#1977Club – Revisiting some Plathian prose


Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath

In 1977, what you might call the cult of Sylvia Plath was still in its infancy; controversy raged about her legacy, but probably more in feminist circles than in the mainstream (that was to come later). But in that year, Faber and Faber issued “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”, a collection of prose by Plath, and it must have been manna from heaven for those who wanted more from the author. I have three copies – I’m not quite sure why – and one at least will have been from the late 1970s or early 1980s when I was first discovering Plath. I couldn’t say if I’ve revisited it since, but I was really keen to do so to find out what I thought of it now. All I can recall for sure is that I thought the title story was weird…

Yes, I do indeed have three copies of “Johnny Panic” and this was the one I read…

The book pulls together a number of prose works, collected by Ted Hughes, and these he divides into those he considers “more successful”, other stories, notebook excerpts and stories found in the Lilly Library. It’s perhaps an odd way to assemble a book, and his introduction doesn’t help matters by referring to her ‘lost’ novel “Double Exposure” (now so famous that mention of it turned up in a book a reviewed not long ago…) So what of the works that *are* included here? Well, of course they’re marvellous.

The bottom one is my original from way back when – and I can see from an ancient bookmark, that I did re-read at least *some* of it at one point!

As well as being a magnificent poet, Plath was also a great prose stylist and these works are little gems. Yes, the title story *is* a bit weird – drawing on Plath’s experience of mental illness, presumably – but it’s bloody good and no wonder I remembered it. So are the others – good, that is – with a particular favourite being “The Daughters of Blossom Street”, again with a hospital setting. The works are an interesting mixture really – and from what we now know of Plath it’s easy to see how the fictions draw on the material of her life, and sit so well alongside the non-fiction pieces. A short one and a half page prose piece, “Context”, is particularly strong, with Plath discussing where her poetry sits. She identifies very much with the attitude “the personal is political”, and it’s rather frightening to think how little has changed in the conflicts present in our world over the last 50 years or so.

For me, the real issues of our time are the issues of every time – the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms – children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places, the jeopardizing of which no abstract doubletalk of ‘peace’ or ‘implacable foes’ can excuse.

Then there are memoir pieces like the evocative “Ocean 12-12W” recalling her young life by the sea at her grandparents’ house; and “Snow Blitz”, which presumably was one of her final pieces of writing, dated as it is 1963 and dealing with the frozen winter that had its part in her final demise. Chilling, in both senses of the word.

… the simple, lugubrious vision of a human face turning aside forever, in spite of rings and vows, to the last lover of all.

The notebook extracts are tantalising, reminding me of the fact that I really need to sit down and read Plath’s journals and letters, and also making me crabby about the fact that some of them were destroyed. In all her prose works, Plath shows herself to be a sharp observer of human behaviour and also a writer capable of conjuring a setting or an atmosphere seemingly at ease; and I can only wish that there were more works available.

Because much as I love being able to read these prose works of Plath, it strikes me as what we have here is inadequate. In 1977, apart from the individual poetry books, “Letters Home” and “The Bell Jar”, nothing else was available and *anything* was a bonus. Now, however, I think we need a proper collection; someone to undertake the bringing together of all her shorter prose pieces, in much the same way as her letters and journals have been collected. Plath was constantly writing and submitting works, so I presume there are plenty more lurking somewhere. I think in many ways Hughes was not necessarily the right person to curate her writings, and it needs a scholar to bring objectivity to them and also proper organisation. As an example, the works collected here are in no particular order and if Hughes chose a thematic approach, I can’t quite see what that was. However, a chronological gathering would allow the reader to see how her prose developed as she honed her craft and that would be fascinating. I believe that her work and her legacy deserves this, as do her many readers. Nevertheless, “Johnny Panic” is an essential collection until we get something more definitive, and another wonderful title from 1977.


#1977club – some previous reads


Well, we’re halfway through our week of reading from 1977, and I thought I would take a look at some previous reads – both on the blog and off. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have covered many books from 1977 here on the Ramblings, but I don’t record the publication dates so I may have missed some. Anyways, as they say, here are a few I’ve written about before:

Interestingly, I guess you could possibly say that these are what might be called ‘difficult’ books; Clarice Lispector, who I wrote about here, definitely has a reputation as not being a straightforward read. The Strugatskys wrote some marvellous speculative and sci-fi books – this one is a wonderfully twisty tale and you can read my thoughts on it here. And the Lem was one of a series of re-issues by Penguin. Again writing under a Soviet regime, so lots of subtexts, I covered it for Shiny New Books here.

However, in pre-blog times I’ve read some substantial books from 1977, including these:

I went through a phase of reading Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980s (and was lucky enough to meet her once). She was a marvellous author (much better than a certain HP writer, in my view…) and this is one of her Chrestomanci books. She always twisted reality rather wonderfully. The Tolkien came out not long after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings , and I was keen to read anything by the author; although I’ve never found anything that matched up to the trilogy.

The very fat Agatha book was essential reading for any fan of the great Christie and I read it back in the day although if you asked me for specifics I would collapse in a heap of poor memory. As for the Woolf diaries – well, I came upon these in the early 1980s (which is when I think they first appeared in paperback). I had a daily train commute at the time and I immersed myself in Woolf’s diaries and letters and all the wonder and strangeness of Bloomsbury – developed a real obsession with the group, in fact. I would love to read them all again – maybe in retirement – but time isn’t going to permit that during this week.

I also recall that I once owned and read a copy of “In Patagonia” and I think I rather enjoyed it – but it, and my memories of it, have I’m afraid flown off in the wind…

So – some previous reads on and off the blog. I’m still planning a mix of new and old reads this week, and it’s actually nice that our club reads give me what I feel is an excuse to re-read. What are you enjoying from 1977 this week?

#1977Club – Midnight Express by Billy Hayes with William Hoffer


Something a little different for the #1977club today, in the form of a guest post from OH. He enjoyed his visit to the #1968club so much that he volunteered to write about another film/book from the relevant year, which he has done – at some length! As you might gather, he’s a Film Man rather than a Book Man, being much happier with the visual medium, and here he explores the history of the film and book, as well as its publication history and some of the differences! 🙂

A review of “Midnight Express” would not be complete without including the motion picture of the same title. Whereas the 1977 US publishing of the first edition hardback was not of itself a significant event, everything changed dramatically in the following year when the story was transformed into a major cinema release. With the added boost of a movie tie-in paperback, “Midnight Express” rapidly became an international bestseller, translated into numerous languages and reprinted over many years. From all of this, William “Billy” Hayes enjoyed a fair degree of celebrity, or notoriety, depending upon differing standpoints.

The original story could never have created or perhaps even foreseen the international controversy and condemnation which would result from the 1978 ‘film of the book’. The Oscar-winning screenplay, written by Hollywood director Oliver Stone, was a retelling of American Hayes’s ordeal in a Turkish prison. The twenty-three-year-old university dropout was imprisoned in 1970, after being arrested with four pounds of hashish, an initial sentence of a few years subsequently being extended to life imprisonment. The prisoner’s climactic escape years later, after his position looked hopeless, further elevated his memoir, combining a powerful biographical account of harsh punishment, endurance, strength of will, and resulting final freedom.

Photo of the author from first edition dustjacket

Hayes’s detention occurred at a time when Nixon’s US presidency had impaired relations with Turkey and international tensions were heightened by plane hijacks and acts of terrorism. As Hayes was leaving the country with concealed drugs (apparently not his first such venture), an unexpected and ill-fated airport search took place, driven by the dangers of hidden explosives possibly being carried. Ordinarily, given Istanbul’s popularity as a Hippie mecca of the time, ‘recreational’ drugs were not expected to be met with severe action by the authorities. However, with the prevailing political background, Hayes was being viewed as a criminal by some or a pawn by others.

