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It begins and ends with a letter… #gogol #thegovernmentinspector @almaclassics

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The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol
Translated by Roger Cockrell

When I was pondering on the wonderful books I’d read for the 1930 Club recently, I commented that the blog was suffering from a bit of RRD (Russian Reading Deficiency). Luckily it’s a condition which is easily treated, particularly when you have as many Russian books lurking in the stacks as I do! However, a recent arrival at the Ramblings, in the form of a sparkling new translation of Gogol’s play “The Government Inspector”, turned out to be the perfect cure… 😀

This lovely new copy is from Alma Classics, who also publish editions of his great novel “Dead Souls” and two lovely volumes which feature some of his shorter works. “The Government Inspector” is a comic work (as is so much of Gogol’s work) and holds an important place in the history of Russian drama. It’s been newly translated by Roger Cockrell (who rendered so beautifully their edition of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, which I reviewed here); and it certainly was a joy to read.

The play is set in a small provincial town, and opens with the local officials in uproar; a corrupt collection of Mayor, Judge, Inspector of Schools, Charities Commissioner, and so on. The Postmaster has intercepted a letter, warning that a Government Inspector is going to make a visit to the town, incognito, to check up on the officials; and as the town is filthy and neglected, dependent on bribery and generally chaotic, all hell is set to let loose. The uproar gets worse when it’s discovered that a man from St. Petersburg has been lodging at the local inn, one Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov. It’s instantly made clear to the audience that he’s a charlatan, out to blag what he can from the locals and then move on. However, the officials decide that he must be the visiting Inspector, and that mistaken identity leads to a hilarious comedy of errors.

Traitors in a provincial town! It’s hardly a border town, is it? You could gallop for three years in any direction and still be miles away from any other country.

Khlestakov is accompanied by a slovenly manservant, Osip; and both are happy to play along with the local officials and their fawning behaviour, even though they don’t know why it’s happening. So they’re well-fed, bribed with ‘loans’ and Khlestakov even starts to make up to both the Mayor’s wife *and* his daughter. The officials are in a state of fear and trembling, the townspeople are wondering if this important man from St. Petersburg can deal with the corrupt officials for them, and the Mayor’s daughter spies a potential husband. Will the truth out; will Khlestakov get out of the town in time; and what does the future hold for the people of the little town?

The first thing to say about “The Government Inspector” is that of course it is very, very funny. As the misunderstandings build up one on top of the other, the action degenerates into frantic farce where the townspeople vie for favours from the spurious Inspector and denounce each other left right and centre. There is a wonderful running joke in the existence of two indistinguishable local landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, who both have the same name and patronymic – Pyotr Ivanovich! As I read the play I was visualising how it would look onstage, and thinking that it would probably reduce the audience to hysterics.

… sometimes having an idea can do more harm than having no ideas at all.

However, there’s a little more to this play than just farce, as Gogol very cleverly and successfully mixes broad slapstick humour with satirical comment on the state of the Civil Service in Russia, and the corruption amongst officials. Russia was controlled by its strict bureaucratic hierarchy, but the dishonesty of the system and its officials was well known. By using the small town setting, Gogol probably hoped to get away with hiding his critique in the action; had he directed his commentary at the higher ranks in the cities it probably wouldn’t have been so easy.

God help anyone who goes into education! You’re always liable to be criticised. Everyone is always interfering, wanting to show they’re as clever as you are.

It also occurred to me that this play really sets the template for Russian satire to come: with the provincial setting and the focus on small town corruption, he was definitely a forerunner of Saltykov-Shchedrin (and I believe the latter has been referred to as the artistic ‘heir’ of Gogol). However, Gogol also foreshadows his own later work, as it’s quite possible to see Khlestakov as an early version of the protagonist of “Dead Souls”, Chichikov – almost a Chichikov in miniature! Both men are fly-by-night chancers, rushing from town to town trying to scam what they can from what they regard as simple provincial people. Of course, Chichikov is much more sophisticated, with complex plans to cheat the rural landowners; but it’s hard not to see the seeds of his character in Khlestakov, an early version without the plans and the cunning.

I think I’ve read “The Government Inspector” once before – and we’re talking *decades* ago here – so reading it in this wonderful new translation was such a treat. I found myself laughing like a drain throughout, whilst marvelling at the ability of human beings to deceive themselves. The play comes with useful notes which are just at the right level; not too many, and just what you need to enjoy reading it. Interestingly, Cockrell discusses briefly one of the many complex decisions translators have to make when working, and that was the rendering of the names in English. In the original, the names have a comic meaning (e.g. the name of the Mayor could be translated literally as Windbag). Should the translator render the names in comic form or simply transliterate? Cockrell sensibly (to my mind) transliterates – so the Mayor is Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky – but gives a key at the start of the notes which lets the reader know what the humorous version would be. I prefer this myself – and it’s something I’ve come across with my reading of various translations of “The Master and Margarita”; Ivan Bezdomny is sometimes rendered as Ivan Homeless, which is what his last name (a pseudonym) means. I prefer the Russian with a note somewhere as in the Gogol; I got a bit heated when reading “War and Peace” and coming across Prince Andrei given as Prince Andrew, as I want my Russians to sound Russian!!

Anyway – at least the RRD on the Ramblings has been remedied, and in a wonderful way. “The Government Inspector” was a treat from start to finish, and I’m now kind of thinking of it as a prequel to “Dead Souls”! Even if you don’t normally read plays, I’d recommend this one; it’s entertaining, hilarious and with a fascinating subtext. What more could you want? 😀

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

“…. brutal, like the smash of a fist….” #elizabethhardwick #sylviaplath @NYRBClassics

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Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I narrowly missed picking up a duplicate copy of Elizabeth Hardwick’s seminal collection of essays when I was in the wonderful Foyles, Charing Cross Road. It’s been re-released in a very pretty Faber edition, but I had a feeling in the back of my head that I might already own it. Turned out that I did, in a lovely old NYRB Classics edition. Spotting in the wild did, however, bring it back onto my radar; and as I’d heard such great things about it, I made a point of picking it up fairly soon after my London trip.

The book was originally published in 1974, and collects together a number of essays from the early 1970s. The subject matter is, in effect, women *in* literature and women *writing* literature; and the book focuses on a number of names we’re probably all familiar with, as well as taking on the knotty subjects of the book’s title in the final piece. Indeed, that title refers as much to the effect of literature on women as the subject matter of some of the essays. Hardwick is an author I’d read before; I have some of her works in lovely green Virago editions, and I reviewed “Sleepless Nights” on the Ramblings way back in 2012. Her writing style is distinctive and very individual, and she brings a rigorous intellect to these essays. I didn’t always necessarily agree with her, but I did find the book very stimulating.

To get to specifics. The book opens with a substantial piece on the Brontes and their work, their lives and their impact. Hardwick goes on to consider the women in the plays of Henrik Ibsen; he certainly was a man who focused strongly on female characters. The next section of the book looks at women Hardwick designates as ‘Victims and Victors’; this contains essays on Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Bloomsbury and Virginia Woof. Following this are the ‘Amateurs’, Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle. And the book closes with “Seduction and Betrayal”, a very thought-provoking essay which explores seduction in the arts from Don Giovanni to much more modern works.

As you can see, it’s an eclectic mix, combining authors, characters and women who did not consider themselves as writers but whose letters and journals are still read today. And Hardwick is a provocative and insightful commentator. Her take on the Brontes is fascinating, and a counter to the bucolic image which has grown up around them. Hardwick refuses to soften, whitewash or sanitise these women, allowing them their anger and strength. When you look at the circumstances and places from which the women sprang, they are simply extraordinary.

… neighbours and families and gossip, boredom, marriage, money, and work are still what the drama of life is about.

Ibsen is an author with whom I’ve had a limited acquaintance; as far as I can recall, I’ve only read his play “Brand” which doesn’t really feature here, having as it does a strong male central character. However, the discussion of his women, who are often powerful memorable characters dominating his plays, is fascinating and actually made me keen to read more of him. I certainly can’t help but agree with this exchange which Hardwick quotes from one of his works:

In one of the most striking bits of dialogue between husband and wife, Helmner says, “… no man sacrifices his honour, not even for the one he loves.“ “Millions of women have done so,“ Nora replies.

