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Another side to a great novelist #1968Club

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The Animals in that Country by Margaret Atwood

One of the joys of our club reads is that they prompt so much digging in the stacks and researching into books to read. And while I was digging about for 1968 I realised that one of the wonderful Margaret Atwood’s poetry books had been published in that year – which was very exciting…

Atwood’s poetry is a place I haven’t gone before; I love her fiction and non-fiction writings of all sorts, but for some reason have never picked up the selected poetry volume of hers I own. Unfortunately, getting hold of a copy of the actual 1968 book, “The Animals in that Country” has proved beyond me at the moment, as they’re so expensive, so I’ve had to go with those poems which made it into the “Selected” volume…

 

I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.

There are 14 works extracted from the original collection and in fact it’s worth reminding ourselves that Atwood started her writing career as a poet – her first collection was published in 1961 and this was her fifth. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from Margaret Atwood’s poetry but it was the kind of verse that appealed to me from the start – beautifully written, immediate and very thought-provoking.

Her subjects range from riffing on Frankenstein and his monster, through the vagaries of living in rented accommodation to the dangers of reading newspapers, and always in a particularly Atwoodian turn of phrase and mind. A particular stand-out for me was “I Was Reading a Scientific Article”, a love poem inspired by an image of the brain, which was very resonant. In fact, there are several very beautiful love poems, including this short one which I want to share here:

Axiom

Axiom: you are a sea.
Your eye-
lids curve over chaos.

My hands
where they touch you, create
small inhabited islands

Soon you will be
all earth: a known
land, a country.

The 14 titles I read here were all marvellous, and have left me itching to explore more of this book.  I really don’t know why I haven’t read Atwood’s poetry before (I know that Middle Child has – in fact, I think she has this book too), particularly as this was the first form her published writing took.

So – a successful first read for the #1968club. There is a short interview with Atwood on the CBC site here from 1968, where she discusses poetry, and it’s worth hearing (in fact, the CBC site seems to have a number of Atwood recordings to be explored).  And if I wasn’t focusing on 1968 this week I suspect I’d be pulling more Atwood books off the shelf!! 🙂

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#1968Club – here we go! :)

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So, as if recovering from a busy few days away wasn’t enough, plus returning to work after the ‘break’, it’s now time for the #1968Club! The year in question looks to be a bumper one, and it will be fascinating to see what books you all read, enjoy, recommend, discuss and link to!

I’ve put up a 1968 Club page, so please do leave a link to anything you *do* post about 1968 and I’ll round these up as the week goes in. In the meantime, I have read a few titles in preparation, and I *did* narrow down the rather large pile I’d amassed to these possibles:

Some of these are re-reads and some are new. And of course, there’s always going to be a Maigret in there (I think Simenon is the consistent feature of most of our reading years for me!) But I still haven’t quite decided which of these will be read and reviewed this week – watch this space!

Home is the weary traveller…

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…though I suspect that not all of me made it back – I think I’ve left my heart in Edinburgh…

I think the trip can be regarded as a success as far as its original intent, in that I got mum to all the available remaining memory points (and more than originally planned!) She was so happy to have revisited places like the house we lived in and the church she was married in, and so that was a job well done! I hope she created new memories, because I certainly did…

Edinburgh skyline from The Mound – the weather was amazing all week…

The trip was not without its problems and conflicts, mostly arising out of her physical restrictions at 83, her general stubbornness and intransigence (which always brings out in me the baggage I have with her) and the fact that she had to be reminded occasionally that the trip was not all about her and what she wanted to do but that I had needs too..

Mum enjoying a cuppa in a posh place called The Dome which was once a Bank head office she worked in.

However, Edinburgh seemed to win out over all obstacles, and some of the highlights were:

  • The train journey itself, though fraught with Seat Wars, went through some amazingly beautiful scenery. We travelled the East Coast Line and particularly after Newcastle (a city I haven’t visited in decades but should really revisit) the views out to the North Sea were stunning!
  • repeated visits to Princes Street and the gardens (a strong memory from my childhood) where I found myself constantly looking up unbelievingly and thinking “Fuck! That’s Edinburgh Castle!!”
  • seeing the house I used to visit my granny in when I was small, which was a few yards away from the lovely basement flat we’d rented
  • finding out that it was very much possible to be a vegan in Edinburgh!

    Inside the wonderful Henderson’s Salad Table

  • leading on from that, the discovery of the very lovely Henderson’s Salad Table on Hanover Road. I ended up taking myself out into the Edinburgh night on a couple of occasions as mum refused to go out in the evening and I hadn’t come all the way to my home city to sit indoors while she watched Eastenders. Edinburgh felt an incredibly safe city to wander around at night and I ended up eating at Henderson’s a couple of times. It was cosy, beautifully welcoming and the food and staff were perfect. The kind of place you can relax in and feel unpressured about eating out on your own while scribbling up notes in your journal on the day and drinking gin…
  • The National Gallery on The Mound – I visited on a Thursday where they have a late night opening and spent some happy hours with the paintings – particularly four wonderful portraits by one of my favourite painters, Allan Ramsay .

    The Writers’ Museum

  • the discovery of the Writers’ Museum. I came to Edinburgh hoping for traces of Robert Louis Stevenson, but struggled initially – even the large and lovely Waterstones only had the usual two books of his that most shops stock. But as we were ambling down the Royal Mile on the second day, I spotted a little sign pointing down an alley, and tucked away in a funny little tower-like building was the Writers’ Museum. Joy! A whole room devoted to RLS (as well as rooms on others like Burns, of course) and I was able to come away with my only book purchase of the trip – a selection of his poems.
  • I peeked into the National Library of Scotland too which looked rather lovely, and couldn’t resist an RLS tote bag (amongst other things).
  • Monuments! Edinburgh is stuffed to the gills with them and mainly of Dead White (often English!) Men! After all the cogitating I’ve done recently about iconoclasm I tended to find myself looking at them in a very different way: questioning why they were there, what they were intended to say and what they actually said nowadays, and muttering to several of them that they really ought to be torn down… 🤣🤣

But of course the highlight of the trip was the beautiful city of Edinburgh itself. It was slightly weird how instantly at home I felt there, and though I haven’t visited since 1972 it felt oddly as if I hadn’t ever left. Maybe that’s what’s meant by homecoming – certainly I don’t want to leave it so long before I visit again…

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars…”

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by David McDuff

My re-read of Dostoevsky’s great novel seems in some ways to have taken me a disproportionate amount of time; at 656 pages, it’s considerably shorter than “War and Peace” and yet has taken me several weeks to read. I’m not sure why; I absolutely *love* the book and *love* Dostoevsky, yet I’ve found myself having to pause between chapters just to catch my breath and absorb the brilliance of it. Whether I can convey that brilliance is another matter; trying to corral my thoughts is often difficult when it’s a big and important book I’ve read, but I shall share my feelings anyway.

An apt cover image, as Raskolnikov is described as being good-looking – which he certainly isn’t in some of the adaptations I’ve seen about…

The plot of the book is pretty well-known and appears fairly simplistic: Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student, murders a money-lender and her sister with an axe. His motives are perhaps unclear; does he undertake the act for money, or because he considers himself a Napoleon, someone apart from the ordinary run of the mill person, who is above the law and normal morality? However, he’s pursued by a dogged detective and more importantly, by his conscience, and the reader follows his emotional and spiritual journey to its final resolution.

Into this premise, Dostoyevsky introduces a rich tapestry of characters and a deep exploration of humanity and its motivations. Raskolnikov’s mother and his sister Dunya make an early appearance; the Marmeladov family, including Sonya the daughter, are pivotal to the story; then there is Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin, a solid and reliable, if slightly over-excitable fellow student. More sinister is Svidrigailov, a lecherous sensualist from the Raskolnikov family past, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of his wife Marfa Petrovna. Also on the nasty side is Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a rather stuffy man in pursuit of Dunya as a wife, so that he can have a poor and grateful woman attending to his every whim. And then there is the remarkable Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in charge of investigating the murder; an unsettling and unpredictable character, there’s most definitely a touch of the Columbo about him.

Have you ever watched a moth near a candle-flame? Well, that’s the way he’ll be with me, hovering, circling around me like a moth at a lighted candle; he’ll lose his taste for freedom, he’ll start to think, get tangled in his thoughts, ensnare himself all round as though in some net or other, worry himself to death!

All of these characters are on journeys of their own and bring their own issues to the story as a counterpoint to what is happening to Raskolnikov. And the whole structure gives Dostoevsky the opportunity to explore sophisticated moral issues: is the life of a nasty old money-lender worth anything when the money she grasps and hoards could help those in extreme poverty? Is it morally wrong for someone to take the decision as to who should live and who should die? Is Sonya any less of a person for having to prostitute herself to try and feed her family? Are the nihilistic philosophies circulating St. Petersburg helpful or damaging? And is the only route to redemption through suffering?

