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“I can remember a menu long after I’ve forgotten the hostess that accompanied it.” #saki #michaelwalmer

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The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki

I’ve written about the wonderfully witty Saki on the Ramblings before, back in my early days of blogging. His real name was Hector Hugh Munro, and he moved from foreign reporting to writing his witty tales as the first decade of the twentieth century came to an end. Saki’s first stories were about the escapades of one Reginald, a man about town with a witty tongue, and two volumes of his adventures made their appearance. In this, Saki’s third book, Clovis makes his entrance and has just as cynical an outlook on the world as his predecessor; in fact, it’s tempting of course to see them both as projections of their author!

It’s difficult, actually, to know quite how to write about Saki! These short stories mix the bizarre with the everyday in a way which is most beguiling. The humour can be refreshingly caustic which is ideal when you’re feeling a little disgruntled with the world and like to imagine taking your revenge on everyone! So, for example, we see Clovis assisting a gentleman having a mid-life crisis to have an un-rest cure with disastrous results; after he has wreaked havoc he simply rides off into the sunset, departing to prepare for dinner while leaving the house in a state of disarray:

That was the last they saw of Clovis; it was nearly seven o’clock, and his elderly relative liked him to dress for dinner. But, though he had left them forever, the lurking suggestion of his presence haunted the lower regions of the house during the long hours of the wakeful night, and every creak of the stairway, every rustle of wind through the shrubbery, was fraught with horrible meaning. At about seven next morning the gardener’s boy and the early postman finally convinced the watchers that the Twentieth Century was still unblotted.

He really is wicked!

That’s just one example, but each of the 28 stories here (some only a few pages long) is a real gem. However, for example, can you not love someone who titles a story “Filboid Sludge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped” (which is actually a story about a romance gone wrong!) “The Talking-Out of Tarrington” is also a hoot, where Clovis rescues an aunt from an unwanted encounter by spouting so much complete nonsense in the direction of the gentleman in question that he retreats, defeated. And “The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope” (Saki is just marvellous with names) opens with this wonderful exchange:

“Who and what is Mr. Brope?” demanded the aunt of Clovis suddenly.

Mrs. Riversedge, who had been snipping off the heads of defunct roses, and thinking of nothing in particular, sprang hurriedly to mental attention. She was one of those old-fashioned hostesses who consider that one ought to know something about one’s guests, and that the something ought to be to their credit.

“I believe he comes from Leighton Buzzard,” she observed by way of preliminary explanation.

“In these days of rapid and convenient travel,” said Clovis, who was dispersing a colony of green-fly with visitations of cigarette smoke, “to come from Leighton Buzzard does not necessarily denote any great strength of character. It might only mean mere restlessness. Now if he had left it under a cloud, or as a protest against the incurable and heartless frivolity of its inhabitants, that would tell us something about the man and his mission in life.”

I’ve seen Saki described as the person who invented trolling, and certainly Clovis seems a little darker in character than Reginald, who tended to float around being cutting for a lot of the time. Clovis, however, likes to subvert and tends to cause disruption wherever he goes. But the bottom line is that these stories are very, very witty and very, very funny (if you like that kind of humour – which I do!) and Clovis is a worthy successor to Reginald.

This edition of the “Chronicles” has been issues by Michael Walmer, who kindly provided a review copy; and it comes with an introduction by A.A. Milne (who was not averse to turning out a bit of wit himself!) Mike has also issued editions of “Reginald” and “Reginald in Russia”, all of which are great delights to read. I’m obviously a hugeSaki fan; and if you like your humour more Wildean that slapstick, then Saki is definitely the author for you!

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Loving my local library (redux) – plus the Oxfam lowers its prices! #bookfinds #library

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Things really *do* never go as planned, do they??? Like so many bookish types, I try to control the flow of incoming books as we get closer to the C-word time of year as I know lovely friends and family will be gifting me with them. And I had intended to do a very small post (if at all!) this weekend featuring a modest pair of arrivals which had made their way into the Ramblings this week:

The Owen Hatherley book is one I was very excited to receive from the publishers. I’ll be covering it for Shiny New Books; I’ve read a number of his books and he’s an incisive, funny and fascinating commentator. The Friedrich Ani was a result of a giveaway on the lovely Lizzy Siddal’s blog – I have won two books there recently, which is quite unprecedented, as I *never* win things! It’s a beautiful Seagull Books crime novel and I’m *so* pleased. So that seemed quite modest for a week’s arrivals…

However, I’m still in that Baudelaire-Benjamin wormhole and I amused myself mid-week by having a look at the local library’s online catalogue to see if there was anything interesting lurking. I was having an itch to amass more of their works, one in particular, and I wondered whether anything would be available to borrow which would scratch that itch without buying more books. I had low expectations, and the local Big Town didn’t have anything in stock. However, a wider search revealed that Bury St. Edmunds, of all places, seems to be a hotbed of rebellious thought and critical theory, as they had the specific book I was after as well as a number of Other Interesting Titles. Who knew?? Anyway, I placed reserves on four books and expected to wait a while for the library service to get them over here. However, an email pinged into the inbox today informing me that all four had arrived and were ready for collection, which was speedy and surprising, and meant that I ended up lugging these four round town with me today…

Despite the weight, I’m pleased to be able to explore these four volumes. Obviously, Benjamin on Baudelaire is what was exercising my brain most, but “Baudelaire in Chains” is a biographical work which sounds intriguing… The Modernism book also sounded good, and Adorno is one of the authors mentioned in “The Grand Hotel Abyss” which I’ve started dipping into also, so this seemed a good way to have a look at his writing and see if I want to explore further.

However.

As usual on Saturdays, I fell into the Oxfam bookshop to see if anything new was on the shelves, as the stock has been moving a little faster than usual of late – and this might have happened…

Someone has obviously been donating a lot of Julian Barnes and since my love of his writing has been rekindled recently, I really couldn’t ignore these. Particularly as they were marked at 99p each. It seems that my grumpy comment about their increasing prices may have been a little premature, as across the board they didn’t seem too pricy today. As for the Robb… Well, I actually had a copy of this before, then donated it in a fit of madness and clearing out books, and then thoroughly regretted it, particularly after I enjoyed his “The Debatable Lands“. So again, a no brainer, and only £1.99. Four books of such interest at less then a fiver ain’t bad.

And coming across the Robb reminded me that a couple of weeks I hauled home a few books from the Oxfam and then shoved them on a shelf and forgot all about them. Here they are, with an Interesting Other Title on top which snuck in through the front door one day:

The Alexis de Tocqueville is one of two titles by that author I’ve picked up recently to add to the French Revolution pile. I was pleased to get this particular edition, because the translator is Stuart Gilbert, who rendered the version I own of my favourite Camus novel, “The Plague”, and I like his style. And as I said, the other three were from the Oxfam and Very Reasonably Priced. The Eric Newby is one of the few I don’t have by him – I love his travel books and his wonderful self-deprecating style. The Robb is mentioned above and I’m so pleased to have these two volumes. And “Walking in Berlin” is a book I heard about when it came out and *so* wanted to read, but didn’t get round to doing anything about. It was never going to stay on the Oxfam shelves…

So. I’m not doing too well at stemming the incoming flow of books. But do you blame me?????

“…the possibilities of things yet to be discovered…” #williamftemple #blsfc @BL_Publishing

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The Four-Sided Triangle by William F. Temple

Although there are umpteen sci-fi books knocking around the Ramblings, and despite the fact I *do* like certain types of the genre, I still don’t find myself reading enough of it. However, I’m eternally grateful to the lovely British Library publishing wing who’ve now started to produce Science Fiction Classics in the same stunning style as their Crime Classics editions. I reviewed a couple of collections of short stories, which were the first releases in the series, and these were marvellous. So I was very pleased to receive review copies of the first two full novels, a pair of books by William F. Temple, who was featured in the short story collections.

Temple was an early practitioner of British Sci Fi writing, as well as a member of the British Interplanetary Society, and he published a number of short stories before the outbreak of World War 2; he also famously once shared a flat with Arthur C. Clarke! I decided to start with the oldest of the books, “Four-Sided Triangle”, and this was Temple’s first novel; based on a short story he’d published in 1939, it was eventually reworked and published in novel form ten years later. Mike Ashley’s excellent introduction relates the tortured story of the book’s journey into print (the manuscript was lost twice before being finally rewritten and submitted for publication!) and a later film ensured it was the work he was best known for. “Four-sided…” is the kind of Wellsian science fiction set on Earth that I really enjoy, and the scientific element is important to the story – as is the effect of science on human beings.

All I have concluded from a lifetime of studying man and his sickness of body and mind is that if the liver and intestines are in good condition and the sexual urges satisfied, then God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world. But if all or any of these are out of order or frustrated, then during that time there is no God and no Heaven, and the world is a sorry, grey, dismal mess. We are in the invisible cages in nature’s mad zoo, cages too big or too small for us; but the bars are very real

The book is narrated by Doctor Harvey, a bachelor country medic nearing retirement who’s usually just referred to as Doc. He chooses to tantalize the reader with a glimpse of some fantastic invention in the first couple of pages, then goes back to the start of the story to relate the events which led up to that discovering. The Doc is a good man, very much caring for his flock of patients in the local village, and he adopts a young boy called Bill. The latter is a prodigy from a violent home, and his scientific knowledge is immense. Doc bring him up and sends him to university, where he befriends the son of local gentry, Robin Heath. Normally these two men would never have mixed and met, but university is a great leveller and they share an interest in all things scientific. When they return to their village they naturally set up a lab together with money Robin manages to squeeze out of his father, and the two begin to invent.

However, a complication is added into the mix in the form of Lena; a beautiful woman with a complicated background and suicidal tendencies, she’s drawn into the circle of the inventors and Doc, and naturally enough both men fall head over heels. Lena, of course, only loves one of them, and so it seems we’re set for all kinds of emotional turmoil. However, Bill and Robin’s invention may be able to assist a little – or is a little scientific knowledge a dangerous thing? I’m not going to say any more about the plot because once you’ve started to read you can probably guess what’s going to happen. Let’s just say the wonderful invention is very good at replicating objects…

“Four-Sided…” is perhaps an unusual choice as one of the first SF Classics but I think it’s a very brave and interesting one. At nearly 300 pages the book is longer than a lot of sci-fi pot boilers were, which allows for much more character development than is probably usual. Again, with a limited range of characters the author is able to do more with them. The book was actually finally finished just after the Second World War (in which Temple served) and the subject matter is quite daring in places: there is nudity (Lena is an early ‘free spirit’ with a feral upbringing behind her); frank discussion of suicide; and equally frank coverage of domestic violence and all but stated outright sexual abuse. The latter is significant in the character of Bill (to whom this happened) as his reaction to Lena is intense and coloured by his young experiences.

Oh, this incurable English habit of pretending to treat as a joke the strange and the new, whether idea or fact; and the more important the subject the lighter the treatment!

Additionally, the book takes on large topics like authenticity (is an identically reproduced copy of the Mona Lisa as valuable as the original?) and human morality. The Reproducer creates something which should solve the problems of the scientists, but it doesn’t; human emotions are complex and unpredictable, and in this story happiness seems to elude everyone. Doc spends much of his time in despair, but manages to effect some kind of balance in the end. More I shall not say… As for the science, well fortunately for me with my non-scientific, grasshopper brain, it doesn’t dominate and the reader pretty much just has to accept that what happens, happens. Which was fine for me! Doc seemed to find it all a little bemusing too, and I’m with him on that:

I can’t quite remember what Newton had thought, nor Dalton, who followed him. As for Thomson (J.J.), Rutherford, Dirac and Planck, they came in to confuse utterly a conception that was already clouding. Bohr had something to do with the Theory of Indeterminacy, which either explained or didn’t explain why electrons jumped from orbit to orbit without apparent cause and oddly taking no time at all for the journey, and Rutherford shot millions of alpha-particles (which might have been the same things as ‘photons’… no, on second thoughts, perhaps they were not) from a cathode ray tube at atoms in the early attempts to split them. Gentlemen named Siegbahn and Hahn were somehow involved with “Uranium 235”, there was such a thing as “heavy water”, and an Italian named Fermi had discovered something pretty important too.

Quite…

Were there any downsides to the book? Well, if I’m honest I *did* struggle a little bit with the author’s (or Doc’s) view of women; Lena, despite her free spirit, is apparently only seeking the fulfilment of a husband, family and home (or so her artistic efforts are dismissed). Additionally, the terminology used to describe her is often somewhat clichéd and verges on titillation at points; I guess that’s a potential issue with all books from this era, but it *did* grate a little.

Nevertheless, “Four-Sided Triangle” was a really engrossing read. I loved its exploration of the morality behind scientific inventions, the consequences of uncontrolled progress (as Bill’s hasty experiments have tragic effects at one point) and also the investigation of human emotions and indeed the effects of class mores. So although Temple’s book might seem an unexpected choice to open this new series with, I think it’s an excellent and fascinating work and I’m keen to spend some time with his other BLSFC, “Shoot at the Moon” some time soon! 🙂

Giving back the lost voices of Russian women @Dedalusbooks

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Slav Sisters (The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature)
Edited by Natasha Perova

Surprisingly for someone who reads a reasonable amount (ahem!) of Russian literature, it’s only struck me relatively recently that much of what I read has been written by men. Particularly in the era before the revolution, the big names are male – Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov et al – and the women’s voices seem to be either non-existent, or possibly just not translated. I think the tide is starting to turn a little nowadays; the translations of the Columbia University Press’s Russian Library (Sofia Khvoshchinskaya already issued, and Karolina Pavlova forthcoming) are doing much to redress the balance when it comes to authors from the 19th century. The 20th is perhaps a little better represented, though mainly with poets; so I was pleased to be alerted by a post on translator Boris Dralyuk’s excellent blog to the existence of “Slav Sisters”, which had somehow slipped underneath my radar.

Dedalus Books are a publisher of literary fiction with an impressive backlist, which includes much translated literature. Laudably, Dedalus has declared it will celebrate women’s literature from 2018-2028 by publishing six titles a year for the decade to celebrate the anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK in 1918. Apparently most of these will be translated from other European languages, and “Slav Sisters” is a fine entry into that list of books.

This anthology focuses on Russian women’s writing in the 20th century, and the range of writers featured is impressive – in fact, let’s have a list of the contents and translators and celebrate them all:

1. Kishmish and Solovki by Nadezhda Teffi, translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler.
2. My Jobs by Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Jamey Gambrell.
3. Autobiographical Sketches by Anna Akhmatova,translated by Andrew Bromfield.
4. Delusion of the Will by Lydia Ginzburg, translated by Boris Dralyuk.
5. The Lady with the Dog and The Death of an Official by Galina Scherbakova, translated by Ilona Chavasse.
6. What a Girl by Ludmila Petrushevskaya, translated by Joanne Turnbull
7. The Stone Guest by Olga Slavnikova, translated by Marian Schwartz.
8. The Gift Not Made by Human Hand by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait.
9. Philemon and Baucis by Irina Muravyova, translated by John Dewey.
10. Landscape of Loneliness : Three Voices by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by, Joanne Turnbull.
11. The Jewess’s Farewell by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Arch Tait.

That’s a staggering amount of talent, both in terms of the authors *and* the translators, to have featured in one volume! And indeed the contents make gripping, absorbing, moving and memorable reading.

People of my generation are in no danger of being saddened by returning to the scenes of our past – we have nowhere to return to…. (Akhmatova)

The content ranges from the factual (Alexievich’s heartbreaking interviews with Soviet women about their lives and loves; Tsvetaeva’s humorous yet dark memories of her attempts to work and survive in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Civil War) to the fictional (Scherbakova’s cynical and realistic take on Chekhov; Ludmila Ulitskaya’s sardonic tale of idealism meeting with reality). Slavnikova’s story brings us into the world of Russian gangsters before veering off into allegory; Muravyova cleverly opens her tale with an old couple’s mutual hatred and co-dependence, which is eventually revealed to result from a dark and truly horrific past. Teffi, of course, is as dry as ever, yet once again there is sadness and human suffering at the heart of her stories. Ginzburg’s genre-defying piece on the psychological landscape of guilt lingers in the mind. And Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova should need no introduction to readers of the Ramblings…

Teffi by Pierre Choumoff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, I could go on and on about the jewels in this collection, but in fact each story is a gem. Editor Natasha Perova (who has an impressive pedigree, including starting the small press Glas) has chosen what I think is a perfect selection of works to not only show the variety of women’s writing from the last century, but also to tell women’s stories. That latter element was what stood out for me most strongly after reading “Slav Sisters”.These are voices that would have been silenced under Soviet rule, and it’s only with the collapse of the Communist regime that they’ve been able to find an outlet.

The human memory is constructed like a searchlight, so that it illuminates separate moments while leaving all around in impenetrable darkness. Even a person with a magnificent memory may and should forget some things. (Akhmatova)

Interestingly, I was reminded when I set out to write this post about the women authors who *were* published during the 20th century; I refer of course to those writing in the science fiction field. I’ve read a number of these authors in recent years and maybe that was one genre women could tell a story in, although many of these works were in coded form, with the actual meaning hidden under the narrative to avoid the censor’s eye.

Has anyone ever seen the place that love goes when it’s run its course? Maybe it isn’t a place at all, maybe love dissipates into molecules and atoms inside one’s own body, and the most searing of the passions turns into a horny toenail? Or maybe it all scatters like ashes, so there’s no use looking for any trace of those hungering, searching hands, or the ardent lips that kissed yours until pleasure mingled with pain. Scattered, like the white bloom of apple trees. (Scherbakova)

I could go on and on about how good these pieces are; how heartbreaking in many places; and how it’s a crime that all of these women have not been better known before. I was aware of many of the names already, of course – Teffi, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova from the early years, plus Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya from more recent times. However, several were new to me which makes the anthology especially valuable; I was particularly taken with Galina Scherbakova and Olga Slavnikova. The works are presented in what I assume is roughly chronological order; I *would* have liked to see a little more information included about original publication date and location for the pieces just to provide context. However, if nothing else the anthology proves that women all over the world have the same needs, desires, problems and everyday issues to deal with. We certainly are all sisters under the skin and this exceptional collection really is essential reading.

Review copy kindly provided by Dedalus Books, for which many thanks!

Utopian Ideas and Ideals #utopia #professorrichardclay #bbc4

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One small advantage of being in depths of documentary repeat season is the chance to catch up on favourite progs. I’ve frequently rambled on about Professor Richard Clay’s marvellous three-part series “Utopia: In Search of the Dream“, and so I was very pleased to note that the show is making a welcome return to BBC4 in the wee small hours starting tonight.

“Utopia” takes as its starting point the classic book by Sir Thomas More of the same name and goes on to cover myriad variations on that theme, from utopian visions that go wrong, the dystopian flip-sides, searching for your own personal inner fulfilment, how architecture affects our vision of life and so much more. It’s an exceptionally wide-ranging set of programmes, full of thought-provoking stuff; I highly recommend it and if you have access to BBC4 and/or the iPlayer you can give it a look starting from 00.30 tonight/tomorrow.

The Prof has an intriguing new documentary in the pipeline on the subject of the art of the meme, which sounds equally fascinating. It’s still awaiting a transmission date, and when it goes live I shall be covering it on the Ramblings in depth with some special posts – so watch this space… 😉

*****

As an aside…

I was reminded that I picked up a copy of More’s book back in April (I had one decades ago, but who knows where it went?); and as I posted at the time I was vaguely thinking about setting myself up a little utopian reading list, drawing on some suggestions in the Happy Reader magazine. I revisited that magazine and went on a rampage (oh, all right, a gentle rummage) around the house trying to find what books I already had that fitted into that list. And then I found a few more. And then I couldn’t find some I know I have somewhere (“Flatland”; “Looking Backwards”). And for those of you who love gratuitous pictures of books, I came up with this:

As you can see, there are some awfully interesting books on the pile – here they are without Thomas More blocking them. Yes, I *know* I have duplicates of “We”, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Brave New World” (and there are at least two more copies of the Orwell somewhere in the house) – I’m afraid I have a congenital affliction that prevents me being able to get rid of multiple book copies…. (ahem)

However, what occurs to me looking at the pile is that many of the books suggested by the HR mag (and not all are here) were actually dystopian, not utopian. Admittedly, they began their list with “We”, and that’s certainly not a jolly book. Still – I do wonder if we are naturally drawn to the negative; it does seem that we as a race have trouble in dealing with the concept of perfection and a happy life. But as I’ve said before, we are questing, searching beings and maybe the ideal world would be just a teeny bit boring…

Anyway, one thing the rummage did was produce this behemoth (as in a big book, not a big cat):

I had totally forgotten I have “The Faber Book of Utopias“; it came out in 1999 and I suspect was a gift at the time and I couldn’t tell you if I’ve read it. However, it looks absolutely fascinating, with extracts from all manner of books, from More himself through to modern writers like Julian Barnes. I was very pleased to see that Margaret Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” is in there too, as I’ve been keen to have a look at her work. It’s 500 or so large format pages – I could be in there for some time…

So there you are. Another potential reading project, at which I will no doubt fail. Perhaps I should put the French Revolution and Utopia books in a room together and just let them fight it out, a la Swift’s “Battle of the Books“. Or give up work and sleep. Or stop buying books and thinking about reading projects and just damn well read! 🙂

Club time! (Well – not for a few months…)

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Those who you who follow Simon’s blog might have noticed a little announcement this morning – as he has announced the year we’ll be reading from during the next club week and that is…

96A87A9F-71F0-4313-8AEE-5D9F481E4E5DYes, we’ve gone for 1965 as suggested by Paula, and it sounds to be an excellent reading year!

Thanks *so* much for all your suggestions, and a fine lot they were – and we’ll keep them all in mind for future reading weeks. In the meantime, you have six months in which to plan your books – so get to it!! 🤣🤣🤣

“The modern spirit has become a more and more calculating one” #GeorgSimmel @pushkinpress #willstone

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The Art of the City: Rome, Florence, Venice by Georg Simmel
Edited, translated and introduced by Will Stone

After the mad reading and posting for the #1944Club I hit the usual unfocused slump that usually follows an intense period of reading. I have *loads* of books I could choose to open next, but have been hit by raging indecision. After the lovely escapism of “Eve in Egypt”, something slim and non-fiction seemed the best option – so I went for this lovely little review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press, which turned out to be anything but slight!

“The Art of the City” is a new volume in the Pushkin Collection range – lovely little books with gorgeous covers and French flaps – and the author, Georg Simmel is a new name to me. As the introduction by translator Will Stone reveals, Simmel (1858-1918) was an influential German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. This volume contains four seminal essays by Simmel; three discuss the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice, all long considered aesthetic architectural gems, with the final one, “The Metropolis and the Life of the Spirit” taking a very timely and modern look at the effect of city living on the human psyche. It’s a slim yet intellectually complex book and one which really sets you thinking about the way cities have grown up and how we live in them nowadays, as well as what they do to us.

In his introduction, Stone rightly identifies Simmel as an early flaneur, a kind of proto-psychogeographer, who looked at these three ancient cities as works of art as well as places to live in, ruminating on the effects modernity will have on them as well as considering how some kind of equilibrium can be achieved between the human spirit, nature and art.

Of Rome, Simmel comments, “Here, countless generations have created and built structures side by side, one on top another, each having no concern for or comprehension of what went before, responding only to the demands of the hour and the mood of the epoch.” That could be said of many a city, of course, but fortuitously for Rome the result is architectural beauty, a balance between landscape and buildings old or new which seems rare. The disparate elements are somehow harmonious and the city becomes a sum of its parts. Florence has a similar effect on Simmel:

Poppies and brook, shuttered villas like locked-up secrets, children at play, blueness and clouds of the heavens – all this can be found everywhere in the world and everywhere is beautiful, but here it harbours a spiritual and aesthetic element, a quite alternative peripheral view, for nothing enchants by its beauty alone, but rather participates in an overarching absolute beauty.

However, Simmel appears to find Venice‘s falseness displeasing; its facade is something I’ve heard others railing against, and the sham nature of the place is not to his liking. That city is, of course, an artificial construct (in much the same way that St. Petersburg is, I suppose) and although all cities are *built* the process is often random, unplanned and develops over many decades or even centuries, responding to the needs of the people using it. Building a conurbation from scratch, in a planned, controlled way, seems to me a very modern conceit (look, for example, at the Garden City movement of the 20th century) and what is manufactured and looks good on paper does not always end up being something in which a human being can live happily.

The bottom line is that in the life of the metropolis the struggle with nature for the necessary food of life has turned into a conflict between human beings, and the fiercely contested reward is here bestowed not by nature but by man. Here flows not only the previously cited source of specialization, but the deeper one, where the seller must arouse in the person to whom he wishes to sell ever more novel and specific requirements.

But I digress a little. The icing on the cake in this book is the final essay; an inspiring piece of work, which considers the dehumanising effects of the modern metropolis, it apparently influenced thinkers and writers like Walter Benjamin, Heidegger and Rilke (I’d also be interested to know if Marshall Berman ever read it). It’s a thoughtful, bracing and provocative piece that discusses the vast differences between the experience of living in rural areas or urban areas; and rather chillingly Simmel traces the alienation of the modern city as stemming from the gulf between producers and consumers, the dominance of the money principle and the isolation of human beings from each other.

via Wikimedia Commons

The pace of life even at the time of the essay (1903) is perceived as having a negative effect, so goodness know what Simmel would make of the modern world. The vast number of stimuli thrown at human beings on a daily basis is constantly increasing, and it could be argued that we haven’t evolved at a pace to keep up with the changes around us – which could be the source of some of our modern problems.

Money, with its colourlessness and supreme indifference, becomes the universal denominator of all values, a most terrifying leveller, hollowing out the core of things, their peculiarities, their intrinsic value, their incomparability. All swim at the same specific weight in the continuously moving flow of money, all rest on the same level and differ only through their monetary value.

As you can see by my constantly rambling off at tangents, this book really *does* punch above its weight and provides some profound insights into the difficulties of urban living. I found myself surprised that I hadn’t heard of Simmel before, and wondering why his work wasn’t more read and discussed nowadays – but of course that might be a lack of English versions… Which leads me on to naming and thanking the translator! 🙂

I’ve reviewed works rendered by Will Stone (who is also a poet and essayist) before on the Ramblings; I thought very highly of his defence of Stefan Zweig and also his translation of “Rilke in Paris” which he produced so wonderfully for the Hesperus Press edition, even providing photos for the book. Once again, he’s done the essays here justice with an erudite foreword exploring Simmel’s life and work; and although as a monolinguist I can’t really comment on the nitty-gritty of the translation, it does read beautifully! If you’re at all interested in considering how architecture and urban living impact on humans, or just in reading some really stimulating essays, I recommend this book highly – Simmel’s work is most definitely worth exploring.

*****

After finishing Simmel’s essays, which linger beautifully in the mind, I remembered that

a. they were translated from German
b. it’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy Siddal and Caroline at Beauty in a Sleeping Cat!

I always try to take part in German Lit Month, and so even though these essay are probably very off topic (as I believe the ladies have a particular focus this month), I’m still going to claim this post for the month’s reading!

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