – but will he succeed?

Victor-Serge1

Once again, Serge serves up a fascinating novel, peopled with an engaging set of characters, all dealing with their own personal moral crisis. His portrayal of the insidious nature of Soviet rule, and the twists and turns of suspicion, is once again presented convincingly, but that’s less to the forefront in this novel than it was in “Tulayev”. Instead, we see how the revolutionaries are tied to the party despite their resistance to its methods and the way it has developed. The tragedy of the exiles is that they’re unable to free themselves from the revolution they helped bring about despite their criticisms of it; unlike Rodion, they cannot conceive of breaking away and setting up an alternative. But Rodion, younger and less hide-bound by theories and dialectics (which he struggles to understand), can envisage a different revolution and a different party, and this vision enables him to attempt his escape. In the hands of a lesser novelist, these characters could become merely cyphers; but Serge is such a skilful writer that each takes on a distinct and believable life of their own

There is nothing left but our defeat, firmly accepted since it must be. For we can neither separate ourselves from the proletariat, nor disobey the truth, nor ignore the course of history. And for the moment the dialectic of history has placed us under the wheel. Life goes on, thanks to us. The victories will begin again when we are no more.

Serge based the novel on his period of exile in Orenburg on the Ural river, and it’s an eminently readable and beautifully written book that really captures what it must have felt like living in exile. His descriptions of the landscape and the responses of the exiles to the land are evocative, and despite the darkness reaching out from Moscow into the Russian country, the book does end on a small note of hope. However, the power of the written word really cannot be under-estimated; many of Serge’s books which were critical of Stalin and his regime were published while he was in exile and associating with Trotsky. The latter was murdered in Mexico in 1940 by one of Stalin’s agents; Serge’s death in a taxi in Mexico in 1947, apparently from a heart attack, has sometimes been attributed to Stalin as well.

Leon Davidovich Trotsky’s portrait looked right back at them; intelligence and energy were stamped across the forehead; pince-nez glasses; a definitive flash in the eyes… Rhyzik frowned. “The main thing, you see, is that they don’t kill him!”

“Midnight” was translated by Richard Greeman, who provides an excellent introduction and useful notes; and very sweetly, has illustrations by Serge’s son, who was an artist known as Vlady. To be honest, you do need a certain amount of knowledge about and interest in Soviet history to get the most out of Serge’s books, and it may be this that has stopped him being more widely read. That’s a shame, because his novels are shaping up to be some of my favourites and I’m really looking forward to my next read of Victor Serge.

Pithy Commentary and Trenchant Views : Reading Robert Hughes

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Art critic Robert Hughes was not a man who suffered mediocrity gladly; no doubt this made him a difficult person to be around at times, but it also made him one of the most penetrating art critics of our time. I stumbled across his work when his seminal television series “The Shock of the New” was transmitted in 1980; it was the first time I had encountered his insightful intellect and I was blown away by the programmes. I have a copy of the book accompanying the series which I’ve carted round with me ever since, and I watched all his later shows (particularly the wonderful “American Visions”) with great joy; few people seemed to be able to cut through the artistic bullshit like he did. Even if I didn’t agree with his viewpoint, it was always entertaining hearing him voice it!

spectacle

Hughes’s latter years were a mixture of drama and tragedy; he suffered horrendous injuries from a crash in Australia, which left him in fragile health; to add insult to the injury the Australian authorities prosecuted him; and his only son Danton took his own life in 2001. Hughes himself passed away in 2012 after a life lived to the full and with a large legacy of highly regarded criticism.

I actually have a number of Hughes’s books on my shelves; but when I saw that a collection of selected writings called “The Spectacle of Skill” was being issued I demanded that my brother get it for my birthday last year – and fortunately he came up trumps! Although I have some of the works featured in the book, the attraction for me was 125 pages of unpublished memoir, and they’re definitely worth having the book for! The book itself is a lovely thing – an American hardback from Knopf, it has the rough uneven page block often seen on books from over the pond (my copy of Solzhenitsyn’s “In the First Circle” is the same), and reading it was a real pleasure.