The film “Midnight Express” premiered at the 1978 Cannes festival, sparking a clamour of disapproval over the depiction of suffering and barbarity within the Turkish prison (shot on the island of Malta). The dramatised events in the motion picture, whether broadly fictional or flagrantly false, caused an outcry from Turkey and its allies. Later the production was Oscar-nominated for best picture and best director (Alan Parker).

The depicted brutal treatment of the American subject not only caused fellow nationals to fear travelling to or through Turkey, but also damaged the country’s tourism industry. On the global stage, the enacted events and portrayals of the Turkish legal and penal systems drew international protests, both from those denouncing a claimed distortion of the truth behind the story and those demonstrating against a perceived extreme penalty and accompanying inhumane treatment.

Unknown to myself, and possibly most people, was that not only had the “Midnight Express” book appeared in America the year before the screen release, but  also that there had been a limited hardback run in Britain. More prominent were the US paperbacks, with their ‘passport’ cover design, and the British tie-in versions, bearing a movie photo on the front. The world mainstream premiere of the film was also in Britain, with the American release not occurring until the autumn of 1978.

I bought the book after seeing the film on its release and found that it contrasted greatly with the screen version. In particular, the book’s ending is also wholly different from the film’s violent denouement. It is hard to keep separate the written account from the screen events, but it cannot be denied that the movie helped to magnify Hayes’s saga of survival and memorable escape. His collaborating author William Hoffer has over the years been involved with a number of books about dangerous situations and international incidents.

There has of course been a rich history of classic prison tales, in the tradition of “Papillon”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, “Cool Hand Luke”, and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. “Midnight Express” chronicles a modern example of such stories, one of human endurance overcoming adversity, the reader being able to evaluate the level of wrongdoing on the part of the writer, as was the case with “Luke”, an offender arrested many times. Before leaving the cinema and world events behind, there can be a short account of the first printings of the Hayes book.

E. P. Dutton published the initial hardback edition in 1977. The company had produced books in America from the mid-1850s until a century later the imprint was acquired by Penguin. In Britain the book also appeared in hardback, as a 1977 limited run from Andre Deutsch. The publishing house had operated from the early 1950s and after issuing “Midnight Express” the company ceased trading a few years later.

E. P. Dutton and Andre Deutsch first edition 1977 hardbacks

1977 was also the year that the US Popular Library produced the first paperback. The company had started in the early 1940s and was sold off to Warner a few years after “Midnight Express” appeared. The British 1978 paperback came from Sphere Books, an imprint launched in the mid-1960s, eventually becoming part of Penguin in the 1980s.

Popular Library 1977 and Sphere Books 1978 paperbacks

Forty years on, to close the publishing, cinematography and social aspects of the story it can be added that composer Georgio Moroder produced the movie’s Oscar-winning soundtrack and a single from it became a huge chart and disco hit. Hayes has since written follow-up books, including published letters he wrote from prison, has embarked on talk tours and more recently has taken part in a documentary in which he returned to Turkey, as it were to make his peace with the country. Brad Davis, the actor who played Hayes in the film, died tragically young in 1991.

And so on to the Sphere paperback I purchased four decades ago. My copy of “Midnight Express” told a quite different story of Hayes’s years of detention in Sagmalcilar prison, compared to the movie’s nightmare establishment. Moreover, the screen events dwelt less on the prisoners’ everyday lives and the importance of bonds Hayes forged with inmates, he relying on friendships to stay sane. One aspect which was featured was the use and availability of hashish, including among guards, the drug ironically being the very substance which had landed Hayes in prison.

Hayes adopts an easy style, his sentences conversational. The early pages tell of his arrival at the airport, showing his passport and having to explain to security staff what was the frisbee in his shoulder bag. Having been waved through, all seemed well, up to the point when a final security check and a more thorough search was being made of the now fearful passenger. The tension reached a peak until the packages strapped to Hayes’s body were revealed not to be dangerous, simply drugs, to the apparent relief and amusement of the guards in attendance; the carrier was detained, his intended plane home departing without him. During the ensuing initial processing stages he made an opportunistic escape attempt which failed and so from that point on was treated as a foreign drug criminal and potential flight risk.

Leaving aside all the later courtroom scenes and parental or diplomatic attempts to secure Hayes’s release, the story’s main content chronicles the point from which the prisoner is delivered into permanent custody. Hayes relates his first sight of the “great grey prison” and how his early introduction to the place is one of being cruelly beaten for a minor misdemeanour. Only his connection with fellow prisoners will in due course lessen his feeling of vulnerability and isolation.

Another rule violation nets Hayes a more severe beating, such that he collapses and is just dumped back in his cell. He describes the ordeal and how, “Each prisoner knew what had happened. They were sorry for me. But glad it hadn’t been them.” Time moves on, Hayes writing letters to his parents who are trying everything to have their son moved back to the US. He does not burden them unduly with his suffering, but for the reader of his book he details, “Each morning as I woke a choking fear gripped me by the throat. My body ached from the lumpy wood plank bed.”

Hayes is visited by his father, lying to him that he’d never intended to sell drugs. The reader can sympathise with the harsh treatment, but reflect on the younger man’s attempt to carry drugs from the country he’d been visiting. As his months pass, Hayes turns to yoga as a way of escaping from the daily struggles. He gives up trying to fathom the arcane hierarchy of his place of confinement, commonly dubbed a “house of pain” by its hundreds of inmates.

After six months of “rotting at Sagmalcilar”, Hayes is taken to the Bakirkoy Mental Hospital, for assessment as to whether he is “crazy”. In a vivid account of communal exercise there, Hayes writes of a basement with a central supporting pillar, around which prisoners trudge aimlessly on a “journey to nowhere”. Soon Hayes finds himself being drawn in to the daily drudgery, describing how he and the shuffling men “flowed like the current of some sluggish, mindless river.”

Hayes tells of how gradually he was becoming more isolated from reality. “The constant babbling and screaming of the inmates tormented me. I had to get out fast.” Providentially, he learned of a lower security facility on Imrali Island, in the Bosphorus Strait, twenty miles from the Turkish mainland, where detainees worked out-of-doors, packing vegetables. However, Hayes’s own lot was to be condemned to continued confinement at the main prison and after three years and a series of legal attempts or appeals to free him, his sentence was hugely increased.

By the middle of 1974, the author had been held for three and a half years. Hayes, “Willie” to his associates, or “Vilyum Hi-yes” to his captors, heard in the August of President Nixon’s resignation. A year later the internee was more cheerfully writing one of his many letters home from Imrali island, having at last been transferred there from the prison which had held him for four years. Now he could cherish the “open air” around him and a view of the “far horizon”, the setting being to him a “paradise”, compared to the former Sagmalcilar enclosed surroundings.

On an autumn evening the sky turned black and Hayes took his chance to escape. Having slid down a small, muddy harbour he evaded searchlights and guards, swimming out to a distant fishing boat. Loosening the ties, Hayes felt the boat drifting out across the water until he could risk sitting up to row, reaching the open sea and confronting strong currents. Having landed on a distant shore, his next journey involved travelling on foot, hiding at times and finally swimming across a river, until he was out of Turkey, ending his enforced five-year stay in that country. When eventually a passport was arranged in Greece, Hayes was at last put on a plane home in the October, the fifth anniversary of the same month in which he had originally been arrested.

On 3rd April, 2018, Hayes turned seventy-one and reportedly now has a medical marijuana licence. His story, from four decades before, was all the more shocking, compared with today’s sadly commonplace news reports of suffering around the world. Hayes’s account of his ordeal is a powerful read, providing a first hand and authentic narrative of experiences and conditions most of us could not endure. He managed to hold out, while legal processes were pursued, illicit escape attempts were planned and stories from the outside world provided hope. When Hayes was finally and safely back home he wrote of how he went to the cinema and saw “Jaws”, now able with the audience to enjoy being terrified of a mechanical shark.

