Home

“With what face would we confront each other?” – Primo Levi’s Centenary

16 Comments

Today is the centenary of Primo Levi’s birth, and I wanted to share a short extract from a short essay tucked away in volume 2 of the Complete Works.

Unknown (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain] – via Wikimedia Commons

The Nazi massacre bears the mark of folly, but also another mark. It is the mark of the inhuman, of human solidarity negated, forbidden, shattered; of slave-like exploitation, of the shameless establishment of the law of the strongest, smuggled in under the banner of order. It’s the mark of bullying, the mark of fascism. It’s the realization of an insane dream, in which one person rules, no one thinks anymore, everyone always stays in line, everyone obeys to the death, everyone always says yes.

The essay is called “Monument at Auschwitz”; it was published in La Stampa on 18th July, 1959. Like everything Levi has to say, it’s profound and moving; and frighteningly enough still relevant today. I’d like to think, on a day when I’m remembering a great writer who bore witness to his times, that humanity had progressed from the horrors of the 20th century – but alas, I’m not convinced we have…

Primo Levi – a few musings

20 Comments

As I’ve probably mentioned before, this month sees the centenary of the birth of the author and chemist Primo Levi. I’ve written about him before on the Ramblings, and the reading of his book “The Periodic Table” back in my twenties had a profound effect on me. I’d read all of his works which had been translated into English previously, although as I recorded on the blog, the discovery of a reasonably priced copy of the three volume set of his Complete Works in London caused a lot of stressful lugging around the big city and transporting home! I’m not sorry, thought, and I have been spending time this month dipping into the three large books (amounting to several thousand pages).

As I’d read all of his fictions in the past, I’ve been focusing on poetry and shorter prose, the latter in the form of stories and essays, and there are so many riches. I frankly don’t feel that I’m well-versed enough in his literature (and indeed in Holocaust literature) to comment in depth; in fact, if you want some wonderfully in-depth pieces discussing Levi’s work in detail, I recommend  you visit the marvellous Eiger, Monch & Jungfrau blog of Dorian Stuber, who’s featured some excellent posts this month.

Levi’s poetry is, of course, incredibly moving; and like his prose often painful to read. I believe he disliked being regarded as a witness of the times he lived through, but his works inevitably do just that – tell us of events we must *not* forget for fear of a repeat (and goodness knows we seem to be sliding rapidly in that direction at the moment). I’ll share a few lines with you, but urge you to go and read his work – it is, of course, remarkably powerful…

I see you in my heart, exhausted comrade;
Suffering comrade, I can read your eyes.
In your breast you have cold hunger nothing
The last courage has been broken in you.
Gray companion, you were a strong man,
A woman traveled next to you.
Empty comrade who has no more name,
A desert who has no more tears,
So poor that you have no more pain,
So exhausted that you have no more fear,
Spent man who has a strong man once:
If we were to meet again
Up in the sweet world under the sun,
With what face would we confront each other?

(from Buna, 28 December, 1945 – translated by Jonathan Galassi)

“Wild nature is a hiding place” #johnberger #confabulations

21 Comments

Confabulations by John Berger

For some reason (bookish obsessiveness, I suppose…) I seem to go through phases of amassing piles of books I want to read by a particular author. Dawkins is a case in point… there is a heap of at least five of his books lurking! And when I featured his pile of works, I mentioned also that I had a number of John Berger’s works also trying to catch my attention.

I’ve read a number of Berger’s books, from fiction to his musings on art, and he’s always such a bracing and interesting writer. For no reason I can discern, I was moved to pick up “Confabulations” recently; if I recall correctly, I picked it up in the LRB Bookshop on a visit to London and it turned out to be a very thought-provoking read.

“Confabulations” was published in 2016, and it collects together Berger’s thoughts and musings, as well as illustrations by the author himself and other artists. The title word is explained online as: “…a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.” However, I’ve always thought of it as a term for having a bit of a discussion or a verbal consultation about things and I think that’s more what Berger intends here. As he explains in the first piece, as he writes he allows his words to react with each other, change their meanings, go off and have a chat and then come back to him with a kind of acceptance of what he’s trying to say. It’s an entertaining conceit, and it allows him to mingle all sorts of ideas, blending art, reminiscence, philosophy, politics and commentary on the state of the world, letting the words and concepts bounce off each other.

Songs are like rivers. Each follows its own course – yet all are flowing to reach the sea from which everything came. The waters that flow out of a river’s mouth are on their way to an immense elsewhere. And something similar happens with what comes out of the mouth of a song.

So Berger ranges far and wide; discussing song and storytelling; reminiscing about friends and loved ones; and cutting through the hype to recognise the terrible state of our modern world.

The media offer trivial immediate distraction to fill the silence which, left empty, might otherwise prompt people to ask each other questions concerning the unjust world they are living in. Our leaders and media commentators speak of what we are living through in a gobbledygook, which is not the voice of a turkey but that of High Finance.

Berger always brings a stringent political sensibility to his writing and thinking, and I found myself agreeing with many of his judgements on politics, politicans and capitalism. Yet he always comes back to the arts – drawing and painting and song and stories – as if they are the real essence of life. Whilst drawing flowers, he meditates: “in the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.” The feeling is that what is important is *living* and creating and retaining that sense of individuality in an ever-more depersonalised world.

“Confabulations” is a slim book (143 pages), beautifully produced by Penguin with nice paper and many illustrations within the text, including some lovely colour ones of Berger’s art. It’s one of those volumes which definitely punches above its weight, raising all manner of thoughts which linger in the mind and leave you thinking for days afterwards. John Berger was a fascinating artist, intellectual, writer and commentator; and “Confabulations” was a great joy to read. Which makes me very happy that I have more of his work lurking on Mount TBR! ;D

A city on the cusp of change @glagoslav #iconoclasm #moscow #russia

17 Comments

We Are Building Capitalism! Moscow in Transition 1992-1997 by Robert Stephenson

When you’re an avid reader and a bookworm, there are times when you stumble across a book you just *know* is going to be perfect for you. I’ve had a few of those in my lifetime, and I came across one recently which couldn’t have been a better fit. My love for Russia and its literature and history is well-known; and I’ve done all manner of wittering away about iconoclasm and the like recently on the Ramblings. So when the lovely Glagoslav offered me a review copy of a new book which looked at the changes which took place in the landscape of Moscow after the end of Communism, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it, wasn’t it? 😀

The title of “We Are Building Capitalism!” riffs on the kind of slogans bandied about in the early days of the Soviet Union, and there’s plenty of irony at work here. Robert Stephenson was at the time a UK civil servant who was shipped to Moscow in 1992 after the collapse of Communism, sent as a consultant and then leading a number of projects. He spent five years living and working in Russia’s capital city and during that time he indulged his passion for photography. In doing so, he created a wonderful record of the changes taking place in the city, and this book is a stunning account of those times.

Moscow in the early 1990s was not an easy place in which to live; there were shortages of everything, the economy was changing, and the transition from communism to capitalist was painful. Salaries had been cut, people had lost their jobs and were struggling to survive; and there was the constant presence of pop-up outdoor markets where people tried to sell goods (or their possessions) to make ends meet. The economic uncertainty was matched with political uncertainty, as the new regime struggled to maintain some kind of stability and the oligarchs started to creep in.

Stephenson’s book brilliantly captures those times, and the book is divided into chapters which focus on a particular element – the destruction of old monuments, for example. or the changing face of the shops and markets, the gradual arrival of Western influence (Coke or Macdonalds, anyone?) and the altered skyline of the city. “We Are Building…” is a large softcover book, roughly A4 landscape, and this means that the photographs have the space to be given the prominence they deserve. And they *are* truly atmospheric – from the people in the streets, the old shop front signage, a deserted Patriarch’s Ponds in the winter, to my beloved Mayakovsky silhouetted on the cover against a symbol of modernity, these photographs bring Moscow at that time vividly to life.

Each section of the book has commentary by Stephenson on what will follow, and as I read through and gazed at his photos, I felt a mixture of fascination but also sadness. So much of old Moscow (and it’s a city which *has* been rebuilt a number of times) has been wiped out to be replaced with modern, Western architecture that I couldn’t help but feel sorry that I never got to see it back then. Unfortunately, much of Soviet architecture is not taken seriously (despite the best efforts of commentators like Owen Hatherley to convince people otherwise); and I remember reading that when Vladimir Bortko was filming his 2005 version of “The Master and Margarita”, he actually had to go to St. Peterburg to find the right buildings to shoot with, as there was so little left in Moscow that looked right for the period of the book. I know things have to change and I guess the people that had to live in them might feel differently, but I think we need to be careful about sweeping changes and wiping out the physical past so drastically, as there’s a danger of losing a connection with our heritage.

“We Are Building…” turned out to be just as good (if not better!) than I had expected. Stephenson is a knowledgeable and entertaining commentator and his photographs are wonderful windows into the past. The book touches lightly on the subject of iconoclasm, as there are any number of statues of Lenin, Stalin et al that were pulled down or damaged or destroyed (luckily Mayakovsky seems to have survived); interestingly, many have been restored and resettled in the Muzeon Park of Arts. Which potentially sets off another chain of argument in that although these statues represent people who had become hated, they *were* the result of somebody’s artistic endeavours, so should we regard them as a work of art or just a piece of propaganda to be destroyed? *

But I digress (as usual….!). Stephenson’s book is a wonderful thing, a stunning collection of images recording a time of change which is now long gone; and if you have any interest in Moscow, its history and its landscape this is most definitely the book for you. Stephenson resists all the way through doing comparison shots until the very end, when he shares two shots along the Garden Ring taken twenty years apart. The change is stunning (and not in a good way, in my view); so we’re very lucky to have this collection of images to record the past.

(Review copy kindly provided by Glagoslav, for which many thanks!)

*****

* As an aside, the whole question of how to treat art in public spaces and whether it should actually be treated as art or propaganda is a knotty one which has vexed all manner of commentators. In fact, it was the subject of a film “Doubled Youth” by the Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius, which looked at the removal of Soviet era sculptures from the Green Bridge in Vilnius. For anyone interested, there is a fascinating discussion about the film from a session at Newcastle’s Baltic Gallery (including, amongst others, Professor Richard Clay) which you can watch here. It’s a complex issue…

“Translators are people who read books for us.” @almabooks @TimParksauthor

31 Comments

Pen in Hand: Reading, Re-reading and Other Mysteries by Tim Parks

Books about books are obviously a huge favourite of we bookish bloggers (although I suspect I don’t have as many on my shelves as some do….!) Yet they come in all shapes, sizes and formats; and the contents and focus can vary so much, taking in everything to a person’s history of their reading life to more erudite analyses of why we read, that it could be argued that they really don’t constitute a genre of their own. Tim Park’s new collection of essays is a good case in point: the subtitle hints that there might be something a little more in depth than usual and that turned out to be the case.

Parks is known as a novelist, essayist and translator, and it’s in this latter guise that I’ve encountered him in the past; he’s been responsible for translating some of the works of my beloved Italo Calvino, but I’ve not read any of his fiction or non-fiction works. So when Will from the lovely Alma Books kindly offered a review copy of “Pen in Hand” I was intrigued and keen to give Parks a look. “Pen…” is a very dippable work, so I’ve been spending time with it over several weeks; and a very stimulating read it is too!

The pieces in the book have appeared online in the New York Review of Books Daily and the New York Times; having them collected in one volume makes perfect sense because each essay can be read separately, but there is a continuity between them and the cumulative effect is mentally exhilarating. Parks has divided his writings up into four sections, titled “How Could You Like That Book?”, “Reading and Writing”, “Malpractice” and “Gained and Lost in Translation”. Within the book’s pages is contained wide-ranging discussions of everything from visualising when reading through Dylan’s Nobel to whether too many books are being produced.This latter particularly resonated, as I’ve long wondered about the effect of modern publishing techniques; it’s so easy nowadays to produce a book in a word-processing program and press a button – voila, latest attempt at a bestseller. My late dad was a typesetter by trade, setting metal type by hand for many, many years until computers took over (and he retrained). If a book was going to be set by hand, it had to be considered worthwhile putting into print; I’d go along with the argument that a *lot* of stuff that appears nowadays isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

But I digress. Parks produces a wonderful essay on another modern blight, the constant distractions which beset us, called “Reading: The Struggle”; there is a thoughtful discussion of autofiction which I found particularly helpful when reading an excellent example of that kind of book recently; and he expressed concern about our current tendency to novelise our novelists, stating “We should read our great authors, not mythologize them.” He’s a drily witty writer, dropping in all sorts ot sentences which raise a chuckle while making a point: for example, “My mother used to warn me that God saw everything I did and even thought, so that one of the reliefs of losing faith was the recovery of a little privacy.”

An extensive section of essays on translation make up the final part of the book, and these were particularly timely and fascinating. Several cover the translation of Primo Levi’s writings, specifically in the Collected Works (three ginormous volumes I lugged back from a trip to London a while back). Parks is critical of some of the renderings (being a translator from Italian himself, of course) and gives examples with which it’s hard to argue (although his renderings are perhaps a little more literal than the versions he critiques). Translation is a difficult art, I guess, and Parks has the advantage of having lived in Italy for many years so that as well as being linguistically suited to translate, he also has the cultural background. However, despite his misgivings, I hope the power of Levi’s words will still come through to me in English as I make my way through the massive volumes.

“Pen in Hand” is certainly no light read, and that’s a good thing in my view. The essays are stimulating, sometimes controversial, entertaining and each set me thinking about any number of bookish and literature-related subjects. There were some real “Yes!” moments when he nailed some thought I’d been struggling to pin down, and although I didn’t always agree with Parks’ views, reading them was fascinating. To combine the scholarly and the entertaining in a way that’s always readable is a real achievement and if you want to read some invigorating and enjoyable essays on reading and its perils, I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Review copy kindly supplied by Alma Books, for which many thanks.

Simon at Stuck in a Book has also reviewed the book, and you can read his thoughts here.

“…language the source of itself…” #tompickard @mordentower50

8 Comments

Fiends Fell by Tom Pickard

As I mentioned in my previous post on Morden Tower and its poets, when I was searching the local library catalogue for Tom Pickard’s works, “Fiends Fell” was the only book available. I knew nothing about it, but I took a punt and reserved it so I could perhaps get a feel for Pickard’s work. It was possibly not what I was expecting, but that didn’t stop it being a very marvellous read.

Pickard has been publishing since the 1960s, but I sense he’s always moved outside the mainstream. That may be because of his personality, inclination or the fact that he doesn’t fit into any convenient niche. “Fiends Fell” is a recent work from 2017, published by Flood Editions, Chicago; and it’s a bracing mixture of genres. Although published so recently, the introductory lines place the events it charts in the early 2000s, as Pickard refers to himself as being 56 and with an ended marriage. So the poet escapes, taking refuge in a high stretch of the North Pennine hills; and the book charts a year of the time he spent living there.

night blows up fast from the valley
dykes dissolve in thick fog
I follow my feet home

Lodging above a cafe, and sometimes helping out there, Pickard considers his past, his future, nature and the elements, and of course poetry. Prose sections are interspersed with short bursts of poetry, and the writer struggles to work in an attic which physically rocks and rattles when assailed by the elements. Often earthy, he wrestles with his lusts and also more prosaic matters of money. As I mentioned in my previous post, Basil Bunting suffered impoverishment in later life, and as Pickard deals with his bankruptcy as pragmatically as he can, it really does seem that it’s impossible to make a living as a poet nowadays (if it ever was…)

When I put my head out of the attic window all I saw was stars and the wind wrapped itself around my neck like a cold silk scarf.

The blurb likens the book to the Japanese Haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku, and it’s a format which is so effective here. The record of extreme weather, loneliness, the artistic urge and the need to make poetry is balanced with actual verse, slowing the reading down and allowing time for contemplation. It’s a wonderfully rich narrative and underpinning it all is the challenge and drama of living in extreme conditions, on what feels like the edge of a precipice when nature may sweep you away at any time. The wind is a constant presence, almost a tangible being from a fairytale; Pickard’s trips outside during the winter months remind you how precarious our existence can be and how extreme weather conditions can destroy us without pause.

In bed and a pack of winds are arriving at the windows. They pass by. They gather. They whine painfully, begging in.

If there is a pin-thin gap they will take it. If there is a wormhole they will snake it. If there are eaves they will heave.

Pickard uses the book also to explore autobiography, albeit in a fragmentary fashion. From what I’ve read, his early life was lively to say the least. He left school at the age of 14 and if the memoir elements here are to be believed came from a complex family background. Pickard’s grandson visits and bonds with the poet, offering a glimpse of a family life. But the poet is left alone again to wrestle with himself and the elements, as well as the state of the world. As befits a working class Geordie, he has a suitably scathing view of Britain and its class system…

We’ll never be a grown-up nation until we’re a republic – meanwhile we kowtow, fawn and flounce in search of favour.

Hovering over the book is the shade of Pickard’s dear friend, Basil Bunting; obviously a pivotal figure in the former’s life, at one point he reflects “I found a teacher of another kind, in Bunting”. He also calls him his mentor, and it’s worth remembering that Pickard was only 17 when he married Connie and they founded Morden Tower so it’s obvious to infer that he regarded Bunting as a father figure. Poetry is better off because of their association, which not only spawned “Briggflatts”, but also apparently informed Pickard’s work.

The Pennines, via Wikimedia Commons – einklich.net [CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0%5D

But I digress. Pickard survives the winter, and indeed the year documented in what he calls the “Fiends Fell Journal”. The book ends with a lyrical poetry sequence, “Lark and Merlin”, which convinces me I want to read more of Pickard’s verse. Because it has to be said that his writing is powerful and beautiful, and evokes vividly the intensity of living in such an extreme landscape. What happened to Pickard after the end of the Journal section of the book I don’t know; but there is a rumour online that the poet is working on “Fiends Fell 2” and if that’s so, I for one can’t wait! 😀

*****

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did borrow “Fiends Fell” from the local library. The best plans, etc, etc…. I loved it so much I ended up sending off for a copy of my own, so at one point there were two Pickards in the house:

The library one has now gone back, and I feel no guilt. This is a book I know I’ll return to, so I definitely needed my own copy! 😀

The Wild North East – Morden Tower, Newcastle and its poetry #basilbunting #tompickard @bloodaxebooks @mordentower50

8 Comments

Once again, I have to blame that Andy Miller for his influence; bookish Twitter can play havoc with your reading plans and inclinations, and a random Tweet where Andy mentioned he was listening to “Briggflatts” by Basil Bunting sent me off exploring. I had never heard of Bunting and frankly I wanted to know why. Unfortunately, this curiosity opened a whole can of worms, as a quick look online revealed a fascinating history of an author, and also a strong connection with Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Morden Tower and its poetry scene. This was another oddity, as Allan Ginsberg famously read there in the 1960s, and I hadn’t heard of that either. I’ve been down the wormhole ever since, really…

Basil Cheesman Bunting (what a fabulous name) was really a one-off; a link to the modernist past of poetry. Born in Northumberland in 1900, he spent much of his early life living abroad. During the First World War he was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector; later he lived in Paris and worked with Ford Madox Ford and for Ezra Pound, who admired his work. Always peripatetic, he spent the interwar years moving between Italy, the USA and the Canary Isles with his first wife and family. During WW2, he enlisted in the RAF and ended up in what was then Persia as a translator, remaining there until 1952. After a divorce from his first wife, he remarried and moved back to Northumberland, somehow ending up working at the Newcastle Chronicle newpaper. It was back in Newcastle that he fell in with Tom Pickard, and things changed…

Morden Tower was a crumbling old building on part of the surviving old 13th century wall of Newcastle, apparently built to keep out the Scottish invaders (sorry chaps….) Connie and Tom Pickard initiated poetry readings in the Tower, starting on 16th June 1964 (Bloomsday!) Bunting was supportive of their venture, and the venue grew in popularity. In 1965 it hosted the first reading of “Briggflatts”, widely regarded as Bunting’s masterpiece. The venue never looked back, and it’s still there now (although I’m not sure how active) which is a bit marvellous! If you look at the list of poets who’ve read there – Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith, Robert Creeley, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti plus more recently Linton Kwesi Johnson and Carol Ann Duffy – well, it’s fairly mind-blowing!

Alas, Bunting’s story proves that you can’t make a living out of poetry, as he spent much of his later life in povery despite being hailed as one of Britain’s great late modernist poets. And Tom Pickard seems to have gone through some of the same struggles (as will be seen when I get on to considering his “Fiends Fell” in a later post). Connie Pickard apparently continued to organise events at the Tower for 50 years, long after parting from Tom, and eventually received an award for it – go, Connie!

Well – let’s get onto some bookish stuff… When I first read about all of this fascinating poetic history, I of course had to go off and checkout what books were availalble. “Briggflatts” was the obvious first point of call, and it was stocked by my local library. I borrowed it, and then decided I would never read it in time to get it back before accruing massive fines, so I bought my own copy. It’s an excellent, beautifully produced and reasonably priced edition from the wonderful Bloodaxe Books which also contains a CD of Bunting reading the poem and a DVD with a documentary on Bunting – bargain, basically!

I was also intrigued to find that Morden Tower had published one of Bunting’s poems themselves. I imagined it might cost a bomb but it didn’t so a rather old and fragile edition now resides chez Ramblings…

A bit more rooting about online revealed that Bloodaxe had also put out in 1990 an anthology celebrating 25 years of readings at the Tower, called “High on the Walls”. I haven’t been able to find a 50th anniversary collection, but the 25th anniversary one has arrived on my shelves, and it contains a remarkable array of contributions.

And finally, Tom Pickard. The local library only had one book of his in the catalogue (see how good I’m trying to be about buying books), and that is a more recent title, “Fiends Fell”. I borrowed it and I’ve read it and I loved it – so much so that I’m afraid I’ve actually bought my own copy… *sigh*. I’ll be reviewing this on the Ramblings soon, and maybe will tackle “Briggflatts” and the anthology over the summer.

So the Morden Tower/Newcastle poetry wormhole is proving to be fascinating. There’s quite a bit of stuff online and I shall put a few links at the end of this post for anyone who’s interested in exploring a little further. Meantime, I really must resist the temptation to jump on the next train to Newcastle to have a look at Morden Tower in the flesh!! 😀

*****

For further reading on Bunting, there’s a great post at the Chronicle Live website here:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/basil-buntings-poem-briggflatts-50-10636468

There’s also a piece on the 50th anniversary of the publishing of “Briggflatts”:

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/50th-anniversary-buntings-briggflatts-marked-11412530

The Morden Tower site:

http://www.mordentower.org/

You can read the original published text of Briggflatts as it appeared in Poetry Magazine, on the Poetry Foundation website:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/30206/briggflatts

 

 

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: