“… One population will replace another in this world until the jig is up and the weeds cease to bloom.” #totheriver # olivialaing


To the River by Olivia Laing

Normally, I don’t tend to jump straight into a gift book as I’ll be enmeshed in either a review book or something which has called to me strongly or just whatever happens to have taken my fancy at the time. However, Mr. Kaggsy’s inspired choice of “To the River” as a Valentine’s Day gift just had to be the next book I picked up. It’s one I’ve been aware of for ages, pretty sure that I wanted to read it but somehow I just never got round to picking up a copy. The draw, of course, is the setting and the luminous presence of Virginia Woolf in the narrative; but there’s so much more than that in this marvellous work.

The premise of the book is quite straightforward: in the wake of a major relationship breakdown, Laing decides to the walk the course of the river Ouse from its source to its outlet at the sea. The choice is significant, as her love of the area is so strong that her inability to leave it actually contributes to the break up with her partner. So Laing sets out on the Summer Solstice (a significant date for me, as it’s my wedding anniversary), with a backpack, some unsuitable sandals, and some oatcakes and cheese, to spend a week walking the route. Her state of mind is an emotional one, understandably, and escaping the everyday routines is cathartic (as is possibly the water itself, with its symbolic and actual action of washing clean), allowing her mind to focus on simply living in the natural world.

So we follow Laing on her journey as she traces the Ouse from an unimpressive trickle to the sea, and accompany her travels into herself, the area’s past and the strong and vivid presence of the English countryside. Although the book is rooted in Laing’s experiences and her reactions to her surroundings, it is in fact a book that works on so many levels. It’s an extended meditation on what it means to be human; how we should live our life as it is, in the here and now, as there certainly won’t be another; on life, death, our poor suffering planet and the nature of the Ouse area; and the history, both recent and ancient, which made it what it is and how it will change in times to come. Laing draws on myth, predominantly that of Thomas the Rhymer/Tam Lin, and at times in the narrative she seems to almost be straddling the boundaries between this world and some chimerical other. The book is also informed by the fascinating stories of the people who lived in and shaped the area, from Simon de Montfort to Piltdown Man – and, of course, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, whose lives are threads running through the whole book and informing the narrative.

The past is not behind us but beneath, and the ground we walk on is nothing more than a pit of bones, from which the grass unstinting grows.

Although I found the whole book compelling and brilliant, Laing’s meditations on the Woolfs were particularly illuminating, and often so moving. Laing, of course, passes the point at which Virginia’s body was found after her suicide; it was in the Ouse that she chose to take her own life, after walking out one morning and filling her pocket with stones. Laing’s understanding of Woolf is acute, and her thoughts on the latter’s work extremely enlightening. She draws out threads from Woolf’s work which come from the Sussex setting, most particularly “Between the Acts”, which was set in that landscape and, as an antidote to WW2 raging around her, searched back into the past for sustenance. Again, there are resonances in Woolf’s “Orlando”, which hops over centuries and encompasses so many changes in British history. That sense of the past recurs in the writing of both Woolf and Laing, allowing each woman perspective on her current life and rooting her into the world around her. She also wisely warns against applying hindsight to Woolf’s life and eventual fate, resisting the temptation to look for signs and portents of what was to come, which can be read into any life but aren’t necessarily the case and weren’t seen that way by the person living through that life.

…some bout of poetry after dinner, half read, half lived, as if the flesh were dissolved & through it the flowers burst red & white. (Virginia Woolf)

Inevitably, those parts of the book dealing with Virginia and Leonard were particularly moving; and I was pleased to see Laing writing about the latter, as despite the fact he sometimes gets bad press I have a warmth and a sympathy for Leonard who loved Virginia and, I feel, was often responsible for her surviving as far as she did. Some of the quotes Laing uses are amazing (and make me want to run off and read Virginia instantly); but one which fairly devastated me was a short, heartbreaking piece of writing by Leonard about still expecting to see Virginia walking across the garden towards him after her death. I confess that I blubbed.

What is this world, really? We are told we have infinite choice and yet there’s so much that occurs beyond the perimeter of our command. We do not know why we’re set down here and though we may choose the moment when we leave, not a single one of us can shift the position we’ve been assigned in time, nor bring back those we love once they have ceased to breathe.

But back to the river… The draw of water, which of course features strongly in the book, perhaps shouldn’t be surprising; after all, humans are made up of 60% of the stuff (I always thought it was 90% but apparently not…); and as an island nation we’re used to being surrounded by it and having to navigate it (well, at least since the time when it became impossible to negotiate the Channel by foot any more). Personally, I have a huge love for the sea (particularly a wild North Sea) which I put down to the fact that my maternal grandfather was a merchant seaman; his ship was one of the first merchant vessels to be sunk in WW2, and so I never knew him, but I always feel like the sea is in my blood. But I digress…

Simon Carey / River Ouse – via Wikimedia Commons

Laing brings much botanical knowledge to her travels, identifying and enjoying the wild flora and fauna that flourish in the marshy areas alongside the Ouse, connecting with the land beneath her feet and ruing the destruction left in the wake of humans carving chunks out of the countryside. She is, however, realistic enough to acknowledge that a landscape is never static and that the world is constantly changing and evolving, however slowly and invisibly to the human eye. We can just hope that our fragile planet, made up of so much water, can survive what our race is currently doing to it. The book is also something of a paean to solitude and its replenishing nature, as well as reflecting on how impossible it is to really *know* other human beings.

It struck me as curious then, the idea of a whole town of people attending to their business, a whole town of people driving cars or walking the streets, the face is only partially betraying the magic lantern show that flares utter privacy within the confines of the skull.

At the end of the book, Laing collides with the reality of civilization, having spent a happy week away from it communing with herself and nature, with an almost palpable and jarring crash; and that coming back to reality is not pleasant (at least, it wasn’t for me! )

Why does the past do this? Why does it linger instead of receding? Why does it return with such force sometimes that the real place in which one stands or sits or lies, the place in which one’s corporeal body most undeniably exists, dissolves as if it were nothing more than a mirage? The past cannot be grasped; it is not possible to return in time, to re-gather what was lost or carelessly shrugged off, so why these sudden ambushes, these flourishes of memory?

“To the River” is profound and compelling reading, and I found that once I’d embarked with Laing on her journey, I just couldn’t put the book down. Her writing is beautiful, with her evocative descriptions capturing brilliantly the atmosphere of hot English countryside, with the silence smothered by the climate and just the noise of insects. She tells her tale wonderfully, weaving together all the threads of her narrative (from ancient battles to dinosaur fossils to the aftermath of Woolf’s death) into a dazzling tapestry of a book that never fails to delight. I’ve seen Laing’s book described as Sebaldian, presumably as it mixes history and personal memoir and landscape; however, it’s a book that I think stands apart from labels and I prefer to think of it as Laingian! The success of any kind of work involving a personal narrative depends very much on your willingness to take a step into the author’s world and make a connection; I clicked with Laing straight away, happy to spend hours in her company, walking by her side and following her travels. “To the River” is a wonderful, memorable and stand out book, one which is always going to remain on my shelves and will very likely end up amongst my books of the year. Good choice, Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

A left-wing look at the French Revolution – and jokes! @mrmarksteel


Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution by Mark Steel

I’ve been dipping in and out of the French Revolution quite a lot over the last year or so; and it’s quite clear from the start that this is often a grim affair with heads rolling and blood flowing left, right and centre. So humour is not something you’d expect to associate with that era and conflict, is it? Nevertheless, you’d be mistaken if you thought there were no laughs available, as I found when I picked up this random and unexpected find at the charity shop…

Mark Steel is a well-known comedian in this country, doing stand-up and appearing on TV and radio, as well as writing books and newspaper columns. His left-wing views are well-known, and he was a long-term member of the Socialist Workers Party. However, I wasn’t aware he had an interest in the French Revolution, so this book was something of a welcome surprise.

First up, it needs to be understood that this is a book with an agenda, and it never hides that. As Steel argues, most of the histories of the French Revolution have a bias against it, decrying the violence and deploring the loss of the aristocracy. The main revolutionaries are parodied, insulted and described in frankly bizarre and over-the-top terms; and the real social change which was desperately needed and was brought about by the conflict is usually dismissed. Steel displays his left-wing credentials plainly, quoting Clash lyrics at the start of the chapters and making plenty of attacks on those in power then and now, and the results is a refreshing alternative to all the hysterical misinformation chucked at the Revolution.

Steel’s mission is also to make the Revolution approachable, understandable and funny; as the blurb says, “the Revolution was one of the most inspirational event in human history – a moment when ordinary people became extraordinary and changed the world. It deserves better jokes.” And actually, it is very, very funny indeed, particularly when Steel uses a modern analogy to point out how daft something was, or takes one of his regular sideswipes at the stupidity of modern politics or our relics of the monarchic system.

Aside from the humour, though, the book manages to be very informative in a completely accessible way. Steel clearly knows his subject (the list of further reading at the end makes that plain!); he follows the progress of the conflict, paints often quite moving portraits of the main players, and discusses why things went pear-shaped enough to allow Napoleon into power and then the restoration of the monarchy (albeit in a truncated form). It’s always vastly entertaining reading and I kept thinking how much more fun history would be if it was taught like this. I also kept laughing out loud while I was reading the book, which must have irritated Mr. Kaggsy no end…

(Musée Carnavalet [Public domain])
Robespierre – variously described by his enemies as repulsive, green-veined, ugly and having the face of a tiger… But he voted *against* introducing the death penalty!

I was particularly interested in Steel’s take on Marat, Danton and Robespierre, and the ridiculously bad press they got. He makes a particularly good case for the rehabilitation of the latter (who seems to have been a man of the people, very much in the mould of Jeremy Corbyn), and indeed he’s pretty even-handed in his treatment of all concerned. Steel doesn’t condone the bloodletting (who would?) but seeks to understand the reasons for the descent into terror. He covers the various ends of the main players with empathy and allows all of them some humanity.

You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to no one and the Earth itself belongs to everyone. (Rousseau)

But the issues concerned are always at the centre of the book, and Steel pauses regularly to remind himself (and the reader) just how far things moved on and just how radical the changes were. The book puts the Revolution in the context of the Enlightenment, and against the background of total control by the monarchy and the Catholic Church. The King had previously been beyond all criticism, appointed by God and answerable only to him presumably; which makes the actions of the sans-culottes and the changes which took place in France unbelievably far-reaching. Many of the revolutionaries’ ideas and ideals (particularly Robespierre) seem to have anticipated theoreticians like Marx, and it’s quite clear that the French Revolution was in many ways the conflict that started the modern world.

“Vive La Revolution” is not only a subversive – and seriously funny – slice of popular history, it also sheds much light on the world we live in nowadays. The regular parallels Steel draws between the past and our present world are telling, making it clear how much has changed but also how much has remained the same. We still have a royal family in this country; class is still a major issue, no matter how much it is claimed that it isn’t; and the gap between the haves and have-nots widens every day. “Vive…” came out on 2003 and I would be very interested in seeing an updated version and finding out where Steel thinks we’ve gone in the interim.

So this was a wonderful, funny and very rewarding read which shed some left-wing light on the French Revolution, and also gave me a list of books to read and books to avoid… I think it’s an important contribution to the historiography of the Revolution, too, as there has been so much right-wing commentary and revision of the viewpoints of the past, that Steel’s clear-eyed stance on just how radical and important the conflict was is really refreshing. “Vive La Revolution” was one of those accidental finds that turned out to be quite brilliant, and if you want a great introduction to the French Revolution, with built in laughs, this would be a good book to start with!

(NB – there is a dearth of quotes in this post. I could have quoted *tons* of it, funny and serious, but in all honesty it’s better experienced as a whole, and I urge you all to go out and read it!)

Penguin Moderns 21 and 22 – Russians in exile and snippets of brilliance from a favourite author


I’m in the odd situation, with the next two Penguin Moderns in my sequential read of the box set, of coming across two books containing works I’ve already previously read. The Russian PM I bought separately in advance of the box coming my way, as I love Gazdanov’s work so much, and it also served as a taster for a collection of his short stories; and the Calvino stories are drawn from one of my favourite collections of his work, “The Complete Cosmicomics”. Both have been reviewed here on the Ramblings, but as these are two favourite authors I was more than happy to revisit them!

Penguin Modern 21 – Four Russian Short Stories by Gazdanov and others (Translated by Bryan Karetnyk)

As I’ve probably mentioned before, Gazdanov is a recent discovery by me, thanks to the wonderful translations by Bryan Karetnyk which have been issued by the lovely Pushkin Press. I’ve read each one they’ve put out, and his writing is just marvellous. The four stories here, by Gazdanov, Nina Berberova, Yuri Felsen and Galina Kuznetsova, are all translated by Karetnyk and three of them featured in his wonderful anthology “Russian Emigre Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky”.

I reviewed that book here, and discussed PM21 here; and of the latter I said “if you want an introduction to Russian émigré writing this is definitely a great place to start. One of the things which please me about the “Russian Emigre…” volume was the gender balance and the fact that there were a goodly number of women writers featured; I’m glad to see that this has been carried over to PM21 as there is a 50:50 split.”

Gaito Gazdanov – picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

And of the full collection I said, “This important, landmark collection brings them back to life and into the public eye; and whether you have an interest in Russian 20th century writers, or just like wonderful stories, I can’t recommend this book highly enough to you.”

Revisiting the stories hasn’t changed my mind about the quality of the writing here; and as well as picking up PM21 for the marvellous uncollected story, I also of course still highly recommend the émigré collection!

Penguin Modern 22 – The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino (Translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks and William Weaver)

Ah, Calvino! I have had a major obsession with his work for a good chunk of my life which has never really gone away, ever since I was pointed in the direction of “If on a winter’s night a traveler…” back in the early 1980s. It would be one of my desert island books, as would be his “Complete Cosmicomics”. Both of these are books I’ve revisited on the blog, “Traveler…” here and “Cosmicomics…” here. The PM draws four stories from the collection: the title story (which is one of my favourites), Without Colours, As Long as the Sun Lasts and Implosion.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Each is playful, profound and utterly memorable, as I’d expect from Calvino and when I was writing about “Cosmicomics” I opined “some of his inventiveness leaves you breathless” and went on to say, “His work was highly individual and singularly brilliant, and I think I appreciate a lot more on re-reading. It is fascinating to wonder what Calvino’s Cosmicomics would have made of modern society and I can only mourn his early loss and wish we still have Qwfwq [his narrator in the stories] to spin us tales of wonder and imagination about the scientific world around us. I can’t rate Calvino and his work highly enough – a five-star book and a five-star author!”

Again, that’s another statement I’d stand by; everything I’ve read by Calvino has been just amazing and he’s been one of those landmark authors in my life. Hopefully this Penguin Modern might sneak his work into a few more readers’  hearts… 😀


So as well as encountering new authors, reading the Penguin Moderns is allowing me revisit some favourites. I’m blessed with this box set, really, and I can’t wait to see what comes next! 😀

Postcards from the Past @glagoslav


Children’s Fashion of the Russian Empire by Alexander Vasiliev
Translated by James Womack

I found myself musing the other day on photography; specifically on the impact it must have had in its early days when suddenly human beings found their images being recorded without the aid of a painter. In these days of social media, cameras in every phone and millions of images appearing around us constantly, it’s hard to realise just how *strange* this must have seemed to the public of the time. Photos have an immediacy that paintings often don’t, allowing their subjects to transcend time differences; and that’s certainly the case with this perhaps unexpected but absolutely fascinating book which popped through my door recently from the lovely people at Glagoslav Publications.

“Children’s Fashions of the Russian Empire” is a large format, soft cover book which features just that – images of children from the past (though in global terms, not that distant a past). There are over 400 photos, taken from the collection of Alexander Vasiliev, and a remarkable group of pictures it is. Vasiliev is something of a polymath: a playwright, collector and fashion historian, he’s also a lecturer as well as being responsible for more than thirty books, often featuring his collections of images. If that wasn’t enough, he’s staged productions all over the world and won a number of awards. So Vasiliev is ideally placed to share these images as well as providing some commentary and context.

The book starts in the 1860s, which as Vasiliev explains was when photographic visiting cards first appeared in Russia; and he makes the decision to end the book in 1917 when the revolution swept away the imperial way of life forever. In the interim, the pages of photographs here provide fascinating witness to the changing fashions for youngsters which developed over the decades in Russia.

What strikes the modern reader/viewer immediately is the formality of the clothing and the poses: the children and young people look to my eyes like small adults, or children dressed up for some kind of occasion. The dresses and hair are often elaborate; the pose controlled; and there isn’t a lot of smiling going on. As the decades go on, the clothes simplify a little, no doubt reflecting the change in dress for adults; yet still the smiles are missing. In fact, I was reminded very much of an old image I have of my mother as a child, where she stares straight-faced at the camera with a sullen, almost mutinous look on her face (she was obviously stubborn even then….) I guess it took a long time for fashions in photography to change and get to the point where we now demand smiles from our offspring almost as soon as they’re born!

The photos are beautifully presented, with commentary provided and names of the children given where they’re known. There are shots in national dress (some of which is quite lovely); shots with beloved toys and pets; and family groups with siblings and parents. As we get into the 20th century, the shots become a little more relaxed; the clothing looser and less formal; and smiles start to creep in. The last photographs in the book are from 1913 and 1914, a time when the major cataclysm of the First World War was about to hit Europe, and one picture of two brothers in overcoats and caps made me wonder about their eventual fate…

In fact, there’s a poignancy throughout the book, no doubt brought about by seeing these images taken by loving parents of their children, as a way of remembering their youth. They’re a reminder of the transience of life; we’re all on this planet for a short time and these snapshots (like all the ways we record our lives nowadays) give us a kind of immortality, as long as the media survive. Vasiliev has certainly given these children a kind of after-life, as well as tracing the history of children’s clothing during that period (or at least children of a certain social status, as I imagine the peasantry dressed very differently). The images from the 1900s onwards were particularly affecting as I found myself looking into the eyes of the subjects, wondering how the War and Revolution affected them and what became of them; we just can’t imagine I guess…

So “Children’s Fashion…” was an unexpectedly interesting and moving book to browse through. It’s a beautifully produced volume, with excellent quality reproduction of the photographs, and If you’re interested in the history of clothing it would be just up your street. However, it worked on an extra level for me: as a snapshot of the past, a doorway into a time gone by, and a reminder that we are *all* human beings the world over, with our lives, our loves and our families. If we could remember that, maybe we could stop fighting amongst ourselves and concentrate on looking after our beautiful little planet a bit more…

Review book kindly provided by Glagoslav Publications, for which many thanks.

Three things… #5 – Revolutionary humour – plus swathes of poetry


It’s a little while (October, actually) since I had a go at the “Three Things” meme created by Paula at Book Jotter (this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking). However, I found myself pondering on poetry as well as serendipitous book finds so I thought it was time for another…
I’m currently deeply involved in this chance find from the Oxfam which I posted about recently. Mark Steel is a left-wing comedian and the book is his take on the French Revolution. It’s absolutely brilliant so far, combining wit and history in a very winning way. A fuller post will follow!
Looking (at)
Not at lot in terms of programmes – we still seem to be suffering from documentary drought though I have high hopes that this will improve soon! 😉 Meantime, I spend far too much time watching arty/crafty videos on YouTube when I should be reading (but am frankly too tired). And anything with the Scottish countryside in it…. I *have* come across any number of wonderful examples of women’s art on Twitter too, proving that you *can* find good things on social media platforms…
Yes. I have been pondering on poetry a lot lately. I picked up another interesting slim volume from Salt recently. Then there was the Elizabeth Bishop collection. And last week saw three more poetry volumes sneaking in – these are they:
As usual with me and books, there is a *reason* for each of these making their way into the Ramblings. The Soviet Poets was sitting looking at me in the Oxfam on Saturday (I tend to find myself at the poetry shelves first nowadays) and it had *me* written all over it. It’s one of those Progress Press USSR editions which I sort of hoover up if I come across them; it’s a bilingual edition and I’m hoping to discover new Russian poets.
As for the Adrienne Rich, she’s a name I’ve always been aware of and much like Elizabeth Bishop suddenly kept appearing in my sight line. I ordered a cheap copy online and was let down by the reseller; so in a fit of grumpiness I sent for a shiny new Norton Critical Edition with poetry and prose, hoping this will be a good Rich primer. I think this may be my first Norton Critical Edition and it’s awfully pretty – I mean, on a superficial level, isn’t that cover gorgeous????
Then there’s Mr. Tessimond, and thereby hangs a tale. As far as I’m aware I’ve never heard of him before. However, I stumbled across mention of his poem One Almost Might whilst doing some non-poetic research and when I checked it out online was a bit blown away. A little digging revealed an obscure but intriguing life and a collected volume which now resides at the Ramblings. Strangely when I opened the book at random the first poem I came to seemed oddly familiar, so maybe I have read him in the past…
So there are increasing amounts of poetry infecting the Ramblings, and I particularly seem to be encountering female poets – maybe they resonate with me more strongly? Certainly I have the substantial collections above sitting there looking appealing, but I keep wondering whether I should be exploring the work of Marianne Moore, or maybe Mary Oliver – they keep hitting my eye line too. I do find myself drawn more than ever to poetry nowadays; it seems to be touching me more deeply than other forms of writing, perhaps as a response to the unsettling and often unpleasant times we live in. Even when I opened up the huge but lovely Primo Levi box set recently it was his poetry which was calling. So if nothing else, at least I can feel that I’m well stocked for the rest of my life with collections of verse…. 😁
Previous “Three Things” memes:

“To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly” – sharing my love of #Colette and her books!


There’s inevitably a bit of a buzz around the wonderful French author Colette at the moment, thanks to the recent film of her life (I’m still a bit conflicted about whether I want to see it or not). However, a lovely series of posts by Madame Bibi Lophile, who had a joyous week of reading Colette, led to me threatening to share images of my Colette collection here – yes, more gratuitous pictures of books!! I have actually done a little post on some of my Colette books before, but I thought I’d do an updated one anyway as Madame B seemed more than keen that I should do so. Ever happy to oblige, so here we go with more images from my Colette collection – be warned that this *will* be a fairly long post as I have a lot….

First up, I was going to share them in situ, but they’re sort of double shelved, and my pretty Penguins are for some reason at the back – so these are they before I took them down to photo!

And here is the whole shebang – my Colette collection, spread out on the spare bed and requiring two rows to show them all…

Gulp… Where to begin? Probably with the core of my collection, the fiction.

A good part of these consists of the pretty Penguins I first collected and read back in the early 1980s. This is when I first discovered Colette’s work, after reading about her in the “Literary Women” book. I created my own personal canon of women writers I wanted to explore, and Colette was one who absolutely consumed me. I think the Penguins came out in the 1970s and they have such lovely cover designs that I collected all I could find – as you can see, they’re most striking:

Of course, not all of her books were available in this imprint, and I’ve collected a number of other editions over the years:

The Collected Stories is falling to bits, but I read it a decade or so ago and it was a revelatory experience, really – I hadn’t revisited Colette for some years at the time and the collection was shockingly good and reminder of just what an incredible writer she was. And yes – there are another two sets of the Claudine books there. I don’t *need* them but I can’t bear to get rid of them. Some books you need to have three sets of. And there’s my Virago Colette plus some newer Penguin versions. Despite the fact I love my older books, some of them have got a bit fragile, and also the type is quite small, so having a newer, bigger Penguin to re-read is a useful thing! 😀

Shall we move on to the first Colette book I ever read? Yes, let’s – it was “Break of Day”:

This is mature Colette, contemplating a late affair and communing with nature and just being herself, and I loved it to bits. So much so that I set about reading her chronologically – well, everything I could get hold of at the time – and it was of those transformative reading experiences. I’ve revisited this one more than any other Colette book and I still love it.

Next up biographical stuff and the like:

You can’t quite see it, but there is a little Margaret Crosland paperback biography hiding away on the right. I have read most of these over the years, most recently the Judith Thurman, which I loved. Colette’s life and art were intimately bound up, and books about her are marvellous.I also have a couple of biographical oddities:

“Close to Colette” is by her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, and I haven’t read it yet – I dare say I shall cry a lot when I do… And the Time and Tide was tracked down because it has a piece about her by her stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel, with whom she had an affair when she was 52 and he was 16…. Ahem.

Then there are the rarities:

As I’ve bemoaned in the past, there is no real list of everything Colette published, and no complete edition translated into English. So I’ve had to hunt around for missing things, and these are some of them – her collections of her animal writings, for example, and a hardback of “Mitsou” plus a collection of writings in French.

Phew! If you take a look at these as well as my earlier post, you’ll see there is a *lot* of Colette at the Ramblings, for which I make no apology. I was prompted, however, after taking these down, to reshuffle the shelves a bit so the pretty ones were at the front, next to my George Perecs – and here’s what the shelf looks like now:

I like being able to see the lovely pastel Penguin spines! As for what really prompted this post, Madame B was bemoaning the lurid cover of her edition of “Cheri” (and I can understand why!). I picked up a modern Penguin not that long ago because I want to re-read it, and it has a much nicer (and more discreet) cover image:

Not one to feel embarrassed about reading on the train… 😀

And one final image – I had to share this little tray which I picked up in a charity store once, and upon which my small coffee maker normally sits:

Because of the Parisian lady and her dog, it inevitably gets referred to as my Colette tray. You see how my mind is always running on books…. (*sigh*)

Penguin Moderns 19 and 20 – poetry and illusion…


Be impressed…. I’m returning to the Penguin Moderns very promptly, mainly because I enjoyed the last two so much and because the authors of these two are drawing me to them like a magnet. Well, maybe a little nervously when it comes to Shirley Jackson – but let’s see how I get on…. 😉

Penguin Modern 19 – I have more souls than one by Fernando Pessoa

Template:Cavalão [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Give me some more wine, because life is nothing.

I’ve wanted to read Pessoa for sooooo long; he’s best known as the author of “The Book of Disquiet” which exists in multiple forms (I own at least two unread copies) and I wondered what this volume would contain? It turns out he was also a poet and a number of his verses are featured here; however, this being Pessoa, nothing is straightforward…. Because Pessoa wrote poems under four different names, all of which are showcased!

I have no ambitions or wants.
To be a poet is no ambition of mine.
It is my way of staying alone.

In his poetry as well as his prose, Pessoa is a man with multiple voices and a slippery persona, applying layers between himself and his readers. He writes in the four distinct poetic voices included in this Penguin Modern, which makes for a fascinating sampler of his verse works. However, how do we know which is his *true* voice? Which should we take most seriously? Is each a facet of a very complex personality? Truly, Pessoa is a man who raises more questions that give answers!

To those for whom happiness is
Their sun, night comes round.
But to one who hopes for nothing
All that comes is grateful.

As for the works, well I’m not well versed enough (ha!) in the terminology of poetry to give these styles labels, but they *are* all very individual, and so kudos to translator Jonathan Griffin for capturing these distinctive voices. If I had to pick a favourite, I would say that the poems under Pessoa’s own name were the ones which spoke to me most directly, emotionally and strongly – “There was a moment” is particularly beautiful. But all were intriguing, and I’m definitely drawn to pick up “The Book of Disquiet” sooner rather than later – if I could only decide which version to read….

Penguin Modern 20 – The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson

As I think I’ve mentioned before, my only encounter with Shirley Jackson is in the form of her notorious short story “The Lottery”; it nearly scarred me for life and I’ve actually never been near her writing since. However, I steeled myself, and read this one in daylight!

The book contains three short stories and fortunately they’re less obviously horrible than “The Lottery”. Instead, it’s words like unsettling and disturbing which come to mind. For example, in the title story, a teenage girl does indeed go missing, from some kind of summer camp. However, her presence in the place (and indeed life) seems so insubstantial that everyone begins to doubt she was actually there. Journey with a Lady tells of a nine year old boy’s first trip on his own to his grandfather’s. He encounters an enigmatic woman on the train who is not quite what she seems and they form an unlikely bond. And the final story, Nightmare, does indeed have the air of one, with a woman apparently pursued around New York by a weird advertising promotion – but is she really the Miss X people are to look out for? The denouement is suitably nebulous…

Well, I am delighted to reveal that Shirley and I are reconciled. I enjoyed these stories very much and read them with something bordering on a sense of relief. They’re marvellously constructed, compelling, clever and yes, very unnerving but impossible to put down. Jackson excels in portraying unease, particularly in the final story where poor Miss Morgan seems to be stalked by the media promotion. If her novels are like this I think I’ll really like them; I really was rattled by “The Lottery”, but on the evidence of these works I can and I will read more Shirley Jackson!

So two completely different but both excellent Penguin Moderns – and yay! I’m reading more poetry! That’s one of the things I’m most pleased about in the collection, actually – because as they’re bite-sized books I get the chance to explore new poets without being fazed by a massive volume of collected works. Here’s to more small books! 😀


Saramago and Pessoa – including my beloved Death at Intervals….

As an aside, I’m looking for a little reading advice… As I mentioned above, I’ve still to read “The Book of Disquiet” but I also have sitting on the stacks “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” by Jose Saramago, which I’m itching to pick up. Saramago’s book is about one of Pessoa literary aliases (so this is going to be meta-metafiction by the sound of it!) but I wonder whether it’s best read after “Disquiet”? Is there anyone out there who’s read both and is in a position to offer a sensible suggestion??? 🙂

Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D


Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

“I am a phantom built out of pain.” #olgatokarczuk @FitzcarraldoEds


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

…people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous.

One of my standout reading experiences last year was the discovery of the marvellous Polish author Olga Tokarczuk; I read and loved her Man Booker International prize-winning “Flights”, in the wonderful translation by Jennifer Croft, and it got special mention in my end of year round up.

Her novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”, an earlier work, also came out last year, rendered by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, so I was of course very, very keen to read it.

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us.

Set in a remote Polish village, near the Czech border, “Plow…” is narrated by Janina Duszejko. A woman in her sixties, she lives in this bleak region on her own, caring for her neighbours’ houses while they’re away for the winter, and caring as well for the animals in the area. Duszejko is a woman with an interesting past – she was previously an architect, involved in the building of an important bridge, but now works teaching English to children, reading the stars and casting horoscopes, and helping her young friend Dizzy to translate Blake. But Duszejko is at odds with the traditional world around her; she is in conflict with the local hunting club, and this extends to a general clash with traditional Polish values; as she states at one point quite baldly,

For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic, and nothing good came of it.

The book opens with a death; one of few neighbours Duszejko has who stay out the winter, Big Foot, is discovered having choked on a bone. And the deaths continue, as members of the local hunting club are gradually picked off. The authorities favour a conspiracy, with mafia involvement, as these men are known to have been high flyers. Yet Duszejko thinks differently. These men were hunters, viciously cruel to animals, and she’s convinced the latter are taking their revenge. Naturally, the authorities dismiss this as the theories of a cranky old woman; but Duszejko is adamant, and tries to persuade her group of misfit friends, including her other neighbour Oddball, Dizzy, Good News from the local thrift-style store and Boros, a visiting insect specialist. But what is the truth?

Winter mornings are made of steel; they have a metallic taste and sharp edges. On a Wednesday in January, at seven in the morning, it’s plain to see that the world was not made for Man, and definitely not for his comfort or pleasure.

However, “Plow” is more than just a murder mystery; it takes in all manner of issues, from animal cruelty (perhaps the dominant theme) through the hypocrisy of organised religion, the shifting borders of countries, the stars and predestination, the misogyny meted out to older women and society’s treatment of outsiders, misfits and the marginal. Duszejko is constantly met with disbelief or anger as she tries to make her point and much of this is because she’s female.

My belief (is) that the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth. To prevent us from catching sight of the mechanism. The psyche is our defence system – it makes sure we’ll never understand what’s going on around us. Its main task is to filter information, even though the capabilities of our brains are enormous. For it would be impossible to carry the weight of this knowledge. Because every tiny particle of the world is made of suffering.

As with “Flights”, “Plow” is a brilliantly written book which touches on all these deep subjects yet keeps you completely hooked. Tokarczuk’s writing is the kind where every sentence matters; you find yourself pausing regularly to consider what you just read and the meaning behind it, and each new development alters your perceptions (a very Blakeian touch). The book’s title is drawn from William Blake, a recurring presence in the story, and the bones of the dead are ever-present; most often in the form of suffering animals, but there is the human death too and I was reminded that we can all suffer and die in the same way, whether man or beast. Throughout the story Duszejko suffers all manner of unspecified ailments which colour her life and appear almost psychosomatic at time, brought on by events around her; another way of emphasising our connection with the world. She’s also regularly visited by her death mother and grandmother, and at times her connection with the real world seems slight.

At night I observe Venus, closely following the transitions of this beautiful Damsel. I prefer her as the Evening Star, when she appears as if out of nowhere, as if by magic, and goes down behind the Sun. A spark of eternal light. It is at Dusk that the most interesting things occur, for that is when simple differences fade away. I could live in everlasting Dusk.

Despite this being what appears initially to be a straightforward narrative, albeit one constantly laced with sadness and also dark humour, Tocarczuk’s distinctive voice soon draws the reader into the web of Duszejko’s mind and it’s a very complex one. She has a shifting, unsettling voice, often hinting at events which took place in the past, rather than coming straight out with facts – for example the loss of her beloved dogs isn’t given explicit explanation until much closer to the denouement. Is Duszejko an unreliable narrator? Probably – hers is a very particular viewpoint and her individuality is emphasised by touches like the use of capitals for particular words where you aren’t expecting it, another Blakeian element, and one which the latter apparently used to ascribe importance to particular parts of his writings. Similarly, objects and people are given names more appropriate to how they are than their actual names, which adds another layer of dislocation and strangeness, highlighting the slight dislocation of this little world on the borders.

By Tomasz Leśniowski [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The language is beautiful, often hypnotic, and the natural world takes pride of place in the narrative. I think there’s probably a lot of symbolism in the book I might have missed and it certainly demands another reading. I did start to grasp some of where the book was heading as it went on, so the eventual denouement wasn’t really a surprise; but I don’t imagine Tokarczuk expected it to be, as her take on the murder mystery format is very individual!

As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the Plateau I realise that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.

As well as Duszejko, Tokarczuk presents a beautifully drawn supporting cast of characters. The little group of misfits around the narrator became like personal friends and it was actually a wrench to leave them behind as the book closed. The hunters were just revolting and I found myself, of course, in total harmony with Duszejko’s outlook; in fact, I found myself questioning her eating of cheese, as I do feel with her love of animals she should have been vegan, not just vegetarian! The outcome is perhaps controversial; well, I say perhaps, but I believe the book caused some uproar in Tokarczuk’s native Poland; I guess if you attack deeply ingrained traditions that’s what happens, but I would stand side by side with Duszejko and the animals against the hunters.

How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by doing so to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.

“Plow” is another deeply moving, completely involving and thoroughly original book by Olga Tokarczuk, and I could have pulled out so many more quotes than I actually have. I can’t thank her translators and publishers enough for making her work available in my language, and I reckon that this one will also end up in my books of the year round up in December. Tokarczuk is an author of originality and stature, and “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is a masterly work that should be required reading if we want to try to turn the state of our world around. Highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions, for which many thanks!

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