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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…

#1965Club – the unchanging nature of human beings…

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Today sees the start of another wonderful week of Club reading – yes, it’s time to welcome you to the #1965Club! For one week we’ll be discovering, reading and discussing books from the mid-point of the 1960s, and for my part the hardest thing has been choosing what to read. 1965 seems to have been a varied and bumper year, and one from which I’ve already read many books. However, I wanted to read from the TBR as much as possible and so I’ve settled for a few titles, which I threw myself into with gusto after finishing “The Devils”. The first one I want to share with you is a science fiction short story – “The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth” by Roger Zelazny.

Zelazny is a name I’ve always been aware of, in my various flirtations with sci-fi writing, but I’ve no idea how well-known he is in mainstream terms. He’s probably an author I’ve never read as I consider him more straight sci-fi, whereas I like my science fiction a little warped or off-kilter… However, he apparently also wrote poetry and fantasy, producing a massive body of work. This particular story was published in 1965 (of course!) and won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in that year; it originally appeared in the March 1965 edition of “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and gave its name to the collection I have, which appeared in 1971. There is a story behind by obtaining of this particular edition, as I was in search of the cover art by one Dennis Leigh – the real name of musician John Foxx, who has a sideline in the arts! You can read about that here; that’s by the by, really as it’s the story we’re interested in, and I chose to just read the 1965 tale from the collection; although on the strength of it I plan to read more…

“Doors…” is set on the planet Venus at an unspecified time in the future when travel between planets seems routine; the planet is Earth-like and inhabitable, unlike the real Venus, and of course has been colonised by those voracious humans. The narrator is one Carlton Davits who describes himself as a baitman. As the story progresses it becomes clear that humans haven’t changed a lot; they still want to hunt, destroy and conquer, and the prey here is a Venusian creature called Icthysaurus elasmognathus – 300 feet long and known as Ikky. Davits has had a run-in with Ikky before, failing to capture the creature; however, an old flame, media celebrity Jean Luharich, is determined to capture an Ikky and recruits Davits to help. The dynamics are difficult, with tensions running beneath the surface and old wounds reappearing; will the search succeed and will Davits and Luharich survive the encounter?

Sci fi can be difficult, particularly when you’re dropped into a new world constructed by the author and with only hints of how it works. I always find it’s best to just go with it and see how the place develops; with a good author things will fall into place, and that certainly happens here. Zelazny’s Venus is a vivid and memorable place that really comes alive, despite his often spare narrative (I’ve seen it described as Hammett-like, which may be why I gelled with it). In 32 pages the characters and location develop, with their quirks and their baggage, so much so that you end up caring very strongly about their fate. Davits in particular has been affected by his surrounding, his encounters with Ikky, and the damage these encounters have caused; and Zelazny brilliantly captures the sense Davits has of meeting with something other, something different and unfathomable, on an alien planet.

However, as with all good sci-fi, I found myself pondering the deeper implications. Wikipedia reckons the story is a deliberately retro look at romantic pulp sci-fi which was apparently coming to an end. Yes, I can see that; however, I ended up considering what the story said about humanity and its selfishness and intransigence. Here is a brand new world, a planet humanity can travel to and inhabit; but what do we want to do? Hunt, catch and kill the indigenous creatures of the place. Plus ça change, as they say – colonialism of all sorts extends as far as rapacious humanity will take it and even crossing the final frontier will not change our species’ nature. It’s a thought-provoking story which raises all manner of issues – at least in my mind, anyway

So my first read for the #1965club turned out to be a good one; a new author, an intriguing and absorbing piece, plus perhaps an indication of 1965 works reflecting the changing times of that decade. I was pretty sure when we chose the year for April’s club that there would be some interesting reading turning up, and I can’t wait to see what bookish discoveries await… 😀

Who was changed and who was dead – some thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Devils” – @almaclassics

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The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Roger Cockrell

Okaaaaaaaayyyyy… I’ve reached the end of my marathon read of Dostoevsky’s masterly book, “The Devils”, and I have the book hangover to end all book hangovers! My marathon served me well, but I had to sprint at the end because I couldn’t stand the suspense and *needed* to find out what happened; I’d become so invested in the characters that they were at times more real than the reality around me – always the sign of a good book. I’ll try to string some coherent thoughts together, but forgive me if I babble a bit occasionally…

First up, it’s worth remembering that this is a BIG book; not only in size (my edition is 698 pages plus notes and extras) but also in its epic narrative sweep and in the range of events and ideas it takes in. It’s stuffed to the brim with fascinating characters, and I’ll only be able to touch on the main ones – so here goes with my impressions of “The Devils”.

Absolute freedom will come only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies. That’s the whole aim.

The story is set in a provincial town and in simple terms tells of the dramatic events that take place when two prodigal sons return to the fold, bringing with them some very modern and disruptive ideas. The sons are Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky and Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, men who have been associating abroad and whose parents are scions of the local social circle. Verkhovensky senior is Stepan Trofimovich, an educated gentleman and sometime tutor who in effect has been living off his dear friend, the separated and wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, mother of the other returning son. Stepan Trofimovich had in fact been tutor to young Pyotr so the whole motley crew are deeply interwoven. Stepan considers himself a man of learning, having spent his twenty years sponging off of Varvara supposedly working; and Varvara herself enjoys being the local society queen bee. However, prior to the return of the prodigals, rumours starting seeping into town about events in Switzerland; romances are hinted at between Nikolai and Lizaveta Tushina, a local beauty also returning to the fold from Switzerland. And what of the mysterious revolutionary pamphlets which keep appearing? Add into the mix personalities such as the Lebyadkins, brother and sister; the mysterious Shatov; several other characters who make up the nebulous “our group”; the violent and wilful Fedka the convict; plus the local governor von Lembke and his status-conscious wife Yulia Mikhailovna, and you have the recipe for a brilliant and involved novel which follows the disruptive effect of a mix of revolutionary and personal politics on a provincial town.

People were in a strange state of mind at the time. A certain light-headedness became apparent, particularly among the ladies, and it would be wrong to say that this emerged only gradually. Several extraordinarily free-and-easy ideas were blowing about everywhere, as if carried on the wind. There was a light-hearted merriment in the air, which I wouldn’t say was always particularly pleasant. A certain mental derangement had become fashionable.

I’ve commented before, I think, that Dostoevsky tends to write very much in set pieces and “The Devils” is no different – which is not a criticism! The book is narrated in the main by one Anton Lavrentyevich G—v; a close friend of Stepan’s, he’s in many ways a minor character, yet he’s a thread running through much of the story, until the rush of the narrative kind of takes over from him at the end of the book. And the plot is a long and complex one, with many different strands and many different issues; there is critique of social-climbing and status; discussion of new ideas and the ‘women question’; debates on the existence or not of God; moral dilemmas; and of course, revolution, mayhem and murder. Nikolai and Pyotr are contrasting studies in evil – because both *are* evil, though in very different ways – and the development of their characters is chilling to watch.

… As a rule, the Russian people are never more entertained than by some uproarious social scandal.

As Cockrell’s foreword explains, Dostoevsky was initially inspired to start writing a short pamphlet after the real case of the murder of a student by a group of radicals. However, what started as a short work expanded, and ended up as what is really Dostoevsky’s discussion of the ‘Russian question’, the politics of his day, the way forward and the larger questions of what man should actually believe in. As so often, he chose a provincial setting to discuss his major issues; I suppose the shocking effect of the outsiders on a place away from the centre of things can be more spectacular, and he did love his drama. In fact, there are always elements of dramatic farce in Dostoevsky’s work (“The Gambler” springs to mind particularly, with its manic qualities); and he loves to create a story which inexorably builds to an explosive climax!

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

And that kind of narrative is definitely on show here. Dostoevsky is masterfully in control of his material: after he’s established his protagonists (with some vivid – and often very funny – character sketches), hinted at events gone by and introduced the ideas of revolutionary goings on, he hits the reader with a number of dramatic revelations about what’s actually happened abroad. Of course, all of this is building up to a spectacular and marvellous set-piece; this is Yulia Mikhailovna’s fete in aid of governesses, which turns from farce to tragedy and takes up much of the start of part three of the book. However, as well as set-pieces, Dostoevsky is exceptional on characterisation, and his skill at gradually revealing the reality behind the masks of some of his protagonists was stunning. Verkhovensky in particular starts the book coming across as just a slimeball, but as the narrative goes on his real fanaticism is revealed and it’s frightening. Make no mistake, despite the wonderful humour (and I’ve never read a Dostoevsky without any) this is a very dark book that deals with dark topics.

A particular chapter springs to mind, entitled here simply “At Tikhon’s”. It was censored at the original point of publication and never saw the light of day in Dostoevsky’s time; and it *is* distressing, dealing as it does with abusive behaviour by Nicolai Stavrogin (although never in graphic detail). This edition reinstates the chapter at the point in the narrative where Dostoevsky originally placed it, and to my mind it’s essential to the plot, revealing as it does the real character of Nikolai – a debauched, degraded and dissolute person who has nothing to offer the world.

Of course, central to much of the book *is* moral discussion; that of the older generation like Stepan, and the younger group of revolutionaries. Dostoevsky’s aim seems to be to try to get to heart of both group’s beliefs and he in fact seems to find both wanting. It all boils down, I think, to the generational conflict which was such a topic in Russian literature; Turgenev, of course, springs to mind, and in fact Dostoevsky provides a funny, merciless and heavily satirical lampoon of his literary rival in the form of the famous novelist Karmazinov. However, the conflict is also that between the Superfluous Man (exemplified by Stepan) and the new generation of destructive, active men who want to change everything; the latter, however, have no more to offer than the older generation, and simply degenerate into evil wherever they go. And age is no barrier, as by his rejection of the revolutionaries, Nikolai in effect transforms himself into a superfluous man. Yes, “The Devils” is a clash of generations a la Turgenev, but with so much added fire, venom and disaster! The older generation are portrayed as blustering, out of touch idiots, convinced of their status in Russia and blindly believing they’re universally worshipped. The young are seen as mad or dangerous or deluded or simply hooligans. The generational divide never seems to change much, does it??

It is difficult to change gods.

This being Dostoevsky there is, of course, discussion of God and faith; and many of the characters are suffering from the loss of the latter. That disillusionment is what the author seems to think leads to the madness and depravity of many of the characters, although frankly the religious figures are not free from ridicule if Dostoevsky thinks they deserve it. No-one escapes from his relentless pen, neither the old fools nor the young madmen. Where Dostoevsky really excels, however, is in how he captures the mind of the extremist; there was passage after passage that struck a chord with me, and made me realise that little changes under the surface of progress; humans are much the same as they always were. I’ve already quoted one piece which stood out in an earlier post, but I could have pulled out so many – well, here are just a few:

He’s got this system of spying, in which all members of society watch one another and are obliged to inform on each other. Each belongs to all, and all belong to each. All men are slaves, and are equal in this slavery.

You see what happens when you slip in the reins for just a tiny little bit! No, this democratic rabble with their groups of five is of little use as a support; what we need is a single, magnificent, monumental, despotic will that relies on something external and premeditated then the groups of five will gently put their tails between their legs, and the subservience will come in useful when the occasion arises.

This’ll make you laugh: the first thing that everyone finds terribly impressive is a uniform. There’s nothing more powerful than uniform. I purposefully invent ranks and positions: I have a secretary, secret spies, treasurers, chairmen, registrars, their assistants – all much appreciated and splendidly endorsed.

I’ve found my own data confusing, and my conclusion directly contradicts my original idea, my starting point. Beginning with the idea of absolute freedom, I end with the idea of unlimited despotism. I should add, however, that there can be no solution to the social problem other than mine.

Talk about doublespeak and rampant cynicism; Dostoevsky knows human nature well and could recognise where things might end up. As Cockrell states in his foreword: “Dostoevsky went further than any of his predecessors and contemporaries with his insights into the psychology of terrorism, his depiction of what he saw as the catastrophic consequences of atheism and his prescient vision of a society driven to the brink of anarchy, with the spectre of totalitarianism waiting in the wings.” Prescient indeed! And if that doesn’t convince you, just read the chapter depicting the chaotically funny and shambolic meeting of revolutionaries who are all at odds and all with different beliefs and very probably couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag. It’s hilarious and chilling at the same time; however, as always, when the general mass of people have had enough and start to take action, things begin to go awry. Stepan’s belief in art and beauty seems very naive when faced with the mob…

Don’t you know, do you really not know, that mankind can survive without the English, without Germany, most certainly without the Russian people, without science, without bread, but that without beauty it won’t be able to survive, for then there’d be nothing left to do on earth…

Well, I could go on and on about this wonderfully immersive reading experience but I’d end up risking doing a post almost as long as the book…. 😉 There are so many moments to enjoy in “The Devils”, from the narrator’s breathless and sometimes disingenuous take on events to Stepan’s petulant quarrels with Varvara to the marvellously worded puncturing of the pomposity of Russian society; particularly memorable is Dostoevsky’s fabulously worded description of Karmazinov’s writings (i.e. Turgenev) through the voice of the narrator, which I can’t reproduce here because it’s too long. However, suffice to say he simply dismantles the character’s writing and takes it to pieces in a cleverly done “Brutus is an honourable man” sequence! I got quite attached to the loquacious narrator (even though he can’t possibly have witnessed everything he relates) and on occasion, when discussing “our town”, his voice was very reminiscent of that of the narrator of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (which Dostoevsky slyly references at one point…) But there are tragic consequences for some participants that will break your heart, and I confess to becoming quite emotional at one small family’s fate. “The Devils” is most definitely a book of light and shade, deftly and expertly contrasting comedy and tragedy, and it’s quite obvious to see why it’s regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

So that’s my response to “The Devils” and I know it’s a book that’s going to continue resonating with me for a long time. It’s a complex, immersive, rambling, thought-provoking, deep, funny and dark book which gets under your skin and inside your soul. My choice of heading for this post was deliberate, as the dramatic sequence of events in the book either changes or destroys pretty much all of the participants; no-one really gets out unscathed at all. Having lived in this book and alongside these characters for a month, the devastating end left *me* emotionally drained and exhausted; although reading “The Devils” didn’t kill me, it’s certainly changed me….

*****

A word on the edition I read; this was a lovely new translation by Roger Cockrell, published by Alma Classics (who kindly provided a review copy – thank you). As usual, there was extra material, extensive notes and supporting information so an ideal version to pick. I have to applaud the translator for his epic undertaking and the narrative read wonderfully, as far as I was concerned; it felt authentically Dostoevskian to me! 😀

If it’s London, there must be books…. @Foyles @secondshelfbks @JuddBooks

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Unfortunately for the shelves in my house, visits to London are inextricably linked with bookshopping, and Saturday was no exception to the general rule… My BFF J. and I managed to miss out on our usual pre-Christmas get-together back in December, and so as it was her birthday yesterday, we decided to have a catch-up, a gossip and a general bimble round London (as she puts it) on Saturday – which turned out to be a relaxing, fun and profitable trip! 😀

The KBR tote came in handy as always….

Inevitably there were bookshops and after we’d done a bit of general browsing (clothes, fabric and art shops!) we decided to give Second Shelf Books a look, as I’d been very impressed by what I’d seen and heard about them (and Ali thought very highly of them on her visit!) We rolled up fairly early (we’re morning birds), wondering if they’d be open and even though they weren’t officially, the very nice person behind the till let us in! And what a lovely place it is! We had a wonderful browse through all the wonderful rarities and first editions, with me eventually settling on purchasing this:

It’s by Elaine Feinstein, who translates Tsvetaeva wonderfully and whose biography of Anna Akhmatova I have lurking and it’s a mixture of novel set in Russia amongst real writers as well as her poetry. So it was most definitely coming home with me… ;D

After interludes for getting vaguely lost, stopping for lunch at Leons (with much gossip and catching up) as well as a very tempting visit to Paperchase, we headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street. They’re a stone’s throw from Skoob (which we managed to resist) and I can’t recommend them enough. Judds is a shop always stuffed with unexpected treats and I was lucky to get out with only these:

I’ve wanted to add Marianne Moore to my poetry pile for yonks and this was at a fraction of the price it is online (bricks and mortar shops win out again!). As for the book on Peake, I’m not sure how I missed out on this when it originally came out, but it’s absolutely stuffed with the most amazing artworks, essays and writings, and a steal at the price. Both J. and I left with copies…

Inevitably, we ended up at Foyles – well, how could we not? – and partook of tea in the cafe, while J. finished reading a book she’d brought with her for me. Yes, she’d managed to procure me a beautiful first edition of a Beverley I needed!

As it comes with a dustjacket, I was doubly pleased and now I can get on with reading the rest of this particular house/garden trilogy of Bev’s! Dead chuffed!

We didn’t get out of Foyles unscathed, needless to say. Although I *did* exercise restraint, picking up and putting down any number of books. J. indulged in some poetry in the form of Roger McGough and Willa Cather (two of her favourites), whereas I eventually settled on these:

I’ve been circling the Gamboni for a while and finally decided to go for this new, reasonably priced edition (the old ones were priced at scholarly book rates…). As for the Kate Briggs, it’s all about translation and I love translated books and I love translators so it’s a no-brainer. Very excited about this one…. 😀

That’s it book-wise. We were in any number of stationery and art shops, and bearing that in mind I certainly think that the small haul I have was very well-behaved of me…

The tea is green with mint (my favourite) which I decided to treat myself to from Fortnum and Mason (yes, really!) We were in there to pick up some favourite marmalade for J.’s hubby, and I decided to treat Mr. Kaggsy to some posh coffee flavoured choc (not pictured). The tea just fell into my hand as I was queuing to pay…

So a fun day out gossiping, playing catch-up and shopping – lovely! It *is* nice to live close enough to London to pop up there (and especially go to Foyles, although those visits always bring a sense of despair at the *mess* of construction that’s going on in the area). Now it’s just a case of deciding what to read next… 😉

However, before I finish this post, there was *one* more book which sneaked into the house at the weekend, and that was a volume I ordered online after reading a review of it here. Kate Macdonald picked up her copy, oddly enough, at Second Shelf, and wasn’t so enamoured with Priestley’s grumbling. However, I’ve found his grumpy narratives oddly entertaining, so I though I’d give it a try! 😀

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