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A journey into the universe of libraries

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The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

library-night

As I’m someone who’s fairly obsessive about books it would come as no surprise that I’d be keen on reading books about books! And I have read a lot of them over the years; but the Manguel book, which was a birthday gift from Eldest Child, is one I’d been keen on reading for a long time, and as I’d reached a point where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read next, I picked it up.

Old books we have known but not possessed cross our paths and invite themselves over. New books try to seduce us daily with tempting titles and tantalizing covers.

I’ve previously read one book by Manguel, “A Reading Diary”, which I loved very much; and many commenters mentioned how good “Library” was so it’s been on my radar for a while. And what a fascinating read it was. You could I suppose describe it as a series of essays, connected by the fact that they all consider the library as an entity, but each from a completely different point of view. So there are sections titled “The Library as Myth”, “The Library as Power” and “The Library as Survival”, for example. Within each chapter, Manguel mixes thoughts about his own library and its construction, the kind of books he houses there, other libraries through history, the uses of books and literacy in power struggles, how libraries can spring up in the most unlikely places and help people to survive dreadful situations, book burning – and so on.

manguel-alberto

There’s a dazzling display of erudition here – Manguel obviously knows books, libraries and their history well – and one of the elements I found most fascinating was the detail included about libraries from antiquity in cultures all over the world. It’s easy in our western, English-speaking world to think that we’re the repository of all knowledge and literature but that’s patently not the case, as there are civilisations going back centuries who were amassing records of stories and histories and philosophies in one form or another. Poignantly, Manguel relates the fates of the many, many libraries that have been lost over the years, from the ancient library of Alexandria, to the modern National Library of Lebanon. To any bibliophile these losses are traumatic, and it seems that culture and knowledge is one of the first things to suffer during wars and conflicts.

Of course, running through this volume is Manguel’s huge love of books and what they can tell us and where they can take us. So references abound, taking in everything from The Iliad to Dorothy L. Sayers. Borges, whom Manguel knew (and read to) is a recurring presence, and I hadn’t realised that he was a librarian for part of his life; famously, he said “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Fittingly enough, there is a section on imaginary books and imaginary libraries and I think Borges would have approved!

It’s hard to encompass such a wide-reaching and wide-ranging book in a blog post, particularly as there is so much food for thought as well as so many new books and authors to be tracked down. The fact that there is a list of Manguel’s 100 favourite books at the end is not going to be helpful for the TBR either. Manguel celebrates the joy of random explorations of books, the chance finds whilst browsing and the happy accidents which bring us to a book we might never have consciously chosen.

We pick our way down endless library shelves, choosing this or that volume for no discernible reason: because of a cover, a title, a name, because of something someone said or didn’t say, because of a hunch, a whim, a mistake, because we think we may find in this book a particular tale or character or detail, because we believe it was written for us, because we believe it was written for everyone except us and we want to find out why we have been excluded, because we want to learn, or laugh, or lose ourselves in oblivion.

As well as more philosophical musings, there are sections on how to organise and catalogue your books – always a knotty problem – and a history of the Dewey system. Personally, it’s the cross-over books I find hardest – do I put all my Margaret Atwood books with the Viragos even though half are from different publishers? Or do I just put the Virago Atwoods with the Viragos and the rest with women authors? Or have a separate section for Atwood on her own? It makes my head hurt…

We tend nowadays to take for granted access to the written word in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, electrical devices and all of the material on the InterWeb. However, it’s sobering to realise that this is a relatively recent freedom we’ve had and one that we should guard jealously. The Manic Street Preachers famously stated that “Libraries gave us power” and certainly literacy is crucial to trying to resist dictatorship of all sorts. At several points in the book, Manguel relates situations where books and libraries and individuals have suffered at the hands of regimes like the Nazis; the literature has often helped them to survive and in dark times we still turn to books for the wisdom they can provide. “The Library at Night” was as powerful and involving as I expected, and I suspect it might have been even more effective had I read a chapter at a time and then read something else while I assimilated Manguel’s thoughts. As it was, “Library” sent me scurrying back to rearrange and explore my own personal collection; and I expect it to be a book I’ll return to over and over again.

Setting sail for a final voyage – Virago Author of the Month

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No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

One of my favourite online things is belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; definitely the nicest and friendliest of the LT groups I’ve come across, and always supportive and good fun for a challenge or readalong. The group often has some kind of project going on (a chronological read of Viragos, for example) but as some of us were a little stretched by challenges, this year’s has been kept simple after one of the members came up with the wonderful idea of having an author featured each month whom we could choose to read from or about as our whim took us. After a little voting, Vita Sackville-West was settled upon, which was a good choice for me as I have so many of her books lurking on the TBR, and have read so few! (Please note how much reading from the stacks I’m doing just now!) I decided to pick the slim volume “No Signposts in the Sea” as it’s a book I started once before then got distracted from, so now was the ideal time to read it.

signposts

Published in 1961, NSITS was Vita’s last novel, and it’s narrated by Edmund Carr; a middle-aged, cynical political journalist, he has been given a short time to live and decides he will spend it taking a sea voyage. This is no ordinary trip, however, as Carr has chosen to travel on a ship carrying Laura Drysdale, a widow with whom he’s in love, in the hope that he can spend his last months in her company. The decision to make the trip had been a spur of the moment thing, as on the day he received his medical sentence of death, he visited Laura and learned of the journey she was making.

