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An unimmaculate conception… @PushkinPress

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The Marquise of O- by Heinrich von Kleist
Translated by Nicholas Jacobs

What is in effect my last post of the month is on a book which is pretty much in complete contrast to the ones that have gone before it – and is not without plenty of provoking issues! I’ve focused on quite a number of women writers this month, to tie in with Women in Translation Month and All Virago/All August (as well as redressing the balance slightly in favour of those woman authors). However, a slim arrival from Pushkin Press sounded – well, unusual, so I decided to pick it up between weightier tomes and see what it was all about.

Author Heinrich von Kleist, who’s a new name to me, seems to have had something of a troubled life. His lifestyle was a bit peripatetic, he seemed unable to settle to any one occupation and wrote a number of works in differing genres with varying success before finally committing suicide in 1811. “The Marquise of O-” is descriped as a “dizzyling comic tale” and seems to be one of his most famous novellas. It’s a short work that certainly throws up any number of issues!

The book opens with the titular Marquise placing an advert in a newspaper; she finds herself unaccountably pregnant and wishes the father of the child to make himself known. Julietta is a widowed mother of impeccable character; and as the story takes us back over events to find out how this can have happened, we meet her parents, her brother and one Count F, all of whom get quite worked up about the situation… The Marquise encountered Count F when he saved her from a fate worse than death at the hands of a bunch of Russian soldiers, and she then passed out. The text then states “Then-” and we are left to fill in the gap. What follows is a frantic series of misunderstandings and errors, as her parents support her, then don’t support her, then do support her; her brother has a walk on part, popping in now and then to offer comment and advice; and the Marquise herself is aggrieved when her protestations of innocence are not believed. Count F spends much of his time throwing himself at her feet and begging for her hand in marriage – presumably as a way to assuage his guilty conscience. The prose reflects the manic action, and although eventually resolution is reached, it’s not without much breathless action along the way.

“The Marquise…” is therefore superficially an entertaining and indeed comic novella, a kind of comedy of manners and perhaps comment on the mores of the day. However, it has to be acknowledged that there *are* some quite disturbing undercurrents. It’s fairly obvious to anyone with half a brain that the Count basically raped the Marquise while she had passed out, and yet this is almost swept under the carpet (and even regarded by her parents as something of a relief when they find out she hasn’t actually chosen to have sex with someone). There’s a whole thing called ‘Forced Seduction’ (which is designed to make me angry) and this kind of reflects that; as the Count has done what he did, he thinks that by marrying the Marquise that makes things right. It doesn’t but I guess we’re dealing with attitudes of a couple of centuries ago so that has to be acknowledged. What’s equally disturbing is a sequence when the Marquise and her father have been reconciled and she’s portrayed as sitting on his lap and basically snogging him. Euuuuuh…..

So I’m frankly still thinking about this one! Apparently there can be multiple interpretations and the context of the wars going on at the time are relevant and symbolic. The Marquise is certainly a reasonably feisty character and gives the Count a very hard time when the truth outs. The blurb describes the story as “ambiguous” and I think it really is; I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it and I’ll continue to mull it over!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

“…the future’s uncertain and the end is always near…” @BL_Publishing #murieljaeger #sciencefictionclassics

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The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Ah, Utopias! I seem to have been circling, and repeatedly coming back to, the subject since first watching Richard Clay‘s “Utopia” series back in 2017. Then there’s the vexed subject of the loose Utopian reading list I set up for myself, which I haven’t actually got very near to approaching in recent months. However, a recent arrival from the lovely British Library, in the form of one of their Science Fiction Classics, has nudged me back closer again – as it’s a lost work that ties in with utopian/dystopian literature very significantly. It’s also a very thought-provoking read…

The book’s author, Muriel Jaeger, is an interesting subject herself. She attended Somerville College in the early 1910s, moving in a circle which included Dorothy L. Sayers and Winifred Holtby; Sayers, in particular, was a close friend. Jaeger went on to work for “Time and Tide” magazine, as well as writing her novels and scraping a precarious living; however, at the time, her novels were not particularly well received and she eventually abandoned writing. “The Question Mark” was originally published in 1926, and as the newly-reissued edition from the British Library (in their Science Fiction Classics series) reveals, it was put out by the Hogarth Press! The new edition reproduces a letter from Leonard Woolf to Jaeger about the publication of the book, as well as a striking portrait of the author; and the excellent introduction by Dr. Mo Moulton gives background on Jaeger’s life as well as putting her book in context.

“The Question Mark” takes a timely look at projections of the future, a popular subject in early science fiction, and draws on works like Wells’ “The Time Machine”. The main protagonist, a very ordinary and lowly clerk, one Guy Martin, is sent 200 years into the future. Martin is not a happy man; scraping a living, constantly short of money and struggling to make his way in the capitalist world, he finds the world of the future initially to be a blissfully comfortable and, yes, utopian one. Poverty has been wiped out; no-one wants for anything; and all manner of modern technologies provide for humanity’s every need. However, it isn’t long before Guy starts to see beneath the superficial reality of the future; because despite the comfort and convenience, something is missing. Complications come in the form of Ena, the daughter of the doctor treating Guy, who seems to be oddly immature despite her years and somewhat fixated on the visitor from the past. Guy begins to encounter humans who are not the rational, intelligent beings he first came across on his awakening; and he comes to realise that humanity seems to have replaced the capitalist class system with a new kind of system of its own…

“Do you mean that we might have had – all this,” Guy spread his hands in a wide gesture to the countryside, “if we had chosen?”