“Victims and Victors” is an interesting grouping of subjects, though I’m not sure I entirely approve of the titling here. To regard any of these women as victims somehow seems to detract from their work and all are significant artists. However, the piece on Zelda Fitzgerald is particularly insightful, highlighting the difference in attitudes towards creative men and women. The kind of behaviour tolerated in men, as creative and artistic, is dismissed as hysterical or mad in women, and it’s time we moved on from that. The essay on Bloomsbury and Woolf perhaps slightly missed the mark for me; the focus is on elements of class and sexuality; bearing in mind the time which has elapsed since the essay was written, and how much our attitudes have changed and our knowledge of Woolf and her compatriots increased, it has perhaps dated less well. However, some of her commentary of Woolf’s writing is spot on and I did enjoy the essay.

The two pieces on the women Hardwick classes as ‘amateurs’ making thought-provoking reading. Both in effect lived in the shadow of ‘great men’ – poet William Wordsworth and author Thomas Carlyle. Much of their efforts went into supporting these ‘geniuses’; and yet they still found time for their own writing, in the form of journals and letters, and these in many ways are more readable and approachable than the men’s writing. Dorothy found fulfilment from her close relationship with her brother, and most likely would never have written works for publication on her own; likewise, Jane Carlyle was a social animal, organising her husband, holding court at their Cheyne Walk house, and writing witty letters in a time when that was the only mode of communication. They left us not only snapshots of life with the great men, but also a record of their own lives which is quite fascinating.

…flirtation, surrender, pregnancy, misery. This is the plot of existence.

As for the final (title) essay, it’s a tricky one. It does indeed deal with seduction and betrayal in literature; and of course the ultimate end stage of seduction is rape, which exists as a topic and a plot device in a worrying number of early works of art. It’s actually a bit shocking to consider how many novels, operas and the like rely on whether a woman will put out as the main thrust (ahem) of their plot. Hardwick is of the opinion that in the modern world, this kind of plot has probably had its day; certainly, the consequence of enjoying sex, in the form of unwanted pregnancy, doesn’t always have the destructive effect on a woman’s life that it used to – well, at least in some cultures. However, women are still judged on their sexuality so I’m not entirely convinced everything has changed.

Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve left what for me is the highlight of the collection until the end of my post. I confess I was probably most excited about reading the Plath essay, and it didn’t disappoint. Hardwick digs deep into Plath’s art, identifying the anger in the poet’s work and investigating the roots of this. She refuses to paint Plath as a martyr, linking her with other strong female poets of the 20th century like Bishop, Moore and Sexton; and I found the piece very moving. Hardwick astutely links Woolf and Plath; but I think she perhaps underplays the focus of the latter’s famous poem “Daddy” in considering it mainly relation to the poet’s father and ignoring the reading of it as also being in relation to her husband. Nevertheless, Hardwick’s discussion of the portrayal of death in Plath’s verse was particularly pithy; her highlighting of the relationship in “The Ball Jar” between the Rosenberg’s execution by electric chair and Plath’s own ECT was chilling; and the essay really made me want to re-engage with Plath’s poetry.

In the end, what is overwhelming, new, original, in Sylvia Plath is the burning singularity of temperament, the exigent spirit clothed but not calmed by the purest understanding of the English poetic tradition.

So overall this was a really engrossing and, yes, seductive collection of of essays exploring the intersection of women’s art and their behaviour, the forces that impelled them to create, the cultural influences restricting them and the great achievements they made. Certainly, all of these women who were creators have left a lasting legacy; all of the women who were characters have entered into the canon; and the book is proof, if it were needed, that women are just as capable of creating great art as men are, particularly when the domestic side of life can be got out of their way. I’m glad a random sighting of this book prompted me to search out my copy of “Seduction and Betrayal” as it was a wonderful read; and I think I may have to bump my other unread Hardwicks a bit further up the TBR! D

(Hey! The second title of the month which qualifies as a non-fiction work for the challenge!)

