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The Curse of Memory

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Like Death by Guy de Maupassant
Translated from the French by Richard Howard

I sometimes ask myself how it is I’ve managed to get through all these years of reading without picking up a book by a particular author, and Guy de Maupassant is a case in point. For as long as I’ve been reading books in translation I’ve been aware of his name, as well as his novel “Bel-Ami”, but the only things I can be sure I’ve read are a few short stories by him in anthologies. So when a review copy of this rather lovely novel from NYRB popped through the door I was quite pleased to have the opportunity to read something more substantial by him.

Maupassant had a short and somewhat colourful life, dying in 1893 of syphilis at the age of only 42, but he left a substantial legacy of work, particularly in the short story form. His novels are apparently less well-read but on the basis of this one, that’s a shame. The focal character of the book is Olivier Bertin; a famous artist who made his name when young, he’s basically become a society painter and at many points in the book we see him struggling to find a suitable subject for his work. Now well passed his first flush of youth (he’s constantly referred to as old, though is probably what we would now think of as middle-aged), Bertin has a long-term lover in the form of Anne, Countess de Guilleroy. The two have had their relationship for some time, and although Anne has a husband and daughter, she and Bertin are almost like an old married couple, albeit one needing to be kept under wraps!

Anne’s daughter Annette used to visit Bertin’s studio with her mother when she was a child; however, she’s been away in the country for many years and now grown to young womanhood returns to Paris to be married off in a suitable society match. Bertin is shocked when he sees Annette by the resemblance to her mother when he first knew her, and slowly but surely he develops an obsession with the younger woman until the passion he feels and the jealousy this causes begins to cause a death-blow to the relationship. Anne is of course tormented by her own ageing process and to feel herself supplanted by her own daughter is agony. Annette is oblivious to what is happening, content instead to look forward to making her own suitable match. Bertin meanwhile spends much of the book in denial, and when he finally admits the truth to himself is incapable of dealing with the situation. As my children would say quirkily, ‘end well this will not…’

“Like Death” is a beautifully written and reflective book, full of passion and melodrama, but with more depth than might be thought at first. French society life is seen for what it is, with marriages made for convenience and conventions observed; and Annette herself is content to make a suitable match with a man who will share her love of horses and riding, no doubt with the option of taking a lover herself at a later date should she feel the need.

The author

Bertin himself is perhaps something of a misfit; not quite of the same class as people like the Countess, his celebrity has allowed him access to that strata of society although he has maintained a certain air of being an outsider. In several places during the story, he displays sadness at remaining a bachelor and having no family life, wishing instead he had a cosy domestic setting with Anne. Perhaps that’s a reflection on the ageing process, as the bachelor life is all well and good while you’re young, but there comes a point where it’s no longer fun.

And Maupassant’s writing is really excellent; one piece that specifically stood out for me was the part when a character, having lost their mother, reflected on the massive loss in their life of the person who knew them best, had memories they would never get back and was always there for them in their life. It’s a powerful piece of writing and resonated strongly, as I was reading it on Mother’s Day.

But central, of course, to the novel is Bertin’s dreadful emotional suffering:

Oh, had they foreseen, had they proved the distracted love of an aged man for a young girl, how would they have expressed the frightful and secret striving of a being who can no longer inspire love, the torments of fruitless desire, and, worse than a vulture’s beak, the face of a little blonde tearing an old heart to pieces!

However, the situation is not as simple as just the infatuation of an old man with a young girl. Bertin is infatuated with his past and his early love of Anne, the girl’s mother. Initially, his obsession rekindles his love for Anne until eventually the daughter takes the place in his heart of the mother. At times, Maupassant stresses the confusion between the two women who are so alike, and it seems from Bertin’s point of view that they almost merge into one. It is only when fate intervenes and dictates that Annette must wear mourning that the resemblance becomes startling – for it was in mourning clothes that Bertin first saw Anne and painted his great portrait of her. It is here that he reaches the point of no return in his obsession with Anne. He also receives a number of blows towards the end of the book; as well as his doomed love, his work is mocked by the younger generation and his yearning for a lost youth takes on even more pathos.

But it’s not only Bertin has to deal with the effects of ageing, as Anne is devastated to realise that her looks, upon which she places so much store, are fading, a process exacerbated by grief. Despite all her artifice, she cannot compete with the youth and freshness of her own daughter, and added to the pain she feels about this is the realisation that her lover finds her own child more attractive than herself.

In a short but intriguing foreword, translator Richard Howard ponders comparisons of Maupassant’s and Proust’s work, contrasting the similarities in their ways of dealing with the process of memory. Certainly, that seems to have been an important factor in both authors’ work (at least, in what I’ve read so far) and it’s fascinating to speculate as to how much of an influence, if at all, Maupassant was on the later writer. Ironically, it’s a cruel trick of memory that brings about the crisis in “LD” and perhaps we are more under the spell of our pasts than we would care to admit.

So my first proper reading of Maupassant was a memorable and absorbing one, capturing the emotional life of society Parisians, but also delving deeper into the effects of memory on the human psyche. An excellent novel and hopefully not the last time I’ll spend time in the company of this author.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks)

The Society of Women

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Roman Fever by Edith Wharton

Virago author of the month for March, as voted for by members of the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, is Edith Wharton – an author I’ve read a little of before (most notably “Hudson River Bracketed”, which I absolutely loved). I was determined to join in this month, and have done, finishing the book comfortably before April arrived; but the hardest thing was choosing which one to read as I have a number of her titles lurking on the shelves. In the end, I plumped for “Roman Fever”, a collection of short stories, which was ideal for dipping into during a busy week.

Wharton known for sharply satirical stories of New York society and its mores, although HRB was set in a slightly different milieu. Here, however, we are well into a particular social strata and I can’t say it’s one I’d be particularly keen on belonging to…

The title story is, of course, one of Wharton’s most famous works, well-known for its wonderful last line. I’d read it before, but loved revisiting this tale of two society matrons watching their daughters experience Rome and reminiscing on their own past in the city. There are, of course, skeletons lurking and some wonderful revelations to come.

Pleasingly, the rest of the stories in the collection lived up to the wonderfully high standard of Roman Fever. When I’m talking about shorter works I don’t always mention each one individually, but since every story in the book was a winner I’m making an exception here. Xingu was a wonderfully clever tale, focusing on a group of society ladies who’d formed a club where they explored literature, philosophy and whatever was the current trend, thinking themselves a cut above everyone else. However, the visit of a famous author reveals their falsities and shows an unlikely member to be the sharpest of the lot.

It was Mrs. Ballinger’s boast that she was “abreast with the Thought of the Day,” and her pride that this advanced position should be expressed by the books on her table.

The Other Two tackles a couple of Wharton’s regular themes: that of the use of an advantageous marriage as a tool for a woman to climb up in society, and also attitudes towards divorce, here of men. The protagonist is in love with his wife, but cannot shake off the shadow of her previous husbands who are still present in her life. I found this story particularly impressive, with the current husband unable to deal with the fact that his wife had had other relationships, so much so that it ate away at his marriage.

Souls Belated also deals with divorce, although here we have a couple who’ve run away from society and are travelling around Europe; this way, they can avoid bumping into embarrassing acquaintances as their unmarried status makes them outcasts. However, it takes an encounter with another woman in a similar situation to bring about a crisis, and show up the weaknesses in their bravado at attempting to live outside the accepted norm.

A different kind of woman features in Angel at the Grave, a story where the central character has spent her life in the shadow of her grandfather. Once a great figure in letters, he’s become a somewhat forgotten man; and her existence has become reclusive, living in his house and preserving his legacy. It takes a visit from an interested scholar to bring her back to life again, although much of what she could have been has passed her by, with all of her potential being sacrificed to men’s art.

A great man never draws so near his public as when it has become unnecessary to read his books and is still interesting to know what he eats for breakfast.

In The Last Asset we are back in society, in the marriage broking game. A separated high society woman, with plenty of men friends and hangers on, is desperate to arrange an advantageous marrige for her daugher; but the success of this depends upon her proving her extreme respectability. The last asset she can draw on is her estranged husband, should it be possible to track him down and persuade him to take part in this cynical maneouvre…

Mrs. Woolsey Hubbard was an expansive blonde, whose ample but disciplined outline seemed the result of a well-matched struggle between her cook and her corset-maker.

High society and its effects stay in focus in After Holbein, but here we meet a couple of its ageing habituees. Both have frittered their lives away circulating amongst the people to be seen with in places to be seen, until they are left with nothing but the shells of their former lives, the only thing they can still hang on to.

The final story in this excellent colection, Autre Temps, returns to the topic of divorce. The central character, Mrs Lidcote, is returning from Europe to visit her daughter in America. She is another woman who has gone into exile after a divorce, cutting herself off from American society, and her return to her home country is a painful one, necessitated by the mother instinct – as her daughter has now divorced as well. However, the visit is bittersweet as she soon comes to realise that times may have changed for the young, but not for her generation.

Her first distinct feeling was one of irrational resentment. if such a change was to come, why had it not come sooner? Here was she, a woman not yet old, who had paid with the best years of her life for the theft of the happiness that her daughter’s contemporaries were taking as their due.

“Roman Fever” is a really wonderful group of stories, beautifully written and with a memorable set of characters. Often in short story collections there’s the danger of one tale merging into another, but that’s not the case here – each invididual title remained vividly in my mind after I read it and each was equally outstanding. In all of these stories Wharton’s target is Society with a capital S – its expecations, restrictions and demands, the constraints it places on women and its harsh judgement of their behaviour. Her writing can be bitingly critical of many of the female characters in that society, with their ridiculous rules and prejudices, but she never loses sympathy for those women who are suffering from society’s strictures. Wharton’s writing is sharp social satire at its best and she deftly cuts through the hypocrisy of a way of life she obviously knew well and lays bare the effects it has on people’s lives.

So an excellent and very satisfying read for this Virago Author of the Month selection. I found myself musing while I was reading on the way we think about women and their behaviour nowadays. Of course, divorce is no longer frowned on and multiple marriages are common; yet women are still criticised and vilified daily in the press and on social media if they don’t conform to whatever standards that platform is supporting. So although the method of judgement may be different, it seems that women’s lives are still subject to different standards than that of men. Not much changes, does it? šŸ˜¦

Coming soon – the #1951 Club!

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Those of you who follow Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book will have seen his recent post flagging up the fact that we’ll shortly be co-hosting another one of our reading weeks, where we focus on books from a particular year, reading and reviewing and sharing ideas about the kind of works published then.

Our next featured year will be 1951, and the week is from 10-16 April – as you can see in the snazzy badge above, designed by Simon (who is much better at these things than I am).

1951 promises to have a wonderful selection of books to choose from – I’ve already got a pile of possibles, all of which I already own (yay!) and which I’ll share in a later post. As Simon says (ha!) these ‘clubs’ are such fun, and it’s lovely to hear what people are reading, what they think, and what unusual and interesting titles they come up with.

So do join in with the 1951 Club, use the badge above when you post, and let’s all share some wonderful bookish experiences! šŸ™‚

On exercising restraint

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Regular visitors to the Ramblings might have noticed a certain lack of book hauls recently – and I’m someone who does love to share pictures of any books I find! However, I’m painfully aware at the moment of the amount of unread volumes in the house, and this has been thrown into stronger focus by the fact that we’re considering eventually downsizing. Although special and precious books will come with me, realistically I won’t be able to take all of them and so I’m trying to look at my library alongside *all* of the clutter in the house and it’s fairly scary – so I do need to do some serious pruning.

Also, as I mentioned recently, polyreading is not working for me at the moment, which is frustrating as there are so many books I want to be reading just now. This has made me realise that there’s not a lot of point in amassing more books that *might* be interesting just on the off-chance; instead, I need to be concentrating on those I actually own, deciding if I’m going to read them and then *actually* reading them!

I didn’t sign up for any of the challenges to only read from my stacks, because I figured if I set myself that restriction I wouldn’t actually stick to it. However, I do appear to have been reading a *lot* of books I already own so far (and we’re well into March already!) which is quite pleasing.

So I have been very, very selective with what I’ve been buying, and actually going back to using the library – for example, with a book I wanted to read recently in advance of the 1951 Club (coming next month!) I could have sent off for a second-hand copy. But I borrowed it instead as I reckoned I’d never particularly want to read it again, and that worked out fine. Obviously this is a habit I need to continue develop, although it *will* be hampered by the fact that my local library is not going to stock a lot of the older or more unusual titles I want to read…

However, I’ve been good in the charity shops, only picking up what I know I’ll read (“The Hollow Man” being a good example), and I’ve turned away from many a title which I would have bought not long ago in case I fancied reading it; and my online purchases have been minimal. A few review books have come in which I’ve read straight away, and I’m trying not to buy wildly on a whim after reading a good review of a book. How long this will last remains to be seen, but I’m quite pleased with myself so far. Meanwhile, here are the few recent incoming books, and the rationale behind them. And let’s hope I can keep up this trend!

“The Hollow Man”, which I found for 99p in the local Oxfam and read straight away – perfect classic crime and ideal reading for just now!

I read about this one online somewhere as the Siberian equivalent to Anne Frank’s diary – and with the subject matter as it is (a young girl’s reminiscences of her time exiled in Siberia) it sounded essential reading.

I blame Joachim at Science Fiction Ruminations for this one, as he happened to flag up that it contained a very early M. John Harrison story which had never been reprinted. So it was again essential!

And finally – I blame Jane at Beyond Eden Rock for this title as she mentioned it after I reviewed “Who Killed Charles Bravo”! A fictionalised account of the life of one of the players in the drama, Dr. Gully, by a Virago author – well, how *could* I resist?

I’ve read one of the four so far – let’s hope the others don’t wait too long! šŸ™‚

Simmering heat and tensions

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A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

It’s official – polyreading does *not* work for me… I wanted to read an Elizabeth Bowen book for the wonderful Read Ireland Month hosted by Cathy’s at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging; and I tried to read it alongside a collection of Cortazar short stories. However, I simply ended up failing to get into either book and went off to read the John Dickson Carr instead. So having finished that, I applied myself solely to the Bowen book and things went much better. No more polyreading for me…

I have many of Bowen’s books on my shelves (although mostly unread) so I was spoiled for choice; I picked at random without looking, and “A World of Love” popped into my hand and so that was the one I read! A slim volume, published later in her career in 1955, it’s set in Ireland in the decaying country house of Montefort. The place houses an odd kind of family; it’s owned by Antonia, a renowned photographer, and she inherited it from her cousin Guy who was killed in WW1. Guy left behind a fiance, Lilia, but no provision for her and so Antonia basically marries her off to Fred, another cousin, on the understanding that they will live in Montefort and Fred will manage it, freeing her to go off and have her career. Also living there are the couple’s two daughters, Jane and Maud. It is 21-year old Jane who is crucial to the story, which takes place over a few days during a blisteringly hot summer.

Exploring the attic, Jane stumbles upon an old dress, wrapped in which are a packet of letters from Guy. She assumes these to be to her mother, although no name is given, and spirits them away. The somewhat naive Jane is bewitched by the letters, enchanted by Guy and his spirit is almost summoned by the sudden attention. Her action brings unresolved issues to the surface – Lilia’s first lost love, Fred’s jealousy, the cracks in their marriage, the relationship between Antonia and Guy, and also that of Antonia and the rest of the family. Jane is taken up by a visiting local aristocrat, Lady Latterly, and dazzled by the lifestyle she sees, and her connection with them will have a pivotal effect on her future. Maud meanwhile moons around talking to her invisible friend, attempting to extort money from a family member, and general being contrary and unpleasant. As the story progresses, there are gradual revelations and an unravelling of the past with eventual resolution of sorts, although there is ambiguity from the start which runs all the way through the story.

Bowen’s Court – the model for Montefort?

It took me a while to get on with this book, and I’m not sure it was only the polyreading issue. Bowen’s prose is beautiful but there is often an elusive quality to the narrative; things left unsaid between the characters in the house are also left unsaid to the reader, and the relationships aren’t always clear, with undercurrents needing to be picked up by the reader. Also, there’s a lyrical, lilting quality to the writing which you have to get used to. Because of these traits it is sometimes hard to get a handle on the story, and initially there were occasions when I found myself drifting off slightly. However, once I committed myself properly I was completely drawn in to the setting and the story, and it really is a wonderful book.

One of the things Bowen does do brilliantly here is create atmosphere: the hot summer days, the subtle tensions between the characters, are wonderfully rendered so that you feel as if you’re actually there. there is a sense of decay and ennui in both characters and landscape, and her description of the local town of Clonmore conveys exactly why Lilia in particular finds where she lives so claustrophobic:

….alternately dun and painted houses,. cars parked askew, straying ass-carts and fallen bicycles. Dung baked on the pavements since yesterday morning’s fair; shop after shop had insanely similar doorways, strung with boots and kettles and stacked with calicoes – in eternal windows goods faded out. Many and sour were the pubs. Overexposed, the town was shadeless – never a tree, never an awning. Ice cream on sale, but never a cafe. Clonmore not only provided no place to be, it provided no reason to be, at all.

Faced with that, it’s hardly surprising that an offer by Antonia of a trip to London becomes something she’s suddenly very keen to take.

The interconnections between the main characters are very subtly drawn, and the tensions between them are often simmering under the surface. Guy’s presence hovers over the whole book, and the letters are passed from person to person like a hot potato; it is not clear until the end why the letters affect everyone so much and why no-one really wants to take them. The relationship between Fred and his daughter Jane is unsettlingly close; he dotes on her and worries about her and the impression is that she’s the only important thing in his life. Certainly, as his marriage with Lilia seems on rocky ground, his relationship with his daughter seems invested with more significance than anything else.

Bowen’s Court – the book!

Montefort itself, crumbling and decaying, is a strong presence in the book too. Bowen, of course, had inherited the family property, Bowen’s Court, in Ireland which she wrote about at length and which she was eventually forced to sell before it was finally demolished. The state of Montefort and the fading landowning aristocracy perhaps mirrors what she saw happening in her country, although much like Antonia, she remained based in England and only made visits to the Irish country house.

The end of the book is interesting, and in some ways unexpected. Jane (with the hideous Maud in tow) accompanies Lady Latterly’s chauffeur to Shannon airport; this sudden step into modernity is a shock because, despite what I presume is a post WW2 setting, the country life is so steeped in tradition that it seems timeless. I’ve seen what transpires in the final pages criticised, and without wanting to give anything away, I can understand why. Personally, I found the whole book wonderfully enjoyable and evocative in the end, and I think there was probably much more lurking under the surface than I’ve covered here – it’s the kind of book you find yourself musing upon days later and picking up other little things you’ve missed.

Bowen in 1955

But I return to Bowen’s wonderful prose – here’s just a short description of some of the characters out in the sun and it makes you feel as if you were there with them:

Lilia, holding a cup and saucer, wore cotton of an extinct blue, of a shade only less indolent than the sky’s – side-by-side on a stone bench, she and Antonia were under a twisted apple tree silvered over with lichen. Jane had found a bed inside a box-edged oval; and not far off stood the sundial, around which old poppies lolled, bees dozed on the yellow lupins. Below, the river had almost ceased to run; a nonchalant stillness hung over everywhere. It was thought to be about eleven o’clock.

Even that last sentence, with its “thought to be”, conveys the atmosphere of a lazy, hot summer day. Elizabeth Bowen was a marvellous writer, and I’m glad I picked this book up to join in with Reading Ireland Month. Certainly every book of hers I read makes me keen for more, so it’s rather nice that I have a shelf full of titles to choose from!

The perfect locked-room mystery!

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The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

Well, this wasn’t the book I was intending to read right now! I was in the middle of a short story collection (Cortazar) which I was alternating with an Elizabeth Bowen, when I stumbled across this lovely Golden Age crime novel for 99p in the Oxfam. How could I resist? And as it’s a busy time for me at the moment, in life and at work, it’s exactly the kind of book I needed.

John Dickson Carr is of course the king of the locked room mystery. Although not the creator of the genre (that honour belongs to Edgar Allan Poe, although “The Big Bow Murder” is held to be the originator of the classic tradition), he took it and made it his own, producing 23 novels featuring his detective Dr. Gideon Fell, all of which were variations on the theme. “The Hollow Man” is judged to be one of his best, and indeed was once voted the best example of its kind ever – so I was naturally keen to read it.

“The Hollow Man” features two apparently insoluble crimes; one man, Dr. Grimaud, dies in a locked room which really has no way in or out at all. The chimney is no help, there’s no secret passageway, the window is high and there’s untouched snow on the ground below and the roof above. Grimaud has been threatened in front of a group of his friends by Pierre Frey, an illusionist, who is murdered the same night and his assassination is even more peculiar. He’s shot in the middle of a street (delightfully, just round the corner from Persephone Books’ home, Lambs Conduit Street) with two witnesses who can swear there was no one else there, there are no tracks in the snow and the weapon is found next to the body. It seems as though the killer must indeed have been an invisible or hollow man, because even Gideon Fell is struggling to find a solution.

The household of Grimaud is a quirky and interesting one: there is his housekeeper, Mme Dumont; his fiery daughter Rosette; and the scholar Drayman who has some connection with Grimaud going back a long way. In fact, the story proves to have long roots, and Fell, together with his colleague Superintendent Hadley, will have to do much digging to get to the bottom of things.

THM is a fabulous, and sometimes quite chilling read. There is reference to dark deeds from the past which is really rather spooky, and hints of the supernatural. Fell is an excellent detective, the supporting cast a nice variety (including Rampole, an American friend of Fell’s, and his wife) and there’s loads of drama, twists and red herrings. The solution is fiendishly ingenious and I defy any reader to solve it – which is why I don’t want to say too much about the plot because to spoil this treasure of a book would be a pity.

Author picture c. National Portrait Gallery

The book is hugely entertaining, and it’s also notorious for one particular section. Towards the end of the book Carr treats us to a chapter where Fell expounds on the whole subject of locked room mysteries, their different types and solutions, and even has his detective remind the other characters and the reader:

‘But, if you’re going to analyse impossible situations,’ interrupted Pettis, ‘why discuss detective fiction?’

‘Because,’ said the doctor, frankly, ‘we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not. Let’s not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories. Let’s candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.’

It’s a fascinating piece, and has apparently become something of a standard text to guide authors in the production of locked room mysteries!

So a wonderfully satisfying Golden Age read (and not bad for 99p). I read masses of green Penguins back in my 20s and I’m pretty sure Carr’s works were amongst them, though I can’t remember the titles. He was a prolific author; as well as his Fell stories, he produced numerous others under his own name and dozens as Carter Dickson. One of only two Americans admitted to the Detection Club, his books are obviously something special and this one one was so gripping I stayed up far too late at night as I really couldn’t put it down. Alas, I feel an urge coming on to read nothing but classic crime!!

A little help with reading the hardest books in the world? :)

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How Proust can Change your Life by Alain de Botton

So maybe that’s a slightly flippant title for a post – is Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past/In Search of Lost Time the hardest book in the world? I’m not sure – I’ve read many a ‘difficult’ book in my time, but so far I’ve only got through the first two volumes of Proust (after owning them for over 30 years). The problem for me is more with the structure of the book than anything else; they require long, uninterrupted periods of reading to do them justice, and frankly my life is so fragmented that I rarely get that. However, I *am* determined that I will one day finish the sequence.

That’s perhaps by the by; what I’m supposed to be writing about here is a book *about* Proust, and quite a famous one at that. I’ve been aware of de Botton’s book for some time (I’m sure I’ve seen reviews on blogs I follow) and so when I came across a copy in a charity shop the time seemed right to read it.

“How Proust Can Change Your Life” is structured in nine sections, each taking a different angle on the great author. So one will consider “How to Love Life Today” while another ponders on the problem of “How to Suffer Successfully” and yet another looks at “How to Express Your Emotions”. Each section is a scintillating mix of biographical snippets, philosophical musings and insights into the work of Proust, how it’s best read and what you’ll get out of the books.

One section I found particularly appealing was “How To Take Your Time”; I read fast, often too fast, and the whole point with Proust is to read slowly, appreciating the language and the detail. Plot isn’t necessarily all, it’s experiencing the moment in depth, in all its glory. In our modern, fast-paced, short attention span world that’s harder to do than it ever was, and I imagine I’ll return to de Botton’s book for guidance on this as I need to slow my reading if I can!

Interestingly, though, it’s not only to Proust that de Botton’s thoughts can be applied; they’re more like ideas for life in general, and indeed how Proust can change the way you treat the everyday. In many ways, this reads almost like a self-help book, taking advice from the great author and using this to improve ourselves; appreciating what we have and not coveting more; and being honest about our friendships and what they really are for.

The final chapter goes into territory that makes me twitch a little – “How to Put Books Down”! Are books the be-all and end-all, or should we be spending more of our time living instead of reading? I suppose there needs to be balance, but to honest I’ve always agreed with Morrissey that “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more”….!

So, a fascinating book which serves to make Proust approachable as well getting you thinking about your lot in life, and life in general. De Botton is not scared to point out flaws or make criticisms, even having a bit of a laugh at the expense of his subject at times. However, he portrays the Proust and his great work as approachable and essential which hopefully will help me to get onto the next volume!

An unexpected and entertaining treat!