“Certainly, most of it, if you had set about getting rich collectively instead of individually.”

Jaeger’s book is an absolutely fascinating look at human behaviour and where it might go; and as I read on I sensed elements in it that were similar to another lost classic I read recently, Rose Macaulay’s “What Not“. The troubled subject of eugenics is bubbling under the surface of both narratives, and it becomes clear that instead of dividing humans into a complex strata of various classes, the future world is separated on simple lines between those deemed “intellectuals” and those deemed “normals”. The latter are portrayed as vapid and easily led; they’ll worship the latest sporting hero as easily as they will a preacher who claims to have a direct line to God. And the media feed on this, fuel the hysteria created and are a damaging influence on the whole of society (sounds familiar, that…) Once Guy realises this, he’s shocked and repelled by the world in which he finds himself; and in fact both classes seem to struggle to find a purpose in life, as all need for work and striving has actually gone. Our hero even starts to miss the past, despite the depression and alienation he felt; but as the story reveals, he may have no choice about where he lives and the book *does* end on a slightly ambiguous note.

I found “The Question Mark” absolutely compelling from start to finish. Jaeger writes really well, capturing brilliantly the depths of despair Martin sinks into before his journey to future; and painting equally well her portrait of a future world which is gradually revealed to both Guy and the reader. There are so many interesting issues here; whether human beings will always divide into types; whether we need work and a purpose to feel any worth in our lives; whether the influence of the media really *should* be dramatically curtailed; and so on. It raises difficult questions about collective responsibility and state control: at one point, Guy encounters a situation where he discovers that women can choose to be part of a harem and live in a situation where a man has multiple wives. Should humanity intervene or allow the women their choice? That’s another topic which has very modern resonances… Again, it needs to be remembered that Jaeger was publishing before “Brave New World” was written and as the introduction makes clear, took the utopian writing of Wells and his ilk which had gone before and gave it a twist. Her hero is given no easy answers, especially when faced by the response from one particular resident of the future. Ena, the product of a marriage of an “intellectual” and a “normal”, and who is classed as the latter, is portrayed as wanting to step outside that limited definition and she sees the possibility of more. The “normal” characters are motivated pretty much by romance, sex and violence; yet Ena touchingly perceives a world where she and Guy could be just ‘pals’, and that’s a heartbreaking element of the story.

Oh, what have you done with the world? What have you done with it? You have everything we ever wanted and everything to make you happy. I thought when I first came that all the nightmare was over. I thought you were all happy at last; and you are miserable – worse than miserable – so damn doubly hopeless that you clutch at every straw.

Underlying so much of the narrative are the many failed opportunities of humanity (another theme which resonates…) Guy comes to recognise that the inequalities are just the same as in his time, and that the intellectuals are detached and uncaring, leaving their fellow humans to get on with it in their overexcited and hysterical lives. The authorities will step in when there’s been a violent murder or such, and a visit to the location where euthanasia takes place is chilling in its matter-of-factness…

Jaeger’s portrait in the book

So “The Question Mark” turned out to be such an absorbing and interesting (and enjoyable!) read. It raises all manner of issues which are still sitting in my brain while I muse on them. In her own foreword, Jaeger takes issue with the utopias that have come before her – she accepts the worlds that have been created but she finds herself unable to accept that the inhabitants are realistic enough. As she says “At this point my effort to realise Utopia fails. With the best will in the world, I have found myself quite unable to believe in these wise, virtuous, gentle, artistic people. They do not seem to have any relation to humanity as I know it – even by the most distant descent; they suggest, rather, Special Creation.” Jaeger’s people are instantly recognisable to us, and I guess at the heart of subtext of the book is nature vs nurture: are we born a particular way or can we learn? It’s a subject that’s still debated (a recent example might be “Educating Rita”); and possibly always will be – because I don’t think there are any easy answers when it comes to humanity! Anyway; I think Leonard Woolf was right when he took a risk on “The Question Mark” – I found it a brilliant and thought-provoking book, another winner from the British Library and definitely most unjustly neglected!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! 😀

“….we have to live and not dream about anything.” @PushkinPress @Bryan_S_K #WITMonth @ReadWIT @Biblibio

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Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva
Translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg

… and as we limp towards the end of the summer and #WITMonth (well, at least I do!), I have read the final book I planned to for this month – which is actually something of an achievement. Go, me! 😀 The book is “Isolde” by Irina Odoevtseva, and it was recently published by the lovely Pushkin Press (who seem to be specialising in translations of Russian emigre writers – more of which later…) I’ve encountered the author before, as pieces by she and her husband, poet Georgy ivanov, were featured in “Russian Emigre Short Stories”, masterminded by translator Bryan Karetnyk. Her story “The Life of Madame Duclos” was one I found to be particularly memorable, and so I was very keen to read her novel – which has very shockingly never been translated into English before.

“Isolde” was published in 1929 and is set in the France of the 1920s. The book opens in Biarritz where fourteen year old Russian exile Liza is staying with her brother Nikolai and mother Natalia Vladimirovna. However, it’s clear from the start that this is something of a disfunctional family; the father was killed in the Revolution, and mother Natasha is in pursuit of lovers and money (no doubt the only practical way for her to survive in exile). She refuses to publicly acknowledge that she’s the children’s mother, instead pretending they’re cousins; and while she follows her own inclinations, Liza and Nikolai are very much left to their own devices, with devastating results… On the beach, Liza encounters the slightly older English boy, Cromwell; the latter is dazzled by Liza, christening her Isolde, and pursuing her. As he has money and a car, the neglected siblings are happy to hang around with him (even though Liza claims to be in love with a fellow Russian, Andrei, who’s back in Paris); and the three have a fine time with restaurants, jazz bars and plenty of champagne. And back in Paris the three Russians continue to sponge off Cromwell, until his mother cuts off the funding. At the same time, the distant and disinterested Natasha takes off, leaving her children with little money and no support; and dark forces begin to tempt the Russians towards dramatic acts, exacerbated by drink and lack of cash. The consequences are explosive…

Co-translator Bryan Karetnyk provides an excellent introduction which puts “Isolde” firmly into context, and it’s not hard to understand how controversial it was when it was issued. As he points out, it inhabits the same milieu as Coctea’s “Les Enfants Terribles” (which I love), a book that was published the same year and which features another pair of isolated siblings. Underlying both stories is the stress of adolescence and the effects of the changes the characters are going through; what perhaps makes “Isolde” stand apart is its frank acknowledgement of the burgeoning sexuality of Liza in particular. I can’t help thinking there’s a tendency nowadays to forget that teenagers are beset by all sorts of new desires and needs that they don’t quite understand and which they don’t know how to deal with; cotton wooling them isn’t going to help… Odoevtseva captures the undercurrents brilliantly in her portraits of the youngsters, driven by forces they can’t really control and without anyone there to guide them. And that is I think one of the most important points in the book; these are teenagers, in effect abandoned and left without guardians or help, and exiled from their country of birth. They’re susceptible to all sorts of influences, which at one point allows what is perhaps a little dig at Dostoevsky and his effect on young and impressionable minds. The young people have no moral compass and what happens to them, the actions they take, are tragic but inevitable.

Liza went through to her room and sat down on the light blue divan. Outside, wet auburn leaves spun silently down – like wet dead butterflies. The trees’ thin, dark branches quivered pitifully. Rain hit the windows at an angle and ran down the panes in thin streams. The wet, shiny glass made this familiar scene appear strange – cruel and hopeless.

It’s particularly clear from Odoevtseva’s wonderful writing that Liza suffers dreadfully from the lack of maternal love, and there are passages of genuine anguish where she shows how the girl has been damaged by the indifference of her mother-who-would-be-her-cousin. The unsettled state she finds herself in, the lack of a sense of belonging, and her failure to grasp what’s going on around her, lead her to build up the idea of Russia and returning there in her mind in very naive ways which allows her to be persuaded into foolish actions. Her youth and vulnerability are made clear at several points; she is in danger of becoming prey of men like her mother’s lover Boris, or Cromwell’s older cousin. However, in the end her naivety is exploited in a different way bringing tragedy to all. The end of the book is heartbreaking, and it reminds you that these are in the end just children who have been set adrift and lost.

Irina Odoevtseva – via Wikimedia Commons

“Isolde” is a marvellous and moving read, and a wonderful addition to the range of new emigre translations Pushkin have been bringing out. The blurb for the book describes it as a portrait of “a lost generation of Russian exiles”; it certainly does seem that there is a whole range of authors who wrote whilst banished from their country of birth and whose work has been lost since. I have to applaud the translators, and particularly Bryan Karetnyk who seems to be on a one man crusade to bring us the cream of Russian emigre literature – well done that man! 😀 I have to confess to ending my read of “Isolde” very emotionally affected by the story, and I hope more of Odoevtseva’s works make it into English!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! Kudos to both translators for their work on the book; I’ve mentioned Bryan Karetnyk’s contributions above, but want to acknowledge too Irina Steinberg, who also co-translated two wonderful Teffi volumes from Pushkin Press! 😀

Melodrama on’t moors….. #AllViragoAllAugust #VitaSackvilleWest

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The Death of Noble Godavary by Vita Sackville-West

As is fairly obvious by my reactions here on the Ramblings and also on social media, I had a bit of a book hangover after finishing Victor Serge’s Notebooks. A big, immersive read like that always tends to have that effect, and it’s often so hard to decide what to read next. So I did my usual trick of flinging myself into the nearest book with wild abandon, and as it was one that I had actually *planned* (gasp!) to read this month that was a kind of bonus…

I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings that I’m a member of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; they’re a lovely bunch of people and we discuss Virago (and similar reads) as well as having themed reads, occasional meet ups and even a wonderful Virago Secret Santa. Every August is designated All Virago/All August to try and get us all reading the Viragos (and Persephones and other similar books like the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint) which we have lurking on our shelves. I never restrict myself to only Viragos, as I’d just rebel – and there is of course competition from #WITMonth – but I do try to squeeze in at least one book, and the plan was this slim volume which Simon at Stuck in a Book highlighted during his 25 Books in 25 Days marathon. It sounded marvellous, and as he mentioned it in conjunction with Vita’s “The Heir” (which I absolutely loved), I had of course to procure a copy… Hey, I’ve got round to reading it fairly quickly, haven’t I? 😀

But to get to the book. At just over 100 pages, “Death…” is really a novella and it tells a dramatic and often dark tale of family inheritance. Our narrator is Gervase Godavary, and as the book opens he’s just learned of the death of his uncle Noble. He is therefore, by necessity, called back to the family home up north (The Grange), and it’s a place which inspires mixed emotions. Whereas “The Heir” told a tale of a man seduced by a house, Gervase (and the rest of the family) seem to be repelled by their home. It’s painted in dark tones, with damp, fog and dramatic moorland weather as the backdrop, and there is a kind of creeping feeling of – well, not exactly dread, but the place certainly seems to have a hold on the family that stays with them even when, like Gervase, they move away.

The Godavary family are a complex brood themselves, and the addition of Noble’s second wife (a volatile Italian women) and their daughter Paola, adds to the drama. In fact, the latter’s characterisation dominates much of the narrative, as does she the family; one member is utterly besotted with her, and even Gervase (who is not) acknowledges her power. There are all kinds of family tensions, the reading of the will and some final dramatic action which, as Simon says, is extremely memorable! I shan’t say more about the plot for fear of spoilers, but it certainly is a compelling read with some stunning imagery.

Nobody spoke; the dalesman trod with their deliberate gait, better accustomed to a slope than to the level; the dogs with lowered noses followed mournfully to heel, each to each; man, dog; man, dog; man, dog. The dogs were like little hyphens, separating the men.

“The Death of Noble Godavary” seems to have languished in obscurity, which is a great shame because it contains some marvellous and atmospheric writing. It’s not without its flaws (as Simon says, the family relationships are a bit unclear at time) and in fact could probably have done with being expanded into something a bit longer and more fleshed out. But despite this it really is a great read – full of almost Gothic drama and oozing tension, I found myself glued to it and finshing it in one setting!

Later in the day the coffin was brought, and we could hear the men upstairs, nailing. Paola alone remained detached and serene; such things seemed to have no power to touch her. The others were taken up with their own preoccupations; Austen and Rachel with the devouring secret of their liaison, Michael with his hungry and tormented pursuit of Paola, Stephen with a general nervousness and a desire not to get in the way. And throughout it all beat the hammers nailing down the coffin.

I’m not enough of an expert on Vita’s writing to know how many shorter works she wrote and what are available or out of print; however, as this one has been unavailable for absolutely decades, a good case could be made for collecting her novellas (and any short stories?) into one volume. “The Death of Noble Godavary” ends on a slightly ambiguous note and I would have loved to see her taking the aftermath of the action a little further. But it’s an affecting story which ramps up the tension throughout and is thoroughly enjoyable. It also reminded me how good Sackville-West’s writing was and how I need to read more of her books (goodness knows, I own enough…)

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My edition of “Death…” was published in 1932 as an Ernest Benn Ninepenny Novel (what fun!), but as Vita is a Virago author I’m allowed to count her for this month! And I’m very glad I chose to read this one, as it was such a vivid and wonderful experience – thanks for bringing it to my notice, Simon! 😀

“An eternal vagabond of life and the idea” #victorserge @nyrbclassics

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Notebooks 1936-1947 by Victor Serge
Translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman

As I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings (and on any kind of social media I happen to be near!), I’ve been rather absorbed in the Notebooks of Victor Serge over the past couple of weeks. The very wonderful NYRB Classics seem to fly the flag for him; several of his novels and his “Memoirs of Revolutionary” are available in their imprint (and I’ve read most of them…) However, this volume really is something special, and I’ll share some thoughts on it below – though I fear these will not really do the book justice. I’m sorry – this is going to be a long post!

The Notebooks

Serge’s real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich and he was born in Brussels to Russian parents. His life was a peripatetic one, moving from place to place – France, Spain, Russia to join the Bolsheviks, prison, exile and eventually emigration. He finally went into exile in Mexico during the Second World War, and died there in 1947. Described as an anarchist, Bolshevik and Left Oppositionist, it seems to me that he was concerned overall with justice, equality and freedom; but more than anything else he was an exceptionally gifted author and a witness to his times.

All we know of ourselves is a kind of waking dream, finely worked by the will, enlightened by consciousness – but a dream all the same.

The diaries cover the period from 1936-1947, and this is in fact a landmark publication which gathers material from a number of sources. Serge’s notebooks have only partially been published in the past, and the note on the text sets out the various sources from which this material has been brought together to give the most complete edition, and the first one to be rendered in this form in English. Again, bouquets and kudos to NYRB for bringing this volume to us; because it’s an absolutely incredible and absorbing read.

The Notebooks on their travels, already a bit festooned…

The notebooks open in 1936 with Serge in Paris treating us to his thoughts on Andre Gide. The entries between 1936 and 1940 form a chapter on their own as they’re more fragmentary, but after that each year has a section of its own until Serge’s death. The years in transit and then exile perhaps afforded more opportunity for writing, and certainly the Mexico days saw Serge taking stock of the past, noting and commenting on world events, theorising about the future, and recording, vividly, his impressions of the world around him. So Serge fills his notebooks with all manner of things: impressions of those he knows or encounters, thoughts on his beliefs and what may come of socialism and indeed the world; drafts of letters to friends and colleagues; meditations on the history of the Revolution and the fate of Trotsky; his own emotions and his longing for his partner Laurette; and beautiful prose which relates his travels in exile and records the natural world around him (for which he obviously has a profound affection). It’s a heady and wonderful mix, and a privileged glimpse into the unique mind of a great revolutionary and writer.

At that time I decided, given the growing reaction, to dedicate myself to history and literature, novels, to work at defending and ripening, my ideas. Duty of a witness, conclusion that intellectual activity remained the only one possible.

Serge’s life was not an easy one; persecuted for much of it because of his beliefs and his refusal to toe the party line, things became particularly difficult in exile as he was constantly under attack for his association with Trotsky (even though he disagreed with the latter’s outlook towards the end of his life). He was under constant threat of assassination, and indeed there are still theories around that his death from a heart attack in a Mexico taxi was in fact murder. However, the notebooks reveal that his health was suffering a little and he records consulting a doctor, shortness of breath etc, which tends to lend support to a natural death.

One thing that’s stunning is the sheer variety of subjects upon which Serge touches in his narrative; from political philosophy through memoir and personal recollection to quite beautiful passages of description. And what’s quite incredible is the range of players you encounter in these pages – from Trotsky to Leonora Carrington to Andre Breton to Blaise Cendrars to Levi-Strauss, Serge knew an incredible array of people and his pen portraits are vibrant and memorable; you do find yourself wondering if there was anyone Serge didn’t know, and I didn’t quite expect to meet so many names I already knew within these pages. He seems generally clear-sighted about those he comes into contact with, and is quite critical of some; Anna Seghers does not get off lightly for aligning herself with the Stalinist regime, and he considers Diego Rivera to be very fluid in his choices of who to follow… Breton reappears at several points in the narrative; it seems that he and Serge were quite friends, although there is falling out but eventual much more understanding on Serge’s part of the man that Breton was.

One sees, one lives intensely, but not everything, for the poem changes from moment to moment, and it is so immense that it can’t all be taken in.

However, there are some extremely poignant pieces: Serge mourns the suicides of Walter Benjamin and Stefan Zweig in particular, penning a desperately moving piece on the latter. He also writes most touchingly about Mandelstam, a fragile man with nevertheless enough courage to write poetry against Stalin. Chagall makes an appearance, which has a lovely synchronicity with the fact that I picked up the latter’s “My Life” whilst reading Serge. Inevitably, there are times when the book reads somewhat like a litany of deaths, becoming a kind of memorial as Serge sees and records so many of his contemporaries fall by the wayside, either by natural causes, suicide or by assassination.

Public Domain – Via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, he had no illusions about the forces that were ranged against him, and he offers a pithy analysis of Trotsky, Hitler and Stalin. His discourse about the horrors of the Nazi regime and the mentality of those who take part in atrocities seemed very astute to me; and his discussion of, and awareness of, concentration camps in more than one nation is somewhat ahead of his time. It’s worth remembering that Serge was in a very difficult position; he had spoken (and continued to speak) out in opposition to Stalin’s terror, and this was at a time when Russia was an ally against Germany. Therefore, he was under constant threat from all sides for continuing to say what he saw as the truth. He was probably also feared as a survivor of the Russian Revolution, uniquely placed to record the many historical events he’d lived through; of particular interest were his memoirs of his times working with Trotsky, as well as the sadness of his encounters with the latter’s widow after the assassination.

All my Serges (I have one e-book but must get a tree version…)

The Notebooks are a wonderful mix of the personal and the political, then. The sections recording his journey into exile via Marseilles, then by circuitous route by boat eventually to Mexico, are particularly powerful. As they passed the various countries on their way, Serge recorded his impressions of the landscapes in vivid and evocative prose.

The coast is low and mountainous, gullied in all directions by the rains, in places well cultivated. Reddish rocks and green slopes, sandy banks to the sea, the backdrop rounded like the backs of beasts. The land is violet and blue in the morning mist. Around noon it’s illuminated, even though the sky is cloudy, and it gathers together a mass of pink, rust, ochre, dark green, light green tones, somber touches of distant rocks, all of it full of life, almost carnal, sculpted by the waters. One can see that the Earth is alive. It’s astonishing that men haven’t sufficiently realized this obvious fact and constructed a religion out of it.

However, his thoughts are often on ethical matters, and as the ship passes by Oran, in Algeria, the setting for Camus’ “The Plague”, this is the first of many occasions when Serge reflects upon the horror and stupidity of racism. Serge is accompanied by his son Vlady, having had to leave his partner Laurette and daughter Jeannine in France. There is such power and poignancy in the writing of these sections that they’ve kind of burnt themselves into my brain. It was some time until his partner and daughter were able to join them in Mexico, when Serge was able to take joy and comfort from having his family on hand, and the notebooks reflect this in places.

I refuse to think about how far away it is, because you are near, you are coming, and I must, I want, to be able to feel you close in your absence, and all our memories must be present in the separation in order to enrich and find our strength. Our memories are us. You are every bit as real to me as everything I see, as everything I touch, I want to be yours at every moment. We are moving towards each other, united by our momentum and our communion. I am in you. You are in me.

The travel writing is quite stunning in places; Serge was always a great writer and he brought his talents to capturing the landscape around him:

More than two hundred kilometers by road, towards the Pacific, across a vast landscape of mountains under a hot sun. This volcanic earth, violently convulsed, constantly opens onto new horizons of sharp-edged ridges against mild, lustrous skies. The rocks here shattered in all directions in the era of geological revolutions. Aridity, little cultivation, the impression of a land without people, given over to plants armed with prickly thorns, splendid magueys with enormous, drooping, vase shaped leaves, organos rising straight up to a height of five meters or more, terrifying perpendicular cactus bushes of so intense a green that they seem almost black. There are areas of stony desert with silver tones. Near Taxco a semicircular hole in the wall of mountains cuts the horizon.

He seems to have moved frequently around Mexico, and there were some wonderful passages in particular about his visits to active volcanoes:

We are all squatting outside on a mat facing a crater that breathes, sings, and exhales subterranean fire. It’s cold out. The purple flames are rising without letup and falling in a rain of incandescent stones that we can see streaming to the bottom of the crater, hundreds of metres off. When the volcano catches its breath, its outline dulls, then blackens. We followed the rising of the meteors and their fall. Some of them reach as far as the green stars and float among them for a long moment. The Milky Way falls on the volcano so that it seems to have two infinite extensions: the dark, heavy, threatening extension of its clouds and the aerial, glacial, softly luminous one of the Milky Way. In contrast with the terrestrial blaze, the stars are a shimmering steel blue tending towards green. We hear the hissing descent of the lava to our right. And we see red slides flaming down the crevices of the hills.

So much of what he said rang true, so many of his descriptions took my breath away, that I ended up with a book positively festooned with a forest of post-it notes. Serge seems always so clear-sighted about the world around him, and was a great (and often prescient) thinker – this particular comment struck home at the moment:

This is the time of falsified – that is, betrayed – values. Anyone even slightly well informed has the sensation of breathing lies of such low quality that they don’t even contain the involuntary homage to truth proper to useful and, in a way, decent, lies, which only aim at misleading moderately.

I was struck too by a scary dream Serge had in 1943 which almost seemed to foresee the atomic bomb… There are also some wonderful thoughts and reflections on literature and writing; on specific authors in places, and also on the eternal problem faced by Russian writers of his time which Serge recognises in himself. Because of the hostility from all sides, Serge found it almost impossible to publish anything (and therefore to make any kind of living) and was stuck with a situation familiar to any reader of Russian literature from the Soviet period:

To write only for the desk drawer, past age fifty, facing unknown future, not to mention the hypothesis that the tyrannies will last longer than I have left to live, what would be the result?

And one of the things which makes the Notebooks such a wonderful reading experience is that the writer in Serge is always to the fore – his prose is excellent.

The final reckoning – all those post-its!!!

Well, I could go on and on, but this post is long enough as it is and I’ve really only scratched the surface. As I mentioned, towards the end of the book the entries thin out until late in 1957 they just stop… I must admit I found myself a bit emotional at this point, having immersed myself in Serge and his world for nearly two weeks. It felt kind of like losing a personal friend… 😦 I’ve had something of an obsession with Serge since first reading his fiction; reading the Notebooks has only made that much worse. Make no mistake, this is a big book and a commitment to read. At just under 600 pages (and NYRB do pack a lot onto each page!) it’s a work that you need to submerge yourself in, but it’s brimming with riches and the rewards are immense. Notebooks is a groundbreaking, vital and important work which stands, perhaps, as Victor Serge’s final testament and commentary on the times he lived through; it really is a magnificent book which I can’t recommend highly enough.

*****

A special vote of thanks needs to go to the translators for their work on the Notebooks. Both Abidor and Greeman have worked on Serge’s books before (Abidor editing and translating an anthology of Serge’s Anarchist writings; and Greeman having translated and written introductions for five of Serge’s novels). So both are well-placed to work on the Notebooks. The supporting notes appear usefully at the bottom of each page and were at just the right level for me (as I know a reasonable amount about the history and the period!); and there was an extremely helpful – nay, essential! – glossary of names at the end of the book. Inevitably, there are a *lot* of people mentioned in the book and the glossary gives a little info if you’re not sure who they are. An exemplary edition, and an essential read. Marvellous!

Reflections in a camera lens @FitzcarraldoEds #vivianmaier #WITMonth @ReadWIT @Biblibio

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Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett

Well, at last I get to my first book for Woman in Translation month, and in fact the third book by a woman I’ve read in a row – yay! “Vivian” is a recent release from the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the author Christina Hesselholdt is a new name to me although she’s an illustrious and prolific Danish author who’s produced many books and won a number of prizes. This is only her second novel to be translated into English, and I really hope more follow, because on the strength of this she’s definitely an author I want to read!

Bearing in mind that my last read was a novel about a neglected female architect, it’s interesting that I should have chosen to follow it with what’s described as a piece of documentary fiction, the subject of whom was also neglected during her lifetime – the photographer Vivian Maier. Vivian spent most of her life in obscurity, living a seemingly ordinary life as a nanny; however, over a period of around forty years, she constantly photographed street scenes, mostly around Chicago. The bulk of her photographs lay undeveloped for decades; she was an inveterate hoarder, of her negatives, tape recordings, and mounds of newspapers; and it wasn’t until two years before her death, when she was no longer able to pay for storage, that these were sold off and she began to be discovered.

Facts about Maier’s life are sketchy; her parents were French and Austrian immigrants and Maier was born in New York, though she seems to have spent portions of her younger years being shuttled backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. After working for a while in a sweatshop, she took up nannying – presumably this gave her a certain amount of freedom and the ability to pursue her hobby. Maier died in 2009 after a fall; in recent years her work has become known worldwide and her reputation soared. But we still actually know little about what motivated Vivian to live the way she did and take her photographs.

This absence, this lack of detail, allows Hesselholdt space to play with her subject’s story; and while she sticks closely to the facts that are known (as far as I can see from Maier’s Wikipedia page), she expands Vivian’s life to speculate on the reasons for her secrecy, what kind of existence she might have had, and why she chose a single path through life. What’s particularly exciting is the way that Hesselholdt chooses to do this; instead of a simple, chronological narrative, we instead are greeted with a polyphonic structure where the characters relate their story directly to the reader, corralled into order (or not…) by an unnamed narrator who has plenty of views of their own!

Viv
How much of the person behind the camera can be seen in the works? Is one hidden behind them or on the contrary do they unveil you? I think they do. The narrator is the real main character.

Narrator
I can only agree with you.

I knew I was going to love this book from the very first page, with its post-modern structure and not-at-all objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself; her mother, Maria; the parents and children in the various families Maier nannies for (though the narrator does reveal to us at one point that the families and children are a kind of composite construction); phtographer Jeanne Bertrand who lived with the Maier family for some time; other members of the Maier family; and so on. Unlike, say, Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, each speaker is clearly labelled so there is never any doubt who’s telling their tale, and the story Hesselholdt weaves for Vivian is a fascinating and often dramatic one. The Maier family is a mightily dysfunctional one, with alcoholism, indifelity, child abuse and madness lurking in the shadows. With autofiction (again!) of course, the reader can never be quite sure how much is real or not – and I have no way of knowing if the Maier family were really that awful – but Hesselholdt creates a compelling narrative and a credible background which would explain why someone like Vivian would choose such a singular path through life and remain in effect so isolated.

The story Hesselholdt tells is absolutely fascinating, and although in some ways seeks to explore and explain Maier, it in fact allows her to remain as mysterious and enigmatic as she was; let’s face it, we humans love a puzzle. It also looks quite deeply at photography as an art and what it captures and tells us about ourselves. The narrator quotes from Montaigne via Gide, reminding us that “every human carries within them the human condition”. The point being made is that we can recognise humans as humans even in images from the past. However, the narrator is not entirely convinced by this, as the static nature of a picture cannot reflect the whole human condition in the way the elasticity of writing can; the narrator is biased towards their own art form.

As you might guess, one of the book’s major strengths is its writing and construction; Hessleholdt allows plenty of humour to creep in, playfully at one point having the narrator and Vivian enter into a snarky dialogue which is breathtaking and funny. There are some newspaper clippings reproduced, which of course reflect Maier’s own obsessive newspaper collecting and filleting; and occasional quotations scattered through the narrative. Hesselholdt also creates a mystery of her own in the form of that narrator; initially taking something of a back seat in the book, as the story continues, the narrator reveals more about themself and I was left wondering whether this was meant to be a representation of Hessenholdt herself, or another layer between reader and author and story, or indeed the author’s comment on the act of writing and narrating. Certainly, her narrator has plenty of their own opinions, even commenting at one point on the autofiction element of the book:

I’m really not fond of documentaries with dramatised scenes, i.e. a fact is related and some actors subsequently perform a scene that illustrates what the narrator has just related. In dark moments I think that I may have strayed into this horrible genre.

It’s all very clever and entertaining, as well as being exceptionally readable and surprisingly gripping. Do you know Maier by the end of it? Probably not, because nobody really knew her (and you could argue that nobody really knows *anybody*); but I was certainly fascinated by the woman and her life, and I may end up down another wormhole.

Vivian Maier self-portrait 1953 – via Wikimedia Commons: Latasa Undagoitia [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Many of Maier’s images are self-portraits, often taken in shop windows or any reflective surface she could find; they show an ordinary-looking woman with a camera slung around her neck, usually staring unsmilingly at her image. She mostly seemed to get away with snapping her pictures because she was in some way invisible (as women often can be if they aren’t the obvious young glamorous attention seekers – particularly as they get older). Her selfies are somehow very moving, capturing and pinning her in time and in the act of plying her trade, completely in control of herself and her image and what she does. There are resonances here with the Sylvia Weil book “Selfies” I reviewed recently, and I understand why Weil chose to discuss an image of Maier’s and feature it on the book cover. Maybe these photographs were her way of stamping her identity on the world, of saying “Remember – I was here”, of not wanting to pass through life without leaving a mark.

I’ve expressed slight reservations about autofiction in the past, but I’ve really had my prejudices challenged with recent reads. “Vivian” in particular, with its clever structure, wonderful writing, playful yet thought-provoking narrative, and all-round fascinating story, is a real winner. It’s such a deep, complex and provocative book that I could say a lot more about it, but this post is already long enough! I’m relatively new to Fitzcarraldo Editions (late to the party again!); but I’ve found every book of theirs I’ve read to be a real winner and “Vivian” is no exception. It’s a wonderful read, highly recommended, and most definitely a book which will feature in my end-of-year best-of!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“There is courage in concrete” #minnettedesilva #lecorbusier #plasticemotions @influxpress @kitcaless @blimundaseyes

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Plastic emotions by Shiromi Pinto

As I mentioned in my August reading plans post, one of the things I’m aiming to redress this month is my lack of reading works by women authors recently. This particular book not only helps with that aim, but is also about a pioneering female architect, of whom I’d never heard. In fact, her talents do seem to have been a little unappreciated generally, despite the fact that her work was groundbreaking, so I’m probably not alone. I always like a new discovery, whether it’s a book or a publisher or a hidden talent – and so I was very pleased that Influx Press chose to send me a review copy of “Plastic Emotions” – thank you! 😀

The architect in question is Minnette de Silva; born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), she trained in Bombay and then London. One of the guiding influences of her life was her encounters with the famous modernist Le Corbusier; and “Plastic Emotions” charts her life against the background of their affair and her efforts to take new architectural principles back to her newly-liberated country. The format is intriguing – the narrative proper opens with letters between de Silva and Le Corbusier, in the immediate post-War period, when their affair has been in full swing but de Silva is reaching a turning point in her life. As a female, she’s dependent on her family and is drawn back to Ceylon, where she starts to try to carve out a name for herself in the architectural world. Repeatedly, de Silva has to fight the prejudices in her country, not only because she’s a woman, but also because of the fact that her architectural ideas are adventurous and out of keeping with the more traditional views of her countryfolk. Again and again she comes up against resistance, with her submissions being turned down, as well as professional betrayal. This strand of the story is counterbalanced by a narrative focused on The Architect and his life, as well as the aftermath of their various encounters. There are letters between the two; they move through all manner of glamorous worlds and maintain their attachment despite the distances between them. At the end of their journey, the book returns to letters; and the relationship is only severed by the inevitable death of Le Corbusier.

This, in itself, makes for a fascinating story; but an extra element is always present in the background of the story, as the protagonists live through the changes going on in the world. In the early parts of the book, this is the post-WW2 landscape, but as the narrative continues Ceylon goes through turbulent political changes, which de Silva survives by becoming something of a recluse. Le Corbusier struggles with ageing, as well as also fighting to get his own architectural vision accepted. He’s actually not painted as a particularly pleasant person; motivated selfishly by his own needs, having numerous affairs while still living with his wife, his reaction to the latter’s death is typically self-pitying. It’s a complex and gripping story; Pinto writes lyrically and beautifully, bringing the settings to life vividly, and the book is an entrancing read.

Pablo Picasso, Minnette de Silva, Jo Davidson and Mulk Raj Anand at the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace. PAP [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

It does have to be said that with “Plastic Emotions” we are in the realms of autofiction again, and this *can* cause the odd knotty problem. I know little about Le Corbusier and knew even less about de Silva; however, author Shiromi Pinto (an interesting woman in her own right) makes it clear in her afterword that she played fast and loose with the facts – took liberties, as she puts it. That’s not a problem as such, as this is clearly a work of fiction, and an excellent one at that. But I confess I did wonder why there had to be an affair between the two architects? I’ve not read enough to know if there actually was; and nothing I could see online indicates that they were any more than friends. I perhaps would have liked to see Minnette forging her life on her own terms *without* everything she did being informed by that affair, standing as a creative person in her own right and out of the shadows of the more famous participant in this story. Certainly it seems from the novel that she was driven to create an architectural style which combined the modernist techniques she loved with the heritage of her country; and that is a much more human way to develop a model for living than that of Le Corbusier, whose designs may have looked marvellous on paper but were probably not that much fun to live in…

But that’s a minor quibble, in the end. “Plastic Emotions” is an atmospheric, involving and compelling story which focuses on the life of a pioneering woman making her way in what was considered as a man’s field, and succeeding. That her work has been neglected is criminal and the fact she’s only just beginning to be appreciated is shocking; I can only hope that Pinto’s wonderful novel has the effect of making more people seek out the real-life story and the work of the woman that inspired it!

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