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“… the unity of the human and the divine” #fitzcarraldofortnight @FitzcarraldoEds

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Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley

I have been wrestling with some very complex works recently on the Ramblings (cough, cough, “Mythologies”…); and this slim but dense book from Fitzcarraldo is no exception. When I was looking through my pile of unreads to choose what to read for our #fitzcarraldofortnight, “Memory Theatre” jumped out at me because it sounded intriguing, and because I’d found Critchley’s other Fitzcarraldo title to be very stimulating. So “Memory Theatre” it was, then…

Ok. First up, what’s a memory theatre? Welll, an online definition states that it’s “An imaginary building thought of as comprising various rooms and areas, each containing mnemonic objects and features that symbolize particular ideas, which can be visualized mentally as a systematic method of remembering those ideas.” So, a way of helping us remember, fix memories and ideas, by rooting them in a specific space that acts as a visual trigger to bringing back the memory. It’s a clever idea, with a long history: the concept has its roots in the 16th century when an Italian philosopher Guilio Camillo wrote a book on the subject. The memory palace existed inside the mind, where a person could visualise a structure with symbols in it to act as those triggers, a sort of visual mnemonic – what Wikipedia calls “a spatial representation of chronology”. The theatre takes this a step further, arranging ideas according to importance, with the ultimate end of understanding the past and everything in it as well as being able to predict the future. At least, that’s how I interpret it – correct me anyone if you think I’m wrong…

Poetry lets us see things as they are. It lets us see particulars being various.… The poet sings a song that is beyond us and yet it is ourselves that it sings. Things change when the poet sings them, but they are still our things: recognizable, common, near, low. We hear the poet sing and press back against the pressure of reality.

Critchley’s starting point for his exploration of the topic is the discovery of a collection of boxes which appear in his office one day. They originate from a colleague, a French philosopher called Michel Haar who has been something of a mentor, and who has died in a savage summer heatwave. The boxes contain all manner of unpublished papers by Haar, and delving into them Critchley discovers a brilliant text on the ancient art of memory as well as a collection of astrological charts drawn by Haar which preduct the deaths of various philosophers (some know to both Haar and Critchley).

Through techniques of memory, the human being can achieve absolute knowledge and become divine.

Alarmingly, one chart predicts the course of Critchley’s own life and death; and somewhat inevitably Critchley becomes obsessed by this, as well as by a model memory theatre and the whole concept of the memory theatre itself. Needless to say, his mental state disintegrates somewhat at this point…

A representation of the memory theatre

“Memory Theatre” is a book which defies classificiation, and blurs the lines between genres much more than did “Notes on Suicide”. Fairly obviously, despite the astrological chart, Critchley does not die as predicted as he’s still amongst us now, working and writing. But the book shows how an idea can take hold of a person to such a degree that it affects their life dramatically; and how we humans have been searching for meaning for pretty much all of our existence, and haven’t necessarily found it. Critchley’s experiments in constructing his own memory theatre fail, and in fact he comes to the conclusion that it isn’t really possible to make something so fixed and static that contains all memory, all knowledge and the future. Instead he envisages something which is “an endlessly recreating, re-enacting memory mechanism.” Hmm – perhaps he thinks the Internet might be the answer then… ;D

Might not the space of a town or city be seen as a memory theatre? One walks or moves in the city, most Bloom-like, and somehow the entirety of the past is silently whispering through locations – ghostly and sepulchral. Like a huge question mark. And implicitly that story becomes one about the future as well. The city is a spatial network of memory traces, but also a vast predictive machine.

