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Amongst the Russians

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I had a lovely little jaunt to London at the weekend, mainly to catch an exhibition I desperately wanted to see before it shut; but I also managed to take in some minor shopping and a nice bit of socialising with family, which was a pleasant bonus! 🙂

One nice thing about the train journey is the chance to read, and I made my way through this slim volume whilst travelling; it’s absolutely marvellous, and I’ll get round to writing about it eventually, but it’s definitely another winner from Pushkin Press.

This was the exhibition in question, and as you can see from the dates I was running out of time to get to it. I’d hoped to see the show in December when I was up for the Tove show with my friend J. but we ran out of time – and to be honest, Russian art isn’t necessarily her thing so although she puts up with my obsession very patiently, I decided it was best for me to see this one alone.

And it probably was, actually, because it was a powerful show which I got quite emotional about in places (one particular photo of Mayakovsky on his deathbed, which I won’t share here for fear of triggers, reduced me to a jelly). The exhibition is drawn from the magnificent collection of David King, which the Tate acquired in 2016, and there are some stunning posters, photographs, artworks and mementos.

Particularly effective was the room “Ordinary People” which looked at the impact of Soviet ideology on individual human beings. The Mayakovsky picture was here, as well as one of him with the director Meyerhold (about whose fate, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I can’t think about without wanting to scream). The centrepiece of the room was a glass covered table containing mug shots of those who were victims of the terror and the secret police. Pull out drawers contained a guide to who they were, ranging from ordinary students to former colleagues of Lenin to the poet Mandelstam. It was a chilling and moving memorial.

Evidence of my current topic of interest – iconoclasm!!

So I came out of the exhibition impressed, stunned and thoughtful, and it was probably a good thing I had a bit of a walk along the South Bank to clear my head before meeting up with Middle Child and her Partner for lunch! They were up in London for the weekend as a pre-birthday celebration for her, so we ended up in a lovely veggie/vegan place in Soho called Titbits (as they are both vegan too).

The idea is you choose what you like from the buffet style selection and then pay by the weight of your plate. The food was gorgeous – I’m not used to having so much vegan choice – and I had a bit of an appetite after the amount of walking I’d done (I do enjoy flaneusing around London).

Middle child refuses to be photographed…

After lunch and a wander round the local Wholefoods store, I hit Foyles while the other two went to drop off shopping. I was in search of some of the new little Penguin Moderns which were due out last week, and had come armed with a list. Alas, Foyles hadn’t had them in yet, which was a bit of a blow… I did, however, pick up one book (which I thought was reasonable – as Marina Sofia phrased it so nicely recently, it’s unlikely that I would get out of a bookshop unscathed…)

I’ve read about this pioneering work of speculative fiction a couple of times recently, and so figured I would give it a try. Apparently a precursor to “Nineteen Eight Four”, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and just about everything, it deals with a future world based on a Nazi victory and the total subservience of women. As the (female) author wrote this in 1937 she must have been remarkably clear-eyed about the way the world could turn. So I’m intrigued…

The afternoon was a little damp, so basically the rest of the day was spent in the pub with Middle Child, Partner and my Little Brother, who is now back in the country in the bosom of his family after working in Spain for a year. We had a lovely catch-up, and he had even brought me a gift from a Spanish market:

Isn’t it gorgeous???

I did of course treat myself at the Tate – the exhibition book was just lovely and I have a bit of a passion for picking up art postcards wherever I find them..

“Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” is one of my favourite images ever.

So a lovely day out, mixing art, shopping, reading and family – I don’t think I could better that combination! 🙂

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In pursuit of the glass girl @shinynewbooks @AnnaKavan

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I have a review up on Shiny New Books today, and it’s of a stunning and memorable book – Anna Kavan’s “Ice”.

I picked up my original, rather fragile Picador edition (shown on the left) decades ago and haven’t revisited the book since. However, it’s now been reissued in a eye-catching Penguin Modern Classic (centre) and a beautiful Peter Owen Cased Classic (right), as well as a Penguin black cover classic in the USA (which I don’t have).

Reading the book during a freezing period of weather over Christmas was a sobering experience, and provided plenty of context for considering the book and Kavan’s message. To find out if I prefer one version over another, and to read my thoughts on “Ice” (it’s a long review…), you can head over to Shiny here!

Happy Burns Night!

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As a (sadly) ex-pat Scot, I have got into the habit of celebrating Burns Night down south with some vegetarian haggis and accompaniments – much to the amusement of OH (the Sassenach….) This year’s feast will be particularly special, as I’ll be enjoying a haggis purchased on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh during my visit last year – which will bring back many happy memories.

I don’t intend to read any Burns, though – sorry! Instead, I shall be dipping into my book of Stevenson’s poems purchased in the Writers’ Museum, also on the Royal Mile.  And here are a few words from him:

Love – what is love? A great and aching heart;
Wrung hands; and silence; and a long despair.
Life – what is life? Upon a moorland bare
To see love coming and see love depart.

Happy Burns Night! 🙂

A less than idyllic adventure… #readingmuriel2018

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Robinson by Muriel Spark

The start of the year has seen quite an online flurry about the fact that 2018 is the centenary of the birth of the great Scottish author Muriel Spark. There’s a big exhibition at the National Library of Scotland (which I really wish I could get to) and lovely blogger HeavenAli is holding a readalong of Spark’s work throughout the year. The structure of this is really laid-back and so somehow I’ve managed to actually get involved in a reading challenge and read a Spark book! During the first three months the focus is on Spark’s early novels, and as I had read her debut effort, “The Comforters, I went for the second one, “Robinson”. And what a fascinating and thought-provoking read it turned out to be.

The title is, of course, a reference to Daniel Defoe’s great novel “Robinson Crusoe”; but this book is something very different to that classic work. Spark’s novel is narrated by one January Marlow, a young widow who’s been stranded on the island of Robinson after a plane crash. Marooned with her are Tom Wells, a rather slippery character, and Johnnie Waterford, an entertaining young Dutchman with a wonderfully eccentric way of speaking; these three are the only survivors of the crash, and they’re rescued by the island’s owner and inhabitant, Robinson himself.

As the three recover from their injuries, they discover that the set-up on the island is a little odd. Robinson is a bit of a strange one, as despite being quite well off he’s chosen to isolate himself with only a young boy, Miguel, as company. Apart from the occasional visit by pomegranate sellers, no-one visits Robinson (either the person or the island) and so he’s making a considerable personal sacrifice by tolerating and accommodating the sometimes fractious visitors…

I had issues with the cover of my edition – and ended up having to deploy strategic post-its. I don’t know which of the characters this was mean to be, but it certainly didn’t seem like *any* of them to me…

Skilfully, Spark gradually reveals her characters during the narrative and all is not, of course, straightforward. Wells, a bit of a wide boy who runs a dodgy magazine and sells dubious lucky charms, shirks the chores and feigns illness; Johnnie turns out to be related to Robinson and there may be more to him than meets the eye, too. As for January, her rather eccentric life story gradually reveals itself, while she sees parallels between her companions and her family members. An added element in the story is religious conflict; Robinson is violently against all forms of false faith and cant, whereas January is a recent convert to Catholicism and happy to teach Miguel how to do his rosary.

But tensions come to a head and murder happens; blood is strewn over the island again, Robinson cannot be found, and the remaining survivors must deal with the suspicion between them until the pomegranate boats arrive to rescue them. Add in blackmail, guns, threats and hidden passages and you have quite a scintillating mix!

I’ve read a lot of Spark pre-blog, but somehow “Robinson” slipped under my radar at the time; which is a shame, but at least I’ve got to read it now. It’s a curious mix at times, with funny and entertaining elements set against darker, more unsettling plot strands. Certainly, although it’s not sensible to conflate author and character, I can’t help seeing Spark reflected in January, with both having a son, both being authors and both having recently converted to the Catholic faith. That latter element is strong in the book, with the interesting juxtaposition of Robinson’s viewpoint, January’s simple faith and her scarily obsessive brother-in-law’s rather weird fixation on the more extreme aspects of the religion.