Exploring Weimar Berlin with a readalong for #germanlitmonth – Week 2

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OK – we’re into week two of the readalong of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and it’s time to share my thoughts on chapters 3 – 5. Again, this is a section of around 100 pages (well, slightly more) in my edition, and so theoretically quite manageable, though I have to say I think I read 350-odd pages of Golden Age crime more rapidly than this… Anyway, onto the questions from Lizzy and here’s what I’m thinking so far,

1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel? The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique?

The structure of the novel is interesting, and as I’ve mentioned, reading Dos Passos recently has meant I’ve coped quite well. I like the little summaries at the beginning of the chapters, and the descriptions of the sections; however the montage technique is a little different. In Dos Passos, the main narrative was split into sections relating to specific characters which was fairly linear. This was interspersed with montage and news sections as contrast. However, Doblin’s narrative often has these elements mixed together, and the montage is less fragmented than Dos Passos but perhaps more invasive in respect of the main narrative. So the techniques are different but equally interesting and not too difficult for me to read. What *is* difficult to deal with is the next question…

2. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a women in Weimar Berlin – or at least in this book. They’re beaten, raped, murdered, manipulated and generally badly treated. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of the period or just of the particular milieu Doblin wants to capture I don’t know, but I’m not liking that aspect. I don’t think I’ve come across one positive portrayal of a woman so far, and I find that a struggle. Franz is a bit of a bastard, frankly, and if he *does* have a happy ending in the book he certainly doesn’t deserve it. I won’t say what he deserves… And Reinhold, who comes up in the next question, is just vile. Women are treated as things to be used, abused, passed on and discarded. Not a good situation really.

A problematic book because of the subject matter….

3. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist. What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold?

Franz is a very arrogant and stupid man tbh. He completely fails to grasp what Reinhold is actually like, tries to take control of the man and his lovelife, and this section ends with Reinhold being revealed as completely unlike Franz had perceived him. As well as being a pig towards women, he’s also a nasty and hardened criminal. It seems that Franz in many ways has met his match, and it’s also odd that Franz is so blind regarding the reality of the criminal activities going on around him. As I said, he’s a bit stupid…

4. What was the highlight of this section for you? What the lowlight?

The highlight of the section (and in fact the book so far) has been the vivid picture of the city. Doblin really captures Berlin in a state of flux, being rebuilt after the defeat of the First World War (something of a touchstone, and an event that recurs in the narrative). The montage parts of the prose capture the modern, bustling world with adverts and signs and people constantly trying to sell something new. That part of the book is very successful. The low point is of course the treatment of women; if I’m honest, I might have abandoned the book already because of that if it wasn’t for the readalong.

I also have to confess to having skimmed a chunk of this section as it was all about slaughterhouses. I’m sorry, but as a vegan I just couldn’t… I imagine this means I’m missing something, as I’m presuming this was meant to represent the treatment the humans are receiving in the Germany of the time, but so be it.

5. Do you have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage?

There’s a *lot* of religious imagery and tbh I don’t get that. It may all become clear later on, or maybe not. I mentioned this before, and I’m probably missing stuff; but frankly I don’t have the energy to try to work that out at the moment! If I’m truly honest, I’m not sure as yet what Doblin is trying to *say* with the book, but that may reveal itself as I continue to read – or mabye not!

*****

So, there you go. I guess I must be almost half way through and I *will* try to make it to the end. The book is not always an easy read because of the elements I’ve mentioned, and yet I do like Doblin’s prose style (in this particular translation). Hope the next section will bring more enlightenment… 😉

 

 

 

Thrilling tales of derring-do for #RLSDay :D

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As I think I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, 13th November is designated as an annual Robert Louis Stevenson day, in celebration of the great author on his birthday. I do love RLS’s writing, and I try to mark the day if I can – although I do have a tendency to often leave it a little late… However, this year I’ve been slightly more organised than usual, and I’ve been dipping into some of the stories in “New Arabian Nights”; it’s a collection of shorter works I picked up moons ago, and it makes wonderful reading!

November being a bit packed with challenges and the like, I’ve only managed to read the suite of stories collected under the titles of “The Suicide Club” and “The Raja’s Diamond”. This consists of six linked tales, joined with commentary by a storyteller (much in the way of the original Arabian Nights, apparently), and they focus on the lively, dramatic and picaresque adventures of Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his faithful sidekick, Colonel Geraldine. Interestingly, the publication of these stories pre-dates slightly the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, and yet the relationship between the two men is very much in the mould of Holmes and Watson! RLS and Conan Doyle were friends and contemporaries – intriguing…

The first three stories feature dark deeds by the proprietor of the club of the title; it’s an unpleasant organisation, designed to help troubled people end their lives. After an initial adventure in the first story, where Florizel and Geraldine encounter the villain in question, they then pursue him through the other two stories with lively and exciting adventures . The second suite of stories sees Florizel and Geraldine solving the mysteries associated with the theft of a fabulous diamond, as well as observing the effect that the jewel has on people’s morality.

The stories are wonderfully entertaining, and of course RLS writes so marvellously; I really enjoyed following the tales of derring-do, and Florizel and Geraldine make a wonderful pairing of heroes. It’s interesting how Bohemia threw up so many fictional characters in the past… However, what struck me too was Stevenson’s mastery of the form; each tale ends with a little bit of narration, leading into the next one, and then the focus changes with the following story introducing us to a character who’s either new or hasn’t taken the main stage previously. All the threads eventually link together, and it’s an ingenious way of telling a tale and keeping the reader interested and on their toes. What a really great author RLS was!

So I loved reading these short works by RLS to celebrate his day this year; and I still have treats to come in the book, including a story reckoned by no less than Arthur Conan Doyle as being the first short story ever written! As you can see from the image above, I do have a few of Stevenson’s titles lurking on my shelves, and could happily spend many a winter night engrossed in them. Every time I revisit RLS I find more to love and admire in his books, and if you’ve never read him you could do no better than to give his works a look; certainly, these short stories would be a great introduction to a really great author!

*****

For further information about RLS Day, there is a lovely site here which gets updated annually:

https://rlsday.wordpress.com/

There’s also an excellent website all about Stevenson here:

http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/

“…navigational gifts for the safety of all…” #lighthouses @PenguinUKBooks #TomNancollas #nonfictionNovember

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Seashaken Houses: A Lighthouse History from Eddystone to Fastnet by Tom Nancollas

When I was ambling around Waterstones a few weeks back, as you do, my eye lit upon the rather lovely cover of this book; and since the subject matter was something in which I have an interest, I was very tempted… I resisted for a couple of weeks, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I finally succumbed. Why, you may ask, do I have such an interest in lighthouses?? I can’t really say, if I’m honest. It may have something to do with the fact that my grandfather was a sailor, and so no doubt found these noble buildings to be essential; it may be that I’ve always lived within a reasonable distance from the sea (not difficult on our Island Nation); or it may be that I was scarred for life as well as intrigued by reading Wilfred Gibson’s “Flannan Isle” when I was a teenager! Whatever it is, I find lighthouses endlessly fascinating and romantic, standing as they do at the edges, giving warnings of danger, and speaking of isolation and danger and heroism and madness and all those sorts of things…

Anyway – I was keen to pick this one up soon, and having been egged on by Ali and Liz who want to know what the book is like, I shall get on with it. A quote on the front of the book describes it as a “personal, lyrical journey” and that’s not really far off it. Author Tom Nancollas is also a person fascinated by the sea, torn between the Cornish and Wirral coasts where most of his childhood holidays were taken. As a building conservationist he studied lighthouses as the subject for his dissertation, a decision sparked by childhood memories of distant structures in the sea. As he explains in his introduction, 27 rock lighthouses were historically built around the coasts of Britain; 20 of those survive, and the book relates his journeys to explore just some of those lighthouses, whilst telling the history of lighthouse building in this country.

Despite the sea’s instability, we have achieved permanence there. Between 1698 and 1904, a total of 27 rock lighthouses were constructed to mark the most dangerous hazards to shipping in the seas around Great Britain and Ireland. Of these, twenty survive today, a panoply of exquisite buildings that are the descendants of fabular prototypes. Taking the form of tall stone towers crowned with iron lanterns, they appear to rise, mirage-like, straight out of the sea, the circular foundations often unseen.

The book opens with the Eddystone Lighthouse, off Plymouth on the south coast, and closes with Fastnet, below the Irish coast. These are the first and last lighthouses constructed on our coasts, and in between he covers other enigmatic and dangerous structures such as Wolf Rock, Bishop Rock and Bell Rock. Woven in with the narrative of his visits to these sites (some of which are completely inaccessible, and one of which can only be visited in the mind, through recollections of a former keeper) is the history of lighthouse building in Britain; in particular the families who were involved in their planning, development and construction.

This latter aspect of the book makes fascinating reading, as it does seem that lighthouse building often turned out to be a family business! And interestingly the Stevenson family seem to have been mightily important, with even Robert Louis getting a mention at points in the story. The same names keep recurring in connection with different structures, and it does seem to be that lighthouse building is something of a calling.

Here, you get something of the sea’s eternity – rising, falling, swelling, calming, dousing and rinsing and thrusting against the rocks in myriad ways, a lazy, beast-like play of motion that that will never end.

Set against the history of these maritime beacons is Nancollas’ visits to the various locations on the coast he can reach, as well as his encounters with former keepers and those involved in the maintaining of the lights. There are some fascinating musings on what it was like to actually be a keeper, and tales of high jinks on some rocky outposts, as well as tragic stories of shipwreck. Inevitably, there is a sense that Nancollas is looking back to a time of progress and invention; the Stevensons for example were responsible for so much new ‘technology’ of their time; and I couldn’t help but feeling that we no longer have that vision of experimentation and the determination to take on such huge tasks. When you think about sheer audacity of trying to build in the sea and the massive achievement of those who did, against all the odds, it’s quite breathtaking. And Nancollas has a wonderful sense of the dramatic, relating stories of metal towers that went wrong, stone towers that were badly constructed, and the hard work and time it took to build the final structures which still stand today.

So the book is a pleasing balance of history, fact, personal reminiscence and the author’s visits to lighthouses (when he can). Nancollas is an engaging narrator, a joy to spend time with, and at one point he discovers an intriguing family connection to a particular lighthouse. What comes through very strongly, too, is a sense of respect; not only for the men who designed and constructed what could have been considered impossible buildings but which got built and survived until today; but also for the sea itself, and its power. Despite being surrounded by it, Nancollas thinks that few of us really understand it, and as we come to rely more and more upon digital navigation and the like, we lose the ability to read the natural world. That applies to more than just the sea, I think, and on the day all the electronic systems go dark, many of us may struggle to survive… On the Scilly Isles he contemplates the constant threat over the centuries to humans from the sea, and it’s a useful reminder that we’ve become a little detached from the natural world, taking it for granted and forgetting its power.

In a sense, rock lighthouses are monumentalized by their unfamiliarity to most people. We’re not quite sure how to behave in their presence, so reverence fills the void.

The final lighthouse visit in the book is a very special one, as Nancollas embarks on a week long stay at Fastnet, the last of the great rock lighthouses to be built. Here he gets a real glimpse of what it must have been like to be marooned on one of these places for months at a time. He also muses on what’s to come in the future for these structures that stand sentinel in our waters. Fastnet is one of last surviving mechanical lights; most lighthouses are now run by solar power, and with sat nav and the like, will there really be a need for lighthouses in years to come? Nancollas thinks and hopes so (and I’m with him); seafarers he encounters still use the lights to aid navigation and it would be a great shame to see these buildings fall into complete disuse.

A rock lighthouse is a symbol of tolerance and altruism, of assistance made available to those in need regardless of their nationality. Taken too far, nationalism can lead to division, but a rock lighthouse offers a message of fellowship. It is the type of building that is not introspective, but outward-looking.

“Seashaken Houses” turned out to be a marvellous book; it’s a fascinating and compelling read, with a lovely mix of the history and the personal, and I was sorry to part company with Nancollas at the end. The book is beautifully presented with illustrations, notes and a handy map of the lighthouses and their dates of construction (it’s worth noting that although the Eddystone was the first, it went through several different attempts before reaching a stable version; Bell Rock in Scotland is the oldest working building to remain on its reef). For me, lighthouses are enigmatic and compelling structures, a testament to the great inventors and builders of the past, and I loved reading about them in this book. But, after reading “Flannan Isle” again, I’m not sure you’d get me to make an overnight stay on one of them… ;D

*****

My old and battered Gibson collection – the first poem inside is “Flannan Isle” itself…

If you want to know what I’m rambling on about, “Flannan Isle” can be read online here; wonderful and very chilling poem!

(Although I’m not formally taking part in any challenges this month, I can’t help but count this one for #nonfictionNovember!!)

Exploring Weimar Berlin with a readalong for #germanlitmonth – Week 1

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November is a month of many challenges, it seems; amongst other things, readers are encouraged to spend time with novellas, non-fiction and with the works of Margaret Atwood! One particularly enjoyable event is German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy, and I’ve been happy to take part in this before.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to join in this time round; however, there is a readalong taking place, and it happens to be a book that I’ve had lurking on the TBR for a long, long time….

The book in question is “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Doblin, and at just under 500 pages it was perhaps a bit intimidating, till I had a look at the schedule. And as the book is split into chunks of about 100 or so pages at a time I figured it might be manageable. So here goes – let’s see if I can stick to *any* kind of reading schedule.

Lizzy and Caroline have provided some questions for each weekly post, and so here are those which focus on Chapters 1 and 2 of the book! 😀

1. Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.  What enticed you to readalong with us?

I’ve had the book on the TBR for ages, and like so many enthusiastic purchases it’s ended up sitting there unread while shiny new volumes get picked up sooner. I’ve been reading a bit more off the TBR recently, and I guess I just wanted the impetus and discipline to pick it up and read it!

2. Summarise your initial expectations.  Are they being met?

I had few expectations, except that it was regarded as a Modernist text which painted a picture of Weimar Berlin. That’s certainly what I’m encountering and I’m enjoying that very much. I also picked up the impression that the book was difficult, but I’m finding it surprisingly readable…

3. Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

Penguin Modern Classics edition from 1982, translated by Eugene Jolas. I’m finding it very readable, as I said, and it may well be that I’m used to translations/prose from the 20th century so I’m comfortable with it. So far, it reads very impressionistically and evocatively, which I like.

4. What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Franz is a bit of a wide boy, isn’t he? Somewhat brutal, convicted of manslaughter, he’s not necessarily an appealing man. However, we don’t necessarily need to like our protagonists, and in fact Berlin itself is taking some of the centre stage in the storyline so far. It’s a vibrant yet seamy place, full of corruption and crime – all very interesting so far…

5. Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence.  Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way?  How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2?

I imagine the publisher wondered what the bald title Berlin Alexanderplatz conveyed on its own, and decided it needed a little more elaboration! As for chapter 2, the focus seems to me to be divided between Franz and the people around him; he *isn’t* at this point necessarily at the centre of the story and the general culture of Weimar Berlin. It’s a polyphonic narrative, full of bustling, hustling voices, and I’ll be interested to see where the story goes!

6. Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? 

I came to the book with no real preconceptions, and so I’ll simply be interested to see how the narrative develops. However, I noticed that the blurb (from 1982) described the book as being the equivalent of “Ulysses” or Dos Passos’ “America” – and I’ve recently read the first book of the latter. Initially I didn’t get the resemblance, but as I’ve read on I’m starting to see what they mean. Will be fund to see how this aspect develops!

*****

So those are my thoughts so far! The book is not as intimidating as I thought it might be, and I’m keen to see how it develops. I like the quirky nature of the narrative, the translation is not jarring so far, and the picture of Berlin that’s developing is very vivid. Watch this space for more impressions of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”!

Devious dealings and double lives! #georgebellairs @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks

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The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Hot on the heels of my last BLCC (from the wonderful John Dickson Carr), and as a bit of an antidote to the *big* reading for 1930, I felt the call of another dose of classic crime – and as a new edition of a George Bellairs mystery had popped through the door from the lovely British Library, it was a bit a no brainer as to what I’d choose next! I’ve read a number of Bellairs’ titles, featuring his detecting team Superintendant Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell; so much so, that it feels like returning to old friends when I read a new Bellairs! They’re always a delight, and this one was no exception.

The book opens dramatically, with Littlejohn being thrust straight into the action. He’s been staying in Fen country, assisting the suitably-named Fenshire police with a forgery case, when a body is discovered in the local River Lark, known as the Dumb River of the title. Normally, it runs silently and unobtrusively, but Littlejohn is visiting Fenland in the middle of a massive storm which brings all sorts of floods and drama to the area. The dead man is known as Jim Lane locally; a small man, he travels with a fairground that visits regularly, in the company of a woman called Martha Gomm. However, investigation reveals that he is really James Teasdale, a man from Yorkshire who’s married with a family. Jim/James has obviously been leading a double life, and once the two policemen have done their local detecting (as well as helping out with the aftermath of the floods), the focus of their investigations turns north to Yorkshire, and the rather appalling family that Teasdale had to suffer.

Because appalling they really are! His wife is a selfish, snobbish, grasping woman with no sympathy at all; his daughters have inherited all their mother’s traits; Jim’s father-in-law is a bullying ex-army man; and Mrs. Teasdale’s siblings are equally greedy and unpleasant. Jim has struggled to make a living and to support his dependents and in the end took to going off for weeks at a time making money through the fair, while telling his wife he was a travelling salesman; her snobbish nature simply couldn’t have coped with the reality. Really, you couldn’t want for a worse family setting, and I found myself completely understanding why the man had sought some happiness and companionship with Martha Gomm while they were on the road.

Initially it seems that Jim was killed in Fen country; however, the medical evidence proves otherwise and so Littlejohn and Cromwell have to tackle the Teasdale family in all their gruesome glory. They meet with evasion, lies, hysteria and downright nastiness; it seems that Teasdale was a disappointment to them all, and none of them actually are upset by his death. There are plenty of twists and turns, lots of drama, and it takes all of Littlejohn’s skill to find the solution; I had a vague inkling of where the mystery was going, but there were still some lovely surprises at the end.

“The Body in the Dumb River” was a satisfying and completely enjoyable story, displaying all of the traits I love from Bellairs. His writing is always excellent; economic, and yet he manages to paint character and atmosphere brilliantly. His descriptions capture niftily life in a small town with its pettiness and ridiculous need for status. He always displays a sympathy with the underdog; Littlejohn obviously does not like people full of posturing and hypocrisy, preferring the honesty of Jim and Martha’s illegal union to that of a false marriage, and recognising the happiness it brought Jim to find refuge from a horrible home life. The whole story of the two was actually quite touching, and made me reflect on the horrors through which human beings can put one another. The Teasdale family are almost grotesques, very damaged people, and this carries on down the generations with the youngest members being as unpleasant as the eldest.

The church clock was striking ten as Littlejohn and Cromwell entered the police car which was taking them to the cemetery for James Teasdale‘s funeral. The atmosphere of the town was not funereal at all. It was market day and stalls had been erected in the space in front of the town hall. There an exuberant crowd of stallholders were already shouting their wares, mainly eatables, with here and there a dash of clothing or cheap jewellery. The place was seething with life. Dominating all that was going on and looking slightly disapproving of it, was the stern bronze statue of Bishop Duddle, the only famous man who ever was born in Basilden. He had been martyred and eaten by cannibals of his diocese in the South Seas and now stood among the market folk, pointing to heaven, indicating the place to which he had gone after all his troubles.

Bellairs is not without humour, though, and his description of Jim’s funeral is a wonderful mix of pathos and farce. His characters are occasionally maybe a little over-dramatised, but I guess that’s so he can create sympathy for his underdogs. He’s a very open-minded author, too, having his characters refer to travellers as good people and much more worthy than the middle-class horrors of Yorkshire; it’s very clear where his sympathies lie. And he’s also an author that mops up the loose ends of his story, rounding things up at the very end so we find out what happened to all of the characters after the mystery was solved (well, all except one!)

British Library Publishing have done us some huge favours by creating a wonderful collection of classic crime stories which would otherwise have languished in obscurity; and George Bellairs is one of many authors I’m glad has been rediscovered. “Dumb River” is another excellent entry in the Crime Classics list, and comes highly recommended from the Ramblings! 😀

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

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