That’s just a snapshot of the kind of issues Dostoevsky’s looking at in “Crime and Punishment”, which might seem off putting. However, no-one can discuss a moral quandary in such an entertaining and absorbing way as Dosty does. His subjects are serious and yet his book is filled with those wonderful characters, humour, philosophy, tragedy and pathos, as well as a particularly clear-eyed view of the lot of many Russians of his time. In particular, he seems to have quite a sophisticated understanding of the difficulties women faced; Sonya, because of her particular caste, has no option but to become a prostitute; Dunya’s only way out of poverty is a suitable marriage, and she is vulnerable to lechers like Svidrigailov – the latter attempts to compromise her reputation on more than one occasion, and the last time he does is a critical point in the book.

In fact, the book is not just about one crime – it’s actually littered with them. Svidrigailov’s behaviour towards Marfa Petrovna and Dunya is vile; the plight of Marmeladov and the evils of drink are a constant theme; Sonya’s being reduced to prostitution to avoid starvation is equally criminal; and Dunya’s constant harassment is yet another aspect of the messed up structure of Russian society. Money and poverty seem to be at the root of everything, and there are scenes of the suffering of animals and children which would slot comfortably into a Dickens novel; Dostoevsky seems to have share a sense of outrage with the latter over the plight of the vulnerable.

The blood that’s on everyone’s hands …that flows and has always flowed through the world like a waterfall, that is poured like champagne and for the sake of which men are crowned in the Capitol and then called the benefactors of mankind. Well just take a look and see what’s really what! I wanted to do good to people and I’d have done hundreds, thousands of good deeds, instead of this one stupid action, which wasn’t even stupid, really, but just clumsy…

Central to the book, though, is Raskolnikov’s battle: not only with Porfiry Petrovich, but more importantly with himself. Although it’s sometimes surprising how much of the book is *not* about Raskolnikov – there are whole sequences in which he doesn’t appear or is on the sidelines – we always return to his dilemma. He seems often in a state of feverishness, trance, illness; and it’s often unclear how much his alienation from society in general has contributed to the actions he took. There is regular reference to an article he’s had published where he argued that a Napoleon among men is not bound by the same restrictions as others and is allowed to act in ways that ordinary men cannot; and whether his illness has pushed him into taking the actions he does is perhaps ambiguous. The murder becomes almost incidental – it is Raskolnikov’s mental and spiritual state which takes centre stage. The journey into his soul and his psyche is a dark one, but there is redemption in the end.

A Genius

Despite having taken so long to read “Crime and Punishment”, I finished the last hundred pages or so in a breathless burst of reading which had a really strong emotional impact on me. I first read the book decades ago and I have to say that I most definitely got more out of this time round. For a start, I appreciate the structure his work more deeply; there’s a staginess about Dostoevsky’s books which is very appealing, as the events unfold almost as a series of set pieces. There’s a surprising amount of dark humour and the slapstick quality of a manic black comedy as Raskolnikov staggers from one dramatic situation to another, the pressures on him from outside and within gradually building up.

I also saw parallels with Dostoevsky’s other work which I wouldn’t have picked up back then, as C&P was my first read of his work. In particular, there is a strong bond between Raskolnikov and the Underground Man from “Notes from the Underground”, not least in the constant reference both of them make to their spite. One particular section, where Raskolnikov is venting his spleen to Sonya about the awfulness of his life and how he crawled away to his dark little room like a spider, could have been lifted straight from “Notes…” and there were many other parts which resonated in the same way.

‘Sonya, I have a spiteful heart, take note of that: that may explain a lot of things. I came here because I’m full of spite. There are some that would not have. But I’m a coward and…. a villain!’

Lest this should all sound too dark and gloomy – let’s face it, deep arguments about the value of a single life are not for everyone – I should say that though the book is complex I found it eminently readable and absolutely gripping. Even in the depths of despair and depravity, there is an exuberance about Dostoevsky’s characters which makes you love them and want to follow them. The chapters towards the end of the book which dealt with the final fate of Svidrigailov were completely involving and moving, and I felt were some of Dostoevsky’s best writing.

My version of “Crime and Punishment” is the Penguin Classics edition translated by David McDuff (who also translated “The Brothers Karamazov” which I read in 2013) and I found it to be an excellent rendition. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was struggling with a different rendering but this one was perfect for me and it ‘sounds’ like I expect a Dostoevsky book to read. McDuff also provides excellent notes and introduction, and he perceptively opines in the latter that critical reaction to “Crime and Punishment” says as much about the commentator as the book itself. Certainly, a quick look online reveals any number of theories about this work, but for my money it’s a brilliant, multi-layered novel which tells a gripping story while providing social comment, exploring morality and shining a strong light on the Russian society of the time. I imagine I’ll be thinking about the issues “Crime and Punishment” raises for some time and I’m so glad I chose to revisit this book with this particular translation.