Laura seems pleased to see him, and the two spend much time together on the journey. The ship sets off for southern, warmer climes and although there are islands and natives, we really have no idea where the cruise is going; Carr has no real interest in specifics, only thinking of Laura, and as he says, there are no signposts in the sea. As the journey continues, he reflects on his past, the change that has come over him since receiving the news of his demise, and the bittersweet pleasure of being in the company of someone he loves, but unable to tell her because of his impending death and his fear of disturbing what relationship they have.

An extra element is thrown into the mix in the form of Colonel Dalrymple; initially, Carr befriends the man and likes him very much, until he perceives that Dalrymple is attracted to Laura – and it seems to Carr that Laura is attracted back. However, the voyage is coming to a close for Carr, and a final revelation proves just how little we know or understand about our fellow humans.

I take it that any creative work, as opposed to my own hack effort, must be intensely private, not to be mentioned, least of all discussed. No doubt the actual process is comparable. One lives in a little world of one’s own, and nothing else seems to matter. The most egotistical of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts. To see the pages piling up, and to live in the persuasion that one is doing something worthwhile. Because of course one must hold on to that conviction, or one wouldn’t go on. Luckily a writer’s powers of self-delusion are limitless, and oh the smugness of feeling that one has done a good day’s work!

NSITS is a short novel (less than 150 pages in my Virago edition, although the type is fairly large so I’d be more inclined to call it a novella) but it contains much food for thought. It’s impossible to read this book without speculating how much it draws on Vita’s own life, and indeed the excellent introduction by Victoria Glendinning sets out the events in the author’s life that informed the book. Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson had been on a number of cruises, which Vita drew on for the book, and she also used the story to discuss her thoughts on life, love and writing through Edmund’s musings. She was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill her, and there is a bittersweet element running through the book that presumably reflects her state of mind at the time. Edmund Carr has gone from being cynical to sentimental, regretting his single life and considering what makes a good marriage and a meeting of minds; and I can’t help speculating that this latter must have been much on Vita’s mind as she looked back at her life and her unconventional union with Nicolson. The book also contains a direct discussion of lesbianism which I’m not sure that Vita had ever tackled in her work before.

vita-and-harold

However, the book is certainly not perfect. It reflects some very outdated and unpleasant attitudes to race which I would perhaps expected to start to be filtered out; certainly I wouldn’t have guessed the book was from the 1960s with these viewpoints on show. And there is a class element showing too; as Glendinning points out, although Carr is meant to be from a lower class than Laura, his thoughts, behaviour and attitudes are those of the author rather than someone who has worked his way up from humbler beginnings.

The text is interspersed with unattributed quotations and poems reflecting Edmund’s thoughts on particular topics, and I must confess I rather wished for an annotated edition giving background to these excerpts. Although Glendinning points out that the reader can have fun tracking them down (and they might have been more widely known at the time the book was published), I was too involved in the narrative to want to stop reading and do some research.

And involved I was. Despite my minor criticisms, the book is beautifully written and very evocative; the sense of the removal from reality and everyday life that occurs on a cruise is captured in Vita’s clear prose, and I felt as if I was at sea with Edmund, Laura and Dalrymple. NSITS is a poignant little book, full of thoughtful discussions of the important things in life, and a fitting addition to Vita’s oeuvre. This is only the second of Vita Sackville-West’s books I can be sure I’ve read (I loved her “The Heir” which I reviewed here), but on the evidence of these I can highly recommend her.

Outdoing the world’s greatest fabulist

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The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Translated by Joanne Turnbull

mde

I’ve written about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on the Ramblings before; an author who was unpublishable under the Soviet regime, his works came to light after the collapse of the USSR and have been gradually published and then translated into English thanks to the great talents of Joanne Turnbull. Three of his works have been issued by NYRB, and I’ve read, loved and reviewed all of them. So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that NYRB would be bringing out another volume by SK, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen”. The book is out today and the publisher has kindly provided a review copy.

Every Baron has his flights of fancy… I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than any other barons of my right to flights of fancy.

Munchausen was in fact a real historical character, a German nobleman who fought for Russia in the Russo-Turkish war of 1735-39. He gained a reputation for his tall tales, and the German author Rudolf Raspe transmuted him into the fictional fabulist we know him as today, thanks to a fictionalised version of his life. Munchausen has become synonymous with lying, and the real character died back in 1797. However, SK resurrects him rather wonderfully to take on Soviet Russia – and the story is absolutely fascinating.

And in the third place, you are a bad poet, I swear by my pipe, if you do not know that books, if only they are books, may be commensurate with but never proportionate to reality!

Munchausen reappears after 200 years by dropping off the hands of time back into the Palace of Versailles. He makes a base in Berlin, where he spins more fabulous yarns, accompanied by occasional sidekick, the poet Ernst Unding (which translates as Earnest Nonsense). Amusingly enough, he’s announced as:

Baron
HIERONYMUS VON MUNCHAUSEN
Supplier of Phantasms and Sensations
In and Out of This World
Since 1720

Immediately, he’s courted by the great and good, and called upon to tell tales, solve problems and eventually to undertake a secret mission. The Baron is asked to visit Soviet Russia and report back, which he does. Munchausen’s visit to Russia is not relayed directly; instead we see it filtered through his eyes, as he relates his adventures to a rapt London audience. And it’s a fascinating story, as the Baron encounters poverty, twisted logic and a society which says one thing and does another. He even manages an audience with Lenin, who seems to be able to read Munchausen’s mind, and has strong opinions on writers:

A literary hero is naturally curious about literature. About ‘how life smells’. It smells of printer’s ink to the people who populate books or have emigrated to them. So then, all of our penmen are given a choice: feast or fast. Some work steadily; others starve.

Nothing usually fazes the Baron; however, in the nascent Soviet Union he has met his match. In the end, a reality full of such fabrication is too much for the Baron and he takes himself back to where he came from. His visit was in fact spurious, but the stories he invented were sometimes actually real, and the truth is more fantastic than his tales. Munchausen the fabulist is ultimately outdone by the Soviet state, which can create more outlandish untruths than he can deal with.

I swept a fact away with a phantasm, replaced the existent with the non-existent. Always and invariably my phantasms won – always and invariably, that is, until I chanced upon the country about which one cannot lie.

So where to begin talking about “The Return of Munchausen”? Obviously, you have suspend disbelief from the start and just go with the flow. The Baron himself, as presented by SK, is a fantastic creation; confident, convinced that his tales are better than truth, it’s wonderful watching him sail indomitably through the world, an elusive figure following his own agenda. And if there’s something he wants to avoid, he simply jumps back into the book he originally came from.

Then again, how hard could it be for a man who had slipped through the five beams of a star to elude five claws?

Sigizmund_Krzhizhanovsky

However, putting aside the humour, this a book with a serious heart and I would say more directly satirical than his other works. There is a recurring obsession with smoke which occurs throughout the book; of course, smoke and mirrors signify the trickery of politics (both Soviet and in the wider world), but this also brought to mind the book “Smoke” by Turgenev, a book which deals with the illusions existing in Russia during that author’s time. As with all SK’s books, the imagery is unusual and stunning; on the first page, almost the first lines, we read “Now he sprang up the length of a long runner; leaping after him, taking the stairs two at a time, came muddy footprints”. Some of the phrases take your breath away as you’re reading, and even if you weren’t aware of the underlying issues the book is wonderful to read. Its self-referential qualities make it feel almost post-modern at times, and I’ve seen it described as part roman a clef, although it’s not clear whether Munchausen, Unding or the unnamed person in the quote below is standing in for the author himself….

And as for that poor scholar from the country about which one cannot lie, do not worry. I have sent him, by way of compensation, my rough drafts; if he possesses so much as a pair of scissors and a pot of glue, the resulting manuscript should help him on his literary way.

“The Return…” is an extended meditation on the nature of truth, something which must have been sharply relevant to an author living in Soviet Russia and refusing to produce Soviet Realism. The qualities in the Communist state which would be transformed by Orwell into concepts like Doublethink and Doublespeak were already in place; set in 1921, the book was written towards the end of the 1920s when the iron grip of Soviet rule was becoming established so it’s not surprising it was never published. Like so many other authors at the time, SK was most definitely writing for the drawer (the few attempts he made to get his works into print being crushed by the censor).

If you look at Moscow from a bird’s-eye view, you will see: a stone spider in the center – the Kremlin, peering out of four wide open archways at the web of streets it has woven, their gray threads, as in any web, stretching away radially, attaching themselves to distant gates…

moscow-1920s

I found myself profoundly affected by this book; it’s vivid and allusive (and fortunately provided with excellent notes and introduction by Turnbull), and the more I think about it, the more there is in it. SK seems to manage to comment on every aspect of Soviet life, even pulling in a sly reference to the theories of the Communist Manifesto when discussing the attraction of such opposites as a White Russian aristocrat and a Red Guard:

So it always was, so it will always be: antitheses will always trail after theses, but let them marry – and their old friend synthesis will be there like a shot.

If it seems that I’ve pulled out a lot of quotes that’s because the writing is so good and the imagery so outstanding. Although it’s a book with a message, “The Return of Munchausen” is a joy to read as well.