As I’ve said, this is a work which certainly stretches the boundaries of what kind of book it is. Part philosophy, part memoir and yes, part fiction, it really is a fascinating read. I say fiction, because in the glossary at the back of the book Critchley says of his friend Michel Haar that some of what appears about him in the book is not true… In addition, several characters are invented, and this all adds up to a heady and stimulating book about which it’s worth remembering that just because a work is branded non-fiction doesn’t necessarily make it fact…

Anyway. At the end of the day, I’m not a philosopher, but that’s my take on “Memory Theatre”. I’m not sure how many of the memoir elements were true, but certainly if they have any basis in fact Critchley has had a complex life! The book was a fascinating read which sent me off in all sorts of different directions, exploring concepts and philosophies and historical figures – ironically, none of which I would have been able to do without the memory theatre of the internet…. 😀 Another intriguing book from Fitzcarraldo, and I’m glad our #fitzcarraldofortnight provoked me into reading it right now.

Launching Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight – let the reading begin! @FitzcarraldoEds #fitzcarraldofortnight

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Well, I hope you’re all prepared to get reading and discussing some wonderful books; because today is launch day for Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, a reading event co-hosted by Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life and myself here on the Ramblings! As mentioned in our original announcement, we both have plenty of beautiful Fitzcarraldos on our TBR piles, and so a dedicated fortnight seems the ideal way to get reading some of them, as well as exploring the beautiful and intriguing titles Fitzcarraldo publish.

Based in London, this independent publisher was founded in 2014 and has released a steady stream of rather marvellous books. Their paperback editions, designed by Ray O’Meara with French flaps and colour coded covers, are readily identifiable in shops (which is always a good thing!) and look striking when shelved or piled together – for example, here is *my* Fitzcarraldo collection!

The publisher states that its intention is to “focus on ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language” and it’s certainly been my experience that the books I’ve read from them fulfil that criteria.

I’m sure many of you have read or are reading Fitzcarraldos, so please share any comments and links below, on this opening post. Lizzy will be featuring some posts on translators, and I will be mostly sharing thoughts on books I’ve read. We look forward to as many of  you as possible joining in with us and sharing the love of Fitzcarraldo Editions – a really exciting and innovative publisher! 😀

 

On My Book Table…5 – too many books!!

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Oh dear. If you follow me at all on social media, you might well have gained the impression that there have been a  *lot* of books coming into the Ramblings lately from a variety of sources. There have been review books, lovely finds in charity shops and kind fellow bloggers contributing to Mount TBR. When you add in the fact that I have had a book token plus money off on my Waterstones loyalty card, it’s clear things have got a little out of control… The book table was looking *very* crowded, so much so that Mr. Kaggsy was starting to get a wee bit concerned that it might collapse under the weight of all the volumes on it. And I have to admit that seeing a huge great mound of books lurking there glaring at me and demanding to be read was making me feel very pressured. So I took drastic action at the weekend and took them all off the table, had a shuffle and an organise and – well, you’ll see at the end of this post how I left the table…

But I thought I would share some of the books which are currently vying for attention, posing nicely on the table before being moved – there really are some tantalising titles waiting in the wings!

First up is the three volumes of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”. There is a readalong going on on Twitter, and this is a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. Have I picked it up and started it? No… I do want to, and it’s a year long challenge. So let’s hope I can at least *start* reading them this year.

Ah Proust… Reading “A La Recherce…” is also trending all over Twitter. I’ve read the first two novels in the sequence, and invested in some reasonably priced hardback copies in the hope this would have the effect of getting me reading Proust again. Plus I have some beautiful shorter works and peripheral works lurking. Again, hopefully I will get going with this soon.

To complicate things further, I have some *very* large Oulipo related books just screaming for attention. There’s Calvino. There’s Perec. I adore them both… And some incredible anthologies. Looking at them I just want to shut myself away and do nothing but read for weeks.

This not-so-little pile contains various heavier works. “Ulysses” of course – I’ve read the first chapter and again long to sink into the book. There is Montaigne and French Existentialists and all manner of dippable philosophical work. *Sigh*. All so tempting…

Speaking of French existentialists and like… I’ve always loved French authors of the 19th and 20th century and their books were some of the favourites of my twenties. This rather wobbly and imposing pile is full of things like Sartre and Gide and Barthes and Camus and Huysman and Radiguet and books about French authors. Although the first translated books I read were by Russians (in my early teens), France has a special place in my heart too…

I have been blessed with some beautiful review books by lovely publishers and just look at the variety: Virago, Russians, Bulgakov!, golden age crime, Frankenstein, Capek… Well, what choices.