Heading North…

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Things may be a little quiet on the Ramblings for a few days, as I’m hitting the road to take my Aged Mother on a trip back to our homeland. She’s Scottish through and through, born and bred there, and having spent most of her early life there. She met my dad at the Palais Dance Hall in Edinburgh, and I was born in the city (as was my Grumpy Little Brother). Our family had to move south when I was 6 as my dad couldn’t find work in Scotland any more, but my mother has never really got over that dislocation from the Homeland, and so while she’s still mobile I’m taking her back to Edinburgh for a trip round those of the locations from her past which still remain.

So in the run up to the #1968club I shall be trying to catch up with some of the titles I’ve chosen; but in the meantime excuse me if things are quiet! I’ll be reading and commenting on the blogs I follow when time and internet connection permit – normal service will be resumed!!

A Dark Inheritance

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The Travelling Companion by Ian Rankin

You know how it is: you amble into Waterstones to have a rummage through the French Revolution volumes when a fetching little hardback, attractively displayed on a table with a lot of other pretties (they do that so well in Waterstones!), calls out to you… And despite the fact that you’re *still* reading “Crime and Punishment”, it somehow comes home with you in your bag and ends up getting in the way of Dostoevsky…

I should confess before we go any further that I’ve never read *anything* by Ian Rankin before; not necessarily surprising, as I don’t read a lot of modern crime novels, but perhaps I should have since he hails from my home city! This little treasure, however, was irresistible: a small hardback with an enticing description of a tale set in Paris but drawing on one of Edinburgh’s finest authors, Robert Louis Stevenson.

The book is actually part of a series of tales called “Bibliomysteries” which take a great work of literature and riff on it, producing a selection of short stories; and having read this one I’m very keen to read more. Set in the early 1980s, it introduces us to Rankin’s narrator, a young man called Ronnie. Taking a bit of a gap year after studying Stevenson, he’s temporarily working for the famous Shakespeare and Co in Paris, missing his girlfriend Charlotte (or perhaps not…), smoking the odd bit of dope and not really knowing what to do with himself.

Stevenson, looking rather elegant and fancy

His boss (apparently a descendant of Walt Whitman) sends him off to meet the mysterious Benjamin Turk, a somewhat mysterious customer who wishes to sell some books – and it’s here that things get a little odd, with mysterious lost manuscripts, too much red wine and a strange woman in a floral dress who pops up here and there…

Rankin in his (and my!) home city

And more than that I refuse to say!! “The Travelling Companion” (which is supposedly the title of a lost Stevenson story) is absolutely gripping and I would hate to spoil it for you by revealing any more of the plot. Suffice to say, Rankin is obviously a very clever author because the story twists along beautifully to a wonderful denouement, and I ended it feeling I wanted to read it all over again to pick up the nuances and hints I might have missed. I desperately want to discuss how clever it is, how well Rankin portrays the changes that happen to Ronnie, the disjuncture between the life he left behind in Edinburgh and the life he finds in Paris, but I can’t risk spoiling the book. Telling you *nothing* else about it….. 😉

I read “Jekyll” in pre-blog days and loved its atmospheric ghoulishness, but I must admit I’m now very keen to not only read more of Stevenson, but also to explore his life a little more and see whether there are references I missed in this story, and how much (if anything!) draws on fact. A fascinating read, an intriguing story and a very successful impulse buy….!

A Brief Historical Detour… (plus the I-word again!)

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A Very Short History of the French Revolution by William Doyle

Yes, I *know* I’m meant to be reading “Crime and Punishment” – and I am getting on really well with it, loving it very much and the end is in sight – but sometimes the book itch gets you and you get distracted, and that’s what’s happened to me here…

You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit absorbed with documentaries and utopias/dystopias and iconoclasm and all that sort of stuff recently at the Ramblings; and although many of my non-fiction interests lean in the direction of Russian history and particularly the Revolution, I have also been drawn towards the French Revolution in all its bloody glory. It’s a subject about which I have a fairly sketchy knowledge (taken no doubt from “A Tale of Two Cities” and watching programmes about the Romantics) and I rather felt that if I was planning to explore it further, particularly the iconoclasm involved, I needed to have a little more of a factual background. Reading “War and Peace” prodded me a bit more in that direction, too, as of course Napoleon is a main player, and so I thought I’d cast around for a good book to widen my knowledge.

That turned out to be a fairly alarming bit of searching and surfing, as a quick look in local bookshops and then online revealed that there is a positive plethora of works about the French Rev, covering umpteen different aspects and viewpoints, and frankly I was a bit over-faced. In the end I decided to plump for something I thought might give me the overview I needed, and that was the OUP’s “A Very Short Introduction….”

And yes it’s short and yes it’s an introduction, so it really was the ideal read to whet my appetite on the subject. In a series of chapters with titles such as ‘Why It Happened’ and What It Started’, Doyle looks at the situation in France pre-revolution and outlines the circumstances that led to the breakdown of the old order in the country, followed by years of war and conflict, and eventually ending up with Napoleon and “War and Peace”! Where this book succeeds, obviously, is in giving a concise overview of what caused the French revolution, what happened and what the consequences were. The conflict was a huge one, the first really modern challenge to the old feudal ways of life, and it gave hope to those who were looking for a rational society, not based on religion or privilege. Many intellectuals were caught up in the turmoil, and as Doyle notes, Wordsworth wrote:

“Not in Utopia, subterranean fields
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us…”

As Doyle goes on to opine, “If the mighty French monarchy, the nobility, and the feudal law from which it justifies its pre-eminence, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, could be challenged and rejected on grounds of rationality, utility and humanity, then nothing was beyond challenge. Dreams of all sorts were achievable.”

Yet the aspirations of the revolutionaries had their flaws: despite the presence of women on the frontline of the fighting, there was nothing in the proposed new laws and constitution to improve their position; and the same applied for those trapped in slavery. However, the revolution *did* change the world quite profoundly, as Doyle reminds us:

“Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment, and ushered in the mental world in which we still live.”

One of the most thought-provoking chapters was the final one, in which Doyle explored in depth his view of the legacy of the Revolution, and the changing perceptions of its influence as the world alters around us. Like so much of history, there are shifting interpretations depending on where and when you are at the time you consider it….

For a relative newbie like me, the book filled in plenty of gaps and gave me plenty to think about, but I confess I did come away feeling I wanted more. Doyle is reasonably even-handed in his discussion of the issues although he does lapse a little in his discussion of the legacy; I prefer objectivity in a historian as frankly I get fed up of reading right-wing reworkings of past events. However, because of the necessary brevity of the book I never felt I got to know the personalities of the main movers and shakers, or got the feeling of living through cataclysmic events (which they certainly were). Names like Marat, Danton and particularly Robespierre came across as almost incidental, which is not how I perceive them.

Bouchardon’s statue of Louis XV – which suffered a little at the hands of the Parisians…

 

From what I’ve been picking up lately, it seems there are many differing readings of the French Rev, much as there are of the Russian one, and it can often be your political sympathies which decide how you interpret. For example, getting back to the vexing subject of iconoclasm, Doyle opts to use the word ‘vandal’ when describing the destruction of statues and churches which took place, wholesale, throughout the conflict; the word was resurrected from its ancient use specifically to be coined as a term to describe mob action in France. However, an alternative and intriguing reading’s been put forward (most persuasively by Dr. Richard Clay, as far as I’ve seen) which argues that the statues and religious symbols were perceived as instruments of control by the French people and as such had to be removed to demonstrate that they meant business in their demands for a fairer government. We look at these works in a completely different way with the benefit of hindsight and our modern views on art, but the iconoclasm undertaken by the mob was not just random destruction by a bunch of savages. The revolutionaries, who were in the main ordinary people, didn’t perceive the artworks as aesthetic objects but as symbols of power which had to go.

I’m getting a little off-topic here (because I’m supposed to be reviewing a book, not discussing iconoclasm!) and certainly “A Very Short…” does do what it says on the tin – I did end it feeling that I knew the facts of the French Revolution, which was the intention. So my first proper look at what really could be regarded as the events that created much of the modern world was a fascinating one, aided and abetted by this readable little book. I hadn’t realised quite how radical and wide-ranging the changes the Revolution brought actually were: from the dissolution of the monarchies and the monasteries, dechristianisation, the granting of religious freedom, the crippling of the power of the Catholic Church, the removal of tithes, the crushing of the feudal system – this really was a dramatic and profoundly changing series of events. I’m now very keen to explore more on this subject, and Doyle lists a number of suggested further books in the back, but I still find myself flummoxed by the range of works available – does anyone have any good suggestions of books to move onto next that go into a little more detail and depth on the French Rev?

And in the meantime – onward and upward with “Crime and Punishment”! :))

****

In a weird case of serendipity, I discovered after scheduling this post that the “Tearing Up History” documentary featuring Richard Clay’s arguments was being repeated last night, so there’s an ideal chance for anyone interested in the iconoclastic element to check it out, as it’s currently on the iPlayer here. (*whispers* if you can’t get the iPlayer, look here…..)

 

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