Spark and son

There were plenty of twists and turns, too, and the story was extremely gripping (although I confess I *did* suss one particularly large plot twist well before the end of the book). It’s a work that really is immensely readable and yet very thought-provoking as well. There is plenty of wry and dry humour, and although Spark is channelling Defoe, Robinson is no Crusoe and Miguel is no Friday. The setting, however, is somewhat idyllic, even if the events are not, and it’s fascinating to see January’s recording of events at the time (in the journal she keeps) and her thoughts on the island looking back on her experience (as we know all along that she will survive and return to civilization). Spark’s prose, too, is just wonderful, evoking the setting and the characters beautifully, and really bringing the island of Robinson to life. I was particularly taken with Johnnie (whose true nature is never completely revealed) and his wonderfully dreadful use of the English language had me chuckling away all though the book.

So – “Robinson” was a real winner for me, and proof (if I needed it) of what an inventive, original and just classy author Muriel Spark was. There’s suspense, meditations on the human spirit, adventure, a marvellously evoked setting, humour and a wonderful ping-pong playing cat – what more do you need of a book? 🙂

…in which I find myself unreasonably amused by some literary parodies…

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Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

After reading “Locus Solus” I felt I definitely needed a change of pace, and browsing through the Christmas arrivals I decided to pick up this little volume of pastiches. I have to confess that this is actually the first book by Faulks I’ve ever read, and it obviously isn’t typical of his work; but it does show him as a very clever writer with strong literary awareness! Pleasingly, the book carries the pastiche element all the way through to the author biography on the inside jacket flap, the acknowledgements and even the book title itself!

Now, I love a good spoof; I have a wonderful volume called “The Faber Book of Parodies”, and I’ve been known to laugh like a drain for hours at some of the great joys it contains, like “The Skinhead Hamlet”, much to the annoyance of anyone within hearing distance… So really, this was likely to be the ideal read for me, and it was – I devoured it in a couple of sittings and had I had more spare time I would have read it in one go.

Faulks obviously knows his literature, and the book contains a mixture of short poetry and prose pieces, each a take on some famous author or literary group. The titles on their own are pretty amusing; such as “Kingsley Amis has a shot at a female narrator”, “Jane Austen steps out with an American Psycho”, “Samuel Beckett writes a monologue for Ronnie Corbett” or “T.S. Eliot reflects that it might have come out better in limericks”. Each piece is just the right length to make its point, as there’s nothing worse than an over-extended joke, but I was actually left feeling I wanted more and I could happily have read a collection of these which was twice as long.

Of course, I did have some particular favourites! “Charles Dickens has a shot at being concise” is an absolute hoot, with a weather report which could simply have been rendered in the words “it was raining” treated to an ornate paragraph or two of Dickens’ wonderfully long-winded prose. “George Orwell confronts the real 1984” captures the real year surprisingly well; and as someone who remembers it, I can recall how much our view of 1984 was coloured by our thoughts of the book, but we actually had little idea at the time of how the world really *was* going to go down the road of Orwell’s visionary work. “Hilaria Holmroyd offers an exclusive extract from her new literary biography” features extracts from a spoof Bloomsbury-style work (presumably of the type purveyed by Michael Holroyd…) and is spot on about the ridiculous complexities of their personal lives. As for “Philip Larkin prepares lines in celebration of the Queen Mother’s 115th birthday” (which the book’s spurious blurb claims was banned and cut by the BBC!) this manages to mix wit with surprising pathos, and is a real winner.

Some guy who writes very funny parodies….

I have to say that “Pistache” had me snorting away merrily in many places, which did have a slightly irritant effect on OH (who was being a bit sniffy about the book). The book also has some lovely line illustrations by George Papadakis, which add to the jollity. It probably helps if you know a bit about the writing style of the authors being sent up (and possibly you need to have a particularly British sense of humour), but even if you don’t, it’s wonderful, silly, clever fun and a great way to lighten a gloomy January day! I think I may just have to dig out my old copy of that Faber book and be a bit more irritating…. 😉

Loving my local library…

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Despite its inability to stock certain of the more obscure books (ahem!) I want to read, I really do love my local library! A case in point is a couple of titles I recently brought home with me. I *am* trying very hard not to buy any more books just at the moment, but there were a couple I wanted very much to explore:

“The Sandcastle” is of course the result of Liz’s Great Iris Murdoch Readalong. I’ve been wondering if I should join in and I was intrigued by the sound of this one so I decided to borrow a copy rather than doing my usual clickety-click buying thing… I’ve dipped into the first chapter and am interested – so I may actually read my first Murdoch!

As for “Flaneuse”, I’ve loved the sound of this one since I first heard about it; the temptation to buy was there also, but as the library stocked it I reserved it. The first couple of pages are marvellous – but as I’m currently in the middle of Muriel Spark’s “Robinson” both of these will have to wait. Very frustrating…. I shall just have to give up sleep!

Layer after layer after layer of storytelling… @almabooks

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Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel
Translated by Rupert Copeland Cuningham

The Argumentative Old Git had a really interesting post recently about the importance of plot in a work of literature. I’m in agreement with him that, actually, plot is not always relevant, and reading “Locus Solus” by Raymond Roussel kind of reminded me of that post; because the book has rather strangely got either masses of plot, or none, depending on how you look at it!

“LS” is a book that was obviously going to appeal to me; cited as an influence by members of OuLiPo and lauded for its imaginative strangeness, it’s part of the roster of the John Calder list now republished by Alma Books. Roussel (1877 -1933) was a French poet, novelist, playwright, musician, and chess enthusiast (so rather a polymath!) and although I don’t think he’s read so much nowadays, his influence seems to have stretched far and wide, taking in the Surrealists, the aforementioned OuLiPo (he’s rated highly by Queneau), and the ‘nouveau roman’ authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The story’s narrator introduces us to Martial Canterel, a rich scientist and inventor, who’s invited a group of associates to visit his country estate, from which the book takes its title. The grounds of Locus Solus consist of huge grounds filled to the brim with wonders, and Canterel takes his guests on a dazzling tour of the grand inventions it contains. Each chapter opens with the group being met with a strange scenario – for example a pile driver which constructs a mosaic made of human teeth; a giant glass diamond full of water which contains a dancing girl, a hairless cat and the head of Danton; or a set of scenes peopled by some very gruesome beings (about which I will say no more…) Once the group has witnessed whichever event it is, Canterel goes on to explain the story behind the scenario, which in some cases ends up being multiple layers of storytelling as the source of the tale reaches back through historical events and influences.

The stories become more and more bizarre and more outlandish as the book goes on, with tales from myth and legend, ancient times and ancient lands. Each chapter presents a series of increasingly precise, meticulous descriptions of scientific miracles and rather gruesome inventions and it seems that Canterel has conjured up some terrifyingly ingenious and phantasmagorical devices. The dense allusive text becomes almost a compendium of wonders and the imagery is stunning and imaginative.

The rather dapper Roussel – a model for his character Canterel?

“Locus Solus” is a fascinating, dazzling yet sometimes difficult read and I haven’t actually pulled out any quotes because it’s a book that’s very much a sum of its parts. I’ve seen it described as being like the written equivalent of a surrealist painting, and in many ways that’s an accurate interpretation as the strangeness of each scenario is so visually realised by the prose. The dizzying degree of detail can become boggling and because of this “Locus Solus” is perhaps best read in small doses a chapter at a time rather than all in one go as I did. The style of writing and depth of detail does create a certain distance from the narrative and events which makes this a book to admire rather than love. I’m someone who loves wordplay and clever writing, and LS has this in abundance; and it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1914 when the world was embracing new sciences and also facing major conflict. Canterel is something of a control freak, attempting to tame the world with his inventions and his discoveries, and that need for order may well have been a reaction to the coming chaos of the world at large.

I’ve read that in the original French the book’s wordplay is even more pronounced, with numerous puns and constraints, though I’m not sure if these have transferred over to the English version. Nevertheless, “Locus Solus” is a fascinating, strange, often a bit grim but never less than intriguing read, and the imagery it contains will haunt me for some time.

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Books for which many thanks!)

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