The genius of Shostakovich @shinynewbooks @BehemothMusic @NottingHillEds

Leave a comment

I’ve been lucky enough not only to review some wonderful volumes for Shiny New Books, but also to read some real treats from Notting Hill Editions. Those two strands coincided in this really outstanding book which I was ridiculously excited about reading and reviewing!

I have a bit of an obsession with Shostakovich anyway, so I was probably the ideal reader for this one… An absorbing, moving and thought-provoking mixture of memoir, musicology and history, I found it unputdownable. You can read my review over on Shiny here!

I should add here as a coda to my review that I learned after its publication that author Stephen Johnson has put a page of audio reference clips on his website, which would be a useful aid for anyone reading the book, particularly if they aren’t literate in musical notation (like me!)

The clips can be found here:


#1977club – Brautigan’s Babylonian Dreams


Dreaming of Babylon by Richard Brautigan

As our clubs have got slightly more up to date in their decades, I’ve tried to slip in re-reads of favourite authors; so I was very happy to be able to find a Richard Brautigan book from 1977. Brautigan is one of my long-time loves; I first read his work back in my late teens, as part of my exploration of the Beats, and I’ve written about him before on the Ramblings. My early copies of his books were bought from a shop called Paperback Parade, while I was living in flatland in Cheltenham. The shop (which I think was a chain at the time) only sold paperbacks, of course, and they were organised by publisher on bare white shelves. My Brautigans were from the Picador section, and their editions usually featured a photograph of the author with his current girlfriend on the cover. I confess to being initially drawn to the books because Brautigan kind of reminded me of a guy I had a major crush on at the time (and I later found out there was a weird kind of synchronicity to that – which is another story…); but once I began reading him, I was utterly hooked on RB. His writing is like nobody else’s and I love his weird, warped, deceptively simple and completely unique narratives.

If my dreadful memory serves me correctly, “Dreaming of Babylon” would have been one of his books I bought as soon as it came out in paperback – or at least fairly soon after. It’s late Brautigan – only one further novel was published in his lifetime, plus one more very much posthumously – and it’s not usually listed amongst the titles he’s best known for. But I tend to love all Brautigan, so I was happy to revisit it. In fact, I went through a big re-read of his whole canon a few years pre-blog, and I’d probably be happy to do so again. Nevertheless, it’s “Dreaming of Babylon” from 1977 that I’m meant to be talking about here, so I’d better get on with it.

The novel is subtitled “A Private Eye Novel 1942” and is indeed set in the San Francisco of that year. The narrator is one C. Card, the titular private eye; though unfortunately not a very succesful one. Completely broke, owing everyone money, harassed by an overbearing landlady (and also an overbearing, though mostly absent, mother), Card thinks his luck has changed as he’s at last found a client. Over the space of one day, we follow Card’s efforts to find a gun, hustle a little cash from a cop friend, hustle a little more from a friendly morgue attendant, negotiate with a cool blonde who can drink a hell of a lot of beer, escape from some crazy gangsters with razors – oh, and there’s the matter of some missing dead bodies…

….I was on my way over to the refrigerator.

That was a big mistake.

I looked inside and then hurriedly closed the door when the jungle foliage inside tried to escape. I don’t know how people can live the way I do. My apartment is so dirty that recently I replaced all the seventy-five-watt bulbs with twenty-five-watters, so I wouldn’t have to see it. It was a luxury but I had to do it. Fortunately, the apartment didn’t have any windows or I might have really been in trouble.

Card is hampered in all his attempts by Babylon; after being hit on the head by a baseball when young, he spends half of his time dipping out of reality into labyrinthine fantasies of the place. In the complex and detailed stories he makes up in his head, he’s the star: a top baseball player or a successful private eye, in a plot out of a Saturday morning serial, with his beautiful sidekick always in attendance. These fantasies, which seem to take over at will, have interfered in everything he’s tried to do: he could have been a cop like his friend Rink, except he flunked the test by dreaming of Babylon; he can’t even be relied on to get off the bus at the right stop if a fantasy takes over. Quite how he’s going to manage to deal with the strangeness of the next 24 hours is anyone’s guess.