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A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities by J.C. McKeown

Being a bit of a fusspot about what I read (and bearing in mind that I’ll *never* have enough time in my life to read all the books I want to) I tend to be a little careful about review books, only requesting or reading ones that I think I’ll like. However, occasionally an unexpected volume pops through my door and that happened recently with this lovely new hardback from Oxford University Press. I was a bit flummoxed at first, but when I started exploring the content I found that it was quite a little treasure! “A Cabinet…” is an anthology; compiled by classicist J.C. McKeown, it draws from a wide range of texts from the early days of medicine and presents them in user-friendly chunks organised by categories, ready for the casual and untrained reader to enjoy. The results, as they say, are fascinating!

I should say up front that I’m a poor student of the true Classics, never having got back quite as far as Ancient Greece and Rome in my reading. I know the names, but not the content, so I approached the book as a complete novice. Interestingly, however, many of the texts here have never been translated into English before, so McKeown is charting new territory. He’s previously produced other “Cabinet of…” books, cover Roman and Greek Curiosities generally and on the evidence of the Medical book they should make good reading.

As McKeown points out in his erudite introduction, the science of medicine has changed dramatically since its early days; much of what the ancients took for granted, such as links to religion and magic, are dismissed out of hand nowadays (well – in professional circles, anyway!). Used as we are nowadays to constant medical innovation, back in the classical past medicine was a fairly unchanging art, with those practicing drawing on their forebears rather than innovating. And what we would nowadays call ‘quack remedies’ were treated with all seriousness; some of them sound remarkably grim, one of the milder examples being binding a horse’s teeth around a child’s neck to cure teething pains…

McKeown is upfront about the reasons he’s chosen many of the extracts; he sets out to entertain the modern reader and certainly he did this one! I thought it would be fun to share a few favourite quotes from this eminently dippable book; it’s an ideal gift for any medic or hypochondriac you might know, or anyone who likes to read about the horrors and peculiarities of medicine of the past!

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From the section ‘Sex Matters’:

“Sexual intercourse gives relief to a man who has been bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion, but it harms the woman who is his partner.” Pliny

“Uninhibited fornication cures dysentery.” Hippocrates

From the section ‘Women and Children’:

” If a nursing infant has a fever and you lay him down to sleep surrounded by cucumbers of the same length as the child, he will be cured immediately, since all the heat will be drawn off from him into the cucumbers.” Anonymous Byzantine

“Moistening a child’s skull with a cold sponge and then tying a frog to it belly up is a very effective treatment for heatstroke.” Pliny (what *was* he thinking??)

From the section ‘Preventative Medicine’:

A sick person is beyond all hope of recovery if his doctor urges him to live with no regard for moderation.” Seneca

From the section ‘Treatment and Cures’:

‘Eating boiled viper meat makes the eyesight keener, tones up the nervous system, and checks scrofulous swellings.’ Dioscorides
(I could go on and quote the preparation instructions but as a vegetarian it makes me a bit queasy…)

Breaking new ground with another read for Shiny!

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I have another review up on Shiny New Books today, and it’s of another author new to me – H.P. Lovecraft. I’m not much of a reader of horror fiction and if I do touch upon that genre, it tends to be classics rather than modern writing. I suppose this *would* be classed as a classic as it was written in 1927 (though not issued until 1943), and as it was being published by Apollo, who are releasing some wonderful lost novels, I was keen to give it a try.

I ended up absolutely loving “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”. It was spooky, gripping and very entertaining, and not quite what I expected of Lovecraft. You can read what I thought about it here!

The Ultimate Sacrifice – Virago Author of the Month

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The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Following on from the LibraryThing Virago group’s choice of Vita Sackville-West for January, our author of the month for February was the great Rebecca West. I struggled to get onto reading one of her books last month, finally picking it up right near the end; so a little belatedly, here is my review of her firstĀ  (and probably most well-known) work of fiction, “The Return of the Soldier”. Billed as a novel, at 160 pages with big type it’s a book you can read quickly; however, it gives much food for thought and I can see why it’s so highly regarded.

return-of-the-soldier

West is an author I’ve only read a little of (my review of her “The Harsh Voice” is here) but I have a large number of her books on the shelves. Had time been on my side I would have liked to spend time with one of her more substantial works – but then, this book has more substance to it than you might expect. “The Return of the Soldier” was written while the Great War was still taking place and published in 1918; narrated by a woman called Jenny, it tells the story of the return of her cousin Chris Baldry from the Front, back to his beautiful home on ‘the crest of Harrow-weald’ and the welcoming arms of his beautiful wife Kitty and of course Jenny (who appears to live with them).

As the book opens, the women are living in their gilded cage, relatively untouched by the War but surrounded by absence. As well as the fact that Chris is away fighting, they are also haunted by the loss of Chris and Kitty’s young son; the nursery has been left untouched and Kitty is often to be found in the room as if seeking comfort. The women have prepared an immaculate nest for their man and themselves, one that he was apparently sad to leave; it seems perfect, idyllic and slightly unreal, given what is happening in other parts of the world.

Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time.

Crashing into this glittering facade comes a woman from the nearby town of Wealdstone; the place is described in stark terms as something of a blot on the picturesque local landscape, and Mrs. Grey is set forth in a cruel and patronising way. In fact, the reaction of Jenny and Kitty quite shocked me until I realised I was seeing her through the filter of their eyes; the descriptions of a working woman are harsh, representing her as a stereotype with cheap clothes and accessories, and worn face and hands, and I found their reaction hard to take.

Mrs. Grey has, somewhat surprisingly, come with news that Chris is ill. Why she should know and not his wife and cousin is not revealed at first, but as we read on we find that Margaret Grey, when she was a young innkeeper’s daughter, knew Chris Baldry very well. In fact, unlikely as it seems to Kitty and Jenny now, she was his first love and as he’s suffering from shell-shock and has blotted out the past 15 years, he’s pining to return to Margaret and the affection of his youth.

So Chris is brought home and despite the evidence before his eyes is unable to accept the reality of where and who he is. He cannot remember Kitty; Jenny is a childhood playmate; and to the astonishment of these sophisticated women, he has an instant bond with Margaret despite the coarsening effects upon her of age and a hard life. Chris is happy with Margaret and his life in the past; but can he be allowed to stay there or will the doctors brought in to treat him be able to bring him back to the present and the prospect of the return to battle?

For that her serenity, which a moment before had seemed as steady as the earth and as all-enveloping as the sky, should be so utterly dispelled made me aware that I had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life, the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure.

“The Return of the Soldier” is a powerful first novel, and surprisingly complex for such a short work. West brilliantly builds up the initial setting, painting a picture of the lovely world created (mainly by Kitty) for Chris and initially as I read I accepted (with Jenny) that the house and location was wonderful and that all three were happy there. However, as I read on, the appalling snobbery of the women made it clear that this was a shallow, stale and worthless environment to live in, and the contrast of the superficial falsity of the controlled life Kitty had created, cold and barren, was made with the real, deep emotional life of Margaret. Jenny finds out the back-story from Margaret, and the relationship between her and Chris is touchingly revealed. The latter only seems to come properly alive when he’s with his first love, his attitude to Kitty (and all other beautiful women) seeming more as that of a man being very careful with a piece of fragile china. Little details, such as the fact that Chris had not even given his home address to the authorities when he enlisted, reveal how little attachment he had to his wife and home, and it’s clear that his life with them was meaningless.

The young Rebecca West

The young Rebecca West

Kitty herself is a clever and unpleasant creation; self-absorbed, controlling and ultimately selfish, she would rather Chris was made well to return to the battlefield and possible death, than stay in his happy world of 15 years ago with Margaret. As for the latter, she’s a fascinating creation; Jenny manages to recognise her worth, despite her prejudices, and she’s obviously a person of much more substance than the rich women. Her lot in life shows the difference that circumstances can make to a person because had she had the money and comforts Kitty and Jenny had, they would not have been able to make such harsh and hideous judgements about her.

Surely she must see that this was no place for beauty that has not been mellowed but lacerated by time, that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers…

The title of the book obviously has a double meaning; initially there is the physical return of Chris to his home, but there is also the eventual mental return from his place of safety to normality so he can tragically return to the fighting. Although the women are somewhat cut off from the War, they have their own kind of battle for Chris and it’s painful to watch. All of this is conveyed in beautiful, evocative prose and West’s writing is magnificent. To get so much into such a short book is a remarkable achievement, and reading “The Return of the Soldier” has really convinced me that I need to pick up more of those West books languishing on Mount TBR.

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