There there are random recent arrivals from various sources, many of which might be familiar from my Instagram feed. “Party Fun with Kant” came from Lizzy (thank you Lizzy!) and looks fab! “Left Bank” should perhaps have been in the French pile above, and was an impulse buy with my book token from Waterstones at the weekend (well, not quite impulse – I’d looked at it the previous weekend, walked away and of course went back for it a week later!)

Of course, Lizzy and I will be hosting the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight starting on Sunday, and this pile of their lovely books contains some titles I haven’t read yet. I love Fitzcarraldos – always so interesting and off-centre!

So as you can see, I’m suffering from too many choices at the moment. A good number of these were on the book table, and moving *everything* off it has helped to clarify my mind a little bit, as well as stopping me feeling quite so overwhelmed. I think things are not being helped by my current speed of reading. I did really well in January, getting through some marvellous works quite quickly. However, work is fairly horrendous right now, meaning I’m fairly exhausted when I get home and don’t always have the mental energy to engage with reading for any length of time. To take the pressure off, I’ve reduced the book table to hosting one single book, the one I’m currently reading:

“This Little Art” is one of the Fitzcarraldos I hadn’t read yet, but it’s quite perfect for me at the moment. It’s about translation, lots of Barthes! and is absolutely fab so far. I’ll hope to get it finished in time to review during our #fitzcarraldofortnight, but it’s not a book to rush, rather one to savour.

Am I the only one who struggles with too many choices? Which would you choose from the above piles to tackle next?? ;D

 

“The borders of reality had reconfigured…” #yearofthemonkey #pattismith

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The Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

As I’ve said before on the Ramblings, one of my lifelong inspirations has been the creative force that is Patti Smith; ever since I first encountered her music in 1975 I’ve been hooked, and her writings over the years have become just as important as her music. I featured my original Patti book collection some years back when I read her bestselling “M-Train”; I found it a wonderful read and an essential addition to my Patti shelves. Her most recent book, “Year of the Monkey” came out in the autumn of last year and I don’t quite know why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. Nevertheless, I did so during January, and it was a wild and fascinating read.

The recent Chinese Year of the Monkey ran from 8th February, 2016 until 27th January, 2017 and Smith’s book covers that period in her life, a period where many changes were taking place. As I mentioned in my review of “M-Train”, Smith’s life has been scattered with tragedy; the early loss of her husband and brother, the death of her long-time associate Robert Mapplethorpe; and this year saw significant changes too. The book opens with Smith visiting old friend Sandy Pearlman in hospital, where he’s in a coma following a brain haemorrhage; old friend Lenny Kaye is on hand. This sets off a chain of wanderings across the country (and indeed the globe) as Smith negotiates a world undertaking catastrophic changes. Another old friend and former partner, San Shepard, is bedbound and nearing his life’s end; Smith spends time with him acting as an amanuensis. She contemplates the horrors of American politics, encounters (or hallucinates) a fellow Bolano-obsessive called Ernest; and converses with a snarky Dream Motel sign on the West Coast. It’s pure Smith.

‘Hallucinatory’ is probably the crucial word here, as the book (much more so than her more recent works) is a heady blend of the real and the imagined, actual experience and perceived experience. Smith has always been prone to sensing signs,symbols and portents, and that tendency is very prevalent here. It adds up to a beautiful and absorbing piece of work that not only lets you have a peep into Smith’s real world (the leaky skylight of her New York flat, the scrubby garden of her Rockaway Beach retreat) but also the world of her imagination; the visions, the obsessions, the fantasies and the journeys of the mind.

Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes. Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy in the year of the monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I noticed that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from the crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating.

Again, as with “M-Train”, there is an attempt to reckon with mortality, and also with ageing. As she writes, Smith is approaching her 70th birthday and taking stock of herself. Although I’m a way off that myself, I empathised with her awareness of time running out and the strong need to grasp every moment. But despite her moments of doubt, she is in the end optimistic; and able to hope that despite the horrors of the way her country is headed, the world will sort itself out.

Lenny and I ate our congee and drank oolong tea in silent gratitude, still alive; born three days apart, seventy and silver haired, bowing to fate.

“Year…” is illustrated with Smith’s signature polaroid images which add to the beauty of the whole experience of reading it. And of course, whenever I read Smith there are always striking resonances; she references authors and artists I love (Gogol, Bruno Schulz, Cocteau et al), and I’m reminded that there are people out there who still love the creators that I love too.

Some of my Patti books…

Needless to say, I devoured “Year of the Monkey” in huge gulps, revelling in Smith’s prose, which veers from the factual to the fanciful, often breathlessly. She’s a wonderful writer, with a singular voice which is recognisable whichever medium she’s working in. “Year…” is a poetic, absorbing, entertaining and beautiful book which reminded me just how much I love Patti Smith – as well as sending me off to dig out her music, and drive Mr. Kaggsy crazy! Highly recommended! (The book, that is – not driving poor Mr. Kaggsy crazy! 😀 )

A rare disappointment…

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On the Ramblings today a book which in theory should have been perfect for me (and I understand why Mr. Kaggsy decided to gift it to me); it’s French, it has trains, books and quirky characters, so should be right up my street. However, it didn’t quite gel for me, and I’m still trying to work out why…

The book is “The Reader on the 6.27″by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (translated by Ros Schwartz) and it tells the story of Guylain Vignolles, a misfit loner who works in a paper pulping plant and hates his job. On his daily commute, he reads random pages saved from the machine to the other travellers who apparently love to hear this. His co-workers and boss are vile, and his only allies are Guiseppe, an ex-colleague crippled by the machine, plus Guylain’s goldfish… However, his life changes when he stumbles upon a lost memory stick which contains the diary of a woman called Julie who’s a public toilet attendant. As well as reading extracts from this diary on the train, he also becomes besotted with her and determines to find her. Well, you get the picture….

Actually, you may *not* get the picture, because the book is 194 pages, much of which is extracts from the saved books or the diaries, and so frankly not a lot of space to develop the plot. And it doesn’t really develop if I’m honest. There are dramatic descriptions of the pulping machine; sequences where Guylain goes to read at an old people’s home; and vignettes of his relationship with his mother. The ‘romance’ plot doesn’t make its entry until well into the book and the whole thing feels undercooked.

Oddly, one of my bugbears with the book is the fact that it’s presented as a quirky romance, but actually it’s pretty grim in places: the first extract we witness Guylain reading on the train is about killing and skinning a rabbit, which nearly stopped me reading any futher; the graphic descriptions of the habits of visitors to Julie’s public toilet are gross; and the whole saga of Guiseppe and his legs is really dark. Thinking about all of these elements made me wonder if the book actually knew what it wanted to be (or, in fact, if the author really knew…)

“Reader…” certainly seems to be a book which divides actual readers, being very much a Marmite book; I’ve seen it loved and praised by some, while others puzzle its appeal. I think in the end I felt the book was just too underdone. The chapters are short, the book itself is short, and the whole thing ended up feeling unfinished to me. There was possibly potential here if the story and characters had been given more time to develop, but in the end it just didn’t deliver. A rare reading failure for me – but at least it *was* short… :s

Sharing my love of Larkin and James over @ShinyNewBooks! :D

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I posted recently about my first read of the year, which turned out to be an absolute winner – “Somewhere Becoming Rain” by Clive James, which collects together all of the late critic’s writings about the great poet, Philip Larkin. The latter is, of course, one of my favourites – and if you follow me on social media, you’ll have witnessed my recent trials and tribulations in tracking down his individual collections (including a heavily defaced “Whitsun Weddings” which had been described as expertly refurbished – just look at it!)

Anyway…

“Somewhere Becoming Rain” will, I think, be one of my reads of the year; James is an erudite and entertaining commentator, offering real insight into Larkin’s work and also our changing perceptions of the poet. My review is up today on Shiny New Books and you can find it here!

Tackling mortality the Russian way…. @pushkinpress #tolstoy #borisdralyuk

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Lives and Deaths: Essential Stories by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

Following on from my last post, where I considered a lovely new collection of Gogol’s essential stories from Pushkin Press, I’m today going to be looking at a similar collection bringing together some of Tolstoy’s shorter works. Tolstoy was, of course, more prolific than Gogol (well, he lived a lot longer, for one thing…); and so translator Boris Dralyuk has perhaps had a more difficult task in choosing which works to feature. He’s made what I think is an exemplary selection, one which focuses on what seems to me to be the main thrust of Tolstoy’s shorter works – death, how we prepare for it and how we meet it (as well, I suppose, as the life we lead beforehand).

The four works Boris has translated are “The Death of Ivan Illych”, “Pace-setter: The Story of a Horse”, “Three Deaths” and “Alyosha the Pot”. Of these, two I’ve read before (“Ivan..” and “Alyosha…”) and two are new to me; and certainly I sensed similar themes in each work. “Ivan…” in particular is a very dark story, dealing in the main with the illness and impending demise of the titular man. He’s again hide-bound by that Russian civil service and rigid social structure, but aims for a happy life, marrying and settling down. A random minor accident seals his fate and we watch his gradual deterioration, his wrestling with his mortality and his attempts to reckon his life. It’s a grim struggle for him, and throws up all manner of issues for the reader, as I found before…

“Alyosha the Pot”, which I recognise but must have read pre-blog, is a short tale of the life and death of a simple peasant who spends much of his life doing things for others and can therefore meet his end with serenity. And “Three Deaths” is a fascinating story, new to me, where Tolstoy considers three different types of demise: that of a consumptive rich women, an ancient peasant and – well, of the third death I will say nothing, as does Boris in his introduction, for fear of spoiling the effect. But it is a remarkable piece of writing!

I’ve left “Pace-setter…” till last because it really is something special. It is indeed the story of a horse; the Pace-setter of the title, a piebald gelding of good breeding who nevertheless had a hard life. We initially see him as old and worn out, tormented by the younger horses and struggling to carry on. However, he speaks out at night, telling his tale to the other members of the horse community, and it’s a story of suffering at the whim of humans, cruelty and betrayal, and the loss of a master with whom Pace-setter had a strong bond. Pace-setter’s story opens the eyes of the other horses to what kind of animal their companion was, and it’s a remarkably moving and powerful piece of writing (and excruciatingly sad in places).

via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve had my struggles with Tolstoy in recent years, finding it difficult to deal with his dogmatic attitudes at times; and indeed re-reading “Ivan…” I was struck again by his need to constantly blame women for the problems of human relationships. The extreme attitudes of “The Kreutzer Sonata” were starting to creep in, and his narrator’s lack of any empathy at the changes his wife was undergoing during pregnancy is shocking (although perhaps not unusual at that time).

Nevertheless, “Pace-setter…” does much to redeem him in my eyes. It’s tempting, of course, to see the life and hardship of the horses as analogous with that of the peasants. However I think it also reflects Tolstoy’s deep connection with the natural world, an element that comes through in some of the other stories. Deep down, Tolstoy seems to be saying that we should lead a *useful* life, and if we’ve done that we can face death with equanimity. That isn’t in fact a bad philosophy and if more people adopted it nowadays, we might have a nicer world around us…

“Lives and Deaths” is, therefore, an excellent collection and gives a really good flavour of Tolstoy’s writing and core beliefs. The translations read beautifully, there are useful notes where needed, and the stories flow thematically. If you want to get to grips with the essence of Tolstoy, his beliefs distilled into his short works, there can be not better place to start.

(Review copies of this book and Gogol’s Essential Tales kindly provided by Pushkin Press, for which many thanks! Both of these books would make a wonderful introduction to these Russian authors if you haven’t read them before;  but even if you have, these collections are a great way to get reacquainted… :D)

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