“Dreaming of Babylon” ends up being a riotous tale involving a number of corpses, fortunes that rise and fall, some extremely hilarious and completely un-PC inappropriate humour, an unfortunate murder victim who is the subject of necrophiliac longings, plus plenty of sly debunking of the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction. Instead of being one step ahead like the gumshoes in those stories, C. Card is constantly one step behind what’s happening; and every time you think he’s going to succeed, something manages to get in the way. Frankly, it’s probably a good thing that his pal Rink became the policeman and not him.

The world sure is a strange place. No wonder I spend so much time dreaming of Babylon. It’s safer.

Underlying the humour I did sense darker subtexts. Card’s relationship with his mother is not a happy one, and when dealing with her he turns into a whining little boy. As for the fate of his father, let’s not go there… Brautigan’s own family background was complex and troubled, so it’s not entirely surprising that his hero would also have an unpleasant home life. Additionally, Brautigan’s attitude to women is always problematic, and this was also reflected in his real personal life. The women in the “Dreaming…” are stereotypes; but then the story is dealing with literary clichés so perhaps that’s not unexpected. And certainly the glamorous blonde who drinks beer like a man but never needs to pee is great fun!

So I loved “Dreaming of Babylon” very much on what must be at least my third re-read. Yes, there are plenty of non-PC elements, but the comedy is very, very black and very, very funny; I always adore Brautigan’s wry, dry narrative voice and his idiosyncratic outlook on the world; and he’s an author I can return to again and again, always with enjoyment. My first book for the #1977 was a joy, and let’s hope the rest of this week’s reading ends up being so good.

Incidentally, I feel the need to confess: the edition in the picture, and which I read, is *not* my original 1970s Picador. I had a crisis while trying to find the latter – which isn’t on the small shelf space dedicated to Brautigan, but SHOULD BE! I guess it’s in the house somewhere and will turn up when I’m not looking for it; so I had to buy a pretty new copy from Canongate which is very nice. But I’d still like to find my original edition…

#1977club – here we go! :)


Yes, time for another week of reading, discovering and discussing books from a particular year – and this one is 1977. We reach a more modern decade than we’ve been covering up until now, and one which certainly takes us away from Simon’s comfort zone of the 1920s! :)) However, I was initially unsure of what I would read from the year until I began to dig, and I actually came up with a bit of a pile of books that I already own:

Yes, I really *do* own three copies of “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”. No, I don’t know why…

I also own two other books from 1977 that piqued my interest, but alas I cannot at the moment lay hands on them – “The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French is a feminist classic and I have a battered old Virago copy, but it’s currently lurking on a shelf in Middle Child’s flat as I have loaned it out – so I won’t be reading that one… I also own Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” but several trawls through the shelves have failed to find it (although I *did* find some other books I was looking for). So I may well choose from the above – some are re-reads, some unread, and I’d like to go for a mix if I can.

And then there’s this, lurking electronically:

I really want to read Barthes but frankly, I’m a Bit Scared. I’m *not* an academic and I fear I will fail miserably to understand this and then feel stupid. Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained….

So do join Simon at Stuck in a Book and myself in the #1977club – it’s great fun, great reading and always fascinating to see what books people come up with! Here goes…!

A dark and bleak satire @shinynewbooks @Apollo_Fiction


Last year, I reviewed a wonderful piece of Russian satire by the classic author Saltykov-Shchedrin at Shiny New Books – the very clever, witty and pithy “The History of A Town”, which had been reissued in a beautiful volume from Apollo Editions.

Now Apollo have put out an equally striking edition of what’s perhaps the author’s most well-known work, “The Golovlevs”; again translated by I.P. Foote, it’s just as satirical as the first book, but much darker.  My thoughts are over at Shiny here!

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: