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#1965Club – phew, what a week! And what year will we choose next? :D

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Well, the #1965Club reading week is over, and what a wonderful experience it was! As well as reading some marvellous books myself, I’ve loved seeing what everyone else has picked up and shared their thoughts about – it’s been such fun! Hopefully, you’ll all have enjoyed it as much as Simon and I have – personally, I was amazed at how many bookish options there were from 1965. And thanks, as always, to Simon for being a super co-host! 😀

I managed to read and post about five books and I was really happy with my choices – these are they!

It’s possibly a somewhat eclectic pile, and does represent a *part* of my taste in books (though not everything – there’s no non-fiction or poetry, for a start!). Give longer I would have read more from the year, and these are specific ones I had considered but which got away:

Having two sci-fi titles or two classic crime might have been a bridge too far for 1965, though I *am* sorry I didn’t get to re-read “At Bertram’s Hotel” as I’ve always ranked it as one of my favourite Christies and it’s overdue a revisit. And I really would have liked to tackle the Spark as I haven’t read her for a while and she is *so* good. As for the Strugatsky, that’s the one new book I bought in preparation for the Club, but I never got round to it and I’m sorry about that – hopefully it will come off the stacks sooner rather than later!

Apart from that, though, I managed to read books which I already owned so no other volumes came into the house – which is probably a relief to Mr. Kaggsy *and* the rafters. As Simon mentioned in his podcast about our reading weeks, there is pretty much always a Simenon from whichever year we choose; and there *is* a Maigret from 1965, but I don’t own it so I was good…. And for those of you wondering what date we’re going to choose for the next reading year in six months’ time? Well, Simon and I put our heads together and decided it was between the 1930s and the 1950s since we’ve only done one year from each of those decades. Simon suggested the year in question and I was happy to agree, so in six months’ time it will be (drum roll!):

As Simon pointed out, we’ve not yet done one of the years ending in 0, and this one seems to potentially have lots of interesting works to be reading. So get searching, planning and reading – you have plenty of time to hone your book finding skills… ;D

#1965Club – a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy…

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My final read for the#1965Club is, somewhat inevitably for me, a Russian book – Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, translated by David Floyd. It’s a book that’s been nestling on Mount TBR for five years, if the grocery receipt tucked in the front is any guide, and that in itself is fairly alarming. Really, I wish I’d pulled this one down to read before now, as it really is an excellent book. Although it was initially published in 1965, “Sofia…” was actually written in the 1930s and this fact is crucial; the book has a ring of authenticity which comes from being written in effect as an eye-witness account of what it was like to live in those times; and it isn’t necessarily pretty.

Chukovskaya herself is a fascinating figure; born in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, her father was Kornei Chukovsky, a poet and children’s writer. She mixed regularly with just about everyone involved in the arts, from Blok to Chaliapin, and was not particularly welcoming to the Bolshevik regime, earning herself an early period in exile. Yet she managed to survive all of the upheavals of Soviet Russia and lived until 1996, even winning at one point the Andrei Sakharov Prize For Writer’s Civic Courage, presumably for her work supporting dissidents in her country. “Sofia Petrovna” was originally published in 1965 under a completely different (and inappropriate) title, after having circulated via samizdat, and my Harvill edition is from 1989.

“Sofia…” tells the ostensibly simple story of a woman living through the 1930s in Russia. The titular character is a widow with a young son, and she takes up work typing in a Leningrad publishing house to make ends meet. As she’s an efficient worker she soon ends up in charge of the typing pool, trusted with responsible jobs and highly regarded by her employers. She works hard, brings up a good Soviet son and all seems well. However, subtle little cracks appear; there is mention of the Kirov assassination; of Stakhanovite workers, doctors’ plots and sabotage. Anyone with knowledge of Soviet history of the period will immediately pick up on these hints; but of course Sofia is living her ordinary, straightforward life through these times, involved in trying to keep food on the table and get on with her neighbours in their communal housing (ah, the housing shortage and primus stoves – consistent features in any Russian literature of the time!)

