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Sharing the love for Margaret Atwood Reading Month #MARM

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I have to confess that I do love an excuse to rummage amongst my bookshelves; so the fact that I managed to get involved in Margaret Atwood Reading Month, and also that so many people have been sharing pictures of their Atwood collections kind of spurred me on to take down all of my copies of her books with a view to providing some gratuitous book images. What I hadn’t quite taken on board was the number of Atwoods I actually own… Here they are, firstly, in a little row:

So – quite a few…

And here are the lovely Green cover Virago editions:

I prefer to get the Green Virago versions when I can, though they’re becoming harder to track down. I read these decades ago, so memories of them are fairly fuzzy. There are a couple of what I would class as Green Viragos, although they only have a green coloured spine, and these are they:

As you can tell, “Conversations” was picked up from the Loros charity shop on a visit to the Offspring and if I recall correctly was spotted by Eldest Child.

And here are the non-Green Viragos:

Some are much older than others, and I *do* quite like the modern style ones. As not everything she wrote is available in Green, there’s not much I can do about it, is there??? 🙂 These two, however, are big chunky book club editions:

The image on “The Blind Assassin” is striking, but I don’t find the format particularly nice.

Then there are the hardbacks:

I don’t think I bought all of these new, although I’m pretty sure I picked up “Alias Grace” as soon as it came out – it’s one of my favourite Atwood books. They’re bulky and heavy to read, but I do like a chunky hardback.

Last but not least are the oddities!

“The Tent” is a small format hardback; “Lady Oracle” is an American edition with a striking cover which I don’t need as I have a Green Virago but I don’t like to get rid of it; and “The Labrador Fiasco” is the Bloomsbury Quid I reviewed a couple of days ago.

So there you are. My Margaret Atwood collection. She’s a very prolific author and I don’t have anywhere near all of her books. Except – I have a collection of her poetry (and I know this because I’ve reviewed some on here) and it’s not with the rest of the books and that’s most annoying….  😦

Some Christmas gifting recommendations @shinynewbooks

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I’ve been happy to be a contributor to Shiny New Books since the online mag first started up getting on for five years ago; and last year the editors decided it would be nice if we made some suggestions of books that we’d recommend as gifts to people at Christmas, an idea that’s being repeated this year too.

I seem to have had quite a successful reading year in 2018 and it was actually difficult to make my choices. However, I managed to select three titles in the end which really made a big impression on me during the year. Inevitably there are Russians…

The whole feature has some wonderful ideas for Christmas shopping – or indeed for books you might like to suggest people get for you! So do pop over to Shiny and have a look – you can never have too many book ideas to my mind… 🤣

Sharply poignant and evocative #MARM

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The Labrador Fiasco by Margaret Atwood

Despite my extreme rubbishness at taking part in challenges and readalongs and the like, I couldn’t help but be tempted by the concept of November being Margaret Atwood Reading Month (hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink). I love Atwood’s books, and so it was a no brainer that I’d try to get to something of hers this month. However, as usual, time ran away with me and the end of November has been getting closer and closer. So I cast my eye over my Atwood shelves, and suddenly spotted a tiny volume peeking out – “The Labrador Fiasco”, a small Bloomsbury Quid edition which has been there since, oooh, 1997…

Now the problem I have, as I’ve talked about before, is often not being sure whether I’ve read a book or not (except when it’s something so massive and monumental and memorable and life-changing that it’s etched in my brain). I read a *lot* of Atwood in the 1980s while I was commuting – 25 minutes each way on the train is great for getting through books – and many of them came from the local library. However, “Labrador” came from a time when I was surrounded by children of various ages (the youngest being quite small) and I struggled to read much at the time. So I may or may not have read this – but it was slim enough to digest in a very short session and still bring with it the enormous satisfaction that always comes from reading Margaret Atwood.

The Bloomsbury Quids were a series of small books that cost just that (a quid is one pound sterling, for those from other climes…) The list of titles in the back makes interesting reading as several of the books and authors might well have slipped out of sight nowadays. But what of the Atwood? Well, it’s 41 pages long and mingles the story of a disastrous expedition with the failing health of the narrator’s father. Atwood is, of course, known for her writings about the Canadian wilds, and so the expedition story is familiar territory. However, the blending of the narrative with the effects of ageing and illness on father in the story adds a level of poignancy and gives the little book an emotional heft you might not expect from its length.

Their hopes are high, adventure calls. The sky is deep blue, the air is crisp, the sun is bright, the treetops seem to beckon them on. They do not know enough to beware of beckoning treetops.

This is very much about losing your bearings, whether out in the world or in your everyday life. I found that “The Labrador Fiasco” had a particular resonance for me because of my own father’s gradually failing health before he passed away in 2015. Watching a loved one coming adrift is always difficult and the narrator’s responses to her father’s issues chimed in with many of my feelings. So I guess I may not be responding to this book unemotionally…

A further level of strangeness came about when I started to use the book receipt which was still sitting inside the front cover as a bookmark. As you can see from this image, that was how I could date the purchase of this book:

My parents were still living in Hampshire at the time (I grew up there after we moved down from Scotland) and when the Offspring were younger we would go down to spend a week with them. That always included a visit to the nearest bookshop (of which I have very happy memories….) and I can see from the receipt that I also bought an “Owl Babies” board book for Youngest Child. I think this is why I have problems parting with books – they’re so often linked with specific bits of my life (and I suspect Owl Babies is still somewhere in the house…).

But back to Atwood. This is, of course, 41 pages of brilliance from one of my favourite authors. In that ideal world, where I had nothing whatever to do but read, I would spend much of the time reading and re-reading her work. As it is, I’m very glad that #MARM has spurred me on to drag something of hers off the shelf, even if it has stirred up a few emotions in the process!

 

A character in need of a new author @nyrbclassics #germanlitmonth

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Charles Bovary, Country Doctor by Jean Amery
Translated by Adrian Nathan West

Well – I’ve managed to clamber out of the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole for the time being (although I *am* still reading Baudelaire’s poems!), and I’ve been sidetracked rather unexpectedly off to France. Yes, I know I have a pile of French Revolution books lurking, and yes I know that this one wasn’t on it (it’s a lovely review copy from NYRB). But there are unexpected resonances with 1789 in what is really a rather unusual work…

Amery himself is a fascinating character; born Hans Maier in Vienna (his father was Jewish and his mother half-Jewish, half Catholic), he fled the Nazis to France and then Belgium, where he joined the Resistance. Surviving torture and Auschwitz, he went on to write under the pen-name Jean Amery and probably his most famous work is “At the Mind’s Limits”, a collection of autobiographical essays looking at his state of being as a Holocaust victim and survivor. “Charles Bovary…” might seem to be a very different kind of book, but there are certainly parallels.

The book is subtitled “Portrait of a Simple Man” and takes up the story of the titular doctor after the death of his wife, Emma, the main protagonist of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. The initial pages, a heartbreaking monologue from Charles depicting his grief at her death, are actually acutely painful and difficult to read; here is a man’s suffering laid bare, with the loss of his wife almost too much for him to cope with. The child has lost her mother; the husband his wife; and Charles Bovary is revealed as a man almost obsessed with his love for Emma and his physical need for her. This grief leads him to meditate on the events which led up to her death; her infidelities; his failures as a man and a husband; and his inability to give her the kind of love and romance she craved. However, Amery takes the book in an unusual direction by blending these monologues with essays of his own on the whole Bovary story; and he begins to state a case for Charles having been given a very raw deal by his creator.

The lines between Charles and Amery become blurred, and the latter clearly has issues with Gustave Flaubert and his portrayal of the cuckolded M. Bovary as a pathetic and laughable creature who deserves what is meted out to him. Not only does Amery find Charles unconvincing as a character, calling into question Flaubert’s art and the claims made for it as realist fiction; he also sees Bovary as anything but realistic and goes on to critique not only Flaubert’s writing but also his intellectual heritage and legacy, finding him a lesser artist than his protegé Maupassant.

At the heart of Amery’s issue is his belief that Charles Bovary could never have existed as Flaubert portrayed him. He reminds the reader that Flaubert was an incorrigible haut bourgeois who was dependent on his father’s money, whereas Charles was a petit bourgeois self-made man; yet the latter is portrayed as a clod even though he had fought against his limitations and made his way in the world. Amery offers alternative, much more convincing scenarios of how such a man would have been, how he would have behaved in the situations Flaubert created, and finds the latter’s imagination to be very wanting. Taking a wider view of French fiction, he even takes Flaubert to task for nothing less than betraying the French Revolution in denying Charles the rights fought for during the conflict of liberté, égalité, fraternité, “the undying principles of 1789” as he reminds us. Amery rails against Charles’ passive acceptance of lesser status as unworthy of a man who is the product of a country which had killed its monarchs, arguing that a more convincing rendering would have been of a man who knew that he was equal to any other.

What we see before us is a man from the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philiipe. The great adventures of the French nation have come to an end; the universal allure of the Revolution, the imperial-pathetic escapade of Napoleon 1, the Grand Armee dreamer, have run their course. In Waterloo, the eagle, rapacious hunter and heraldic seal, is beheaded; only once more will he rise from the ashes as the outsized general with the oddly small mouth uttering phrases that are the grandest, most solemn literature, before flying off and vanishing forever in the heavens.

In many ways, Amery believes the creation and ultimate fate of Charles Bovary was Gustave Flaubert’s reckoning with the bourgeoisie from which he never escaped. However, his re-working requires acceptance of the possibility of a very different Charles Bovary: one who would have been capable of being a passionate lover; one who could have sent his wife’s lovers packing; one who could have answered back those who bullied him during his life; and one who was so physically obsessed by the beauty of his wife that masturbation and necrophilia crop up as subjects in Amery’s revision of his character.

Do you need to have read “Madame Bovary” to fully appreciate Amery’s book? Well, yes… I read it some time ago and my memories are minimal, so I did check out a plot summary online – which is probably not sufficient to take in all the nuances of the original or to appreciate all Amery’s points. And I need to add a caveat I think. Flaubert’s book is focused on a female character and her needs; this aspect is perhaps diminished by Amery’s reading of it and it’s a focus for which Flaubert should be congratulated. In an era when women’s choices were still very restricted he gave female desires a voice. For the story which Flaubert wanted to tell it was necessary for Charles to be stolid and stupid; although Amery in some ways disputes the point of “Madame B…” as in the end there is a predictable inevitability in the fact that the transgressing women has to be punished in a way that will satisfy the moralists.

“Charles Bovary…” was an intriguing, if at times complex, read. The book is very much an intellectual exercise and your response to it will depend on how willing you are to follow Amery down his path and accept his reinterpretation and reworking of the characters of Gustave Flaubert. Certainly, it’s a fascinating piece of work which left me with much to think about as well as many questions about how much we trust our authors – and whether we should be a lot more critical of how they treat their characters!

Review kindly provided by NYRB, with many thanks to Emma O’Bryen.

*****

I’m claiming this book for German Lit Month too; I hadn’t realised till I picked it up that Amery wrote in that language, so that makes three unexpected and unplanned entries for the reading month. Not like me to manage to participate…. 😉

Additionally, after finishing “CB”, it occurred to me that I had owned a copy of “At the Mind’s Limits” and that I had probably purged it in my recent attempts to downsize the amount of books in the house. However, I had a dig and found that it was still lurking in a donation box:

It had been sitting on my Primo Levi shelf for some time; I’m not sure if I have the moral and intellectual courage for it at the moment, as the world we’re living in seems so full of intolerance and hatred that I’m rather afraid I will see the present reflected in the past. But we shall see; it’s certainly been reprieved from the donate pile…

“History is an angel….” #WalterBenjamin @versobooks #germanlitmonth

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The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin
With Illustrations by Paul Klee
Translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie and Sebastian Truskolaski

It seems that I’ve been aware of Walter Benjamin for longer than I might have realised; although the first thing I read by him was “Unpacking My Library“, that was fairly recently (and I have revisited it at least once). A renowned German Jewish author, he had an illustrious career but took his own life in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. But he was in the back of my mind as an important thinker and critic, though possibly I was a little intimidated by his reputation. However, oddly enough, he had a considerable influence on me through his influence on one of my favourite artists, Laurie Anderson. I’ve adored her album “Strange Angels” since it came out in 1995, and a favourite track was “The Dream Before”. In the CD booklet this is dedicated “For Walter Benjamin”, although at that time I probably had little idea of the significance of the dedication. But more of that later…

I’ve amassed a number of Benjamin books since first reading “Unpacking…”, although really all they’ve done is sit on the shelves. “The Storyteller” is a good case in point; I obviously picked it up during one of Verso Books’ regular offers (do sign up for their newsletter – it’s really worth it!), but it had been languishing since along with some other volumes. However, I think it was the Baudelaire connection that spurred me on to this reading (as well as German Lit Month!); particularly when I sent Melissa an image of the contents page of Benjamin’s “Illuminations” collection, pointing out the Kafka content. There is also a Baudelaire essay, and a little bit of online research (always a dangerous thing!) led to the discovery that there is a considerable body of Benjamin writing about Baudelaire. Picking up “The Storyteller” as my next read was a no-brainer, and I’ve been dipping into it alongside a collection of Baudelaire’s selected poems in prose translation, and the two books together make a heady mix. I’m not qualified by a long chalk to ‘review’ Benjamin’s work – that would feel ridiculously presumptious – but I can share my reactions to this excellent book and perhaps encourage you to explore this marvellous writer’s works. I know I’ll be doing just that.

As I mentioned, I’ve always thought of Benjamin primarily in terms of philosophy and cultural writing, particularly in the field of critical theory (“a philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that considers the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures which produce and constrain it.”) Therefore, to discover that he had wandered into fictions as well was intriguing, and this exemplary collection brings together for the first time all of Benjamin’s stories in one volume, along with marvellous illustrations by Swiss German artist Paul Klee and erudite commentary by the translators/editors. It’s a heady collection, which they’ve divided into three themed sections – “Dreamworlds”, “Travel” and “Play and Pedagogy”. I believe the majority of the works haven’t been translated into English before, which makes this book even more valuable; I imagine there must be shed-loads of Benjamin untranslated, and I’ve actually found myself in a bit of a book jungle trying to work out which of his books/collections I should pick up.

Of all those songs, the one I loved the most was a Christmas song that filled me, as only music can, with solace for a sorrow not yet experienced but only sensed now for the first time.

So what of the contents themselves? The translators/editors point out that the stories reflect many of the themes of Benjamin’s theoretical work. I’m not well-versed enough in the latter to really comment but what lingers most from reading these inventive, sparkling and often strange fables, stories and meditations is the sheer sense of playfulness (an element also highlighted in the introduction). Benjamin’s very fertile mind lets itself loose in fabulous ways, ranging far and wide over topics as diverse as children’s primers, dreams (both sleeping and waking), gambling, life in cities (which resonates with the Georg Simmel collection I read recently) and the moon. Many are short, fragmentary pieces but some extend over several pages, and each is beautifully written and memorable. I was reminded in some places of Bruno Schulz; in others of Borges. But each piece warranted the pleasure from slow and thoughtful reading, and I imagine I’ll return to this collection again and again over the years – it’s that good. The introduction reminds us of the importance of our imaginations – “Dreams shape history and are shaped by it” – and Benjamin’s is in full force here.

By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 – Akademie der Künste, Berlin – Walter Benjamin Archiv, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17162035

Each of the 43 chapters has an image by Paul Klee at the start, and ends with the sources of the actual written material, individual translation credits, as well as details of the picture; all books should be this well presented and annotated. I don’t like to pick favourites, but one particular stand out for me was “The Hypochondriac in the Landscape” with its vivid, witty imagery :

At the peak of the landscape we find him again. A ruin stood there, overgrown by the green of nature. Storms and tempests roared more fiercely here than elsewhere. The place was created for the indulgence of every conceivable suffering…

And:

After dinner, physicians and patients organise germ hunts in the park. Oftentimes it happens that a patient is accidentally shot. In such cases a simple bed of moss and forest herbs is prepared as the patient sinks to the ground. Bandages lie ready in the tree hollows.

It’s clever and funny and dark, and sets the tone for much of the collection – I loved it! And a lovely piece entitled “Detective Novels, on tour” is a beautiful paean to the joy of reading a book while travelling by train.

As for Paul Klee and the Laurie Anderson connection, well that realisation was part of what send me down my recent Benjamin-Baudelaire wormhole. There is a Klee print called “Angelus Novus”, which was owned by Benjamin and is now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It informs one of Benjamin’s last and most important works, as essay called “Theses on the Theory of History”, and that essay is in turn the source of Anderson’s lyrical imagery in her song “The Dream Before”. Bearing in mind that the essay was written while Benjamin was being pursued by the dark forces of history, the song and essay are even more poignant.The Klee painting seems to have been a real touchstone for Benjamin, and it even appears on the back of my copy of “Illuminations”.

Coll IMJ, photo (c) IMJ.
By Paul Klee – The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25188355

So I’m still down the Benjamin-Baudelaire wormhole; as you might have seen from recent posts I’ve been raiding the library for related books (in particular the volume which collects Benjamin’s essays on the poet). Although I’ve finished the Benjamin stories, I’m still savouring the Baudelaire poems and I’ll no doubt share some thoughts later. However, what I would say about them is that I’m finding the prose translations much more satisfying that those put into verse form which have me questioning the translator’s choices…

But I’ll leave you with the great Laurie Anderson, and her wonderful channelling of Benjamin; and I think that while we struggle on through one of our most difficult times, we need once again to be reminded of our past…

An unexpected sympathy for women @almaclassics #101pages

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Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant
Translated by Anthony Brown

I posted a little while ago about a new range of bite-sized classics from lovely Alma Books under the 101 Pages imprint; the publisher had kindly provided a review copy of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” and I had honestly expected to get to it sooner. You know how it is, though – so many books and they keep jostling for attention… However, these little books are designed to be eaten up in one gulp and I did indeed swallow this one down in a single setting one quiet Sunday morning – and an unexpected and interesting read it was…

OK, OK – I’m sorry about all the eating references in that first paragraph, but it’s kind of relevant to the title story of this collection! “Boule de Suif” is one of Maupassant’s best known works, and I’ve seen it translated as “Butterball” before. However, in his fascinating introduction, translator Anthony Brown goes into detail about the linguistic issues behind rendering the French title in English, and in the end opts to retain the original. But as he makes clear, the story itself is ridden with the imagery of food, and even in the description of the heroine, a prostitute of generous physical form.

Anyway. The book itself contains six stories, mostly set in and around Rouen, and the events in “Boule…” take place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Rouen is lost to the Germans and occupied; the citizens adapt to the situation; and eventually a group of ten are given permission to flee to Le Havre by coach. Unfortunately, bad weather causes issues and the travellers are stranded in Totes, Prussian-held territory. Despite their passes, an officer refuses to let them leave; and eventually the travellers realise that unless Elisabeth Rousset (the titular butterball) agrees to sleep with him, they will be stranded indefinitely. The attitude of the travellers to the woman of the night amongst them has been complex throughout; initially they shunned her, until they realised she had enough food for them to eat while they were delayed during the journey. An uneasy tolerance is established, but when it becomes clear that Elisabeth has principles and patriotism, refusing to sully herself with the enemy, they turn against her and bully, cajole and persuade her to give in to the officer so they can leave. Once she has finally capitulated, they shun her.

The author – with a fairly alarming ‘tache!
(Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

So not a pleasant bunch, and Maupassant is scathing in his descriptions of all of the characters in the story, dissecting them mercilessly; the rich, of course, are beyond the pale, but a pair of nuns who should show kindness certainly do not. And the democrat Cornudet is just as unpleasant, only interested in Elisabeth for her body. The one character who comes out of the story with any kind of dignity is Elisabeth herself; she is the one who is kind and shares her food, she is the one who is patriotic and refuses to collaborate with the enemy; and she is the one with the courage to want to stand up to the Prussians.

And this tendency to empathise with the women characters is a thread that runs through this excellent collection of stories. In “The Confession”, the poverty of a country girl’s life contributes to the ease with which she’s seduced by an unscrupulous carter; “First Snow” is a moving story of a woman married to a cold husband in a cold climate; “Rose” is a humorous tale of a very unusual lady’s maid; “The Dowry” is a cautionary tale for the rich bride; and “Bed 29” returns to the 1870 war, dealing with men and women’s different methods of fighting the enemy, and the differing attitudes to both sexes.

“Boule de Suif” is a real gem of a book. These stories are moving, humorous, tough and tragic, and I really wasn’t expecting Maupassant’s sympathies to be so much with his women characters. The only Maupassant story I can be sure I’ve read is “Like Death” (although I do have “Bel-Ami” on the shelves somewhere) and these short works are quite different to that. The 101 Pages books are obviously a great initiative and if the rest are anything like as good as this collection I may have to be adding yet more books to the shelves…. =:o

Failed plots and a tragic end – The Race to Save the Romanovs @shinynewbooks

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I really am maintaining the reputation of being Shiny New Books’ unofficial Russian correspondent! So it was a given that I would be the obvious choice to review a fat new volume from Helen Rappaport which takes a look at the fate of the last Russian royal family – in particular, the various plots that were hatched to rescue the hapless Romanovs and save them from the hands of the Bolsheviks.

It’s an intriguing book, although I did have some reservations. If I’m honest, I’ve struggled with previous attempts to read Rappaport’s books as I sensed a bias – which is something I don’t like to see in a historian; I prefer an objective look at things. Also, this is one of a series of books she’s written on the subject and I did feel that it didn’t warrant a whole big volume; her research (which actually seemed to be undertaken by numerous people all over the world on her behalf) would have been better presented in a scholarly journal rather than a work of popular history. And the way that the new discoveries are signposted  in the text by an italicised paragraph *did* jar a lot.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty and well presented volume, with some fascinating photos. I think you need to know a reasonable amount about the historical period to really get the most out of the book, and you can read my full review here on Shiny!

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