Hughes, Robert

The memoir takes up where Hughes’s first book of recollections, “Things I Don’t Know”, finished with the author arriving in New York to become Time magazine’s art critic. Hughes goes on to cover life in SoHo before it became fashionable; the vagaries of the art world; his attempts to be part of US TV art programming; the making of “The Shock of the New” plus his thoughts on art and experiences in the art world. The latter really are an eye opener, revealing how corruption and money are behind the latest crazes in art. In fact, if I remember correctly, one of Hughes’s last TV programmes attacked the ridiculously high prices paid for art nowadays, regardless of its quality, and it’s wonderful to see this maverick really speaking his mind. I often wonder if I would have liked Hughes in person, but I certainly do concur with his views on sport:

….it is a great mistake to imagine that merely because something is covered in such a big magazine (Time), it will provoke reader interest. For a slightly embarrassing testimony to this truth, I need only think of American sports coverage, in the media and how cold it all leaves me. Every day, the back pages (and some of the front ones as well) of every newspaper in America are stuffed with close-up and minutely informative reports on yesterday’s baseball and football matches, on boxing, wrestling, the performance of jai-alai players and of racehorses, of divers and dashers and milers and sprinters and shot-putters and competitors in a score of other sports whose names, let alone whose ruling champions, I know (if possible) even less about than how to tune the carburetors of a Formula One car. Countless hours of TV and radio are also given over to these activities. You’d think no one could go through life in America without absorbing some knowledge of them, like passively inhaling smoke in an old-style back room where a particularly intense poker game has been going on for hours, days, years. But no. Not only do I know nothing about these matters: I care very little.

He’s also forthright on the subject of American television, not known for its depth, and having had personal experience of it can say:

Almost all American TV is shit tailored to morons. It is a vast exercise in condescension by quite smart people to millions of others whom they assume to be much dumber than they actually are.

The last chapter of the book is entitled “Danton – I Hardly Knew You” and it’s a poignant meditation on his lost son, laced with memories of their time together and sadness that he was lost so young. Hughes was no saint – far from it, he seems to have spent a lot of his life carousing madly, until finally settling down with his final wife, the ‘love of his life’ Doris Downes; nevertheless you feel for him reading this chapter and wish things could have turned out differently.

The art world always has been, and probably always will be, full of phonies and people following trends, determined to see a piece of art as something to allow them to make money. But art should be for all and speak to all, and if you want to read a refreshing, sometimes controversial, always passionate and erudite critic, then Robert Hughes is the man for you!

(As an aside, if you haven’t ever watched “The Shock of the New” I do suggest you track it down – it’s an inspiring TV series!)

Tales of Art and Obsession

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Art in Nature by Tove Jansson

It’s been a little while since I read any of Tove Jansson’s wonderful prose, but I noticed the other day I still have two unread books on Mount TBR – “The True Deceiver” and this collection of short stories, “Art in Nature”. And as I’ve done fairly well with short stories recently, I picked up the latter.

art into nature

Jansson seemed to be fond of the short story format, as she published several collections during her lifetime. The first I read was “The Winter Book” which is actually a compilation from the earlier books, but “Art In Nature” was originally published in 1978 under the title “The Dollhouse and Other Stories”, and translated in 2012. Once again we are in the safe hands of the excellent Thomas Teal, who’s brought us so many of Jansson’s works rendered for Anglophone readers, and this is a really wonderful collection.

There are 11 stories in the book, and I’m not going to cover each individual one; instead I’ll pick out themes, or the stories that impacted on me most. Jansson’s writing is, as always, simple but evocative, capturing the subtle human emotions portrayed here and giving a strong sense of place. Art and artists are, of course, a common theme, and we see them in all the differing types you can get: a sculptor with a pet monkey; contemporary art for the outdoors; an actress struggling with a part. But there are darker sides to art shown here, particularly in two of the stories; “The Locomotive” is a strange, ambiguous little tale of a train obsessive who finds an outlet for his emotions by drawing the locomotives of the title, and who strikes up a tenuous and rather odd relationship with a woman he meets at the station; and “The Cartoonist” tells of an illustrator taken on to produce a long running cartoon strip because the original creator has had a kind of breakdown, and the effect this has on his own sanity. I did wonder if the latter reflected Jansson’s slightly ambiguous feelings about her own creations, the Moomins.

But the effects of art become even darker in the original title story of the collection, “The Doll’s House”. Here, a retired upholsterer begins to construct a doll’s house out of boredom; the act of creation becomes an obsession and it takes over his flat and threatens his relationship with his partner, particularly when he brings another person in to help him with certain aspects of the building.

Tove and Moomins in 1956

Tove and Moomins in 1956

Not all of the stories are about artists however; another regular theme is that of ageing. “White Lady” shows us three sexagenarian ladies on a night out, contrasting their differing attitudes to life and the young; and “A Sense of Time” plays with our perceptions, giving us a pair of unreliable narrators (a young man and his grandmother) and leaving us uncertain about which of them has the strongest grasp on reality.

I could go on and on, but the more I read her the more I realise that Jansson was a consummate writer who could turn her pen to any number of subjects and capture their peculiarities brilliantly. Her writing is subtle – she never hits you in the face with what she’s saying, instead leaving you to draw out the meaning of the story, and I could happily read her every day. As it is, I only have a couple of unread Toves left (the aforementioned “True Deceiver” and “The Listener” which I’ve yet to get a copy of) so I need to ration her work so I don’t finish it too soon…

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