As the decade rolls on, things continue to get worse for Sofia; the director of the publishing house is arrested, as is the family doctor, and hostile elements start to take control. Sofia’s engineering son and his friend are sent off to work elsewhere in the country and then rumours start to reach Leningrad of arrests and wreckers, till finally the unthinkable happens – Sofia’s son is accused and she must try to prove his innocence. Yet how can you do that in a country where you can’t even find out where a person is held, what they’re accused of or who you should speak to?

Sofia Petrovna’s days and nights were now no longer spent at home or at her work but in a new world, the world of the queue. She queued on the Neva embankment or she queued on Chaikovsky Street – where there were benches to sit on – or she queued in the vast hall of the Great House, or on the staircase of the Prosecutor’s office. She would go home to have something to eat or to sleep only when Natasha or Alik came to take her place in the queue.

“Sofia…” is a marvellously written and chilling book; barely longer than a novella at 128 pages, it nevertheless manages to convey brilliantly the horror and uncertainty of living through times when you don’t know who to trust, you daren’t speak out or speak to certain people and you never know from day to day who will still be free. As Sofia pursues her quest to search out the truth about her son, it’s terrifying to watch her being sucked into the Kafkaesque nightmare of soviet bureaucracy. And of course, Sofia herself becomes tainted by association, and her health suffers from lack of food as well as endlessly standing in queues whilst trying to get news about her son. It’s a world which is captured in a completely convincing way, and of course reading with hindsight there are little hints in the narrative to which we now attach importance but which to Sofia at the time seem of no import; while I was reading I found myself wanting to scream at her to be careful what she said to this or that person, or to watch her back.

My Chukovskaya books

Chukovskaya lived through those days, losing her husband when he was executed on a false charge, and also being at risk herself – in fact, reading details of her life I can see where she obviously draws on her experience to paint her portrait of Sofia Petrovna. Somehow, she made it through the Purges and went on to have a long career as a writer, poet, memoirist and dissident (although of course “Sofia Petrovna” could never be published in Soviet times – another book written ‘for the drawer’). In speaking out in support of Brodsky, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, she lost the right to publish inside the USSR, and in the notes to the book Chukovskaya reveals her strong desire for “Sofia Petrovna” to be published in Russia – which it eventually was, and happily within her lifetime. She was also a lifelong friend of Anna Akhmatova, and I have her book “The Akhmatova Diaries” on Mount TBR, which is something to look forward to….

Chukovskaya on the back cover of the Akhmatova Diaries

So my final read for the #1965Club was an excellent one; a moving, wonderfully written, chilling and frightening book which brings to life vividly the terrible times through which Chukovskaya (and so many other Russians) lived. It’s a fitting memorial to someone who was obviously a strong and moral force, prepared to stand up for others, and I’m so glad that it finally came off my shelves. Truly, I *do* need to read more from the TBR!

#1965Club – golden age crime at a point of transition… @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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For our Club reads, I generally manage to fit in some crime reading, but wasn’t finding anything obvious for 1965. As Simon commented in his fascinating podcast about our reading weeks (do go and check it out here!) there’s pretty much always a Simenon title to choose from; and although there is indeed a Maigret from 1965, I don’t own it. The British Library Crime Classics series wasn’t necessarily the obvious place to look for a 1960s title, as Golden Age crime is generally earlier than that. However, a quick rummage through the review copies I had lurking revealed that there was indeed an unread BLCC from 1965 awaiting – “The Belting Inheritance” by Julian Symons; and it turned out to be the perfect book to accompany me on the train during my recent visit to London!