His listeners are all ears, and right away he begins to bend them; first around the edges, then along the auricular cartilage, inward and inward, until they curl up like autumn leaves and, ear by ear, softly and unrustlingly, flutter to the floor. But now his disciplined manservant, who has appeared behind the guests’ backs with dustpan and brush, quietly sweeps up the ears and carries them out.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the book here, as it’s rich with references, thoughts, aphorisms and wild imaginative humour. It’s certainly a work which I’ll return to and which will continue to resonate as I assimilate what it has to say. “The Return of Munchausen” is a deeply thoughtful and fascinating read, and I can’t recommend SK’s books enough,

Exploring my Library: Italo Calvino

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Whilst rummaging around on the shelves a few days back to dig out my Fitzgeralds, I had to move my collection of Italo Calvino books to get to them; and I realised just how many books I had by one of my favourite authors! So I thought I would share a couple of photos here (and I really do need to get myself a decent camera or some lighting – sorry if the images are a little dark!)

calvino-spines

This is the Calvino collection! As you can see, I have just about everything available in English, plus a few volumes where he’s done the introduction or where it’s an author recommended by him!

cosmicomics

“The Complete Cosmicomics” is one of my favourite Calvino works – clever and thought-provoking tales, which Lem’s works remind me of in a way, I read and reviewed the complete works in 2012 and loved them all over again.

invisible-cities

“Invisible Cities” is one of Calvino’s most highly regarded works. Supposedly an account of the fantastic places visited by Marco Polo on his travels, it’s in fact a highly structured piece of work with impressionistic descriptions of the places in a particular OuLiPian pattern  – which of course I didn’t recognise and wouldn’t have worked out unless I’d read it online…. Doesn’t make it any the less readable though! 🙂

traveller

And this is the first Calvino I read, and probably my favourite (with “Cosmicomics” a close second). The copy of “If on a winter’s night a traveller” on the left is my original one; the middle a volume I picked up for a re-read because I didn’t want to mess up my original; and the one on the right a pretty volume that I had to have just because… It’s a stunning book which I love – one of my desert island books – and I can’t recommend it or Calvino’s books enough!

A Strong Female Sensibility

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Clear Horizon by Dorothy Richardson

I’m playing catch-up a little bit with my reviews, as I did a *lot* of reading over the Christmas period, but didn’t get round to writing up my thoughts. However, I was really pleased to get back to reading Richardson after a bit of a break – the holidays were the ideal time to read her, as I had longer uninterrupted chunks with the book! This is the first of three titles left to read before I finish the series, and “Clear Horizon” was first published in 1935.

pilg-4

The book opens with Miriam still at Mrs. Bailey’s, and a new edition to the boarders has arrived in the form of Lionel Cholmley (is he the young man from the end of the previous story? Who knows?) However, he soon disappears from view so whether he will be significant in the future remains to be seen. In fact, “Clear Horizon” is a book where on the surface of it not much happens, but if you read carefully, Miriam goes through some major changes. For a start, there is a possible pregnancy (Hypo commenting that she is “booked for maternity”) and then it transpires that she either is mistaken or loses the baby. Miriam seems to become disillusioned with Hypo and makes a kind of break with him, viewing him more cynically than she has in the past. She introduces Michael Shatov to Amabel, possibly as a kind of match-making process (I can’t help wondering if this is an event that will have future implications?)

As well as drawing back from involvement with Hypo, Miriam begins to distance herself a little from Amabel and regard her more critically. Amabel has thrown herself into the suffragist movement, marching with them and being arrested. Miriam is not prepared to commit to that kind of action, preferring instead to continue her association with the Lycurgans. She visits Amabel in prison, but recognises that the latter is acting and posing all the time; and Miriam is no longer charmed by her behaviour.

Closer to home, Miriam’s sister Sarah is ill; what kind of complaint is never specified but it is a serious one, and Miriam’s old flame Dr. Densley advises an operation which will kill or cure. The family is of course impoverished (lack of money is a recurring theme in the books) but Densley has managed to arrange treatment at a minimal cost. Densley has been one of the constants in Miriam’s life, and she (and we!) get to speculate what her life might have been like had she accepted his proposal.

However, Densley identifies that Miriam is run down (she’s been burning the candle at both ends as usual) and so he recommends a break. Fortunately, she has some money put aside and makes a decisive break, leaving everything behind – job/Hypo/friends – to go off we don’t know where for some kind of rest cure. She refers to this as a nervous breakdown but whether it actually is, like so much in these books, is ambiguous! So the book ends with Miriam on the verge of more changes, as she takes her leave of the dentists’ practice and particularly Mr. Hancock.

richardson

I was surprised initially at how positively I responded to “Clear Horizon”, particular as I know some other readers have struggled. As usual, the story is couched in her usual allusive, elusive style and there is some beautiful prose. Her use of language when Miriam is off on her mental flights of fancy is evocative, and it was wonderful seeing Miriam relish more than anything London and her solitude and freedom. These latter are vital to her wellbeing, and there is the sense that whatever sacrifices she’s made, she’s chosen the way of life that’s essential for her.

I actually ended up enjoying this book a lot more than I expected, immersing myself in Miriam’s world and the changes going on in her life. I think after the strictly masculinist outlook of Tolstoy I was in need of a strong female sensibility and Miriam, with her refusal to compromise and her relentless quest for her own space and independence, was a perfect read for me at this time. I feel that I tuned in to what Richardson was trying to do in her writing, and although there are the usual frustrations, nevertheless this was a very positive reading experience and I think I have the impetus now to push on to the two final books before too long!

Tackling Tolstoy

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The figure of Tolstoy towers over Russian literature; as well as producing his massive tomes “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, his moral and spiritual influence on the country was huge. I read AK in 2013, and “War and Peace” is still on my radar. However, the size is a little intimidating and I most likely won’t get to it any time soon. So I was really pleased when OH came up with a collection of shorter works as a Christmas gift; he bought it mainly because of the title story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, which he’d heard of somewhere. However, I thought I would read through it one story at a time, and the first in the book is “Family Happiness”.

ivan

The story is narrated, perhaps unusually for Tolstoy, by a young girl of 17, Masha. As the book opens, she has been left an orphan by the death of her mother. She and her sister Sonya, plus their old nurse Katya, are living in the country and waiting for family friend Sergey to visit. Masha has know the latter all her life as her father’s best friend (although younger than him) and someone the family could rely on. And indeed Sergey comes to sort out the family’s affairs and keep an eye on them, whilst taking care of his own business at his nearby estate where he lives with his mother.

As Masha starts to mature, inevitably Sergey’s interest in her changes, and Masha herself begins to see the family friend in a new light. Inevitably she falls in love with him – or is it just a young girl’s infatuation? The courtship is a long and hesitant one, as Sergey expresses doubts as to Masha’s real love for him, thinking she will soon grow bored with him. However, the two marry and start their married life living in Sergey’s family home. Initially, things are all happy and lovely, but it isn’t long until, as Sergey predicted, Masha becomes restless, unsatisfied with country living. A trip to the society of St. Petersburg awakens her interest in the finer things in life, which inevitable has a detrimental effect on the marriage…

“Family Happiness” was published in 1859 and I was fascinated to see in it early hints of themes which would come to the fore in “Anna Karenina”. The age difference in the marriage of the two protagonists, the love of society and the flirting and shallowness developed by Masha, and the inevitable disintegration of the marriage, reminded me very much of the union of Anna and Karenin. However, by using the female perspective to narrate, the viewpoint is somewhat different as we follow Masha’s changing views and emotions during the changes in her life.

I did, however, at times feel that Masha was not there so much as a character in her own right; more that she was there to represent much that Tolstoy felt was wrong in womanhood and that there was a didactic purpose behind the writing. Interestingly, the age gap between Sergey and Masha is very similar to that between Tolstoy and his long-suffering wife Sonya, although the marriage between the two took place after FH was published – a case of life imitating art, perhaps!

I enjoyed reading the story very much, particularly for the quality of the writing/translation – a passage like this, for example:

We went up to him, and truly it was a night such as I have never seen since. The full moon stood over the house behind us so that it could not be seen; and half the shadow of the room of the columns and the verandah awning, lay slanting en raccourci on the sandy path and the circular lawn. All the rest was light, and bathed in silver dew and moonlight. The broad flowery path, all bright and cold, with shadows of the dahlias and their sticks lying slanting on one edge, and its rough gravel glistening, ran into the mist in the distance. Behind the trees there gleamed the roof of the conservatory, and below the ravine roses the gathering mist. The lilac bushes, already beginning to lose their leaves, were bright all over in every twig. The flowers, all drenched with dew, could be distinguished from one another. In the avenues the light and shade were so mingled that they seemed not trees and little paths between, but transparent, quivering, and trembling houses. To the right of the house all was black, indistinct, and weird. All the more brilliant rising up out of this darkness was the fantastically-shaped top of the poplar, which seemed as though, for some strange inexplicable cause, it had halted near the houses, in the dazzling brightness above it, instead of flying far, far away into the distant dark-blue sky.

Frustratingly enough, my very nice Wordsworth edition doesn’t state anywhere who the translation, which is very naughty as I always like to credit the person who’s done such wonderful work so I can read a book from another language. So thank you, unnamed translator!

tolstoy

However, it was hard not to view this story with the knowledge of Tolstoy’s life informing it. The book ends with passion of any kind having burnt out and the two partners in the marriage settling into a kind of companionship for the rest of their days. Was this Tolstoy’s view of marriage? If so, he should have been more honest with his own teenage bride, who we know was treated despicably from the very start of their union. And I felt much more strongly in this work the didactic tone of Tolstoy; the women in his books *do* seem to suffer and bearing in mind his sexual appetites and behaviour, I’m going to have to try to read more of his works by putting what I know of him to the back of my mind and reading them objectively. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see where Tolstoy goes with the rest of the stories in this collection, particularly the title work which is very highly regarded.

Getting Past Gatsby

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F. Scott Fitzgerald was in the news at the end of last year owing to the discovery of a batch of “lost” stories which are apparently due to be published this year. He was an astonishingly prolific writer, producing stories for magazines on a regular basis, but it’s very much for “The Great Gatsby” that he’s remembered. I first read the book in my teens, after having been seduced by the Mia Farrow/Robert Redford film, and I’ve returned to it several times. And as you can see, I already own several copies…

gatsbys

However, I dipped back into GG recently courtesy of this beautiful review copy of the new Alma Evergreen edition and I’ve really been enjoying re-engaging with the story.

gatsby-alma

Like most of their Evergreens, this has a gorgeous cover, and comes with excellent supporting material on the author’s life and work, as well as a section on film adaptations of his books, plus some photos. It was reading about Fitzgerald’s other works that made me wonder why I’ve got so stuck on Gatsby and never managed to move onto any of his other novels (I have read some of his short stories). I have a huge shelf of his works, many volumes of which I’ve owned since my teens, so there’s absolutely no reason not to pick up another Fitzgerald and get reading. But I found myself wondering if it’s because Gatsby is such a perfect book that I’ve found myself unable to get past it and immerse myself in his other works.

The trouble is, when an author has written a book that’s regarded as iconic, there’s a danger that everything else they wrote will be judged against it. “Gatsby” stands so high in the pantheon of American literature that a reader might think there’s no need to read anything else written by Fitzgerald, and that’s a great shame.

I do, however, have an awful lot of Fitzgeralds on my shelves which are begging to be read:

fitzgerald-spine

And I had forgotten that I own one of the beautiful editions produced by Alma that’s available in their Fitzgerald Collection:

sad-young-men

So there is no excuse for me not to read more Fitzgerald in 2017! However, in the meantime I shall continue to enjoy my Alma Evergreen edition of Gatsby, with its tale of the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby and his great love for Daisy Buchanan, and I thought I would share a few favourite quotes with you.

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

*****

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

*****

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

So much for good intentions…

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There is a reason I don’t sign up for TBR-only reads or book-buying bans – and that’s amply illustrated by the results of a post-Christmas hop up to London to meet up with my dear friend J… We weren’t able to get together in December owing to a variety of circumstances, and so a plan to hit London in January, taking in bookshops and sales, was hatched. I was vaguely worried that the weather would stymie things, but it behaved for the day and we had a lovely time!

At a pit-stop in Foyles, J presented me with my birthday and Christmas gifts which she’d been reluctant to trust to the postal service, and I can understand why…

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What a beautiful selection of Beverley and Beverley-related books she gifted me! “Women…” does have a dustjacket but apparently this has been temporarily mislaid… “Cry Havoc” is very special as you can see:

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As well as being a first edition, it’s also signed, so I am now the proud possessor of three signed Beverleys, thanks to the great kindness of others! A perfect accompaniment to the Foyles Cafe lovely tea. I was quite restrained in the shop itself, only purchasing a birthday present for somebody else – J was not so restrained, but I think she outdid me on the purchasing stakes all day!

crossed-destinies

J also presented me with this copy of Calvino’s “Castle of Crossed Destinies” so I can check if it’s the same as the one I have, and if it is I can pass it on to someone who might be keen to start exploring his work!

The next bookish stop was Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road, one of the last of the old guard. I already had a heavy rucksack so was trying to be a little careful, but I couldn’t resist these:

any-amount-of-bksThe William Maxwell was from the £1 bins outside, and the other two from the paperback shelves. I’ve wanted the Kis title for a long time and I love the cover. The Delafield is a beautiful Virago I don’t have so couldn’t be resisted of course. And I think the nice man at the counter gave me a bit of a discount!

Henry Pordes next door have a lot less paperbacks and Viragos than they used to, though there were a number of tempting titles. However, I resisted more here, and just came out with something I need for a project:

pordes-pmp23I don’t come across the Penguin Modern Poets books that often in second-hand stores, so I do tend to grab them when I see them. I daresay I could chase them down online, but it’s nice to support the actual bookshops.

The Bloomsbury Oxfam was busier than I’d seen it for a long time when we arrived there, and here I had one of the most pleasing finds of the day:

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Having been gifted a beautiful chunky biography of Thea Astley by Trish, my lovely Virago Secret Santa, I’ve been keen to track down some of her fiction. Surprisingly, none of the new bookshops had anything (and we tried Waterstones too). However, this title (one I’d heard of) was nestling on the shelves in the Oxfam just waiting for me!

Final bookish stop of the day was the lovely LRB bookshop, a place I rarely get out of without something and today was no exception:

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The Debray is a title I’ve often mused about and as it was in the 50% off sale I pounced! And the Berger title is one I hadn’t come across before but it sounded fabulous and looks beautiful inside with all sorts of words and illustrations, so I finished the day as I started it – with books!

We *did* do other things apart from bookmania, including taking in the kikki.k shop and Paperchase at Covent Garden, the Cass art shop (where J got quite carried away) plus lunch at Gaby’s deli (yum!) and two visits to the Foyles cafe (the LRB teashop was full and J had developed a passion for the Foyles crushed ginger and lemon tea).

So a perfect day out, and evidence that I can’t stop buying books when the moment is right, and that there’s absolutely no point in trying…

Murder in Wartime

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The Dead Shall Be Raised & The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs

… in which I happily return to British Library Crime Classics! :)) And reading them certainly is becoming something of a compulsion. One of my favourite discoveries of 2016 was the author George Bellairs, via his wonderful book “Death of a Busybody”, and I was just shocked that I’d never come across him before. Fortunately, BLCC have produced another Bellairs volume, this time containing two short works featuring his regular detective, Littlejohn, and these were just as much fun as the first book.

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Interestingly, both stories are set during the Second World War. The first “The Dead Shall Be Raised” takes place at Christmas 1940, when Littlejohn is travelling to visit the northern town of Hatterworth where his wife is recuperating from a bombing raid on their London home. The opening chapter, where the detective travels through the blackout deep into the country, is wonderfully evocative and a little creepy; and things become more sinister when the Home Guard, doing manoeuvres on the nearly Milestone Moor, unearth a dead body. This transpires to be a corpse which has lain undiscovered for 23 years since the last years of the First World War; the body is that of someone who was suspect of murdering his friend and then making off into the night, and so what was thought to have been a single murder is now a double one.

Fortunately, the local superintendent, Haworth, has already clicked with Littlejohn, and so the two men set out to solve the cold case. Along the way they’ll have to dig into the past, interviewing those survivors still in the area including a mill manager made good, a formidable old lady, a slippery thief and all the locals who remember the event. One of my favourite kinds of murder story is when a crime from the past proves to have long tentacles and comes to light decades later to be investigated by one of our regular sleuths. It’s a trope Christie used well, and often, and Bellairs puts it to great use here; the contrast between the two wars is never overplayed, but is there as a subtle presence, and there is a sense of retribution and justice being done when the story reaches its satisfying end.

The second story “The Murder of a Quack” is set in a Norfolk village, where the local homeopath (or ‘bonesetter’ as he’s often termed) Nathaniel Wall is found murdered in rather unusual circumstances. The man was popular locally, often succeeding where the local doctor failed; the latter has become something of an enemy and is the obvious suspect for Wall’s murder – though things are never going to be that straightforward. Complications arise with spurious alibis, a local girl who was unofficial ward of Wall being engage to a fairly unpleasant type who claims to be an author but whose actual occupation is vague, and the local eccentric Daft Dick. Rather wonderfully, we’re reintroduced to the entertaining Detective-Sergeant Cromwell, who appeared in the first Bellairs book I read and who excels in speeding off round the country and sleuthing. Here he does just that, as this crime also proves to have long tentacles reaching back to the past, and Cromwell not only finds plenty of useful information, but also has much of his future life organised almost in parenthesis – which is great fun!

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In fact, fun is a word I’d apply to reading George Bellairs. There is a serious side to the crimes in both books, and a strong sense of morality, with Littlejohn representing the forces of good and quite determined to track down his villain as well as putting paid to any unpleasant characters he happens to come across. And Bellairs can create a wonderful sense of darkness and atmosphere – his descriptions of Milestone Moor (rather chillingly based on Saddleworth Moor of later notoriety) are powerful and memorable.

The vast, cold moor was a rare place for holding secrets. A silence seemed to brood over it, punctuated now and then by the cries of birds or the shouts of the Home Guard, still manoeuvring vigorously. Even the presence of so many men over the wide expanse seemed powerless to dispel the loneliness. The elemental seemed to hang over the scene. The creeping fingers of the powers of destruction worked unseen, twisting and stunting the vegetation, tearing down the boundaries erected by man, shattering his habitation and sliding relentlessly over fields he had cultivated, dragging them back to the wilderness.

Nevertheless, Bellairs balances the darkness with a healthy dose of humour, and his books really are a delight to read. There’s usually a caricatured local plod who speaks with a country accent and bumbles about a bit; however, the local bobby is usually treated fairly and allowed plenty of the glory, and certainly in the second of the stories here, the village man (who has the wonderful name of Mellalieu), is crucial to the successful conclusion of the investigation. Although he sometimes paints his characters with a broad brush, Bellairs never loses his sympathy with them, his empathy, and his understanding of human nature.

If I had to make any criticism it would be that Bellairs sometimes rushes his story; the novels are short and would benefit occasionally from a little more expansion of a particular character or plot element. But this is a minor quibble and the book cracks along at an exciting pace making it one of those unputdownable reads. Littlejohn is an engaging detective; an ordinary man with no quirks or peculiarities like Holmes or Poirot, he nevertheless has enough charisma to keep the reader gripped and I’m very much looking forward to reading more of his adventures. Let’s hope there are more Bellairs titles to come from the lovely BLCC series!

Entertaining essays and more from an independent publisher

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Picking up the theme from my post about the Bulgakov Collection, another independent publisher I follow with interest is Michael Walmer. Based in Australia, Mike has a history in publishing (having worked for the legendary Marion Boyars) and he specialises in bringing back into print neglected works over a wide rage of genres and time periods. I’ve read several books from his imprint and a fascinating lot they are – I was particularly taken with Stella Benson, whom I might not have read had it not been for his promotion of her.

walmer-belles-lettres

I wanted to focus on one particular strand of books Mike publishes, and that’s his Belles Lettres series. Comprising so far four volumes, it really is an interesting collection, and the titles to date are:

Letters to a Friend by Winifred Holtby
Letters of Lord Byron
Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde
The Sins of Society by Ouida

I own three of the books (as you can see from the picture!) and I’ve read one in full so far in the form of the Wilde, and you can read my thoughts here. It was a lovely book, and I spent some time over the Christmas break dipping into the others.

The Holtby volume is fascinating; she’s an author I know of course from her novels published by Virago, and I have a number of these on my shelf. Best known for “South Riding”, Holtby died tragically young but left behind quite a legacy and these letters are to her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Holtby and McWilliam met towards the end of WW1 in a WAAC camp, and the letters range from 1920 to 1935, the year of Winifred’s death. This a lovely, varied book, and the letters make fascinating reading, featuring poems and fragments of poems, thoughts on books, little drawings and the like. What also makes the book stand out is the picture it paints of the lives of women in the 1920s and 1930s, and even if you have no particular interest in or knowledge of Holtby, I can still highly recommend it as an excellent read.

Ouida is an author who’s been on the periphery of my vision for decades – possibly since I read “Literary Women” back in the 1980s, or maybe from my first reading of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” where she’s mentioned as being vaguely scandalous. I knew she wrote fiction but I wasn’t aware she wrote essays, and this lovely little collection Mike has issued was a surprising treat and great to dip into. Dating from the late 1800s, Ouida’s essays range over subjects like the vulgarity of her modern world and the stupidity of politics (nothing changes, then…) I was particularly taken with the piece entitled “Gardens” where she bemoans the trend of regimented gardens, designed in straight lines and all neat and tidy, with no individuality. I was also with her when she expressed her views on cut flowers – I can’t bear seeing flowers massacred for the sake of home decoration, and would rather have them growing wild than hothoused, cut and wired and then wilting after a day.

In the great world, and in the rich world, flowers are wasted with painful prodigality. The thousands and tens of thousands of flowers which die to decorate a single ball or reception are a sad sight to those who love them. ‘The rooms look well tonight,’ is the utmost that is ever said after all this waste of blossom and fragrance. It is waste, because scarcely a glance is bestowed on them, and the myriad of roses which cover the walls do not effectively make more impression on the eye than the original silk or satin wall-hanging which they momentarily replace… the ballroom in the morning is as melancholy a parable of the brevity of pleasure as any moralist could desire.

spring-of-joy

Finally, I’ve had an unexpected pleasure in the form of another non-fiction book from Mike Walmer. Not a part of the Belles Lettres series, “The Spring of Joy” by Mary Webb is subtitled “A Little Book of Healing”. Webb, of course, is best known as the author of such books as “Precious Bane”, and that’s a book that divides readers, particularly in the LibraryThing Virago group! As the book features large chunks of dialect, it tends to be something of a Marmite experience, and it was roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in “Cold Comfort Farm”. I read the latter and loved it, but I never felt able to read Webb, so taking on a non-fiction book by her was a bit of a leap. However, I needn’t have worried; Webb’s book collects together a series of essays on aspects of nature to bring Joy, Laughter and Beauty. Nowadays, the idea of nature as a balm for the soul is not new, but I wonder how prevalent that was in Webb’s day? Nevertheless, her writing is lyrical and lovely, and I really enjoyed her thoughts on the natural world.

Insects are the artists of fragrance; they have a genius for it; there seems to be some affinity between the tenuity of their being and this most refined of the sense-impressions. Ghostly calls summon them to their banquets… Moths call each other by scent; so do bees; and probably the smallest ephemera follow the same law. These calls and answers cross the world continually like a web of fine threads, most of them too slight for our comprehension.

I’ve spent some happy times over recent weeks with all these books, and if you have an interest in essays, letters and nature writing these could well be volumes you would enjoy too. Michael Walmer’s catalogue is full of interesting books and so I’d encourage you to search out his website (there’s a link on my sidebar) and have a browse, especially if you’re bored with insubstantial modern writing! I must admit I often find the older books are the best!

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