“The Belting Inheritance” opens in what might be regarded as a traditional country house setting. Our narrator, young Christopher Barrington, was taken in by his great-aunt, Lady Wainwright, when he was orphaned at the age of 12; the family live in “gothic gloom” at Belting and apart from the matriarch and Christopher, there are his cousins Miles and Stephen (who he calls uncle, because of the age difference), Stephen’s appallingly doggy wife Clarissa, and a number of general factotums. The house is particularly gloomy because Lady W is still mourning the loss of her two elder sons, Hugh and David, during the war; they’re held up as paragons while the rest of the family are kept well under her thumb. Young Christopher settles in ok, gets on with Lady W and his uncle Miles, and makes it through public school intact. But when he returns to Belting at the end of his schooling, prior to heading up to Oxford, things are taking a dramatic new direction. Lady W is gravely ill; but more shockingly, a man has turned up claiming to be David Wainwright, having survived the war and then spent a number of years in a Russian camp. Lady W is desperate to welcome him with open arms, but the rest of the family (particularly the odious Stephen) are less than happy with the idea, fearing the loss of their inheritance. Add into the mix Miles’ ex-wife, a roving girl reporter with a connection to a dubious incident in the family’s past, any number of skeletons ready to leap out of closets and plenty of chasing about all over the place, and you get the recipe for a cracking read which takes Golden Age crime off in some very unexpected directions! 😀

Martin Edwards, in his excellent foreword, describes “Belting…” as “an entertaining example of a Grand Master at work“, and he’s not wrong; make no mistake, this is a gloriously clever book. Symons takes the tropes of a classic GA crime book (country house, controlling matriarch, returning prodigal, conflict over inheritance) and subverts them brilliantly in a book that’s unputdownable and completely entertaining. When you’re reading the early chapters which set the scene and bring us to the point of the claimant’s first appearance, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading just another country house murder; albeit one that’s beautifully written and really atmospheric. The narrator’s rather naive 18-year-old voice is totally authentic, and the gradual development and shifting of his perceptions brilliantly done. However, as the book progresses, Symons gradually reveals how the world was changing, how anachronistic the Wainwrights are, and how the rest of the locality view them. Sex and alcohol rear their heads as subjects; there is a marvellous jaunt to Paris at one point, and a particularly lovely bit where Christopher contemplates the fact he’s standing in a place which had seen Danton, Tom Paine and David, amongst others. This latter reference, in particular, made me wonder if Symons was signalling the revolution that had been coming in British society following the end of the Second World War, but I may just be reading too much into it!

However, Symons integrates two seemingly disparate milieus in a way that’s always entirely convincing, whilst creating a twisty and clever plot with characters you know, and in many cases care about deeply. I loved Betty, Miles’ ex-wife who went off and dabbled in arts and clubs, and was surrounded by all sorts of entertaining people. Miles himself was a dear, and I was on tenterhooks in case anything dreadful happened to him. The ending was totally satisfying, with loose ends dealt with and surviving characters rounded up nicely, and I finished the book with a huge smile on my face.

I have quite a few BLCCs (ahem!) still waiting to be read and reviewed, and so I’m not sure I necessarily would have gone for this one if I hadn’t been nudged to it by the #1965Club. However, I’m *so* glad I was; “The Belting Inheritance” was absolutely brilliant, unexpectedly one of the best entries in the BLCC collection. It was a pure joy from start to finish, and just perfect for a train journey too – highly recommended! 😀

#1965Club – a delicate portrait of a relationship

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Acts of Worship by Yukio Mishima
Translated by John Bester

When I was casting around for possible titles to read for 1965, the name of Yukio Mishima sprang to mind (probably because of my recent over-excitement at new translations of his work). I wondered whether there were any of his works published in the appropriate year and a quick search revealed that a short story under the title “Acts of Worship” was indeed from 1965; and I already have this in a collection with the same title, translated by John Bester! I have of course read this; but it’s so long ago that memory has faded and so it seemed like the perfect way to read from the year whilst reintroducing myself to Mishima…

At 60 pages, “Acts…” is nudging close to novella territory, and it tells the story of the ageing Professor Fujimiya, and Tsuneko, the widow who takes care of his domestic life as well as acting as a kind of general factotum and sitting in with some of his poetry sessions. Tsuneko is a plain woman and the Professor has a wall-eye; their relationship is entirely platonic. Yet, when the Professor sets off for a pilgrimage to the Kumano shrines, he orders Tsuneko to accompany him, much to her shock. There are very strict boundaries in their relationship, set by the Professor, and the story follows them on their journey while exploring those boundaries. It’s a delicate, moving and beautifully written observation of a platonic relationship between two people who nevertheless depend on each other very much, and we watch Tsuneko (the main focus of the story) go through all manner of changing emotions while on the journey.

One rule that life had taught Tsuneko was that the only things that happened to a person with those that were appropriate to him…

I wasn’t wrong when I remembered that Mishima wrote beautifully, because he really does here. His observations of the world, the place of humans in it, their relationships with one another and the complex balance between them are so finely honed; and he evokes his settings marvellously.

Books had spread like mold, eating their way through each of the ten rooms in turn. Overflowing from the study, they encroached on the next room, converting it into a kind of lightless dungeon, then spread along the corridors making it impossible to pass without edging sideways. (No – my house is not that bad – yet…)

The characters of the Professor and Tsuneko are very finely drawn, and not without humour – in particular, the Professor, respected and yet a figure of fun at times, surrounded by his little clique of followers, is quite brilliantly conjured (and I make no apologies for the long quote, because I love it!):

The spectacle of the Professor crossing the cheerful modern campus of Seimei university with a bunch of his disciples in tow was so eye-catching that it had become one of the famous local sites. Wearing glasses tinted a pale mauve, clad in a badly fitting, old-fashioned suit, he walked with the feeble sway of a willow tree in the wind. His shoulders sloped deeply and his trousers were baggy, ill contrasting with hair that was dyed black and slicked down to an unnatural neatness. The students who walked behind him bearing his briefcase wore, as was only to be expected of such a resolutely anachronistic crew, the black uniforms with stiff white collars that everyone else at the university shunned; it gave them the air of a suite of ill-omened ravens. As in the sickroom of someone gravely ill, they were not permitted to speak in loud or over lively voices. Such conversation as took place was carried out in whispers, so that people watching from a distance would remark with amusement: “There goes the funeral again!“

And the two main characters are very separate and yet so intertwined. As Tsuneko recognises at the end, when the scales fall from her eyes and she sees the Professor clearly, part of her function is to help him maintain his illusions, which are in turn his coping mechanism. She however needs the Professor in order to have a function and place in life, and so the two are co-dependent in a delicately balanced relationship which is beautifully observed and written. The story also captures Mishima’s country at a time of change, with the hints of the traditional dress being discarded by most of the young, and I was intrigued by the fact that Mishima was in some ways mocking the old-fashioned style when he was a man who ended up sacrificing all for tradition…

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

“Acts of Worship” is a wonderfully told and memorable story and it was the perfect way to become reacquainted with Mishima. I’m keen to re-read the whole collection (and why is there no collected short stories available in English???) as well as move on to the newly translated works – I feel I have treats in store!

#1965 – dreamy drama and passion in academia…

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As has obviously become a habit, Mr. Kaggsy is pitching in halfway through our club reading week to offer a guest review on a favourite book. Inevitably, with him being a film buff, it’s one that has a movie linked to it. However, I’ve both seen the film and read the book in this case and, unusually, agree that both are excellent. So here goes with his post, and let’s see if any of you have read or seen this one and have any views! 😀

Accident by Nicholas Mosley

From the opening sentence Trees at night are like an army marching, to the closing one Remember it happy; the sun in your eyes, I was captivated by Mosley’s unique writing style in his novel Accident. The book was first published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 1965 (shown above left), with a second printing appearing soon afterwards. At the time, the writer was described as one who “gives the reader a new pair of eyes to see with”. A US hardback appeared in 1966, published by Coward-McCann (shown above, right).

An Oxford undergraduate, athletic aristocrat William Codrington, dies in a car accident and the story takes the reader back over the tangle of personal relationships leading up to his death. The interlinked characters are his university philosophy tutor, Stephen Jervis, fellow professor and family friend Charlie, married to Laura, daughter of a millionaire, Stephen’s pregnant wife Rosalind and their two young children, plus the key character Austrian student Anna von Graz, her mother being English. After the author deals with the opening shock of the accident, the story goes back from chapter two, allowing earlier events to unfold.

Nicholas Mosley, who died in 2017, was 3rd Baron Ravensdale, 7th Baronet, MC, FRSL, the son of Sir Oswald Mosley and half-brother of Max Mosley, Formula One racing former president. His novel was made into an exquisite film with not too many changes, but with a different emphasis.

As with some of my other reviews, to me the book and film merge, Mosley even having a screen cameo in the movie, with its excellent screenplay by Harold Pinter. While on the subject of appearances, Carole Caplin appears as Stephen’s daughter, much later becoming the ‘life guru’ of Tony and Cherie Blair, attracting much publicity at the time and from a subsequent libel action.

Staying with the film for a moment, the Joseph Losey directed production received many awards and nominations, enhanced by an atmospheric score from jazz musician and composer John Dankworth. On screen the locations of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ blend with the novel’s prose. A balmy afternoon, cricket match, drinks extending a lazy lunch into a suppertime stupor. Such are the scenes played out visually in the film, with some conjured up romantically in the book.

Paperbacks: Four Square Books 1967; Signet 1967 (US) Penguin 1971.

William’s upper-class background and Charlie’s media and sexual success make Stephen reflect on his own relatively pedestrian existence. Of the two middle-aged males (played in the film by Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker respectively), Stephen has an uneventful marriage, bolstered by the addition of two infant children and the imminent arrival of another, while his counterpart is in a childless union, his roving eye not impeded by age or matrimony. The story’s narration could be provided by either of the men, at times possibly changing over, depending from whose point of view events are being experienced or witnessed.

Into the life of Stephen come two very different students, William, full of youthful energy, and the beguiling Anna, soon to become the young man’s girlfriend. She is seen by the dons as virtually a fantasy figure, they being attracted by her beauty and unattainability, but their thoughts of elation soured by mutual competition and by the positions they hold, both at work and at home.

Stephen is comfortable, no more than that, in his vocation, while Charlie has enjoyed some media success. The former is a teacher by day and husband when he reaches home, neither situation affecting or impinging upon the other, while Charlie is charismatic, unapologetic regarding his impulsive behaviour. Their unchanging lives rely on each either as anchors, one envying the other’s freedom, the more adventurous of the pair using his ally as a trusted confidant and even his home as an occasional refuge.

Bored with married life and academia, the somewhat stifled Stephen dreams of a relationship with his young student Anna. Although having little regard for her titled background, he uses his learned position to impress her. He employs the same approach towards the privileged William, whose youthful vitality he envies, acting as if to undermine him and discourage him from pursuing Anna. Meanwhile, contemporary and rival Charlie senses that Stephen has designs on his beautiful student, but simply sees his own ‘conquest’ of the young woman as carnal, not even an act of one-upmanship over his colleague. So an added obstacle to Stephen’s desires are her two main suitors, William, whose youthful vitality he envies, and Charlie whose career success and virility he covets. When Charlie’s yearnings are fulfilled in respect of Anna, Stephen feels emasculated, torn between needing to support his heavily pregnant wife and his desire for Anna. While his wife and children are away he revisits and old girlfriend in London, briefly rekindling their past affair. His return is met with finding Charlie and Anna using his home as a convenient love nest.

As events are inevitably coming to a head, William’s fatal accident becomes bizarrely a solution, ridding Stephen of Anna and his guilt, also ending the affair Charlie was by now wanting to get out of, thus almost restoring circumstances back to how they were. Accident involves the reader in the untwisting of events as the characters at the same time strive to make sense of their own respective situations. For one spouse the giving of life to children and parenting of them is reward itself. For the other life is at times miserable, Stephen’s lot remaining stable but unsatisfying, while Charlie’s approach to life is spontaneous, but without substance.

N R F Gallimard 1968 (France); Minerva 1993; Dalkey Archive Press 2006 (US)

Some of Mosley’s reflections help strengthen an otherwise simple story. “An accident is different from reality,” he muses, and explains how philosophy “deals with questions to which there are no specific answers.” Perhaps Stephen, or any of us, may occasionally wonder what might have been, how one’s life could easily have unfolded differently. In the book events are eclipsed by the accident, a shocking and tragic occurrence, but which paradoxically provides a way out.

The end of the book imagines that Charlie could be writing the story, although in which case the events would not have been the same as were experienced by or seen through the eyes of Stephen. The story provokes thought, operating on added levels, the sentences are short and there is much dialogue, although many inventive descriptions are woven in. Expressed thoughts of the ‘narrator’ overlap each other, as if wanting to portray a scene simultaneously from more than one angle, as a film might. Thus the way life’s events are related or seem will depend on the way they are viewed.

Original film poster; US DVD 2001; Blu-ray restored disc 2013

*****

Thanks to Mr. Kaggsy for sharing some thoughts on what is a much-loved film and book of his!  I saw the film originally at a much too young age to understand it, when I had a huge crush on Michael York; but on revisiting it and reading the book I can see its merits, and the book is certainly beautifully-written and atmospheric. I wonder how much Mosley is read nowadays; has anyone else read his works??

#1965Club – looking back at some previous reads…

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During our Club reading weeks, I always like to do a post looking back at books from the particular year which I’ve read in the past; in some cases, there will be reviews here on the Ramblings, and in others they’ll be pre-blog reads. Either way, I always find it interesting to revisit previous books, and there were quite a number from 1965! First up, let’s look at the older ones.

Pre-blog reading

The pre-blog pile has a bit of a variety! There is, of course, “I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss; it’s one of the pivotal books in my life and I’ve written about it before. When I borrowed it from the library in my childhood it obvs hadn’t been around for long! Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” is a no-brainer; I’ve had my original paperback since my teens, and I can never read enough of her work.  “Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is a more recent arrival; Mr. Kaggsy bought me the whole sequence of Martin Beck crime novels (of which this is the first) many years ago and I love them to bits – my favourite Scandi crime books. Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” is also a book I’ve owned since my teens and I probably would be less tolerant of him and it nowadays; I would have liked to re-read had time permitted this week, but somehow I don’t think that will happen… And finally, the majestic “Black Rain” by Masuji Ibuse, a book I read when I first began to read Japanese literature. It’s powerful and unforgettable and I can’t recommend it enough.

There are no doubt many more pre-blog reads from 1965 (it was a bumper year!) but those were the obvious ones I could lay hands on. So let’s move on to 1965 books I’ve previously covered on the blog!

1965 Books on the Blog!

Let’s start with a couple of favourite authors. And in fact Italo Calvino has been a favourite since I was in my 20s; the rather battered copy of “Cosmicomics” on top of the pile is from that era. I revisited the book with “The Complete Cosmicomics” and was even more knocked out than the first time. I love his books. End of.

Stanislaw Lem is a more recent discovery, but his quirky and clever and thought-provoking sci-fi stories have been a fast favourite at the Ramblings. “The Cyberiad” came out in 1965 but my lovely Penguin Modern Classic is more recent. Definitely an author I’d recommend.

Here’s another pair of very individual authors… Nabokov needs no introduction and his book “The Eye” is a short, fascinating and tricksy book with a very unreliable narrator. Georges Perec‘s “Things” is another unusual one – from the amount of Perec on this blog, you know that I love his work, and this particular title, exploring ennui in the budding consumer society of the 1960s, was very intriguing.

It wouldn’t be the Ramblings without some Russian authors, would it? Here’s another of my favourite authors, Mikhail Bulgakov.Black Snow” and “A Theatrical Novel” are translations of the same book, one of the author’s shorter and more manic works. If I had time, I’d start a project of re-reading his works in order.

And “An Armenian Sketchbook” by Vasily Grossman proved to me a. just how bad my memory is and b. that it’s a good thing I have this blog… I was all set to read this book as one of my 1965 choices, when there was a little niggle in my head. I checked, and I’d read and reviewed it back in 2013….  *sigh*

Finally, something a little lighter – or is it??

I’m a recent convert to Tove Jansson and the Moomins, but really this book should be subtitled “Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis“! The titular father has a bit of a panic at feeling useless and so drags the whole family off to sea. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on below the surface here…

So… that’s just a few of my previous reads from 1965. I’m sure there would be tons more if I looked harder, but I’m going to concentrate on new reads for the rest of the week. And while I do that, next up on the blog will be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

#1965Club – on the run in 1960s France #astragal

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My second read for the #1965Club is very different from yesterday’s short story, and it’s a book I’ve had knocking about on the TBR pile for some time – “Astragal” by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate. I picked it up in the LRB Bookshop a while back simply on the strength of the fact that it had an introduction by Patti Smith; this is usually recommendation enough, but I liked the sound of the story anyway, and a quick flip revealed that the author herself (pictured on the cover) had a colourful, exciting and ultimately tragic life.

Sarrazin was French-Algerian and dropped out of formal education early to take up a life of crime and prostitution. She spent time in and out of jail, on the run from the authorities, and died startlingly young, from complications during an operation. Sarrazin left behind her a few works; and as far as I can see, “Astragal” (which was written while she was in prison) is the only one to have been translated into English. The passionate introduction by Patti Smith makes it clear that this is one of the inspirational, lynchpin books in Smith’s life, a kind of touchstone always with her; she mentions Sarrazin being described as a female Genet but that’s maybe a slightly simplistic way to describe her. Certainly, although she shares perhaps a similar outlook and view on life to Genet, her writing I would say is very different.

However – on to “Astragal” itself. The book opens with its protagonist, Anne, jumping from a wall to escape prison and breaking her ankle; she’s rescued by a passing motorist and then whisked off on the back of a motorcycle by Julien, who will become her lover, soul-mate and occasional companion. On the run from the authorities, the young woman is shunted from safe house to safe house, trying to mend her ankle (the broken talus bone is known as astragale in French) and keep Julien close. The latter, however, has his own issues with the law and so contact is often fleeting. Eventually, an operation is needed to stop Anne from losing her foot, although even getting her admitted to hospital comes with its own risks. Will Anne’s ankle be mended? Will she escape the law? Will she and Julien be together? Will the fact that she dabbles in prostitution and he has at least one other woman get in the way? Frankly, I’m not telling you – you’ll have to read it yourself. However, you can probably work some of it out if you look up Sarrazin’s short life, because this book draws heavily on her biography. Anne is obviously a stand-in for the author who indeed had similar experiences with broken ankles and running from the law. And Julien was his real name….

In that life, you were never carried off, petted, saved; you stood up straight, in the dark cages of the paddy wagon, or sat up on the hard wooden slats. But in that life, all the same, you could get your kicks in secret in the certainty of each day’s routine. My new freedom imprisons me and paralyzes me.

Initially, I wasn’t sure quite what I felt about “Astragal” and I expected to love it more, and love it immediately, particularly after the laudatory introduction. However, despite some beautiful writing, I didn’t actually warm to Anne. She was young, yes, and selfish too, which doesn’t mean she should be intrinsically uninteresting. However, the episodic nature of the story threw me a little, with Anne simply being shunted from one place to the next, being a bit sulky and difficult, and waiting for her lover to turn up. I wondered whether it was the fact that I’m frankly a bit too old to really relate to the book, and that it might have meant an awful lot more to me if I’d read it in my teens.

And yet…. The more I let the book, its characters and its author linger in my mind, the more they seemed to affect me. As I thought about it, I realised that there was an underlying theme of imprisonment; whether during her rotten childhood, her school days or her time in prison or her enforced confinement whilst her ankle is damaged, Anne is always constrained and held back. Her ultimate need is for freedom and she fights for that, even returning to prostitution to maintain her independence, rather than simply relying on someone she loves. Instead, she’ll take advantage of men’s needs and make her money that way, showing her contempt for a world which tries to hem her in.

…what does it matter where I was or what I was doing yesterday, yesterday is dead and we are alive; tomorrow, the limbo of the future, after all…

“Astragal” is a book which cannot be separated from the life of its author, which might by why in the end it stays in the mind; simply because it’s so painfully autobiographical (there is a very moving picture of Albertine with Julien just before she enters a hospital for her last, botched, operation). That somehow makes the events and the story hit home more, knowing she was drawing on her life and fictionalising it, recording her love for Julien, her need for freedom and her disdain for authority. I thought I wasn’t going to love the book, but somehow it’s got its hooks into me and if any more of her writings were available in translation I’d read them. I really ought to brush up on my very rusty schoolgirl French…

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